Monday, June 28, 2010

The Gulf: Parenting crisis and a national nightmare

When my children were small they came to me crying when they were afraid. Sometimes they were convinced that monsters were hiding under their beds until I chased away each shadowy creature.

In those days it was in my power to banish the scary things. When the wind blew and tornado sirens wailed, sending us scurrying down into the basement to wait out the worst, I could soothe them. I could reassure them that storms always pass. That by morning the sun would be out and life would return to normal. If I was afraid or secretly worried that our house would be swept away by a killer wind, I kept it to myself.

When they opened their eyes to a safe and familiar landscape, whatever terrifying thing that had invaded their dreams would retreat and fade. The night’s fear would be forgotten.

To a child, even the most well-adjusted child, the world with all its hazards and mysteries, can be a frightening place. Fire burns. Water drowns. Dogs bite. Monsters lurk. Lightning strikes.
As parents, we calm those fears. We soothe and caress. We hold them close and talk away the bogey man.

Lately, trying to ease my own anxiety about the terrible scenario going on in the Gulf of Mexico as millions of barrels of oil boil unchecked into a sea already taxed by our carelessness, I talk to my children about what is happening. They’re adults now. They’ve learned there are no monsters under the bed. They remember the sugar-white beaches of the Gulf of Mexico. They played in the surf as children.

Now, each is baffled by the negligence, the arrogance and audacity of those who built a weapon of destruction with no plan for protecting the innocent. Like me, they are frustrated by the slow response and shaken by the scope of the disaster.

This terrible thing, we think without having to say it aloud, is not a figment like the imaginary creatures under the bed. This is the stuff of real nightmares. An endless, gushing cloud of darkness that is slowly rising to the surface of the sea. A smothering film that stretches oily fingers onto the shore, staining everything it touches, poisoning innocent wildlife and killing the beaches while arrogant, blowhard, executives dance around the truth.

And behind that truth is the knowledge that we have abused our dominion. We allowed a wound in the earth. A hole opened with no practical way to close it. We looked the other way while entities like British Petroleum focused on greed and fed our endless need for oil. (As someone who drives for a living, I am not blind to the irony of what I am writing. We talk about that, too.)

I’m consumed by the feeling that this will be our legacy.

Like any parent, I have a tendency to look back on the days when my children were small with a certain soft-focus. But there are times, especially in this crisis, that I am glad that my son and daughters are old enough to be able to decide for themselves what is good or bad.

If they were coming to me as children, frightened by what is going on, I would be hard-pressed to find the words of comfort.

Cheryl-Anne Millsap is a freelance columnist for The Spokesman-Review. Her audio essays can be heard on Spokane Public Radio and public radio stations across the country. She is the author of “Home Planet: A Life in Four Seasons” and can be reached at

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