What is the point of anything but also I need to make dinner*
“If, try as we may, we never have been and never shall be able to see, to reflect the truth in all its eternal fresh-minted clarity, is it not because we are still in motion, still living?”
—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, “Reflection in Water”
A couple mornings ago I watched a dragonfly hang out on the riotous pea plants for a while. A lone chickadee trilled its cheeseburger call, and I ignored as well as I could the thistle plants fast outstripping my ability to spot-kill them with vinegar. It’s a nightmare, is all I can say. I go out my door and see thistles and knapweed; I go for a walk with a friend or my kids and see thistles and knapweed. I dream of thistles and knapweed and despair because there is so much of it, everywhere.
I had a bit of a freak-out on a subscriber-only forum about finance recently. There were questions about 401Ks and buying houses versus renting and lots of other sensible topics and there I was going, “Yes, but what if the planet and our systems all fall apart and there’s no point to any of this anyway?” And then kept going to unbuckle the satchel of all the things I worry about all the time:
“Like, ‘What is the point of anything but also I need to make dinner.’”
“Will my area survive the mega fire future but also I need to be more consistent about eating sauerkraut.”
“How do I structure my Vanguard account but also are the ultra-religious white nationalists truly going to take over my county and/or state and force my daughter into an early marriage?”
(Also, why am I such crap at making sauerkraut? It’s not that hard and I do much more difficult things on a regular basis, yet it almost always spoils.)
This is all life all the time and likely always has been. My grandmother in the Soviet Union must have gone through this cycle constantly, especially when Stalin was still alive: “Will the KGB take my husband or me away for being an enemy of the people but also I need to find some potatoes.” I imagine she thought that, sometimes. I only met her twice, to my sorrow, and I barely spoke a smattering of Russian. She was a metallurgical engineer and in the evenings she did a kind of fancy Russian embroidery that involved picking out threads in linen to make lace patterns.
She also, with her husband and their three children, sat around the table at night reading forbidden Solzhenitsyn, passing the pages along as they finished each one. Because stories, along with music, keep us grounded when everything else feels untethered.
It is hard to hold the concrete concerns about what to do with the now—to make normal, daily, grown-up decisions—alongside the existential question of what drastic changes might occur in the future. But I assume humans have been doing that for a very long time because we’ve long had to cope with day to day survival along with existential worry, even if the existential worry wasn’t always climate change and white nationalists but more cheetahs eating your children or when the next plague might hit.
I don’t know if this country will be a functional democracy in 5 years but also I should get my kids off their screens and outside this afternoon.
The decreasing snowpack is going to make the rivers and lakes too warm and promote toxic algae growth but also I should be more consistent about doing yoga.
Automation and AI are going to result in the loss of a bazillion jobs, a shift nobody but the people who stand to profit seems to be planning for, but I need to teach my kid how to solve equations with two variables this week.
And then there was a huge storm that same night, the day I watched the dragonfly and freaked out on the finance forum, and it poured and thundered and lightning flashed for hours and my daughter pulled me and two others over to the other side of the house we were at to look at the full-length rainbow. And we rejoiced in the rain and the thunder and worried that the lightning would be striking in places that were too dry to resist conflagrating—there was the joy and the fear, all wrapped up into one, and that is life, all the time.
Things are unpredictable and worrying, but they always have been, and in the meantime life is right in front of us. I will probably never come to radical acceptance with that. But I’m trying.
* h/t to TS for suggesting this title.
There are quite a few new subscribers here thanks, I am guessing, to the kindness of Ed Roberson—host of Mountain & Prairie, one of my regular podcast listens—in mentioning this newsletter on his “Good News from the American West” updates. Thanks, Ed!
Welcome. The main focus of this newsletter is the commons—that is, the shared world we live in and how we manage to do that living together. Not an easy task most of the time, and often involving intense conflict between private property rights and shared resources. The overarching themes of this newsletter—which includes these triptych walking compositions as well as full-length essays—can be found in this first essay reflecting on misinformation and the invasion of Iraq, an essay on commodification, and one on white nationalism, the West, and the failures of large journalism narratives. Most published writing (as in published and edited in real places) can be found through my website, and my book on walking is available in all formats. I sometimes write on Medium but have no other social media.
I also talk about car supremacy and car-centric infrastructure, books I’m reading, embodied learning, and, most of all, my despair over knapweed and thistles. Please send help.
Thanks for joining! If it turns out not to be your jam, no hard feelings.
I will be completely offline all next week. Hope everyone stays safe and temperate and kind.
Some stuff to read, listen to, or watch:
Razib Khan writing in Nautilus about how the image and our understanding of the human family tree has changed significantly, complicating what we think of as “human” DNA: “The emergence of modern humans within [Africa] was not an explosion, but a gradual evolution of interacting lineages. A slow burn.”
A very cool explanatory mathematics video from Veritasium (only 6 minutes) about how an infinite hotel can actually run out of rooms. Which reminded me of the equally cool fact that there are many infinities.
This essay by Sarah Miller is the best thing I’ve read on climate change recently, and reflects exactly how I feel about both it and many other problems whose solutions are fairly clear but for which political will is nonexistent: “It is hard to accept the way things are, to know that the fight is outside the realm of argument and persuasion and appeals to how much it all hurts. . . . But all the right words about climate have already been deployed.”
Jeremy Lent, author of The Patterning Instinct, about how humans make meaning, was on the Frontiers of Commoning podcast to talk about his recently published book The Web of Meaning: “At the deepest archetypal layers, we share the experience of what it is to be alive with every other living entity.”
Your Undivided Attention (the podcast from the Center for Humane Technology) recently did a long episode with Daniel Schmachtenberger. I’ve listened to a number of interviews with Schmachtenberger in various places over the years, and like how clearly he lays out the problems of existential risk. Being a math/logic person myself, his style of defining the parameters appeals to me. It is a bit tiresome to hear what is actually common sense, and which has been stated in many ways by a lot of Indigenous thinkers and writers as well as many, many women (also anyone who has ever written or said anything about commons systems), promoted as a completely new way of thinking. But as I try to focus on playing infinite games (or the infinite game) rather than finite games, anything that gets the tech-bro and think-tank-y crowds on board with doing all of this (waves randomly at the entire state of human existence) better is, I guess, good. Anyway: “We could say the central question of our time is if we’ve been poor stewards of power for a long time and that’s always caused problems, but the problems now become existential . . . They become catastrophic. We can’t keep doing that. How do we become adequately good stewards of exponential power in time?”
A lovely interview on the Scotland Outdoors podcast with Katharine Norbury about Women on Nature, her anthology drawing in 700 years of women writing about nature.
Feels like the balance is somewhere between "life is short, eat the damn chili dog" and "dude, you gotta eat something other than chili dogs", right?
I'm passing this along to my sons. Thank you for your clear writing and gallows humor. It's sustaining.