It is a late-November morning. The dog and I are off for a walk. There are six inches of snow on the ground and the thermometer says it is -17° C. I’m thinking about durability. Last Sunday our congregation celebrated the arrival of four new children. Lest you get the wrong impression about the fecundity of this group: I should make it clear that they didn’t all actually arrive on that day. We hold these celebrations twice a year, each time we catch a sixth-month harvest. What happens on these Sundays is that each child is introduced by a parent. And then either I or my colleague wrap the little one in a blanket made by some of the congregation’s quilters. When I perform this ritual I tuck the infant in one arm and place my other hand on the little one. Then I say something like this:
Welcome into this congregation. We are thankful for you and we rejoice with your family at your presence in this world. May God bless you, may you grow in wisdom, in strength and in right relationship with those around you.
Then my colleague will read a bit of a Psalm in the child’s honor and the parents and the congregation will exchange commitments of care for the children and their families. Each family keeps a blanket. I hope the parents also keep a sense that their community of faith both shares in their happiness and will be supportive when the cute addition wrecks their lives.
It is natural in moments like this to think about the world these children will inherit. And this is what I’m thinking about that as I walk. The trail I’m on is a repurposed railroad grade. It once carried trains from Tupper Lake in New York to Ottawa. Now, depending on the season, it carries runners, bikers, skiers, dog walkers and probably teenagers sneaking home late at night. At no point is this trail particularly grand or breathtaking. I wish my family and I could still take the train to the Adirondacks. Even so, I’m thankful that the passageway is still in good shape. The walking isn’t hard at all, even with the snow. All that I wish for is a pair of sunglasses. The sun is bright.
Someone told me recently that if the earth where the size of a classroom globe, then its atmosphere would be the equivalent of a painted coat of varnish; or if the earth were the size of an apple, then the atmosphere would be the thickness of the skin. This skinny layer has proven remarkably durable. Yet standards of durability vary. I’ve had the jacket I’m wearing for twenty years. In northern climates we distinguish between a jacket and a parka. This is jacket weather. In a couple of months the temperature might hit -25° C and I’ll need a parka.
Maybe it says something about our relationship to stuff, but I would probably find it embarrassing to admit that I’ve had this piece of gear for twenty years. It’s especially weird to think that it’s been two decades. The jacket is black and it was made by one of the many outdoor companies that sprung up in the 1960s to service the idea that hiking required special equipment. I bought the jacket before participating in an outdoor program as a college student. The thing has lost some insulation and its cut is not as trim as most are today—but it is still fit for service. Twenty years for a piece of clothing. That’s durability I can appreciate. I remember how in a high school environmental science class we talked about the importance of thinking about cost over time. The upfront cost of my jacket was higher, I’m sure, than some others. But it’s proven to be a bargain over two decades of use.
I stop walking to check the dog’s feet. I’m wearing a new pair of hiking boots. Their warm enough if I keep moving. I simply wore the tread of my old ones. The dog’s feet are better than mine. She’s a coonhound mix. Her ancestors came from Tennessee, but she takes to the snow like she’s native to the north. The pads of her paws both absorb shock, protecting her bones, and insulate the rest of her feet. Her claws give her traction in just about anything. As I look at her feet I’m reminded of all the lessons the old Hebrew poets drew from animals. I see durable design in the dog’s paws: flexibility for multiple applications, insulation from changes in the environment, points of direct contact with the ground. My thoughts extend beyond myself. I wonder if our things and our way of life as a whole meets the same test of durability. Will the things we buy last? Will they remain useful? Can our way of life be sustained—both on an emotional level and in its sheer physicality? What’s troubling is that I think an honest response to any of those questions is ‘no’.
I think of the families of the children our congregation just celebrated. I wonder if they will make decisions that set the kids on a track that’s different from their neighbours. I wonder too if the rest of us are thinking about the world these kids will inherit. I look up into the blue. This thin layer of varnish, this apple skin—durable and not. The dog and I walk out to the road. I notice that her leash is frayed, almost worn through. I will replace it with a piece of climber’s webbing.