|Helena Fitzgerald||Oct 10, 2018|
The thing about disasters is if you let yourself actually believe in them, you couldn't go on living your life. Two weeks ago an air conditioner fell on Thomas. Well, really, that's not quite accurate - and I apologize if you know me in real life and have already heard this story like seven times - it's that he fell on an air conditioner. He had taken our air conditioner out of the window and was putting it in the high closet where we keep it and - I already know how this story is a whole rope ladder of poor choices - he was standing on a chair, and the air conditioner weighs at least sixty pounds, and he dropped it, and as it fell it broke the chair he was standing on, and then he fell and landed on the sharp metal edge of the air conditioner with his forehead.
I was in the other room, so I just heard a bunch of horrible screams and then he walked in with his head gushing blood looking like Banquo's ghost. I was immediately useless. Whatever part of me it is that helps me to get through the day despite the fact of how many potential disasters are likelier than they are unlikely, froze. I think we all have a denial mechanism that allows us to live in the world vaguely presentable as humans but mine may be overdeveloped and it would. not. process. what. had. happened. I couldn't even remember the name of the 24 hour hospital in our neighborhood, the one where my college best friend once worked the EMT night shift, the one Thomas and I have gone to before - how many conversations have I had about fucking St Luke’s, in my life - and yet the name flew out of my head. I couldn't do anything useful because I couldn't get myself to believe this had happened. After some real New Yorker cartoon farce with cabs, we finally got to the hospital.
Everyone who worked at the hospital was great. We got lucky. It's fine. Thomas is fine. He'll have a big scar, but he didn't even have a concussion. It cost a bunch of money on top of our insurance but we were lucky to have insurance, lucky to have money. He was lucky it missed his eye, lucky he was wearing his glasses, lucky the cut wasn't deeper, lucky to still be alive. It was all so lucky, all of the ongoing of our comfortable, assumed little lives with our comfortable, assumed, blood-full hearts, all so lucky, all so unlikely.
Most people I know believe in climate change but, much like believing women, "believe" is not a particularly active verb. Believing is about as active as talking, as wringing one’s hands. A lot of things are the worst thing about the climate change report released this week, but one of those many worsts is the sense of helplessness. There are small things we can do but the small things do not add up to all that much more than stating that we believe women, and believe in climate change, and believe in crisis, and believe the world is ending, and believe our children will ask us for stories of winter and fall and clean water as a free public utility. None of us own coal companies. None of us control carbon emissions on a large scale, none of us own oil companies, or can enact sweeping governmental policy about environmental change, the only level on which, in this moment of immediate crisis, a real difference can be made.
The small things we all can do are not unimportant - they are urgent, rather - but small, accumulated change also requires the luxury of time, and the luck of volume. The drastic changes that must be made are simply not within the hands of the many, and the few who do control them are by and large willfully ignorant and blindingly selfish. I guess that's where belief matters - in the unlikely circumstance that you're the person who has real power, and then in the leap from belief to action, which is not at all guaranteed (everyone believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford; they wanted to make sure they made that clear, while they were arguing for Kavanaugh to be confirmed). How unlikely it is for belief to transform into action, for anyone to choose anything other than stasis and the narcotic lull of a known delusion. How unlikely it is, to be lucky.
I don't sympathize with people who deny or simply ignore climate change but I can't say that I don't understand them, at least those motivated by willful white-knuckled ignorance rather than knowing greed. I certainly understand fear and I certainly understand avoidance. I understand how the enormity of near-certain disaster can overwhelm someone into helplessness. I understand how the necessary thing to get through the day is to tell oneself that what is true is not true, and that one's luckiness is guaranteed rather than unlikely, that one's temporary circumstances are permanent. I don't really believe that Thomas could have died falling into the air conditioner; I don't really believe that he could have lost an eye. I don't really believe that he's going to die in thirty or forty years if we're lucky and far less if we're not. I don’t really believe my cats won’t live forever. I don't actually believe the world is going to be unrecognizably different in fifteen years, because how could I go on with my life if I did? How could I get up in the morning, if I lived my life with my eyes open, how could I possibly do all the frivolous and unimportant things that occupy one end of my day to the other?
Our bodies are unthinkably fragile and each moment they are not broken is a miracle but we walk around like it's a guarantee instead. Every year for at least the last four years, the beginning of fall has been replaced with a season of people asking "ugh why isn't it fall," just like the end of winter has been replaced with people asking "ugh why won't winter end yet." I still believe in four season that neatly end and begin at the same month markers where they did when I was a child, even though that calendar has not been accurate for quite some time, and even though there is all kinds of evidence that none of it is just that this one particular fall happens to be unusual.
Our relationship to the planet on which we live has become the same as the relationship that those of us with living parents have to the fact that our parents will die. I know this will happen with a certainty that sometimes makes me stare wide-eyed at the ceiling in the middle of the night, unable to get back to sleep, the fact of it an unbearable weight on my chest. But on the other hand, I don’t really believe that they’re going to die, because they’ve never died before. Our assumptions about reality take a long time to catch up to reality when it changes. It's why we stay in relationships that are already unhappy; it's why it's so hard to change bad habits; and it's why we go on talking about fall sweaters and boots and hot drinks and fireplaces when it's still routinely 80 degrees outside. Most of us are living to some degree in the past.
Thomas called our insurance company to see if our renter’s insurance would cover the accident and they said, once he’d described what had happened, that insurance doesn’t cover “self peril.” Climate change, of course, isn’t luck; it’s consequences. Our imperiled world is the result of decade after decade of willfully deluded thinking, of the assumption that something that has not gone wrong before cannot go wrong in the future. It is as hard to truly believe in a planet that no longer functions in the way we, entitled beyond belief, expect it to as it is to believe in revolutionary and sweeping change to our political and social systems, changes made beyond the slow and polite avenues for change with which we are familiar. But these changes are the only way we live beyond disaster. Belief is an infinitely small starting point. It is too easy for stating a belief to be a gesture of helplessness. I don’t have an answer. I don’t know. I’m still waiting for it to be fall.