Kristi was dead, there was no doubt about that. Her passing was sudden and cruel, and it was also 35 years ago. But I only say there was no doubt that I wasn’t seeing a living but long-lost sister in the struggle to make it clear that this was Kristi’s ghost. It would have been clear anyway, because she was clear, or at least translucent. Also because she had this bizarre chain looped about her waist, and trailing behind her a tangled mishmash held together with twisted plastic shopping bags and including in its mass such unsavory things as dead fish, scraps of tires, light bulbs, spat out gum, cigarette butts, typewriter ribbons (remember those?), lots of faded cardboard cereal and other small boxes, plastic straws, plastic bottles, bags of rotten vegetables, half empty containers of nail polish, crumpled gift wrap, uncountable discarded consumer goods, such as hair brushes, toys (mostly Legos), disposable plates, a B&W television, a broken toaster, and a boombox or two. This frightening vision occurred late in the night of Solstice Eve, also the last night of Hanukkah, just a few days before Christmas. It was uncannily like a scene in a certain famous Dickens novella, except for one thing. Unlike Scrooge, I knew I was having a nightmare, and I even knew, in some dim backwash of my brain, that it was because I had dined on mac and cheese rather too liberally before going to bed.
Because this was 2017 and not 1843, and because we had both read the original, we were able to skip some 20 pages of tortured Victorian prose and get straight to the point. “What’s the deal with the chain?” I asked, “I get that it’s the one you forged in life, but why is it full of garbage?” She did the little ghostly moaning thing and tried to rattle the chain before answering, but it didn’t rattle as nicely as I assume the money boxes and metal chain in the story did. She shrugged and began to speak. “Fortunately, because I cared about the state of the Earth when I was alive, I don’t have to drag this thing around constantly and for all eternity. I know it’s always there, just like I worried about the environment and our impact on it in life, but I only get it out and wear it for special hauntings, like this. These evil-smelling bits represent all the wasteful actions I took that hurt the planet. Everyone from the industrial revolution onward has got one. Some are much bigger than mine …” She trailed off and looked pensive and sad, a look I remembered well from those often sad times in 1982. “Well,” I said hopefully, “at least you don’t have poopy disposable diapers in your chain, and neither will I, except for a couple of times when we were traveling.” “True,” she replied, and we smiled as we shared a memory of being those radical young moms who used cloth diapers in the face of the convenience society zeitgeist.
“So … why me? Why are you dressed up in the fancy garbage-chain and coming to haunt my cheese nightmare tonight?” I asked. “Well, things have reached a critical point now, as you probably know. My comrades in the Afterlife Earth Improvement Society thought you may have some influence among the foolish living, so we chose you. We have three more ghosts lined up to continue the haunting.” I confess, I rolled my eyes. “Let me guess: Past, Present and Future Solstices, are they?” Kristi replied, “You always were too clever by half,” and faded out until I couldn’t see her any more. I must have drifted into deep sleep for a while, but then I “woke up.” In my nightmare, I was suddenly outside in the frigid air in my nighty, standing under a lamp post. At my side stood a silent old woman ghost, who looked very much like my late mother. She beckoned me to follow her and we went into a small brick bungalow, passing right through the brick walls like specters.
I knew where I was: Bonner Road, East Point, Georgia, circa 1957. It was a few days before Christmas, as evidenced by the towering tree in the corner, ablaze with electric multicolor lights and draped liberally with foil “icicles.” Right next to it, looking proud and shiny new, was what I realized with a shock was my family’s first TV, evidence of our entry into the consumer society as Dad’s income began to climb. Suddenly, the front door opened and in came my mother, radiant and beautiful at age 25, and carrying a sleepy 3-year-old boy in her arms. I was there, at age 5, excited and talkative and carrying the shopping. We had been to downtown Atlanta on the streetcar. (My mother didn’t learn to drive until 10 years later.) The scene skipped like a movie in fast-forward, and my impossibly young dad came through the door with grocery shopping. TV dinners—what a treat! And something new and wonderful—Saran Wrap! As my Dad explained what it was for, my Mom’s eyes lit up. This stuff was cheap and magical; she was going to be using tons of it. The ghost fast-forwarded me through every childhood winter; each year the tree (and the family) got bigger, the consumption grew larger, and I grew taller and smarter, but maybe not smart enough. Finally, I saw myself at age 18, jumping in a car with two other girls to drive to St. Simon’s Island for a single night’s beach party, breaking speed limits and wasting gas like there was no tomorrow, eating McDonald’s hamburgers accompanied by vodka-laced Slurpies, not a care in the world. By that time everything we wanted was within our reach, and disposable, and the supply would never run out.
I drifted off again and when I woke up there was a new ghost, who looked rather like my old friend and mentor Diane, who passed away 18 years ago. She showed me Puerto Rico, still reeling from Hurricane Maria, and losing people every day to Florida and other places where the infrastructure still works. She showed me recently melted ice cover on both land and sea, dead polar bears, dead zones in the sea as large as cities, full of plastic. She showed me pools of pig waste outside industrial pork “farms,” mountains of food waste, whole countries of people experiencing famine. And then we ended up again on St. Simon’s Island, which still lives on in my youthful memories, but as it looks today. I can’t say it hasn’t changed in 47 years, but it is still beautiful, and its warmth and fresh ocean air lulled me back to sleep. Suddenly I “awoke” again and the third ghost was standing by me. This spirit had no gender and was cloaked from head to foot in a gray robe. They took my hand and suddenly we were speeding through time and space, rather like Alice and the Red Queen.
The things I saw in future solstices were terrible. My mind reels and I can only remember a few—the Southwest a baking desert, all the animals fled north. The Boundary Waters unrecognizable, with all the flora and fauna changed, the arctic regions warmed and melted yet completely uninhabitable, dead zones everywhere on land and sea, coastal cities flooded away. We ended this nightmarish tour at St. Simon’s Island again, or rather where it used to be. There was just a tiny sliver of it left, surrounded by a strange ocean with a funny smell. Just on the horizon out to sea was an oil drilling platform, frantically sucking at what may have been one of the last seams of dinosaur juice on the planet. Suddenly I was back in my bed, wide awake with tears streaming down my face.
There was really nothing in my dream that I didn’t know already, I realized. And this nightmare vision of the future was not going to be changed through individual choices alone, let alone through just MY choices. Of course, by all means, I would give up unnecessary travel, plastic wrap, plastic straws, wasting water, red meat and dairy, and a dozen other small contributions to climate chaos. But I knew in my heart that, just like the specters of Want and Ignorance in the original story, Climate Chaos and injury to the earth were born of Capitalism. This solstice I vow to redouble my efforts to reverse and eventually overthrow Capitalism so that the earth may be honored and may live.
Don’t weep, organize!