A New Future

A sassafras seedling clings to the side of the steep creek bed. Its roots will hopefully help stabilize the wall and prevent future collapse of the soil into the creek.

Photos from the time before these days of the pandemic are often jarring, the idea that we could exist so blissfully unaware of the hidden dangers that now keep so many of us on edge as we go about what were once just normal, everyday activities: grocery shopping, working, taking the bus, sending kids to school, etc. We see the crowds of people, no masks on anyone, and for a second we think the photo was taken recently. Our immediate thought is “Where are there masks?” before we realize that life was not always this way. We are now ten months into the pandemic, and nothing is as it once was. It is remarkable how much has changed in such a short span of time. And not just what has changed in the present, but what will forever be altered by this time.

We read and hear often about what we will do once the pandemic is over, how we will no longer take hugs for granted or how we will have a better appreciation for time spent with friends and family. Perhaps we also say and believe these things. We equate the end of the pandemic with a return to “normal,” to a time where we do not have to think about our every action and worry about the actions of everyone else so much. Our standard for what will be normal does not seem to have changed in these visions of the future. Are we willing to accept an old normal that has allowed for this virus to become so rampant?

The grief of a lost future on this sort of scale is not something we were prepared to face. We have nothing to compare such a widespread loss to in our living memory, and many of us assumed such loss could never happen in our modern world. As our numbers crept up in the beginning days of the pandemic, I compared the loss to that of what we experienced in 9/11. But that loss, while devastating and incomprehensible, is far different than what we continue to experience with the pandemic. The loss that gripped not just our country but the rest of the world after 9/11 was a result of adversaries intending to cause maximum suffering.

Photo by Aidan Bartos on Unsplash

Up until that day, terrorism was a problem limited to distant lands, and we did not consider that it would ever come here. And then it did. We witnessed the same few seconds over and over and over again on the news, of planes disappearing into skyscrapers, of dazed people covered in white dust walking and running into the camera frame to disappear into who knows where, of rescuers searching for both survivors and the perished in the wreckage. The devastation was real and so very visual. There was no denying that something catastrophic and life-changing had happened, and that the safety we once felt would no longer exist.

For days, weeks, months after 9/11, life seemed to stop, even from as far away as where we were in Seattle. It was if we all took a collective deep breath and were waiting for the right time to exhale. We came up with plans should terrorism strike our city, plans that included where we would meet up if we were separated and which family members we would contact if we could not contact each other. People purchased plastic sheeting and duct tape to seal up their homes in the event of an attack using a dirty bomb. The news told us to “see something, say something,” a tactic that resulted in the racial profiling of brown people across the country. People who “appeared” to be Muslim were attacked by racists, and some were killed.

In October 2001, the US launched an invasion of Afghanistan to search for the terrorists behind the attack as our President declared to the rest of the world, “You’re either with us or against us in the fight against terror.” Our soldiers are still there 19 years later. And then in 2003, the war spread to Iraq to do two things: 1) overthrow Saddam Hussein’s government due to his alleged ties to al Qaeda, and 2) find supposed weapons of mass destruction hidden in Iraq. In 2004, the 9/11 Commission disproved any ties between Hussein and al Qaeda, and no weapons of mass destruction were ever found.

All told, hundreds of thousands of people died during these wars, mostly innocent people caught in the middle.

COVID is a silent villain, taking to the air in invisible droplets and aerosols, with no mind whatsoever for who it infects. It’s only goal is to find hospitable environments within unsuspecting hosts, hijacking cells to replicate itself so it may infect even more unsuspecting hosts. It can take days for the host to know that something is off, and in the days leading up to this discovery the virus replicating within the hijacked cells may be shared unwittingly to other future hosts. There is no emotion in this quest. The virus is carrying out what its genetic code requires. And it will do this again and again and again.

Photo by CDC on Unsplash

The virus having no ability to discern who it infects or how deadly its effects will be in those who become infected, certain humans are confused about who (or what) the enemy is and have managed to create enemies of those who listen to scientist. “You either don’t mask with us or you mask against us” could be their motto. More than 55 million have been infected by COVID, and over 1.3 million people have died worldwide (and the numbers are steadily rising). And still we must deal with people who claim the virus has a 0% death rate and so refuse to follow any guidance set forth by public health specialists who have dedicated their lives to working for the common good. The very same people take medication developed by scientists for their various ailments and rely on GPS systems developed by scientist to navigate their way to Trump rallies where they are told what to believe without question. While the fake news crowd creates strawmen to battle, hundreds of thousands of people are infected and tens of thousands die everyday (including those who rail against the facts of the virus).

For many of us, though, we do what we can to stay safe. We wear our masks, wash our hands, maintain the recommended distance from one another, avoid large gatherings. We miss out on rituals that enrich our lives — graduations, birthday parties, visits with family members, wedding ceremonies — with the idea that once this is all over, we will never, ever take these things for granted like we did in the past. We long for the future like never before.

In her latest book, Real Change, Sharon Salzberg writes, “When we are in the darkest nights of our soul, grieving for the person and the life we seem to have lost, at that point we need to acknowledge what is, not how we would prefer it or what we would settle for. This is how things are, despite our protestations or laments or great yearning to look the other way.” The future we long for is based on a past that has derailed due to a pandemic that will likely be with us for months to come. In order to move forward, we must accept this fact.

Our future normal must be based on how we handle the days we are still struggling to get through right now, the systems we put in place to overcome this pandemic and to avoid future pandemics, the ways we address gross inequities built into our institutions that have led to the disproportionate death rates of Black Americans infected with COVID. We must acknowledge that essential workers include grocery store workers, bus drivers, janitors, trash collectors, delivery people, restaurant workers, etc., and pay them accordingly. Our healthcare system must be overhauled and made to work for every single person who lives in the US, no matter their income or citizenship status.

We must not allow ourselves to long for a normal that led us to where we are now. We must do better. We did not ask for all of this pain and suffering, but we must acknowledge what is broken so that we may build something better.

In my dreams since the pandemic, I am often shocked to discover that I have forgotten my mask long into being deep within a crowd of other unmasked people, and all I can do is pull my shirt over my nose and mouth, knowing that this is not at all effective. For whatever reason I cannot just turn around but must instead keep meandering through the crowd, a crowd that does not seem to be concerned in the least about their lack of masks. I am utterly powerless, helpless. But I keep moving. I do not stop moving forward.

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