About five years ago, two of my best friends lived on Quisenberry Lane, mere yards from my mailbox. One night at dinner, we started talking about the impending zombie apocalypse. It was the year everyone was watching The Walking Dead, and it seemed inevitable that the end of our world as we knew it was nigh. In response, we opened another bottle of wine and made a plan.
As soon as it all went to hell, everyone was to get back to the Lane as quickly as possible and by any means necessary. We would camp out in the studio, which has plenty of windows for light (since the grid would go down quickly) and a wood stove for heat and cooking. None of us could shoot or use a bow and arrow, but between us, we had some experience in medical emergencies and gardening. Later on, we mused, we could barricade the gate, maybe spread some chicken wire around the utility poles to grow a garden. We talked about going in on a solar-powered generator.
Next, we got together “go boxes,” smaller versions of Y2K preparedness kits. Ours was a large Tupperware container that used to house Christmas decorations. In it, we put some supplies, extra medications, alcohol wipes, and an old pair of glasses for me. We bought waterproof matches, a couple of solar flashlights, some MREs, and cans of beans. Added a pocket knife, a Leatherman all-in-one tool, batteries, toilet paper, and duct tape. And bourbon, figuring we could use it to either dress wounds or self-medicate. And because we’re die-hard Kentuckians, even in End Times.
My go box is mostly empty now, raided during the 2019 ice storm and the 2020 pandemic. The only things left are some MREs (do they ever expire?), a book about edible plants, and a deck of cards we threw in as a way to entertain ourselves. It all seemed like a fever dream, a fun but unlikely scenario. In retrospect, it’s easy to see that it was zombie-related because that made it all the more far-fetched. This solar-powered flashlight has a flare setting — and isn’t that cool?! But in a first-world country, we wouldn’t ever really need it, right?
Except now we find ourselves in an actual ecological apocalypse, our state annihilated by one natural disaster after another. Western Kentucky hasn’t finished rebuilding from the tornadoes before flooding lay waste to our Eastern Kentucky brethren. Our go box was a joke that aged poorly. Survival requires more than some matches and a can of beans.
And when I think about rebuilding a life, I think about Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 book Station Eleven, a time hopper about a post-apocalyptic world trying to rebuild. There are no gods or monsters here, just art as a means of surviving. The theme, repeated many times throughout the book, is survival is insufficient. What Mandel means is that staying alive is worthless if we lose our humanity.
Which brings me back to my go box and all the things it’s missing. Where are the road maps for how to really live? The blueprints for building a new existence? Where is my tattered copy of Neil Gaiman’s American Gods? How will I process the actual trauma of the apocalypse without lots of pens to underline the passages my soul must remember?
Today I learned that three elementary and middle school libraries in Letcher County were completely destroyed in the recent floods. A former elementary school librarian myself, I can only imagine the grief and loss these educators must feel. As Cicero wrote, “A room without books is like a body without a soul.”
To some, books may seem frivolous when you’ve no potable water or food. To my thinking, books are some of the best friends we will ever make, reminding us that we are never truly alone. A library is more than spines in a row. It’s life unfolding, the right book meeting us where we are and offering solace and acceptance however we show up. A library is a map to being a good human.
The OM Place is running a book drive through September 7 for these school libraries. Please drop off new or gently loved books appropriate for ages 5–13 at the studio. We are also accepting monetary donations (Venmo erin-smith-288). I will reach out to the librarians to see their greatest needs.
And in case you’re interested, here are the 15 titles that were added to my go box. What’s in yours?
- American Gods by Neil Gaiman
- The Stand by Stephen King
- Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban by J.K. Rowling
- Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
- The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
- How to Cook a Wolf by M.F.K. Fisher
- Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert
- Lonesome Dove by Larry McMurtry
- The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley
- The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary
- Time Traveller’s Wife by Audrey Niffenegger
- Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott
- Anansi Boys by Neil Gaiman
- Charlotte’s Web by E.B. White
- The Artist’s Way by Julia Cameron