A few days ago I woke to a muted orange sun, shining sluggishly through layers of haze. This wasn’t the orange of sunrise—the subdued light lasted well into the day—and it wasn’t caused by the clouds of a late-season desert thunderstorm, either.
It was wildfire smoke. Again.
It’s been more than a month since Tucson’s Catalina Mountains burned. That fire, too, filled the daytime sky with smoke. It made my eyes itch and left ash on our backyard trampoline.
The fact that these wildfires are hundreds of miles away doesn’t matter. Air moves, after all. Wind blows. Ash and smoke travel. The entire planet is in motion, and what happens in one place affects all places, in small ways and in large ones. Smoke in California becomes smoke in Arizona, and New York, and Europe.
If your air is polluted, my air is polluted, too.
This is, of course, the lesson of the current pandemic, as well. I breathe air out. You breathe the same air in. I cough, and where that cough lands determines whether someone I’ll never meet lives or dies.
It’s not enough to keep ourselves safe and ignore everyone else. It’s not enough for you to wear your mask if I don’t wear mine. It’s not enough to only douse the fire we can see, not if we ignore everything else that’s still burning.
Judaism has taught me that, “If you save a life, you save the world.” As I move toward Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish new year, I’ve been thinking about that teaching a lot.
Thinking about the ways it is may be literally, and not just figuratively, true.
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.
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.
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.
Confession: The first time I stepped outside wearing a face mask, I almost took it off again.
I try not to care what other people think, but walking through my neighborhood, mask covering more than half my face, it felt like surely everyone I walked past was staring at me.
I could have taken the mask off, if I really wanted to. Outdoors, it was easy to keep my distance from my fellow quarantine walkers, and the main thing my mask was protecting me from was probably seasonal allergies. But this was a trial run. If I couldn’t wear a mask now, out in the open, walking by myself, how would I wear it all the other, more critical, places I needed to wear it?
I kept my mask on. In the U.S. we were just beginning to understand how important mask wearing was in protecting our communities from Covid-19. I knew this was something I had to get used to.
I did get used to it, and now, a couple months later, it’s a habit. A couple months has also given me time to think about where my initial resistance came from.
Before Covid-19, I’d only very occasionally seen anyone wearing a mask in public before. When I did see someone wearing a mask, my first thought was, “I wonder what’s going on with them?” I would have denied it if you asked, but I realize now that masks were, to me, a sign of frailty, of physical weakness.
I didn’t understand, yet, what those in a great many other countries where masks were more common knew instinctively: that you don’t wear a mask to protect yourself, but to protect those around you.
Indeed, I also realize now that I thought of mask wearing as something that people did in other places, but not here, as if we didn’t all share the same biology, the same vulnerability to disease.
I wonder whether some of those refusing to wear masks have had similar thoughts, consciously or unconsciously, but have failed to recognize and push past them, and so have grown defensive instead.
In the end, knowing masks were necessary made me push past my own resistance, but it didn’t make me feel comfortable doing so.
It was seeing others wearing masks that did that.
On that first walk, mask wearers were few and far between, but I wasn’t the only one. Whenever I saw another walker wearing a mask, I waved, and they waved back, and as I walked on, I felt more at ease with my own mask, and less self-conscious. I wasn’t alone, and neither were they.
As masks have become more widespread, that feeling has grown stronger, and wearing a mask doesn’t feel all that awkward now.
There’s a need to for more messaging, more education, on why masks are needed, as well as more political will, in my community at least, to enforce mask mandates.
But I wonder whether, in the end, the most effective way to get others to wear masks is simply to continue wearing our own.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
This weekend is the next Tucson Festival of Books! After six years, it’s hard to believe this event hasn’t been part of Tucson forever.
I’ll be there this Sunday, signing with Mostly Books from 12-12:45 p.m. (booth #148), and then moderating Ally Carter and Sarah Mlynowski’s Twitter and Trailers: Using Social Media to Promote Your Book panel from 4:00-5:00 p.m. (Education Bldg., Room 333).
And both Saturday and Sunday I’ll be on the UA Mall of course, enjoying the Festival. Hope to see many of you there!
I remember, not long after moving to the desert, coming upon a broad, sandy dry gully that was labelled a “river.”
I believe, at the time, that I laughed.
After two decades of living in the desert, I don’t laugh anymore. The desert may save her rivers for special occasions, but when they come out (generally after a good hard rain), they come out in force, and don’t hold anything back.
So a couple nights ago, after a good soaking downpour, we walked down to one of the local washes to visit the river. We weren’t the only ones, because walking to the wash one of the things you do, after it rains.
(Best viewed in HD / high definition.)
The video didn’t catch the thick palm trunk, or the tree branch as tall as I was, that were both tossed downstream as if they were styrofoam-light. Or the tire that came rolling down the wash on its edge, as if it were surfing the river, until it was thrown back onto its side. Lots of flotsam and jetsam came floating by too, soda cups and water bottles and the like.
But always, it’s the water itself that most draws the eye and the ear, all that power roaring downstream.