I recently went back to visit the high school where I used to teach. I met with a handful of kids in my old classroom, and as I looked around at the same pictures on the walls, the wooden desks, the view from the window, I was stunned thinking about the last time I sat in this room. It was the spring of 2020, and I was seven months pregnant, trying to talk to a class of 14-year-olds about this new corona-virus without being too flippant or too scary.
It was the day before spring break, and we were fumbling through a crash course in online learning, because we expected classes would need to be virtual the first couple of weeks back. It would be weird and annoying for a minute, but then we’d get right back in the swing of things. To put our complaints in perspective, we went around the circle and shared whom we wanted to protect from getting sick—a grandpa in a nursing home, an aunt with a heart defect, a loved one with cancer.
That was almost two years ago. Now I have a toddler who runs around the house hollering about ducks, and the freshmen I once knew are all taller and wearing masks and applying to colleges. None of us in that circle—whether we were rolling our eyes or wringing our hands—expected it to go this way.
But there was something else that struck me during that visit, beyond the fact that we still hadn’t gone back to “normal,” or that we weren’t even sure what that meant anymore. I felt a weariness in the school that was deeper than I’d anticipated. I knew the past two years had been hard. But as I moved through the hallways, the weight was palpable, not in everyone’s words as much as their faces and shoulders. It was like they had had the wind knocked out of them. Their laughter couldn’t quite lift off the ground. The day I visited, many teachers were out with COVID-19 or COVID-19 exposures or kids who had COVID-19 or whose day cares had shut down because of COVID-19. Classroom attendance was low, making any kind of steady pace or continuity an elusive and increasingly exhausting goal to chase.
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Before Omicron swept the world, it felt a little like we’d been caught in some kind of liminal suspension for nearly two years, our limbs aching as we scanned for a patch of ground where we could land—just one stretch of sturdy earth to rest on with familiar markers to chart our location and a horizon to move toward without wondering about quicksand pits. It felt like maybe we were close. And then we realized it was a mirage.
We’re all stuck in a pandemic—we’re all subject in some way to the uncertainty it creates—but the puncture wounds have taken a billion different shapes. I’d imagined the weight of teaching during a pandemic and thought I had a pretty good sense of how hard it must be, but I didn’t feel the weight of it in my body until I returned to the building. It made me wonder what we’d feel if we were able to slip into each other’s worlds for even a morning. To be in the ICU with health care workers, to watch educators try to juggle safety and desperate parents, to wait in prolonged isolation with those who live in bodies especially vulnerable to this virus, to make impossible decisions with small-business owners as they try to stay afloat, to sit in the room with people whose mental health is in crisis. Would we start to understand one another, this pandemic, the past two years, any better?
I had to leave that visit early—our childcare plans changed when yet another person in our orbit tested positive for COVID-19. It wasn’t an unfamiliar experience. With our only child born in May 2020, unpredictable childcare has been the only kind we’ve known. Even so, the uncertainty in my life is so small and manageable compared with what others are dealing with. Now that I’ve switched to freelance work, my schedule can be flexible and, more often than not, is remote, and we’ve gotten so much practice pivoting when the plans change. How many times since Otto was born have I thought, Soon, things will be safe, life will settle, we’ll be able to rely on structure, only to feel the ground give way beneath me again?
Which is exactly why I was taken off guard by my response when I received the text. I should have been well equipped to handle this by now. Instead, I felt like I’d smacked into the bottom of a well, and I might as well curl up and make a home there. My shoulders and chest were tight with worry over the person who had gotten sick, and I was already so behind on work that I couldn’t think about it without hearing my heart pound in my ears. I took Otto home, wrapped myself in a blanket, and watched him run as fast as he could back and forth across the 5-ft. stretch of floor in our bedroom. We can’t keep doing this, I thought. And then, Stop being so dramatic. It’ll just be a few days. But I don’t think my hopelessness was tied to any one day.
I don’t always know how to talk about it. I’m doing fine; we’re really fine. But also, uncertainty hangs heavy in the air around all of us. Will our loved ones survive? Are we keeping them safe? Are our lives and safety valuable to those around us? Will we be able to find a COVID-19 test? Are our jobs secure? Will we ever get back to who we were before this started? Will our relationships recover? Should we have that celebration? Should we book those plane tickets? Are we overreacting? Will things ever get better? Uncertainty is a song I can’t get out of my head. It hits us differently, but I feel it wearing on everyone in one way or another, leaving us anxious or angry or humming with our eyes closed and our fingers in our ears.
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It feels like we might be approaching some kind of turning point in this pandemic. There are signs that cases are on the decline, and it seems like only a matter of time until the vaccine is available for kids under 5. But what are we supposed to do with these flickers of hope? Can we trust them? We’ve been here before and seen how quickly things can take a turn for the worse. Are we supposed to let ourselves anticipate safety? Order? Reliability? And will it be safe for all of us? Or just some of us?
I can see a tendency in myself to soothe the discomfort of uncertainty by insisting on a narrative of certainty—to crush everything I can’t know or control into something as simple as a rock I can clench in my fist. If those people would just do these things, this would all be over! I think conspiracy theorists might be driven by the same desire to banish the intolerable feeling of uncertainty. But I’ve found that this impulse to flatten a massive, complicated problem into one small thing I can yell about doesn’t actually solve anything or even make me feel better. As much as I trust the experts, I’m starting to realize that knowledge and scientific innovation are only part of the solution; they can go only so far without things like understanding, collaboration, care, commitment, support. And some days it feels like we’re moving further away from these resources. So I clench my fist tighter, and my brain keeps spinning—overheating like a blender left on too long until I simply burn out. How do we keep going without shutting down or hardening into shells of ourselves?
Yesterday, my partner Micah and I started the morning like many others. I read him the latest Omicron news, and we speculated about numbers and peaks and future variants. Eventually, it became harder and harder to hear each other, because Otto was howling at the ceiling like a wolf pup. Howling is one of his favorite things these days, especially in a pack. Micah and I put our conjectures to the side and started howling, too. Three wolves, noses pointed toward the ceiling while the morning light cast shadows on the wall. It felt really good to howl together.
I also felt a pang, watching Otto pull us out of our fretful dialogue. Will he remember his parents as distracted and stretched thin? Are we raising him to be stressed out and fearful? What is it like for your entire life to exist under the banner of a pandemic? Everyone is flummoxed by time these days—How has it been two years? And when did that happen? A month ago? A year? We’re untethered, free-floating. Micah and I had been drifting into an anxious future when Otto yanked us back to the moment we were actually in and the toddler squirming in footie pajamas between us.
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It makes me wonder if there’s a way to stay present without getting swallowed, to keep on without turning to steel, to let uncertainty be big and to feel the fear of it, while also finding tiny islands of certainty, spots on the map to mark with a pushpin and tether us to solid ground. I don’t know if I’ll have childcare next week, if our local hospital will have a bed for my high-risk mom if she should need it, or how we’ll ever heal from this.
But there are small things I do know, and when I feel my brain whirring, I can grasp hold of them. Like right now, this is my tongue, pressing against the backs of my teeth. I’m here. This is my hand cupping Micah’s cold fingers like a snug turtle shell. We’re here. These are the sounds of my baby jumping to the beat of “Heart and Soul” like a heavy-footed bunny. Right here. Later, when it’s dark, these are our voices singing the same three songs we sing to Otto every night—the first my dad sang to me when I was little; the second comforted me when I was an overwhelmed teenager; the third Micah heard on his way home the day we found out I was pregnant—three points to chart a path. I’m here; he’s here; we’re here. Mark the spot, before we’re inevitably sucked back into the storm.
The pushpins in the map don’t change any of the uncertainty, don’t solve any of the problems causing the uncertainty, and don’t enact widespread change. But I’m trying to assemble some survival tools for the long haul. Because the truth that might be even harder to reckon with is that this pandemic is not the only uncertainty keeping us from perfect peace. Uncertainty is baked into life, inescapable and bewildering. My map also marks the spots when I became paralyzed at the age of 3, when Micah was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 33, when Otto’s screaming, wriggly body hit the air and I realized that the more love you have, the more terrifying life’s unpredictability becomes.
When I look at it square in the face, it’s too much to bear, actually. So if I’m going to keep at this—keep moving, keep loving, keep showing up for the ones right here—I need some tools. After two years of COVID-19, each of us has crafted our own: the anchors we put down when faced with a future we can’t predict. This one is mine—that I can name what I don’t know, but I also know what I have. The pandemic isn’t over yet, but maybe this tool will allow me to stay soft and present a little while longer.
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