Station Eleven

What would you miss?

That’s the question propelling Emily St. John Mandel’s futuristic novel, where life on planet earth disintegrates after a global pandemic.

Image credit: Amazon

Imagine a world without electricity.
Cell phones.
The Internet.

How would we survive?
Could we survive?

(That’s only slight snarkiness; I’m sure we’d cope without the Internet for a few days, but if earth’s population dwindled to a handful of people, I think we’d be in trouble).

For all its flaws (plot holes and an anti-climactic ending, for two), Station Eleven does offer an intriguing setup. Though I’m not really a fan of dystopian fiction, I voted for it as the next selection of my book club at work, on account that the plot had ties to Michigan. (I’m not really a fan of book clubs, either, but hey, free books!).

And actually, reading Station Eleven paralleled my own recent experience of moving and starting a new life – while realizing what I missed in my old one.

Forests and beaches.
Favorite trails.

(I’m beginning to find those things around Cleveland, too – did you know it was once called the forest city? – but after finally coming to terms with everything that was great about northern Michigan, anywhere else is a hard sell).

I don’t regret my decision, but just as one might take modern conveniences for granted until they’re gone, I soon realized that life in an urban jungle was going to be different.

Pay for parking at work? Seriously?
(Maybe I’ll just walk…)

Half an hour just to FIND a metered spot?
(I really SHOULD have walked…)

97 employees are already on the garage wait list?
(Now I definitely have to walk…)

Admittedly, parking woes would hardly be something to worry about if the world were ending, though it’s sometimes hard not to reminisce about my old environment. I may be getting plenty of exercise, but now I’m contending with cell phone zombies who walk in the middle of the sidewalk.

Thus, I couldn’t help feeling slightly indignant when, upon driving through downtown Cleveland to a rehearsal, I passed a giant billboard boasting a scene of fall foliage with the slogan “Pure Michigan.” (Whoever dropped off the case of water bottles for our break added insult to injury; we were drinking “Pure Michigan” bottled in Plymouth, MI.)

Aside from unexpected encounters with Michigan tourism ads, one of the few consistent reminders I keep nearby is a Petoskey Stone, gifted as a paperweight from a colleague. She added a simple note (appropriately, on stationery shaped like its home state): “Something for you to remember Michigan.”

There’s a paperweight that figures prominently in Station Eleven, too, as it changes hands, linking the old world to the new. As we see, the survivors eventually create a “museum” of items whose functional value becomes irrelevant. Driver’s licenses. Currency. Phones, iPods, and other miscellaneous technology. Useless relics from their previous lives that could have been thrown out (when’s the last time you needed a paperweight to survive?), but are retained not just for sentiment, but because “survival is insufficient.”

(In case you’re wondering, the author admits stealing the “survival” phrase from Star Trek, but she makes a good point: even during the darkest times, humans need art to appreciate for its own sake. Hence the traveling orchestra that also gets thrown into the plot, including a musician who ends up with the paperweight – which, ironically, doesn’t make end up in the museum – but I think that was one of the aforementioned plot holes).

What the author was suggesting, ultimately, is that it might not be a bad idea to stop and reflect on the everyday miracles that sustain and permeate our lives.  Need some light? Flip a switch. Thirsty? Turn on the tap. Even just creating this blog required resources that would have been unimaginable a century ago: wireless communication to and from an electronic device capable of translating keyboard strokes into strings of letters conveying meaning.

And those are only technological wonders. How does one put into words the beauty of an awe-inspiring sunset? The grandeur of the ocean? The wonder and intensity of a blizzard blanketing the earth with a mantle of dazzling white? (You can take the girl out of Michigan, but you can’t take the Michigan out of the girl).

With those kinds of miracles in mind, I can find plenty of things to appreciate about our world. Even with parking problems, it’s still a marvelous place to live.

What would you miss?