Parenthood Amid California’s Devastating Climate Crisis 

A mother explores the tension between the devastation of the climate crisis and holding space for new life.

Leonie Bos for Noema Magazine
Stephanie Kotin is a writer based in Southern California. A former legislative assistant for environment in the U.S. Senate, she holds an MFA in fiction and is working on her first novel.

It’s July 2018, and my daughter is three months old. She smells of lilies and aged gouda, a sweet, musky scent that at once conjures in me a feeling of something new and ancient. Each time I kiss her wrinkly, soft skin, feel her tiny fingers tightly wound around mine, run my lips across the peachy fuzz at the top of her forehead, I commune with the sacred. Out of the million or two eggs I was born with, how is this the one I’m holding? 

The magic of these early weeks is incongruous with what’s happening outside my front door. For the next few days, heat scorches down with a quality that can only be described as wrath. On the first day of what turns out to be a heat wave that will break historic records, it hits 106 degrees at 11 a.m. outside my building in Mid-Wilshire, a concrete expanse in the middle of Los Angeles, and 86 degrees inside my apartment. Across the hill, the Hollywood-Burbank Airport reaches 114 degrees, shattering an all-time record. On the ocean-adjacent Westside, it’s 100 degrees. At midnight.

The second ceiling fan our landlords promised when we moved in 18 months ago has yet to materialize. The husband and wife who own our apartment, one of whom is a sustainability professor, are vehemently opposed to air conditioning. The conveniently forgetful husband can’t figure out how to install a ceiling fan in the living room — something about the studs — and for months the handyman doesn’t come around to investigate a solution. Of course, they aren’t here to experience this heat wave; they’re vacationing in Scotland. I draw the blinds and pray the heat remains at bay. 

My husband leaves for a work trip, and I’m alone to care for our daughter. At the hospital where she was born, the nurses instructed us to keep her within a comfortable temperature range of 68 to 72 degrees. L.A.’s perfect climate, I thought then, except when it isn’t, when the gods are raging. 

Every few hours, I lay her in her plastic bathtub at the kitchen sink and douse her in cold water. When I feed her, a waterfall of sweat pours between my breasts, the drops collecting in the places where our skins touch. We rest atop my bed beneath our apartment’s single fan, she in her diaper, me in my underwear, and when she sleeps, I take a cold shower, then lie down naked on the turquoise-and-white, Art Deco tiles, passing heat from my body to the bathroom floor. 

The following day the power goes out. The fan grinds to a halt. Soon I realize I shouldn’t open the fridge. A few hours later, I dress us both in tank tops and shorts and open the front door. The heat hits us like a wall. We rush into the car, and drive around the neighborhood until I find a restaurant that has power. Inside, the restaurant is packed, and while it’s not much cooler there than inside our apartment — too many bodies crammed into too tight a space — their fridge is working. I can eat, which means that she can eat. As I bite into a burrito, it’s not lost on me that I am among the privileged in our city. I own a car, which means I can almost always drive my way out of danger. If I leave in time. 

When my daughter sleeps, I bury my face in her bassinet to check that she’s still breathing. A hand on her chest to affirm the ups and downs that is her breath. The yogis say that all life is breath, and when she was born, it was her cry that told us she was alive, signaling that air was moving in and out of her tiny lungs, that she was exchanging that most vital of needs with the world around her. 

For the next two days, her cheeks are a constant red. I obsessively take her temperature with the thermometer that points and shoots like a gun, and indeed, I think, this heat is a certain kind of violence. One that we have wrought. Or, one that we are being told that we have wrought. Four years from now, the “big five” oil companies will collectively record the biggest profit in history, roughly $200 billion, more than the economic output of most countries on earth, with Exxon Mobil leading the way. A few months from now, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change will release its Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius. The world has until 2030, the experts warn, to stem catastrophic climate change.

“At the hospital where she was born, the nurses instructed us to keep her within a comfortable temperature range of 68 to 72 degrees. L.A.’s perfect climate, I thought then, except when it isn’t, when the gods are raging.”

February 2019 comes and marks the first February in at least 132 years of record-keeping in which the mercury in Downtown Los Angeles never hits 70 degrees. By Valentine’s Day, L.A. has received more rain, as measured since October, than fell during the entire previous water year. 

This rain is a mere drop in the bucket. It’s nothing like the rain that will come a few years later, in time for my daughter’s fifth birthday. It’s a mere sneak peek of a phenomenon that will be termed weather whiplash — weather that vacillates between two extremes, in this case, intense rain and devastating drought. Still, my daughter learns quickly that water is a blessing and a need — almost as vital as a parent. After mama, then dada, water is the third word she speaks. “Wawa,” she says, pointing to her cup (and soon thereafter, Bama, for our President, the first in my lifetime to take climate change seriously). 

The heat returns, and as the months barrel toward fall, she says her first sentence. 

“I see a birdie,” she tells me giddily as we read a book in the apartment we’ve just moved into after getting evicted by our landlords when they sell our apartment for nearly a million dollars. 

“Oh yeah,” I say, excitedly. “What color is it?” 


Red becomes the near color of the sky outside my parents’ house in September 2020, roughly 350 miles north in the Bay Area. A rare August lightning storm has ignited dozens of wildfires, and much of the Golden State is aflame. A few weeks into the fires, my parents send a photograph of the sky above their house. The sky is a bright orange, as if the sun itself has caught fire. For several days, as two of the three largest wildfires in California’s history burn, the air quality outside their front door is the worst in the world. 

We wait a few weeks, then drive north on Interstate 5 to visit them for the first time since lockdown. Halfway into the drive, the sky darkens to a hazy gray as wildfires blaze around us. We pull into the driveway and rush inside the house. For months the pandemic — an increasing number of which researchers predict we will likely see in the decades to come due to rising temperatures and factors like deforestation — has had us cooped up at home, drastically reducing my, and my daughter’s, interactions with the outside world. 

Now, the wildfires further force our lives indoors. For the next few weeks, we spend almost all our time inside. Roughly 50 miles north, the Glass Fire burns in Napa and Sonoma counties, just in time for harvest. A combination of dry brush, gusty winds, low humidity and warm temperatures cause the fire to spread rapidly. It’s unequivocal that those who’ve done the least to bring about climate change will suffer the worst of its fury. That those who’ve caused the least amount of warming, primarily low-income communities and communities of color — to say nothing of the plants and animals with whom we share this Earth — will bear the brunt of this crisis. And yet, as the Glass Fire destroys a three-starred Michelin restaurant, 31 wineries and California’s oldest resort, something else proves true, something that proved true in 2018, when bodies washed up like driftwood in the streets of Montecito — the seventh most expensive zip code in the U.S., home to Oprah Winfrey and Prince Harry and Meghan Markle — during the mudslides that followed the 2017 Thomas Fire: In the end, climate change will come for us all. 

A few weeks into our stay, Pacific Gas & Electric, the state’s largest utility company, initiates what they term a “Public Safety Power Shutoff.” The forced outage consists of PG&E cutting customers’ power to try to prevent wildfires sparked by debris falling onto their power lines during extreme weather or wildfire conditions. In 2018, the company’s aging and faulty infrastructure ignited multiple fires in California, including the Camp Fire, which killed at least 85 people and for which the company pleaded guilty to 84 counts of manslaughter (one death was ruled a suicide).

Around 8 p.m., the planned power shut-off starts. My dad, newly diagnosed with a brain tumor, is taking a drug that’s refrigerated. For two days, he can’t take his medicine. Luckily, the injections aren’t necessary to keep him alive, but the forced outage means he’s basically a gummy until PG&E decides to turn the power back on. For years, PG&E could have also decided to upgrade its infrastructure to reduce the likelihood of their power lines catching fire. A 2017 report commissioned by state regulators found that the utility often made improvements only after disaster struck.

“In the end, climate change will come for us all.”

Across the street, the new neighbors have invested in their infrastructure. A generator keeps their lights on, their house cool, their family fed. When the power finally returns, I help my parents clean out the fridge. We argue about what needs to be tossed. The meats and cheeses, we agree. We diverge on the rest — the eggs and dips, sauces and pickles. Inside the freezer, I find a partially frozen bag of breastmilk, liquid gold that I mournfully toss into the trash. My husband and I decide to finally part with a chunk of our raspberry-lemon wedding cake, which my parents have housed for a decade, mostly as a souvenir.

A few days later, the air quality shifts to moderate. We sit outside. My husband does burpees on the deck, while my 2 ½-year-old daughter lounges on a beach towel. She’s lying on her back with her right ankle crossed over her left knee. A book rests on her leg. As I near her, I see the cover. It’s the Bible. She’s flipped it open and is looking at maps.

When I was pregnant with her, I bought a large-format book of maps, each country colorfully illustrated with various animals and trees, flowers and foods, and famous humans found within its borders. During the early days of lockdown, my daughter and I spent hours staring at those maps, studying the particular animals, plants and people that were found in specific places — cloudberries in Finland, baobab trees in Madagascar, Beluga whales in the Arctic. And yet, as I look up at the hazy sky, I know that everything will shift — the people, the places, the animals, the trees. It already has.

It’s May 2021 and I’m pregnant with my second. By now, I’ve read countless articles about whether it’s ethical to bring children into a climate-altered world. More than a year from now, I’ll read that organizations are promoting family planning in Africa as a way to address climate change and think that while access to reproductive health is vital for women, everywhere, there are better strategies for tackling climate change than limiting a woman’s sacred power, than implying that women, particularly Black, brown, Indigenous and poor women, bear responsibility as individuals for solving a problem created by a system that oppresses them, than restricting the time-immemorial flow of life from womb to world. 

How about we start with the flow of fossil fuel-generated emissions into the atmosphere? Just 20 miles from where my daughter and I walk, during a trip to visit family in the Bay Area, around an East Bay reservoir so parched it’s painful to look at, sits the corporate headquarters for Chevron. Twenty months from now, the freeway near my house will shut down due to historic flooding and Chevron’s stock will hit an all-time high. 

As I circle the reservoir with my daughter, we pause to look out at the water. The water is so low that the bottom of the reservoir is an archipelago of islands, sand and silt formations I’ve not once seen in nearly four decades of circumnavigating this space. As I gaze at the reservoir’s near bottom, I have the sensation of seeing bone beneath flesh, as if something is exposed that shouldn’t be, as if something’s been forced into view to show us how deeply disturbing the fact of its exposure is. 

Fifteen feet away, a pelican splashes in the shallow water, then flies into the reeds that line the shore and disappears from our view. “Where’s she going, mama?” my daughter asks. Where will she go? I wonder. I don’t have an answer.  

In the hills that surround us, the oak trees bend sideways toward the earth. The land is so dry that it almost seems like merely breathing on it could cause the brush to spark. Across the western U.S., forest has become tinder, and I don’t mean the website whose name is meant to incite romance, or at least facilitate a fuck. What about lust? What if our culture lusted over oak trees the same way it did over a pair of tits? Can we lust beyond our comfort zone? Can we love beyond our comfort zone?

In the southwestern U.S., 2021 will mark the end of the driest 22-year stretch in 1,200 years. Two of those years —2002 and 2021— will be the driest on record. Researchers will estimate that roughly 40% of the drought’s severity will be due to human-caused climate change, largely from evaporation caused by higher temperatures. We’re in the midst of a megadrought, the worst in more than 1,000 years. We’re counting life in biblical time.

“I have the sensation of seeing bone beneath flesh, as if something is exposed that shouldn’t be, as if something’s been forced into view to show us how deeply disturbing the fact of its exposure is.”

It’s January 2022, and we’ve moved 90 miles up the road to Santa Barbara, where we rent a house built almost a century ago in a city known for its affluence and near-perfect climate. It’s January and my son is three months old. It’s January and everything is blooming. 

All around me is evidence of spring in winter. Birds chirp in the leafy branches of Sycamore trees. My daughter gnaws on sour grass in the parking lot of her preschool. The aromas of honeysuckle and jasmine, citrus and sage scent the sidewalks as I walk my sleeping son. One of the early things I learned as a mother was that kids thrive on consistency, reliability, routine. And yet as I walk my son around our neighborhood, hiding from the sun, bearing witness to birds hatching, flowers blossoming, temperatures rising weeks earlier than I ever recall, it’s evident that we’ve failed to provide that consistency for nature.

For weeks, the sky above me is a blindingly bright blue. No rain. No clouds. Just heat. Dry heat. The driest January on record for much of California. I lather my parched skin with various lotions and oils. None seems to work. My nose bleeds from the lack of moisture in the air. The kids’ faces are red and chapped. “Put a Band-Aid here,” my daughter says, each time the skin cracks open from the dryness. “Ok,” I say, giving in, “but it’s not really a boo-boo.” And yet in a way it is. The whole earth is covered in boo-boos. Self-inflicted wounds. 

September comes and another heat wave blasts California. Nearly half of California’s counties record the warmest September on record. In one week the state breaks nearly 1,000 heat records. As the heat descends on our city, we close the curtains and turn on the wall-unit air conditioner. 

Will the rain ever come?  

It’s Dec. 27, 2022 and the rain does come, nine atmospheric rivers in a matter of weeks. As the first hits a few days before the New Year, I look outside our window. The rain falls fast and hard, as if a wizard has summoned water to sky, sky to earth, earth to sea. 

A few years before, my brother-in-law, then relatively new to California, was awed as he heard the term atmospheric river for the first time. He sat on the couch, my husband, my sister and me within earshot, my daughter and nieces playing in the other room, and read a description from his phone: a long, narrow band of moisture that flows through the atmosphere. Then, at a time when our rivers were bone dry, shedding dust, not water, a river in the sky sounded like a godsend. 

Now, not one such river — which alone can carry up to 15 times the flow of water at the mouth of the Mississippi — but nine, pour down before the third week of January. Atmospheric rivers have existed for a long, long time, the experts say, before human-generated greenhouse gases began warming the planet. But warmer temperatures mean the atmosphere can now hold and release more water, therein boosting precipitation and leading to an increase in rainfall rates and flash flooding.

On New Year’s Eve, we meet our friends at a restaurant a mile or so from home. The rain pelts down, drenching us as we buckle the kids in their seats. Five minutes later, we pull up outside. We double-park and ferry the kids out of the car. Soon, water washes into the restaurant’s entrance. As we head toward the exit, we toss one kid, then the other, over large puddles that have formed by the door. We drive straight home, put the kids to bed and watch the ball drop in New York. 

For the next several days, the downpour continues as back-to-back atmospheric rivers descend on the state. Before the 10th day of January, Santa Barbara will get more than a foot of rain, and the nearest reservoir, Lake Cachuma, about 25 miles northwest, will swell from 36 to 80% of its capacity, in a day. 

Amid the deluge, I run outside to grab my phone charger from the car. Raindrops that feel the size and weight of gumballs crash into my head. It’s not only the drop size, but the speed with which the rain falls that shocks me: an inch or more per hour, I’ll read. 

“What if our culture lusted over oak trees the same way it did over a pair of tits?”

The latest storm causes water to pool in front of our garage. We ask our landlord about sandbags. He insists the drainage is adequate, then ghosts my husband after he sends a photograph of the water. Although his response isn’t what the term climate denier typically connotes, it does seem to suggest a certain level of denial. At the very least, his apathy proves to be well-supported. A few hours later, I read an article: “Did your apartment flood? Renters insurance is unlikely to help you.”

Across the Golden State, the early January storms wash out roads, collapse hillsides, down trees and take lives. They disrupt school and work, and displace residents who can least afford it: low-income communities and communities of color throughout the state, many of them migrant farmworkers who pick strawberries and almonds, alfalfa and spinach eaten the world over. They flood freeways and fields, and send boulders and trees flying into cars, roads and homes. The wharf in Capitola is sliced in half, and in the Sonoma County community of Occidental, a two-year-old boy is killed when a redwood tree crashes into his family’s home. 

Nine days into January, five years to the day after the 2018 mudslides in Montecito that killed 23 people and destroyed 100 homes, another atmospheric river reaches California. This time, the entire community of Montecito is evacuated, along with parts of Santa Barbara, Carpinteria and Summerland — 7,000 people in all. The order is simple: LEAVE NOW! the warning says, the words written in white across a red banner. The Montecito Fire Department’s website gets so much traffic it crashes.

Seven inches of rain fall in 12 hours. The airport closes, and sections of Highway 101, the main freeway in and out of town, shut down. A man brings his wife to town for cancer treatment. By the time they try to return to their house, 40 or so miles north, the roads are closed. They stay the night at a temporary American Red Cross shelter, where the man helps set out cots. The University of California, Santa Barbara cancels classes, and the rainiest January day on record is recorded at the airport. 

Across the city, the storm turns streets into streams (and yet, weren’t many of them streams before?). A man kayaks in windshield-high water in front of his house, 10 blocks or so from mine. The entrance to the harbor is wrecked and a rockslide in Summerland washes two 500-gallon propane tanks into the road. The tanks rest alongside downed tree branches and boulders, as if summoned as evidence. Here in plain view, for all to see, two propane tanks, the sum of our deeds and our lack of deeds, a moment of reckoning.  

By the time the ninth atmospheric river ends, a little more than two weeks into January, thousands of Californians remain under evacuation orders. Twenty-two people have died, surpassing the number of lives claimed by the state’s wildfires in the last two years combined. The deaths are caused by rockslides and falling trees, surging floodwaters and flipped vehicles, the bodies recovered in submerged cars, drainage overflows, swollen rivers and creeks. One body is not recovered, though, that of a boy who was on his way to school with his mother outside Paso Robles when their car was swept away by floodwaters and pinned against a tree. There were no signs for road closures, her husband said in an interview, no caution signs to warn her. 

From the middle of January to early March, California is spared from atmospheric rivers, though not from powerful storms. Near the end of February, another storm hits. 

I’m working at my desk when my phone emits a loud beep. A message from the National Weather Service — spam for which I’m grateful — appears across the screen: A FLASH FLOOD WARNING is in effect for this area until 10:00 PM PST. This is a dangerous and life-threatening situation. Do not attempt to travel unless you are fleeing an area subject to flooding or under an evacuation order.

In the living room where my daughter watches “Dinosaur Train,” the broadcast is interrupted by an emergency alert. The television emits a loud beep and the picture cuts to black. The beep, constant and jarring, startles my daughter. She covers her ears and screams. “What is that?” she yells over the noise.

“One of the early things I learned as a mother was that kids thrive on consistency, reliability, routine. And yet as I walk my son around our neighborhood …. it’s evident that we’ve failed to provide that consistency for nature.”

The storm drops heaps of snow across the state, at elevations as low as 1,000 feet. There’s snow at the Hollywood Sign and along the Coast Range, the iconic backdrop of the Santa Ynez Mountains out of whose foothills the city of Santa Barbara unfurls until it meets the sea. As rain falls outside our front door, snow dusts the nearby mountains.

Once the rain clears, we go down to the waterfront and walk near the pier. For the first time in decades, the foothills behind the city are layered with snow. Distracted by the snow, I momentarily look away from my son, who’s just learned to walk. He stumbles and faceplants on the concrete. I pick him up and kiss his soft cheeks, then brush the dirt off his skin. We walk a few minutes more. As my view shifts between the water beyond the pier, where oil rigs sit perched in the ocean like ticking time bombs, and the snow-capped mountains behind the city, the consequences of our choices — past, present and future — collide. 

March 2023 arrives. This month my daughter will turn five. Five fingers on each hand. Five toes on each foot. Five years on this earth.

A week and a half into the month, a 10th atmospheric river hits. The storm causes a levee to breach in the Monterey County town of Pajaro, flooding the largely migrant farmworker community where the per capita income is less than half the state’s average. Officials order 3,000 people to evacuate. The next day, I see a photograph of a man escaping the floods. He wades in blue jeans through knee-deep water. His left hand shields his face from the falling rain, and in his right hand he clutches a cage with two small birds inside. The heartbreaking beauty of it crushes me. Later, the Los Angeles Times reports that federal officials had known for decades that the Pajaro levee was vulnerable, but never prioritized its repair amid the ongoing drought because the cost-benefit ratios didn’t pencil out. Now, police drive military-grade vehicles down the town’s flooded streets as if they’re in a war zone. And in many ways, it is a war. A war against the poor, against the earth, against the future. 

Two days before my daughter’s birthday, an 11th atmospheric river descends. Her school, and all local school districts, close due to the impending storm and its potential for “uncertain impacts.” Across California, 90 flood watches, warnings and advisories are in effect. In the mountains, avalanche warnings are in place. Nearly 30,000 people in the state are ordered to evacuate, including hundreds of residents in our area, specifically those in the burn scar areas of the Thomas, Alisal and Cave fires. 

The biggest rainfall of the storm in Southern California is recorded in Santa Barbara. Highway 101 closes, again. I’ve purchased a few books for my daughter at our local bookstore, but the main birthday attraction, a Calico Critter camper van filled with tiny creatures readied for adventure, has yet to arrive. In the afternoon, I attempt to preempt disappointment and explain to my daughter that because of the storm her presents might come a few days late. She stands by the front door with her shoes in hand. “Can we go to the mailbox to check?” she asks. It’s pouring outside. I struggle to find the right language, to settle on a frame. “The freeway is closed because there’s too much rain,” I say, acutely aware of how much I’m leaving out. Is she too young to understand the concept of greed, the kind of greed that got us to this place, this point of no return?

As I watch the rain fall, I wonder if this will be the year — this year of epic rain, this year of destruction and death — that will mark the beginning of a shift, the onset of an era in which people view climate change not as something far away in time or space, but right here, in our own front yards. My daughter’s presents do not arrive, but climate change has. All we have to do is open the front door.

For now, however, we keep the front door closed. On the day of her fifth birthday, a state of emergency remains in place for 40 of California’s 58 counties. In the afternoon, the rain finally stops and the clouds give way to a partially blue sky. At dusk we get dressed and drive up the street to eat spaghetti marinara at my daughter’s favorite restaurant.

“Is she too young to understand the concept of greed, the kind of greed that got us to this place, this point of no return?”

At home she blows out five candles, and while I’m immensely grateful for everything we have — the chocolate cake, the roof over our heads, my two beautiful children, the bright lights in my world — my heart sinks knowing this new reality is only just beginning. They’re so little, with so much life ahead of them. How much of their lives will be marred by catastrophe and loss? 

The next day, she’s back at school. I eat a piece of toast and read the news. In San Clemente, a swimming pool dangles off the side of a cliff. The latest storm has ripped part of the coastline into the ocean, sending patio furniture tumbling toward the sea. Later, I talk with a friend. The freeway closure prevented her from getting to work for two days at her hourly pay job. “So much for our perfect climate,” she says, climate change only the latest wrench in the perpetual myth of California as paradise. Pleasant temperatures now morphed into brutal heat. Ancient trees now rendered matchsticks. Coastline now viewed in terms of the likelihood of its erosion. 

A few hours later, I get an email. “Please pick up your child immediately,” the school’s director writes. The storms have caused the school’s plumbing to back up. The toilets are overflowing with shit.

For a week or so, the rain holds off. When I pick my daughter up from school, there’s dirt under her nails. She tells me they planted seeds today. I ask what kind. “Tomato,” she says, smiling from the backseat, “Bell pepper. Carrot. And watermelon!” 

The next day, rain soaks the ground of their garden. Just in time for the start of spring, another storm rolls in. A 12th atmospheric river arrives, bringing with it thunder, lightning and hail. We watch outside our window as cherry-sized drops of hail fall sideways across our porch. “What’s that?” my daughter asks. She’s never seen hail. 

Indeed, there is something of an initiation to the storms this year, for us both. I read about the new terms many Californians have become versed in this winter — polar vortex, bomb cyclone, atmospheric river — and the new language we will need for the altered phenomena that will come, that have already arrived because of climate change.

If growers pick their grapes weeks earlier, is fall still harvest season? If summer comes in spring, do we still call it spring? How do I talk with my children about the changes we’re seeing outside our window without scaring the shit out of them? How do we talk about this crisis while instilling a sense of hope, a sense that everything’s not lost? Like all traumas, it’s hard to talk about. But words are like seeds. If planted, they will grow. 

In the morning, I get an email from the school. The storm has downed trees and power lines, and blown the transformer the school relies on for power. “Please let me know if you have any questions,” the director, Lisa, writes at the end of her message. 

At home that night, our power goes out, too. My daughter jumps out of bed. My husband and I collect her in the hallway, and bring her to the living room, where we sit with two flashlights and make shadow puppets on the wall. Outside, the wind bangs at the glass-and-wood door of our 1920s house. “There’s a ghost at the door,” she insists. 

There was a time, only a few months before, when she thought of ghosts as friendly. We’d sit in the backyard and she’d tell us about the ghost that lived next door, where it spent its day gardening in the sunlight. But now, after a Halloween “Mickey Mouse Clubhouse” episode in which Mickey is trailed by a shadowy figure, the thought of ghosts frightens her. “I go boo,” I say, and squeeze her tight, quoting from Maya Angelou’s “Life Doesn’t Frighten Me,” a poem we’ve read countless times. For her, I am bold, I am bear, I am mother. But the truth is, the storms have me rattled, too.

“If growers pick their grapes weeks earlier, is fall still harvest season? If summer comes in spring, do we still call it spring?”

An hour later, my husband and I argue, about what I can’t even remember; we’re tired, and have only just gotten our daughter back to bed a little before 11 p.m. I snip at him, and he snips back. “What, are you afraid of the dark?” he says, and in many ways, I am. Of the ghosts and the darkness at our front door. Of the thunder and the lightning, the rain that knows no end, the fires and the heat that I know will surely come. The way this new reality is already so pervasive and only just beginning. The way my family came to this Golden State as refugees from genocide and may one day flee again, the result of a different war. I can’t tell my daughter there aren’t ghosts at our front door. And yet, in a twisting boomerang of time, these ghosts are not past, but future, whispers of unborn children, the ones whose DNA lives in eggs inside my daughter’s womb like babushka dolls nested one inside the other, waiting to be born. The voices of our future ancestors, clamoring to be heard. 

Up in the Bay Area, glass is knocked out of the window of a skyscraper in downtown San Francisco. A few hours later, a tornado strikes a mobile home park in Carpinteria, 10 miles down the road. One person is injured, 25 mobile homes are damaged and a tree is wrecked in an adjacent cemetery. Yes, I do, Lisa. I do have some questions. 

As the 13th, and final, atmospheric river of the season pours down, my daughter and I are sitting on the bathroom floor. I comb knots out of her curly hair, the locks the result of spiral codes that have been passed down through generations. Out of nowhere she turns around and asks, “But who made this world? How did the angels decide to make this world?”

Her question seems to be pulled from thin air, and yet as I listen to the downpour on the other side of our flimsy, slatted window, the wind rattling the wispy branches of our neighbor’s eucalyptus tree, I can’t help but wonder if this altered climate, so different from any other winter she’s known, has seeped through her, too. I think about her question, and while I won’t pretend to feel any certainty about the miracle that is human life, that is our Earth, I can tell her about the reality that is our planet’s unmaking, the alterations humans have caused, the new reality we have sewn, the future we will usher into existence if we fail to act in time. 

I’d also like to tell her that we possess, not the skills, nor the technology — for those we certainly do — to stop the ship from going overboard, but the courage to correct the wrongs, the strength to topple the few who are keeping the rest of this planet in what can sometimes feel like a literal chokehold. I would be lying if I didn’t say I thought of my grandmother next, how she escaped Europe on the Hamburg America Line only months before the U.S. would turn away more than 900 refugees on the same transatlantic steamship line, sending them back to Europe, where many of them perished at the hands of Nazis. Of the rest of her family who didn’t make it out. Of the ongoing war in Ukraine.

“Adults are always right,” she tells me the next day when we are driving home from school. “No, honey,” I say, “adults can be wrong too.” 

On the last day of March, I take my daughter to the zoo. She asks me to read about each animal, what they eat, where they live. “What does it say about their habitat?” she asks. We visit Marta, the Amur Leopard, the most endangered big cat on the planet. The California condors, among the first species to be listed under the Endangered Species Preservation Act. Do I tell her that one day we, too, may become an endangered species? That she’s part of a species that is making itself endangered? We pass the Chinese Alligator, whose ancestors walked the earth at the same time as the dinosaurs, and I wonder which species will be around in 100, 1,000, 10,000 years, which ones will outlast the humans.

“Do I tell her that one day we, too, may become an endangered species? That she’s part of a species that is making itself endangered?”

The next morning, I take out a deck of tarot cards. I ask the deck to please show me a card about this essay. I close my eyes and shuffle. Divide the cards into three stacks. Put them back into one. I spread them across my desk, and when I’m ready, I draw a card. 

The card is numbered “1,” and titled “World.” In the top right corner, black-gray smoke billows out from a burning city. “The world is on fire,” the card says. “Civilizations and their illusions of separation and control are coming to an end. Mother Earth cannot be dominated. The Goddess is rising to protect Her endangered children.” A young woman with a pack on her back, boots on her feet, walks out into the forest beyond the city. The card’s essence is distilled: “A choice that changes everything.” 

A week later, it’s Passover. We’re sitting around my sister’s long, rectangular dining table, when my daughter interrupts the Seder. “What’s a shepherd?” she asks. 

I think of the man in Pajaro wading through knee-deep water, ushering his birds to safety. The neighbors who helped clear a path so the parents of the two-year-old killed by a falling redwood tree in Occidental could gather belongings from the wreckage of their home. The biblical figure with whom my son shares a name. I wonder what I can do, what we all can do, to make our children, to make ourselves, so brave, so in love with this world, that we will gather up all of Earth’s creatures and steward them to safety, how we might gift them, how we might gift ourselves, the strength we need to weather the storm, the humility to admit that we’ve made mistakes, the courage to believe another future can be born. 

In the Central Valley, a lake has been reborn. The rains have caused Tulare Lake, once the largest freshwater lake west of the Mississippi, to resurge across thousands of acres of farmland. For centuries, the lake was the center of life for the native Yokut people, who hunted for salmon and perch and dug for clams and mussels in its waters. Before the land in the lake bottom was claimed by white settlers, often under the threat of violence, and the Kings, Kaweah, Tule and Kern rivers were dammed and diverted for agriculture, the Valley transformed each spring into vibrant marshland, teeming with tule elk, antelope and gray and Canadian geese.  

Now another kind of violence has returned. The floodwaters have breached levees in and around the town of Corcoran — with waters pooling to as much as 178 feet — causing the lakebed to refill and submerging cotton and safflower fields, pistachio and almond orchards, and power lines and chemical tanks beneath its murky surface. The flooding threatens crops, homes and businesses, as well as one of California’s largest prison complexes, which houses 8,000 incarcerated men. 

The last speaker of the Chunut language, a Yokut woman named Yoimut, cautioned that the lake would return. She lived on an island in the lake until ranchers forced her and her family off the island. The largest cotton corporation in the U.S. would come to own her ancestral land. But now that land, sunken from subsidence by caretakers who’ve over-pumped groundwater for decades, sits idle due to the recent storms. An entire body of water, four times the size of Lake Tahoe, has come back to life. The lake’s resurgence has some calling the lake a phantom; others refer to it as a revenant. A ghost, at once past and future, has returned, presenting us with a choice, a choice that changes everything. Here (or it is everywhere?) nature is telling the story. Are we listening? 

After the Seder, we listen to a performance by my daughter and her cousins. When it’s her turn, she stands up. She looks down at the piece of paper she’s holding — it’s blank — and announces the title of her story. “The Mystery Girl and the Case of the Missing Lemon Tree,” she says. When we get home a few hours later, I ask her to tell me the name of her story again. She blurts it out, then starts down the hall. Halfway down, she stops.  

“She’s a super girl,” she says of the girl in her story.

“What’s that?” I ask. 

“She saves the day.” 

“An entire body of water, four times the size of Lake Tahoe, has come back to life. The lake’s resurgence has some calling the lake a phantom; others refer to it as a revenant.”

At last, temperatures break 70. I throw on a T-shirt and jeans and go to an event at the museum, where a friend leads a small group through a writing exercise. She asks us to draw a picture of a place where we belong. I open my journal and the first thing that comes to mind is the ship manifest from my grandmother’s passage to America. The word Hebrew, which appears in typed letters alongside her name, is slashed out with a pen. Written above it, in my grandmother’s signature cursive, I swear, is the word Magyar. Hungarian.

On the facing page, I draw the Earth, an oak tree, the ocean and a grave. I put my pen down, and as I wait for the group to finish, I stare at the spherical planet I’ve drawn and wonder, do humans belong on Earth? I look at the sketch of the grave, grass peppering its feet and as odd as it sounds, the image gives me a strange sense of comfort, for I know a grave is a place we will all end up, a place to which we indelibly belong. I look at the patch of grassy earth beneath the grave. The Earth. She is the womb in which we’re all swimming, like fish, the blue planet from which we all came and to which we’ll all return. Maybe if she tosses us up in this watery mix, we’ll realize the sacred gift that is this life. That is all life. And we’ll do everything we can to protect it. It’s a miracle any of us are here at all.  

A few weeks later, we drive north on Highway 101. My son sleeps in the backseat, sunlight spread across his round face. Fifteen minutes into the six-hour drive, my daughter asks if we are there yet. I pull up a video about wild cats, her latest obsession, and hand her the iPad. 

We cross through the Gaviota Pass. The freeway cuts north, and the coastal view gives way to grassy woodlands. On both sides, oak trees blanket the hillside, and all around us as we drive, the rivers, creeks and streams are filled with water. 

We cross bridges I’ve driven over hundreds of times — then, the bridges themselves the only reminders that water once reached these dusty lowlands — and as I look down, there’s water flowing beneath us. As we near Paso Robles, my mind returns to the boy, the one whose body they couldn’t find.

After floodwaters pinned his mother’s car against a tree, water started pouring into their car. His mother told him to leave his backpack behind and climb into the front seat. She held him tight, but as she opened the front door, the force of the water was too strong. “I could feel his fingers slipping from mine,” she said.

He was five.