The last time I flew anywhere was back in November 2019 for a 3-day trip to Washington, D.C.
On my second evening there, after a long day in a working meeting, I arranged to meet a friend at the National Art Gallery on the Capitol Mall. My hotel was roughly within walking distance, but I decided to shave off some time by taking the Metro to the Mall, then walking to the gallery from there.
I love Metros. I choose them over taxis, Ubers, busses, or any other transport, wherever I find myself – Berlin, London, Paris, New York, Buenos Aires. I guess I like the independence they offer.
On this particular evening adventure, I came up the stairs of the Metro on to the wide open expanse of the Capitol Mall to find that I had overshot my exit by one stop. I emerged at the top of the steps totally alone, somewhere between the Washington Monument and the Capitol Building. For those of you not familiar with the Mall, the distance between those two beacons is 1.2 miles, which looks much further on a very dark night.
As I started walking in the direction of the Capitol building, I found myself giddy to have this place all to myself. How far we’ve come, I thought, when a woman can walk alone on the Capitol Mall after dark and feel safe…safe enough, anyway. I found my mind digging through the historic enormity of this place – the inaugurations, marches, protests, celebrations. In that moment, I felt grateful and privileged to have been born in the USA. In a country where, written into its very foundations is the potential to build a better world: a world that is inclusive, sustainable, and just.
No – we don’t have it right yet, I thought, as I passed darkened souvenir and snack kiosks and kicked at the dry leaves in my path, But there’s hope. I felt strong in my faith that people are basically good at heart, that our institutions and traditions are strong enough to protect the democracy that we have, and that the efforts of people working to make this world more equitable will actually change the world.
I had no idea how my faith in the strength of our institutions, or my faith in the basic good-heartedness of humanity, would be seriously tested in the coming year.
A month ago, our Capitol Mall was marked with 200,000 flags, for all the people that couldn’t be there to see Biden inaugurated as our 46th President and Kamala Harris: our first woman, first Black, first South Asian Vice President. And 400 lights lined the reflecting pool between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument – for the 400,000 people in this country who died of COVID-19 in the previous 10 months. (As I write this, we inch close to half a million people.) These memorials, our Capitol, the Mall where I strolled so causally little more than a year earlier, were guarded by 25,000 National Guard troops.
I wished I could relish in the moment of the inauguration of the 46th President. I wished my Mom could be on this Earth to witness Harris inaugurated as Vice President. But I felt edgy and tired – worried about right wing terrorists and a surging airborne virus with a new, more contagious variant. All of this is on top of my long-running worry about global scale ecological collapse due to climate change (yeah, we’re still dealing with that, by the way).
So, yes, this past year – these past years – have shaken my faith in humanity. What happened on January 6th was part of it. And also, everything leading up to it over the past year, from the tear-gassing of peaceful protests, emboldened White Supremacists, and a complete disregard for a deadly pandemic by federal leadership, to the random guy who mocked and ridiculed me in the grocery store for wearing a mask. I thought we were better than this.
And through it all I’ve found it really hard to write for this blog. It’s difficult for me to jump into this space, where I usually share my adventures and amazement with the world, when I’m watching things collapse – as power, fear, and greed eat at the foundations of the things we value.
So what brings me here today? Maybe it’s Amanda Gorman’s poem.
We will not be turned around
or interrupted by intimidation
because we know our inaction and inertia
will be the inheritance of the next generation
Our blunders become their burdens
But one thing is certain:
If we merge mercy with might,
and might with right,
then love becomes our legacy
and change our children’s birthright
So let us leave behind a country
better than the one we were left withFrom The Hill We Climb, by Amanda Gorman, Youth Poet Laureate
I love the perspective of thinking of our country, our world, as unfinished. It sets in motion the work we need to do.
Just over a year ago, a former student and fellow science educator passed away suddenly. Kevin was not someone I would have anticipated becoming a passionate science educator when I first met him as an undergraduate, not long after I started teaching. But he was beloved by students and colleagues and was an honest-to-goodness crusader for science in the world – his purpose in teaching was clear. I think about him now, because I imagine how he would be responding to everything that happened in 2020. On November 10, 2016, after the last presidential election, Kevin walked into my office and we lamented the state of the world, as we feared that science deniers in power would enact policies which would harm us all in the long run. (Of course, they did.) “We’ve got to keep holding up that candle in the dark, Dr. Shellito,” he said, referring to Carl Sagan’s metaphor for science in the world.
This past year has taught me a lot more about the work I do: holding up that candle – for climate change, common sense, and justice. What I’ve come to understand very clearly is that we can’t address multiple global ecological (and health) crises without compassionate leadership, common sense, and justice for all.
I see ourselves, our world, our Earth, at a pivot point. We are on the precipice of creating a very different world: we hope it will be one where we learn to live peaceably with each other, in our differences, and in some sort of sustainable balance with the earth. But we could also catapult ourselves backward into the ideologies, the power paradigm, the racism, sexism and capitalistic ideation that have brought us to to this precipice and threaten our existence. It’s hard to breath at this pivot point. It’s as though the slightest shift in the air will send us spiraling over the edge into a future that spells the end of our world (meaning: our way of life, our culture, our freedom, our livelihoods, even our access to clean water and fresh food) in a matter of decades.
But today, despite setbacks, I feel myself a bit steadier on that pivot point. I feel a little bit of hope. I’ve learned that hope comes through action. There is a new government, partly through my action (I voted, after all), that seems to be taking the high road in petty partisan squabbles and is focused entirely on the urgent work at hand: taking action to restore our health, safety, security and sense of well-being. I find hope in some world-altering scientific achievements: the development of a vaccine in eight months and landing another on Mars. I also find hope in working with my students, who are learning at a much earlier age than I did, the critical importance of cooperation and concern for the well-being of others on a global scale. I find hope in a sense of responsibility and obligation I feel to pave the way for them to continue the work of building a world that will support life on our planet for eons to come.
These are the things that keep me going.
Someday, I hope I have another opportunity for an evening walk along the Capitol Mall. I hope I can do it not only with a sense of safety, but also pride and relief that our country, and our world, has found a more sustainable path – one forged by cooperation, science, and compassion.
In the meantime, I will keep holding up that candle, Kevin.