Sunday, April 19, 2020

Still at home

A mention by a friend on Twitter yesterday got me thinking again about the best new novel I read last year, Lucy Ellmann's Ducks, Newburyport. In my review of the book for the Seattle Review of Books, I praised it as the first book I've read that
that [. . . ] thoroughly acknowledges the toxic mix of guilt and dread that is the bassline of life in Western society amid a climate change disaster that our every action exacerbates.
For an educated, attentive Westerner, climate change, and the guilt and fear that accompanies it, has in the past decade or so become a constant part of thought. It's there eroding our wellbeing at all times, in ways that, relative to the scale of the disaster and human culpability for it, are extravagantly minor, yet that cumulatively steal a not-insignificant portion of life's everyday pleasures. A warm snap in February? No longer an unmixed good. The first arrival of goldfinches in the spring? They're awfully early again this year, aren't they? A hike in the woods? Yes, but we had to drive there.

Part of the problem is that the scale is all wrong. Individually, we can do next to nothing about climate change. Yet it is, in part, as individuals that we will experience, and suffer from, its effects. And it is as individuals that we confront, moment to moment and day to day, our thoughts.

Lately, our thoughts have been infected by a new strain of dread. Five or six weeks into lockdown, for those of us not in frontline occupations the immediate fear of infection has subsided. It's still there, but it's no longer a countdown clock ticking at the back of our minds from the last time we rode the subway. Now the fears have turned social, political, economic. If we're lucky enough to still have a job, the fears are about the larger economy, and about our seeming lack of a clear path back to even half-normal. (Or even a true acknowledgment that that path, wherever it winds, will not be short.) What do we look like on the other side of this?

I've spent my whole career working in or with bookstores, so that's where I find myself turning when the larger questions get to be too much. They're almost all closed right now, and they're hurting. But they're also taking orders and shipping, and I'm drawing at least the most modest of solace in ordering something from every store where I know a staff member. And, unlike the way I usually approach my reading, which mixes books new to the house with stuff that's been lingering on the shelves unread for years, I'm stacking my stay-at-home purchases and reading my way right through them, on the logic that something about the current situation led me to choose these books, so perhaps I'll find they have something to say to me right now. Wild, Cheryl Strayed's 2012 memoir of hiking the Pacific Crest trail certainly does. This bit rang particularly true right now:
I'd loved books in my regular, pre-PCT life, but on the trail, they'd taken on even greater meaning. They were the world I could lose myself in when the one I was actually in became too lonely or harsh or difficult to bear. When I made camp in the evenings, I rushed through the tasks of pitching my tent and filtering water and cooking dinner so I could sit afterwards in side the shelter of my tent in my chair with my pot of hot food gripped between my knees. I ate with my spoon in one hand and a book in the other, reading by the light of my headlamp when the sky darkened. In the first week of my hike, I was often too exhausted to read more than a page or two before I fell asleep, but as iI grew stronger I was reading more, eager to escape the tedium of my days. And each morning, I burned whatever I'd read the night before.
She's burning the book because she didn't want to carry any more weight in her pack than she had to, but even knowing that, there's a certain drama to the act, no? Strayed's book itself is just what I want right now: It takes me someplace I can't go (and, to be honest, was never going to go), and it has a strong narrative pull that enables me, for a bit, to keep COVID thoughts at bay.

Philip Ziegler's The Black Death is a different sort of response to the moment. It's a reminder that things could certainly be worse. We aren't losing a third to a half of our population to COVID, and while there's a lot we still have to learn about the disease, we at least understand the basics of how it works and how it might be stopped. Yet there are parallels, and Ziegler's book offers plenty of moments that snag and stick like burrs on a hike, discovered only much later, lingering in my thoughts. Like this:
But if one were called on to identify the hall-mark of the years which followed the Black Death, it would be that of a neurotic, all-pervading gloom. "Seldom in the course of the Middle Ages has so much been written concerning the miseria of human beings and human life," wrote Hans Baron, going on to refer to "the pessimism and renunciation of life which took possession of mankind in the period following the terrible epidemics of the middle of the fourteenth century." It was a gloom which fed upon extreme uncertainty and apprehension. The European of this period lived in a constant anticipation of disaster.
Climate change, considered seriously, has given us a trial run for that feeling. Yet we still--at least, I think, we reasonably well-off Americans--tend to default to the assumption that things are going to be okay. I'll cop to that. I've been extremely fortunate. My life has gone well. And narrative concepts and structures are so deeply embedded in me and my thinking that, as little interest as I have in being any kind of hero, I can't help but imagine myself as the protagonist of my own life--and to assume that life is ultimately a story that will have a reasonable, satisfying shape to it. Our current situation reminds me of how presumptuous that is, both on an individual and a societal level, even as it reveals how incredibly deep the roots of that outlook are in my personality.

COVID has laid bare so many of the underlying assumptions about our lives and society--and most of them do not put us in a good light. Inequality is deadly. Failing to acknowledge our interconnectedness is deadly. Neglect of infrastructure is deadly. Dealing with crises rather than working to prevent them is deadly. And we, myself certainly included, are complacent about what we have. A passage from Phil Christman's thoughtful new book about the Midwest, Midwest Futures, comes to mind:
That we take such a good place for granted, as though its usefulness for human life were proof of its dullness and interchangeability, allows us to misuse it, and ourselves, and each other, who are marked as boring by having come from this boringly good thing, or marked as threatening because they didn’t. It takes a thousand years for the earth to make three centimeters of topsoil. (Climate change encourages floods, which wash topsoil out to sea.)
At the same time, I hold with Joshua Marshall of Talking Points Memo that optimism isn't an assumption or a plan, but an ethical stance. It enables us to continue, to do the work that could help justify our belief in it. I can worry about worst-case scenarios, but I have to on a fundamental level believe we'll get past them.

In the current moment, that work, for many of us, consists mostly of letting time and distance do their work. So we try. I'm reading. I'm watching the birds at our feeder. I'm seeing a movie a day. I'm working on finicky little finger exercises for the piano, devised by Czerny to facilitate madness. I'm being grateful for my wife and our dog and cats. And I'm thinking about this line from Wild:
Each day on the trail was the only possible preparation for the one that followed.
That's as succinct an assessment of where we are right now as any I've come across. Stay strong and well, friends.