radiator season

one more quick note on subscriptions: It turns out that it’s complicated to turn off new paid subscriptions but keep sending subscriber-only emails. So, all griefbacon emails from now until the end of the year will be free for everyone. They’ll still be once a week, as planned, so those of you who paid for subscriptions will get the same amount of content promised in my last email, but paid subscriptions will end as of today (if you had a paid subscription, you might see an email that it’s been cancelled). Emails will continue once a week until the last week of December. If this is too many emails, feel free to ignore them, unsubscribe, etc. I hope this is ok for everyone, but of course please email me with any questions and I hope we can get any issues worked out. If this is confusing, please ask me to help, and otherwise, I’ll see you once a week for the next couple months. xo

anyway. it’s radiator season.

The heat came on in my building and I got mad about it. It had been ninety degrees two days ago, and, on the day the heat came on, I still couldn’t imagine anything but being warm. Many of us still expect fall weather to arrive all at once, immaculately familiar, on October 1st, but it never does, and hasn’t for a long time, if it ever did. It arrives when it arrives, with a sudden jolt, like a doorbell ringing when you aren’t expecting anyone. The heat is like that too -- one day you come home and your apartment is warm and smells like reheated dust, like steam, like metal, like indoors. It smells like staying home. It smells this way even if you hate your apartment, transforming for a moment a cramped or dirty or fraught space into a pair of open arms, into the welcome of a glowing doorway on a dark night. It doesn’t last; most things go from novel to itchy very quickly and the heat in New York apartments, which grows almost immediately miserable, is certainly a record case. But for a few days, the ghosts welcome us all home. 

The ghosts, because every radiator is full of ghosts. Almost every year I have a moment where I forget that the noise I’m hearing is the radiator and it terrifies me. There’s a low growl and a scratch, a soft keening, like some horrible otherworldly mourning. This happened a lot when I lived alone. I would be sure for a few long minutes that I had stranded myself in a small space with something malevolent, logic and daylight dissipating into a crawling, back-of-the-neck threat. And then I remembered it was the radiator, and felt cozy. It was getting cold, and the old rusty pipes in the old rusty building (I have only ever lived in old, rusty buildings here although I understand this is less and less a common experience of New York) are yawning and stretching and waking up, trying again. Everything left behind, left unfulfilled and unfinished, coming back to haunt the corners of the apartment, the places near the windows and the bed where the steam rises, where the heat is thick and soporific in the morning. 

Ninety degree weather in October is a living disaster, an actual fast-motion crisis pinned to the wall of a single day. The weather has become the exact opposite of small talk. It is politics and panic and confessions, everything small talk is meant to guard against. The weather and the seasons are about repetition: These are the secular rituals that guide our lives, the things by which we chart our progress and by which we understand what we have lost and to what we can return. They are the ways in which we recognize ourselves, the ways in which we can chart a path through our own changing. In the most immediate and most selfish way, the global climate crisis means we do not know what to expect, or how to measure ourselves against expectation, repetition, and return. 

October is supposed to remind me of all the other Octobers in my life, all the other center-of-fall months I have spent in this city reaching back to the first one, when the streets got soft with falling yellow leaves and the days sped faster into darkness, into haunting, when the lights of everyone else’s windows appeared earlier and everyone threw parties to ward off the cold and the dark, heaving artificial suns up toward the ceiling, the days when we were beginning to hoard the interiors, to make plans for what we could harvest and store. The radiators would come on, and nighttime would feel like a meaningful challenge, with a tangible reward at the end, the colder weather delineating the doorways of buildings, making a home a home. We expect the past to arrive in the present; the past is the only thing we’ve done, the only information we have to go on. Some part of me, when it turns October, expects everyone I’ve ever loved in this weather, at this turning time of year, to show up again, standing on my doorstep in a sweater, ready to explain and ready to forgive, as though the familiarity of the weather were itself a second chance. When the radiator comes on, it signals a return: here we are again, in the same place, an understood step in the dance. 

But when the radiator came on this year, it had been ninety degrees two days previous, and I was furious, itchy in my skin, lashing out at everyone around me, lying on the couch in shorts and a sports bra in a sulky sprawl, sweat-sheened and miserable. I had barely gotten a chance to even notice the cold outside. I had wanted to sleep with the windows open, to wear a sweater in the house, to wake up shivering. But more than anything, what I really wanted was for the world to be the familiar world I expected, for everything to continue on its path the same as it had before. I wanted to be cold before the radiator came on, and when it did come on, I wanted to startle at the ghosts I have lived with and known for years, singing their old songs, up to their old tricks. I wanted to greet them as old friends, the same as last year and the year before and the distant one seventeen years ago, the crisp-sky weather closing up the gaps between.

One thing that struck me during the climate strike, and at the many climate strikes around the world, was how much the dividing line between an older generation and a younger one was about avoidance versus confrontation (another thing that struck me was the strangeness of being firmly in the older generation, no longer under the broad and optimistic category of youth, at best a repentant villain in the story). To keep expecting to get back to the old rituals, for the heat to come on when it is already cold outside, for everything to work the way it once did, is avoidance. There is no reason, were I to have confronted ongoing realities that have been loudly clear for some time now, for me to expect it to be cold in September or early October, for me to expect the long-ingrained schedule of the radiator in my old building, which is owned and run by even older people, to keep up with the real temperatures, the current weather, the ways in which the world is changing, and has already changed. 

Because fall is a time for a ghosts, it is also a time for mourning, a season about the dying earth. The promise of it, the thing that glitters up the air, is the undergirding knowledge that this death, at least, is temporary. We are comforted by the cyclical because it includes a return, because it says nothing is permanent, and all is redeemable. The horror of change, even the sort of standard-issue small-scale personal change that isn’t a global crisis, the thing that cuts furrows through a life, is that change offers an opposite and irrefutable thesis. Not everything is redeemable; mostly life does not move in a circle, but in a single relentless line. The same is now true of the weather. We are all driving toward the cliff together; we are not coming back home. Fall feels like it is about return, but it isn’t; it gets colder later every year, and none of the people whom the changing weather summons up in memory are going to climb back out of their lives and arrive in mine; there would be neither room nor welcome for them if they did. 

Most hauntings are versions of ourselves, who we were and what we believed was the future. What arrives every fall is the memory of who I was and what I thought I would achieve in previous Octobers, on previous days when the weather turned so sharply that I thought I could taste resurrection in the cold of it. We are just barely past back-to-school season and all its ambition is still ringing in aftershocks, like a symphony that has only just stopped playing. All my past resolutions crowd in, brought up from the dirt alive again. Somewhere, I am cold, and then warm, in a too-small room where the radiator has just come on. I am still stupid about the world, about the people in it as well as about its larger injustices from which I have been in so many ways protected. I think that everything is already full of ghosts, but I have no idea what I am accumulating, and what I will not be able to carry with me into the next year and the next, as the weather turns later and later each time and the radiator’s ghosts become less and less friendly, as the water in which I am submerged boils, as I wake up too late to it, too small and too late and too old, another fall, another thing that isn’t quite right, another warning sign, another loss, another haunting.