My dear mother, rest her soul, used to say, “Susie, it’s never as bad as it seems.” (This in conjunction with “Susie, everyone’s just doing the best that they can.”) News flash, mom, gone these 47 years: Sometimes it is as bad as it seems and everyone’s not doing the best that they can.
Just over a week ago, I had the kind of accident I had been fervently trying to avoid in order not to go to the emergency room in Covid Times: a dumb run-in with a new knife that had way, way too much filo (sharp edge) from what I was used to in my past decade in Mexico with old, dull knives. I was chopping an onion to make tabbouleh, when the ferociously filoso knife slipped and slid as smooth as butter in the third finger of my left onion-holding hand.
Naturally, I was wearing white shorts as I bled like a stuck pig. From raising two active sons and half of our Dallas neighborhood who saved their accidents for our house and street, I knew it needed stitches, as remarked the handyman conveniently working outside under my carport, and who bandaged my finger to try to make it stop bleeding. I obstinately refused to go, employing magical thinking that the huge open gash (more of a puncture than a slice) would pull together with the steri-strips the handyman had put on. Nope. After two hours, I drove myself to the emergency clinic. I even apologized to the P.A. with the needle that I might be wasting her time. No, she said, I definitely needed to come in. It was as bad as it looked, a little worse even. I had thought it might need two or three stitches. But it took five, a lot on a finger tip.
There’s a lot of magical thinking in these Covid Times that things are really not as bad as they seem, and if we practice strong enough denial – like alcoholics saying we can quit drinking any time we want, we just don’t want to – they will somehow resolve and things will go back to normal. Here are the Covid-related areas that I (sorry, mom) think are as bad as they seem:
- The virus numbers. OK, they’re malleable depending on how you stack them up: most deaths in a day, most cases reported, percentage of infection to population, whatever. Few of them are going down, and the exponential growth since May is mind-boggling. However you monkey with the statistics, we are abjectly failing in pandemic management and containment compared with other first-world countries. Because. We. Have. No. Federal. Leadership.
- The economy. It is well and truly decimated, with record numbers of people filing for unemployment, small businesses gasping their dying breaths, evictions forcing families onto the streets, month-to-month margins now day-to-day. It is not going to spring back like a rocket. We are going to have to restructure the way our society does business, how people survive financially, how citizens of this supposedly first-world country have access to affordable health care, child care, housing and resources that should be basic and non-negotiable.
- Our health care system. If ever it was considered that we had an unworkable and inadequate health care system (“I feel so sorry for you Americans,” said a Canadian friend recently. “You’re so screwed.”), the mask is off. With so much health insurance tied to jobs, without jobs there is no insurance. Covid tests aren’t provided free by the government, as they are in first-world countries around the world, and there’s a woefully inadequate number of tests to go around anyway. Our health care system wasn’t working before the pandemic; now it’s a full-blown disaster.
- Public education. If we had to close schools in March because of the pandemic, what makes them safe to open now that it’s even worse? What plans and metrics have been federally established and followed to protect our teachers and students (none), so that schools opening this week don’t create an unmitigated contagion disaster? Why is there no federally mandated mask law for schools to provide the cheapest and most basic form of protection? We can send students home for wearing short skirts or sporting dreadlocks, but can’t mandate a simple protective measure that has been proven to mitigate contagion? We know what happens when measures are “suggested;” Americans protest that their rights are being violated.
Yeah, it’s bad and all the magical thinking in the world doesn’t make these disasters vanish. That doesn’t make me a Debbie Downer, just a clear-eyed realist with a big mouth. But here’s the good news: there are some areas where there’s real hope:
- Cooperative coalitions. Of states, whose governors have banded together to procure medical resources like ventilators and PPE (personal protective equipment); of private and public organizations working together to figure out test location and distribution, as well as a skeleton plan to manage vaccination allocation if and when there is one. Of private citizens who volunteering to bring food to their shut-in neighbors and register them to vote; of city and state governments working with private business and non-profits to allocate resources and supplies. School principals, mayors, NGO directors, hospital CEOs and countless others who never saw themselves as major policy makers have stepped into the void of consistent federal and state leadership to try and bring order to the chaos. Lucky (mostly large) communities may have these defacto leaders; unlucky ones don’t. Be a leader, even if you’ve never been one.
- Person-to-person compassion. There’s a striking disconnect of what’s actually happening with the virus’s domino path of destruction, and what is being done on a national basis (virtually nothing). It’s not numbers, and charts, and faceless businesses that are being hurt. It’s families who can’t be with their loved ones at death, weary medical personnel reusing face masks as bodies pile up in hospital hallways, single parents struggling with jobs they can’t do from home while trying to homeschool anxious children, adult children not being able to see elderly parents in their senior residences. Each of us doesn’t have to change the world, but we have our own tiny spheres of influence where we can exercise compassion, generosity, tolerance and kindness. Do it.
- Role models. There are those among us who have lived through lack of resources, political unrest and oppression, and social injustice — and they have coping tips if we’ll listen. Senior citizens who lived through WWII – especially those in Europe who survived concentration camps and enemy occupation – foreign dissidents who emigrated to the U.S. to avoid persecution, Freedom Marchers who fought for civil rights, women and people of color who have cracked a glass ceiling of systemic injustice so that others could go just a little higher.
My neighbor Velma, who’s 92, listened to my plans to replace (perfectly good) Formica countertops with granite in the little house I bought in Waco this winter. “Now Susan, that’s a want and not a need,” she said, not at all judgmentally. It was, and I bought a much-more-needed washer and dryer with the money I didn’t spend on something totally unnecessary. Velma grew up motherless in the Midwest on a farm with an outhouse, and knows a few things about doing without. I ask her lots of questions, and listen to the answers. But there isn’t much time to dilly-dally here. Ask and listen now.
- Strength in banding together. It’s hard to think how and where we can make a difference as one person, it often feels so hopeless. But in banding together we can affect serious change. In March and April, 1,000 home sewers like me came together under the direction of one uber-organizer to make 20,000 fabric face masks for 100 Waco organizations and medical facilities. (See Rowing to Dunkirk One Stitch at a Time. Find your tribe, work together, make your mark.
It’s a form of self protection to put your head in the sand, make Covid weight-gain and drinking jokes, and fervently hope that things will magically return to normal. But don’t be a denier: it really can be as bad – or possibly worse – as it seems. I have to say that I did invent an alternate reality in which I was in a bar fight in Waco, got the tip of my middle finger switchbladed off, smacked the perpetrator on the head with my pool cue and rode off on my Harley to get stitches. There were those who believed it could have happened, given my past decade living in Mexico and pushing the envelope for a middle-aged Anglo woman who had a previous suburban life in Dallas, Texas.
But I only wanted to make a point: I didn’t want to get stitches in my finger, but in the end I chose reality over magical thinking. It was as bad as it seemed, so I bucked up, Mom, and did something about it.
— Susan Bean Aycock, embracingthechaos.org, August 19, 2020