S201 The End of the World

In this episode, perhaps the only of Season 2, Joe ponders viruses, snow, aging, and the end of the world.


This morning, Friday, March 13, snow has come to Portland. This is how the world ends. Or begins. I’m not sure.

This recording is not, really, a Weekly Reading. I’ve debated how to continue with those. On one hand, I have been incredibly productive: Since my last recording, I’ve finished the draft of a novel, completed a book of poems responding to Genesis, and am nearly 200-hand written pages into what could emerge as a theological memoir. If nothing else, my voice and my interest are shifting further from fiction and into ideas, theology, and wisdom. The idea of contracting myself to weekly readings may slow the progress I’m making elsewhere. This recording, this brief informal essay, then, may be a blip, an outlier, an anomaly—like a stray radio signal momentarily appearing from somewhere east of Mars.

But, today, I feel like writing something. I feel like reading something I wrote.

In this last year, I have grown strangely comfortable with becoming more boring. I am aging. And there is nothing that aging writers seem more fascinated with than writing about aging. If, as writers and humans, we’re paying attention, that writing contains wisdom. If we’re not, it reveals how shallow we’ve been and will, probably, remain. If I haven’t been paying attention to the strangeness, wonder, and lessons of life by now, I’m not likely to start. Or, if I do, my revelations will sound more like the pop psychology of reality television than the hard-worn sagacity of Ecclesiastes or Elie Wiesel.

Aging truly is fascinating. Having completed 48 years, and working on my 49th, I now have data. Life has started to show patterns. And when patterns repeat, we can see meaning—or, at least, seasons. Life is repeating.

More than this, I am growing strangely comfortable with being boring. I watch my children—and my wife’s children—with an understanding that it is they, not us, who are interesting now. The good movies and TV shows, the ones with real drama and excitement, are about the lost and seeking, not about the found and complacent. The young and vibrant, not the middle-aged. A year ago, a stranger in a new city, single and traumatized, I was more interesting, though much less stable. And now, as the world enters a new type of anxiety, people talking about the end of the world or society or capitalism as we know it, I feel oddly at peace. Like I’ve seen this before. Like, if I live long enough, I will see it again.

This morning my wife and I had the conversation being had in every home, school, and workplace. What it all means. What we should do. Where it all leads. And the only thing I could think of was a story about St. Francis. How St. Francis, when asked about the Apocalypse and the end of the world, said, “”Even if I knew that tomorrow the world would go to pieces, I would still plant my apple tree.”

Though, as I fact-checked, it wasn’t St. Francis at all. I should’ve seen that coming. According to the Internet, my primary source for how to face the virus and the world’s end, the quote is from Martin Luther. Though, likely, neither Luther nor St. Francis said it. The best guess is that the story showed up in 1944, when the world was the closest it has been to ending until the Cuban Missle Crisis. Apparently, someone in the Confessing Church within Germany said that Martin Luther said this bit about how to carry on in the face of the end. Do what you would normally do. Go to work, help the needy, plant a tree.

There is, whoever said it, some wisdom in that. I’m not sure if it is uniquely Christian wisdom, but it certainly corresponds to a Christian perspective, when Christian perspectives align with wisdom. Today, my wife may plant some seeds. She meant to last year, but she was a little flustered. She was starting to spend her planting time with a man she met. The world was starting for her. For me. But today the world is ending, again. And she may plant seeds.

The snowflakes are thick now, like ash. On a clear day—not today—when I drive I-5 heading north, I can see Mount St. Helens. 40 years ago, the mountain blasted 1,313 feet of stone from its summit, atom-bomb billows of ash and rivers of mud. Parts of Mt. St. Helens are probably in the snow and in the virus. It was a Sunday morning in May 1980 when Mount St Helens erupted. It was black as night at 10:am. We looked out the windows at the blackness. And the four of us kids asked my parents what was happening. It looked like the world was ending.

Theme music is “Holiday Gift” by Kai Engel, via Creative Commons. For artist information, see http://www.kai-engel.com

By Joe Johnson

Joe lives in Portland. He writes. Some of it is good. He earned his MFA in Creative Writing through the Rainier Writing Workshop (at Pacific Lutheran University).

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