This is the second installment of a series about water. Click here for the introductory entry. This week’s entry is adapted from a journal entry written on May 27, 2011, but its themes continue to ring hauntingly true. As always, if you are inspired to contribute some of your own writing as we go along, I would be delighted.
Everything is meaningless. The rain falls on both the wicked and the just.
Some people say the end is coming. Some people say Christ is coming. The Rapture didn’t happen on Saturday, as some radio personality had predicted. Of course, the Bible says Christ will come like a thief in the night. What’s stopping him?
It won’t stop raining in Vermont. As a child, I dreamt of living a smart, romantic adult life in Montpelier. Now it is under water. A piece of road in my hometown of Ann Arbor has buckled from a mudslide. Devastating tornadoes have torn through the South and the Midwest in the past month, leveling whole towns and killing thousands. Droughts in the Southwest make growing crops impossible, while diluvial rains in the Midwest make planting impossible.
Now it’s not just other places, other people. Darker skin, smaller houses. It is not just earthquakes in Haiti and Chile, floods in Pakistan, landslides in Bolivia. Now it is Japan in all its high-tech efficiency. Now it is the United States, the land of plenty and pleasure. The land of “silhouettes turning sexy in short-loving tights, attention-seeking details peeking out at every turn, and big city allure on show as Express rocks the sidewalk.” I read that in the news today. Americans are still going to fashion shows and cramming too many metaphors into their descriptions of them, just as they cram too much sugar and salt and processed foods in their bellies, but this won’t help when the floodwaters rise even to our heights.
It’s because the polar ice caps are melting. It’s because Mt. Illimani’s perfect snowy peaks are cracking as it cries over the life that will be lost. It’s because factories and cars are belching. It’s because we need more plastic. We need more electronic gadgets. And everything takes coal. And everything takes wholeness from the air, from the hemisphere. And hot air traps moistures more easily than cold air. And moisture traps people in mile-wide tornadoes, in screaming hurricanes and tropical storms, in dark churning lakes, in sliding mud.
Before Claude Lévi-Strauss died at the age of 100, after a lifetime of studying the delightful particularities of human culture, he proclaimed that he was now living in a world he no longer liked.
I, too, felt that I am living in a world that I no longer like when I woke up this morning to another day of unseasonably cold, unabating May rain, remembering the farmers who cannot sow their corn in soggy fields, and opened up the mindlessly addictive mechanism of Facebook to discover that a friend in Montpelier had to get up at 4:30 this morning and move her car to a parking structure to escape the flooding. The tenuous thread of hope fluttered away from me. The rainbow has not appeared in the sky and no one remembers God’s promise to never again destroy the world by water; I live in a world where we have taken that gruesome task into our own hands.
I feel powerless to construct a better world for us. I could live in a commune in the woods, but that would do nothing to insulate me from the “shifting” weather patterns that can decimate crops, houses, entire towns, and intangible dreams.
Aside from that, you really need social media to stay connected these days.
But do you need to stay connected at all? Michael Perlman, the environmental activist and writer, didn’t think so. I woke up with him on my mind today for the first time in years. I knew of him because he was assigned as my mother’s advisor one semester at Vermont College. She didn’t hear from from him for weeks, and then she found out he had killed himself. He left a note for his parents explaining that if he couldn’t reverse the damage humans were doing to the environment, he wished no longer to be contributing to its destruction by using factories, cars, plastic and electronic gadgets. Michael, too, lived in a world he no longer liked. So he decided to leave it.
Is there a way to live here without hurting more than we heal? Is there a way to live without leaving greasy, indelible tracks of death behind us? Is there a way to go without plastic and gadgets, to turn away from sexy silhouettes and short-loving tights?
Not everyone lives in such luxury. Not everyone can wake up on a cold and rainy May day and take a hot shower, leaving the water running even while soaping up, and turn the central heating on in the house. Most people still live in the potential virtuousness of poverty. Which is not to say that the suffering of poverty is a virtue, but that sometimes the humble ways of life that “developed” nations consider poverty are really just lives that have as much as they need and give back as much as they take.
But I realized, as I lay in bed and thought of Michael Perlman, Claude Lévi-Strauss and my Bolivian friends who live in poverty, that most anyone takes advantage of luxury if given the chance. There is nothing especially unvirtuous about North Americans. Maybe everyone has a latent American heart—privileged, self-satisfied, comfortable and craving more. I suppose you could call this the sinful nature. Bring iPhones and central heating systems to poor Bolivians, and most will accept them with open arms.
I could have turned off the water as I soaped up this morning. But I remembered the thing Amy told me about using steam to open your pores before cleansing your face to clear up acne. And I, as much as anyone, want a sexy silhouette when I walk down the sidewalk.