The trouble with talking about getting “back to normal” is that time doesn’t run backwards. It runs forwards.
We can no more return to a pre-Covid world than we can return to typewriters or gas lamps or steam trains or diplomacy without the threat of nuclear weapons.
The fact that Covid is likely to be with us for a while yet is not a reason to pretend it isn’t here anymore. It’s a reason to evolve and adapt and find better ways of managing and existing in our changed world.
Whether it’s learning new ways of socializing outdoors or improving ventilation indoors, learning to live with masking, getting better at quickly developing vaccines that respond to current virus variants instead of long extinct ones, or countless other things we haven’t thought of yet because we’ve been so busy trying to go backwards instead of forwards that most of us haven’t really stopped to think, haven’t really tried get creative, haven’t put in the hard work of finding new ways of being and doing—as well as the hard work of finding new ways of communicating the need for change, too.
If we keep trying to go “back,” we pay the price in human lives, all while grasping for something that’s well out of reach—grasping for a time and a way of life that are no longer ours.
But if we let go of what was and instead try to move forward—well, then maybe we can find our way through where we are now to something new. Something that works better. Something that costs fewer lives.
Something, even, that makes us feel hopeful about the future, instead forever sad that we can’t reclaim the past.
And maybe, just maybe, once we’ve done that for the pandemic, we can also do it for all the many other looming challenges we face together, as well.
I always thought personal responsibility meant not just taking responsibility for how your actions affect you, but also how your actions affect others.
I mean, if you throw a ball and it breaks a window, you don’t just check whether any of the glass shards cut your own skin and then move on. You also apologize to the person whose window you broke. You especially apologize to the person whose window you broke.
You definitely don’t say the owner of the window is to blame for not using safety glasses or putting up shutters or for having the bad luck to live in a house within easy shot of a playground.
And okay, sure, there will always be people who hide or run or deny that ball was theirs. But they’re the ones who are failing to take personal responsibility. We all know that.
So how did we come to believe that, during a pandemic, personal responsibility instead means just taking responsibility for whether our actions cause us and our loved ones to become sick, disabled, or even die? How did we come to believe it only matters if the glass cuts our own skin?
That’s not how it works. If I willfully act in ways that increase my chances of infecting others, I’m personally responsible for that.
Even if the people I infect choose to be around me of their own free will. Even if they’re high risk or have comorbidities or are just in poorer health than me. Even if they seemed “healthy” but got hit hard anyway. I’m personally responsible.
Even if no one else around me was acting to protect others, either. Even if there’s peer pressure not to protect others, and I don’t want to speak up or say no or be the only person in the room wearing a mask. I’m personally responsible.
Even if the people I infect are fine but they go on to infect strangers I’ll never know and never meet and never hear about who aren’t fine. I’m personally responsible.
Even—yes, even—if they failed to get vaccinated, failed to protect themselves as fully as they could have. I still threw that ball through the window. It doesn’t matter if the window should have had safety glass in place. I’m still the one who broke it.
If we remembered what personal responsibility meant in other contexts, would we act to protect others during this pandemic, instead of mostly only acting to protect ourselves and those closest to us?
Or is that too much to ask, in any context? Have the stresses of an ongoing pandemic broken somehow inside us, making it too much to ask?
Leaving us unwilling to be personally responsible for our actions after all?
Some days I feel like I’m living in a parallel universe.
I’ve seen the data, data showing that my community, like so many communities, has yet again reached high levels of Covid transmission. I’ve heard the pleas from those at high risk, begging others to care about them enough to try to protect them, to try to help slow this thing down so that one day they’ll have a better way of protecting themselves than staying locked in while their friends—the people they thought were their friends—go out and party.
And I’ve seen those around me ignore these things, utterly.
When friends and colleagues talk about being excited to be return to in-person events, without a trace of hesitation, often without seeming knowledge that Covid is still here at all, I’m baffled. The best of them wear masks to protect themselves. No one talks about protecting others. I’ve heard otherwise kind, compassionate people talk about how others at these events are responsible for their own decisions, about how those at risk should just stay home.
I haven’t heard anyone talk about those who might caught up in the chain transmission that begins at these events, people who never even attended them but have friends, or friends of friends, or friends of friends of friends, who did. People who could experience long term disability or even—yes—death as a result of the actions of people they’ll never meet.
So many people seem unwilling to avoid doing anything, anything at all, to slow this virus down. So many insist on attending not just small gatherings but conventions and conferences (and concerts and plays and basketball games) with thousands, tens of thousands, even hundreds of thousands of people. They say we can’t stay on lockdown forever, as if lockdown or a 100,000 person indoor meetup are the only options, no middle ground.
And—this is where I get to feeling like I really am in another, neighboring universe—so many don’t even seem aware these issues exist or need to be considered at all anymore. Those around me say they’re thrilled to be back in person, and then—maybe with a mask added for good measure, maybe not—they carry on as if attending these events, no matter how large the crowd, no matter how lax the safety measures, is perfectly normal, even admirable. They share feel-good group photos about how wonderful and heartwarming and healing it is to be hanging with others again.
If there’s a slight edge of desperation to some of these posts, some hint of trying too hard to prove that life is good and the cool kids are together again, well, no one talks about that either.
They do talk about going out for drinks and sharing meals at these events as if that’s perfectly normal too, as if it’s just what one does, as if it doesn’t undo so much of the good of whatever safety precautions they are taking—never mind that any safety precautions only go so hard in large enough a crowd anyway.
When pressed about this, people talk about the need for professional connections and professional collaboration and professional knowledge exchange. In the writing community, they also say that they have no choice because they have to sell their books, their work. And sure, that’s always a real and pressing and ongoing concern, but can’t creative people get creative? Can’t we re-imagine how we reach readers and viewers, and search for ways to sell our work that don’t require attending huge events, or doing all the other things we did Before simply because we’ve always done them?
But no one really wants to talk about that either.
Sometimes I wonder if I’ve imagined we’re still in a pandemic at all—but then I look at the data again and I listen to those at risk again. I accept that vaccines, while they’re so important and do help so much, aren’t the perfectly impenetrable wall we hoped they’d be. I remind myself that my mild case of Covid could become someone else’s serious case of Covid, because that’s how contagious diseases work.
Call it gaslighting, call it cognitive dissonance—but something strange really is going on here. The depth of denial is frightening, and isolating, and honestly kind of lonely.
I wonder why so few people seem to understand how much and how deeply we’ve stopped caring about each other, when it comes to this infectious disease, even as they keep caring about each other in so many other ways. It’s as if Covid exists in it’s own little box, separate from all the many things we care about. All the many things we allow ourselves to think about.
Many events have been ending with Covid outbreaks, outbreaks large enough to affect not just attendees but also their communities. But then the next event comes around, and somehow nothing changes—everyone is still thrilled to be back in person, back with their friends, back in business, as if the examples of the gatherings right before theirs just don’t count somehow.
Maybe it’s all just denial in the end, denial and desperation. Or maybe I do just live in a parallel universe after all.
But there’s something going on here that I don’t fully understand, and that I’m still grappling with as the pandemic—because yes, there still is a pandemic—goes on.
When I was eight, I came to my mother, furious about an injustice: the free calendar we’d gotten from McDonalds had left out all of the Jewish holidays we celebrated.
Many parents would either tell their kid to stop making a big deal out of something for which, after all, they’d paid nothing—or alternately, agree that this was disappointing and then tell their kid to move on.
My mother found the address of McDonalds’ regional manager, and she helped me write him a letter.
A few weeks later I received a written apology and a promise that this would never happen again. And as far as I could tell, based on the years of future calendars I diligently checked after that, it didn’t.
The lesson Mom taught me that day—about standing up for myself, about speaking up for what I believed was right—has stayed with me to this day.
If in the years that followed, I went on to turn that lesson on her as much as on anyone else, I still never forgot where it came from.
My mother spent her entire life speaking up in defense of others. From taking on the schoolyard bullies—and school administrators—who tormented me as a child to being there for the countless friends who needed her, no matter how late the hour, to giving her all for the many, many people she looked out for, in so many ways, throughout her professional life.
Mom was the youngest child of Russian and Polish immigrants, the first generation born in the United States. At 19, she dropped out of college to get married. In her 20s, she had three kids—first me, then my sister and brother. In her 30s, she returned to school, earned her nursing degree, and spent more than a decade looking after the patients entrusted to her care.
In her 40s, she returned to school again, earned her business degree, and became a union organizer. When she ran for Business Agent of her Teamsters local, people told her no woman had ever held that job. When she ran for President, they really told her no woman had done that. Their doubts just made her more determined to succeed. For more than two decades, she won election after election. She spent so many years serving the employees she represented. Whether she was negotiating better contracts or getting back the job of someone fired unjustly, she was always there for her people.
And I do mean always. Her phone rang constantly, and she almost always answered it—often to the dismay of family and friends hoping to enjoy a few quiet moments with her. On one memorable occasion, after we met up in Manhattan, she even picked up the phone as we were enjoying a horse-drawn carriage ride through Central Park.
I’m not sure Mom really believed in time off. I am sure that giving 100% was never enough for her. She gave everything she had to everything she did, always.
And as for all those friends who turned to her through the years? She always answered their calls as well. She gave them all she had, too.
Or as she put it to me just a few weeks ago, “I’ve always worked at a high energy level.”
That’s an understatement, truly.
As the decades passed she was thrilled to add a growing number of grandchildren to the list of those she cared about. She always answered their calls, too.
A few years, just before my own daughter started kindergarten, I unexpectedly required open heart surgery for a congenital heart defect. Busy as she was, Mom flew across the country to be with me. She stayed for a month, putting most of her work on hold—though of course her phone kept ringing, and of course she kept answering it. I knew that time for the precious gift it was: a chance, one last time, to have my mother take care of me as well.
It goes without saying that I’ll miss her terribly. And I know, by the way her phone kept ringing until the end, that you’ll all miss her too.
TheBones of Faerietrilogy is set in the aftermath of a catastrophic war between the human and faerie realms, one that has left behind a world filled with deadly magic: stones that glow with deadly light, trees that seek blood and bone to root in, dark forests that can swallow a person whole.
While the main trilogy is set in the Midwest, “Invasive Species” is my look at what the war with Faerie might have looked like here in the Arizona, where even without magic, the plants know how to bite. Here’s an excerpt.
I held tight to my little cousin’s hand as we walked the road through Summerhaven, scanning the broken asphalt for weeds. Alex tugged at a stray thread on his faded Cookie Monster T-shirt and scuffed his sneakers against the ground. He’d been fidgety all day, like his skin felt too tight. Maybe it was the heavy gray clouds, promising rain, but giving us only another sticky summer day.
Maybe it was that for five years—since before Alex was born—our entire lives had been lived within a couple miles of this road. Thinking about it made me want to crawl out of my skin, too.
Alex spotted a fuzzy pink thistle poking through a crack in the pavement. He reached for it. I pulled him back. “Gloves on?” I asked.
Alex looked down at his bare hands, as if he had to think about that. He pulled leather gloves out of his jean pockets, tried to put them on, and got his thumbs stuck in the finger holes. I helped him straighten them out.
“Gloves on,” he said, as if it had been his idea.
“Go for it, then.”
Alex grabbed the thistle and pulled, throwing all his four-year-old strength into the job. The stem came up in his arms, wriggling like a thorny green snake, while the fluffy bloom at the end thrashed wildly, trying to break free. I opened my leather weed-gathering bag, and Alex threw the thistle in. Once it was dead, we’d feed it to the goats and rabbits, just like all the other weeds.
“Take that, stupid plant.” Alex laughed, as if hunting down killer weeds was all in a day’s work. He’d never known a plant that was safe. He’d never known a world more than a few miles wide, either.
I knelt beside him and dug the thistle’s roots out with my knife, ignoring the strap of my quiver as it dug into my shoulder.
Sweat plastered my I Love Mount Lemmon T-shirt to my back. “Never forget the roots,” I said.
“Never forget the roots.” Alex threw them into my bag, too, grinning like a preschooler learning his ABCs. Except Alex hadn’t been to preschool, either, hadn’t learned his letters and numbers anywhere but by the fireplace with Aunt Anna and Uncle Doug.
I sighed and stood, looking at the familiar cabins that dotted the hillsides east and west of us, the snags of burned trees punctuating the earth between them. Beyond the houses, terraced fields of beans, squash, and corn moaned as they reached for the sky. Most of the town was up in those fields today, reinforcing the scorched rings of earth that surrounded the crops and kept them from marching down the hillside into town.
Five years ago, if someone had told me plants could march, I’d have told them they’d been streaming too many bad movies …
Hey, it’s me, the brave local mom who went viral for defying the city’s mask mandate last year. As you know, I suffered lots of persecution for that, including dirty looks from my fellow shoppers at the Grab and Go and that one cashier who snapped, “Lady, just take your Diet Coke and Twinkies and go!”
But when it comes to personal choice, I don’t compromise. I only have one face, and I choose what does and doesn’t go on it, even when that face is shedding airborne particles of a potentially lethal virus. I declined the Covid19 vaccine for much the same reason — I choose not to inject unknown substances into my body. Except for Diet Coke, Twinkies, and the cheese sauce on the fries at my favorite poorly ventilated dining establishment, of course …