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Black Boots for the End of the World

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Molly Stephey/National Museum of th
Molly Stephey/National Museum of th

I was in Paris recently, walking and walking as I do, when I realized that the black boots I had worn for several years were on their last legs. What better place to purchase a new pair than in Paris? I allowed myself to consider the splurge as I wandered shops and tried on pairs of boots. Just the day before I had, with my friend Karen, an American expat with whom I was staying, been discussing end of the world theories. We talked of the natural and unnatural disasters which were plaguing the world. Over wine, we speculated: What if? What if?

A few days before, in London with my daughter, where we had met up during her break from a semester abroad in The Netherlands, I had talked her down from yet another existential ledge: Over the past couple of years, perhaps sparked by her study of philosophy and religion, perhaps fired by the news of disasters both natural and man-made she had spoken to me several times about her life, the future, the two of those things in tandem. She wanted to know: What does it all mean?

The young are pondering the future and its possibility, the possibility that there will be none, while my friends and I, in late middle age, on the far side of our lives, are wondering: What are we leaving? What will happen? What have we wrought?

I easily remember a time without computers, cell phones, iPods, cable, VCRs, DVD players and even CDs. Yet, like most of us, I made the transition from that time to this, rather seamlessly. My grandmother, who was born in 1891 and died just six months shy of her 100th birthday, transitioned from horses to cars, from dresses to pants. She lived through two World Wars and Korea and Vietnam. She saw women get the vote and enter the workplace. She learned how to "type" on a computer. In her 80's she still loved to play the slots in Vegas. But the future is happening far faster than even we can cope sometimes, and we are still worrying about it in 20th-century ways.

If we, too, many years ago discussed in heated terms the world's probable doom, if we fought against our own existential crises, we also tamped down our fears down enough to bring our children into the world. Was that an act of faith or foolishness?

In The New York Times a convincing argument is made that New York City will sink. Perhaps in our lifetime, definitely in our children's or grandchildren's. The Congo is exploding. The fragile cease-fire between Israel and Gaza is as thin as gauze. Syria is being destroyed from both without and within. Everyone has a hand in, a hand out, a need somehow for the violence we have spawned. And I was searching for black boots. A pair of sturdy black boots, not glamorous or high-heeled, not couture or outlandish. Just a pair of black boots to walk the streets of Paris.

I bought them. Of course I bought them. But not without the realization that they, like everything we buy and replace and keep and cherish, is ephemeral. Like our desire. Our hope. We look forward, but not without glancing more than once over our shoulder.

What is it that is coming up so close, so fast behind us? It is the consequence. The effect. All that we have caused by not looking far enough forward, by not taking seriously our history. By crashing into one another on Black Friday, just weeks after we gave up our time and our money to help those who had lost everything to flood and fire. If profound gratefulness brought us to the Thanksgiving table too many of us got up too quickly, to check the sales, to stand in line, to buy things we don't need, we can't possibly really want, and that others, who stand in line for a morsel of food, or a blanket, or a jug of water, could only imagine wanting, rather than needing, again, or once, or some day.

The refugees of Africa, the tribes buried deep in the Amazon, wear our cast-offs: t-hirts with American slogans, baggy pants, fancy sneakers. Ann Patchett, in her glorious novel State of Wonder parses this disconnect, and others. But the truth is that we are all disconnected. From each other. From what we really want. From what it is we need.

Many of us read books written hundreds of years ago: novels, histories, diaries and journals. But who will be around to read what we write now, today, this month, this year?

Whether climate change is man-made or just man enhanced, we have put our fingerprint on this planet. Whether wars are over God or land, we fight nonetheless harder. Whether the foolish selfishness of our government will cause another depression or whether we will avoid going over the cliff, we will just be putting off that journey downward. Eventually, inevitably, the worst will happen.

I buy black boots. Others spray pepper spray in the clamor for a video game player. Still others work all day long on a supposed holiday so that those who don't care about spending their holiday with those they love can shop and buy and destroy the day.

New York is sinking. The Congo is exploding. The rainforests of the Amazon are disappearing, playing host to shopping malls and people yearning for a better life. Our American Congress plays with people's lives like a puppet master while we the puppets pummel each other like Punch and Judy, so eager, so damned eager to be engines of our own destruction.

Yet I talked my daughter off the ledge. I don't believe in the end of the world. Not now. Not quite.

Occupy Sandy served 10,000 Thanksgiving dinners.

Cyber Monday was the most successful ever.

I buy black boots as a sign I will be around to wear them -- that we may all be around when the fires die down, when we all get tired of grabbing and fighting and killing. When we stop mocking those whose only desire is to stay alive, stop starving those who happen to live on the other side of the world. When those who still have hope that the cities will not sink, the ice caps will not melt, the forests will not be denuded and the world will not explode will be the most of us. The best of us. But hope isn't enough.

There are those who take seriously the Dec. 21 date as the end of us, or at the least, the end of us as we know us. There are others who point out the other dates of doom over the past centuries -- dozens of them each with their fervent supporters. Still others make fun, draw cartoons, or tamp down their anxiety with booze and drugs. And there are those who hoard guns and food, hoping perhaps to have a leg up on those of us who don't wish to think that way. But the future is now, the enemy is us. We should continue to behave not as though this is the end of the world as we know it but as if we can still make a difference now, right now. And for all the tomorrows we will have.