Conversations in art about ecological collapse and our place in the changing world

Conversation 3

The Future Was Easy
Bethany Gibson

Do you remember how we were? We were light and wild and free. We smelled like dirt and strawberry Lip Smacker. We were superheroes in the clear air. The future was easy.

I had yearning in my limbs, and growing pains some nights that Mum brought hot water bottles for. I was not daring, though my imagination bounded without heed for speed or distance or duration. In my head I was a gymnast, a long-distance runner. I flew.

You were all motion, in your thoughts and in your body. You asked what if questions until we begged you to stop. You had to be taken to the emergency room a few times. That one time you walked into our backyard birdbath at dusk, a Batman mask over your face. You pulled off the mask, stunned, and then your lip opened, a slot, blood rushing to get out. I watched it run down your chin, you caught the blood in your cupped hand and held it out to me.

I had terrible visions, about terrible things happening to you.

You wandered and roamed and trespassed. You cut through backyards, narrow passageways between houses, you climbed onto roofs. I watched you, I waited for your return, I worried.

Do you remember? The sunlight lay in a window shape across your bed, across our bodies, lying face to face on your pillow, while Mum cried in the next room. We whispered the silliest nicknames for each other we could think of, desperate to feel that everything was fine. Dinkleberry, Fractiontoss, Looredyloopit, Popsnookledoom.

Our potential in those days was space and brightness, an infinite horizon. We felt sadness and worry and fear, but they moved along like sunlight and shadow alternating, in window shapes, across our bodies.

At nine I was pretty sure I could build a working go-cart, if I just put my mind to it, and if I could get my hands on a little gasoline. At twelve it seemed reasonable to believe that I could be an Olympic athlete, if I picked an event, and got serious about some training.

We got sunburns every summer, and we didn’t worry too much about those. One year we were inside a lot, no camps, no plans; maybe we didn’t get sunburns that year. We watched the Olympics and imagined what we would be capable of, if only we could get serious about that training. We ate cereal on the floor in front of the TV until Mum yelled from the bottom of the stairs, threatening to throw the TV out the window. We wrestled each other, sweaty and cranky on the rug. I let go of you when you passed into that uncontrollable childish rage, all fists and kicks — even though I was bigger and stronger and could handle your puny onslaught.

We grew, you outpaced me. You were popular at school, your talents more obvious. One day, passing each other in the hall outside your bedroom, you shoved me with your new strength and size. It was no big effort for you, but I hit the wall and fell, and we were both startled. That was the moment I understood the shift, and that I would have to learn a new way of being with you. A less bossy, more respectful way.

We made our own forays out into the world, our hearts broken by the tiny many ways that life does that. I worried, still, about you. I worried about your broken heart. Though really, we were more or less intact. We were made tougher by our struggles. We couldn’t complain. The future was there, for us to take, and we could take our time.

Do you remember that? Did you feel that way?

For a while I didn’t think you would have kids. You still had roaming and trespassing to do. And then you started talking about how bad things were getting, how the system wouldn’t allow for real change, even if people wanted it. I knew other people who weren’t having kids, because of how bad things were getting. I had a baby, because at the time the yearning in my body was stronger than my fear. And I thought that maybe people had been forever saying this, about how bad, how much worse. And then you had a baby. I felt better having one because you did too; I thought maybe you knew something, that the outlook wasn’t so dire after all.

Our babies, only a year apart, love each other. They ask for each other, wonder when they will see each other next. When we are all together in the summers, they disappear from our view. They go frogging. They make hideouts. They make up plays for the adults. They hunt for sugar. They sneak to the TV and watch until I threaten to throw it out the window. They whisper and laugh and plot. Sometimes I imagine they are like we were when we were young and free. But they are not. My daughter laughed at me when I told her about my go-cart ambitions. She knows they were ridiculous.

They are realists, they appreciate irony and are attuned to the absurdity of rules. Even at their most childish, they seem more sophisticated than we were — maybe even more than we are now. You and I are both outpaced.

They get sunburnt. We worried about that at first. But now it seems there are bigger concerns. And our children shrug our hands — greasy with expensive sunscreen — off their hot shoulders. They too know there are bigger concerns. And they are inclined away from us, yearning toward the future, as children necessarily are. They are inclined toward something that I can’t see. Can you?

I taught my daughter how to visualize peaceful colours and to breathe in meditation. I think I should teach her how to grow her own food and build a shelter. She told me last night that she thinks she can see the end of time. I wanted to ask, What does it look like? But I didn’t have the courage.

The world has been this way since we were born, and even before that. As soon as we knew there was a world beyond ourselves, we knew it was big, dark, and dirty. We knew we were polluters, litterbugs. But we had faith. And we trusted in our radiance, and in the radiance of the future.

Things that were supposed to have been under our clever control have run away from us. Things are now runaway. And our babies are just now coming into their own, in this runaway world. What to wish for, for them? For the ones who think they can see the end of time?

There are moments, deep in the folds of the night as I am emerging from dreams, on the edge of consciousness and hope, when I wish they’d never been born. Then the daylight slides across the bed, and I hear my girl stir in the next room. She hums, opens drawers, gets dressed. And thus, a space opens, a horizon stretches. I can see it, briefly. I feel, for a moment, it will hold. She asks me if we will see her cousin soon, if we could go to visit you. I say yes, soon.

The Future Was Easy
Roadsworth

Acrylic on canvas
122 x 122 cm
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  • Date
    January 16, 2017