Interviewed by John Haggerty
Read Shelli Cornelison’s fiction piece, Refinery Lights
John: I love how you play with the idea of danger and security here–that the places we feel most safe might be the very worst place for us to be. On the other hand, as the safety engineer points out, shelter in place is sometimes the better option. Is it possible that, in the end, there are no good choices, that either choice will end up killing us eventually? And if that’s the case, what’s the best way to spend our time?
Shelli: I think there are no perfect choices, no option that remains safe forever. Almost all major choices will end up hurting us to some degree at some point along the way. We are a vulnerable species by design, both physically and emotionally. I’ve come to accept that the best we can do is follow our gut and live our moments, even when we have to push through a certain level of fear or anxiety to do it. Some of the best laid plans can have disastrous consequences and some of the most spontaneous changes of course turn out okay. As long as we still have the option to keep making choices and taking chances, we should endeavor to make the most of it. I like a certain amount of control so I’ll always wish there were a way to remove the fear, to guarantee an outcome, but I also know tomorrow isn’t guaranteed.
The narrator of the story expresses a preference for fleeing, which I think I share. What is your favorite reaction to danger?
Having just admitted my desire for control above, I’ll now admit that I may be a bit of an enigma (or possibly just foolish) because I’ve also never been risk averse. A healthy fear of risk isn’t something I was born with. I think in my early adulthood I believed it would seep in at some point, that caution would become instinct. My love of roller coasters has withered and died so maybe I’m still on the path to that person, at least with regard to physical safety.
Excitement is overrated—true or false?
Definitely false, but I do truly appreciate spending time alone to recharge, and some of my favorite pastimes would not qualify as exciting to everyone. One person’s excitement is another person’s danger and still another’s boredom. I’ve made decisions that felt exhilarating to me but greatly worried people who cared about me, and I’ve passed on some opportunities that pushed the needle too far for me. I wish everyone something that excites them though, because a life devoid of excitement would really just be an existence, not much of a life at all. I’m not an adrenaline junkie by any means, but a spike now and then can remind us who we’ve been, and show us who we’ve become/are still becoming. A little uncertainty, physically and emotionally, can be a good thing in small doses, or whatever dose works for you.
Benzene is, of course, a powerful carcinogen. If Benzene tastes like money, can we therefore conclude that money is a powerful carcinogen? Or does taste not have a transitory property in this case?
This is the part where I reveal that, like the narrator in “Refinery Lights,” I also grew up with refineries “in my backyard,” and though I fled, I know a lot of great people who still live there and work in those plants. It’s one of many industries that pays well but comes with risks, some immediate and some that may not pose a threat until long after the job has become a memory. The people who earn their livings in those refineries take safety seriously, but sometimes humor is a coping mechanism, and we might all tell a disturbing joke now and then, even if only to ourselves, to cope with something that has no easy answer. Sometimes, the taste of money is more palatable than the bitter cost of not having any. Capitalism doesn’t always provide the best menu options.