I have come to suspect that I experience only two kinds of sadness: the kind where I have lost something, and the kind where I have done something wrong.
The first would be the loss of the wobbly gold earrings my mother bought me one sunny afternoon years ago or my favorite winter coat, left on a train. Lost sleep. The sorrow of losing a best friend when I broke up with him, or the respect of another friend because I said too little after her mother’s death. This kind of sadness arrives in a flood. When it has passed, it leaves a void.
If the first sadness is a kind of grief, the second is a kind of shame. This is the sadness of sharing a rumor only to hear that someone was hurt by it, a hurt that hits me the way a bird hits a window and then falls twitching to the lawn. The sadness of kissing someone when one of you already has someone else, making a secret as naturally as some people make babies or zucchini bread. It can be triggered by something as minor as telling a joke that is met with flat stares. If the first sadness makes me want to rewind time, the second can make me want to escape it entirely. The world would be better if I were not here, I think. Maybe I should leave this place.
Is it useful to parse these sadnesses? I’m not sure. Each kind can be petty at times. Still, I am trying to separate them because lately they have become intertwined, tangled in both an emotional sense and an environmental one. It has become increasingly difficult to ignore the way the components of my life, its continuing creation—the meals I cook and eat, the lights and heat that sustain me through winter, the T-shirts I sometimes buy on the trips I often take—represent both a wrongdoing and a loss. A depletion of resources that are not mine to take. I consume; I mourn the effects of my consumption. I am ashamed of my grief because I know that I myself am causing it. This sadness, like the capitalism that breeds it, feels inescapable. As if, by being a twenty-first-century American, I have been cursed to enact one selfish choice after another until the sum of my actions constitutes the loss I bear. On the worst days I wonder how much of my sadness for the natural world is actually sadness for myself, nostalgia for a time when I knew less. I fantasize about seeing our world through the gloss of the passive voice: The coral reefs are dying. The honey bees are disappearing. How easy it would be to mourn those losses. To feel insulated by the distance between me and them. I could grieve for those catastrophes the way I grieve for my neighbor’s cat, an animal who one night just did not come home. Instead, I gas up my old car. It’s me, I think, turning the key. I am killing the coral. The sadness of my wrongdoings has become the sadness of my loss.
One day I confess this shame-sorrow to the woman who created me. I try to sound casual, as if it has just occurred to me, the ongoing apology of my days. I look at the roll of toilet paper and hear displaced birds; I reach for my iPhone, aware of child laborers in the supply chain. I keep on going, hauling compost to the co-op and jars to the bulk aisle, not because I think this will change the world but because it makes it slightly easier to live beside the engine of my body. Oh sweetpea, my mother said. Beneath her words I sense what she has often told my sister and me: we are not defined by our sadness or guilt, but these are feelings we can welcome like guests at a party, knowing we can say good-bye to them, knowing one day they will be back. My mother often quoted Rilke: No feeling is final.
By the time she was my age, my mother had lost both her own mother and her brother. She knew loss the way I know good luck. And yet she learned to wake up in this world day after day, closing the door to her sadness. Lately, in my own life, I have become skeptical of that peace. Peace feels like complacency. The longer I live on our warming planet, the more I feel a responsibility to remain on edge. Like an iceberg, ready to crack.
I used to marvel at dryer lint, thump downstairs whenever my mother dragged the laundry basket across the cement. I’d be at her elbow in a second, peeling the lint from the dryer filter with all the tenderness of a weekend fisherman lifting the backbone from his trout.
The trick to loving lint is to let it be its own material. A beautiful byproduct, nothing more. You cannot consider how much of our collective matter is in the lint. Not just bits of T-shirts and gum wrappers but also bits of ponytails, scabs, the forgotten tissue from a nosebleed. You have to see the lint as a creation, not detritus. Lately this has become impossible for me.
For environmental reasons, I bought clothespins, a drying rack. Still, inevitably, I sometimes use the dryer. I claw the lint away when it accumulates, nails scraping the mesh as fibers crumple in my palm. In the creation of lint I see the depletion of other things: the hole in the crotch of my favorite Levis, my calico pillowcase worn thin as cheesecloth. The lint has become a reminder of shedding—of the waste I do not want to make and make anyway, of the things I do not want to lose and lose anyway.
I once lived with a woodstove, and because I had read you could use dryer lint as a fire starter, for a while it was redeemed in my mind as useful waste. Then one afternoon I lit a fire for a friend; as the lint spit into blue flame his eyebrows rose.
“We’re probably not supposed to be breathing that.”
Even as he spoke, I felt it in my lungs. Suddenly all I could think of was the rayon, the polyester, the Lycra and fleece and cotton and skin and dirt, sliding down my nostrils, over my tongue.
In that moment, I lost my defenses. I did not feel like a body separate from the world; I felt like a parking lot where life had stopped for a while. I felt the chip bags and cigarettes and bottle caps roll toward me, and that too was mine, so I caught it all.
I followed an artist to China. I was just out of graduate school, and I wanted an adventure the way some people wanted a tan. I had recently ejected myself from a life with a kind and loving man, which is another way of saying I had burned my script. I was clinging to anyone who would write me into theirs. Faced with the prospect of that first sadness—that first loss—I wasted little time in setting up the second. I just want you to be sure you feel comfortable going? my mother said over the phone before I booked my ticket. It’s so far. I heard her breath catch: she was climbing a hill. That or she was thinking about how recently I had been living with another man. I was not sure whether I was right to go to China, but I was bored with self-doubt and trying to adopt the confidence of the artist. Maybe I too could shrug ego on like a hoodie whenever I felt sad. I feel good. I said. It’ll be an adventure.
The artist, who was South American, was living at a residency in Shanghai for six months, trying to capture smog with a camera and a paintbrush. He was tall and thin, like a Giacometti sculpture, spoke five languages, had hair the color of fish-skin, and a bank account so plush he promised to pay for everything once I arrived. When the Chinese government granted me a month-long visa, I traded airline miles for a middle seat and began to research light pollution. In deciding to scaffold our romance with productivity, we had landed on this shared area of inquiry. Light pollution. One word ostensibly good, the other not. Like “sugar rush,” it suggested that somewhere along the way the proportions had gone off.
I had met the artist on my home continent, but in the few months we had known each other, we had also traveled to his, and now we were going to a third one. Though we had bonded over a shared preoccupation with climate change, we averted our gaze from the emissions implications of our own long-distance affair. Had we added it up, we would have seen that the kindling of our relationship had led to the creation of some 13.87 tons of carbon dioxide, a number equivalent to that released by driving eleven times across the United States, or to the yearly energy use of 1.7 American homes. Would knowing these numbers have stopped us? I am certain: no.
The month before I flew to China, the artist and I spoke on the phone about the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s latest report. 2040: that was the year scientists estimated our world would warm 1.5 degrees Celsius, entering a new stage of climate catastrophe. In 2040, I would be forty-nine. The artist would be in his sixties. It felt thrilling to project ourselves together into this terrible future. I imagined us living in a cabin, collecting rainwater, singing multilingual songs as we wove baskets out of hemp.
Our first meeting had been at a different residency, where, not far from my studio window, he had built, and a few days later dismantled, a sculpture made of split wood. I could not get it out of my head: this man, shirtless, throwing wood into the back of a truck. You are an apocalypse man, I thought. You will know what to do.
My first morning in Shanghai I woke with a throat like a forgotten water glass. Dust me, I thought. My head was webby and leaden. I drank cup after cup of green tea. The artist watched me and shook his head. Today is really not that bad. The internet told us that the Air Quality Index was 162, which qualified as “unhealthy” for all groups of people but was much better than the low 200s the city had seen some months before. A few weeks earlier, the artist had asked someone to hang out a sheet for him on their balcony; he told me he was still waiting for the air to turn the cotton gray. What then? I asked. You’ll paint on it? He shook his head, waving me away. Who knows! The end is not important yet. It had been two months since I had seen him, and he looked different. He seemed to have lost both weight and joy, his eye sockets two empty bowls. Outside, we walked behind a group of laughing teenagers, and I tried to bask in their breezy cheer. The artist bought three croissants at a bakery and handed me one. He was a vegan, but I didn’t question this exception. For a minute, my mouth tasted like butter and not like street.
That day the air was all I let myself think about. I felt I should see it like dryer lint, as its own triumphant material. But I could not peel the smog away, could not separate it from myself or anything else. It was the lens through which I saw the coal boats drag their quiet cargo up the Huangpu, the tourists with their selfie sticks and jelly-bean-colored windbreakers, the plastic-caped commuters biking by like oiled birds. The haze was made of all of these things, and with every breath I was made of the haze. Later I read that America’s demand for cashmere had caused an increase in goat farming in Mongolia, which led to herds deforesting the landscape and sending clouds of dust to Beijing. Five thousand miles away, in America, my mother ordered me a cashmere sweater half-price online for an early Christmas present.
As the day burned on, the sun traveled like a flashlight in the fog. The artist told me I could look directly at it here without harming my eyes. I did not know whether I should believe him, but I was trying to focus on being young and strong, so I let myself peek. The ball of light seemed to wobble in the gray, hanging like a moon in the water. I turned away quickly. I looked to see if the artist was watching me, but he had stepped away. His eye was in his camera’s viewfinder, lens to the sky.
While walking the narrow alleyways of the city, the artist and I spoke hypothetically about our artistic collaboration. These conversations helped me feel I was creating something useful by putting my body in proximity to his, by swallowing all the moments I felt stung. Perhaps we would make a video essay, or perhaps a multimedia book. I had three weeks to spend in China, and anything seemed possible. Even after I realized we would be poor collaborators—he wanted photos of the sky that took the human out of the Anthropocene; I wanted to write about the particular interiority of existing on the ground—I let myself prop up his vision. The artist was most fun when he was scheming, throwing his arms in the air then squeezing them around me, sliding between his language and mine as he told me what great adventures we would have, what brilliant art we would make. I couldn’t risk seeing that part of him go. We bought pomelos big as volleyballs at the market then split them open on the hotel bed. I read about pollution and he painted each day’s suns, and we pretended a mission was knitting us together.