the slow burn

on finding yourself at the end of the world

Click here to read this essay on Substack. 

CW: death, climate change, existentialism

I.

I will remember the moment the world stopped turning for the rest of my days. Hours earlier, the President of my college had sent a frantic email asking students to pack our belongings and evacuate campus for several weeks. I didn’t have a suitcase, so my housemate loaned me a duffel bag and helped me hastily toss shit inside. Afterwards, standing on the porch of our house—the first home I’d ever made with my chosen family—my friend Maimuna hugged me goodbye. I was crying, but they were steady. “Even if this thing lasts five years,’’ they reassured me, “then I’ll see you in five years.’’

That day was—ironically, hauntingly—Friday, March 13th, 2020. At that time, I don’t think me or Maimuna really thought it would be five years before we could reunite. But the truth is, I haven’t seen them, or any of my friends from school, since that day. After we graduated in May, we all drifted: some, like me, moved in with parents, some stayed in New York, and some found new homes. All starting half lives, fractured and singed before they could truly begin. Between COVID-19, the presidential election, and the growing white nationalist and police violence in America, the world has died and been remade so many times this year I am starting to lose count: first in March, then again in June, once more in November, yet again last week. Perhaps this shouldn’t be surprising. I read somewhere that empires only last 250 years––that Rome, and Egypt before it, all fell around that time. That America, which had no right to exist in the first place, is fated to die soon as well. But this slow decay extends far beyond the US empire: the climate crisis, driven largely by the US government and American corporations, has caused snowstorms in Texas, wildfires in California, heatwaves in South Asia, drought across Africa. Over 2 million people have died from COVID worldwide. Life expectancies are shorter, the family structure is rupturing, fewer people are working and going to school. We are still alive, but life itself is blurry, ill-fated, preparing always for dark. Where do you go when the world is over but somehow, you’re still here?

II.

In the internet discourse following the recent release of Judas and the Black Massiah, one fact was relayed over and over again: at the time of his assassination by the US government, Fred Hampton was only 21 years old. That a revolutionary could be so young, so ready, and so powerful all at once is both remarkable and surprisingly common, part of a longer tradition of young people at the forefront of US political movements. Angela Davis was 25 when she was put on the FBI’s 10 Most Wanted List following her communist organizing efforts; when Malcolm X joined the Nation of Islam while incarcerated, he was only 21. Today, young people in political groups like Good Kids Mad City, URGE, and BYP100 continue to lead protests and advocate for their cities.

That young folks consistently surpass those well into adulthood in leading revolutions is a testament to both the fortitude of youth and the power of American individualism. In recent months since Joe Biden took office, there have been several policies proposed, such as partial student loan forgiveness and higher minimum wage, that would significantly lessen the economic burden of future generations. Despite this—or perhaps because of it—many older folks have loudly disapproved of these policies, calling them impossible, financially irresponsible, and above all unfair, insisting that as they had to live with school loans and low wages, young people today must endure these things too. This individualist attitude, born from capitalism, is often mirrored by our Congress, where the average age is almost 62 years old. In the last few years, the federal government has voted against more inclusive healthcare policies, higher immigration quotas, comprehensive climate policy, more affordable housing—this is under both Obama and Trump. Of course, much of these austerity policies come from a desire to hoard resources, pure and simple—the average Congressperson would not continue to make $174,000 per year if everyone in America had healthcare, and they know this. But there is also a deadly pragmatism behind why boomers, who have less days ahead of them than they do behind, are statistically more likely to embrace the political status quo: revolutions take time that they simply don’t have.

To be a young person in America today is to grow up in a world that’s slowly burning, that in many ways has already died. It is to become intimately familiar with death when, at the age of eight or nine, your teacher asks you to hide beneath your desk in case a man with a gun storms your school in the middle of History class. It is being encouraged to return to your college campus so your school can collect a housing check, continuing to do homework throughout an apocalypse while your teachers call you “family’’ and yell at you about self care. It is being let down, time and time again, by the very people who somehow expect you to save them. And yet, in some ways, this is the easy part. Grieving death is easy but grieving life? The person I once was, the dreams I once had, the world I thought I would grow old in—as all of this goes up in flames, how are we meant to mourn?

III.

I recently read an essay by the activist and filmmaker Tourmaline who spoke about the concept of freedom dreaming. “Freedom dreams are born when we face harsh conditions not with despair, but with the deep knowledge that these conditions will change,” they wrote. “That a world filled with softness and beauty and care is not only possible, but inevitable.’’ This is a practice I have tried very hard to evoke in the last year, in every essay, journal entry, FaceTime with a friend. Freedom dreaming begins where our reality ends—in asking, what do we want our next life to look like? And, perhaps the more difficult question: what from this life do we want to keep, bring with us into a new and better world?

At first it may seem that the answer is “nothing’’—after all, many crucial revolutionary projects, such as defunding the police and prison abolition, are invested in tearing down the cruel institutions that govern our current reality. But true revolution means acknowledging not only our capacity to change the world, but that the tools we need to do so are already within our grasp. So many of my dearest dreams for myself and my community—free education, housing and healthcare for all—are predicted on the notion that we have enough money, resources, and pure human power to give everyone a shot at the best possible life. The issue is not, and has never been, a lack of resources, but rather how those resources are distributed. We see this in how the planet gives every day: when the sun burns too bright, we receive a cleansing rain; when the day feels too long, the night calls for us to rest. It is our responsibility to gift each other with this same generosity: we must give mutual aid as though our lives depend on it, because they quite literally do. We do not need police or government intervention—these entities created the austerity policies that caused the climate crisis in the first place. In the Earth, and in each other, we have all that we need. It is this abundance we must bring into the next world, even if all else burns away.

IV.

Abundance is something I know deep down to be true but still causes me trouble in my day to day. I think this is normal. The human heart is full of greed and jealousy and suspicion. And it's not just capitalism—I think bits of this were always there. Lately, whenever a 30-something on Twitter speaks about the family or career they’ve had time to establish or someone on TV takes a Parisian vacation, I am filled with this irrational, overpowering feeling that sits somewhere between rage and deafening despair. I begin to spiral: will I ever go to Europe? What of life will remain when I’m 30? Suddenly I am furious, furious at Twitter mutuals and TV characters and even my own mother for having formative years, and even adult years, that were not defined by disaster. That they could spend their youth living, instead of focused on survival. It is in these moments that I need abundance most, and hold it’s promise closest to my heart. I give thanks that others had a taste of peace, and carried it with them at least a short while. How can I expect anyone to fight for my joy when I cannot celebrate theirs?

I do not believe we come alive the moment we are born. A childhood, an adolescence, these processes are but a slow burn that light you from the inside out. Try as you might, you cannot control fire, you can’t rush or contain it, bend it to your will. I feel as though I spent two decades warming up—slowly breathing, burning, becoming—and the moment I opened myself to life, it closed right back up again. To me—and to many, I’m sure—the last year has felt like sitting in a waiting room, pausing for five more minutes, and again, and again, never knowing when you can emerge from limbo, or what you might encounter when you do. Despite the horrors this year has brought, and they have been immeasurable, I’ve caught myself on more than one occasion feeling grateful that I am living through this moment, for all the lessons this year has taught me about life and death and strange places in between. This year has made me louder, bolder, more sure—hell, I only started this newsletter in June because I figured I had nothing to lose. We see it all around. As the End Times approach, we all walk a bit taller, laugh a bit stronger, tell people I love you too loud and too soon. What is that? That bond between apocalypse and freedom? And what if we could build a world where people felt free all the time?

The scholar Valarie Kaur describes love as revolution. “Revolutionary love,’’ she writes, “is the choice to enter into wonder and labor for others, for our opponents, and for ourselves. Loving only ourselves is escapism; loving only our opponents is self-loathing; loving only others is ineffective. All three practices together make love revolutionary, and revolutionary love can only be practiced in community.’’ I too have known love to be revolutionary—when my friend Maimuna said they would wait five years to see me, when my friend Zoya sends me voice notes early in the morning so that her laugh is the first thing I hear when I wake up. The Earth practices revolutionary love and it is dying because it gives and gives and gives while humans take and take and take. Some scholars do not believe in natural disaster. They posit instead that natural hazards, such as floods or hurricanes, become disasters when combined with capitalism, with the greed that allows only some to be housed and fed, with an absence of solidarity. Storms may be inevitable but human suffering is not. The United States is doomed to die for there is nothing left for it to burn. I want to live in a world where air tastes sweet, where love lasts long, where I can grow into everything that I am. I want to build a life where the thought of apocalypse fills me with dread because we have everything to lose and more.

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xoxo

mary <3