Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.
Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:
Prayer is the little implement
Through which Men reach
Where Presence — is denied them.
They fling their Speech
By means of it — in God’s ear—
If then He hear
This sums the Apparatus
Comprised in Prayer—
“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.
“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”
Neighbors across the street waste the entire day — a day of blue skies and sunlight — leaf blowing. Imposing that sound, inflicting it on the neighborhood, the ones doing it thinking themselves “improvers.” They’re the ones fucking with the planet. That used to be a source of rage on the street where I grew up. An old man who lived down the street from my parents refused to stop leaf blowing, so an angry dude who lived next door stormed out, tore the device out of the old man’s hands and beat him to the ground with it. Police had to intervene. That was my parents’ neighborhood. Meanwhile I sit here passively in my present neighborhood, feeling the role of the one angered — but trying to breathe and relax my way through it, knowing it too will pass. Go for a walk, I tell myself. Wait it out. The angry guy across the street, Mr. Vigilante Justice of Tough Guy World: he, to me, is the embodiment of toxic masculinity and the authoritarian personality. As an environmentalist, I find myself viewing people like him as the Enemy, the Adversary. As one such man blows leaves, another wipes out a stand of bushes with a chainsaw. This is Trump’s America. Drive elsewhere and men buy records and walk dogs. Continue around a bend and there are cops blocking off streets, cars hogging streets, people out in the streets for a parade. Neon letters appear lit from within. The sound of my baby’s heartbeat. We are where we are. Perhaps it’s time to stop eating animals. How about books? Should we buy and read books? If so, which ones? Rebecca Solnit’s book seems interesting: Whose Story Is This? In general, the books in the “Current Events & Politics” section seem terrifying. But perhaps we’re not where they think we are, whether they be white men or journalists for Teen Vogue. What is one to do to overthrow fascism here amid a world thinking itself animated by the Christmas spirit? Perhaps it’s time to read Dante’s Paradiso. Everything I pick up at the local bookstore seems intensely allegorical — sometimes uncannily, frighteningly so. Yet in it all, I sense a spirit of benevolence.
Looking back at Worldchanging, an online environmentalist magazine that published a “User’s Guide for the 21st Century” back in 2008, I notice the website’s failure to include in its sevenfold structure a section on psychology and consciousness. That didn’t seem odd when I read the book ten years ago. Today it seems an omission of consequence. Change requires change of consciousness. Reinvestigation of language and the forms by which we think. Bruce Sterling imagined something of this sort in the book’s introduction, where consciousness is spoken to as both observer and participant. We as readers find ourselves part of a continuous process, “a kind of rolling, seed-spewing electronic tumbleweed.” To be part of this process is to be one who performs the future in a newly reconstituted Globe Theater, a true multi-species theater-in-the-round. The pieces by which we perform our play are scattered all about us, awaiting a new gestalt. Yet where are we now? To what platforms have the Worldchangers decamped? Some other time zone, no? Some other historical juncture. Put down the book and the tune changes. The world fills with multi-species partners and allies: bluebirds, squirrels, Monarch butterflies. We converge, exchange greetings, celebrate over drinks, departing afterwards to tend to our nests, our homes, our private story-trees, even as we remain all of one nature. Books carry us off into separate constructs only to return us to this shared one, this commons we call History.