Photo of the Marshall Islands. A small strip of beach with water on each side
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Go listen to this woman. Feel everything she says.

Missie Thurston Nov 02, 2018

Can you dream of a lagoon? Can you feel what it would be like, sun shining down on you and the breadfruit tree? One woman, compassionate and brave, took me to her lagoon – in the Marshall Islands. It was a blue-green energy that flowed over me, warm and slightly salted. Transfixed by color and feeling, I realized what she was giving me. I realized that the lagoon mandated that I fix my mistake. “Look at me,” it said, “I am here. You must open your eyes.”

In seven short minutes, at the 2014 UN Climate Summit, Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner will take you to the lagoon and open your eyes, but the warmth and beauty comes with a price.

You’ll become complicit in an intractable promise.

“no one’s drowning, baby
no one’s moving
no one’s losing
their homeland
no one’s gonna become
a climate change refugee 

or should I say 
no one else”

Even coming from a woman as capable as Kathy Jetñil-Kijiner, this promise seems reckless. She speaks of the waves that can turn the lagoon into a creature that devours her baby – baby Matafele Peinam. We feel the weight of the forces that can gnaw, chew, gulp and crunch. It made me fear for that 7-month-old baby and for the lagoon. And I still fear for this woman. Promises are made to be kept. How can she deliver the future she speaks of? What will happen to her – her self-worth, her identity, her passion, her courage – if she fails? What if we all fail?

But when I grapple with my discomfort and fear, I realize that I’m the one that’s failing. I realize that Kathy has been wise and kind enough to show me some of the many ways that I can keep my part of the promise. Maybe I’m a small piece of the hands and feet marching. Or a line on one of the petitions worth signing. Maybe I’m one more person who spreads the strength of this Marshallese woman. Another transmission tower for her poetry and strength, helping others to dream of the lagoon and understand their power. Maybe I too, can become woven into the fabric of revolutionary sails, propelling powerful canoes against coal ships.

This tiny Marshallese woman shows us what it’s like to be big enough, and brave enough, to open ourselves to the immense beauty of our natural world – and the possibility of preserving it, even as we watch its demise. Kathy’s a poet. A mother. And she’s also an activist. She shows us that these people and these places are too beautiful to lose. The casualties of climate change are already too high.

Political leaders don’t tell the stories that need to be told. Corporations don’t put the ugly pictures of extraction in their TV ads. We speak of the lagoon now, but we could also talk about the nuclear waste buried in those Marshallese islands, in gobs of cement, courtesy of my country. My blindness is my compliance.

“Look at me,” repeats the lagoon. “I am here. You must open your eyes.”

The scope of this challenge is so vast and so expansive. But the truth is that life is changing, for all of us. For many, life already has. It will be different around the globe and, of course, the poorest and most vulnerable will suffer first. It’s up to us to open our eyes and weave our strengths into the sails, fill them with our breath when there is no wind. Out on this changing, unknowable sea – sometimes the wind will tear at you, sometimes you’ll be overwhelmed by the salt of your own tears, but you’ll know that you’re keeping your promise.

You’ll marvel at how we can be both strong and vulnerable, humble and unstoppable. With open eyes, we’ll do more than bear witness: we’ll chart our voyage, and we’ll find our way.

“because we deserve to do more than just survive we deserve to thrive”

Photo credit: Keith Polya; Some rights reserved