Peril

Nothing is normal, normal is nothing.

Aux antipodes du paysage (1946) by Max Ernst

You’ll need a lot to keep facing forward. You’ll need tall flowers with strong spines that know it really doesn’t matter, it doesn’t fucking matter at all in the big scheme of things. Set aside the human cost, the flowers say, and it’s pretty goddamn okay, maybe now humans will notice that they’re mortal, maybe now the survivors will do something about the entire planet, trillions of living beings, the ocean a swirling soup of living organisms, the land creeping and crawling with filthy animals ready to fight for a meal, the soil teeming with worms and microbial armies, with hot lava stretching from the crust to the core.

Remember finding out the planet was filled with magma, like a jelly donut waiting to explode? Remember understanding your fragility, clinging to the thinnest crust above a sea of fire, spinning through a heartless vacuum into the unknown? Was it wiser to fear the predatory apes among you or the predatory god that formed such a merciless universe out of his rich and wrathful imagination? Were you more sophisticated if you viewed the endless nothingness of space as indifferent or contemptuous?

Some days I like feeling fragile, a tiny patient seed watching for the smoke to clear, waiting for water and sunshine, expecting more raging fires and more rising seas, embracing “the off-center, in between state,” welcoming the next nightmare. All that matters is the pleasures of the day inside this box of smoke in the desert by the sea. What can we do to give this day a satisfying shape? Bread and tea and sadness, your hands, our words, we’ll bend the afternoon to our will, we’ll water the lime tree and imagine Italy, a place I might never visit, the future a lustrous question mark. It doesn’t pay to get too maudlin now, spinning into a dark abyss with a cacophony of hysterics. It pays to get melodramatic now, like a seed among microbial armies, like a starfish among doomed compatriots under miles of boiling ocean. It pays to surrender your tender soul to whatever comes next.

Don’t ask if you’re forgettable -- someone is playing piano in the next room, someone who thinks she’ll live forever. Don’t ask yourself if you’ll survive — someone is squealing in their room, someone who fears wasps and choreographs counter-attacks against predatory apes. Don’t look for approval from unreachable sources – someone is living a colorful life miles away, next door, above you, below you, indifferent to you, unmoved by your best efforts to look bright and shiny. The most delicate seeds love to imagine an invisible alignment of souls: You and I are allies, forming a line of defense against oblivion. Everything we have could expire but we would still be here, together.

Sometimes imagination itself is just an excuse for fruitless longing, the kind that protects you from the high stakes of what you actually own. But I remember who I am now. I remember you. Our days are numbered. Let’s not move backwards. Let’s feel the weight of each moment before the curtain falls. The tides are coming for us. Put the kettle on.


Heather Havrilesky writes Ask Polly for The Cut (and here) and is the author of the essay collection What If This Were Enough?. This newsletter is made possible by subscribers like you.