The Individual Apocalypse

Maybe apocalypse is, paradoxically, always individual, always personal. I have a brief tenure on Earth, bracketed by infinities of nothingness, and during the first part of this tenure I form an attachment to a particular set of human values that are shaped inevitably by my social circumstances. If I’d been born in 1159, when the world was steadier, I might well have felt, at 53, that the next generation would share my values and appreciate the same things I appreciated; no apocalypse pending. But I was born in 1959, when TV was something you watched only during prime time, and people wrote letters and put them in the mail, and every magazine and newspaper had a robust books section, and venerable publishers made long-term investments in young writers, and New Criticism reigned in English departments, and the Amazon basin was intact, and antibiotics were used only to treat serious infections, not pumped into healthy cows. It wasn’t necessarily a better world (we had bomb shelters and segregated swimming pools), but it was the only world I knew to try to find my place in as a writer. And so today, 53 years later, Kraus’s signal complaint – that the nexus of technology and media has made people relentlessly focused on the present and forgetful of the past – can’t help ringing true to me. Kraus was the first great instance of a writer fully experiencing how modernity, whose essence is the accelerating rate of change, in itself creates the conditions for personal apocalypse. Naturally, because he was the first, the changes felt particular and unique to him, but in fact he was registering something that has become a fixture of modernity. The experience of each succeeding generation is so different from that of the previous one that there will always be people to whom it seems that any connection of the key values of the past have been lost. As long as modernity lasts, all days will feel to someone like the last days of humanity. – From Jonathan Franzen’s Guardian article What’s Wrong With the Modern World.

The other day I couldn’t get Jean out of my head.  Jean was a woman in her sixties who trained me in at the dinner shift at the hotel restaurant where I worked; my second waitressing job. These weren’t glamorous waitressing gigs at the places along Pearl Street with their warm wood and expanses of glass, ceilings and patios strung with delicate lights —  these were anonymous places; the first was a 24-hour restaurant where the truckers came, where the bouncer and dancers from North Boulder would come after their shift — tucking into their booth — he was 300 lbs and drove one of those small shitty American cars that were supposed to look sporty that he could barely unfold himself from; they looked like the classic bad joke of the clown car arriving in the parking lot — the women with their long bare legs and their cheap sandals.

A different woman took me in at that restaurant — showed me how to time my tables and how the water spigot worked, how to close my shift — both of them had the voices of pack-a-day smokers and no-nonsense short gray haircuts. This had been their life.  They took me in — and it’s not like in some movies you see — where the college girl gets called “college” and teased because they know she’s on her way to somewhere else and this is just a lark to her.  I was lucky.  I had what felt like a fortune from the wrongful-death settlement filed after my father’s murder — it would pay for my college — but only if I played my cards right. That first year out of state tuition took a third of it — then I emancipated myself legally from my mother, worked and got in-state tuition and got a college education without debt.  The last bit of my father’s money bought me a ten year old Subaru Wagon that I drove away from that apartment I shared with my mother in Minneapolis — through the plains of Eastern Montana where I watched lightning strikes kindle fires in the far-off mountains — and it took me to the promise of Missoula.  It’s hard to take myself back to that moment of finding out that my two short-stories — the ones I’d written out of heartbreak — had gotten me into a long-shot graduate program.  In the end I didn’t have enough heart, enough guts, enough.

It’s hard to convey — what it feels like to live the way my mother and I did — where there was never enough and there was always fear. Always. My mother had a few people who would bail her out — my father’s brother, a family friend, her own mother when they were talking and when she was alive — they’d give her enough to float her to the next month.  I found her social security statement the year I lived with her again after coming back home from Montana.  Twelve-thousand dollars a year.  A good year.

Working without a net.  I went to the dentist before Z was born and the affable guy

in his upscale office crafting perfect smiles for the rich of the city — he poked around in my mouth and taking note of my missing upper molar, just the root crown — asked me how it was that a pretty young woman like me had lost a tooth.

When you’re the working poor and you don’t qualify for what the poorest get — but you can’t afford insurance you don’t go to the dentist as often as you should.  You go to the neighborhood clinic that works on a sliding fee scale.

You sleep in your mother’s honda civic in a rest area on the night before you arrive to orientation for college — with all the other mother’s with their hair blown-out and their pressed slacks — and you and your mother look a little rumpled, a little worn.

What does this have to do with Franzen’s quote about modernity? About fiction writing?  About the world that has so shifted for people who may have thought they might have a career as a freelance writer? There are no Ray Carver’s in the world anymore.  No Gordon Lishes.  But I thought I could be. If I could just get to a place of security I could work. It’s always been true that if you really wanted to make a living you didn’t set out to be a novelist — you needed a teaching gig on the side — steady freelance work. I had a hard time out of graduate school because working without a net I was just desperate to keep my head above water.  I took a teaching job to pay the bills and, as my mentor said, you’re better off doing anything other than teaching if you want to write — by the time I left that job  I had married, was deep in the trying to conceive journey, had started blogging — and once Z came — well, four years later I have a spare hour in the morning and a husband who supports my work.  What does the dream look like now when everything has changed?

I decided a while ago that my model of writing had changed. I live in a city with an amazing literary community, small-presses, top writing programs. I decided that like, with so much else in my life, my writing could be more local, more sustainable.  I would narrow my scope, cultivate the writing-life here rather than trying to force an old outdated model to work. I have to believe in it again — why I loved it — why I did it — the miracle of building a world, stringing beautiful sentences together. The world I knew was gone.  And that is strange.  My old brain simply can’t envision the future.

Train Station in Whitefish. A poem.

Fifteen years ago in a train station in Whitefish I met a woman, a drunk, whose husband was sleeping in his truck, a hole burning through his stomach. She was waiting for her baby brother home from working the fishing boats in Alaska who would, when he arrived, spin her off her feet like a small child her dark hair streaming — this woman with the loose-limbed drinker’s grace which to the uninitiated looks like nonchalance.

They used to come to me. The drunks and the crazy. The dead-eyed mutterers and the sharp tongued mothers –like the one who schooled me on sympathy and empathy in Seatac waiting for a delayed flight and wasn’t wrong.

How could she have known that we, the children of the drunks, the wayward wish to shed the empathy and live inside the distance— glancing at the late, wet snow in the dark, the small town neon bar signs wavering as the train is arriving late and see it from far off… not as you do when she tells you of the bus ride from Sacramento and her six year old’s white and ruffled dress and what was she thinking. What could she have been thinking to ever suppose it’d stay that way.