at present i am very interested in the condition of despair, in no small part because it is a condition i have inhabited intermittently throughout most of my life and more or less continuously for the last three years. it is a strange feeling to recognize that despair increasingly overtaking larger public discourse; that a handful of newly-informed white male journalists are being handsomely rewarded for saying, rather less capably, the same things environmental justice activists—most of whom are neither white nor men—and scientists have been saying for decades should surprise no one, least of all me, but i must admit i did not see the uninhabitable earth coming.
i read a great deal about climate catastrophe, and have done for a long time, and in the last year or two have acquired something of a reputation of an infallible prophetess of doom: i’ve lost track of the number of friends and acquaintances who’ve leaned forward, usually over drinks, and asked me in a low voice, anxious not to be overheard, how long do you think we have? —we meaning here human beings living above the poverty line in wealthy countries with access to potable water and the ability to move away from coastlines—as though i am some bargain-basement cassandra, formerly a downer at parties, whose predictions have suddenly turned out to be gospel. i do not historically do well in talk therapy, and have always joked that what i really need is not a therapist but some entity possessed of the ability to see into the future, who can reassure me with absolute authority that, although things are difficult now, they are definitely going to be okay. i am also not a very good liar, or a very good optimist.
it is not comforting to be suddenly and unexpectedly sharing the knowledge that the world as we know it—we, here, meaning the entirety of our species, and of all the other species who have the misfortune to share a planet with exxon mobil and the koch brothers—is coming to an end. it is a feeling like the feeling of looking up on the train to see a stranger with a familiar geography of pale scars laddered over wrists or forearms or thighs: i know where you have been, and i wish neither of us had had to go there. i quit most of my jobs at the end of last year to work on a novel, which has been a fourteen-thousand-word unopened document for months now. i don’t think i want to be a writer anymore, i said to a friend the other day, surprised i was actually saying it out loud.
i didn’t know anything about having cancer, anne boyer writes, but i knew something about how to avoid telling a story.
speaking openly about inhabiting an ongoing and annihilating climate of despair is not encouraged in online social forums. we are meant to protest, to call our representatives, to recycle our recyclables, call out our abusers, support survivors, lobby for the reduction of carbon emissions, offset our flights should we be privileged enough to afford them, volunteer on crisis hotlines, make posters, divest ourselves of toxic relationships, purchase only organic and sustainably grown cottons, post aspirational content to our platforms, engage with our conservative relatives and friends should we have them, send money should we have it to refugees and uninsured people dying of treatable diseases in the richest country in the world and disaster relief funds and abortion funds and doctors without borders and people doing the work of battling the interminable and tireless forces arrayed against justice and liberty and the survival of our planet in the event we ourselves are not interminably and tirelessly doing that work ourselves. we are not meant to say the reason i am sad is that i am selfish and there is no hope for a bearable future in my lifetime. we are not meant to eschew therapy because there is no therapist on this earth who can look into the future and tell us anything will be okay. we are not meant to believe that talking about our grief with an experienced professional is pointless. we are not meant to be tired. we are not meant to wonder if the world really needs our art.
we are not meant to say, if someone asks us how we are doing, i am really not doing okay, i feel absolutely powerless, i am sick with a sickness that is not real but is nevertheless larger than life. every year i think it cannot possibly get worse in the world than this and every year it does. we are entreated to stay positive; a failure of positivity is a failure of our moral compass. by we here i mean, obviously, me. i am learning german from duolingo, which taught me that the german for how’s it going is wie geht’s; a german friend explained to me, however, that in germany one only asks this question of people to whom one is close enough that they might reply with honesty. i have heard that in america, he said solemnly, when you ask this question you do not really want to know the answer.
the undying is a book about and around breast cancer: the experience of having breast cancer (have, what a strange verb to associate with disease, when you think about it), undergoing treatment for breast cancer, a kind of map of cancer’s affective and embodied effects on one person: a poet, single mother, caregiver, friend, lover, paycheck-to-paycheck living teacher and writer. it is formally rigorous, frequently harrowing, and, like all of anne boyer’s books, filled with aphoristic sentences that land like koans, beautiful little puzzles that make some part of the world visible to the reader that was previously obscured. it is also in part about the insufficiency of extant language to adequately qualify pain; at one point, boyer describes formulating with her friends pamphlets with alternate vocabularies of pain into the waiting rooms. These guides to the new language of pain would consist mostly of the poems of Emily Dickinson. i visited a friend of mine in the hospital recently, on the wall a whiteboard with DAILY GOAL (“to feel better”) and the familiar smiley-face pain scale, one to ten. i asked if my friend or the nurse came up with the DAILY GOAL and my friend explained that only the nurses had whiteboard markers, which they kept with them and did not distribute to the patients. “to feel better” was, in fact, every day’s DAILY GOAL. better as a process of becoming.
i am a year younger than anne boyer was when she was diagnosed with highly aggressive triple-negative breast cancer. one of my dearest friends in the world has a single tattoo, the word CANCER across the inside of her bottom lip, which makes me laugh every time i think about it. cancer itself may not be funny, but sometimes despair can be, and very often the body. another friend, the writer manjula martin, sends out an occasional newsletter (it is very good and you should sign up for it, and i say this as someone with a generalized horror of writers’ newsletters), which happened to arrive yesterday, while i was thinking, unsurprisingly, about surviving cancer specifically and the end of the world in general, and how emotionally invested i am at this point in either. (i am not currently suicidal, but i am a pragmatist.) At the moment every writer with whom I am friends, she writes, or at least close enough friends with that we can mutually confess this type of ego panic, is afraid that:
a) the publishing business will self-destruct/there will be an economic crisis that makes the publishing industry stop spending money on books before i finish my book and/or sell it to a publisher
b) the civilization will end or precipitously decline (choose your poison, but at this stage climate change is either the cause or end result of all the poisons, whether directly or indirectly) before i finish my book and/or sell it to a publisher
these are selfish concerns, as she notes, but selfish concerns are not unreal or necessarily unreasonable ones. you must have a desire to live, anne boyer writes, but it is also necessary to believe that you are a person worth keeping alive. the treatment of cancer involves the application of medicines that are tremendously damaging to both the individual body and the larger world: a number of chemotherapy drugs, for example, last in water supplies and accumulate in aquatic environments. the effects of these toxic accumulations on people and animals who do not have cancer are not yet known, although their effects on the bodies to which they are applied therapeutically are as or more ravaging than the effects of the cancer they are designed to eradicate. how many books, boyer asks, to pay back the world for existing, would i have to write? what we should do if we do not have that kind of faith in the value of our own work is not something she covers. the undying is not a self-help book. as far as i know i do not (yet) have cancer, but i often do not have a desire to live.
then again, i often do.
tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life? it is ninety-something degrees in new york and the answer for me right now is, as it has been for some time, drink too much and cry in front of the air conditioner watching law & order reruns i have already watched in a similar condition in a similar emotional state an embarrassing number of times. i am trying to be patient with myself and with my sadness. i have felt better before—quite recently, in fact—and i will feel better again, which is a hard thing to remember even though i know from long experience that this will prove to be true.
in a little less than a month i am leaving the city for a while. maybe i will go live in a little house in the woods, and maybe i will buy a sailboat and learn to take it around the world, and maybe i will call my representatives and go to yoga, and maybe i will see the arctic again, and maybe i will travel next december to patagonia and watch the moon swallow whole the sun for a handspan of minutes, and maybe i’ll write another book, and maybe the end of the world will hold off for a little longer, long enough for us all to make space for one another, to cook dinner for our sick friends, to burn ICE and all its hellish spawn to the ground, to open our houses to people in need of refuge, to bake bread with broken hearts and strong hands, to learn a little better how to live together through this, our own unlivable time.