Disaster: of course

by Jeff Oaks

Andy, my great, smart, handsome Labrador Retriever mix, has developed a strange lump/bump. I found it yesterday and have been panicking ever since, sometimes in my normal frozen kind of way, sometimes in an anger-weepy kind of mode. Several times this morning I found myself completely stopped, staring at nothing, lost in imagined horror and sadness. Tomorrow I leave for Scotland for six weeks, and although I was looking forward to that, now I’m going to be worrying about my big-hearted goofball’s health. If something happens, it will be in other people’s hands–my husband, the camp where he’ll be boarding, our friends, the vet. Even though I know they all live and adore him, would never let anything happen to him, the fact that I can’t call the shots is unravelling me. 

We went to the vet’s yesterday, where it was checked out. It didn’t seem to be a simple fat cyst, which labradors get all the time. Something felt odd to the vet tech, so we waited for the vet to have a clear moment. She thinks it’s probably nothing, but just in case, drew some fluid, made some slides, and sent them off to be read. It might be something, she admitted, although I don’t think so. I’m just waiting now, writing while I wait, using sentences as a way of distracting my perpetually apocalyptic mind from going there, into the cancer-euthanasia rooms where we all end up suffering. Personally, it seems like a reaction to a spider bite or something, because it rose so quickly and such an unlikely place. We couldn’t find any bite marks or punctures when they shaved the area, but the woman who has known Andy the longest at his daycare says she’s seen some odd cases of reactions. She wants me not to worry. I wish I could avoid it.

I think all the time of disaster. I spend so much of my time in dystopic futures that it’s ridiculous really. Thankfully, mindfulness practice can short-circuit my spending too much time there. Take a breath, the training goes. Where are you? It asks. Be here and not elsewhere. Keep breathing. Deepen the next one. Write down the fears if that will help, so they can be elsewhere than in your body, so if you need them, you can be sure to find them. Let them be there until then. Count out ten long breaths. 

I have such a tangled relationship to disaster. On one hand, being able to imagine the worst has been a great asset to me as a teacher, administrator, sometimes personally. Imagining the worst gets me to work when I don’t want to or don’t feel like it, for instance. But at some point, imagining the worst can quietly or suddenly change from imagining to predicting, to presuming the worst, and that’s where so much trouble happens for me. Part of the usefulness of learning to breathe, to return my mind to where I am, the here and now, is that I can pull my imagination back a bit. I’m presuming without any evidence, I can say to myself. You’re already picturing your good dog as dead before you know whether he’s got a cyst, an allergy, or something more troublesome. Even if it is something bad, plenty of dogs have survived bad things. 

It’s a way of getting your mind back, with all its creative resources, all its alternative narratives, its fullness in other words. 

I’m always thinking about is how the imagination gets compressed, constrained, narrowed by the world. In the most recent instance, some of my neighbors started asking questions about a proposed big apartment complex going up near us. It had some blatantly ridiculous features to it, we thought, some real lacunae in its projections: it imagined a high number of “units” but then apparently didn’t think there was any need for an equal number of parking places, which means more cars in our already tight streets; it didn’t imagine how all the new sewage or traffic would impact the nearby neighbors’ lives or the structures already in place; it didn’t imagine how it might disrupt even “just” at an architectural level, the light and sound of other people’s lives. Many of us think we should get a say in those things, but of course other people thought that was inane. A few people kept saying, “well, it’s better than what we have now, which is a huge abandoned factory and a large abandoned field”. 

It’s that lack of imagination that felt so maddening and sad to me, as if those people didn’t or couldn’t summon up the alternatives to either saying yes or no. It always frankly seems sad to me that people can’t see that that abandoned field is anything but an emptiness, which is always in the capitalist imagination a problem to be filled in and built upon as soon as possible. There are few enough places where the green world exists in our neighborhood, and I always hoped to see a park there. In the meantime, it’s full of birds and wild flowers, cats and other animals as well. My imagination gets far more energized by watching the life of weeds and insects and wild birds than by yet another set of boxed humans, even as I imagine what will likely happen is that I’ll make friends with some of those apartment dwellers.  The city of course is only imagining more taxes, as have most of the neighborhood groups who imagine more members. Both seem to be supporting the new “development”. Neither imagines very well that they both will have demands made of them by those groups which may change them in radical ways. 

Disaster is of course what each group imagines will happen if the other’s demands win out, sadly. This same either/or thinking plays out in the media, in national and international politics. Any criticism becomes a complete denial of the police or Israel or marriage or whatever. Any slight becomes an outrage designed to silence any questioning. We steel ourselves against what comes to feel like an inevitable explosion of outrage if we want to ask a question or if we want to reframe an argument. We either stop engaging altogether or become more and more like steel until we become, if we’re not careful, the robots or zombies we love to watch destroy the world.

Imagine if we catch ourselves mindlessly staring, if we drop all that armor, take deep breaths. Come back to the here and the now, the evidence. Not everything has to be imagined as ruined.

Maybe it’s just a spider bite. Wait for the call.