Saving Us: A Climate Scientist’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World, by Katherine Hayhoe

Nine percent of Americans are dismissive of climate change—they don’t believe it is even happening. By contrast, 58 percent are either alarmed or concerned about the problem, according to the Yale Program on Climate Change Communication. In the middle, 17 percent are cautious—they haven’t made up their minds.

Yet, the Dismissives take up much of the air in climate change discussions, airing their disdain with assurance whenever and wherever they can.

What to do about these people? Don’t try to convince them—you’re asking for defeat if you do, says Katherine Hayhoe in Saving Us: A Climate Scientists’s Case for Hope and Healing in a Divided World. Focus instead on those who might listen—the other 91 percent, she says, and she packs a book full of ideas of how to speak of climate change, to whom, when, and how.

This is a book as much about communication as it is about climate. Hayhoe provides us with plenty of facts to use, but she recommends we tell our stories rather than bombarding people with facts. Show what worries us, and why, and engage others by finding common ground in things we care about. It’s a book to keep on your bookshelf for reference when you’re not sure where to go next in the climate debate.

Specifically, she says:

• Start with something you have in common—gardening, knitting, hiking, cooking. Talk about how climate change is affecting the foods we grow, the pests we fight, the trails we hike. Then show what people are doing to fix this. Often, she says, you can find excellent examples and solutions—cutting food waste, electrifying public transport, supporting the use of solar power in poor nations that often grow our food. These improve the economy, clean up the air and water, and make our lives easier.

•Don’t shame. Look instead for common moral goalposts. Empathize with others. Hayhoe quotes social psychologist Jonathan Haidt:

If you really want to change someone’s mind in a moral or political matter, you’ll need to see things from that person’s angle as well as your own. Empathy is an antidote to righteousness.

• Social contagion is real and can be an asset and a liability. Misinformation can spread quickly. But so can good practices. Once somebody in a neighborhood gets solar panels, others follow, and soon you have a cluster. Same way with electric vehicles, low-water gardening, composting and just about anything we might do as individuals that can cause a ripple effect in our community.

• Talk about it. The Dismissives are often loud and insistent, whereas the rest of us don’t want to ruffle feathers. But, she says, you don’t need to be militant. Just tell your story—how climate change has affected you, and what’s you’ve chosen to do about. People listen to and remember stories. Facts turn them off or confuse them.

• Practice hope:

Real hope doesn’t usually come knocking on the door of our brains univited…. If we want to find it, we have to roll up our sleeves and go out and look for it. If we do, chances are we’ll find it. And then we have to practice it.

How? Search for and collect good news, success stories, inspiration. We can’t avoid the impacts of climate change—many are already here. But, she says:

The research I do is clear: it is not too late to avoid the most serious and dangerous impacts. Our choices will determine what happens….Together, we can save ourselves.

— Pat Prijatel

The Midnight Library, by Matt Haig

Nora Seed can no longer face the missed opportunities and unfulfilled potential that define her life, and she tries to kill herself. But rather than dying, she ends up in the Midnight Library, a zone between death and life, in a building full of books that contain her alternate lives. But first, she must read her own Book of Regrets, a thick volume of panic-inducing shoulda, coulda, wouldas. Her list consists of dropping out of a rock band just as it was about to sign a recording contract, calling off the wedding to the man of her dreams, backing out of competitive swimming, being a bad cat owner, and not becoming a glaciologist. The latter niggles on Nora’s consciousness after her beloved high school librarian, Mrs. Elm, suggested it decades ago as a possible career path.

Nora, who is 35 when we meet her, has more talent than the average human, but that means more chances to miss. At the Midnight Library, she meets Mrs. Elm again, who offers her a world of parallel universes in which she can embrace lives that erase her regrets. Mrs. Elm helps her decide which books she might open first, based on the mistakes she feels are her biggest. She opens a book and is off—to the remarkable success, happiness, and fulfillment her “root life” lacked. Or not, otherwise what kind of book would this be?

The chance to relive your life and overcome perceived failures is a popular theme in movies (It’s a Wonderful Life), television (Quantum Leap) and literature (Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life). It’s a means of offering the main character a way to redefine success, happiness, and fulfillment into digestible bites. Why did Nora pass up her chance to become an Olympian with such an obvious happy ending? As we learn, it’s for good reasons, but she’s forgotten them. In her backward glance, she sees only rosy promise, not the barriers that stood in her way. She thinks she had power and control that never existed.

As Nora experiments with one life after another, author Matt Haig shows that all decisions operate within a fluid environment, creating a context that we tend to simplify in our memories. We believe we could have done things we shouldn’t or couldn’t have. In Nora’s case, parents die, friends and family disappoint, people she loves mess with her head, and fate sometimes simply stinks.

But, as she learns, the winds that swirl around her also include real love and support, which she must first recognize and then accept. Basically, Nora has to recognize that perfection has never been in her grasp.

This is a book about shedding regret by gaining perspective. It’s full of quirky plot lines, with glimpses of opportunities and potential in unexpected places and people. Nora pays attention to the characters who populate her stories, who show up in multiple lives, and realizes that her life begins when she starts looking at her people and at the small details that create meaning and kicks the blame to the side. Is happiness defined by medals and albums and quaint English pubs? Or by simple, calm contentment?

It remains midnight in the library until Nora realizes that life in general is usually a mess and always uncertain and that humans, including her, are incurably flawed. This frees her to turn away from the dark and toward her own light.

— Pat Prijatel

The Last Report of the Miracles at Little No Horse, by Louise Erdrich

Biblical in nature and scope, The Last Report is replete with floods, snakes, sin, and forgiveness. Father Damien Modeste has lovingly served the Ojibwe settlement of Little No Horse for eight decades, forming his life around their needs. He may well be a saint. But he’s also a woman. Behind his priestly garb he’s actually Agnes, who transformed herself into a Catholic priest after living a full life as a Catholic nun, farm wife, and general adventurer, with random interactions with outlaws, floods, dead cows, and Chopin.

The epic tale of Agnes’s early life requires a total suspension of disbelief as she faces one passion after another, often losing herself in Chopin to such a degree that she ends up ecstatic and naked on the piano bench. This, not surprisingly, gets her kicked out of the convent. She finds love with a German farmer who dies defending her but leaves her his prosperous farm. Then Agnes gets caught in a disastrous flood, which sends her down the river in her wispy white nightdress, hanging on to her grand piano. When she lands, she finds a dead priest hanging in a tree, so she takes his dry clothes and his identity.

As one does.

This novel follows Agnes until she is over 100 and deeply entrenched in being Father Damien, while maintaining vestiges of her real, feminine self. She wraps her breasts tightly to hide her feminine identity and learns the rules of being a man, as she defines early in the book:

1.Make requests in the form of orders.
2. Give compliments in the form of concessions.
3. Ask questions in the form of statements.
4. Exercise to enhance the muscles of the neck?
5. Admire women’s handiwork with copious amazement.
6. Stride, swing arms, stop abruptly, stroke chin.
7. Sharpen razor daily.
8. Advance no explanations.
9. Accept no explanations.
10. Hum an occasional resolute march. 

Despite her subterfuge, the Ojibwe know she’s a woman and are just fine with her pretending to be a man, although they don’t understand the necessity.

In one delightful section, Nanapush, an elder Agnes has learned to admire and love, questions her during a game of chess. He knows Agnes wants to keep her femininity a secret, so Nanapush chooses to address her during an especially tricky move because, quite simply, he wants to win the game:

“What are you?” he said to Damien, who was deep in a meditation over his bishop’s trajectory.
“A priest,” said Father Damien.
“A man priest or a woman priest?”

Agnes panics until she realizes Nanapush is really only curious.

“I am a priest,” she whispered, hoarsely, fierce.
“Why,” said Nanapush kindly, as though Father Damien hadn’t answered, to put the question to rest, “Are you pretending to be a man priest?”

Why, indeed? Because the Catholic church doesn’t allow women to be priests and, throughout the book, when asked who she really is, Agnes consistently answers: “I am a priest.” A lover asks it, a papal investigator asks it, Agnes asks it of herself. Why: Because I am a priest.

The book encourages comparisons with other classics, from Death Comes for the Archibishop, by Willa Cather,to Tom Jones by Henry Fielding, with a little Faulker and Shakespeare thrown in, plus a bit of the Bible.

Erdrich’s reprises her most memorable Ojibwa characters—Fleur and her daughter Lulu, plus the Nanapushes, Kashpaws and the Puyats—which she introduced in previous novels (Love Medicine, Four Souls, Tracks). The book stands on its own, although it makes you want to read more to get the backstory on these people working hard to live a life of truth.

Chapter 18, La Mooz, Or the Death of Nanapush, is a classic, worth reading by itself. Perhaps more than once. And the sections on Mary Kashpaw, from the very beginning (her aggressively terrible coffee) to the end and her final, silent care for Agnes/Damien, are heart-rending yet beautiful, a picture of true love.

What’s the miracle? There are many: the people, the land, the priest.