Jenny Offill’s latest exercise in approaching anxiety with compassion, Weather, kicks off right before the 2016 election. While she isn’t that exact- you come to realization through context clues- the time and feeling is accurate and thick in the air. Just like in Dept. of Speculation, Offill packs years worth of pathos into a collection close to just 200 pages. Her economy of vocabulary is something that I strive to possess.
Our narrator is worried about wasting time; she sits on an unfinished masters while answering emails for a popular podcast host who also used to be her academic mentor. The host focuses on the changing world with an emphasis on climate. The narrator worries about her brother, tries to attend to the needs of her family, and spends her minimal free time spiraling downward through forum posts about end-time prepping. She is wave after wave of “what if”, but she pretends to tread water regardless. A line of hers about struggling to care for her brother caught me right in the gut:
everyone I know is trying to sleep less. Insomnia as a badge of honor. Proof that you are paying attention.
This is the road caregiver burnout in a nutshell. When I run courses on caregiver burnout and secondary trauma, we often talk about the “badges of honor” that come from working in the helping profession. We see many actions attesting to the “facts” that working for several days straight isn’t a problem, it’s a higher standard. Giving more than you have emotionally and physically isn’t an unsustainable model, it’s proof that you care the most. There’s a challenge in the air around caring for others around caring for yourself; having time and energy to manage your own needs is wasteful and unwarranted when there is so much else to do. We justify mistreating ourselves for the “greater good”.
The people in this story are plagued by the anxieties of (mostly) 2016, but those problems have grown and multiplied since the early days of this current…regime, but the sentiments within still feel terribly familiar. There is another moment that connects our country’s generalized fears to a clearer lens:
It was the same after 9/11, there was that hum in the air. Everyone everywhere talking about the same thing. In stores, in restaurants, on the sub way. 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.
The rest of us are already here. We in America, especially those of us benefitting from white privilege, are newly feeling what many others on earth have been dealing with for hundreds of years. We’re “here” now too, and what are we going to do with here and now? How are we going to move towards the future when the present is only getting worse? There’s a term being thrown a lot right now about “getting back to normal”, but “normal” has always been pretty bad. What’s next?
Strangely enough, despite the doom and gloom, I came out of Weather feeling a bit better than our narrator. Fears are validated here, and while plans and hope are not laid out in detail, there is still a promise of something on the horizon. If we work hard enough it may be something that is both sustainable and positive.