The Before Times: Thoughts on What Is Probably Not the End of the World
by Caroline Rothnie
Spring began in early March.
(Is that earlier than it used to? I have only lived here for five years, I don’t know what normal Kansas is, in a historical sense. In New England, where I grew up, winter can hang on stubbornly until May. My mother got her SADdest in March; March is why she lives in South Carolina now. But I liked it. I prefer cold to hot, don’t mind gray and slushy. March in New England has the chill without the bite. In Colorado, where I went to graduate school, it once snowed every Tuesday in May, then reverted to the 80s for the rest of each week. What season do you call that?)
I went for a run on one of my favourite routes, through a quirky residential neighbourhood and into a hilly cemetery, where buds were just beginning to emerge on the trees. The dominant sounds were woodpeckers and saws, both unseen. The woodpeckers could be heard high in their trees. The saws were seemingly wielded in the service of some project or other in fenced yards. “It is spring and everyone is working on their wood,” I thought. I considered posting this on social media, alongside a picture from the run, even though I don’t really use it all that often.
I was there, in that moment, listening to the surroundings, a real person, in real time, tuning into the present, though, of course, always translating this into words, repackaging it for later consumption (For me? For others?). However, it didn’t take long for my mind to turn, as usual, to an apocalyptic vision of the future. Floods. Dead lands. Military blockades separating a lucky, safe elite from the rest. Hunger. Thirst. Hiding in basements. Wandering the deserts. My vision fuelled by reports of likely environmental catastrophe and countless movies of depicting real and imagined hells on earth. These stark images bound into the actual reality of life. Could I take my dumb, yet precious beyond all measure, terriers on a trek across the desert? Well, they might fare better than my husband and I. We have taught them to love softness as much as we do, but would their memories stretch back also? Would they mourn our lazy Sundays sprawled on soft mattresses too?
I’m afraid and angry for all of us, for what we could face, for what so many have already faced. And yet, I also feel so damn petty and childish. The second half of my life will almost certainly be worse than the first and I do not like that. There is a primal sense of injustice. It does not feel right, it’s not what I once expected, what I feel I was promised. It’s not the model of my parents’ life, a rare and charmed journey from safe but meagre childhoods, large Catholic families in small houses, to bounty and blessedness, a home in the country where I spent my teenage years staring gloomily out of the window of my well-appointed attic bedroom, the mistress of all I surveyed, thinking only about death and boys. Their life followed a glorious order. It left them no reason to doubt that what should be would be.
I always doubted, always saw, or at least fancied that I could see, through the scrim of order to the chaos and meaninglessness hidden behind. Perhaps I craved the apocalypse and wished for everyone to see what I saw. But really, I saw only the abstract, the philosophical, the epic, the symbolic, the pure forms. Not the slow creep, the everyday indignities, the stuff that erodes lives over time, rather than snuffing them out in a mighty clap of thunder.
Two weeks later, things seemed a bit better for the woodpeckers, a bit worse for the saw wielders of the yards; it was no longer appropriate to consider posting pastoral ephemera on the internet.
I ran the same route. There were even more flowers. They now seemed poignant and ironic. This was at a time when it was unclear whether we were over or underreacting. I thought, “In a month, we’ll hardly remember this.” And then I thought, “In a month, we’ll all be dead.” I toggled back and forth between these two thoughts. We’ll hardly remember. We’ll all be dead. Hardly remember. All dead. Extremity was easier to imagine than what ultimately happened, is happening. The futures I think about are murkier now.
I’ve misunderstood everything. There’s no such thing as the apocalypse. From my days as a sad teen in the attic all the way into my 30s, I was proud of my belief that there was no order or meaning in the world. I was proud because I wasn’t a sucker, I saw things as they really were. It is now clear that I did not really believe it. Because I want to know when the world broke. I want to know what this all means and I want order to return, although not the exact order we had before.
There was no moment. The world has always been broken. The human world is the sum of human lives, which will not fit into genres or narrative arcs. There’s no end, no rest, no safe, no retirement. There’s no point at which life becomes a story.
There is a great deal of responsibility in living in a world that’s not about to end. Living in the small instead of the big. I’ve looked towards the apocalypse to hide from my duty to the present, to all of us here living our small lives. I am now trying to readjust my focus, to help in the here and now. Apocalypse means “uncovering.” In this atomised world, it doesn’t seem like we are all uncovering the same truths. Maybe that’s okay. But the thing that I’m seeing revealed, that feels true, is that life is not a prelude to an epic battle. Life is happening in real time, and I better get in there and help.
All photographs courtesy of author.
About the Author:
Caroline Rothnie is a freelance writer and essayist. She lives in Kansas with her husband and dogs. She enjoys drinking coffee and running through existential crises.