The Skies Are Darkening

As the storm approaches, I have a strange kind of calm. I know that my wife and my children love me, so that’s all right; and I do trust that they know I love them. But a man wants something other than that. We need to be needed. 

Here I am, alone in a small house on the Isle Madame, which is actually a network of one big island and several smaller ones, extended out a bit from Cape Breton in the Gulf of Canso. It’s raining outside, and Hurricane Fiona is about to hit. I don’t know whether the house will still be standing tomorrow. 

It’s 160 years old, and that bodes well for it, but the barn out back is in rough shape, and there’s a fir tree in front that I should have cut down a long time ago. As it is, I climbed a ladder this afternoon and cut off several of its most threatening limbs. I don’t have a chainsaw here, and I don’t think the electrical tool would have liked the wet wood and the rain anyway.

My wife and our grown son and daughter are staying at a friend’s house, high and dry—we hope—35 miles inland. I’m here to make sure that if something does happen, and something could be done to mitigate the damage, somebody will be on site to do it. Of course, it is all quite vague. You don’t know what you’ll need to do until the need arises. And it’s not as if I have plenty of tools here to deal with a crisis. 

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There’s no generator, for one thing, and so there won’t be any running water from our well. I’ve filled a large plastic tub with water from the shower, to dump into the toilet, or to give to the cats. The power will almost certainly go out tonight, and it may be several days before it’s repaired. I will probably throw the breaker switch tonight to disconnect everything before the storm hits because there’s no sense having live electricity coursing in a house that may be burst open.

I’m worried, but I’m also at peace. I’ve said my prayers, and all now is in the hands of God. I’ve noticed other people, yesterday and today, pottering about their yards, battening down the hatches. Other men have been doing a lot of tree cutting too, in anticipation.

It’s a strange kind of calm, what I am feeling now. I know that my wife and my children love me, so that’s all right; and I do trust that they know I love them. But a man wants something other than that. Perhaps we all want it. We need to be needed. 

In the ordinary course of human life before our technological revolutions, you didn’t have to wonder whether you were needed. The need was obvious and usually urgent. The children have to be tended. The animals need water and food, and they need to be kept reasonably clean, too. There are always crops to see to, food to stalk or gather, fruits and vegetables to preserve for the winter. Clothes must be darned or mended or patched or cut down to fit a smaller child. The hearth must be swept clean of ashes. Logs must be chopped and stacked and kept dry for the fire. 

Nothing should simply go to waste. Everyone has work to do, and most of the time that work is done best when the boys are over here and the girls are over there. They become interdependent, and that makes for more than efficiency and solidity. It makes for gratitude and the satisfaction that you have met the challenges of life as best you could.

I recall once reading in a newspaper from the 1880s that an unusually warm winter might pose a hardship for the local hospitals, with loss of human life. That was because there wasn’t enough ice from the lakes. And, of course, lake ice isn’t simply beamed from outdoors into a hospital cooler. It must be cut out of the lake by men and boys with ice saws, and stacked in blocks, and stored that way, banked with sawdust, in ice-houses, to last through the rest of the year. 

I imagine being a sturdy little boy on the lake, not able to handle the saw but big enough to carry blocks from the lake to the horse cart, all while the men are sawing away and chatting, and it being a bitter, bracing, sweaty, dead earnest, and yet merry time. Such memories penetrate to the marrow of the soul.

No, there could be no unnecessary people then, and neither men nor women would be so foolish or so ungrateful to suppose that life would be better, or would even be possible, without the other sex. Every day, the boy had to do what boys did, and every day, the girl had to do what girls did, and that was no cramp on them but a way to flourish.

It is a boon to man that we no longer must rely upon ice saws and ice tongs and horse carts and ice houses. And surely it is a boon to man that most people are no longer bound to the vicissitudes of daily necessities for procuring good food, warm clothing, and a roof over our head. What is not a boon to man is the sense that he is no longer needed. That is deadly.

A moment ago, I received a message from my wife, who has gotten a message through to the construction worker and all-purpose handyman and developer down the road, letting him know that I am here. For she does what women do, and what men sometimes feel uncomfortable doing. I appreciate that.

Often, I think that when you are needed, and in particular when you are needed as a man or as a woman, and that includes the boys and girls who are men and women in training, you don’t need to turn your body and soul inside out in order to express what you desperately want to believe is your true self. And the more bizarre this invented self is, the more urgent and unreasonable will be your demands that others acknowledge it. For if they do not play along, the whole pretense may fall to pieces, like a cheap puppet show put together with cardboard and paste and strings.  

A boy shooting game birds in the woods to bring back home does not need to be acknowledged. The action speaks for itself. Food is food. The girl on her hands and knees in the middle of spring cleaning, taking a stiff brush to hidden corners where dust and fireplace grime and dead flies collect, does not need to be acknowledged. The action speaks for itself. A clean house is a clean house.

But the drag queen, the “nonbinary,” the girl who has her breasts cut off or who takes drugs to sprout a sparse little beard, the boy who longs to be unsexed and to be known as such, the “otherkin” prancing about on all fours and purring like a cat —all these are pathetic cries for help. “Notice me!” they cry. “If I’m not needed, at least I’m—myself! I’m—other!” 

And the more sentimental among us, the less thoughtful, often the less loving, sometimes even the more vicariously engaged, play along; and it is not like throwing a lifeline to someone drowning. It is like opening the vortex of unmeaning ever wider, to swallow many another confused or lonely souls, and to cast the last lifeline of sanity into it. Sure, such mental diseases are a luxury for people in our time, when food is abundant and you can get through a whole life pretty well without ever acquiring a single real practical or artistic or intellectual skill. But they are diseases nonetheless.

The skies are darkening now, and the rain is coming steadily down. We will see what we will see. God help us all.

[Image Credit: Unsplash]

  • Anthony Esolen

    Anthony Esolen, a contributing editor at Crisis, is a professor and writer-in-residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts. He is the author, most recently, of Sex and the Unreal City (Ignatius Press, 2020).

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