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On Fear and Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations

The cover of my local paper today featured a photo of a woman sitting on her front porch with her young son. In the accompanying article, she is quoted as saying, "We decided about two months ago to stop living in fear." This statement is a tricky one. It seems like the kind of empowering mantra that we should embrace, and perhaps there are times when it is just what we need. Today, though, in the face of a crushing pandemic, a compromised democracy, and the reality of climate change, I can't support such a statement. And Charlotte McConaghy's Migrations is part of why.

Perhaps you caught the subtext in that statement. The article is about the varying ways we might choose to spend the holidays, and this woman declares with confidence, "I'm not changing anything. We are celebrating as we normally would." She invoked freedom from fear as part of her commitment to things as they have always been. And this is where McConaghy's brilliant, devastating, and painfully hopeful novel enters the conversation.

Migrations is the story of Franny Stone and her decision to follow the migration of the last arctic terns on the planet. To do so, she falls in with the crew of the Saghani, one of the last fishing vessels still trying to draw a living out of the depleted ocean. The arc of their efforts and the unlikely community they build is one strand of this novel. It is the main highway of narrative, the one all the side roads shoot off from. Each offshoot draws the reader back and forth through time, revealing fragments from Franny's traumatic youth and unconventional adulthood. Her life is a mystery, and each new revelation can only be glimpsed, seen through a kaleidoscope.

Another strand of this book is about climate change or what the world might look like in the near future. This world is one where scientists are working to preserve and protect what species they can, focusing primarily on those that offer humanity something, a stance that prompts Franny to ask:

But wasn't this attitude the problem to begin with? Our overwhelming, annihilating selfishness? What of the animals that exist purely to exist, because millions of years of evolution have carved them into miraculous being?

Our overwhelming, annihilating selfishness. It is difficult to align that condemnation with such basic desires as to spend the holidays with family, to eat a hamburger, to drive a car. But in its quiet way, this book demands we see them as such. Our decisions have consequences. This truth is easy to teach children and nearly impossible to convince ourselves of. In McConaghy's novel, humanity is past those kinds of decisions, forced now to face their consequences. When Franny's husband, one of the scientists trying to save what he can, tells her of the crow's extinction, he laments:

Eighty percent of all wild animal life has died. They say most of the rest will go in the next decade or two. We'll keep farmed creatures. Those will survive because we must keep our bellies full of their flesh. And domesticated pets will be fine because they let us forget about the rest, the ones dying. Rats and cockroaches will survive, no doubt, but humans will still cringe when they see them and try to exterminate them as though they are worth nothing, even though they are fucking miracles. But the rest, Franny. Everything else. What happens when the last of the terns die? Nothing will ever be as brave again.

This is a chilling description, not least because of what does not change. Everything has changed in this possible future, except perhaps humanity. There they are, still doing things as they always have while the world disintegrates around them. Despite that truth, this novel is humming with hope.

How is that possible? I think it goes back to fear. Or, more specifically, what we are fearful of. Franny wrestles throughout with a wildness in her nature, something in her that refuses to allow her to stay, to settle, to put down roots. Franny is afraid that she will hurt those she loves - her husband, Niall, especially. Her fear is not for her own well-being; she is, instead, afraid of the harm she knows herself capable of. And at one point, she seems to be doing exactly as the woman in today's paper did, admitting how much of her leave-taking is rooted in fear and declaring,

It is so perilous, this love, but he's right, I will have no cowardice in my life, not anymore, and I will be no small thing, and I will have no small life.

Take careful note, there. Franny doesn't say she will stop living in fear. She says "I will have no cowardice." Fear evokes one of two responses: fight or flight. In this case, Franny is naming her flight as an act of cowardice, a way of trying to avoid the thing that causes her fear. But the root of her fear is her love for her husband. As any new parent knows, the thing we love the most will be the thing that makes us most afraid. To stop living in fear is to stop living in love. The fear isn't the problem. The problem is our response to it.

What we fear, we will protect against. We will do the hard thing, the impossible thing, the painful thing, the lonely thing because of our fear, not despite it. It is the ferocity of our love that makes us afraid, whether we are talking about people or planets. Migrations is urging us to live in fear. To behave now as though our planet, our communities, the animals and plant life as well as the people, are worth fighting for. And could I have foreseen this truth, I would have seen it on the first page. The epigraph, from Rumi, reads:

Forget safety.
Live where you fear to live.

If we survive (the pandemic, the political unrest, the global change in our climate), it will be because we were afraid enough to change our behaviors. We will leave behind the way we've always done things in favor of the possibility of birdsong.


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