As the Sparks Fly Upward

by jkatejohnston

8 December 2017

Dear Max,

At the hearing a few days ago, during one of the breaks, the lawyer on the other side was checking the news on his phone. His office building in Sherman Oaks had been evacuated. And even though the catastrophe was affecting him pretty directly, he still joined in the pleasant, excited talk about how awful it all was.

On the way home, from the airplane, I saw fire. It looked like it was all the way to the coast, north of Malibu. Then the plane turned east and we flew up the Central Valley. It was a clear day, and the sun was going down. I could see the shape of the coastline—the long arc of Monterey Bay, then San Francisco Bay stretching south to Palo Alto and mostly East toward Stockton and Sacramento. The setting sun gleamed on the water all across the delta. Lights were starting to come on. And you could see that all those people weren’t living on dry land at all. It was all happening on a big sponge. And it looked so fragile.

I remembered that part in The Drowned and the Saved where Primo Levi answered readers’ questions, that is, the questions that he heard again and again over the years. And one of them was: why didn’t you flee Europe while you still could? I don’t remember his answer exactly, and I can’t find the book. But I think it amounted to: besides the many, many legal and practical barriers, our minds don’t work that way. Why, he said, do people still live in major cities, which are sure targets in a nuclear war? Why don’t they flee from there? While they still can?

Looking down at the delta, it seemed perfectly obvious that everyone who lives at sea level should be heading for the hills. But we’re not made to think like that, and it’s good that we’re not—it would be misery to no purpose.

I don’t usually think about things like fire and flood and the human condish. Usually I think about things like—toast. Or where to walk the dogs. And as far as I’m concerned, that’s the way to be. Sufficient unto the day, you know?

But I’d been travelling for work, and I was lonely and homesick. And I’d been reading The Unwomanly Face of War, Svetlana Alexievich’s collection of interviews with the Soviet women who fought in World War II. I felt the astounding luck of living a life with hardly any fear or suffering, and also felt how quickly luck can turn.

But the plane landed and routine kicked in, comforting and familiar. Take a pee, get your suitcase, order a Lyft. The driver and I got to talking, and he told me that he can’t swim, and when he was a teenager he almost drowned, but as he was drowning, he thought about how embarrassing it would be to die like that, in front of all his friends, and so he saved himself. We laughed about that. And then I was home. The dogs at the door, Pete in front, Colin behind, squinting in the wind from Pete’s waving tail. And then Enzo jumped out of Colin’s crate with a roar.

And everything went back to normal.