In palm-sized notebooks, I collect phrases that won’t go away, lines that arrive in the tunneling moments before sleep or while washing dishes or as I’m descending the last hill home as dusk is arriving. Sometimes, these unbidden words act as a door into a story or chapter or even a promising scene. Other times, whatever resonance they originally claimed proves too inscrutable or seeps away, flattening into the obvious. And, occasionally, the words grow stronger, becoming possessed, as if the potential story they’re heralding is a crucial one that demands to be told.
For quite awhile – a year or more – one recurrent phrase has threaded its way within my current notebook. Its sole purpose has seemed to be a kind of haunting, a drumbeat echoing from distant music that as far as I could tell had nothing to do with me or any story I might have conjured. Was it a false lead, provocative, glib? I hadn’t fully decided, but each time I opened the notebook and turned a page, the phrase reappeared, clamoring for attention.
How to Survive the End of the World.
No intriguing character, promising story, or evocative music there. This was not a lyrical phrase, one whose sensuality immediately stirred the soul. No, what I had, it seemed to me, was a potential guide, riven with angst and practicalities, suggesting the methodical gathering of supplies: food rations, batteries, medicines, and blankets, massive containers of stale water, that checklist of needs that wouldn’t be easily met once the systems that provide our food and energy break down. These insistent words, I decided, were simply my psyche’s lament after being punished with hours and hours of reading the news.
And yet: One afternoon, I was walking the beach at Fort Worden, a path I’ve traversed all my adult life and never fail to see with new eyes. It’s a place that reconfigures itself daily. Stormswept or wind-bleached or placidly sunny, the beach might be fully deserted or as busy as an evening promenade. That late afternoon, the sun flirted with clouds, and I grew alternately hot then chilled as I began to trace the tideline. Along the way, I passed a young couple, leaning into each other on a log, clearly infatuated, half-ignoring a tiny girl who might have been in their charge. She didn’t care. She was swirling a bull kelp whip and hurling proclamations at a cluster of biddling sandpipers marching toward the lighthouse. A few trudging steps forward and an elderly woman appeared out of nowhere hiking strenuously and at speed, barely pausing to glance at a family of little boys who squatted in my path, constructing sandcastles. My own sons had claimed similar kingdoms decades ago even knowing, as these current boys must, how the tide would finally triumph.
As I stopped to consider the afternoon marine traffic – a freighter, a tug, one lonely sailboat – and admire the white bluffs of Ebey’s Landing in the distance, my notebook phrase rose up like a clarion call:
How to Survive the End of the World
Once, twice, three times. I glanced back at the couple, the girl, the boys — How to Survive the End of the World, and I thought: tsunami? Is this about a tsunami? It didn’t feel right. Sure, one day, the earth here will sway and tremble, the waters will recede and rise with fury, the test siren we all mock will wail, and what had been long dreaded will turn real. But I had no interest in visiting that fear, inflating its presence before I must. No, I told the words in my head, you have the wrong writer. Not my story.
Yet at home, I opened my notebook and wrote down the words once more. Foolish me, and yet I was certain they seemed to say, Look harder. I acquiesced.
Of the World
The How to was encouraging, I thought.
Survive, too, held promise, but also reeked of the visitation of pain, a body dragging onto shore, bereft and stunned.
The End — well, not necessarily a bad thing. This, I mulled, might go either way. Wasn’t it true that daily, in fact, I hoped for certain endings.
of the World. What world, I found myself asking, and with that question, decided that maybe this wasn’t as dire a phrase as I’d thought.
I began thinking of the worlds that have already ended for me, the most fortunate of women. My childhood, seeped in quiet terrors, was past, of course. What a brave girl, I think, how I loved and scorned her. The churning anxiety and glorious joys of young adulthood had also been traveled, my children grown into lovely, thoughtful men. My parents, as my friends were wont to say, “have left the planet.” An ever-unbelievable fact. Yes, so many variations of my worlds vanished forever. You could say I’d landed in a different country, literally and figuratively, over and over again. Yet, I am still here.
How to Survive the End of the World
I stared at the words and now had to shake my head, marveling at how dense I’d been and too, at the patience of the spirit within me, the part that steadfastly delivers phrases like this one and waits until my understanding dawns. Because I could see finally that recurring phrase, almost a mantra by that point, wasn’t a story opening. It was a vital recognition. Because here’s the thing: The real end of the world for me was at hand. My husband had been diagnosed with a terminal illness, and the world we’d claimed together, that unknowingly safe one we took for granted for so long, had already ended.
The waiting room at the cancer clinic, always full, is graced by a huge glass wall that brings in Lake Union, a transfixing vista rich with bouncing light, ascending floatplanes, and bustling, oblivious life. Those of us on the other side of the glass are in another sort of place altogether, a netherland, where we navigate warrens of inner rooms and an ongoing limbo of tests and results and treatments and aptly named “trials.” And yet our time at the clinic is rarely dismal. Around us, a few weary patients doze in recliners. Unsurprisingly, cellphone screens occupy others, but many around us are absorbed in books or one of the endless variety of magazines patients bring and share. It’s difficult for me not to sit and stare, to observe how each person, each couple, each family shifts between the fraught reality of the cancer clinic and the stories that transport them temporarily at least elsewhere.
Early on, as the inevitability of my husband’s treatment schedule sunk in, its weight and also the great hope attached, we decided to shift our perspective to sit next to the latter, to consider each appointment a gift. So we’ve come to think of our long commutes from Port Townsend to Seattle as road trips, not unlike the ones we took when we were barely out of our teens and desperate to find places we could get away and be in the world alone, together. We pack intricate picnics and routinely fill an old coffee thermos. We squirrel away books and essays for the ferry waits. We have long, winding conversations. We pay attention to the weather and landscape, our fellow travelers. We’re on a journey, one twined with terror and unsuspected joys and continual surprises. We know that now.
As I contemplate my little notebook and think about my preoccupation with storywriting, I have to wonder if it’s a coincidence that short stories mimic this process of exchanging one world for the next. Is it a coincidence that I celebrate short story collections for the way the best enthrall and utterly transport, for the way one story gives way to another? Is it a coincidence that the title of my own new collection is Catch, Release, and that every story within plays with a kind of symbiotic relationship between two states of being – giving and taking, holding close and letting go? I truly doubt it, just as I doubt the reverberating phrase in my notebook was a random, dismissible thought instead of a gently insistent question whose answer I knew all along, but desperately needed to remember.
Because here’s how you survive the end of the world: you walk into another one. You recognize with heartbreaking gratitude the glorious fragility of life and love and thrill to that which you, you tiny nut of a being, have experienced and open your heart to face the unmoored future, the next chapter, the next story, and all the ones after that.
Adrianne Harun is the author of The King of Limbo and Other Stories and A Man Came Out of a Door in the Mountain, and most recently, the story collection Catch, Release. She teaches at Pacific Lutheran University’s Rainier Writing Workshop and is a frequent faculty member at the Sewanee School of Letters.