“It’s a book about disaster,” I told my friends all summer—on a march to the statehouse or at an outdoor wedding. “But not just disaster. It’s sort of about human psychology and disaster. Or sociology and disaster. How do people interact with past and future disaster? How do they cope?” And then maybe under the marquee, sometime before the bouquet toss, I’d relay an insight from the book about the first atomic bomb or placebo effects in pain therapy or the microparasites that drive ants, by means of mind control, to the tops of leaves of grass, because they “want” to be in a cow’s stomach.
In exchange, friends told me how much they loved the new Haim album. Or how corn is taking over the country, and we’re all doing its bidding. So I learned things by reading, and I learned things by talking about what I was reading.
The book was Elisa Gabbert's The Unreality of Memory, a travel guide to my summer. I’d walk down to the corner store, wearing a mask, feeling a bit apprehensive, and see thirty, thirty-five college kids all shouting across a beer pong table in the same front yard. And then I’d get home and Gabbert would quote Chernobyl survivors saying, “You can’t be afraid the whole time; a person can’t do that. Some time goes by, and ordinary life starts up again.” Or saying, “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes.” The contexts weren’t the same, of course, but it felt like we were having conversations. One morning I joined chants in an intersection on the south side of Columbus, Ohio. The next afternoon, I drank with an old friend on my porch, laughing while the neighbor’s kids played on the lawn and police sprayed mace into the crowds downtown, and it was dissonant. “I feel this way all the time now,” Gabbert wrote. “Nothing is safe. Everything’s fine.”
These are the kinds of lines that end Gabbert’s essays. She’s an aphoristic writer who loves to leave the reader with a one-two punch. “My own past suffering is often a great source of comfort to me,” she says. “This must mean I’ve never really suffered.” Or, “It’s comforting to think that when we’re too fatigued to fight, someone else will take the lead. It is, perhaps, too comforting.” They work like little models of the essays at large, illustrating, in miniature, how we’re always caught between two truths, two needs.
This tension seems like an inevitable consequence of trying to live with care at a time when we have unprecedented access to information about our communities’ ills whether or not we have the sense to seek that information ourselves, at a time when even the youngest among us are bracing for global apocalypse from war or natural disaster or disease—or all of these: as Gabbert’s book shows me, different kinds of disasters compound one another. It’s important to fight for the prevention of disaster and to fight for the recovery of those already experiencing disaster.
At the same time, it’s not possible to hold all the problems you’re exposed to in your head at once. And it’s not possible to give your total attention to any one of them for very long. There are things you have to do, like eat and sleep and go to the bathroom. And there’s your limited energy—your “spoons,” as I’ve heard more people saying recently. The tension between our responsibility to fight and our responsibility to go on living seems to be always increasing as our awareness widens— “the ballooning millennial conscience,” my roommate once called this. And when we can’t worry about all these things at once, and we have little power to change many of the things we worry about, we can end up asking foolish questions: as Gabbert puts it, “Where do I focus my anxiety so that I can feel like a good citizen in an anxious society?” It’s precisely this anxiety that can rob us of our empathy when others need it, she points out.
I’ve begun to wonder if my “good citizen” anxieties stem from a belief that it’s possible for me to act rightly and sufficiently as an individual in the face of the world’s problems, if I just tried a bit harder, taught myself to care a bit more. Gabbert spends many pages wrestling with her limited energies, her limited empathy. Meanwhile, her book complicates any belief in the power of the individual by overwhelming the reader with a full sense of their own helplessness—there are viral pandemics coming that will make this one look like child’s play, she suggests from the research. When Yellowstone’s supervolcano erupts, many of us will be buried in ash before the news arrives. And if these things don’t kill us all, one day we’ll die, anyway.
When I allow myself to think about all that, it often makes me feel nihilistic. Why should anything I do matter? But this summer, during a conversation about The Unreality, a friend told me, “No—don’t you see how freeing that is? We have nothing to lose.” We can take action, he meant, for the people and causes that are important to us, without worrying it isn’t enough. Enough for what? You don’t measure care in quantities.
What I love most about Gabbert is that even while she spends so much of her energy engaging big, important things (she votes, she marches, she calls her senator; a sticky note by her desk says Be an activist), she allows herself to think about small things, even petty things. She’ll tell you she wants a bigger bed. That she wishes she had time to play more tennis. She’s good at this on her Twitter, too, which is worth following if you don’t already—there are pointed commentaries on current events, like, “WE NEED THE POST OFFICE FOR OTHER THINGS. NOT JUST VOTING.” And then, non sequitur gems: “In the 80s you could smoke inside a hospital.”
More than that, she’s willing to put the largeness of disaster away, sometimes, for the intimacy of a single voice saying, “I don’t like crying. I like hearing new jokes.” The individual voice is a world in its own right. It, too, needs saving—from the tyranny of scale. I can’t prevent the globe from being covered in water, or in fire. It’s possible that together we can, but even that is beside the point, I think. What’s important is that as I move to fight the disaster, I will encounter my neighbor, who is also moving. I can listen to her, and she can listen to me, and we can talk about what she’s reading, and we can cry, and we can tell new jokes.
David Grandouiller is a French-American writer and editor living, most recently, in Philadelphia. He's working on a first book of essays about the bitterness and confusion he taught himself at a conservative Christian university, looking for uncertainty in faith and for intimacy in autonomy. His essay, "On Communion," was a finalist for the 2019 Orison Anthology Award in Nonfiction, and a group of his essays won the 2019 Walter Rumsey Marvin Grant from the Ohioana Library Association.