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Tomgram: Frida Berrigan, A Mother Thinks the Unthinkable

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From flickr.com/photos/11946169@N00/15150868877/: As the sun sets on our time, what are we leaving for our children's sunrise?
As the sun sets on our time, what are we leaving for our children's sunrise?
(Image by donnierayjones)
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This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Frida Berrigan's piece today speaks to me very personally. At 71, I have two children and a grandchild in this world, and I feel some responsibility for the sorry planet I'm leaving them. TomDispatch began as a no-name listserv, springing from a post-9/11 foreboding that, though I had been mobilized and active in the Vietnam War era, what was coming would be the worst years of my life, politically speaking. As those repetitive ceremonies in which we celebrated ourselves and our country as the greatest victims, survivors, and dominators on the planet spread, as they refused to end, as the urge for revenge of some all-encompassing sort grew and was encouraged by the Bush administration, as I began to grasp where its top officials were thinking about taking us (to hell and back, to quote a movie title of my childhood), I had the urge to do something.

I had done good work as a book editor over the years, but this was different. It was a powerful feeling that I couldn't just leave what seemed to be a degrading country or world to my children without lifting a hand, without trying to do something. I had no idea what, but from that feeling, thanks to happenstance, dumb luck, and obsession, TomDispatch stumbled into existence. And because I was then indeed doing something, I felt, amid the gloom, a certain hope.

So I've never looked back. But, of course, one small critical website that attempts to offer ways to reframe what's happening on our increasingly embattled planet hardly represents a world-saving act, nor did I ever think that such an act could be mine -- or really any individual's. What this has meant, though, is that, 14 years later, when with utter exuberance my grandson "races" me down a city block pulling me by the hand, I feel just the sort of pleasure (at one remove since I'm no longer the parent) that TomDispatch regular Berrigan describes so movingly with her own daughter. And every time I'm with him, just as she describes, there are those other moments, the ones when I suddenly remember what's happening on this planet, the ones when I look at him and feel overcome by sadness verging on grief at the potentially devastated world that may be his inheritance, my "gift" to him. Those are indeed fears "too big to name." Still, Berrigan does a remarkable job of bringing to consciousness a new sensibility that, however seldom mentioned, must be increasingly common currency on this planet. Tom

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Parenting on the Brink
Wrestling With Fears Too Big to Name
By Frida Berrigan

Madeline is in the swing, her face the picture of delight. "Mo, mo," she cries and kicks her legs to show me that she wants me to push her higher and faster. I push, and push, and push with both hands. There is no thought in my head except for her joy. I'm completely present in this moment. It's perfection. Madeline embodies the eternal now and she carries me with her, pulling me out of my worries and fears and plans.

But not forever: after a few minutes, my mind and eyes wander. I take in the whole busy playground, crowded with toddlers plunging headlong into adventure and their attendant adults shouting exhortations to be careful, offering snacks, or lost in the tiny offices they carry in their hands. It's a gorgeous day. Sunny and blue and not too hot, a hint of fall in the breeze. And then my eye is caught by a much younger mom across the playground trying to convince her toddler that it's time to go.

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When Madeline graduates from high school, I will be 57. Jeez, I think, that mom will still be younger than I am now when her kid walks across that stage. If I live to be 85, Madeline will be 46 and maybe by then I'll have some grandkids. In fact, I'm suddenly convinced of it. Between Madeline and her three-year-old brother Seamus and their eight-year-old sister Rosena, I will definitely live to see grandkids. I reassure myself for the millionth time that having kids in my late thirties was totally fine.

And then another thought comes to mind, the sort of thought that haunts the parents of this moment: When I'm 85, it will be 2059, and what will that look like? When my grandkids are my age now, it could be almost a new century. And what will our planet look like then? And I feel that little chill that must be increasingly commonplace among other parents of 2015.

And then I'm gone. You wouldn't know it to look at me. After all, I'm still pushing the swing, still cooing and chatting with my buoyant 18-month-old daughter, but my mind is racing, my heart is pounding. This playground will not be here. This tranquil, stable, forever place wasn't built to last 100 years, not on a planet like this one at this moment anyway.

I look around and I know. None of this -- the municipal complex, the school across the street, the supermarket up the road -- is built for 100 years, especially not this hundred years. It won't last. And I can't imagine a better future version of this either. What comes to mind instead are apocalyptic images, cheesy ones cribbed from The Walking Dead, that zombie series on AMC; The Day After, a 1980s made-for-TV dramatization of a nuclear attack on the United States; Cormac McCarthy's haunting novel The Road; Brad Pitt's grim but ultimately hopeful World War Z; and The Water Knife, a novel set in the western United States in an almost waterless near future.

They all rush into my head and bump up against the grainy black-and-white documentary footage of Hiroshima in 1945 that I saw way too young and will never forget. This place, this playground, empty, rusted, submerged in water, burned beyond recognition, covered in vines, overrun by trees. Empty. Gone.

Then, of course, Madeline brings me back to our glorious present. She wants to get out of the swing and hit the slides. She's fearless, emphatic, and purposeful. She deserves a future. Her small body goes up those steps and down the slide over and over and over again. And the rush of that slide is new every time. She shouts and laughs at the bottom and races to do it again. Now. Again. Now. This is reality. But my fears are real, too. The future is terrifying. To have a child is to plant a flag in the future and that is no small responsibility.

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We Have Nothing to Fear but...

We mothers hear a lot these days about how to protect our children. We hear dos and don'ts from mommy magazines, from our own mothers, our pediatricians, each other, from lactation experts and the baby formula industry, from the Centers for Disease Control and the Food and Drug Administration, from Doctor Bob Sears, from sociologists and psychiatrists and child development specialists. We are afraid for our kids who need to be protected from a world of dangers, including strangers, bumblebees, and electrical outlets.

Such threats are discussed, dissected, and deconstructed constantly in the media and ever-newer ones are raised, fears you never even thought about until the nightly news or some other media outlet brought them up. But hanging over all these humdrum, everyday worries is a far bigger fear that we never talk about and that you won't read about in that mommy magazine or see in any advice column. And yet, it's right there, staring us in the face every single day, constant, existential, too big to name.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's Tomdispatch.com ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)
 

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