Smoke and haze

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.

[Orange smoke over Catalina Mountains at sunset]
Those look like rain clouds over the Catalinas, but they’re not.

My eyes have been gritty this past week, too, but it’s no longer Arizona’s mountains and grasslands that are burning. Now California, and Oregon, and Washington burn instead.

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.

[Sun through wildfire haze]
California smoke or Arizona smoke? They look the same.

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.

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)