A week ago Monday, I woke up feeling badly, which surprised me a bit, given how good the previous week had been. We were having that lovely, early-spring-in-the-Pacific-Northwest weather where there was no rain to be had – only sun, glorious 70-degree sun. The kids had hit a homeschooling stride, we were spending hours outside making art and listening to Harry Potter audio books, and we were all complaining less in general. I had some intellectually stimulating discoveries about my chosen topic for study during these unusual times (nonprofit management: blood-pumping, heart-racing stuff) and was therefore feeling fulfilled and not-so-trapped.
Then last Monday happened. The weather turned back to dark and cloudy, our morning walk was marred by many people out and about WITHOUT MASKS and seemingly without regard for the six-feet-apart rule. We hustled our kids across the street more than once because of strangers not paying attention, or worse, not caring. My well-meaning neighbor gave the kids a coloring book, which was generous, but did it by handing it directly to them over the fence less than one foot away from them, which was INSANE. The whole day shook my sense of safety. The fuzzy we’re-all-in-this-together attitude I had been fostering and peddling for the previous several weeks: GONE. I did not feel like we were all in this together – not on Monday, and I was having an uncharacteristically hard time rebounding emotionally. Enter the twitching chrysalid.
Bugs as Metaphor
One of the things we’re trying to do in the house in lieu of proper school is to fill our environment with curiosities. We have vegetable seedlings growing on our kitchen table, avocado seeds sprouting on the window sill, frustratingly inert preying mantis eggs safely ensconced in a cup in the living room, and caterpillars/chrysalids/butterflies blithely working their way through their life cycle atop the piano. Monday was the designated day to move the recently hardened chrysalids into the netted butterfly habitat to await their glorious, winged emergence. It’s an obvious metaphor of hope playing out in real time, but on Monday, it all felt exceptionally fragile (which, in retrospect, is also part of the obvious metaphor).
I was anxious about the move from jar to netted habitat. It was the first and only time we were to intervene in their cycle, and all I could think about is what if I dropped them, what if one detached, what if one (or more!) doesn’t make it? (You might be wondering where the kids were in all of this: being told to back up and not bump me – one of those classic anxious parent scenarios where this is ostensibly for them but NOT RIGHT NOW.) I did my best to position the lids on the mounts safely, gently removed my hands, zipped up the netted habitat, and sighed with relief. Then, one of the chrysalids started twitching and wouldn’t stop. (Scientific question: how does goo twitch?)
You know that terrible, scared animal feeling you get in your gut when something just seems really wrong? That’s how that twitching chrysalid made me feel last Monday. I know better than to anthropomorphize bugs, but what if the twitching was a sign of distress? Distress I had caused. With dread, I realized that not only did it feel like all of us are not “in this together” anymore (ever?), but also that for all our social distancing and devoted mask wearing, we too are capable of causing harm to other living things. I think I may have even even shouted “stop twitching!” (not certain to whom I was speaking at that point). I was a mess – over a twitching chrysalid. I just can’t have something die on me right now, which sounds absurd when to date, over 55,000 Americans and 200,000 people worldwide have already died from this virus. I’m more or less safe as long as I stay in my house. I’m keeping a tight, anxiety-induced grip on my near and dear ones. That should give me some comfort – and it does – as long as no bugs die under my watch.
It eventually stopped twitching.
Now What? The New Normal.
I feel better today. I’ve heard and read since that the six or seven week mark was a universal breaking point, and nothing sums it up better than a still from the movie Finding Nemo that has been circulating on social media. It’s the one where the aquarium fish have finally escaped the crazy dentist’s office, only to find themselves in the ocean water, wrapped in floating plastic bags. “Now what?” is the caption. Indeed. I spent those first pandemic weeks rallying the troops, trying to convince everyone I know and love to sacrifice normalcy to “flatten the curve,” digging through our stuff to find all of our N-95 masks to donate, learning how to make my own fabric masks and then explaining to nay-sayers why being asked to wear fabric masks is not a contradiction to being asked to donate N-95s, figuring out distance learning, getting the kids on a workable schedule, figuring out how to get some work in ourselves, cheerleading on social media. It all seemed impossible, became possible, and now…here we are, floating in the wide blue ocean in plastic bags. Now what?
Steve and I are preparedness advocates. In these early weeks of the pandemic, few things feel more non-essential than disaster preparedness. Sixteen years ago, I was on the management team of the tsunami response for a major international non-governmental organization. In those early months, we were buried. Just taking a day off seemed like too much to ask, too much time away. At one point, a contingent of our organization’s international disaster preparedness team flew in to meet with us about staff preparedness training. In the middle of a disaster response. I don’t think I actually said “get the eff out of my office,” but the sentiment was there (fun fact: I actually swear more now as a 44-year old-mother of three than I did then as a recently married 28-year-old barely keeping my head above the workload of a major disaster). Now, as disaster preparedness advocates ourselves, we are acutely aware that no one – not disaster responders, not our friends and neighbors – currently wants us anywhere near their effing offices. For now. But the time is coming for all of us to absorb the initial distress caused by the overlap between this pandemic and earthquake preparedness. This pandemic is going to stretch out longer than we want, and our lives are going to change and adapt accordingly. Some of the bandwidth we are getting back needs to return to natural disaster preparedness.
Before this pandemic, we focussed our work on preparing for the Cascadia Subduction Zone earthquake. At first glance, that potential disaster and this current one don’t seem to have much in common. We were preparing for no services, to camp in our backyard, to band together as a tight community until outside help could reach us. Today, all systems are go – we have food, water, toilets, and internet, we just can’t get near other human beings. Perhaps more distressing is the possible scenario we haven’t talked about out loud yet: disasters don’t take turns. We could have a massive earthquake during a time when we are already incredibly vulnerable because of the virus. Those are words I’ve been avoiding saying for 46 days. It’s time to start saying them.
We are learning lessons from this pandemic in real time, some of which can be applied to the earthquake. The best way I can think of to empower ourselves in a time of uncertainty overlaid with an impending natural disaster is to learn the lessons, to talk about our fear, and to share our solutions. All of this is a very long prelude to my announcement of a new thought initiative: Venn and the Art of Community Resilience. We live in the overlap – let’s make the most of it.