Recently there have been circulating on the web variations of a “letter from coronavirus” to humanity. The idea is that this pandemic was sent to us to teach us how to change our ways. It’s the kind of message that is at least as old as Biblical times (“repent or ye shall be destroyed!”), and at least as new as the Gaia Hypothesis.
I get the appeal. I am open to interpreting seemingly haphazard events as meaningful messages. I think it can be a powerful and useful way to look at the world. Of course, it could also be wishful thinking. We want the challenging, traumatic, terrifying, and catastrophic things in our lives to have meaning. And we want some sense of control. So the idea that this pandemic is happening for a reason, and that if we respond properly, we will propitiate the appropriate entity/ies, is attractive. Also, given how terrifying climate change is to me, I would like to think that all of this stopping might have a beneficial long-term effect on our society, not just a temporary reduction of our carbon footprint along with a huge amount of disruption and suffering.
When I had cancer, and one of the complimentary medicine practitioners I spoke with told me she would help me investigate what aspects of my lifestyle had caused the cancer so that I could change them, I went running in the other direction. It wasn’t that I was unwilling to change. I was more than happy to reflect, to observe, to take deeply to heart whatever lessons might be learned from the experience. But there is a fine line between that and saying, this experience is happening to me because I needed to learn those particular lessons. On that practitioner’s side of this fine line, it seemed like a quick and slippery slope down to the notion that I somehow deserved the cancer because I’d made bad choices. I’ve seen one too many people die of cancer who manifestly did not deserve it, to know that that’s just wrong (unless of course you believe in leftover karma from a past life, which also has some appeal… but I am more inclined to think in terms of systemic, social causes, than individual fault).
Call me Pollyanna, but I wanted to view the potential lessons of cancer as an opportunity, not a punishment. (And remember: Pollyanna was actually a hero). Similar to my cancer, I believe this pandemic presents us with opportunities along with its major challenges. One of my teachers, Ginny Whitelaw, suggested we ask ourselves, “How do we let this change us?”
The challenges of this time are significant for me and my family. We view my husband Don and his two adult children, Sam and Sarah, as relatively high risk – Don due to his age (67) and asthma, my step-kids due to their asthma, their developmental disabilities, and their other underlying health conditions. They have temporarily moved back in with us, and we have been going full-tilt on packing, furniture moving, cooking, laundry, caregiving, and supporting and entertaining them for the past two weeks. Three days ago my godson Michael finished his 14-day quarantine after his abrupt return from his semester abroad in Spain, and moved in with us too, to help with the caregiving.
We’ve so far dealt with a badly plugged toilet, a leaking washing machine, a hot water heater needing replacement, and a malfunctioning thermostat on our furnace! We also have to contend with picky eating and other ongoing behavior challenges and family dynamics. Figuring out how to procure and store groceries for five without exposing ourselves unduly to the virus takes a lot of energy. Don and I have given up a lot of time doing the things we would happily be doing in the isolation of our home if it were just the two of us here.
Even so, we are very aware of how much resource and privilege we have. We have the freedom to choose this new configuration of our family. We have the shelter. We have the space. We have the time. We have the money. We have running water to wash our hands with. We have family and friends who support us. And we have each other. At least for now. The first night Michael joined us, Don and I retired a bit early, breathing a sigh of relief at having a third non-disabled person to help. We looked deep into each other’s eyes and acknowledged for the first time the ways we are happy for this opportunity to be here with our kids, and to be here for our kids.
As usual, much of the burden of these times is falling on those less fortunate than we are. In our local circle of friends, at least 3 families are dealing with serious health issues. Four days ago just a mile from our home there was a targeted double homicide of a couple who many in our community knew and loved, and who have 3 teenage/young adult children. A little further out from our circle, there are the many people who are living in poverty, homelessness, incarceration, and the undocumented immigrants and low-wage/gig-economy workers. And of course, health care workers. Kudos, gratitude, and prayers to those working directly on the front lines of this disaster, and those continuing to address these terrible inequities.
In order to support one part of this wider community, Don and I had planned, before the pandemic, to co-host a fundraising party for Voces de la Frontera. It was to be May 3rd, around the time epidemiological models predict the virus may be peaking here in Wisconsin. So, instead of gathering in person, I invite you to join us from a distance in continuing to support this vital work to assure that people in the Latinx community know their rights, make headway on key issues such as driver license access, turn out to vote in the 2020 elections, and find support when fear takes hold. To those of you reading this from outside Wisconsin, Voces is looked to as a model nation-wide, and as you know, the Wisconsin vote will be key in the presidential election. To read more and to donate you can use this link.
All the rearranging we have been doing, of furniture, of calendars, of day-to-day life, is leading me to some potent reflections. Why did I assume that the way things were was the best arrangement? When I was in graduate school studying social theory, one of my favorite perspectives was that of the pragmatists. They focused on how when old habits are interrupted, when our taken-for-granted arrangements don’t work, new thinking and learning can occur. So I hope that we can seize this as an opportunity to reshape our habits, individually and collectively. Rather than talking about when we will be able to return to “normal,” can we instead see this as a transitional period? Can we begin envisioning and talking about what a better setup might look like after we get through this pandemic?
As we seek to make meaning out of this adversity, let’s let it change us for the better.