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Culture

We’re Thinking About ‘the Apocalypse’ All Wrong

A conversation with essayist Emily Raboteau about hope and her new book, Lessons for Survival.

A mother and child.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

It was another Emily who wrote, “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers,” but Emily Raboteau’s Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” builds on that notion in a fresh and literal fashion. The collection of essays, out March 12, is loosely structured around Raboteau’s attempt to see and photograph all of the paintings in the Audubon Mural Project in her New York City neighborhood, Washington Heights. In practice, though, the book is an honest look at the overlapping injustices of our current age and an inspiring suggestion — by way of example — of how to move forward and survive.

Optimism, though, is not easy. Scrutinizing the idea of “resilience” in the face of climate change, Raboteau notes that the word means something different to communities of color who’ve managed retreats for decades — including her grandmother, Mabel, who fled her home of Bay St. Louis, Mississippi, after Raboteau’s grandfather was shot and killed by a white man who faced no legal repercussions. Visiting the territory of Palestine, Raboteau witnesses the water crisis in the Middle East being weaponized against the region’s poorest communities; in Alaska, she sees traditional ways of living in the Arctic slipping out of reach for the survivors and descendants of residential schools, government-run institutions that aimed to forcefully assimilate Indigenous children.

Present in every essay is Raboteau’s perspective as a mother, which is fierce in demanding a better world while also necessarily believing that one is within reach. Even the bird murals — the tundra swan, the burrowing owls — become messengers of hope.

I spoke with Raboteau ahead of the book’s release about the adjective “mothering,” learning resilience from one’s community, and why “apocalypse” doesn’t have to be a bad word. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

I wanted to ask about the change in preposition from the title essay, “Lessons in Survival,” to Lessons for Survival, the book’s title. There’s an ever-so-slight change in meaning with that switch. Was it something you were thinking about?

What I like about the essay title from which the book title grows is that “Lessons in Survival” implies I’m the one who’s receiving lessons. To me, this is not a book that is offering — well, I don’t want to say it’s not offering guidance, but I hope it’s offering a feeling of camaraderie in the confusing and distressing times of the polycrisis we find ourselves in. It’s an acknowledgment of the bewilderment many of us are feeling and includes examples from people I think are wiser than myself about how to move through times like this.

Rather than being the author who’s offering lessons, I think of myself as more of a narrator who is interested in receiving lessons and witnessing examples of survival, and then sharing those with the reader.

You wrote the essays in this collection between 2015 and 2023. What was it like going back and revisiting your older essays? Is there anything that particularly strikes you about how your worldview has shifted over the years?

One of the earliest essays included in this collection, from 2015, is about playgrounds. In New York City, playgrounds are common spaces where all kinds of classes and races mix. Yet they are also spaces where a lot of parents encounter conversations about school choice that often are really coded conversations about race and class. And that can feel distressing. The concern that drove that essay, which is about imbalances of power, is a concern that drives all of the essays in this book. It’s not a coincidence that the less desirable school districts overlap with poor neighborhoods, which are also the areas with the highest rates of pollution and asthma. I’m really interested in staring grim asymmetries of power in the face, trying to dismantle them, and figuring out my position within them.

Another early essay was the Palestine one, about Israeli settler colonialism plus the installation of renewable energy and clean-water systems in the terrorized Arab communities of the West Bank's South Hebron Hills, which was actually my first explicit piece of environmental writing. Another thing that unites all these essays is the narrative perspective of a mother: How do I raise ethical and safe human beings in a world that feels in many ways like it’s unraveling? I had no idea when I was revising and expanding that essay for this collection that the war between Gaza and Israel would be unfolding, yet I hope that it offers readers some context about the decades of conflict that led to this war and that it gives a sense of apartheid — a sense of a literal imbalance of power vis a vis electricity, but also water access. I wasn’t in Gaza, I was in the West Bank. But still, you get a sense of what life is like for Palestinians there, and it’s only grown worse since the time I did the investigative reporting for that piece.

I really loved that essay — there’s a line when you’re going through border control in Israel that describes motherhood as “invisibility and power.” I was underlining and highlighting and circling that.

Motherhood confers a kind of moral authority, but there’s also the sort of thinking like, “Oh, but you can’t be too much of a threat. You’re just a mom.” In this context, I was using motherhood as a way to pass more easily through customs and then through a checkpoint. But I’ve been thinking lately about how radical a perspective and a stance motherhood is. To say, “You know, what I want more than anything is for all of our kids to live.” That’s my political stance: I want all of them to live.

The book’s subtitle, “Mothering against ‘the Apocalypse,’” seems like a call to arms — that fighting the apocalypse requires mothers. How do you see the role of mothers as different or set apart from the role of fathers or people without children when it comes to standing against the polycrisis?

Mothering is a very powerful way of thinking about the nurture and care that I feel is required to meet the moment. I also want to be sensitive to the fact that people who are not biological parents can also be mothering. We all have the power to be that; it’s why we also understand you can’t get between a mama bear and her cubs. You’re going to get torn apart. There’s great power in that role: Whether we are mothers or not, we may be mothering, and so — how did you just put it, that maybe mothers are required in the fight? It’s more like the fight requires the action of mothering.

It was also important to me to add scare quotes around “the apocalypse” in the subtitle because I felt it would be offensive to activists to suggest that the future is foreclosed. I wanted to suggest we’re in an apocalyptic mode, but I didn’t want that term to stop people from action.

Something else about the term apocalypse: I have a friend, Ayana Mathis, who is writing about the apocalypse in literature right now, and she reminded me that the ancient Greek term means literally “to unveil.”

I didn’t know that!

The way we use it so often is about the end times, the end game. We have a lot of biblical imagery we associate with it: fire and floods and locusts. But what the root word means is “unveiling,” which I find really exciting to think about. Yes, we’re in an apocalyptic moment and let’s actually accept that. It’s an opportunity for waking up.

There’s a tension in the book between the outdoors as being a kind of haven — it’s where your kids play, it’s where you go on walks and see the bird murals, it’s where you have your garden — and the outdoors as a source of danger, from the air pollution from car exhaust to the rivers rising. How do you manage to reconcile those two things?

I don’t want to suggest I feel the perils come from nature. The perils come from what is being done to specific communities, like the Black and brown communities that we’ve chosen to live in. My family lives in a frontline community, and so the solace that we get nevertheless from being outdoors, especially in parks in New York City, is crucial and restorative. In this book, I’m interested in holding cognitive dissonance. Nature is both a space that is imperiled, a place that has been plundered and abused, but it can also be a place of joy, a place that is home, and a place that is worth protecting and trying to alter to make safer for more people. I wanted to write about what it feels like for all those things to be true at once.

The sense of community in this book really struck me, particularly in some of the essays in the section “At the Risk of Spoiling Dinner.” Do you think of community-building as being one of your lessons for survival?

Absolutely. I’m really glad you picked up on that because I think it’s the number one thing. It’s driven by the feelings of care and love that I also associate with mothering. Ancillary to that is thinking about relationships not merely between parent and child but also in my extended and beloved community. That section that you’re referring to is an admission: “I can’t handle my degree of anxiety over how bad and scary things are by myself.” If I can’t talk about it among the people I love and trust and also listen to what they’re saying, I’m at risk of being stuck in this feeling, and that’s not helpful to anybody. It was a mobilizing gesture for me.

For a year, I committed to asking people in my social network both online and in person how they were feeling the effects of climate change in their bodies and in their local habitat. I did that because climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe has said one of the best ways we can combat climate change is to bridge the gap between the number of us who are appropriately fearful and the number of us who actually talk about it. I was like, “Well, that’s an interesting idea. Let me try to put that into practice.” Was it an uncomfortable subject at dinner tables? Sometimes. But mostly everybody had it at the tip of their tongue; they were just so ready and grateful for the question.

I wanted to ask about the photos in the book, particularly the ones of the Audubon Mural Project. You use the word “document,” but the pictures are also intentional and creative — there are almost always people in your frames, and the photos seem to be as much about capturing a small part of Washington Heights as they are about recording the mural. Was there a moment when photography became a creative endeavor for you in addition to being a log, or were those two things always the same?

I think they’re really interrelated. There’s also a third thing: a therapeutic hobby. Some people find repetitive gestures like running or knitting to be ways of calming down their brain, and for me, especially during the Trump years, that’s when I began photographing the birds. It was a way I understood I could relax. It was a repetitive gesture, a thing I knew I could do to make myself feel better because I was getting outside.

These bird murals are sites of beauty and also memorials. Some of these birds are expected to be extinct by 2080 if we continue our current trajectory. So photographing was a way of paying attention and being in community and, you’re right, it was also an artistic project. Including people on the same plane as the birds was important even in thinking about endangerment: When we think about conservation, we often think about wildlife and wild places, but I also really wanted to be intentional in thinking about who’s endangered in the community I live in and the nation I live in.

What do you do, now, to survive?

One thing that I do to survive is name that there are so many feelings involved. Knowing that some of the feelings are in the space of fear, despair, anger, rage, bewilderment, and confusion — dark feelings, for lack of a better term — and understanding that I don’t linger in any of those feelings, that there are strategies to get out of them.

For me, it’s photographing birds in my neighborhood and gardening, getting my hands in the soil and contemplating and engaging with the most basic miracle that out of a seed comes a plant. That helps me to move into the space of those other feelings of being in this time, which are more in the space of hopefulness and gratitude. The feelings that come from being in a community with others, working through the hard stuff. Feelings of purpose and a deep sense of meaning. What I’m trying to say is: Understanding you don’t have to linger in the dark side; there are strategies to move into the space of action and unity.

Normally I end these interviews by asking if you feel optimistic, but I actually left that question off this time because your book feels so hopeful that it would have been redundant of me to ask.

I’m really glad that you shared that with me. It’s a hard balance to strike in writing because we want to be honest. I was thinking about that, but I almost always tried to end my essays in a place of hope — even if it’s an image, even if it’s tinged by ambiguity, to still lean toward hopefulness. That was important to me because who am I to linger in the opposite of hope when there are so many people working?

I want to amplify, also, the people and peoples who’ve lived through existential threats before and to highlight their resilience. Because that’s how we get through this — with lessons. I’m not the one who’s offering them; I’m trying really hard to learn them so I can offer them to my children.

Green

Jeva Lange

Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City. Read More

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