Where I am, there has been some epic weather in the last few weeks, today included. I don’t usually have much of an interest in weather unless I’m going to be flying somewhere — I don’t manage turbulent skies very well and try to avoid buckling my body into them if I can. Still, I know that even if my weather app shows nothing but sunshine, once I’m on board my plane, anything could happen. On a cosmic scale, COVID-19 is that thunderhead we have managed to dart around before but this time, flew straight into. As if in response, where I am the weather has been wild, complete with high winds, blinding rain, massive moon tides, and not a few birds and fish left in tatters along the shore for us to stumble upon when we venture out for fresh air.
Like everyone, I have been having a hard time focusing on my work, and to get some relief from screens, I have been allowing myself to read a book for a few hours a day. I choose what to read based on what I think might help me make sense of my life in a particular moment. I usually stand in front of a bookshelf and empty my mind as I read the titles along the bindings, waiting for one to identify itself as the one I need to read now. I’m not the only person who does this – spark-joy advocate Marie Kondo recommends we do this exact thing when we are cleaning our homes so that we only hang on to those things that resonate.
The book that caught me last week was Jenny Offill’s Weather. I started it before we went into low-power mode on March 13, but I forgot about it until I saw it on my bookshelf last week and it signaled me. Lizzie, the narrator, is a librarian at the university where she was once a rising star working on a dissertation she never finished. In her mid-life, in addition to her work at the library Lizzie is a professional people-watcher who in her spare time answers emails that followers of her mentor Sylvia’s podcast, Hell and High Water, send in with questions about how to adequately prepare for the end of the world.
Weather is a meditative book that basically follows Lizzie from the apartment that she shares with her husband, son and sometimes brother to the university library and back again. The world around her is more like a backdrop than a dynamic aspect of her life; yet somehow Lizzie’s biggest fear is “the acceleration of days,” as if things are moving too fast for her. Lizzie’s experience is strangely prescient of our collective experience today as we navigate our lives along narrowed tracks with limited scenery while somehow marveling at where the time has gone.
I loved the whole book, but I especially enjoyed the questions Lizzie receives and the answers she gives. For example, someone asks, “What are the best ways to prepare my children for the coming chaos?” She answers, “You can teach them to sew, to farm, to build. Techniques for calming a fearful mind might be the most useful though.”
She’s right. For longer than this radically revised March and April, my goal has been to help my children who are at different points in their adolescence to grow more comfortable with not knowing what tomorrow will bring and to become better able to manage both time – how to allot and live it – and solitude – how to appreciate, even sometimes seek it.
Someone else asks “What is the difference between a disaster and an emergency?” Lizzie answers, “A disaster is a sudden event that causes great damage or loss. An emergency is a situation in which normal operations cannot continue and immediate action is required so as to prevent a disaster.” Based on her response, we are currently in both a disaster and an emergency.
The only consolation may be that we are not alone. Lizzie recounts a conversation she had with an Iranian friend after 9/11: “after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere was talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the subway. My friend met me at the diner for coffee. His family fled Iran one week before the Shah fell. He didn’t want to talk about the hum. I pressed him though. Your people have finally fallen into history, he said. The rest of us are already here.”
Since 9/11, if not before, as an increasingly global society we have experienced winds and weather together. With the forecast for us all still so unclear, we are wise to keep each other in sight and mind while we keep our distance.