Can you believe this is the THIRD school year affected by the Covid-19 pandemic? At the beginning of 2020, the novel coronavirus still felt like a novelty. A two-week holiday from office work and school was supposed to flatten the curve, but it wasn't enough. My daughter never went back to finish third grade. Then she didn't start fourth grade in person. Most of the school year took place on a Chromebook. She returned to campus in the spring along with fewer than 1/3 of her classmates; the other families couldn't work around the inconvenient dropoff and pickup schedule or they didn't want to take the risk, even in one of the most careful and safety-focused districts in the nation (now among the minority of districts requiring masks without a state mandate). This year's back-to-school season holds the record as the most dangerous time in all of this long, dragged-out pandemic for children under 12, and there is no online option. Parents must choose between sending their child into whatever situation their local district has decided upon at the last second, which could be anything from restrictive to chaotic, or else disenroll them and scramble to get into an online school, a homeschool curriculum, or a spaceship to a better planet, I guess.
Welcome to Pandemic School Year 3! There are no wrong choices about how to educate your child this year when there are no good options, so pick one and do your best to honor the responsibilities that come along with that choice. It's all we can do.
Third verse! Same as the first! A little bit... Well, you know how it goes. This is the year we trade in our kids' social isolation for the high threat of a contagious disease that probably won't kill or permanently damage them but probably will kill and disable some [more] of their unvaccinated and immunocompromised relatives. It's not as bad as polio was, but at least back in the polio days, there was strong national unity that enabled us to eradicate the disease in the United States. For sinister political reasons ranging from Russian disinformation campaigns to latent racial anxieties and subconscious fantasies of a viral ethnic cleansing that could make America white again, a violently insane minority of Americans are suicide-bombing our chances of getting it under control while simultaneously using the scourge as an excuse to commit acts of hate and terror against fellow Americans even within their own families. My dad just overheard a man in his doctor's office begging a nurse to ensure that his wife would never find out about his Covid vaccine because she would throw him out of the house.
The stalling of our vaccination rate is not just a matter of hesitancy due to authentic concerns about the vaccines or the medical system (which are, of course, being inflamed by the conspiracy nuts). Apparently it's not polite to point this out, but my family and I are not going to die on a moral high hill of political correctness, so here's the ugly truth that we are not letting out of our sight: Behind much of the vaccine resistance is psychotic, cynical, genocidal hate burning as hot and wild and gassy as a Siberian wildfire. While it's dangerous--and rude--to assume that anyone still not vaccinated is a nutjob, it is also foolish to assume that everyone is good at heart and has positive intentions. Many people do not, and they pose an active threat to our children.
Cool, cool. No, really. This is fine. We can handle it. Let's go. Here's how, to the best of my knowledge.
Purge the Demons
Emotional constipation makes us slow, stupid, and helpless. It is impossible to hold down a lid for the long term on big feels like acute sadness, grief, rage, and fear based in the reality of a present, ongoing disaster. In my recent post "Here We Go Again," I wrote about how I am acknowledging and expressing my sadness in the healthiest ways I can manage. I am also acknowledging and expressing anger in ways that feel right to me--not by targeting people and lashing out but by speaking and writing about my own feelings of anger, where they come from and what they are telling me I need to do to protect my loved ones and myself. I'm not going around bullying people, but I am being honest on my own platforms (such as this very blog post) about what I feel and think about people I consider to be rotten. I let it be known, as a circle of protection against those who would try to finagle their way past my boundaries or scout me out as a victim of their online conspiracy cult. I find that when I scare people away with a sort of BEWARE OF B**CH sign, I receive fewer unwanted communications from the sort of people I don't want anywhere near me. But I'm not just being crusty; I'm being honest about my vulnerability too. I am being honest about what I fear (spreading the disease to people who could die of it) as well as what I refuse to fear (guilt trips and selfish threats from delusional relatives and acquaintances). I am reaching out to others to process grief when someone we have loved dies. When I can bug-zap away a lot of nuisance claims to my attention, I can pay more attention to those who can truly use my care.
This pandemic has been going on a long time and isn't going to give us another break anytime soon (sorry if you blinked and missed that happy little early summer moment when we could run around hugging each other in relative safety), so we have to keep up the practice of surfing the waves of our feelings if we want to stay afloat.
Clearing out backed-up emotions does wonders to free up space and processing power in the overwhelmed mind. We are in this for the long haul, especially those of us who are responsible for the care of children under 12 and anyone else who remains vulnerable to severe infection and rampant viral spread. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is literally evolving rapidly, and scientific data and analysis take time to catch up with what's happening. That is why recommendations from epidemiologists and other medical professionals keep changing. It's not because they are making things up as they go all willy-nilly, like doomsday prophets and cult leaders and disinformation campaign leaders do. We have a responsibility to do our best, given the best information available to us at any given point, even if it is boring or disappointing, and not the information that makes us sound the coolest to our deranged internet conspiracy comrades.
I'm tired of all the whining about how people can't keep up with new information. If you seriously can't read the news updates each day for cognitive or emotional reasons, then don't. But also don't spend time and energy arguing with other people on the internet or in your family about it. If you can't be a strong, responsible leader right now, that's okay. Not everyone has to be. But at least don't contribute to the problem. You're not the only one suffering. Take a nap, darlin'.
Win at Faith and Courage, Not the Darwin Awards
Faith and hope are important. Courage is essential. But let's not get it twisted. Faith is not ignorance. Hope is not stupidity. Courage is not foolishness. Some people love to slap positive-sounding euphemisms on their own weaknesses and vices. According to my own biases, crystal-worshiping dippies and narcissistic Christians are the worst about this. Half a millennium ago, the radical priest Martin Luther rained fire and brimstone upon a similar trend of dipshittery that went on during a bubonic plague crisis. I've seen the following quote floating around social media, and to my surprise and delight, I checked and found it to be authentic:
I shall ask God mercifully to protect us. Then I shall fumigate, help purify the air, administer medicine and take it. I shall avoid places and persons where my presence is not needed in order not to become contaminated and thus perchance inflict and pollute others and so cause their death as a result of my negligence. If God should wish to take me, he will surely find me and I have done what he has expected of me and so I am not responsible for either my own death or the death of others. If my neighbor needs me however I shall not avoid place or person but will go freely as stated above. See this is such a God-fearing faith because it is neither brash nor foolhardy and does not tempt God.
This quote is one of the nicer statements Martin Luther wrote about plague behavior. Other writings call careless partiers "murderers" destined for hell. Mr. Luther was not known for pulling his punches. He was known for being wise and having an exceptionally healthy type of skepticism toward authority. Protestantism, including today's evangelical churches, is based upon Martin Luther's astute criticisms of the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. The irony!
If you love anyone or anything in this world, get vaccinated, put on your mask, and go forth to do whatever you need to do to take care of the people you are responsible for--your children, your elderly parents, your students, your patients, your friends who depend upon you specifically to fulfill a need--and otherwise accept that Hot Vax Summer is over, and suddenly it looks like the Darwin Award Olympics have kicked off in the American South. Unfortunately the people killing themselves out of stupidity are also taking innocent collateral victims with them. There's nothing noble or even morally acceptable about spreading your cooties around just because you feel like bar hopping or social climbing or taking the perfect selfie--or as an act of defiance against the reality of the pandemic. Remember, you're not the only one suffering, Typhoid Mary.
Stock Up on Love and Joy
Instead of toilet paper, let's stock up on things that will nourish us, mind, body, and soul! First, let's prioritize relationships. What makes you and your life companions happy? Bicycles in good repair? Long books? A back yard fire pit? Cute back-to-school outfits? When you succeed at processing through your negative emotions, you make space to welcome authentic good vibes that can actually sustain your health and wholeness! Happiness, contentment, comfort, humor, gratitude, and tiny pockets of joy will get us through this insane school year with as much of our bodily and mental health intact as possible. We parents cannot slack at this most critical of all pandemic moments so far. But we can, and must, have fun and generate feelings of warmth, safety, and relaxation at home.
Remember that kindness is not a scarce resource. The more you share, the more you receive. Yes, there are times when we have to be firm with our boundaries to protect our families and ourselves--especially us mama and papa bears feeling forgotten and abandoned by our larger society within the storm of politics and cold, individual-risk-based social calculations of the ongoing pandemic. There are times when we need to communicate to others, including our own loved ones, our anger and pain. But when we are kind to ourselves and compassionate to others, we can have those hard conversations and even fight battles with our hearts grounded in kindness--without forgetting that we are fighting to preserve our families' love, joy, and pursuit of happiness. Nothing good comes of lashing out in bitterness or for revenge or to score political points with a hate group. When we are both honest and kind with ourselves, and when we can accept honesty and kindness from trusted loved ones, we are less likely to react in ways that hurt both ourselves and others, and we are more likely to be empowered to take good care of both ourselves and others.
We do what we can, and we don't blame ourselves for what we can't do.
Not all parents have the option to work from home, but I do, so I've taken it. Not all parents have the means to walk or drive their kids to school, but I do, so I'm keeping my daughter off the bus until she can be fully vaccinated.
None of us can pour from an empty cup, so we make room for pleasure each day and for quality time with loved ones. None of us knows how much time we have together in this world, but if we share as much love and joy as we can each day, we can rest easy each night knowing we've done what we could.
Jean Michelle Miernik is the author of Leirah and the Wild Man: A Tale of Obsession and Survival at the Edges of the Byzantine World.