Together Apart is a new Orion web series of letters from isolation. Every week under lockdown, we eavesdrop on curious pairs of authors, scientists, and artists, listening in on their emails, texts, and phone calls as they redefine their relationships from afar.
This week’s conversation is a phone call between the author Meera Subramanian, left, president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and visiting professor of Environment and the Humanities at Princeton University, and Elizabeth Rush, right, Pulitzer Prize finalist author and professor of English at Brown University.
Meera: How are you sleeping? Are you sleeping well?
Elizabeth: They say in the third trimester it’s harder to sleep because the baby wakes up and then there is anxiety and the hormones of late pregnancy.
Meera: I find that all I want to do is sleep. It’s been super gray and rainy and cold here on the Cape. Gray on top of gray. We’re doing so much yardwork and getting the garden going, and it’s my salvation right now.
Elizabeth: How long has it been since you spent that much time in your garden?
Meera: Years, because I’ve been gone so much traveling. Last summer I was in Sewanee, Tennessee, from June until mid-July, then left for Princeton in September. It seems like every year I’m traveling somewhere during peak time, or I leave once I get it planted, or I leave right when everything starts being ready to eat.
I’m really good at leaving, so this is new, this staying put. It is troubling, the bifurcation of this experience. The pandemic is devastating, and we’re losing so many people, and the news is a river of horror. And then there’s the flipside that I’m so thankful to be able to just be home, without the eternal movement, in a place where I can dig in the yard. A place that is—wonderfully, right now—kind of desolate, with not a whole lot of humans.
Elizabeth: Many of the changes and vulnerabilities that are being revealed right now do make me think that the coronavirus is sort of like climate change, except on steroids.
Meera: Yes, definitely. I was trying to figure out how to rejig my class, which is about climate change as a threat — and opportunity — multiplier. Each class has been on one aspect: agriculture, water, women’s issues, environmental, social justice, one by one. For the next class we’re going to focus on the comparison of coronavirus and climate change. How much do we trust science? How much can we listen to experts who tell us to change our ways now, in order to avoid something terrible down the road?
Elizabeth: For most people, who maybe aren’t as deep in the climate movement as you are, the initial reaction, as they wake up to the reality of the climate crisis, is, “What the fuck do I do?”
This threat is so overwhelming and all-encompassing and it’s really hard to know what the right action is. I think the initial feeling is one of being very overwhelmed. So in a weird way, COVID has moved me to remember how I felt, say, eight years ago, as climate change was coming home to me, and to recognize that there’s a lot of people for whom that awakening and feeling of being overwhelmed has happened more recently, or is happening now.
But COVID is happening so quickly, and that’s where I think this thing is different.
Meera: One of the things around climate action is just how much community has built up around it. And how difficult that is when you realize that, now, we can only do this through these fucking computers. There are all these great talks and connections happening online now, but it’s not the same without that social part of the equation.
Elizabeth: Here in Rhode Island there is this budding relationship between climate activism and a longstanding movement to end utility shutoffs for low-income people. COVID intersects with that in interesting and important ways. The governor ended utility shutoffs through the end of April. That’s a start.
Now there’s this push to treat utilities as a basic human right, that there shouldn’t be Rhode Islanders who don’t have access to electricity and heat right now. That idea is suddenly in the public conversation in a way that it wasn’t three weeks ago, when you sounded like a radical socialist for saying that people shouldn’t get, you know, the lights shut off or whatever. It feels like there’s this opportunity presenting itself.
Meera: Yeah, the reset button has been pressed. We just don’t know what it’s going to look like when it pops back up. It’s not going to pop back up in the same way. Did you read my piece from In These Times last year? It was a letter from 2049, and I’ve been thinking about it a lot lately.
Elizabeth: Yeah. You were like, I used to fly and now I don’t. I haven’t seen my cousin in India in years. You wrote the piece, if I remember correctly, as an open letter to him.
Meera: Yes, and I wrote about a time called the Tumult, a period in the 2030s, where a lot of people died.
Elizabeth: Does it feel like we’re there?
Meera: Feels weirdly like we’re there. It’s the universality of everybody experiencing something life-altering — this is not just one place experiencing a catastrophe.
Elizabeth: But our experience is so radically different depending on what sector of society you belong to. I had this moment where I was on the phone with my midwife, and it was an appointment that I had to advocate to have on the phone and not in person. Because as I told them it felt insane for me to come to the office when I literally haven’t seen anyone other than my husband for twenty-one days — I’ve had a healthy pregnancy, why would I go to your office where there are hundreds of people coming in and out every day just so you can tell me that I gained three pounds. I mean I can get on a scale at my house. I had to fight to have this appointment at home. And that’s because the practice that I belong to couldn’t make small adjustments to their rules quickly because they exist under the big umbrella of this unwieldy healthcare system. (There is also an important lesson in here about climate change adaptation and how smaller systems are more flexible and can withstand climate shocks, but I digress.)
So, I’m having this tele-appointment phone call that I had to fight for. And I’m asking all these really intense questions like, What’s the process through which you admit women into the labor unit? Do you get funneled through triage? And I’m trying to make a decision about where to give birth and what safety means right now and how that’s really different from what safety meant a month ago.
I’m doing that information-gathering and the doorbell rings. I jump. No one has been at our door for weeks. Then I think, Okay, I’m not going to answer that right now. I’m going to stay focused on this phone call with my doctor. And two minutes pass and the doorbell rings again. And I was like, Fuck, I have to go answer the door. I open my door and it’s an Amazon Prime delivery person who’s like sixty-eight years old, with a car seat in his hands that my godmother has had sent to us. He tried to hand it to me. He said, “I just don’t want anyone to steal it.” I was like, “Just leave it.” Because I didn’t want to reach out and touch him. I wanted him to leave the box on the porch. I stay on the phone with my doctor because that also feels important. And I call out, “Thank you,” over my shoulder and close the door, and I was back in my house thinking it all feels wrong, all wrong. He belongs to a vulnerable group of people. He shouldn’t be out there doing that, delivering a car seat to protect my child from some future risk, and if he is, then I should still be able to treat him in a humane way. But instead I was fearful of him. I could just see all of these relationships breaking down and our sense of safety breaking down. And for what? All along, I am having to make difficult decisions about where to give birth to this child, even as the landscape changes daily.
Meera: What do you know about what’s going to happen?
Elizabeth: Hard to say. We’ve since left that practice and have switched to a tiny family practice in Woonsocket. They do have that flexibility, and they have started to tell all their patients, if it’s nonessential, don’t come in. So they’re seeing like three to five people a day. And I’ll give birth at the tiny county hospital there that has the closest thing to a birth center that Rhode Island has. It’s like a separate part of the hospital, you don’t go in through the emergency room.
One of the main things I’ve learned from my birth doula is, when your body feels safe, it releases the chemicals necessary to, like, keep the labor moving along. And if you don’t feel safe, it will stop doing that, which is why a lot of women stall or have a hard time moving from their home to the hospital, because that transition feels sort of like, I went from the safety of my home to an institution. And you’re chemically sending a signal to the baby: Hold on a second.
Meera: Stay put just a little longer.
Elizabeth: I feel like I’ve become a mother overnight even though I haven’t given birth yet. Back in early March I had to make a bunch of decisions about whether or not I was going to cancel events slated in Oregon. In particular I had one booked in Lake Oswego, where the first cases were reported, and I remember calling my speaking agent and being like, “I think we have to cancel.” I don’t want to go to one of the only school districts in the country that’s reported cases of coronavirus. I was suddenly making decisions for two. I had no practice and nothing to draw on in terms of, like, what was an overreaction or an under-reaction. It felt awful, like, I don’t know how to do this. It was overwhelming.
I’m not necessarily risk-averse. I think you and I share that. But I lack the experience around making decisions for two. That is more the place where pregnancy and coronavirus collide for me, just trying to see a couple weeks out and figure out a little bit of this new identity. But that doesn’t make me feel like I don’t want to have a kid or that it’s wrong to bring a child into this world.
I do see my friends who have kids. And I’m also like, Thank God I don’t have one yet, homeschooling looks really hard.
“I’m not necessarily risk-averse. I think you and I share that. But I lack the experience around making decisions for two. That is more the place where pregnancy and coronavirus collide for me.”
Meera: At least you have a yard.
Elizabeth: Does it make you glad you don’t have kids?
Meera: Yes, but I was feeling that already. This happened at such an interesting moment for me. I turned fifty last month — actually, I didn’t turn fifty because I postponed my birthday because I had to teach and there was, like, nothing to do. And it was a Wednesday and it was rainy and it was miserable and there was a pandemic. So it hasn’t happened yet. I get to pretend I’m still forty-nine until I celebrate!
So, yes. I’ve already been in that mode of thinking. My body’s telling me I am so officially done with this question of motherhood, but I’d made the decision a long time ago. And it feels right and good. I continue to feel parenting energy from students, from cultivating a garden, from having stepdaughters — I do have half-kids, which is important. I don’t know how you quantify it all. But I’ve felt very content with that decision I made, which is reassuring, because for a long time, I was just like, When am I gonna regret this? This thing that has always felt so clear to me — not wanting children — but also knowing we change our minds on many things. I might look back and be like, That was really dumb and short-sighted. I have never felt that, which feels really fortunate.
Elizabeth: Did you make the decision with climate change in mind?
Meera: I wasn’t thinking specifically about climate change until much more recently. Thirty years ago I definitely made it with environmental issues in mind. I was really focused on doing work in that realm, a clear sense that that was where my time was supposed to go, that there was this other purpose I wanted to put my energy toward. I really don’t know what that thing is that makes it such a deep, deep desire for some women. I have never experienced that. The best way I could describe it was by joking that my biological clock was just broken!
Elizabeth: It reminds me of something that Naomi Klein writes about toward the end of This Changes Everything. She has a child, and she, if I’m remembering it correctly, goes through in vitro. She says something along the lines of, “To have a kid or not doesn’t really change your moral stance in relationship to climate change.” Like, it doesn’t make you a better climate warrior, but it does change the amount of time you have to give to that fight. She’s calling into question this idea that a single individual’s carbon footprint is going to be the thing that tips the scales, but having a child does change the time that you can give to any one thing. Which is something that I’ve been thinking about a ton. Writing Rising, that book was my activism for a long time. But what happens if I give 20 percent of the time that I usually devote to writing to something else? Is that better than writing or is it a more useful lever?
Meera: The conversation often does become judgmental around the question, which I find ridiculous. There are some people for whom the desire to parent is a deep drive. We are biological creatures. We should all fundamentally want to procreate. That’s why I feel like a little bit more broken on that level — as a biological creature, I should want it. So it feels like an anomaly in that way.
So it makes sense that we have this drive, because we are animals. But you should want it. If you do it, you should want it and be in it fully, and I never did. I’ve seen so many people who do it because they think it’s what they are supposed to do. And those situations don’t always look as great as you want them to.
Elizabeth: There’s this deep well, like, you can be a woman writer or a mother, but you can’t be both. Sheila Heti’s Motherhood, is really about a writer dwelling in this difficulty. Toward the end she says something like, “Whenever I see your friends’ kids, I don’t wish I had brought one of those into the world, but sometimes I read my friends’ book and I wish that was mine.” And she’s decided to not have kids and to continue being a writer. But I don’t buy that you can only do one or the other. I have women friends who say having a kid just makes them stricter with how they use their time.
Meera: And you’ll write about different things, from a new vantage, and that’s good! That’s where the coronavirus is having an impact on how I’m thinking about that. The slowing down and staying home should mean there’s more time to write, but it’s reporting that so often gives me fodder to write! I have been doing more essays, but it’s a different writing process, just writing from the head without the vital energy that comes from reporting — where just immersing yourself in a new place forces you to pay attention to things in a totally new way and asking questions and constantly learning. It’s a very different process. By going out into the world you experience something completely new.
In some ways, I think that also is what parenthood is — a travel experience.
Elizabeth: I’m working on an Antarctica-pregnancy-birthing new worlds-glacial collapse book and thinking, I’m going to read this in five years, and be like, Was I wrong? Whatever I think parenting or motherhood is going to be, it’s not going to be what I imagine.
Meera: Yeah, but good for you for doing it. I have thought about wanting to write about not wanting kids for so long. And I’ve been afraid to because I don’t want to put it on paper. You’ve got more chutzpah than I did.
Elizabeth: I read a piece by Meehan Crist about having kids.
Meera: The London Review of Books piece.
Elizabeth: Yes. And I learned through that piece that BP was really behind the popularization of “carbon footprint” and “carbon calculus” and that whole subtle movement to blame-shift onto individuals. Definitely clarified a lot of rage that I feel, especially with my students and with women who are twenty to twenty-five, saying, I’m not going to have a kid because it’s the easiest way to shrink my carbon footprint. There’s part of me that’s just like —
Meera: Don’t take on that burden.
Elizabeth: Don’t take on that burden. Understand the depth to which you have been taught to think that you’re individually responsible for the thing. There are other ways to think about having a net positive, or less net negative, impact. If you got together with twenty other people and you shut down a coal power plant for a day, you’d also keep that same amount of CO2 out of the atmosphere. But we haven’t been taught to think like that. There’s some part of me that’s filled with great anger that this conversation has shifted onto individual women and their relationship to that thing that we have a hard time describing, that desire, if you want to call it that, to bring forth life.
Meera: But there are two sides of this question. No one should make you feel guilty for wanting to have a child; if that is a drive that you have, then that is something you should listen to. But also you might love children so much but are scared for the world that you’re going to give them. It’s so complicated.
When I was twenty-three years old and fighting for old growth forests in Oregon, I was thinking, I don’t want a kid that’s going to not be able to wrap their arms around a tree because it’s too big. I don’t want to introduce the kid to that world without big trees. And then climate change makes that look like a fucking joke. You’re worried about a tree? I worry now more about system collapse than timber sales.
Elizabeth: There’s part of me that worries about the access to nature that my future child will have, but I also don’t think that it’s a pressing concern the way that it is for a lot of other people. Felipe, my husband, and I joke: we get two countries to choose from. If it’s really bad here, we’ll go to Colombia. I take that into consideration and I add that to the list of advantages this kid is going to have. Which is really fucked up to say. But I don’t think that my child will live on, like, the front line of the changes that are coming down the pike.
Maybe that’s wrong. Do you think that’s wrong? Do you think that’s insane, knowing what you know?
Meera: You’re definitely right to some degree, but there is going to be — again going back to the coronavirus —a leveling aspect to it. Some things you can get yourself out of, some things you can’t. This gets to the fundamental question of whether humans are good creatures or bad creatures. Do we head toward the place where disaster hits and respond in solidarity and with compassion? Or do we respond like Mad Max? Rebecca Solnit has written about this, about the community that can emerge from emergency, and you do see that. But it always seems like it lasts about six months. Happy solidarity! and then the raw side of human behavior emerges.
Thinking again about that threat multiplier class at Princeton this spring, and thinking about this in terms of climate change and coronavirus — this pandemic is not making the wildfire season go away! It’s not making the hurricane season go away! Imagine Hurricane Sandy or Hurricane Katrina right now hitting either of those cities, when they’re already completely at max. Evacuate now, shelter in place now. Where do you go? How do you deal with that? That’s the part that scares me. That’s the part that makes me think this is going to be more leveling than we can imagine. I hope it’s not true, with so much of the world population already so incredibly vulnerable, but you can see how quickly those things could change.
Elizabeth: I have a good friend who’s in Spain, and there are reports of break-ins, because people are hungry, living in an apartment with four people and no one has a paycheck anymore and they need food. Does this mean we start locking the garage? That’s not the person I want to be.
Meera: Or the world that you want to live in, right? That gets back to the question: Can we envision something new? It’s really hard right now, given our leadership. You have Colombia, my other country is India, and I am deeply troubled by what’s happening in India, before the virus hit.
Elizabeth: What’s happening in India?
Meera: The deep nationalism that is showing itself there, revoking citizenships for Muslims and becoming more racist and xenophobic than they have been before. And it’s with widespread support for the direction that it’s going.
In terms of coronavirus, they’ve shut down the entire country. If America is letting all the states decide what to do willy-nilly, Modi just locked down the entire country. What that means for people who live in slums is unclear. On Tuesday morning, Princeton had a Zoom lecture on air quality in India, so they’re monitoring what’s going on with the air quality, given this lockdown, and they’re finding that it’s gone down in the cities, where there’s actual enforcement of that. But in the rural areas, everybody is going about their business. Which makes complete sense, but it shows the chasm between what is supposed to be happening and what is actually happening.
We are adaptable. We adapt to the craziest shit. Can we — now that we’ve been snapped out of the daydream of “ordinary” life — imagine something completely new? Or better?
Elizabeth: You see people on the street and automatically step six feet away from them. You and I have both spent the past several summers not tending gardens, and yet here we are, reorienting. That change literally happened in the last three weeks.
Meera: It shows that we can change. It will be so interesting to see what people realize is irrelevant. I’m very curious to see where that falls.
“We are adaptable. We adapt to the craziest shit. Can we — now that we’ve been snapped out of the daydream of “ordinary” life — imagine something completely new? Or better?”
Elizabeth: I asked Felipe, “What do you miss?” And he was like, “Eating with friends at a restaurant. My family.” Which I totally get. I miss walking to the bakery and buying a loaf of bread. There’s something about that ritualized participation in my little community.
How about you guys? What do you miss?
Meera: I feel very fortunate. I’ve been saying that it’s way more important to like the person you’re living with than to love them. I’m feeling for all the people that are in a tiny apartment with, like, two young kids who they now have to teach, or people who are just quarantined alone. I was actually wondering how vibrator sales are doing. I wonder if they’re out of stock, like toilet paper. They probably are!
Elizabeth: I saw someone recently complaining, like, Are sex toys essential in the quarantine? It was an Amazon worker being like, I don’t think you should be putting my life at risk for your sex toy. But I also think desperate times call for desperate measures. Maybe try using commonly found items in the home?
Meera: Yeah. I’d be inventive and safe at the same time. But human touch … you know, I remember feeling, when I went to New York, I moved from this place where people hugged each other all the time, to New York, where people give, like, air kisses. I used to think, Does anybody touch anybody in this town? And I remember feeling touch-starved. People now who are not with anybody, in an apartment by themselves for weeks with no end in sight. That is really, really hard.
And that is the other climate connection, that lag period. It’s okay, it’s okay, it’s okay — holy shit, it’s not fucking okay. How difficult it is for our brains to do that? We’re struggling with it right now, but with climate, it’s seemingly decades of delay. We’re just not good at thinking in those timeframes.
Elizabeth: Makes you realize how hard it is to keep track of all the things that pass in and out of your life. Our governor is asking kids to keep journals of who they make contact with every day, as a way to potentially track the spread of coronavirus.
Meera: Just kids?
Elizabeth: She wants adults to do it too, but she’s like, “I’m going to give kids homework.” She told them also that the Easter Bunny was an essential worker who had not been laid off.
Meera: The parents were like, Great, how the fuck do I get chocolate? O
About the Authors:
Meera Subramanian is an award-winning freelance journalist. Her first book is A River Runs Again: India’s Natural World in Crisis from the Barren Cliffs of Rajasthan to the Farmlands of Karnataka, published in 2015 by PublicAffairs. Her writing has been anthologized in Best American Science and Nature Writing and multiple editions of Best Women’s Travel Writing. She was a Knight Science Journalism fellow at MIT (2016-17) and a Fulbright-Nehru Senior Research fellow in India (2013-14), and she earned her graduate degree in journalism from New York University. She is currently serving as the president of the Society of Environmental Journalists and the Currie C. and Thomas A. Barron Visiting Professor in the Environment and the Humanities at Princeton University.
Elizabeth Rush is the author of Rising: Dispatches from the New American Shore and Still Lifes from a Vanishing City: Essays and Photographs from Yangon, Myanmar. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, the Washington Post, Harpers, Guernica, Granta, and the New Republic, among others. In 2019 she deployed to the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica as the National Science Foundation’s Artist and Writer in Residence. She received her MFA in nonfiction from Southern New Hampshire University, and teaches creative nonfiction at Brown University.