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Before COVID-19 started to spread in the U.S. in 2020, I was in Australia for a wedding. When I returned on March 9 just in time for the first lockdowns to begin, my brother called me in a panic. He wanted me to leave New York City as fast as possible and come south to stay with family.

“Every single disaster movie has prepared you for this,” he argued. “Cities die first. New York dies first. You need to get out. Posthaste!”

I laughed every time he said posthaste, so he said it more often to make me laugh harder. Laughter is how we dealt with fear and trauma our whole lives, especially when talking with each other, so when I joked about my death, he laughed too.

I told him that he was living through the scene in every zombie movie where a beloved character is bitten and needs to be killed before they start to turn. I told him to not be weak—to kill me before I infected the others—or I’d have to martyr myself by running into a field of zombies. (“Glorious purpose,” I would yell, if it happened today.)

“I was just on four planes,” I told him. “Plus six airports, and attended a wedding with hundreds of people. And I’m in New York?” I laughed. “I’m already dead, bro.”

The conversation grew darker—and sillier—as we talked. Looking at the bad side comes easy. If I embrace the worst possibilities, they can’t hurt me as much when they happen. Call it negative visualization, Stoic wisdom, or plain dark humor, but I tend to face scary scenarios by looking them in the eye and calling them by name. Sometimes I go out of my way to think of them. I could die; I could die alone; I could die alone on my birthday.

So when the pandemic took over my life in 2020, it was natural to stream outbreak stories. I started with I Am Legend, imagining spending the apocalypse with my dog until she got infected and I had to kill my only friend. I watched Contagion, 28 Days Later, and World War Z. They were counterintuitive comfort food, and none of them bothered, saddened, or challenged me.

Until Station Eleven.

Station Eleven is an HBO Max Original miniseries based on a novel of the same name. I won’t share many narrative details here—like with Saga and Arcane, I hope you begin with as little plot knowledge as possible—but the series has an emotional tone that’s hard to describe. A few members of my book club had already read the 2014 novel and binged the miniseries; when I asked them if it was depressing or optimistic, they said “neither” and “both” at the same time. And having seen Station Eleven now, I agree with them.

(If you need a general plotline, suffice it to say that there’s a flu outbreak that ends the world as we know it, and survivors are left to build a new one while they cope with the loss of all they once knew.)

Himesh Patel in 'Station Eleven'
Photo: Ian Watson/HBO Max

Aside from facing societal collapse, the characters in Station Eleven all have one thing in common: They’re impacted by the same book. Its ripple effect varies, from indirect influence on certain characters to direct obsession from others, who relate to the book so deeply that I began to relate to it, too. Their obsession became my obsession. One of the book’s quotes is repeated so often—and so hauntingly—that a fictional book inside a fictional series began to feel as real as any book I’d ever read:

“I remember damage. Then escape. Then adrift in a stranger’s galaxy for a long, long time. But I’m safe now.”

The quote feels innocuous out of context, and it sounded almost silly when I first heard it on Station Eleven. But repeated a second time, it took on a little meaning. Repeated a third time, I understood it even more. By the time the quote was repeated again, in episode eight, “The Play’s the Thing,” I was devastated when each line flashed back to a brief moment I knew from a character’s life.

“I remember damage. Then escape. Then adrift in a stranger’s galaxy for a long, long time. But I’m safe now.”

The quote is about the path that trauma takes in our lives. It’s a path that many find familiar, both in the show and in real life: the trauma, the running away, the feeling lost, and then one day—hopefully, eventually, desperately—feeling safe again. By the end, Station Eleven didn’t need to repeat its quotes anymore; I repeated them myself until they felt as much a part of me as the characters who read them.

I remember damage. I remember my stepdad standing above my bed in the dark with his fists clenched, and me thinking that if he hit me, I could win—but only if my brother were there, and he had moved away.

Then escape. I remember applying to boarding school without a plan or goal.

Then adrift. I remember the loneliness of being a Black kid in a predominantly white school.

I remember damage. I remember the first time a white classmate called me a nigger, and the white teacher who simply carried on with our biology lesson.

Then escape. I remember applying to the Peace Corps without a plan or goal.

Then adrift. I remember the loneliness of being a Black American in an Eastern European country where I was called a nigger every day until it didn’t feel like damage anymore.

I remember damage. I remember yelling back at a group of men who were yelling at me. I remember calling them the most hurtful words I could think of, and my gay friend ignoring it, or pretending not to hear, or searching for her own escape. I remember dodging the first punch, then the second, then I don’t remember anything at all, then I remember my friend’s voice breaking through and telling me to run.

Then escape. I remember the men surrounding the taxi and kicking and spitting on it. I remember begging the driver, in my language and then his, to not unlock the doors. I remember applying to grad school without a plan or goal.

Then adrift. I remember the loneliness of being broke and alone in New York City, too Christian to be atheist and too atheist to be Christian.

Instead of being cynical in the face of unimaginable pain, Station Eleven chooses to be desperately hopeful. (My beloved colleague, Nicole Chung, called it a “comforting apocalyptic story.”) Its bravery lies in how clearly it shares its vision for finding meaning in life. In Station Eleven, to live isn’t to “survive” or “thrive” or “make your own purpose.” To live is to make and enjoy art. Whether it’s from Shakespeare, A Tribe Called Quest, or a book, life is the swell of emotion that comes from sharing the human experience through whatever we can create. In the midst of pain, heartbreak, guilt, fear, and loss, it tells you where hope lives.

Station Eleven begins with damage, but it ends with not only hopefulness, but a road map to where it thinks you should find it.

“I remember damage.

Then escape.

Then adrift in a stranger’s galaxy for a long, long time.

But I’m safe now.” I’m safe, bro.


My favorite reader email this week came from Martha, who seemed like she had the perfect answer for last week’s question about how long she would survive a societal collapse, until her message took a turn:

“My family is all set for the apocalypse. The plan is to meet here, where I’ve got 40 acres. My sister is a chef and forager, so she’s in charge of food. I’m a retired veterinarian, so I’m in charge of keeping us all clothed and warm and handling animal husbandry. My husband is a wizard at McGyvering things, so that’s helpful. I have a brother who brews beer (vital) and another who can flint knives and axes. I have a friend who is an herbologist, she’s in charge of keeping us healthy.

In reality, although that’s all true, I live in rural PA so I’d probably be gunned down by one of my neighbor’s assault rifles in the early days, and that’s fine with me too.”

I lost it at “that’s fine with me too.” I just picture a beautiful society that you built with your own hands, and then you see trucks coming and just shrug and go, “... welp.”

Given that this essay was about the apocalypse and Monday is Valentine’s Day, this week’s book giveaway is How to Not Die Alone, by Logan Ury. Ury is a behavioral scientist turned dating coach, so if you’re looking for a partner to share the end of the world with, this one’s for you. Just send me an email telling me if you watch the Super Bowl or not, and if so, who you’re rooting for. I’ll send the book to the first person who hits my inbox. You can reach me at, or find me on Twitter at @JordanMCalhoun.