Discussions regarding the nature of ‘tomorrow’ are easy intellectual meat for amateur philosophers and pessimists alike. Whilst I fall into both dubious categories, I cannot bear to think about the next five minutes, let alone some grandiose probing of the future. The adage that none of us are guaranteed today holds as a clichéd but universal truth.
However, some of us are more vulnerable than others to our future unexpectedly crashing into the brick wall of the present.
I do not buy food in bulk because I cannot guarantee that I am going to be around to eat something I purchased today but might not get around to consuming before my world ends. I am stuck living in the short term. I only purchase the smallest tins of tea. Considering that tea is my main and most beloved form of sustenance, and I get through at least six cups a day, such pessimism is not exactly practical. I tell myself that even if the worse comes to the worst, I could throw tea bags into my backpack and take them with me if I need to run, like I have had to run so many times before, but I still cannot bear to plan for a future beyond the immediate moment. I keep my possessions and purchases to a brutally impractical minimum.
I am not terminally ill. I am not mentally ill. I don’t suffer from anxiety, nor am I a fatalist. I am undocumented. I exist in a state of permanent illegality. I am an illegal alien, due to fleeing domestic violence. Running for my survival caused my safety to disintegrate. At any moment my world could fall apart, ICE could knock at my door, and my future be launched into a state of beyond uncertainty, where my own individual Armageddon sits waiting for me. It is not easy to come to terms with living with an uncertain future. I cannot participate in the political system which influences our collective future and so find myself frustrated with my lack of ability to determine my own destiny. Only the suspicion that the power of the individual has been negated to the point of meaninglessness gives me any kind of comfort. Facing up to the increasingly authoritarian bent of the world’s governing bodies, and the threat that democracy lives under in the USA, is a particularly bleak and bare consolation.
I did not willingly put myself in this state of uncertainty and constant vilification for economic reasons, nor was it on a whim. I am not an anarchist, nor a self-centered hedonist. I am a woman who was in an international marriage in Japan, and whose husband engaged in serious and vicious attacks on me. I could not leave due to the demands of the Hague Convention on Parental Child Abduction, which states that a parent needs to have permission of the other parent to take the children out of their ‘habitual residence’. Suffering domestic violence is no defence, and no abusive man will let his victim go. I was trapped. I had no future in the purest sense: if I did not get away, I was going to be murdered in my own home by the man I married.
The future mostly happened to me in increments of moments, like all futures tend to do. Due to a quirk of personality which makes me more inclined to take huge leaps into the unknown than most people—especially when in fear of some terrible event—sometimes my future happened in great big bold leaps of change that took place at hypersonic speeds. Nothing happened for years except the drudgery of abuse and tolerating it to stay with my children. Then one day, I managed to pull off a coup. I ran through international borders trailing my children; I hid in rural campgrounds; I changed country and I changed hair color. I jumped from Japan to the USA knowing that I was going somewhere I had no home, no chance of comfort or support, let alone legal status, but that was better than dying. If I was dead I could not protect my small children in whatever future lay ahead of them. I made it out of the country with the babies and found myself on a highway in Los Angeles with a friend, the kids and about twenty bucks in my pocket. I stole myself a future.
By the time I left Japan I was no longer young. I entered the country in my mid twenties with my future spread out before me. I left in my early middle age years living the future I had got lost within. I was not an optimistic young woman. The future has always dismayed me. At 25 years old I was desperate to be loved. I had failed to embrace the reality of who I actually was, and instead existed in a limbo of an abusive present. By my early 40s I realized I owed it to myself to embrace my authentic self. I finally realized that trying to be straight was futile–I was a lesbian, and I was a survivor. I was a human being who wanted the opportunity to start again, away from the man who hurt me, away from Japan that suffocated me, and live in peace and safety. I wanted love. I wanted more children. I wanted a little home with a good fireplace and bookshelves. When I was in Japan, I dreamt of running to a country that would protect me. I dreamt of a future that was utterly impossible. I dreamt of having a partner in life who would hold my hand, not break my fingers. I longed to write and create.
I wanted a chance to be the woman I should have been in the past of some future that never seemed to come around.
I existed year after year in a war of attrition on the present imperfect. Every single moment I survived; every millisecond of survival was a moment closer to the freedom of the future.
Fear is the enemy of the imagined future. I had decided right at the beginning of it all that taking the children with me to safety was non-negotiable. I was too permanently injured to concentrate on the writing that made me feel alive. Various attacks took away more possibilities: I lost my hearing on one side after being punched in the head. My sight was damaged in the same attack. Hair never grew back after being torn out in various attacks. I used to be an attractive and fun woman. I turned into a broken thing bent on survival and protecting those I loved.
I imagined myself as the heroine of some Victorian gothic novel where the heroine turns into a terrifying spirit of protection and vengeance. I became scarred and untrusting. By the time I hit thirty years old, I realized that my future was never going to be the way I wanted it to be. It was not easy to accept the loss of the future as an entity that was bent to my will and desires. I fought against the loss of future happiness. I fought against myself. I railed against the future, but still The Future sits there, quiet on the mountain top eyeing me up like I am an ant crawling towards a volcanic crater, oblivious to its crispy future. The only trouble is I am not oblivious, yet I am still crawling, unable to go back, unable to pause time in its tracks, only ever inching forwards towards misery and destruction.
Time passed, and my future solidified into a continuation of the present moments of fear, violence and cruelty. My potential wasted away with me. My future could have branched off into a completely different and much more positive direction, if only I hadn’t got onto the train and met him. If I had been a few meters down the platform and got onto a different carriage or if I had been scheduled to teach a different class that evening. The past was full of a series of coincidences, bad luck and pain. The present was mostly unbearable. The future was either my own murder at his hands, or some saving grace that I could not even dream of happening.
The day after I managed to flee for America, I found myself on the I5, heading out of Los Angeles, north towards a campground by Castaic Lake. I felt the weight of the sky above me, bearing down on me like an anvil hammering me into a whole new different person. That hardened carapace of the past was being pulverized to show the shiny fragile scar tissue of a woman with a different future underneath. Who I wanted to be, who I wanted to be with, and who I was in reality coalesced in that perfect moment of spring sunshine dappling the busy Californian freeway. The future became something both terrifying and enticing all at once.
Living as I did in both in exile Japan, and also in my non-native United States, it felt as if my future ran in parallel to the rest of the world. My peers were becoming lecturers and journalists. They were in marriages that they could escape easily enough by a divorce. I was trapped abroad in an inescapable marriage pitting my body against survival, wondering if I could survive another day. My own personal tragedies were of a different world to the one outside my window.
Sometimes the worlds collided. When the 2011 Great Tohoku Earthquake shook the earth as I sat in Tokyo it dissolved the barriers between my world and the one outside for a short time. The future seemed so bleak. Huge energy was needed to smash my world with the outside one. I did not like it much. I am used to my own world being unsafe, but I get nervous when the world of people who live in a safer paradigm than I do merges with my own terrifying world. The pandemic had a similar effect. I was living outside in campgrounds at the time, and my compelled lifestyle became impossible. I became outraged that the world at large failed to have the decency to not fall apart on me. The little picture problems were hard enough to navigate. The bigger picture made everything so much harder. It was all change, yet again, and I ended up in a shelter. The uncertainty of the future is the worst part of it; none of us are afforded the benefit of foresight and hindsight is one hell of a dead end.
I’m currently sitting in the relative safety, if not security, of my little apartment. I won some, but I lost more than I was ever willing to lose. This incarnation of the future would have been wholly unacceptable to the past version of me. This present version of myself is happy to take whatever thin gruel is proffered to me. I live grateful for each moment I have with what remains of my tiny family. I live in the knowledge that my future may well be unbearable, but that I will probably survive that too.
I’ve accepted this bleak but bearable version of my own personal future: both the time that has now passed into history, and that which is yet to come.
Every day that passes brings an increasing encroachment of the outside world into my own and I cannot ignore our collective futures. I have slowly reintegrated into society, and therefore into a shared common future. I have the luxury of worrying about climate change, instead of literally choking on smoke in a campground with nowhere to go as wildfire rages all around me.
The real and metaphorical wildfire is eating up the collective future that I have fought so hard to be a part of. A person could almost be forgiven for thinking that we were entering biblical tribulation, with disease, wars, rumors of wars, ecological disasters and explosions of hatred and intolerance coalescing into a near future that only a very few corrupt souls want to see materialize. The sad fact of it is that none of this current and future world predicament is supernatural; it all has its terrible roots in collective big picture decisions which are part of the shameful history of our supposedly intelligent species.
The luxury of participating in a world that I am increasingly re-integrated into is not one that I am particularly comfortable with. The future is looking nuclear-apocalypse-bright and a cheap pair of sunglasses are not going to shield me or any of us from that reckoning. If my own personal troubles have taught me anything it is that if a person wants to survive then survival is possible, if not assured, despite whatever Armageddon comes to knock at the proverbial door.
What appears impossible now, becomes just another situation that happens, is coped with and maneuvered around, whether expertly or clumsily, and finally survived or not as the case may be. As a species we are programmed simultaneously for both self-destruction and survival, and however much we protest that there are things we don’t want to survive, the truth of it all is that something always wins out over nothing. There is no seduction in annihilation. The future will happen whether we are comfortable with it or not, the only question is, are we going to make it one that we can be proud of, or one that will be shameful and corrupt? I suppose it is up to all of us—even me—to try and steer the Good Ship Earth towards something a little less empty, something richer and fairer and a little less hard on the eyes.
At the very least all of us need to feel comfortable with buying the larger box of teabags. Is that too much to ask?