Steam Amidst Smoke: Embracing Absurdity in Climate Chaos

There is a tightness in the chest, a congestion of phlegm and nightmares. The stock pot boils an inch of water around branches of lavender and rosemary pinched off with hallowed urgency in the middle of the night. Steam undulates up from the potion, splayed outward by the ceiling fan and dispersing herbal ghosts about the living room where they quietly whisper quivering smoke particles into stillness. Or at least that is what I like to imagine; Home Depot sold out of air purifiers yesterday and Portland air continues to thicken with the aerosolized death of entire towns and ecosystems.


On Monday, I wore a P100 respirator to work at the grocery store. Alarmism has little footing in aisles of plastic popcorn bags and shelf-stable bacon, yet I was struck by the absurdity of it all when I found myself holding two baby-sized mangoes, one under each arm, in the middle of fluorescent-corporate-hell surrounded by masked customers and imported produce. I almost felt cute in my apron and space buns, sparkly locket and pink shirt highlighted by the bright pink filters of my respirator. Someone take my picture, for memory’s sake; this is iconic.


Of course, absurdity is as subjective as fact these days – one person’s Dali is another person’s timepiece. In the climate adjustment years ahead, this uncomfortable discrepancy will persist. I liken the discomfort to “Spirit Week” in middle school, when the dress-up theme is Wacky Wednesday and you wear your pants backwards with mismatched knee-high socks and one hundred clippies orbiting your head only to arrive at school and consider the consequences of your state of dress: Did you go too far? Will your peers shun you for your audacity? Is it even Wednesday? Too late to change anything, you set your jaw and walk into the hallway with your head held high, making a beeline for your locker…you are dressed the wackiest but seeing as that was the point, you feel at peace with your decision. At the end of the day you thank your braver self of early dawn for having clarity of vision.


Pandemic, fascism, and fire have me gearing up for survival in terms I once considered absurd. This is the late dawn of climate catastrophe after all. Last month, I built a haphazard go-bag with an assortment of items from my outdoor recreation gear closet, an exercise that illuminated the inherent privilege of recreationalists who already have items such as water filters and portable shelters. The irony clangs when my tools for sublime escapism are the same tools for impending climate immersion. I find myself taking notes from N.K. Jemisin’s science fantasy Broken Earth trilogy on how to live in a world of constant destruction and imbalance. Just as important as a go-bag is detachment from material possessions and permanence.


At a farm store on a nearby riverine island, an older woman wearing a hand-knitted neck cowl came by. She was shopping for local produce, as she also lived on the island in the trailer park across from the yacht club (as one does). The farm owners had evacuated their homes earlier that morning, awaiting news on the fire, if they had lost everything. “Wear the world like a loose garment” said the older woman as she paid for her squash.


Someday I’ll stop clinging to memories like they are the only blueprint for my future. Mostly the memories are sensory clips, like the taste of morning autumn air in the desert, or the weight of the river pushing against my oars, or the precipice of a kiss that I apply to present pains as a sort of salve. To truly let people, places, things and memories flow freely requires mental flexibility, an imperative skill for survival on our feverish planet that one can improve with consistent stretching. For a bit of practice: have you ever considered that money is merely symbolic solar energy or that fingers are like tiny arms on the end of your larger arm? Absurd, I know. But the more you think about it….


So I ask myself: Why I am still sitting here in hazardous air quality when I have an option to leave? Why are there unmasked construction workers building a duplex across the street? Why won’t capitalism just stop, not even in the face of combined pandemic and disastrous wildfires? Because some of us fear the absurd. Our inner middle schooler is afraid to stand out for being bold enough to commit to the task at hand. Because some of us are mentally rigid and haven’t stretched in a few years. That is what books and friends and the sweet, beautiful ground are for. Because some of us cling so tight to our things and surroundings that we can’t let go when they start to kill us.


Whelp. On that note, I think I’ll relocate for the day since I just found the courage and patience (and have the privilege) to do so. Take care of yourself, absurdly, so we can take care of each other and let our planet rest.



Sabrina Stein is a writer, river guide, and alumnus of the University of Utah Parks, Recreation & Tourism department. She is furthering her education in the water-laden land called "Portland" whilst working and raging in the catastrophically capitalist corporate grocery system during the pandemic. She dreams of integrating activism into an active lifestyle and is currently exploring the intersections of physics and art as they relate to water and her understanding of the outdoors. Photo by Nina Martynn. 

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