A Story as Beautiful as Things are Terrible


Although May in the high mountains of North Carolina has been perfectly spring-worthy and delightful, April came with 80 and 40 degree days, humidity, snow, and lack of rain. Most days, I carried the grief of the planet in my chest. I’d look at River’s face and then out the window. I’d sneeze from pollen (too early, too much, surely the blooms would die) or turn on the gas logs (really? still?), and ask myself: What world did we bring this child into?

I turned to one of my favorite writers, Rick Bass, for insight. He offers this, from essay titled “Fiber,” written in 1998: “We–all painters and writers–don’t want to be political. We want to be pure, and artistic. But we all know, too, I think, that we’re not up to the task. What story, what painting, does one offer up to refute Bosnia, Somalia, the Holocaust, Chechnya, China, Afghanistan, or Washington D.C.? What story or painting does one offer up or create to counterbalance the ever-increasing sum of our destructions? How does one keep up with the pace? Not even the best among us are up to this task, though each tries; like weak and mortal wood under stress, we splinter, and try to act, create, heal.”

His bitterness and his rightness left me no better than before, but I did sense an internal willingness to look again at what, precisely, I was grieving. Yes, global climate change. Yes, the certainty that, despite my best intentions, I will one day fail at protecting my child from the reality that a percentage of our own species is hellbent on self-destruction. But there was something more…Every time I looked at my own tenderness and fear, I kept coming back to Alaska. Memories of my time there invaded my dreams. Visions of knife-edged peaks layered over my own front porch view of the soft-rimmed Black Mountains. What did it all mean?

Perhaps because I associate wilderness that outsizes humanity with the West, and perhaps because having a baby has made long-distance travel seem more than a few years off (at least, the kind of travel I like to do), my grief about global climate change and the life changes inherent with becoming a parent, are manifesting as longing for Alaska. It’s easy to romanticize the state and easier still to look with glossy-eyed nostalgia at those “free” years I spent traveling hither and yon. But of course, there was hardship and uncertainty. And of course, I can still go to Alaska. It will just be different.

Followers of this blog will know that the Last Frontier is my greatest muse and they’ll remember times like this when I could have walked off into the wild quite happily, and never returned. There is not an ounce of hyperbole in that sentence. So maybe it shouldn’t come as a surprise that, in my search for a new desk this week, after twelve phone calls and just as many dead leads, I finally found the one I was looking for…at at store…in Anchorage, Alaska. Once I realized my Internet search had led me to dial a 907 area code, and once I realized the saleswoman on the other end of the line likely knew about the salmon runs and berry season and light-filled days I’d been longing for, I had to laugh. Of course. Of course the desk I’m looking for is in Alaska. Waiting for me. The only thing missing is the writer.

I didn’t end up ordering that desk (you don’t even want to know what shipping costs added up to). I found a more durable one with an additional feature I need for my height and posture preferences. It ships from the lower 48, as an Alaskan might say, and will arrive in two days. I’m sure it will be exactly what I’ve been needing for several years. I’m also sure that sometime, while stationed at that desk, I will book three plane tickets to the Last Frontier and I will laugh at that irony, too.

All of this has to do with grieving, with art-making, with believing…because I’m starting to see that parenting has a lot to do with the unknown. I don’t know what global climate change will mean for River’s generation. I don’t know if I’ll be able to travel the way I did in my early thirties…ever again. I don’t know what stories I can write to answer any of these questions, or to try and help save the planet. I turn again to Bass: “My moderation seems obscene in the face of what is going on on this landscape, and in this country–the things, the misery, for which this country is so much the source, rather than a source of healing or compassion. Paint me a picture or tell me a story as beautiful as other things in the world today are terrible. If such stories and paintings are out there, I’m not seeing them…I can hear my echo. I recognize the tinny sound of my voice. I know when an edge is crossed, in art: when a story floats or drifts backward or forward, beyond its natural confines. And I understand I am a snarling wolverine, snapping illogically at everything in my pain, snapping at everyone–at fellow artists, and at fellow environmentalists.”

He was writing thirty years ago. I think our current political situation (which includes factors influencing global climate change) has emblazoned creatives like myself to strive to make the gap between art that is “as beautiful as other things in the world today are terrible” is a little narrower. Maybe by the time my son is ready to “leave the nest,” we’ll be looking at a changed horizon from the one we see today–physically and metaphorically. Maybe when I book those three plane tickets to Alaska, we’ll travel our own way–a family way–and see a great migration from our new horizon.

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