Featured Prose | May 05, 2017
ViProse: “Pinterest for the Apocalypse” by Sophie Beck
Sophie Beck’s essay “Pinterest for the Apocalypse,” about maker culture and . . . yes . . . the apocalypse, appeared in our winter issue. Beck, the founding co-editor of the Normal School, lives in Denver. TMR advisor and University of Missouri journalism major Rosie Siefert interviewed her about essay writing, and how her original ideas tend to evolve into something else.
Pinterest for the Apocalypse
My sewing machine repairman is named Steve. At the age of nineteen and in the company of his mother’s retired railroad-man boyfriend, Steve took a three-month training course to repair sewing machines for the Hancock fabric-store chain. Thirty years later, he repairs every sewing machine ever made; some customers travel hundreds of miles to bring him their machines, and he gets frequent calls from people who ask how to train into his career. He doesn’t know. Steve doesn’t train new repairmen; the program he attended is long gone, and no vocational schools in the area offer classes. There aren’t many Steves. But people are sewing.
Denver fabric store Fancy Tiger offers between twenty-five to thirty sewing and knitting classes each month, plus weekly gatherings for social sewing, troubleshooting, and even a men’s craft night. In an Austin bungalow, Stitch Lab runs as many as six classes per day plus camaraderie builders. Back east, the Brooklyn General Store offers Sewing Boot Camp and a necktie-making workshop.
Fabric sales are up. Sewing pattern sales are up, including scores of downloadable PDF patterns now available on Etsy. Singer sewing-machine sales have grown over 100 percent in the last decade. Craft inspiration is a pulsing primary artery of seventy-million-user Pinterest; fast-growing Craftsy offers a dizzying array of webinar sewing tutorials at an average of thirty dollars each; and the Grand Lady of all things handmade, Martha Stewart, continues to get more than 3.6 million visits per month at her site. This interest in handmade garments and crafts comes at a time when manufactured sewn goods are more accessible than ever. In clothing, Inditex Group posted more than $20 billion in sales for 2015 at its 2,100 Zara stores. There are over 4,000 H&M, 2,700 Mango, 1,400 Uniqlo, and 600 Forever 21 locations. An H&M store receives an average of twenty new garments daily. Nearly the entire stock of a Zara will turn over every two weeks—the company annually produces around 11,000 different items for sale. Fast fashion has never been cheaper or faster. Home sewing used to be about thrift, but it is now very difficult to replicate fast-fashion prices on any home project. Not fifty years ago, many home seamstresses strove to make their clothes so expertly as to appear manufactured in order to dispel the stigma of poverty. But sewing is now becoming an emblem of beliefs—a rebellion against mass production, consumerism, sameness, and waste.
Home sewing is not meaningfully greener or less wasteful. Most home seamstresses are not buying less Zara; they are pairing their creations with their Zara. And sewing involves ample buying—patterns, fabrics, threads, zippers, tools, machines, materials. This is true even if the seamstress is conscientiously upcycling a used article of clothing. The real draw of sewing is feeling capable, able to perform a layered and technical manual task that results in a physical good, paired with the satisfaction of control—if you’re skilled enough and can find the right supplies, you are making something exactly as you want it.
I was fourteen when I first began to work on sewing projects with regularity. I made a hooded drapey blouse for which I never discovered or created the right accompanying pants; a jacket in a slightly Southwestern fabric that I grew so weary of during construction, I ultimately never wore it; a top in the Chinese cheongsam tradition with closures from armpit to standing collar but crafted from blood-red corduroy; and a pair of flowing, oddly sophisticated pants with the unusual technical detail of being entered like a diaper and then closed at the back waist and front waist. My mother helped me craft a simple black cotton knit dress that fit perfectly; I wore it all through college and well after. Countless attempts and ideas were thrown away.
There are a lot of makers now. A maker is the freshly purposed term for someone who has something else on the line when she makes things—a bit of identity, because “making” is a comment on modern life and a self-concept. That is, a home seamstress isn’t automatically a maker, per se, because a maker doesn’t simply enjoy sewing or other crafts. She is actively, purposefully reclaiming her manual skills.
There are fixers, too. A fixer isn’t just “handy” like your friend’s dad; a fixer might spend his Tuesday nights getting into the guts of a bread maker or a blender for the satisfaction of coaxing a dead appliance back to life as a matter of principle, as rebellion. Tinkerers in Brooklyn, for example, have the Fixer’s Collective, taking in their neighbors’ lamps and toasters for the pleasure of opening them up and rummaging about within. The open source site Ifixit.com is a hive of activity, particularly among those who would DIY the many ailing laptops and iPods of the world back to health. Fixers can’t always come to the aid of makers, though. Sewing machines, and the necessary precision of the lockstitch, are more temperamental than toasters. And unlike an iPod, which is not adjusted and calibrated so much as renewed with fresh components or fresh software, the guts of an ailing sewing machine are generally brought back into alignment more often than they are swapped out. This is not for a seat-of-the-pants hobbyist. When a gorgeous and pricey Bernina breaks down, no one want to fool around. It’s time for the seasoned sewing machine repairman.
Being a maker or a fixer is, for most, an on-the-side kind of thing. If it were a job, that would make the person a tailor or a repairman. It’s a hobby with a value system; it’s a useful hobby. If I am not making or fixing a useful good, my pastime is no more popular than it ever was, and, in fact, still marks me as a consumer. Buying parts for a model train, building out a comic book collection, or hunting down a rare coin—these acquisition hobbies are static or declining, and hardly anyone is trading in the Hummel porcelain figurines my grandmother zealously collected. Buffs are static or declining as well—music buffs and book buffs and baseball buffs—that kind of passion for ornamental knowledge isn’t fitted out with the same halo of purpose that, say, beekeeping, backyard chicken husbandry, and home canning have gained in recent years. If you can’t get something like a pot of jam out of it, it is not a booming hobby category. Sales of Ball canning jars have increased over 400 percent in five years, while philatelists posting to forum discussions lament the dearth of new philatelists.
In a service-driven economy, in which many of us find ourselves doing work with little in the way of physical or even visible results, the idea of making a durable, tangible, useful thing is enticing—but we can’t force ourselves to need it. That is, we’re a bit hard pressed to need the handmade coat in a sew-it-or-freeze way. We can, after all, still pick one up at the Eddie Bauer outlet or Goodwill. We are casting about for some sort of meaningful, earned skill. But you can’t fabricate a mandate around here: can tomatoes or starve, make clothes or have none. Perhaps we are playing peasant—a society of Marie Antoinettes.
My repairman Steve is precisely of “average” build, neither tall nor short, with the sort of trim middle-aged figure that is filled out but not heavy. He keeps his dark hair clipped short—you can imagine him to have a cordial relationship with the same barber of many years—and everything he wears fits. His pressed short-sleeve Oxford shirt tucks crisply into his pressed slacks, and his serviceable belt draws a nice, straight line between them. He wears his black drugstore reading glasses when he leans into a machine, and he folds them carefully in front of him when he speaks with a customer. Everything about him suggests that he is a sensible man with an orderly mind, and you can almost see the broken machines sighing their relief as they come into alignment with the calming precision of the confident repairman.
He doesn’t DIY the machines. He doesn’t hack them. He just fixes them. When he’s done, he leaves a little two-by-three-inch scrap of crisp white muslin under the presser foot showing a sample of the machine’s newly impeccable stitch capacity—one regular stitch, one basting stitch, one zig-zag. I don’t think Steve considers himself to be sticking it to the man or striking a blow against postindustrial consumerism when he fixes a machine. It’s just satisfying to make something work again. It’s Steve’s job, not his statement.
We are in a new phase in which the very success of consumerism has finally produced palpable consumer exhaustion. And the success of automation and industrialization—the success of our efficiency—has sapped our own sense of purpose. Let the computers and the robots do it. This is the first-world existential problem, the problem of having the computers and the robots freeing us up all the time and thus forcing us to find a liberated yet still workish pastime. And you can’t feel badly about it because it is desirable, as problems go.
The United States is hardly alone in its renewed interest in home arts and the making of necessary and decorative things by hand. Young Japanese are gripped by a craze for DIY; in sewing this is evidenced by the solid popularity of lavishly photographed and illustrated manuals and magazines such as Cotton Friend and Sewing Recipe (which also have cult followings among American seamstresses who attempt these patterns using the highly visual pattern instructions, despite no knowledge of Japanese). These magazines and manuals offer a range of projects from creating tiny, whimsical creatures out of felt to sewing sophisticated minimalist clothing.
Japan is a nation of 127 million people, 86 percent of whom live in densely populated cities, thrumming with salarymen (white-collar businessmen) and office ladies. Of these corporate workers, 75 percent do not ever leave the office during the workday; they eat lunch at their desks or in common areas with coworkers. Sometimes they engage in inemuri, or sleeping while present, which is the public power nap that illustrates your job commitment—so much time given to corporate life that there is none left over for sleeping at home. The average white-collar workday in Japan, by some estimates, is around twelve to fourteen hours. The average Tokyo commute time is over an hour each way. If this reality proves too much for you, there’s a word for what comes next: karõshi is death by stress and overwork. This is a vision of drone life spun out to extremes, and in this context the impulse to hand-stitch a palm-sized hoot owl with the sliver of remaining unstructured time makes perfect sense to me.
Although Japanese women are among the highest educated in the world, 70 percent of them do not return to the workforce for a decade or more after having their first child (compared to about 30 percent in the US). This is in spite of far more generous terms for maternity leave and generally better government commitment to early childhood education. The fertility rate in Japan is about 1.41 (1.88 in the U.S.), so it isn’t enormous families that keep women busy at home. Before Japanese women start their families, they often grind away in office jobs, densely surrounded by other grinders. Why return? Business life, with its limitations, the great letdown of a long and disciplined educational preparation, does not beckon to many Japanese mothers. The sirens these women are hearing sing from the hearth—the clean, modernist hearth.
The Japanese sewing pattern books feature gorgeous atmospheric photography set in crisply spare, white indoor spaces or lush summer gardens. Serene women in chic modern smocks gaze far beyond the camera. Beautiful little girls with hair in artfully loose waves model pinafores and gathered skirts. They play with the sort of wooden toys that bore most real contemporary children, or they gather bouquets. Many American indie sewing patterns feature photography evocative of a similar idyll. If the question is, “What shall we do with our time amid the new abundance of postindustrial life?” the answer appears to be that we stitch rompers for gorgeous childhoods free of electronics.
In 1914 the Smith–Lever Act made provision for home economics to be taught in extension programs in the United States, with the goal of improving the quality of home life. This was expanded with the Smith–Hughes Act of 1917, which funded home economics at the secondary-school level. When I took mandatory home ec in the 1980s we baked cakes and sewed pillows. Home ec has changed since then—sewing has been phased out of many schools, though my repairman Steve still contracts with fifteen schools to tune up their machines each summer. Most programs, now rebranded as Family and Consumer Science, focus on nutrition, child development, relationship skills, and financial management. No baking. No sewing. Personal finance is undoubtedly a more relevant skill in a world of disposable clothes.
But to appreciate the lost-art quality of home sewing, I need only flip through the Vogue Patterns book at my local fabric store, select a vintage pattern marked “average difficulty” or “difficult,” and review the directions. I’ve been sewing fairly regularly for much of my life, but pattern instructions of “average difficulty” from 1930 can bring me to a standstill. At the minimum, I stop multiple times, wrapping my brain around this or that curt little directive. We are barely a generation from the home dressmakers, and the old average is now a high bar for hobbyists. The seamstress of the twenty-first century careens between her limited skill set, lower stakes, and lower expectations, and the high stakes of making a self—of embodying the able maker who reclaims lost arts. Perhaps because it is about the self, making has become a public process. Young women who sew now often publicize their projects—they blog about sewing; they post lavish project photos to Pinterest; they Instagram out photos of their creations. The images and stories of production are just as much the product as the object being made.
The truth is, I’m no maker—just a seamstress. I have to acknowledge that this process of sharing sewing with a community of encouraging, like-minded acquaintances and strangers doesn’t call to me; neither does the anticonsumerist statement my choices may make. I’m an introverted seamstress who makes her kids’ pajamas, Easter dresses, and Halloween costumes, and it took me years to introduce myself formally to Steve, my repairman of a decade, and ask him questions so that I could write about him here. I am pre-social media, hardwired toward more privacy and less sharing.
I see the makers as through a sheet of glass. This troop of seamstresses is marching toward me in the acquisition of a skill I, too, diligently acquired. There aren’t so many years between us, yet they are not coming to join me; they reach the glass and turn off, moving in another direction, answering some call I can barely make out. We are sisters in sewing, but I wonder if it is fraudulent in some foundational way to write about the makers because I am a spectator to their motivations and dreams. What is it that separates me? Perhaps it is simply cynicism.
A stitch by hand is achieved when a single needle holding a single thread penetrates the fabric and then reverses course, pushing back up through and drawing the thread along—over, under, over, under. The machine requires no acrobatic reverse of its needle. The needle descends, punching a top thread through the fabric, where it forms a loop; the loop is penetrated by a second thread held on a separate spool called the bobbin. This is a lockstitch, and it involves the repeated intersection of two threads, top and bottom, to create a series of links between them. As the machine runs, the operator cannot see the bobbin thread at work because it is underneath the fabric—the union of the threads is a purring mystery in the bowels of the machine. Meanwhile, the presser foot holds the fabric in place from above while the feed dogs advance the fabric rhythmically forward from below. The sewing machine does not replicate the process it was designed to replace. Human action is not just improved on but fully ordered out, obsolete not just for slowness but for process. Running a home sewing machine means embracing a process you cannot see and achieving the work by a means your hands cannot duplicate.
The sewing machine is ingenious and graceful, a credit to the minds that conceived it. And yet. Mechanization liberates so many of us collectively from drudgery but loads the work onto a smaller segment of operators—factory workers in faraway places.
To stitch a woman’s dress by hand in 1830 would take a capable seamstress about ten hours. Most people of limited or moderate means at this time owned two sets of clothing—one for work and one for dress. Ready-made clothing was nearly nonexistent, and those ten hours of production were primarily the work of women at home or of tailors and dressmakers in their homes or home-connected workshops. Much of what was ready-made in the United States was intended for slaves in the South and settlers in the West.
By 1930, despite the crash, clothing constituted the third-largest category of expenditure in the average family budget, and by 1960 Americans were spending over $25 billion on clothing each year. Two outfits per person in 1830, and now Americans buy 20 billion garments a year, or an average of sixty-four per person. I own five pairs of yoga pants. Still, for the conscientious, there is the Bangladesh problem: my child’s disposably cheap T-shirt weighed against the life of a Bangladeshi child working for nearly nothing, nearly every moment, in an environment-polluting factory that then burns to the ground with her trapped inside.
This is where we of the first-world economies have traveled with the stunning efficiency of the sewing machine, and there is guilt in it. We have the smudged souls of participants, of complicity. The makers take back the sewing machines, take back some part of the sewing. We work to consume less and feel lighter and more virtuous as we shed the evidence of past consumption. As the raging popularity of Marie Kondo’s The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up suggests, there is respite to be had by thanking our old clothes for their service, then bagging them up for donation so they no longer stare reproachfully at us.
And then we imagine the ultimate cleanse. In our popular culture, we consume apocalypse narratives one after another—the world wiped out by disasters and plagues, aliens and zombies, again and again. As contributors to a shameful mess, we dream of the redemptive clean slate, the fresh start: a little variation on the Great Flood, or perhaps Armageddon. And in the dream, we are each Noah—or at least Mad Max. Preserved, we begin again.
The perverse appeal of the global apocalypse is the promise of legitimate work and an unburdened soul. It seems as if we would no longer be concerned with many of our existential difficulties if existence itself were imperiled.
Perhaps we are straddling two worlds. One is the one we live in, where white-collar skills appear to serve us best—programming software, and marketing to one another, and speculating on sovereign credit default swaps while hedging on the currency risk. The other is the world we conjure—the postdisaster world, after the grid goes down and society implodes and we must forage and build fires. Book reviewer Charles Finch, sifting through summer thrillers for The New York Times, wearily writes, “another pandemic, another set of scraggy toughs, some sputtering electricity and frontier justice, a few wryly evoked leftovers from the glossy, taken-for-granted old world, the one we live in now. Another post-apocalyptic novel.”
I can stop by anime-planet.com and order any of the 128 different Japanese anime films and series that take place on post-apocalyptic future earths. A fraction of what is available in Japan, these are just the ones adapted for overseas distribution. The Hunger Games series has made $1.3 billion worldwide so far; Mad Max:Fury Road made $375 million. Snowpiercer made $87 million, and it was an outlier—a darling of the underground, directed by a South Korean and based on a French graphic novel. And Japan’s own Godzilla reliably brings down the grid every few years—his latest film made $526 million in 2014, despite being almost universally panned.
Would it be violent: facing down marauders and thieves? Or would it be bucolic: returning to a Little House on the Prairie life and tilling the soil? It is a fantasy of utility, of the meaningful contribution—make something, fix something, grow something, protect something. The makers and fixers embrace this yearning to be manually capable, to be ready with a skill, but the fantasy of do-or-die implementation belongs to everyone in the Cineplex. I imagine myself raiding the Garden Center in those first days of chaos, stuffing paper seed packets into my knapsack in preparation for the long aftermath. I wonder where I’ll source my chickens and how I’ll irrigate my crops. My sewing machine won’t have power, so I’ll be reduced to the hand stitch once more. I wonder where I’ll find a book about animal husbandry or farming, or drying meat properly, since all the knowledge of our world now seems to reside on the Internet, which won’t be there to aid me. Perhaps I should buy a lot of twine to stash in the garage, just in case. A survivor will surely need twine. And a flint. I should have a flint. Like maker and fixer, there is a name for the person who puts focused forethought into disaster readiness: prepper. Modest preppers are thinking out the vagaries of surviving a week or two without power or finding family in a besieged city. The more serious preppers are ready for complete global disaster.
American investor Kyle Bass, who came into the public eye after anticipating and profiting by the subprime mortgage crisis of 2008, is nicknamed “Nickels” because he reputedly purchased $1 million in nickels in 2011 on the premise that the metal within them was worth more than the currency value of the coins at that time. Given that it is illegal to melt down U.S. currency and resell it for its metal value, this is a long play that suggests punishment meted out by the US government was not a pressing concern in the planned-for scenario. Nickels lives in a large compound in Texas with no small quantity of guns. I think of him as a prepper of great scope and imagination.
But my mind doesn’t go to the prairie or the dystopian postdestruction wasteland when I sew. Most recently, I made a replica of Madonna’s jacket from the film Desperately Seeking Susan, which I wore to an ’80s party. I was not imagining the utility of this item after the breakdown of the social order.
I’m not hoarding fishing tackle or learning how to use a bowie knife. I’m not even sure where the flashlight is if the power goes out at my house, and I have a bad habit of letting the car’s gas gauge go low—if we had to make a run for it, we’d sputter to a stop thirty miles outside of town. I’d be hard pressed to say how my cooking skills would hold up in a world without gas ranges and refrigeration. I do hope I’ll be useful.
When I was in high school, I hung out with the debate team. I was attempting to compete in original oratory, which was basically composing an essay, memorizing it, and then delivering it before a group. I was not especially skilled at this because I was shy, but many of my high school projects involved bettering myself. The debate team did not arrive at speech meets armed with carefully crafted oral essays. They had to uphold, fervently and convincingly, whatever side of an argument they were allotted on arrival—one’s own beliefs were entirely ancillary. The competition lay in the development of a sleek argument. The best debaters could crash through, riding out a sometimes loose or even farcical argument until it took hold, convincing itself into legitimacy. Here I am now, the author of an elaborate and maybe forced theory built on light connections—sewing to stave off karõshi, the guilt of Bangladesh, prepping to be a new Noah, and so on. Yet this is a fundamentally first-world freedom; the right to build this slightly specious argument or richly imagine the apocalypse or stitch a small felt creature is the purview of the comfortable, maybe the underutilized, mind. The point then is not whether sewing will make me useful in a pinch, but whether I can make this argument to myself as I go and, like a debater, make it convincing enough. Can makers and fixers justify their hobbies as grooming for a larger purpose? Prepping undoubtedly seems somehow diminished if it turns out to have been a needless exercise. Is it enough to just be prepared with our skills or supplies, though never required?
My oldest daughter was describing to me her dream house. It had many rooms to make things in—art rooms and sewing rooms and such. It was situated on a vast property, for which she planned vegetable gardens and fruit orchards, hives and coops. She would cultivate most of her own food in this sprawling and self-sufficient compound, she said and then announced, “I like things that are survival.” I imagine she’d like Nickels’s place. City kids love mountaineering at summer camp and field trips to urban farms, and the daydream of things that are survival grows up in them even as they tramp off to colleges and then office jobs. There are so many of us city kids now that the yen for rugged capability is an atmosphere, a tone in our narratives, even when it is not a storyline. The author David Guterson sees his own Snow Falling on Cedars as projecting a world viewed and written through “the gloss of a city boy’s flirtation with salt-of-the-earth living.” Rural simplicity called to him as it calls to the hobbyists. My daughter refers to the compelling can-do trappings as survival and he refers to them as all things yeoman. “An avid and dream-borne, politicized projectionist, I imagined I might survive apocalypse by dint of my own good handiwork,” Gutterson recalls.
We have won so much of the leisure Aristotle prized—freedom for our minds to wander, learn, and explore, to better the human condition. Yet we have not replaced the labors of our ancestors with an equal ration of new and also necessary labors or bent much of our leisure toward further improvement. What shall we apply ourselves to when the cupboard is full of professionally preserved stores and the dishwasher is running? What greater, enlightened pursuits will come of our freedom from drudgery? Perhaps they will be fewer than we would wish.
Meanwhile, there is a teeny-weeny panic that we push down as absurd, but that lunges upward in our popular culture. It is the fear that we are going soft, that we can do nothing for ourselves. The machines will manage us and make what we need made. Paradoxically, because I often feel harried, I also feel that I am the idle charge of the machines, none of which could I ever take apart and reassemble. Perhaps the fixers experience this tension as well, and they open the toasters up to recover some small bit of mastery from the machines. Otherwise, it feels very late Roman Empire—too decadent, too vulnerable, too soft and boozy and incapable. Otherwise, it feels as if we are poised to fall.
William Manchester argues that Europeans during the Middle Ages were living in the deep shadow of the former glory of the Roman Empire. They continued to use roads and aqueducts that could no longer be engineered with the reduced knowledge and capabilities of medieval engineers. There was a general pall over the populace, the sense that the Golden Age had passed and they were not living with a brilliant future yet to be realized, but rather had missed a glorious past now beyond their capacity to recreate. This would be us—surrounded by electronics we wouldn’t be able to fix, machines we could no longer make to run. The manuals, after all, were only ever available online. We will have no printout of the knowledge that was, having entrusted ourselves, and everything we knew, to the Internet, to the machines.
Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World turns on the vision of a society checked out on the future’s feel-good pill, soma, and purring along with busy manufacturing. Resident World Controller Mustapha Mond, lover of new clothes, tells the nodding masses that “ending is better than mending” and plots the desires of the mob to support the humming cycles of production. “We don’t want people to be attracted by old things. We want them to like new ones,” he asserts. Among the novel’s core characters, there is a desperate, subversive fascination with the primitive reservation that Huxley places just off the edge of his carefully managed civilization, beyond the last outpost of any futuristic H&M. But the old world cannot accommodate traffic with the new world, nor the new world with the old, and no one can cross between them without damage.
Still, we consider the excitement of it all, the end of our comforts and the new tasks. Who will sew the breeches beyond that wild frontier, after the collapse? Someone must pickle the garden vegetables for the long cold winter. Someone will fix the little machines we salvage from the wreckage of this current glorious age and hook them to the cleverly rigged electrical generators we will fight viciously to defend against marauders, and we will live beneath the precious strings of LED Christmas lights on faltering scavenged batteries and sit close to the fire, warming ourselves as we tell tales of those halcyon days of surfing Pinterest for free downloadable tote-bag patterns, upcycled from worn-out men’s flannel shirts. Far, far away—farther than the mind can even grasp, though once it was a daily nonstop with meal service—Mariko is rendering fat from the kill and wearing the shift she once made for herself from a pattern in Cotton Friend.
Repairman Steve is a congenial person with a pleasant and unassuming way of being with others. His job gives him satisfaction, and he chuckles at the characters he meets—drag queens who sew their own costumes and pay him in singles, rowdy quilting clubs—but he doesn’t meet a lot of characters; he mostly just helps very ordinary people, the old guard who sew and the new guard who make. He’s not the scruffy, wily, resourceful maverick you imagine will, against the odds, rehabilitate the long-abandoned dune buggy when the apocalypse comes around. He seems more like one of the folks who get crushed by the meteor, or the tidal wave, or the alien blast in the first fifteen minutes of the film. And I’m the determined mother who dies just as she gets her last kid on the last helicopter—they’re orphans now, but survivors in a new age, a new story. Maybe the oldest keeps a photo of me that she shows to the younger ones when she comforts them in their new, harsh life. In the photo, I am young and achingly pretty. Steve and I are the sorts who get dispatched early on so the survivors have some space to operate—so they are, by definition, survivors. If Steve makes it, he’s not a main character any more than I am—the repairman and housewife are definitely zombie fodder. The apocalypse is always meant for the young—for my resourceful ten-year-old who will undoubtedly come to see herself as a maker and for some new Guterson writing in his twenties, when imagining his moody yeoman’s landscape.
My oldest daughter, survival lover, sewed through her finger with the machine when she was eight. She looked away from the humming work and her finger slipped in—I still don’t know precisely how. The needle punctured her nail and split it squarely down the center, then the needle broke in half as it glanced off the tip of her bone. I turned the wheel to release the needle upward, release her finger. I snipped the thread that now connected her to the machine and, holding her hand high above her head to slow the bleeding, I drew the thread out of her finger tip; it had passed right through—one end sprouting from the crack in her nail and the other end dangling below the whorled pad. In the end, for all the trauma of the incident, all she had to show for it was a band-aid and a bit of ointment. She barely cried, never panicked. Perhaps she has the grit for postapocalyptic life. Then for ten days she faithfully swallowed her pink liquid antibiotic, in this way protected from infection developing in the tiny fractured bone at the very tip of her dainty index finger. This was her pediatrician’s cautious prophylactic addition to my first aid. Antibiotics would likely be hard to come by in that wild, remade world. How would I protect her then? With this thought, my mind drops with relief to the safe and comfortable present like the folding telescope or collapsible camping cup I could have carried in my knapsack. I need not be more useful tomorrow than I was today; stay the barbarians.
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