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LESSONS FOR SURVIVAL: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse,” by Emily Raboteau


Emily Raboteau’s “Lessons for Survival: Mothering Against ‘the Apocalypse’” opens with a touch of twisted wit. Pregnant with her first child and on the way to her baby shower, she glimpses a chalk message on a sidewalk sandwich board: “The end of the world is nigh!” The moment — an announcement of impending death colliding with a celebration of imminent birth — encapsulates the tensions that propel Raboteau’s book, a soulful exploration of the fraught experience of caretaking through crisis.

Across 20 essays, many illustrated with her arresting photos of murals and other public art around New York City, she considers a trio of calamities: climate change, racially motivated police violence and the Covid-19 pandemic. Compounding these problems for Raboteau are developments both political and personal, including Donald Trump’s election to the presidency in 2016; her trials with sexual harassment and abuse, chronic pain and the death of her father (the great historian of religion Albert Raboteau); and the environmental and caste disparities of American society.

Her central concern is how to parent responsibly in perilous times, when the earth is warming, the country is divided and even the grown-ups feel lost and afraid. “What does it mean to survive in the midst of protracted crises; to continually renegotiate threats against life; to cope?” she asks, building to the haunting question that drove her to write her book: “Will my children be all right when I’m gone?

At her baby shower, she receives a handcrafted quilt as a present from her mother. The quilt, which features an iconic American log cabin design, becomes a recurring motif, as Raboteau dwells on the need for home, the love of home and the impermanence of home, highlighting the plight of climate refugees (and noting that many Americans will one day fall within that category). She also draws on the quilt to shape her book’s artful structure, stitching her essays together according to the log cabin pattern, which joins disparate horizontal and vertical bands of cloth into a harmonious whole. Juxtaposing images of death and life, despair and hope, Raboteau insists that even as we face a world that “is changing faster than we can,” we must continue to care for one another and to embrace everyday joys.

As she shares her experiences as a writer, mother and Black New York City resident, she skillfully interweaves observations by friends, scholars and literary figures like Emily Dickinson and Toni Morrison with grim climate data and social science findings. In her first essay, the lovely “Spark Bird,” Raboteau traces a trail of painted birds across Upper Manhattan — part of a National Audubon Society project to raise awareness of endangered species — discovering that they lift her mood. The first mural she notices, which she calls “my spark” (birder lingo for the bird that prompts a casual viewer to become an avid bird-watcher), depicts a pair of burrowing owls. Suggesting associations with wisdom and death, and, in the case of this species, a protective dwelling place, the owls poignantly embody her book’s themes.

Elsewhere, Raboteau reports on trips to Israel and Palestine, where she learns about the local water crisis, exacerbated by political conflict; and to a Yupik community in coastal Alaska, where she interviews village elders about environmental changes they’ve witnessed. Yet another essay, a climate diary she kept over the course of a year, consists of comments around the dinner table by friends anxious about erosion, flooding, wildfires, hurricanes, cyclones, sandstorms, toxic algae blooms, drought, desertification, arable land loss, heat waves, locust swarms and more. If her obvious subjects are loss, survival and resilience, a quieter but no less important one is the life-sustaining act of sharing our burdens.

Her final essay, the lyrical “Dream House and the Pond,” is an allegory for our age. Here, Raboteau describes how she and her spouse purchased their first home in the Bronx only to discover that it was built on wetland. After losing a battle with the water that pools in front of the house, Raboteau learns to accept and respect it. “The pond is the paved-over wetland reasserting its form. It transcends the mirage of the house,” she writes.

In this house vulnerable to the elements as the climate deteriorates, Raboteau has many beloved things: her father’s desk, her backyard garden produce and her family. All are threatened by the multiple crises outside her door. Nevertheless, on the final page of her book, she returns to the comforting quilt motif inspired by her mother’s gift: “Our land is a quilt, and our house is only a structure among structures among pollinating plants visited by bees.” Perspective can be a saving grace.

While Raboteau grapples with much that is wrong with our troubled world, she does so with bracing honesty and insight. The strength of her book is her willingness to express concerns that many feel but are reluctant to voice. Realizing that she cannot protect her children from environmental and social changes already underway, she faces into the headwinds of that parental pain, singing her sons lullabies as they fret about superstorms flooding the subways, and teaching them the names of birds despite knowing how many are critically endangered.

As Raboteau studies a photograph of her sons dressed in fearsome Halloween costumes, she reflects: “My young look strong and alert. Good. They will have to be brave for the roadwork ahead.”


LESSONS FOR SURVIVAL: Mothering Against “the Apocalypse” | By Emily Raboteau | Holt | 284 pp. | $29.99

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Credit: NYTimes.com

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