For parents, the pandemic’s lesson is clear. We’re on our own.

As a new mother, I struggled with isolation and loneliness, as many new parents do.

I was an older mom, and most of my friends were childless or had older kids. My new-parent schedule didn’t leave much time for seeing anyone whose day wasn’t structured around naptime and bedtime, and that was hard enough. Harder still, though, was the way everyone, even those who’d once had babies at home, seemed to have forgotten just how hard caring for an infant or toddler really was.

How else to explain the way they told me I should enjoy these precious years, when I wasn’t yet sure how I’d survive them? How else to explain how they kept saying everything would go by far too fast, when all I wanted was a break from days that never seemed to end?

How else to make sense of the way they insisted motherhood looked so good on me, that they could see the happiness shining through on my face, when I was exhausted and drowning?

From the very start, I loved my daughter. But I didn’t love the loneliness and the disconnect that seemed an inescapable part of early parenting. I didn’t love how many people outright refused to remember just how rough the early days of this journey could be.

With time, things got better. I caught up on sleep. I met new friends who had littles of their own and so hadn’t had a chance to forget yet. My schedule became more flexible, letting old friends back in. By elementary school, surrounded by an entire cohort of parents in the exact same place I was, the memory of isolation had faded into the background.

Until the pandemic hit.

Until schools closed, cities went on lockdown, and my family and I were once again on our own.

All of us parents did our best to support each other, in the beginning, through that first impossible spring of remote learning — while our kids had screaming fits during Zoom sessions; while the spark left their eyes as they stared, glazed over and depressed, at computer screens all day; while we fought our own depression and fear as we tried to get our own work done and support our children at the exact same time.

By the end of the school year our cheerful text threads fell silent, though, as we all focused on the same single critical question: Would schools reopen in the fall? Schools had to reopen, didn’t they? None of us could imagine doing this again.

During the endless summer that followed, everything else reopened instead. Bars. Restaurants. Gyms. Disneyworld. In Arizona, where I live, early lockdowns had kept Covid case numbers in check all spring, but now, one reckless reopening at a time, our numbers rose, and rose again, and rose some more. Like most of the US, by fall Arizona’s Covid cases were so high that schools couldn’t reopen. Somehow, we were going to have to get through another season of remote learning after all.

Yet once again I found little empathy from non-parents for the challenges ahead, because once again, adults not actively parenting their own kids had forgotten what parenting was really like. They had to have forgotten, because how else could they sleep at night knowing bars were open but schools were closed? How else could they be good with letting families struggle just so they could go out for dinner, or see a movie, or have a drink with friend?

But they were good with that. More than good with it — far too many people convinced themselves that overwhelmed parents were the selfish ones for wanting it any other way. Friends whose children had left home years ago told me how happily they would have homeschooled during a pandemic. Grandparents who hadn’t seen their grandkids in months insisted those grandkids were totally happy with remote learning so my kid should be too. Strangers on social media insisted parents were self-centered for needing child care, for caring about our children’s mental health, for wanting to hang on to our jobs, for not having the skill to more cheerfully teach our kids, in social isolation, about subjects we didn’t fully understand in a format they weren’t developmentally wired for.

Too many people still seemed to think that parents could, through a simple act of will, choose to be glowing with happiness instead of drowning from exhaustion.

Again, things eventually got better. Covid case numbers dipped enough that schools opened again, with far better Covid mitigation plans than most of the businesses that only briefly had to close. Mine and my child’s mental health — along with the mental health of most families I knew — improved dramatically, and whatever the social media forums said, this was not a trivial thing.

There were ups and downs after that. Covid numbers spiked again in the winter, spiked alarmingly as people bought plane tickets, visited family, traveled for the holidays, and traveled some more just because they really needed a vacation, all while still happily shopping in person and eating out as well.

When Covid numbers finally fell again, it wasn’t thanks to anyone’s good behavior. It was because the winter holidays were over and there was less time for traveling. It was because vaccines had become more widely available, at least in the US.

Even so, for the first time in a long time, I almost felt hopeful. I got vaccinated as soon as I could. I watched as the age for vaccine eligibility kept dropping. I outright cheered when the FDA approved the first vaccine for kids 12 and older. A few more months, a few more trials and approvals, and kids under 12 would be eligible to be vaccinated too. With Covid numbers still dropping, with mask mandates still in place, I began to think that maybe even before then my daughter and I could venture out safely come summer.

I should have known better. I should have remembered that my child — that any child — was the last thing most people cared about.

The CDC decided, reasonably enough, that vaccinated people were safe without masks in most settings. My city decided, not reasonably at all, that this meant it was time to completely lift public masking requirements. In response local businesses put up meaningless signs saying masks were “strongly recommended” for the unvaccinated, made it clear they had no plans to enforce this recommendation, and declared they were good to go. If half the adults in my city remained unvaccinated, if those unvaccinated adults were surely taking off their masks along with everyone else, if all those unmasked unvaccinated adults caused another spike in Covid cases? Not the businesses’ problem.

If my city was suddenly a more dangerous place for everyone under 12 — a huge group of children who couldn’t get vaccinated even if they wanted to be? That wasn’t the business’ problem, either.

And once again, most adults not raising children just didn’t care, maybe because they were too busy celebrating their newfound “right” to take off their own masks.

Try telling them that lifting mask mandates puts kids in danger? They say it doesn’t matter, because they personally are vaccinated so can’t possibly be part of the problem. Try telling them their unmasking encourages the unvaccinated to unmask too? Well, they can’t possibly be responsible for anyone else’s behavior, and besides, by unmasking the unvaccinated are only putting themselves at risk anyway. Try telling them that rising Covid cases, even among the unvaccinated, threatens my child and countless children like her? Again — they’re vaccinated. They’re officially not responsible for anyone but themselves.

Never mind that the first lesson of any contagious disease should be that we’re all responsible for each another, that our actions affect not just ourselves but others too, because that’s how contagious diseases work.

Other local venues are opening here now, too. Public pools, where masking isn’t even possible, opened Memorial Day weekend, while the whole country is talking about getting back to “normal” by the 4th of July. Never mind that kid vaccines aren’t expected until September. Everyone is so, so glad to be moving on.

Everyone except for children and their parents. We don’t get that luxury.

So here I am. Facing down a long, isolated summer where every trip out is a renewed exercise in risk calculation. A summer spent worrying about which public places, if any, are safe for my daughter, all while around me others celebrate the end of the pandemic and look for more restrictions to lift. After all, why should anyone let the existence of a few million children under 12 get in the way of their personal happiness?

I know, I know. It will get better. Probably. Eventually. But until then, the message from my community and my country is painfully clear: this summer, I’m on my own, as surely as any sleep-deprived new parent.

The only difference is that this time, it’s going to be a lot harder to forget how much all those around me refused to see, when one day normal catches up with my family and all the other families like us at last.

Life isn’t a story. That’s probably a good thing.

Life isn’t a story.

This is, for the most part, a good thing. Stories need conflict. Stories need drama. Stories need, more often than not, for the worst possible thing to happen at the worst possible time.

No one wants to live in a well-written story.

The pandemic isn’t a story. But if it were, I think we’d be at the part where it looks like everything is about to wrap up and wind down at last — but it isn’t, quite.

Vaccines are here and widely available, even if not as many people as hoped for are taking them. Covid case numbers are down, at least in our country and at least in certain communities within our country. Some of the time, for some of the people, things are beginning to feel almost … normal.

Which is why this would be the part of the story where readers begin flipping through the pages (physical books) or checking out the status bar (ebooks) to see if we’re really as close to the ending as we think.

It would be the part of the story where we realize that there are so many more pages left to go than we expected — too many for the story to really be winding down, too many for the resolution to be as simple as it seemed.

It would be the part where at least one more unexpected-yet-somehow-inevitable thing needed to happen. One more threat, one more unexpected twist, one more call for our weary characters to find their strength and rise above their weaknesses, to endure the unendurable and overcome one last overwhelming obstacle.

It would be where we realize the pandemic and its consequences aren’t over yet, that we were in too much of a hurry to think they were, that we need to keep reading for a while yet before we reach the satisfying conclusion and cathartic sigh of relief we’re longing for.

I’m glad the pandemic isn’t a story.

I’m glad those of us who hear those pages flipping have as much chance as being wrong as of being right. Maybe the pandemic still is building up to a dramatically satisfying ending. There are certainly enough unresolved plot threads left for one. But maybe, if we’re lucky, it’s instead just staggering to an undramatic, unsatisfying, mostly meaningless, utterly weary end.

Stories need meaning. Life, thankfully, does not.

But life also doesn’t let us skip ahead, doesn’t let us read the ending ahead of time for reassurance before returning to our carefully bookmarked place.

I hope the pandemic isn’t a story.

But if it is a story, I hope it’s a standalone story.

Because as readers know, if the pandemic isn’t a standalone story, then the end of book one is just a lull. A chance for readers to catch their breath — right before all those unresolved plot threads come crashing down, with all the force of a world that extends far beyond our own borders and a tale that was always, always more complicated than it seemed.

From Spring to Spring: A Pandemic Year

It’s been more than a year since I last believed in normal.

A year since the ordinary spring afternoon when we left our jobs and our schools behind for the weekend, not understanding, yet, that on Monday we wouldn’t return.

From the start, even as I settled in to remote learning and remote working, I knew, deep down, that this was going to last longer than we were admitting, but I didn’t know just how much longer. A month? A season? Surely by the end of summer, the beginning of fall, we’d be able to get on with our lives.

We all settled in to remote learning and remote working.

Summer and fall seemed such a long time to wait, back then. Three months. Six months. A lifetime. There was so much that we didn’t understand. How this new virus spread. How we could stop it from spreading. Whether the entire food supply chain was about to collapse, or whether a few short-term pasta and toilet-paper shortages would be the worst of it.

I tried not to think, in the beginning, about just how much there was to fear. I tried to laugh at it all, and sometimes I even succeeded.

I also hunkered down, because there wasn’t much else to be done. I went for walks. I painted rocks. I planted vegetables and learned to make sushi. I struggled through remote learning with my child.

Painted rocks and painted bricks.

I dreamed of escaping into the mountains for the summer, until the mountains began to burn.

Really, wearing these things just isn’t all that hard.

I learned to wear a mask and despaired as others refused to learn. I met friends outdoors, in socially distant lawn chairs, and worried even that was a risk best avoided. I watched as businesses closed, then opened too soon, then closed again and opened too soon again. It seemed no one wanted to admit that normal wasn’t coming back any time soon.

I watched as the cost of that denial came to be measured in human lives. Thousands. Tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. I watched as too many people kept eating out, kept gathering with family, kept talking vacations, all for no better reason than that they’d always done these things before and couldn’t bear to live without them.

I’d always done these things and couldn’t bear to live without them, either, but somehow I lived without them anyway.

It wasn’t enough. Those who followed the rules still died because of those who ignored them. There was no longer any such thing as an action that affected only the person taking it. Everything we did now affected everyone around us, affected strangers we’d never meet, affected our entire community. That’s how pandemics work.

That’s how life works. It’s just that when everything seems normal, some of us have the luxury of forgetting that, some of the time.

Some of us have the luxury of forgetting all sorts of things.

Maybe normal was always an illusion. But illusion or not, too many people kept insisting on doing too many things, just to prove that no one could tell them which things to do. Our Covid numbers rose, then fell, then rose again and just kept rising.

Time blurred. A blistering, wildfire-fueled Arizona summer. An autumn overwhelmed by more remote learning. A careful, careful return to learning in person.

An actual view from my backyard last summer.

An election. A riot. A transfer of power that no one called peaceful, because free and fair elections had become one more thing to deny in spite of the evidence.

A winter spent feeling angry and helpless, despairing that it didn’t have to be like this. But it was like this, and nothing I did could change the fact.

When the first vaccines came, months and years ahead of schedule, I should have felt hope, even joy. But I was suspicious of hope by then, and scarcely dared believe in it. If this was hope, it was literally in short supply, anyway, as hope too often is.

So instead I argued with strangers who refused to wear masks at the post office and insisted on holding birthday parties in the park. I yelled at family members for eating out. I lost friends when I told them they had no business going on vacation, not now.

Yet in the end, despair had no more power to change reality than denial did. Spring came, because spring does, whatever we do or fail to do. Arizona’s Covid numbers started to fall again, first slowly, then faster. My backyard irises bloomed—a gift from a stranger I’d never met, the stranger who owned my house before me.

No matter how badly I treat them, they come back every spring.

I began going for walks again, and wondered when I’d stopped. I planted more vegetables. I volunteered at a local vaccine clinic, and kept volunteering even after I was vaccinated.

My vegetables are less forgiving than my irises, but sometimes, they grow too.

I started to believe that maybe, just maybe, this hope thing was real after all.

I struggled–still struggle–with forgiveness. All the restaurants and other businesses who opened or re-opened too soon, because the rules said they could and they decided their economic survival mattered more than other people’s literal, physical survival. All the individuals who refused to wear masks or shelter in place because they decided their personal struggles mattered more those lives, too. So very many people who just decided they couldn’t or wouldn’t follow the same basic precautions I’m weary from following, and who with their refusal made this all last so much longer.

I tell myself their decisions came from weakness. not malice. I tell myself that carrying so much anger only hurts me, not them. Yet I wonder—how do we forgive when no one is sorry, when so many have made clear they would do it all the same way again? This isn’t over yet, and some days it seems that even after so much time, no one has learned anything after all. Even as I write this there are Arizonans pushing to relax the rules, too soon, yet again.

Still, it is spring, and there is hope, and I’ve finally come to the part of this story where at least I believe these things are real.

Now I just need to push through a little further, on to the part where I learn, once more, how to trust them.

Kids are awesome, pandemic edition

Can we take a moment to recognize the strength and resilience of elementary-school-aged kids during this pandemic?

They’re putting on their masks and their backpacks and walking into school on their own every morning, even the littlest ones, whose parents couldn’t follow them on campus for their first day of kindergarten this year. They’re learning how to learn at a distance, no more hugs from their teachers, no more sharing a pencil or a snack or a high five with their classmates. Even so, they’re still finding ways to have fun with their friends. They’re still growing, socially and emotionally as well as physically.

Or else they’re booting up borrowed laptops at home, working their way through packets of worksheets on the couch or the bed or the kitchen table or a quiet corner of the closet. They’re learning surrounded by the noise and chaos of their families, or else in the silence of a home where everyone else is busy working, too, even the grownups. When they’re missing their friends, they bring their cats and their dogs and their stuffies with them into their virtual classrooms. They’re learning how to learn on their own, even as they keep their friendships alive through video chats and outdoor play dates and shared Minecraft worlds

Or else they’re simply hanging in there, day after day, while learning and friends become increasingly distant memories. They’re caring for themselves and their even-younger siblings full time while their parents work, or they’re struggling to survive on their own, in homes where emotional or physical violence are—or have become—the norm, without the option of escaping into a classroom for a few hours a day.

For some kids, the victory is that they’re continuing to learn and grow and connect with their friends. For others, the victory is that they’re surviving at all.

They’re heroes, every last one of them.

As adults, facing so many of our own real challenges right now, it’s easy not to notice this. Let’s stop and notice it now. Remember how, when you were a kid, summer seemed to last forever? For today’s kids, Covid-19 has been three summers long—so far. But they’re still here, still surviving and, on good days, even thriving. They’re handling an impossible situation, if not perfectly, still with more strength and grace than many grownups.

And I think that’s pretty amazing.

Photo by Kelly Sikkema on Unsplash

Nursery rhymes, pandemic edition

Or, Mother Goose for the Covid era.

Twinkle twinkle little star,
How I wonder how you are.
Up above the world so high,
Socially distanced in the sky.
Twinkle twinkle little star,
Text and tell me how you are.

[Illustration of star wearing mask]

Little Miss Muffet,
Sat on a tuffet,
Waiting for curds and whey.
But the Instacart driver,
Came unmasked to find her,
And frightened Miss Muffet away.

The wheel on your tablet
Goes round and round,
Round and round,
Round and round.
The wheel on your tablet
Goes round and round—
Too bad, I need the wifi.

[illustration of computer with spinning loading wheel]

This little piggy went to Walmart.
This little piggy stayed home.
This little piggy bought toilet paper.
This little piggy had none.
This little piggy went wee wee wee all the way home.

Humpty Dumpty sat on the Wall,
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall.
All the king’s horses and all the king’s men,
Were out of personal protective gear so 
Couldn’t put Humpty together again.

Feel free to share your own in the comments.

It didn’t have to be like this

It didn’t have to be like this.

I wasn’t happy when schools closed last March, but I understood and accepted it—accepted that we had to hunker down for a few months to get this virus under control. By August, the worst would be over, and my daughter would be back in school.

For a month, two months, it seemed we’d get there. Arizona’s Covid cases were rising, but our total numbers remained relatively low. Sheltering in place and enduring daily remote learning meltdowns seemed to be working. It hard, but just a couple more rough months now and we could back to normal in the fall.

One day, we’ll even get to play on the playgrounds again. This is not that day.
(Photo by Allie on Unsplash)

And then, in mid-May, Arizona—like so many states—just gave up.

Our Covid cases were still rising, but suddenly no one seemed to care. The governor’s stay at home order expired in mid-May. By the end of the month, pretty much everything was open: restaurants, gyms, beauty salons, the mall. The governor wouldn’t even allow cities to pass mask mandates to mitigate the harm until several weeks later.

Only schools remained closed. Only teachers and families seemed to get that there was still a pandemic going on. The school year was almost over. I hung on to the faint hope that staying home now would let us break our isolation in time for the first day of school. Getting in-person school back up and running was the one, the most, important thing right now.

But too many people didn’t understand that. Too many people just had to eat out, go to the gym, hang out at the bar, and get a hair cut immediately, rather than waiting another month or two. Our numbers kept rising, more steeply now, and too many didn’t seem to care. Arizona took it’s turn as the world’s Covid19 hotspot, but unlike most of the hotspots before us, we had time to see it coming. We knew what would happen.

It didn’t have to be like this.

I mean, it could have been like this. We could have already been at the rainbow-after part of the story.
(Photo by K. Mitch Hodge on Unsplash)

Our family, like so many families, did all we could. It wasn’t enough. It would never be enough, when so many others were doing nothing at all. Even now, when bars and gyms have finally closed again, restaurants and retail stores remain open. I guess the people filling those places think their right to eat out with their friends is more important than my kid’s right to get an education and hang out with her friends.

So we’re not going back to in-person school this August. Of course we’re not.

And people still don’t get it. Instead of embracing the selfishness and sacrifice needed to get kids back to learning and their parents back to work, too many have doubled down on their own selfishness instead. Too many keep insisting they have the right to skip the mask, to eat out, to party with as many friends as they wanted.

Too many seem to believe, at the exact same time, that teachers and children have no rights at all, that we’re the selfish ones for not sucking it up and returning to a highly contagious, potentially deadly, environment just so that everyone else can keep on pretending everything’s back to normal.

The people refusing to wear masks or order takeout—the people who got us into this mess to begin with—couldn’t possibly be to blame. Only those of us unwilling to live with the consequences of the situation they created were to blame.

I hope that was one hell of a steak dinner you all had, one hell of a haircut, one hell of drink, one hell of a workout. Was it was good enough to be worth convincing yourself that no one but you matters, that actions don’t have consequences, that there can be freedom without responsibility or the basic community-minded patriotism of Americans looking out for one another.

I’ve always tried to avoid dividing this country into us vs. them, always tried to understand that everything looks different depending where you’re standing, that everyone deep down believes they’re doing the right thing.

But today—today I’m just angry. Angry that my governor and my legislature and far too many of my fellow Arizonans couldn’t be patient a few months more. Angry that my state values its restaurants and gyms and bars and malls so much more than it values its people.

Angry that, next week, my daughter isn’t going back to school in person after all.

Tomorrow, I know, I’ll get back to enduring. Remote learning will probably be a little better this time around. Even if it isn’t, I’ll make it through, somehow. All of us with school-age children will. We’ll manage for as long as we have to. We have no choice.

But the rest of you could at least help us out here. While teachers are trying to teach without the in-person interaction they excel at, while kids are trying to learn without the in-person interaction their development demands, while parents are trying to somehow juggle work and the stress of helping their kids through it all, for the most part without childcare or even the occasional babysitter—while we’re getting through, day by day—you can wear your damn mask. You can keep your damn social distance. You can party over Zoom like the rest of us. You can cook your own damn meals.

I don’t care anymore what sort of denial you’re relying on to convince yourself this is all no big deal. I do care that you’re more concerned with your right to continue doing whatever you want uninterrupted, without a thought for those of us whose entire lives will be interrupted that much longer as a result.

I need for you to be the ones to grow up, make sacrifices, and hunker down with the rest of us so that we all can get back to normal sooner rather than later.

I’d love for my daughter to get to meet her new teacher in person by January. But I can’t make that happen alone.

I need all of you there with me.

It’s too late to start at square one. But maybe, if everyone gets it together now, we can jump into the school year at square five or so instead of missing the game entirely.
(Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash)

“Once more, we’ll all remember where we were”

Of course, the burning mountains are only one of many things I’ll remember about this pandemic year. There’ve been so many changes, small and large.

Shortages of basic items. Hand sanitizer. Toilet paper. Flour. Minor inconveniences, which could mostly be replaced by other items. But the rationing demanded by earlier crises was slipping out of living memory, and we’d grown unaccustomed to minor inconveniences, to being unable to get what we want, when we want it.

Shortages of more critical items, of masks and other protective medical gear, shortages that left home sewers and crafters trying to fill gaps.

The fact that those homemade masks with their random prints actually were pretty charming, as well as a symbol of people pulling together to take care of one another. They were also more than a little dystopic, especially the kids masks, advertised as back to school items or made with cartoon-character prints.

[Stormtrooper mask]
Okay, so it’s not only kids wearing character prints.

Watching events get cancelled, one after another, conferences and community events falling like dominos. At last even the schools closed, something that had seemed impossible even a few days before, and then we understood that our world really had changed, that a sharp line had been drawn between then and now.

Things we’d done just a few short days or weeks or months ago seemed part of another world after that, things like shaking hands, or seeing a movie with friends, or making a grocery trip for just one or two items, or blowing out the candles on a birthday cake without worrying about germs.

The increased awareness of community, and the knowledge that you can be socially distant but emotionally close. More phone calls. Virtual happy hours. Outdoor meetups with neighbors and friends, our lawn chairs carefully spaced at least six feet apart.

The realization that all the remote connection in the world couldn’t replace a five-minute in-person meeting, or a hug.

Cooking. So much cooking. The combination of temporary food shortages and quarantine lockdowns meant we all did a lot more cooking at home, and for a while flour became another item that was hard to find.

[Homemade bread, noodles, and sort-of onigiri]
Sourdough bread was only the beginning.

Our attempts at hasty crisis homeschooling were much less successful that our baking. So were our attempts to replace our kids’ friends as their playmates. All the imagination in the world couldn’t make us play as well as a child could play, and all the good intentions in the world couldn’t make us teach even a fraction as well as our children’s teachers could teach. If we’d ever forgotten, no one doubted now that teachers were essential.

We realized lots of people we’d mostly been ignoring were essential. Those who treat the sick. Those who grow and distribute and sell our food. Those who package and deliver the mail.

Quarantine walks through the neighborhood, because you can’t stay inside all the time, each household keeping to its own group, crossing the street to avoid coming too close to one another. Yet also waving to one another, too, making clear that we’re still a community, that we still care about one another.

Painted rocks, left in front of our own houses or anonymously in front of neighbors’ houses, another way of saying that we’re still here, that we still care about each other.

I don’t know who painted these, but I feel connected to them.

The understanding that police brutality doesn’t magically stop during a pandemic, so fighting that brutality couldn’t stop, either. All the many layers of social and economic inequality that the pandemic laid bare.

What the brick says.

Political campaigns run by phone, by text, by virtual town hall. It was an election year, after all. But also political campaigns run in person, as if nothing at all had changed. Somehow, the basics of public health had become as political as everything else, as if ideology could somehow stop viruses from infecting us.

Graduation ceremonies held at a distance, or not at all. Signs on lawns and stickers on cars congratulating recent graduates in place of graduation parties. Also, an epic senior prank.

The wait and hope for a vaccine. The attempts to navigate life without one. The loss of the comforting myth that we already had treatments for all the really bad diseases, that we were somehow ahead of science and history and the fears that had troubled the generations before us.

The longing to step back to the past, to the way things were, the way it still felt they should be. The need to appreciate the gifts of the present. The desire to find a way forward, into the future.

The knowledge that we’re not apart from history, but part of it, after all.


Subject line borrowed from John M. Ford’s “110 Stories,” written during another uncertain, challenging moment in history.

The mountains are burning

The mountains are burning.

That’s not unusual, this time of year. Wildfires are a normal part of life in the west, and in Tucson, where mountains ring the city, we can often watch them burn from our homes on the valley floor.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains]

Some fires are distant, a puff of smoke behind a distant ridge. Some are nearer, near enough to turn into orange snakes of flame after sundown. Every fire is different, and in memory, many fires get tied to the times of their burning.

Like the smoldering gray fire that made the Catalina Mountains look volcanic, watched from my back porch shortly before a trip to Iceland to see real volcanoes. After that, Iceland’s volcanoes and that fire were linked in my mind, and future fires seemed a little more volcanic, too.

Or a closer fire, also in the Catalinas, during which I watched the flames flare upwards in bright orange pillars I would later learn were the result of propane tanks exploding as the fire reached the Mount Lemmon retreat town of Summerhaven. Months later, when we were finally allowed to drive up the mountain, we found large stretches of once-familiar terrain laid open to gray ash and bare, blackened trees.

Less than a year later, a friend’s ashes were scattered on the same mountain. My friend and that fire—and my friend and that mountain too—were inextricably intertwined in memory after that. They still are.

Or this year, the pandemic year, when the Catalinas are burning again.

[Smoke over the Catalina Mountains at sunset]

This time the fire threatens not just Summerhaven, up in the heights, but also nearer houses in and around the mountain’s foothills. The smoke is visible deep into the city, billows of white and gray and brown smoke that move like stormclouds over the peaks. At sunset, as I walk through the neighborhood and wave to our socially distant neighbors, the smoke turns pink, just as clouds do.

One day, I watched as firefighting planes dumped streams of fire-retardant red slurry into the smoke. The next day, the mountains bore the scars, lines of red clearly visible across their gray slopes.

How can the fire not become tied to the pandemic, to the protests for justice in its wake, to this entire long, strange, summer?

The slurry will fade, given time, as scars do. As the ashes of earlier fires have faded, becoming buried beneath years of new growth.

One day this moment in history will fade, too, slipping from living memory into stories and from stories into books. Like mountains, people heal and regrow, given enough time.

But I don’t live in that future. I live here, now, and I don’t yet know which houses will be lost, and which will be saved. I don’t know which landscapes will be remade, and which will remain the same. No one does.

All we really know, as we stand outside and watch the smoke, is that today, the mountains are burning.