Discover more from Code Red and Me: Rethinking Everything
On Failing to Thrive and Thriving
A record of the first day of Spring, 2023
March 21, 2023
I wake up very early thinking about my father, dead now since 2006. If he were alive, he’d be 104 today. Charlie. After the word Charlie, you must add the words that so often came next: “everybody loves Charlie.”
People born on the day of the spring equinox are said to be emotionally resilient despite early trauma which Charlie certainly endured. It was his mother who died on Carrol St. in Brooklyn of the last pandemic in 1919, weeks after he was born. Unable to care for him, my grandfather sent him to live with Mrs. Foley, a woman known only slightly to my grandfather from the Knights of Columbus. When, two years later, my grandfather and his new wife, Katherine, went to retrieve Charlie, his limbs were wrapped in gauze and his body had grown so thin and frail that Katherine reports not knowing if he would survive.
Failure to thrive is what this syndrome is called. Intriguing, I think now. These are the very words that sum up the IPCC report on the planet released just yesterday: our Earth is on the brink of this syndrome and unless radical steps are taken immediately, survival will not be possible. Always on the lookout for the shadow old family stories cast on the present, I turn that gaze on myself and ask, could echoes of my father’s story account for my deeply felt calling to help save life on Earth? Why do I feel called, while some hear only whispers or nothing at all?
Nursed back to health by his adoring stepmother, my father did survive, eventually becoming an Eagle Scout, a Captain in the Army Air Corp during WW2, a small-town lawyer, and father of five children. I was his first. He made sure I never felt abandoned and unloved. I was “Charlie’s girl” to the people in town who came to know me when I accompany him on his trips to the office or to the hardware store or the Alpha Sigma club, a humble wooden building erected beside one of the canals built at the turn of the century for lobstermen’s boats to tie up and unload. When there were lobsters on the South Shore of Long Island. Being Charlie’s girl in Bellmore in the fifties was like being showered in smiles.
My father didn’t have to face the prospect of extinction of life on earth, I think to myself jealously as I dress for the moment mid-afternoon when I will climb a set of wooden steps onto the back of a pickup truck parked outside Bank of America in Portland’s Monument Square to give the keynote address for Third Act Maine’s demonstration against the banks’ continued investments in new fossil fuel infrastructure.
What does one wear for a big, joyous, loud demonstration in the middle of Portland? While I rifle through my closet, I realize my assumption about Charlie not having to face the threat and moral responsibility for extinction of life is dead wrong. Charlie was intimately involved with the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima during WW2. Charlie knew about that bomb beforehand, knew where it would drop, took photos of its exact location, photos which I’ve written about finding in my basement, which many of you have already read about. Charlie had time to think about what his military reconnaissance for the dropping of the nuclear bomb would mean for the world, for his family, his firstborn child.
I was 7 months old when the bomb dropped. My father was on Guam and would not smile his first smile at me until I was almost a year old. I have no idea how he processed his role in the release of this annihilating force into the world. He never spoke about it and I knew nothing about it until after his death. Or at least I knew nothing about it consciously. It’s another one of those questions I have about what brings me to this work, this day, this moment.
I am desperately in need of a haircut, so I think, a hat! I need to find that hat Colin sewed me for Christmas, the purple one shaped a bit like a helmet. I find it and put it on. Perfect. I feel stronger with my purple helmet on my head. Charlie’s girl, a shower of smiles, an atomic bomb, how do all these pieces of my past weave themselves into this moment when I am one of the speakers who will climb that ladder and stand before a microphone and tell the Bank of America to stop killing life on Earth?
I spend the morning happily helping Colin, who has driven from Portland to finish painting a twenty-foot canvas banner for next week’s FreeportCAN 2nd Annual Forum. He calls first to see if we “want anything from Standard,” our favorite bakery. When I get nervous, I lose my appetite and Bob has already had his bagel, so I tell him we are all set. Just in time for us to leave for Portland, he paints a man on a bike pedaling towards a vacant horizon, puts the hairdryer to the wet paint, folds up the banner and puts in the back of his car.
Bob and I follow him to the spot out on rt. 1 where the town has iron posts set up for banners announcing more cheerful things like Chocolate Fest or Sparkle Weekend. Bob and Colin get out of the car and hang the poster. Last year when the three of us hung that banner it was ten degrees outside, and the wind was blowing like skunk and our hands and cheeks and feet were numb and painful by the time we got back in the car.
It's the first day of spring, it’s 50 degrees, the sun is shining, it’s my father’s birthday and here I am, together with our son and my husband joyfully doing the quotidian work of climate activism. My spirits are high. Colin will come to the rally at 3, so we say goodbye for now. I hope I don’t end up doing anything to embarrass him, like trip on the stairs or accidentally let my speech blow away in the wind.
In Monument Square the brilliantly organized and talented Third Act Team is set up by 2:45. The truck with the sound system onboard and the wooden steps is in place. There are hand painted signs calling for the banks to Stop Funding Fossil Fuels! But Bank of American has closed. Early. They cite security and risk. Ha!! As if their investment of trillions of dollars of our money in fossil fuels isn’t a risk! No one is allowed into the lobby to deliver the letter we’d planned to deliver to the Bank manager. Guarding the front door are three or four burly men in street clothes, their feet planted wide, their arms folded, their faces blank, empty.
Over a hundred people, mostly all over 60, are gathered in the square. The sun is warm on our faces. Almost all the snow is gone. The feeling is one of joy and raucousness. The joyful Ideal Maine Social Aide and Sanctuary Marching Band plays, I speak and don’t fall down the steps, we chant, we perform a skit depicting the near death of the planet and the people rising up to successfully get the bankers to help save the Earth. Bob and I are, for a short time, the Grim Reapers. We cut up credit cards. We dance. It’s thrilling. I’m in love with everything: my new Third Act friends, the band that played, the beautiful, pale blue and tan seagull who paraded at my feet while I sat and listened to the speakers.
We say goodbye. We have to be at a Town Council meeting in Freeport at 6 because they are going to consider, finally, setting for public hearing the Stretch Code, a building ordinance FreeportCAN believes needs updating in order to reduce carbon emissions. We drive home, eat a little hummus and pita bread for supper and head uptown to Town Hall. The sun is still high but I can’t wait to come back and go to bed.
The parking lot at Town Hall is unusually full. Why would so many people be at a Town Council meeting I wonder? I am so tired from the dancing and the anxiety about not falling off the truck that I can barely walk to the door. Bob opens it for me and I teeter in, wondering if I will faint. The council chamber is mobbed. First, I only see the back of people’s heads. Then, they turn and look at me. Everyone is smiling. A hush falls over the room. Bridget is there, Addie our granddaughter is beside her, Colin is there too. Dear old friends are there. Many from FreeportCAN are there. A cousin has driven down from Cherryfield and his impish grin catches my eye. All the members of the Town Council, arranged in the front of the room in a line before us, the overhead lighting shining down on their faces, their mikes in front of them, are smiling at me too.
Smiling at me. Charlie’s girl.
I put it together right away. Months ago, I’d heard a rumor from someone who’d heard a rumor that I was going to be nominated for Citizen of the Year for my work with FreeportCAN. Lots of people get nominated. Lots of people don’t get it. Bob got it once years ago. So much happened in 2022 in Freeport that it was inconceivable, I thought, that I would be given that honor.
I sit down beside Colin, our daughter Bridget and granddaughter, Adeline. Breathe, I tell myself. Colin whispers, “Big day, mom!” pats my shoulder, smiling. Adeline gives me a hug. Bridget is beaming and whispers that Finn and his dad aren’t there because Finn has a track meet. Later I will learn that it is Bob who told people about the award and gathered them in this room for this ceremony.
The Town Council calls itself to order. They have one order of business to conduct before they get to tonight’s agenda. Councilor Bradley, an Irish buddy with a fierce temperament and a big heart and a gift with words, rises to present the award. He calls me “a living, breathing, walking wake-up call.” It is hard to listen to what he’s saying because I know I am going to have to get up and string some words together for my feeling that the award belongs to everyone in the room, that none of us are separate heroes, instead we are made up of the nutrients and sustenance we exchange with each other in the same way the trees’ mycorrhizal network exchanges nutrients and keeps each tall pine, red maple, scrawny willow— flourishing.
Here in this room on March 21, 2023, 6:00 pm, my mycorrhizal network is all around me: smiling. They have given me the opportunity to make the most of my talents and disposition. They have allowed me to bloom. To thrive.
When I rise to speak, I am amazed at how easily the words flow. In my family of origin, I tell them, my siblings had one wish for me: that I would be quiet and stop “talking about things all the time.” Now, facing this failure to thrive moment for the planet, my scrappy temperament has finally found its time and place. I thank Bob for easing the way for me because he’s so well-loved in town that people figure my edges can’t be all that sharp if I’ve been married to such a nice man for so long. Everybody loves Bob. (What would Freud say?)
I thank the people in town for having the courage to listen and respond to my wakeup call. I address Addie and tell her one of the reasons I am doing this work is because when she is older and I am gone, I want her to be know one thing: that I tried.
On the way home in the car with Bridget and Addie, Bridget tells me how proud she is of me. I tell them I wish my father could have been there tonight because he too gave so much of himself to our town. Addie says that maybe when she grows up, she will become a climate activist like me.
The one missing piece in this whole dizzying story of this first day of Spring, 2023, will soon fall into place and it will be so utterly right, so utterly true that there will be nothing more to say.
At 8 o’clock the phone rings. I have just crawled into bed. It is 13-year-old Finn. He is breathless, talking at the top of his lungs, fast. “Gigi, Gigi, I heard you were going to get an award, but I didn’t know it was that award!! Think of all the grandmothers who could have gotten that award, Gigi, but they gave it to you, Gigi! Oh my, oh my, I am so proud of you.” “Thanks, Finn,” I reply, “it’s wonderful for you to be so excited about it, it makes me so happy that you are.”
But the story doesn’t end here.
“Someday,” I say to Finn, “I want to get together and tell you what it is I am doing that led to my getting this award.”
“Oh, I already know, Gigi, you are getting the award because you are working to make it possible sometime in the future for me to live.”