I had wanted a bonfire on the Amagansett beach for the millennium. At midnight, I had wanted to put on my down jacket and, under the stars, standing by the light of a blazing flame, let the universe know that I and mine were still to be counted among the grains of sand, among the amino acids and the protons of matter, dwarfed by the vastness of time and space. I wanted to announce we had not been vanquished, extinguished, but, breath by defiant breath, stood tall under the blackness, beside our logs, shoes slipping on the dunes. I wanted to let my soul slip out of my mouth, icy white dragon puffs in the darkness, and listen to the slapping of the waves, the rolling, implacable banging of water on shore. I had hoped for a visible moon, its white hospital-corridor light on the water, jagged, moving snakelike from the horizon to the shore in a line pointed directly at my feet.
But it turns out that it isn’t so easy to get a permit for a fire from the town authorities. It turns out that some of my party are unwilling to defy the law or test the local patrolmen. Aren’t the police at their own celebrations? Shouldn’t the authorities be nail-biting over Y2K and running drunks to the hospital rather than plaguing innocent citizens who simply want a fire to warm the hands and send a timid signal to the Deity? Some of my party remind me that it will be bone-breaking cold outside. Some of my party prefer to celebrate in warmth. “You can have a fire in the fireplace,” one tried to soothe me. Some, and I really sympathize with their point, find the gesture of freezing on the beach romantic in the worst sense of the word. “I wouldn’t be caught dead in the middle of the night waving a candle at the universe.” “It’s rather like,” one member of my family said, “a child’s message sent in a bottle out on the ocean’s waves. Cute, but in this age of e-mail, very retro.”
And I suppose it is. Furthermore, my crowd won’t be won over by simple girl’s camp gestures: No marshmallows and guitar music for them. So I may have no choice but to be sophisticated on this, my only millennium. I will try to look like Myrna Loy with a champagne glass in hand. I will try to be witty like Dorothy Parker and drunk like both of them, but not passed out. I will toast politely and tinkle my glass and attempt to be brave about the fears that jump up in my heart and twirl in my brain, reproducing, swarming.
I am afraid of a world without trees. I am afraid of the end of mankind, water rising from global warming, fish gasping their last in the garden. I am afraid of viruses emerging from the violated rain forests, bleedings from the nose and the skin and piles of bodies left exposed to flies and insects. I am afraid of the devout. What will they do to the rest of us? A small bomb, a release of anthrax or nerve gas in the subway? I am afraid of the vile human heart, machetes chopping off arms and legs, Uzis turned against classmates, politicians, the I.R.S., the F.B.I., local pizza delivery boys. I am afraid we aren’t up to it, the task of sharing, even as the diminished resources of our planet demand we cooperate or strangle.
If I weren’t afraid, I would be a fool. But the truth is, these public anxieties, these common fears, are easily put aside. Something will work out, I think. It’s not over yet. Those lunatics who walk around with signs, “The End Is Nigh,” what are they but those who wish us ill, whose hallucinations are of the ungentle type. Other things, more private things are harder to dismiss.
I worry about book reviewers, do they hate me or mine? I worry about publishers, will any of them survive the great conglomerate swallowings and still let a stray, difficult, offbeat printed word survive. I worry about doctors. They know so much that their wires may
be overloaded. Will health care become like education–a slogan on the campaign trail, a vanishing reality? I worry why so many otherwise nice people seem to hate Hillary Clinton. I worry that my enemies will flourish and my friends be bowed down. What if all the people who blame everything on the Jews clump together and become a critical mass? Will someone remember to keep my grandchildren’s passports in order?
I worry that my children will not love well, too little, too much. Their lives seem like novels in which the plots twist and turn. I want happy endings and have stopped believing in them. I worry that if they do have more children something will go wrong, so many chromosomes must behave themselves, so many chemical reactions must go as planned. I worry that sickness will be cruel to us, that our deaths will be hard. I worry that those I love cannot be protected by my love. I worry that I might have done better; what chances were missed? I worry that there is no excuse for the muddles I have made and will make. I worry that there is an excuse, but it’s weak and lacks dignity. New Year’s Day is a time for resolutions, but the millennium seems to require more than just a list, it needs an overhaul, a washing of sins in the rivers of truth, which won’t happen, not on Long Island, anyway.
Which brings me back to my bonfire that probably will not be. The focus on Y2K is just a convenient and concrete way of expressing the vague anxiety most all of us feel as the planet takes us over a hump. It is a way of making technological noises at a phenomenon that is at least as much in our minds as in our machines. We are helpless before time and fate, not entirely helpless but not in charge, not at all. We drink, we shake our collective fist, we drop crystal balls from great heights, we scream and blow noisemakers, but inside we tremble, as well we might.
If I could have my fire, at least I would feel that I made a mark in the sand, a mark by the sea. If I could have had my fire, I would have known that human consciousness is puny, paltry, forgotten but not entirely without grace. That’s what I wanted to say on the beach.
Follow Anne Roiphe via RSS.