When the smoke rolls in from the summer fires, it settles on the city thick and quiet: a gloved hand at the nape of the neck, an amber haze. The fires are burning north of the city, always burning this time of year, every summer a stronger and more unquenchable blaze that is, somehow, still far enough of a distance away to dull any sense of urgency. In the interior of the province, we hear stories of cars carpeted in grey, red suns at midday, main streets impenetrable. Is this what the stories meant to say when they call it the thick of summer: ash in the back of the throat, asthmatic children called inside, windows closed tight mid-August? When I’m feeling optimistic, I wonder what kind of future world we’ll live in, how children could sit around imagining the monsters of eras past and whisper climate change between cupped hands.
When I’m feeling pessimistic, I don’t like to wonder about the future.
Burnished like this, the summer months swamp with a strange kind of nostalgia, as if the neighbourhood is caught in an eerie golden hour limbo. The laundry, suspended unmoving from the backyard clothesline. The curled grapevine, stiff and sour. It feels wronger than usual to smoke somehow, but my roommate and I do it anyway, share cigarettes in the half-fade light and talk about when we think the world will end. He says, maybe this what they felt like during the Cold War. Neither of us know for sure: our grandparents were continents away, running from different fires.
The thing about fear is that much of the time, it’s a reaction to unknowingness, to uncertainty. But certainty is its own strange beast, and like climate change, one of our making.
Right now, I’m reading Carceral Capitalism by Jackie Wang, and she writes about the tyranny of certainty, about algorithms and data shaped by ideology, about how ruptures in predictability are actually glimpses of where all the invisible permutations of power are failing. When the world jolts in sudden and spectacular directions, how then do we live? When fear moves to incarcerate and contain, lashes out in familiar violence against black and brown bodies, separates families and strands refugees on a warming planet, how do we resist the totality of its terror? When the latest IPCC report gives us a countdown, how do we grieve? Is this what the Psalmist meant when he said, teach us to number our days?
Recently I’ve seen a lot of articles emerging about ecological grief, about how this common shared weight affects those of us living now. Part of me feels this language deeply, wants to lose myself completely in its truth, its poetic heft. The other part is uneasy with how some of these articles describe it as a recent phenomenon: on these territories and across Turtle Island, grief twined with the land goes back to first colonial contact, to its theft and invasion, to unequal treaties and genocide, to the establishment of borders. Or, as the Brown sisters point out in their podcast How to Survive the End of the World, Black women have always been facing erasure and imagining alternative futures. The difference now is that the grief is too unwieldy, too public, too urgent to ignore. Let us consider our anxiety of the apocalypse and how we who occupy certain positions (and certain parts of the world) are only afraid of its oncoming effects because for us, the end has not yet arrived. The smoke may be unavoidable, but we still live above the water. For now.
In her book A Paradise Built in Hell, Rebecca Solnit discusses the ways that apocalypses—the ways the world end—can actually be recharacterized as, if not hopeful, charged with possibility. In times of tumult and crisis, powerful structures fall apart, so-called infallible systems fail, and amidst the perils of disruption, people get ready, get good at subverting unequal systems and taking care of each other in more equitable ways. We see this in the margins of our own histories. We learn from those who have and continue to survive apocalypse: to root and grow beyond fear’s supremacy, to envision a world beyond. This is a kind of grief too, one that has immediate motion, shared trajectory. A growing and a greening, guerilla acts against empire.
Fear paralyzes, but grief moves us: it shakes us, haunts us, brings us to tears, makes us noisy. Grief rattles the cage.
This past summer, we planted a garden for the second year, dug hands into dirt, planted tiny sunflowers that sprouted to gorgeous lopey giants, grew kale and lettuce from seed, harvested beets and carrots and arugula and sun-warmed tomatoes, bright and bursting with the taste of God. We didn’t know what we were doing half the time, and still the earth brought forth a wealth of miracles. Weeds, too. Surrounded by the burst of raspberries and sleepy blur of bees making their rounds, tuning ourselves to growing things, barefoot on holy ground. Gardens, even ragtag and mismatched as ours, make it easy to believe in resurrection, to be not afraid.
I’m trying to live into paradigms of abundance, rather than scarcity, something I know is easier said than done, and something I have the privilege of trying to do. I’m trying to throw myself against the capitalist machine’s tyranny of certainty, against its grinding terror of inadequate productivity and not enough time. I guess you could call it faith. But I think, in truth, it’s the kind of dwelling in paradox we all face now—wrestling with grief and demanding bless me like the story of Jacob and the angel. Bless me, spitting up tight-fisted joy, refusing to relinquish our hold.
Céline Chuang is a settler of colour and daughter of immigrants, descended from the Chinese migrant diaspora. She currently lives and works on unceded Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh territory (Vancouver, Canada). Her writing has appeared in Ricepaper, Geez Magazine, and the Salt Collective. In both life and art, she is interested in grappling with intersections of activism, faith, cultural healing, decolonial rhythms and radical care.
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