In the forest the days are sharp blue and the nights dip below freezing. Every morning someone has to get up first and crawl out from under the covers into the icy dawn light, start the woodstove, make the coffee, haul water for the little tank under the littler kitchen sink. (Before the apocalypse: Chop wood, carry water. After the apocalypse: Chop wood, carry water.) The hardware stores are closed now and it’s possible we will need to make the wood we have last for a long time. But every day feels a little more like spring.
I have lived a kind of life like this before, although I have never lived in a caravan in a deserted campground in rural east Germany in the middle of a plague. The only other people for twenty acres are Horst and Dieter, who live here too, and who cut away deadwood in the forest and paint things and patch up the water lines and clear the fallen branches after storms. I have two entire women’s bathrooms to myself. Although the shelves are stripped clear in all the grocery stores for miles I do not have to worry much about toilet paper. When I run out in one stall I have nineteen more to go.
A long time ago, when I lived in Portland, I wrecked my bike spectacularly at rush hour in the middle of one of the busiest intersections in the city. I remember clearly the endless seconds before I hit the ground, when my body understood before my brain did that everything had changed in an instant and that something unknown and terrible was about to happen, that it was possible my life was never going to be the same again.
Some days this moment feels like that one, suspended in a sea of fear, waiting for the asphalt to rise up and meet me; afraid this time not so much for myself but for everyone I love back home, my friends who are already broke and losing jobs, my friends who are already sick and barely insured, my friends who are immigrants and already vulnerable, my friends who are pregnant, my friends who are parents.
But when my terror is very bad I remember what happened after my accident. At rush hour Burnside is a river of cyclists and everybody stopped. Somebody got me out of the intersection and somebody else fetched my bike. A woman who I think must have been a nurse handed me a wad of napkins and told me where to hold them. I’m fine, I’m just going to ride home I said, and she said in a calm firm voice You can’t do that right now, you’re in shock, you’ve hurt yourself and you need to go to the hospital, and that was when I looked down and saw that my legs were covered in blood and my bike wheels were bent in half, spokes bristling.
You’re going to be fine, she said. I promise.
A hippie in a car had stopped to make sure I was okay; when he saw that other people were taking care of me he started to drive away. A number of bikers who hadn’t seen what happened thought he had hit me and was fleeing the scene; in a flash his car was swarming with cyclists shouting Wait for the cops, asshole! as the hippie wailed piteously I’m just trying to get to Burning Man! Somebody helped me call my friend Patrick. Somebody handed me my bag. Somebody stood next to me and held me up until the ambulance came.
I told the EMTs I didn’t have money for the ride and my friend was coming to get me. They patched me up and waited with me and told me funny stories. Usually chicks freak out when they see this much blood, one of them said. That’s sexist! I said happily, and we argued good-naturedly until Patrick—dear Patrick, boon companion, lifelong rescuer of distressed comrades—came and drove me to the hospital and waited in the emergency room while a chipper doctor sewed my knee back together, and later my street-medic friend Jayna talked me through taking out my stitches myself so I didn’t have to pay for the doctor, and my bike-mechanic friend Jimbo rebuilt my wheels—
—and what I am trying to say is that we already know how to take care of each other in a crisis, friends and strangers alike; we have been doing it all of our lives. You know how to say What do you need and I am not okay and I love you and I’m here. You know how to cook meals, or you know how to keep your increasingly feral children alive and more or less fed, or you know how to write poetry. You know how to check in on your neighbors. You know how to scrape together enough money to buy groceries for someone who doesn’t have anything to eat, or you know first aid, or you know how to build things. Maybe you know how to garden. You know how to be the best version of yourself when you have to be, which is almost certainly now.
A lot of bad things are going to happen and a lot of this is going to be hard. You already know that, too. It’s okay to be afraid. Take a deep breath and hold that fear tight in your heart and think: The other side of fear is the desire to survive. Now exhale.
We have never lived through anything like this but we have lived through hard bad things before. The word apocalypse comes from the Greek apokalupsis: to uncover or reveal. An unveiling or unfolding of things not previously known and which could not be known apart from the unveiling. Another world is possible; another world is almost here.
I haven’t lived somewhere I can see the stars at night in nearly thirteen years. I didn’t know how much I missed them until my first night in the forest, walking outside into a glorious white blaze. The birds here are all birds I don’t recognize; even the crows are bigger and more knowing, and some of them have grey hoods like teenage goths. I put seed balls in the bird feeder every few days and watch the results like television.
There’s a little bird with a green chest and a blue head who tries to start a fight with himself every day in the caravan window. He’s here now, as I write this, pecking away at his reflection. Look, buddy, I keep telling him. There’s a whole house full of birdseed right over there.
Figure 1: A new friend.