It’s the blizzard of the century here in Delaware, and I enjoyed observing and taking part in the flurry of activity and conversation that preceded the big storm this week. While no one looks forward to the inevitable dig-out process, I think most adults secretly relish the little dose of novelty and uncertainty that a big storm injects into the week. There was lots of talk of bringing in fuel, food, buttoning up the house, and speculation about whether or not the power would hold.
I turned 10 in 1991, meaning that my peers and I were some of the last kids to have a very analog childhood and some of the first to have a very digital adolescence. There was a lot of imaginintive play and ustructured time outside when I was a kid, fortunate as I was to live in an area with lots of woods, fields, and a complete lack of threat. Safe and sound in our little corner of the US, my best friend, Denise, and I invented frontiers. A deserted island was a favorite, the wilds of Alaska, and the various muddy, lush, or desert planets of the Star Wars universe were our mental playgrounds. Something about these landscapes seemed to magnify the vulnerability that we felt in childhood while allowing us to explore our pluck and resourcefulness in the face of challenges. (Yes, the hurricane blew our shelter over, but we’ll be okay, because I can talk to WOLVES.)
In college, my small, tight-knit group of best friends (one of whom is now my husband) and I had a favorite thought-game that we would play over drinks or on long hikes. If this society that college was purportedly preparing us to enter should suddenly shudder and collapse, what would we do? We discussed our various skills and personal characteristics, the level to which we could cooperate and remain resilient. I even went so far as to write up a spreadsheet of prime locations that would provide us with a stable climate, wood, water, and food sources. We still speak of “the compound” with a certain mix of self-mockery and wistful nostalgia.
Last weekend, John and I eagerly watched The Martian, a fictional survival story about an astronaut inadvertently left on Mars by his team- a plot guranteed to interest the Eagle Scout and wannabe-frontier-girl combo that we are. Here’s one of the final lines from the film:
“At some point, everything’s gonna go south on you and you’re going to say, this is it. This is how I end. Now you can either accept that, or you can get to work. That’s all it is. You just begin. You do the math. You solve one problem and you solve the next one, and then the next. And If you solve enough problems, you get to come home.” (My emphasis.)
I actually felt my stomach sour when I heard this, and it colored my whole experience of the film. Don’t get me wrong, I do love grit, and it does take plenty of that to get through serious crises, but I’ve come to a completely different understanding of survival these days.
Two years ago, we became a vulnerable family. I’m composing this at 3a.m as I sit beside Jack’s ventilator. The blizzard means that we don’t have a nurse, so we’ll cover the night shift ourselves for a few days. John spent quite a lot of time wiring in circuits for the generator to ensure that we can keep the ventilator running through a power outage, and I touched base with our nursing company and reviewed our backup plans in the event of a long-term power outage. I checked our prescriptions to make sure we wouldn’t be caught without anything. I touched base with our pharmacist, who knows us by name. Before we were ever discharged from the hospital, I put our name on several emergency lists. The power company knows about us. The fire department. The state.
If something were to go wrong, I mean really wrong, (war, infrastructure decay, pandemic, economic collapse, etc.) if we were faced with a frontier, we’d be screwed. In his book, Do No Harm: Stories of Life, Death, and Brain Surgery, British neurosurgeon Henry Marsh describes the case of a child that he treated in Ukraine for a brain tumor. After the surgery, unresolved hydrocephalus resulted in her needing a VP shunt, just as Jack does. Despite the skill of this reknowned surgeon, despite a successful recovery, this child died just two years later. Lacking fast access to a good hospital, shunt failure was likely the cause of her death.
There is something deeply wrong with the sentiment described by Matt Damon’s character in The Martian, that if you (individually) just have enough brains, pluck, and grit, you can survive anything. This is an odd statement to make, since the character in the film seems to conveniently forget the multi-billion, multinational campaign that the space program back home had to mount to make his survival possible.
There’s a huge community that has borne each of us up over time, whether you are an able person, a healthy person, a genius, an average just-getting-by, middle of the bell curve, hard working person, or a person with physical, mental, or health challenges. I think these dominant frontier narratives are very dangerous when they conveniently sweep our vulnerable populations under the rug, and, perhaps even more so, when they forget that vulnerability is at the heart of their own story.
I still love blizzards, and I do get excited at the thought of a snowed-in weekend, but becoming a vulnerable family has changed the way that I experience such things. It’s made me understand that survival is not an individual pursuit. It’s something we do together.