– – –
I am Maggie when Maggie is me.
In fictional times, I depend on she
Stepping into the breach
To give me what I need.
It’s her job, her reason for being. Indeed.
– – –
She’s endured my loves and absorbed my losses
Suffered my marriages and two divorces.
Born a shadow I’ve brought her to life
Not once or twice but
Many times thrice.
– – –
I love her and she loves me too.
Though her version of love’s a
Tres cynical view.
Maggie, my Maggie stay faithful, be true.
Without you I’m faded
Without me — oops — no you!
(Note: Since I was very young, Maggie has been the fictional me of my writing. She is my alter ego.)
Unlike many other books I have read and forgotten, Earth Abides has stayed with me. I’ve returned to it many times in recent years, but there was a period of almost 30 years when I couldn’t find a copy of the book anywhere. Nonetheless, I could recall it with remarkable clarity. It was especially remarkable considering the thousands of books I read every year. That I could remember this one book — not to be too punny — spoke volumes. It turns out that I was not alone. Many people found the book unforgettable, including many writers. George Stewart’s masterpiece became the jumping off point for an entire genre.
Earth Abides is a “foundation book,” one of a handful of books that you must read if you are a science fiction fan. It is frequently cited as “the original disaster” story. A foundation book it most definitely is, but classing it as the “original disaster story” rather misses the point.
Earth Abides isn’t merely a disaster story or post apocalyptic science fiction. Above all it is a book of rebuilding, renewal and hope. The event that initiates the story is a disaster, a plague resulting from either a natural mutation or something escaped from a lab that runs amok. Whatever its origins, it kills off most of Earth’s human population. As has been true of plagues throughout history, a small percentage of the population is naturally immune. Additionally, anyone who survived a rattlesnake bite is immune.
The plague is the back story. The front story of Earth Abides is how humankind copes with the tragedy as scattered remnants of people slowly find one another, form groups and gradually create a new civilization. Through marriage and the pressures of survival, groups become tribes. Simultaneously, the earth itself revives and finds a new balance.
Most diseases of old earth are eliminated by depopulation. New generations are wonderfully healthy. Along with physical disease, mental illness, archaic religious and outdated social structures are shed. New human generations have no memory of institutionalized bias and prejudice and the color line becomes non-existent. There is much that needs doing in this new world, but there’s an infinite amount of time in which to do it.
Ultimately, earth will be repopulated. But gently … and hopefully, in peace. The reborn world will contain bits and pieces of what went before, but without its demons.
The book was re-released as a 60th anniversary edition in 2009, including an audio version with an introduction by Connie Willis.
The last time I read it was immediately after it was re-released. Four years has given me time to be surprised by the book all over again. Be surprised by how much Ish — the main character — changes over the years, how much he grows and matures. How his belief structure adapts to new realities, how much more open his mind becomes. It’s a rare transformation from a literary point of view. Few characters I’ve read have transformed as much as Ish does in Earth Abides.
Earth Abides was published in 1949. In some parts of the U.S. and other countries, the issues with which the book’s characters grapple are still very much alive. They shouldn’t be. We have moved on but only to a point.
The technology stands up surprisingly well because it’s essentially irrelevant. All technology disappears, so it doesn’t matter how advanced it used to be. When the power goes off, it’s over. The world goes back to pre-technological. It has wind, water and sun. Books remain, so knowledge exists, but in stasis, waiting to be rediscovered and deployed. Meanwhile, earth abides.
The world ends, the world begins. Ish and Emma are the “mother” and “father” of the new tribe. Ish, in Hebrew, means “man” and “Eema” means “mother” which I am sure is not coincidental. It’s a wonderful story that suggests the human race has the capacity to not only survive, but reinvent civilization and make a better world.
Earth Abides is timeless. As is the Earth. There’s an entire site dedicated to George R. Stewart — The EARTH ABIDES Project. Definitely check it out!
It’s available in every configuration including Kindle, Audible download, audiobook (CD and MP3), hardcover and paperback. There was time when it was difficult to find, but it seems to have found its way back. I have owned at least a dozen copies of Earth Abides and keep an extra copy tucked away to give to friends who haven’t read it yet. I’m glad.
It remains among my top five all time favorite science fiction novels and if you haven’t read it, there’s no time like the present. I have a spare copy, just in case.
So Long, Its Been Good To Know Yuh
(Dusty Old Dust)
Words and Music by Woody Guthrie
I’ve sung this song, but I’ll sing it again,
Of the place that I lived on the wild windy plains,
In the month called April, county called Gray,
And here’s what all of the people there say:
CHORUS: So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.
A dust storm hit, an’ it hit like thunder;
It dusted us over, an’ it covered us under;
Blocked out the traffic an’ blocked out the sun,
Straight for home all the people did run,
We talked of the end of the world, and then
We’d sing a song an’ then sing it again.
We’d sit for an hour an’ not say a word,
And then these words would be heard:
Sweethearts sat in the dark and sparked,
They hugged and kissed in that dusty old dark.
They sighed and cried, hugged and kissed,
Instead of marriage, they talked like this:
Now, the telephone rang, an’ it jumped off the wall,
That was the preacher, a-makin’ his call.
He said, “Kind friend, this may the end;
An’ you got your last chance of salvation of sin!”
The churches was jammed, and the churches was packed,
An’ that dusty old dust storm blowed so black.
Preacher could not read a word of his text,
An’ he folded his specs, an’ he took up collection,
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh;
So long, it’s been good to know yuh.
This dusty old dust is a-gettin’ my home,
And I got to be driftin’ along.
Strange for that song to be rolling around my head, but we watched a PBS show about old folk singers the other night … and there it sits, in my brain, rolling around and around.
It’s the anthem of my generation. We’ve said goodbye to a lot of folks. Some are gone because they went away to that other place, bought the farm, as it were … but just as many — even more — really did buy the farm, or at least real estate in a community far away where the only crop they grow are old people.
I never wanted to live in an Old Community, though I recognize one doesn’t always have a choice in the matter. I never wanted to live in any community that was all of a type. When I was young and raising my son, I sought out racially diverse communities because I like the grittiness of different cultures mixing together. I wanted my son to know, without being told, that people come in all colors and shapes and there’s no reason to be afraid just because someone doesn’t look like you. It was a very unpopular position to take, but fortunately my husband agreed with me and we found … and lived in … mixed communities the entire time my son was growing up.
It worked. He didn’t — doesn’t — recognize skin color as a descriptor. He could tell me the type of refrigerator the new people in town had in their kitchen and every detail of the cars they drove, but not the color of their skin because for him — and my granddaughter is the same way — it was a matter of gradation. There were no black or white people, just off white, pink, tan and brown people, with a variety of hair textures and colors. Some friendly, some not so much.
Then we lived in Israel and he was one of the few Jewish kids who had Arab friends because no one had told him he shouldn’t, and even though it was dangerous, I wanted him to know that people are people, not the labels we put on them.
Color blind. That’s the word for it. My granddaughter gets mad when someone calls her grandfather “black” because, she says, he’s not black … he’s a nice light to medium tan, depending on the time of year and whether or not he’s been in the sun. As for me, I stay a disgusting shade of fish-belly white no matter what I do and any effort to alter it results in third degree burns, a lot of pain, and turning an unnatural shade of hot pink which may look good on a tee-shirt, but looks alien on human skin.
And all of this somehow reminding me of driving down the highway in Garry’s old flame orange Dodge Challenger. He bought it when he was working at ABC Network in New York in the 1960s. He bought it in 1969, the year my son was born which is relevant because Garry is my son’s godfather. But the car was a 1970 model year. It was the car he brought with him when he became a reporter in Boston in November 1970.
It was his first on the air job. It would be his last, too, because he would work at Channel 7 for 31 years, the remainder of his career. He would drive the orange car until after we were married, until it finally stopped being dependable and wouldn’t drive in the rain because the wires got wet and it would stall. It still drove like, as we say, a bat outta hell because it had a huge engine and Garry took pretty good care of it. Not great because he entrusted its care to a garage that cheated him and he, not knowing enough about the mechanical stuff to realize it, assumed that if it looked okay, it was okay.
We got another convertible after that … a red Mustang and had that for almost a dozen years, but it was getting to the end of the convertible years and they didn’t make them like they used to. They didn’t make us like they used to either, and I needed a car where I didn’t have to wrap myself up like a mummy to keep my hip length hair from turning into a mass of knots or getting a horrendous sunburn just sitting in the car. Only in TV shampoo commercials do long-haired girls drive in top-down convertibles with their hair blowing free because it’s going to take hours to get that mass of hair untangled later.
And now, it’s time to stop, even though this has rambled from one place to another without any logic to it … Fast writing, stream of time, stream of consciousness. We’ve driven a ways down the highway of memory and time … I wonder if the old orange car is still around? It was a few years ago. It had been restored, I hear and I was glad to know it. I have such fond memories of the old beast. Of all the old things and old people I knew.
We still don’t live in an Old Community, though this community is old in other senses. And I’m glad, though I sure do wish we had more ethnicities among us. Miss the mixing up of color and culture and music and dance … and the wonderful smell of the food everyone cooked on holidays …
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Collecting is a beautiful disease. It’s insidious and there’s no known cure. You get a thing. You love it. You get another thing … similar, but not the same. One day, you look around and you have a collection.
Chinese antique porcelain and Asian sacred art grabbed me and wouldn’t let me go. There is something so awesome — awe-inspiring — about holding something made thousands of years ago and now lives on your fireplace mantel. Imagine all the people who have touched it, whose lives this pot has touched, whose prayers this Buddha has heard. It’s living history.
Thus, when I had to reduce the collection, I didn’t sell anything. I split the collection and gave more than half my favorite pieces to my friends, people who I knew would treasure it as I did. How much was it worth? A lot, maybe. Or not so much. I don’t know. It was beyond price to me. Money is transitory but these precious, fragile, beautiful pieces need to be protected and saved from harm. They needed to be kept safe, not sold as decorations.
So much of the world’s great art has been casually destroyed by governments and individuals with no reverence for art or history. If I can save one Han pot, one Qianlong vase, one Tibetan Buddha … I’ve done something of value.
I no longer collect, but I continue to preserve and protect.
I originally wrote this six years ago. I’ve rewritten it many times since. Some day, I’ll get it right. It does seem appropriate for this topic. The deeper meaning, such as it is, is obvious: all us are haunted by someone or something, an evil shadow of what we were and never want to be again.
– – –
Twelve years ago, I lost 160 pounds, an entire full-grown person. I have gained some during the past two years as a side effect of anti-hormone therapy following breast cancer, but I’m still more than 100 pounds less than I was before the story began.
Every since the initial weight loss, there has been a Fat Lady following me. She is me, or more accurately, she is the me I used to be. She is invisible to everyone else, but I can see and hear her clearly. She waddles after me wherever I go. She talks to me, nags me, teases me. She sits with me at meals, whispering in my ear. She’s my co-pilot while I drive. Worst of all, she goes shopping with me.
While I try to decide whether or not to buy the size that looks great and fits just right … or play it safe and get the bigger size … she is there taunting me. This is probably why I have a half closet of clothing that’s too big. Always is the terrible whispering voice of the Fat Lady saying: “Yes, but what if you gain weight … what if you need bigger sizes? What will you do with this little stuff?”
The Fat Lady never shuts up. “You know, your feet might swell. You’ll never fit into those narrow little shoes.” Panic. What if my feet really DO swell? It hasn’t happened in more than 10 years, but still I expect it any day.
What if this is all some kind of weird dream? If suddenly I wake to discover I’m big? Every time I try on a garment, that Fat Lady is there, doing commentary.
Ah! The terror and triumph of shopping; the sheer exhilaration of sliding comfortably into skinny jeans … until the Fat Lady says. “You’ll never get into those pants.”.
“I am wearing them,” you point out.
“So,” she says, “what about tomorrow, eh? You could gain more weight. They might not fit tomorrow. Then what’ll you do? All you have is LITTLE clothing.”
“I’m going to stay little,” you reply, trying to hold firm.
“SURE you are,” she says. “Just like all those other times before …”
There’s no getting away from her. I have to run to the bathroom scale to confirm that I am not, in fact, fat. I stand in front of the mirror and stare at this body looking for signs of creeping obesity. I press my hands hard against my belly.
My belly is flat. Although I’m not longer all bone, I’m normal. Not bad at all for a gal of my age with a lot of miles on her. Perky breasts, too, since the nasty ones with the cancer were replaced with firm, youthful silicon implants.
I can feel the Fat Lady breathing in my ear. “See that flab?” she mocks. “That’s your old fat self. It’s just waiting for you.”
“It’s loose skin from all the surgeries.”
“Hah,” she says. “We both know better, don’t we.”
I have a theory about fat. It’s connected with the concept in physics that matter and energy is interchangeable and that the actual amount of matter and energy in the universe never changes. It just converts back and forth from energy to matter and around and around.
I lost 160 pounds.
That fat went somewhere. It’s in the ether waiting.
My lost fat transformed into a Fat Energy Field. Not only my fat, but all the fat anyone ever lost is hanging in the atmosphere, huge, amorphous, invisible … waiting for some unsuspecting person to cross its path. Then … WHAPPO ZAPPO. The Fat Energy Field transforms back into Fat Matter. Hips become huge, bellies grow pendulous and thighs and buttocks fill with blubber.
How many times have you … or someone you know said “I don’t know what happened. All of a sudden, I just put on 40 pounds. I don’t understand. I didn’t eat more than usual. It just happened.”
That poor soul intersected with a Fat Energy Field. It could be his or her very OWN Fat Energy Field, if he or she recently lost weight, or it could be mine or someone else’s.
So after all is said and done, it really isn’t your fault when you gain weight. You were engulfed in a Fat Energy Field.
All of which brings me back to my shadow, the Fat Lady. She is me, but she isn’t either. She is my shadow, a demon-self sent to discourage and frighten me. Somewhere, deep in my psyche, I know her. Me as my Fat Lady was comfortable and safe in those folds of fat. I sent her away but she wants to come home so she won’t have to remain amorphous, without a true body.
The Fat Lady wants my body back.
I spend a lot of time looking in mirrors. Vanity? No. I look in mirrors for reassurance. I have to keep checking to make sure that I am the “now” me, not the “old” version. I check that mirrored image for signs of bloat, for hints I will be who I was and who I do not wish to be ever again.
There was a movie called “Charly” that starred Cliff Robertson and Claire Bloom, based on a short story called “Flowers for Algernon” written by Daniel Keyes.
Released in 1968, it told the story of Charly, a retarded adult transformed by a miracle of medicine into a brilliant scientist but ultimately, the miracle fails and he returns to his former state of retarded man-child. He knows, before it happens, that it will happen.
How terrifying must that be? How terrified am I? (Note: These days I have lots of stuff to be scared of and regaining lost weight has dropped from my number 1 fear to around number 4 … but it’s still way up there on the worry chart.)
I feel his fear, the gnawing anxiety that he would have felt knowing he would lose all that he had gained. I live with that fright. I am scared to eat, even when I’m hungry. I’m afraid to buy clothing that really fits because I may not fit into it tomorrow morning or even later today.
Life in a new body is a daily adrenaline rush of mixed joy and panic, an endless roller coaster ride that hauls me up then drops me in a screaming rush then whips me around a curve only to drag me up again.
Fortunately, I love roller coasters, the bigger, faster and scarier, the better. If you are going to completely alter your physical self, you need to like living on the edge because you are on it for life. That roller coaster becomes life.
Life is to be lived and excitement, change, and danger make life interesting. We take risks because we want our lives to be edgy. We deny it, claim all we want peace, but we don’t really seek peace. We are ambivalent, wanting safety yet craving excitement.
They say that you stay young by constantly learning. I think you stay young by continuing to take risks. It may not always be smart, but sometimes, smart isn’t everything it’s cracked up to be.
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