cassandra at the glacier

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.

some books i have been reading lately

The Night Ocean, Paul la Farge

A History of The Arctic: Nature, Exploration, and ExploitationJohn McCannon

I went to Salt Lake City for the weekend to see my pregnant friend before she gives birth and I lose her again for another couple of years. I bought The Night Ocean, which is a novel about stories about HP Lovecraft, as a treat to read on the plane, even though it’s by a man and I have four hundred million unread books at home, but you know how it is. One needs a book for the plane; one’s books already at home won’t do. If you stay in the parts of Salt Lake City I stayed in it is easy to come away with the impression that Salt Lake City is populated exclusively by twenty-five-year-old white people with magnificent teeth. What happens when you turn thirty, do they euthanize you, I said, and my friend said No, you have to move to a different part of town. Everyone is very sweet in Salt Lake City, in a pastel earnest way that made me anxious, and the hip young men all have those beard-and-tattoo sets that make it impossible to tell if they’re just hip or actually Nazis. I bought long underwear at the REI and also a water bottle, because I hadn’t been thinking the morning I left and forgot to empty the water bottle I’d brought, and the TSA lady threw it out in front of me, and the cashier at the REI knocked over the water bottle I was buying and said Oh my god oh my god I’m so sorry, and I said What the fuck we’re leaving, and a look of abject terror flashed across his face before he realized I was joking and I felt terrible. Against the world, against life, that’s me and HP, fucking monsters.

My friend and I went up a mountain—they’re right there, the mountains! it's marvelous!—and the air was clean and thin and everything got a little blue around the edges, and we passed through groves of aspen, and there was snow on the ground, and you could see forever across the wild hills, and I thought about the time long ago now when I was a person who routinely went up and down mountains, and how nice it is on the side of a mountain, how most everything else just falls away. What the fuck were you thinking, I said, because we’ve known each other for a long time and that’s the question I want to ask everyone having children right now. I know, she said ruefully. Biology. I told her about seeing a different friend, one I hadn’t seen in almost fifteen years, who also has young children, and how he asked me How long do you think we have?—this is a question I get a lot lately, probably because I’ve been a Cassandra of the apocalypse since, like, 1998—I think we have a hundred years, right? and I said without thinking, Ten if we’re lucky, and then I remembered the pictures of his baby that I have seen online, and said, No, you’re right, probably a hundred. 

I brought my computer to Utah to do some work but I didn’t do any of the work or look at any of the news; instead I read in the mornings, until the last morning, when I looked at the news again and thought How are we supposed to keep going through this, but then again I think that most mornings, and here we are. Are you writing? my friend asked, and I said Not really, and then I said the truth, which is that I drink a lot so that most of the time I am muzzy and vague and I don’t have to think about the fact that I’m pretty sure I have nothing important left to say. We went out to breakfast one morning and parked up next to the van of a lady I follow on Instagram; this lady lives in her van with her husband and two dogs, and goes about in the mountains and has adventures and so on. Hi Bucket, hi Dagwood! I said to the dogs, which were in the van, barking excitedly, and then I explained to my friend, who does not have Instagram, about the van lady, and my friend said, confused, So she’s homeless? and I said No, it’s like a whole thing, for young white people, there’s usually a lot of soft focus lighting and prayer flags, I like this particular van lady because her van is often dirty and she posts a lot of pictures of canyons, and then the van lady came out of the restaurant and said I’m sorry they’re barking, they’re actually friendly, and I said I know! I follow them on Instagram. Something like six hundred thousand people follow her on Instagram, I’m sure she gets that a lot.

The Night Ocean is sad and sweet and funny and lovely and I read it in the mornings, drinking my coffee in the cool still Airbnb, which had trees outside every window so that the light coming in filtered green-gold and I felt as though I were sitting in a radiant bower, an elf-princess with her novel, not looking at the news or the email or the van lady on Instagram or the inside of her own head. Do you like HP Lovecraft? It’s fine if you don’t, he wasn’t a particularly nice person, but it helps to have some kind of relationship with him if you want to read The Night Ocean, although I think you would like it even if you don't. The Airbnb had all sorts of channels and my friend came over and we watched The Real Housewives of somewhere—California, I think?—and one of the housewives was ill and didn’t put on any of her makeup to go to a dinner party, and one of the other housewives’ husbands told her she looked pretty, and after the makeup-less housewife left everyone talked about how hideously ugly she was, and the husband said Well she looked so bad I figured no one would tell her she was attractive, so I did to be nice, and I’m still laughing about it. What a gallant housewife’s husband! On the airplane a flight attendant called me Sir and then was horrifically apologetic and I said It’s okay, I wouldn’t look like this if I cared, and he hid from me the rest of the flight. Poor guy.

I brought my Arctic book because I’m going to the Arctic next month—I know!—and then I didn’t read it, because I just got to the chapter about colonization and needed a break, but I’ve been reading it on the train in New York and it is very good at evoking sweeping vistas. Also I have been watching Fortitude, which is not, I don’t think, a very realistic depiction of daily life in Longyearben. If it is in fact realistic I shall be lucky to escape the Arctic with my life and intestines. I am very close to buying a van and several dogs and running away from the entire future and my entire life but despite temptation I got on the plane home. I had dinner the night before I left with my friend and her husband—it’s still hard for me to say that, she’s not really a husband-having sort of person, but at least he’s nice—and her son Leo, who is almost two. Leo and I talked about the landscaping. On my way to the airport the next morning I got a text from my friend: Leo woke up this morning and said Where’s Sarah and then he said It’s time to go to New York. And then this morning on the train I thought, Maybe I do have something to say after all, something small. Baby steps. Maybe even now, even in this time, it doesn’t always have to be important; maybe just a story is a good enough place to start.

how to survive a plague

on friday the 13th my downstairs neighbor showed me his new tattoo of a cleaver, a little bigger than a quarter in size. my neighbors like to talk to me about tattoos. "i've actually never seen that movie," i said, and he said "what?" and i said "friday the 13th? i've never seen it" and then he said "oh no it's not about the movie, it's friday the thirteenth," and i said "what?" and he told me that there are a handful of tattoo shops in new york that will give you a tattoo on friday the thirteenth for thirteen dollars and i realized that up until that point we had been talking about completely different things. "i have four," he said, pulling up his shirt to show me the rest of his forearm. the cleaver, a pot i think? a couple of other things i couldn't quite make out. maybe a small monster. "i want to get a whole sleeve," he said, "but all i got the money for is thirteen dollars at a time."

right now i think about small goals, like when you are running farther than you would prefer and you pick a tree not too far off and run to that and then pick another tree and run to that one and repeat this process until you get to where you meant to go. a sleeve of tattoos one thirteen-dollar friday the thirteenth at a time. the book of dust comes out tomorrow and then halloween, a dear night, and then it's time to go look at the bergdorf-goodman christmas windows, then first snow, then star wars. if i need a break i can take a bottle of whiskey and the dumbest book i can find to the beach and sit by myself for a while. i am partial to an appallingly terrible series of procedural novels about a lady medical examiner who solves crimes. everyone around her is incompetent all the time and hidden conspirators are constantly moving against her. she is the best at everything and rich and attractive. she never makes jokes and spends a lot of time telling the reader that death is not funny. despite her many enemies she invariably triumphs. she cannot be undermined and drinks black coffee; i find her convictions soothing. 

i haven't really felt like talking. my throat hurts, i sleep too much. the cat likes it when i'm sad because we spend a lot of time in bed.

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right now i am reading madelein thien's Do Not Say We Have Nothingwhich is beautiful and not, like, uplifting exactly, but the kind of thing i didn't know i was looking for until i found it: it's the story of an extended and diasporic family, a generation of classical musicians who lives through mao's cultural revolution, and their children, who come together in the tiananmen square protests. the novel moves back and forth through time and place but its characters are so rich, so compelling, its mysteries so haunting, its storytelling so beautiful, that all its diverse tributaries flow seamlessly into a single narrative about surviving the unsurvivable and what it means to live for art--a story that, you do not need me to tell you, is more relevant than we might prefer these days. the writing about music is next-level sublime.

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also i read justina ireland's Dread Nation  which is definitely all the things that people are saying about it: frightening, subversive, smart as fuck, incisive, provocative, and not fucking around, but it's also funny as all hell, which i cannot stress enough, and which makes its toothy, savage satire even better. jane is one of my favorite YA heroines in recent memory: tough, funny, vulnerable, compassionate (sometimes), prone to bad decisions (sometimes) and good jokes (all the time), loyal, and smart. watching her slash her way through the grody undead and the creepy living was one of my more cathartic reading experiences this year, which is saying a lot, considering the year. keep your eye out for this one, y'all; it's out in april.

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if you are looking for something delicious, might i suggest Slow Days, Fast Company, eve babitz's champagne-popping take on high-glam los angeles life in the 70s. structured as a loosely linked series of meditation-vignettes, ostensibly dedicated to a mysterious suitor whose favor the narrator is trying to keep, babitz's takes on everything from heterosexuality to avocados are so magnificently funny, so sublimely observed and perfectly rendered, that the book is more a master class in how to set and demolish a scene in five hundred words or less. much has been made of babitz's sexuality (do yourself a favor and skip the introduction), but seriously, who cares: this is a writer who could turn a housebound month devoid of human contact into a pithy gem on any topic of her choosing. a formidably gifted writer who makes flawlessly crafted breezy one-liners look as easy as falling into a swimming pool.


some others: dorothy b. hughes' terrifying and peerless take on the L.A. noir, In A Lonely Placeis one of the more brilliant subversions of the genre i've ever come across and makes raymond chandler look like hello kitty (there is some sexual violence but it's mostly fade-to-black; the ending is masterful; even if this stuff is feeling like perilous territory for you right now i recommend it); myriam gurba's fierce, formally inventive Mean, out next month from emily books/coffee house press, probably the funniest book about sexual assault you'll read in a while and a refreshing upheaval of victim/survivor stories; laia jufresa's beautiful, moving Umamiabout a small community of neighbors making peace with their pasts and remembering the better parts of their lives--if you're looking for something that will take you out of yourself and leave you on a brighter shore, a little teary but well-rested, you couldn't be in better hands.

what are you reading? what should i read next? i want one of those old-school fantasy sorts of books hardly anybody writes anymore about a girl in a bookshop who leaves 1996 for faerie and has a good wander, do you know the kind of book i mean? pass em on if you've got em. and hang in there.

keep loving, keep fighting

xoxo sarah

 

weekend reading

good afternoon!!! how are you!!!!! don't read that climate change article it's not very helpful!!!!!!!!!!!! here, let's do a project together: get a pen and a piece of paper (ho hum, i'll wait), okay, are you back? ready? i want you to make a list of things you can do this week to be useful to other people. concrete tasks! none of this Be A Better Person or Definitely Exercise More You Lazy Fuck. like: make dinner for friends you haven't seen in a long time. or finally get around to volunteering at the place you've been meaning to volunteer. or if you have a little extra money this week donating it to an organization that works with refugees. or showing up to a protest. or calling your senators and reminding them you would strongly prefer to have healthcare. okay, got your list? now assign each task to a day. one per day is fine!!! or two or three if you have the capacity. but the point of this activity is not to make yet another list of things you beat yourself up for failing to do, okay, so make your tasks manageable and realistic. i mean, yes, we are all totally fucked, but what are you gonna do, jump out a window? please don't! i am always heartened by the moment that happens on a crowded subway car in new york sometimes, when some Disaster looms--electricity fails, someone pukes/passes out/is visibly Extremely High and/or Not Okay, medical emergency, lost and weeping tourist, et cetera, and everyone gets out of their ipods and their papers and so on and bands together and is like All Right, We Are Going To Deal With This Together Now, and everybody Deals With It. okay? We Are Going To Deal With This Together Now. do your tasks this week and let me know how it goes.

this weekend i did a lot of reading! i finished victor lavalle's The Changeling, which i read in TWO DAYS because i COULD NOT PUT IT DOWN, and then i read valeria luiselli's Tell Me How It Ends, and then i read hala alyan's Salt Housesand then i felt rather embarrassed by how patchy my knowledge of the palestinian-israeli conflict is so next i am going to read phyllis bennis' primer as recommended by sarah j. (one of my Useful Tasks for this week is Be Less of A Dipshit About History which i know is not a tangible project as i instructed you and is in fact rather an unhelpful descriptor of myself but you know what we're all a work in progress and i can't help having been raised catholic.) ANYWAY.

The Changeling is, in my humble opinion, victor lavalle's best book (which, if you have read any victor lavalle, is really saying something). it is like if The Neverending Story got mashed up with Here Is New York and a strong dose of angela carter for good measure. apollo kagwa is a rare bookseller in new york city who falls in love with a REALLY badass librarian, successfully woos and weds her, has a beautiful baby boy, and scores a signed first edition of TKAM worth like eighty grand. he's set!!!!!! except not really because that would be a short novel with no conflict, bo-ring! apollo's wife, emma, starts acting real weird, and then he and emma get in a terrible fight that is his fault, and then she (spoiler i guess? if you can't figure this out from the jacket copy/title idk how to help you) murders their child, says "IT WASN'T A BABY", and disappears. that's a fucking conflict for you! apollo, with the assistance of his bestie patrice, goes on a truly epic quest to find emma, one which involves two sorts of trolls, some really good jokes about the internet, an enchanted island full of witches, a magical forest, a lot of wonderful new york stuff, about a million amazing female characters, parts that made my cry, and parts that made me laugh out loud on the train. there are a million things to love about this book but one thing i liked in particular was apollo's struggle to Not Be A Douchebag with no role models (his father disappeared when he was a child for possibly Magickal reasons). sometimes apollo is a douchebag anyway! it's a thing that happens for people who are socialized as men! but he flails around and gets through it. his friendship with bestie patrice is also really beautiful and nourishing in ways that men-friendships in fiction rarely get to be. and emma is a motherfucking force without feeling like a jacked-up caricature of a Strong Female Character. if you like fairytales and new york novels and things that are good hie thee hence to nab yourself a copy.

an important thing to know about Tell Me How It Ends before you read it is that it will fuck you up, so be prepared, but also this book should literally be required reading for every single person in america, right up there with claudia rankine's Citizen. it is a deceptively tiny book--if it were any longer i think it would have killed me, tbh--spun out of luiselli's work as a NYC court translator for undocumented refugee children from, primarily, honduras, el salvador, and guatemala. luiselli's prose is lean and flawless--no surprise, if you've read any of her previous books (if you have not GO FIX THAT!!! at once!) and in many places throughout the book she lets the children speak for themselves. her job is a harrowing one, somewhere between literal interpreter and translator; it is ultimately her task to coax out of the children she interviews some kind of narrative that reads as coherent to the demonic and inhumane court system, which demands that these children--some of them barely old enough to speak--produce stories of highly specific traumas that will qualify them for visas. if the children are unable to report their experiences in a way that is legible to the immigration court--the children who are lucky enough to secure pro bono legal representation--they are deported, back to the horrific gang-related violence they risked their lives to flee in the first place. (gangs aided and armed, as luiselli coolly notes, by the united states.) Tell Me How It Ends is devastating and beautiful, and all the more devastating for how beautiful it is; it is also not unhopeful, which is something.  

and then i read Salt Houses! which is lovely and lush and so self-assured it is hard to believe it's a debut novel. beginning with the eve of a wedding and moving forward through four generations of a palestinian family uprooted first by the Six-Day War of 1967 and subsequently by saddam hussein's invasion of kuwait, it's a novel about home and displacement, tradition and rebellion, being super pissed at your mom, figuring out who you are as a person when you have a lot of historical and familial Baggage piled atop you, and what home means when home is a place you have never seen and cannot return to (in this case, palestine). it's one of those gorgeous intergenerational family epics that are so compulsively readable (think mira jacob's The Sleepwalker's Guide to Dancing or betty smith's A Tree Grows in Brooklyn); it's a joy to stick with this family through love and death and marriage and parties and faith and Terrible Adolescences.   

i did not read these three books in succession on purpose, they all came in to the library at once, but they made an oddly perfect triad: they are all about family and immigration and refugees and making a home, or trying to, and they are also in their own ways each about trying to be useful to other people in a world that is terrifying. in all three books the monsters are both literal and figurative: The Changeling has an actual child-devouring troll in it as well as another sort of troll; in Tell Me How It Ends the child-eating troll is La Bestia (also known as The Death Train), a network of US-bound mexican freight trains that refugee children ride--and frequently die on--in their horrifying journeys north; in Salt Houses the monster is war and displacement, chasing families from one country to another in search of safety. there are no easy happy endings in any of these books but they are also, i think, perfectly suited for this perilous time: people survive because they love each other, take care of each other, do the best they can. they Deal With This Shit Together. all three of these books will put you through the wringer, but in a way that makes you tougher and braver and more compassionate. if we're going to survive whatever's coming, we need those lessons. over and over until they stick.