(This was originally written for the Centennial Reader, a magazine that bought this article, then immediately went the way of other Literary Magazines before it. I will try my best not to take it as a sign.)
“Good morning.” I wave to my neighbour, a man who does not seem to have a job – or perhaps he just works as I do. Part time. Slip shod. Between depressions and times when my brain runs tickety-tock smooth.
He makes the inhale face that real smokers have mastered. It says that, despite what we have learned, smokers are cooler than the rest of us. He nods. He does not talk very often, just glimpses over the fence as we garden, or half smiles when his son plays.
“Morning.” He mutters, shifting the cigarette in his mouth.
“It’s a nice day.” I say, and it is. It is March and it is atypically temperate. Blue crocuses spot neighbourhood lawns, defying the nightly chill.
“Too nice. I guess this is the beginning of the end.” He says without humour.
I can feel my heartbeat in my neck. I try to count the beats to calm myself as I keep walking, now reduced to my own silent, nodded reply.
The beginning of the end. Did I bring my medication with me today? The little, white, powdery pill that dissolves on the tongue like old Popeye cigarettes and takes the panic with it?
I want the calm or, at very least, the numbing. I know if I think too long, if I linger on our warming planet and our disappearing resources, I will lose myself, maybe for weeks or months.
I pull the pill out of a small plastic container that is always in my bag and slide it under my tongue. I know that in fifteen minutes, the panic will start to fade and I will be able to work my job. I will be able to watch the children and smile and play and give no sign that I am imagining the end of the world while I prepare cheese and crackers.
The end of the world is not new to me.
I first met it in church, between choruses of hallelujah and bible verses memorized for pencils or candy. My earliest memories involve the end; films, humming through ancient projectors, showing flames and death, dragons and monsters, chasing us because we did not love god properly. The only way to avoid the end was to escape to somewhere else, up in the sky. A heaven that was perfect and sinless. A place that our human mistakes could not destroy.
When I would run childhood fevers, I would hallucinate the end so vividly that I would scream and wake my sisters.
Even when I walked away from the god that never was, I could not walk away from the end. When my doctor asked me how a teenager develops ulcers, I did not tell him the truth. I did not tell him about television reports of global warming and deforestation. I did not tell him that I had read John Wyndham and Margaret Atwood and William Golding. I did not tell him what I knew – that if the planet did not devour us, then we would surely devour ourselves.
Then I lost my mind and the doctors pondered whether it had been broken all along or whether it had collapsed under all the thoughts that I could not exorcize. They gave me the little white pill, smaller than a sunflower seed. It ate away the edges until I could be cynical, rather than terrified.
I went to protests. I beat on empty oil drums and took pictures of girls with flowers in their hair. I met a boy and smiled sometimes and imagined a future of gardens and kisses and essays and babies. I saw only beginnings and pretended it was not following me.
Some men from England drilled a hole in the ocean floor.
“This may be the one.” Said my good friend. “If they kill all the fish, we have maybe a year. It’s the beginning of the end.”
He kept driving, using one hand to sip the gift I had brought him: soda pop in a glass bottle. He seemed oddly pleased that they were so very stupid; pretending it could not happen. Perhaps, like me, the end had followed him and it was a relief to stop running.
He was still the person I had know for a decade, but suddenly I could not breathe the air. Suddenly there were not enough little white pills in the whole world.
I was gone for a year that time, buried underneath the fallen supports I had so carefully built. I chose ignorance, until I could learn to tell the voices apart – the ones who preached hell and the ones who preached hell on earth.
I did not want to be stupid and pretend it was not happening. I did not want to be smart and fall apart.
We have started looking up, they say on the news (even Mr. Hawking says it.) Looking for other planets. Other places to make a home. Somewhere else, up in the sky. A heaven that will be perfect and sinless. A place that our human mistakes will not destroy. We have given up on earth.
To try to save it would require us to change and we do not change.
I try to change. I do yoga. I read books with happy endings. I debate egalitarianism online. I distract myself with friends whose questions I do not answer. How are you? What’s new?
I am afraid of the dark, I do not say. I am afraid to close my eyes. I cannot shake the ideas. I cannot sheep-count them away. I save the pill for bedtime so that I do not remember my dream-filled sleep with its earthquakes and fires and buildings falling in.
I do not read the news, though it follows me. Headlines discarded on bus seats, radios tuned and turned up loud, click-throughs on Facebook feeds. Do you want to be ignorant? I ask myself. Oh god yes, I answer.
I do not want to live in interesting times.