The water rose slowly, lapping for the longest time at my ankles before rising to kiss my shins, then swirling in eddies around my knees. When it rose to my thighs, I could feel my steps slowing and muscles tightening with the extra effort required to make each step. I would wake up and stare at the ceiling, not wanting to get out of bed.
We are all facing late-stage pandemic burnout, essayists remind us. We have pandemic senioritis. We are languishing, neither healthy nor diagnosably sick, but occupying that wide middle ground of “unwell.” Some days feel normal, and others I wake up in a fog, my life playing out in front of me as muffled and refracted as if I were underwater.
A man standing at the bus stop
reading the newspaper is on fire.
Flames are peeking out
from beneath his collar and cuffs.
His shoes have begun to melt.
Three or four years ago, in another life, I taught English to middle schoolers on the weekends. One week we read the poem “Tuesday, 9am” by Denver Butson:
The woman next to him
wants to mention it to him,
that he is burning,
but she is drowning.
Water is everywhere,
in her mouth and ears,
in her eyes.
A stream of water runs
steadily from her blouse.
Water runs. Present tense. She is drowning. Present continuous. I think of this bus stop scene as I cook dinner, fold my laundry, dutifully post on the discussion board for class.
When I was five or six, I broke away from my parents and ran toward a patch of the greenest grass I’d ever seen. I stepped through green algae and fell into waist-high, brackish water. I remember wailing, waterlogged, for the few long seconds before my mother rescued me. It wasn’t that I was drowning, but the water was all around me, and I couldn’t find my way out.
I miss the creativity and mental quickness that used to feel effortless. I miss traveling and talking to strangers, impulsivity, recklessness. I dream that I wade into a river up to my neck, clutching an armful of precious things. The current pulls them loose and I watch helplessly as they float out of sight. I wake in a tangle of sheets.
Sea levels rise at the rate of one-eighth of an inch per year. By the time I learn this, it seems too late to reverse it. We talk about how to mitigate, how to adapt, and when I see the fire and brilliance with which these plans are made, I believe that this is something we can achieve, that another, brighter world is possible.
But I still mourn for the world I didn’t know I was losing. The water rose so slowly it’s hard to remember what it was like to walk unencumbered by the river rushing past.
Katerina Parsons (’15) lives in Washington D.C., where she works in advocacy at Mennonite Central Committee’s Washington office and studies international development at American University’s School of International Service. She spends a lot of time thinking about US policy towards Central America and North Korea, writing, singing, and searching for the city’s best pupusas (suggestions welcome).