Yesterday, I woke up around 8:30 thinking it was still the middle of the night. There was no light in the bedroom. Out in the living room, streetlights glared in through the slats in the blinds, but I could tell beyond them was some color I hadn’t seen before. It was this color:
You’ve by now seen some of the pictures. None of them do justice to the feeling of waking up to a world that looks like this. Probably in any other year I’d have found wonder in it, but instead, yesterday, I didn’t. It has already been weeks of needing to stay inside, not to avoid the risk of infecting the virus for which we don’t yet have a vaccine and of which we don’t yet know the longterm effects on the human body, but rather to avoid the smoke blowing in from the 43 fires currently burning in California as of this writing. Part of every day it’s unhealthy, and then the wind changes or something, I don’t know. You go online and see it’s “moderate” and you wonder whether you have the energy to go walk in the park.
I never do. If I don’t walk first thing in the morning, I end up beat down by another day like today.
Having been so beat down, beaten inside, stuck inside paranoid and spiteful at my fellow Americans for months—I didn’t see any wonder out my windows. The skies got darker around noon, not just in terms of the pale greyed peach that turned to a deep blood orange, but in terms of the world inside. We had all the lights on. It was nighttime at noon. I was emptied of all my capacity by this unnatural feeling, waking up to a deep orange landscape, unable to see anything else but flames and fire and destruction. I wanted to go back to sleep and I didn’t care when I woke up. I just wanted it to be later.
Throughout the morning, I had to shit in this canister. Our toilet worked fine, but weeks ago the Mayo Clinic sent me two canisters the size of Edy’s Ice Cream tubs, with biohazard bags and little styrofoam coolers to ship them back inside, on dry ice. I’d gone to them earlier this summer to get to the bottom (mind the pun) of some ongoing IBS issues, and after a CT scan showed I didn’t have Crohn’s Disease, they told me the next step was to eat a high-fat diet and collect everything that came out of me for two days, in order to measure the level of bile acids in my stool and deduce … well I’m not quite sure yet.
Whether to eat less fat, maybe? Don’t I already know to do that?
There’s a little device they’d rigged to prop the canister across the rim of the bowl and hold it over the water. There is nothing not humiliating about any of this. Imagine needing to take a comfortable shit in your own home but remembering that you had to sort of aim it into this plastic canister, pull the canister out of the bowl, with the live hot stench of what you’ve passed wafting through the room, twist a lid on it, and then stick it—as the Mayo Clinic suggested—in the freezer until you need it again.
Humiliating. Repellent. Collecting your shit to hold onto, to keep around the house—it’s like waking up to an orange sky. There’s just lizard-brain pockets of neurons that fire in distress about everything being wrong about your life. Today the sky has warmed (if you can call it that) to a yellowed grey, the color of dirty school linoleum, and it’s the last day I need to collect my stool. I’ve got two canisters of shit in my house right now. Tomorrow I get to call FedEx to come fetch them.
Natural disasters, or extreme weather events, used to inspire awe. Growing up in Virginia, the winters we’d get big blizzards that shut school down for a week were, sure, awesome, to get all the time off, but also glorious. I loved nothing more than going out in the middle of the night to look at the lunary landscape it seemed we suddenly lived on, with the overcast sky pinkened by the suburban light bouncing off it. Storms in Nebraska were vast and enormous, with clouds like Frank Gehry buildings. Once, the first week I lived in that state, I looked up and say ribbons of lightning streak across the sky, almost networks of them. My jaw gaped.
Even the tornado that hit us in Alabama had a kind of wild beauty to it. (I’m sure I’d feel differently had it destroyed our house, rather than merely shattering some of the windows and ripping off a bit of the siding.) If there was anything unsettling about it, in addition to the people it killed, it was the complete transformation of the landscape in seconds. The tornado engined past our house in all of 30 seconds, and once we knew it was gone, we looked outside and everything was different.
That kind of destruction seems impossible but is real, and we’re at nature’s mercy in those moments. That’s what the tornado made me see.
What we keep living through in California is different. These are unnatural disasters. None of these fires is nature doing her thing. This is just the effects of ruin and neglect. Nobody in this town has air conditioning because for decades everyone has understood you don’t need air conditioning here. The first four years I lived here it got above 80 maybe twice, and for a couple days. Now we have 3 or 4 heat waves a year where the temperature is in the 90s, and nobody in this town has air conditioning.
The days of us not needing to worry about fatal heat waves, or toxic skies are gone. I don’t know whether they’ll come back. What little I pay attention to regarding the election in November indicates it’s still a toss-up, so what do we do: assume things will get worse?
I’m already past imagining what’s worse than this, but whenever I do it I start to see gas masks hanging by our front door. Guns in the streets. Whatever works have been going on in our policy choices, in our commitments as a country, have stopped working. The sky yesterday tells me nothing else.
That’s the post. I don’t have a rosy way to write myself out of this feeling.