Roy Herndon Smith
In Weather (Alfred A. Knopf, 2020), Jenny Offill attends to what most of us rarely do, how we actually live in what the psychologist Daniel Stern calls “present moments” (The Present Moment in Psychotherapy and Everyday Life, W. W. Norton, 2004).
Offill composes a novel of fragments, which, as Parul Sehgal writes (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/05/magazine/jenny-offill-weather-book.html), “might be familiar stories of family life, but now imagine them told in shards, the plot edging forward in jokes, quotes, Zen koans. …. I read somewhere that clouds could be called floating lakes. That is what these fragments feel like: teeming worlds suspended in white space, entire novels condensed into paragraphs … the swirl of hair on the back of a baby’s head is as worthy a subject of contemplation as one of Wittgenstein’s aphorisms.”
In a present moment, Stern writes, knowing is global, of the, and Stern uses the word too, weather of the whole. Every differentiated quality, movement, and being, every sensation, feeling, perception, and thought participates in creating the world with a particular mood or atmosphere; each is, to use Offill’s word, “enmeshed” in the whole and each other participant in it.
In Offill’s fragments, as in the present moments that constitute our lives, knowing is, as Ursula LeGuin observes (Always Coming Home), from the inside. It is empathic; we feel with all else in the world. We are of the world we are in. Another word Offill uses for this reality is “interconnected”; as an example of interconnectedness, Sehgal quotes Offill who, in her novel, has an ecologist say, “’There is a species of moth in Madagascar that drinks the tears of sleeping birds.’”
Sehgal and Offill use three other words to evoke this reality. In these fragments or present moments, each being we meet is the “beloved,” about whom we “care.” Such care with and for others constitutes reality as “domestic,” the home in which we live with everyone and everything as family—”all my relations” (“mitakuye oyasin”—Lakota).
Offill, according to Sehgal, first imagined the novel “as a survival manual for her daughter,” with prescriptions for how to live in a world in which (and here Sehgal quotes “the heroine of Lucy Ellmann’s ‘Ducks, Newburyport’”) “’we ruined everything”—the world the climate and extinction crises are making. While it is true that the novel constructs what Clifford Geertz (The Interpretation of Cultures, Basic Books, 1973) might call a religious system of prescriptions for how to live in this devastated world, it does so, as Geertz writes all such systems do, by presenting descriptions of this reality and how we actually do live in it. The novel functions the way the tenth century Buddhist teacher Tilopa’s instruction, “just rest naturally,” does; rather than presenting a map that claims to show us a way out of this reality, it opens us to awareness of the moment-to-moment particularity of our lives in this world of suffering and love.
To “just rest naturally” is to find ourselves in reality as domesticity—to make wherever we rest a home that shelters us and whomever or whatever we are with, even if only a cat, a book, or the characters in a television show, a family with which we live. Commenting on Offill’s experience of “warm domestic commotion,” Sehgal writes, “But the tenderness of family life, as Norman Rush has written, exposes you to the ‘hell-mouth’—all the ‘thin places’ suffering can break through,” and not just “my,” or even “our” or “my family’s,” suffering. Offill closes Weather with, “The core delusion is that I am here and you are there.” In the fragments or moments that constitute reality, here and there overlay and interpenetrate, you and I rest naturally in each other. We know and feel, we suffer with (the translation of the Latin root of the English word compassion) each other, no matter how physically and temporally distant we are from each other.
The importance of Offill’s novel lies in its evocation of the domesticity of the climate and extinction crises. These crises result from how we have lived in the delusion that “I am here,” in an autonomous space categorically separated from “you” and the world, who and which “are there.” Offill’s work opens us to the realization that what we usually take to be unrealistic moral admonitions for how to live are realistic descriptions of how we and all else actually do exist, with each other and all beings as families, in reality as home. We only exist because we love each other as ourselves. What we do to others, not only other human beings, but also rocks, trees, bugs, dogs, oceans, stars, and all else, we do to ourselves.