A rising chorus but one that sings a song of death

The chorus grows louder across the United States for things to return to normal, aided no doubt by the inept, morally bankrupt rube that we call the president. Sadly, this Memorial Day weekend, article after article showed Americans across the country enjoying the unofficial kick-off to summer by doing all their normal long weekend, warm weather kinds of things—gathering in large groups, close together, wearing not a mask among them in so many cases.

Doing their normal routines of the past to return us to “normal” again.

But COVID-19 is still with us and normal is gone. Forcing a return to normal is just going to infect more people and create a new wave and kill many of those people—both the ones that keep striving for that illusion of going back to normal and those who know better and are trying to create a new normal and adapt to change.

The voices that sing of personal liberty above the greater good sang good and loud, and people are following that tune to our mutual detriment.

I’ve been chided for writing too much here and on social media lately about COVID-19. But the fact is that as I write this, we are quickly closing in 100,000 Americans dead from this disease in a matter of mere months, with no national calls for mourning or even a leader that expresses remorse at the significant loss of life. That tells me Americans in general aren’t talking enough about the toll of this virus—and many of those who are talking about it are doing nothing but complaining about the inconveniences of masks and sheltering in place and businesses having to temporarily close or drastically change the way they operate.

Apparently in the “need” to return to “normal” (which was already going downhill fast under the current presidency) the death of 100,000 citizens and no outrage. Instead, growing numbers are incensed that they can’t have back their old lives as quickly as they want, or that they may have to make some lasting changes going forward.

Am I the only one who remembers when nearly 3,000 Americans were killed on American soil by terrorists?

I know I’m not, because many of the same people demanding the right not to wear masks still talk about those deaths. In fact, we are still performing security theater at airports across the country, every time we remove our shoes and belts and make sure we aren’t carrying too much liquid on our persons. So many memorials and remembrances for those 3,000 lost lives. So much change from “normal” to prevent it happening again.

The reality is that anyone capable of critical thought has started to realize that normal has left the building. Given how this virus spreads, how does one return to their normal activities any time soon?

I don’t know about you, but the idea of enjoying eggs and bacon at the counter of the local diner, feels like a risky proposition. Sure, we will have six feet between us and in theory that sounds doable but raising and lowering my mask between sips of coffee and bites of food sounds tiring, not to mention the fact I’m removing my protection. The fact that it’s only for a moment is irrelevant if those moments are frequent. You don’t take the condom on and off repeatedly during sex if you’re trying to avoid STIs.

Now that waiting rooms have been canceled, even the most mundane of what used to be normal now requires standing around or waiting in your car to be called in.

Something resembling the old normal might return, but going back to it 100% probably isn’t likely at all, much less soon.

My own aesthetician contacted me to say that she would be reopening soon, as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is reopening, and did I want to schedule an appointment? I would only need to wear a mask and gloves. How does one remove the hair from my chin and upper lip if I am wearing a mask? Just asking because I can’t quite figure that one out. I’d have to remove my mask, which then becomes even riskier for both of us.

It’s becoming clear to me that as things reopen across the country, normal has died; normal left the building.

But still I hear that chorus of “me first” that sees massive numbers of death—I mean, seriously, COVID-19 is now either the first, second or third leading cause of death in the country depending on whose numbers you look at—and they don’t even blink, much less stop their singing about personal liberty over public health.

Partly it comes from people—overwhelmingly white ones—who saw news stories that people of color, especially the brown ones, were dying at higher rates. Instead of thinking about why that is (more of them being in these “essential” services positions that expose them to the virus being just one). These people have assumed that their whiteness protects them. Forget the fact that plenty of white people are dying too or facing lifelong health problems as a result of COVID—as long as the percentage among white people is lower too many of them will insist that it’s all a hoax (yeah, a worldwide hoax to dupe Americans…riiiiggght) or that it’s overblown.

I’ve had to accept that normal left the building. I don’t directly know many people who have had to deal with COVID itself, but I know enough and I see the truth all around me in what will soon be more than 100,000 deaths. I’ve had to sit tight while my father’s health deteriorated for non-COVID reasons half a country away from me because traveling and being there in person wasn’t safe. And now that his life is coming to a close, and there is no choice but to go, I know that I travel at risk to myself. But I will most certainly be doing my part to protect myself and others around me.

I refuse to listen to a song sung by a chorus that celebrates haircuts and dine-in over acknowledging a nationwide failure through inaction that’s cost 100,000 lives.

Most of what passes for normal in America is a performance. And the song the chorus sings is to make many of us dance for our humanity. We are dehumanized and deemed expendable so that the majority with the greater privilege and power can have its conveniences and liberty for the individual over freedom for the whole. COVID has stripped us down and even more strongly revealed this country for so many of its worst sins and failings.

Those who demand to return to normal have made their choice. Mass death is OK, as long as people they don’t care about are the ones dying, and as long as it’s a virus doing the killing and not some terrorists who had the temerity to be non-white while doing their terrorism.

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Image by Diego via Unsplash

Racism stays active, even in subverting non-white health and survival

“To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.”- James Baldwin 

The insidious reality about racism is that it never takes a break. Regardless of what is happening, racism never sits in the corner for a time out. It never takes a pause so that Black and brown people can catch their breath. Instead, it is a destructive and unwanted guest, intent on dehumanizing and destroying. 

Which is why, in the midst of a global pandemic that is taking life, harming millions and turning life as we know it upside down, the data that are now being reported that Black people and other people of color (POC) are being disproportionately affected by COVID-19 probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Even in a pandemic, there are no equalizers. 

Even in my little state, Maine, data are starting to show that Black Mainers are testing positive for the virus at disproportionately higher rates. Black people in Maine are 1.7 percent of the state’s population but are 3.7 percent of the infections.

As reported by Mother Jones, in Michigan Black people are 14 percent of the state’s population but 33 percent of its coronavirus cases and 40 percent of its deaths. In Wisconsin, Black people are six percent of the state’s population but 25 percent of its coronavirus cases and 39 percent of its deaths.

When racial data are available, the racial disparities are clear across the United States. When Black folks get this new coronavirus, they are at an increased risk of dying it from it. Lest you think this is strictly an American problem, it has been reported that ethnic minorities in England and Wales are dying from COVID-19 at higher rates than their white peers. 

Of course, racism—particularly virulent anti-Blackness—is a global problem, so it would make sense that these same patterns would be seen across the globe. 

Popular explanations for these discrepancies in the U.S. are that Black folks suffer from higher rates of asthma and heart disease, conditions that can elevate the risk of death in COVID-19. As well as the reality that Black people are disproportionately found in jobs that increase their exposure. Or if you want to simply be obtuse, you can use Jerome Adams logic, which says that Black folks are simply not taking personal responsibility for their health and need to lay off the booze, the drugs and the tobacco. Adams, by the way, is a Black man who happens to be the Surgeon General of the United States, and he didn’t give the same advice to white people, who do all those things at plenty high rates themselves.

While there is truth in much of what is being touted as possible reasons for these discrepancies (aside from Jerome’s nonsense), what about going deeper and talking about structural and systemic racism as the root cause?

Why are Black people disproportionately affected with certain ailments? Why even when we take away the economic arguments do we see these same ailments affecting high-earning Black folks? 

What if I told you the answer is racism. 

When you are in a Black body—no matter how many letters you have after your name, how famous you are, where you live or how much money you have in the bank—racism is a daily reality, from the interpersonal racism of “nigger” to the implicit bias that tells you that your physical pain and discomfort is not real or worthy of treatment. Biases that lead to early death, as was the case for Rana Zoe Mungin, a beloved Brooklyn teacher and Wellesley graduate, who was turned away from the hospital several times despite clear symptoms of coronavirus infection, at one point even being told that her condition was a “panic attack.” 

In recent years we have ramped up our discussions of racism enough that diversity, equity, inclusion and implicit bias are trendy words to throw around, but what we haven’t done is take concrete actions to dismantle racism. Because in reality, to dismantle racism would require us to dismantle whiteness and frankly, that is a much harder investment for a plurality of white people to make.

There is also the reality that dismantling racism would be a powerful indictment on the harm of whiteness and the white supremacy that is part and parcel of that identity. 

The same whiteness that is currently throwing a temper tantrum across the country demanding that the country reopen now, despite a lack of adequate testing and tracing mechanisms, even as the daily rate of infection continues to soar.

After all, now that we know enough to know that it is Black folks and other POC who are bearing the brunt of the coronavirus, we might as well open the joint back up, right? Take a gamble that it might be a few MeeMaws and the Black folks who end up dying en masse. MeeMaw lived a full life and is old, even if she is white, and Black folks? Well, does anyone really care outside of anti-racist spaces? 

This is the same whiteness that tells us to vote and trust that the system will deliver us a more benevolent leader in November. Whiteness that clings to childlike fantasies that racism will simply die out as the country grows more racially diverse, not understanding that racism is about power and privilege and that whiteness as the preferred norm requires Blackness as the abnormal. 

In early April, novelist Arundhati Roy wrote: “Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew. This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next. We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us. Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it.”

Initially when this piece was making the rounds, I dared to believe that we might be willing to be the change but in recent days, as warm spring days revealed millions across the country disregarding physical distancing and the chorus growing louder to be freed from our homes, I am less hopeful. 

America was built on racism and increasingly it looks like racism, and its intersecting cousin classism, might be a major cause of our death as a nation. This moment in time requires us to move beyond our norms but we are too deeply entrenched in our norms that disregard the lives of Black people, other POC, working class and poor people—as well as any other marginalized people. This frenetic rush to return to normal is not simply about the delusional gun-toting protesters across the country. It’s the casual comments that populate media feeds from the most comfortable denizens of our nation. It’s the people who can stay at home because they have the means to survive in this moment but who choose to leave the house because of boredom or the feeling of missing their lives and friends. 

Change is hard and there is a reason that most of us avoid it, but to avoid change when dancing around our own mortality is indeed to have a death wish. 

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Image from CDC via Unsplash

Viral loneliness and why community matters, or Check in on your peeps

Last night was a rough night for me, as I found myself unable to sleep and in tears at 3 a.m.—as I found myself overwhelmed with feelings of loneliness. I can’t say that true loneliness is a feeling that I have much familiarity with. The only time that I have ever experienced anywhere near this type of loneliness was in the last years of my marriage. When it became clear that love alone would never be enough; that there was a fundamental disconnect in our union, which love and therapy would never repair.

In that case, I was not physically alone, but I was emotionally alone and in angst, and when it became too much, we ended our marriage and reconfigured ourselves to be dear friends and co-parents.

It was a painful stretch of years, as we deconstructed 20 years of our lives. But in the last five years, while I have remained unpartnered aside from the occasional fling or situation, the loneliness that took root in my soul during the last years of my marriage dissipated as I embarked upon the journey of rebuilding myself and my life at middle age.

Until COVID-19 shut down the world, I lived a life that was full. At times, it was too full, as I juggled the reality of co-parenting and traveling half the month for work. In recent months I was even seriously considering dating, as I realized that after five years I was ready to consider more than a fling and open to the possibility of settling down again—if the right person should appear.

Of course, being so busy, the timing never worked out, since finding a partner requires having time to spend with another person. Prior to the middle of March and shutting down my Boston office and then watching more than half the world shut down, time was a precious commodity that I never had enough of.

Now, I am 35 days into physical distancing and time is all I have. My days are nights and my nights are days. I am fortunate enough to still have a job, which has become even more intense as the reality settles in that my job is now to run an organization from my home. An organization that is physically based in another state and for which we need to move all of our programming to digital platforms to keep the staff employed and paid.

My work life is still full and then there is the reality of overseeing my daughter’s schooling via remote learning. Let me just say, if I had my way, schools would just call it a wrap and shut down for the remainder of the year. Remote learning isn’t home schooling, but it requires parental involvement—during the same hours that technically I am supposed to be working. Except now, I am the home IT person, lunch lady and overall support person. Thankfully this duty is shared with my co-parent, so we are both able to catch a break whenever the teen is at the other parent’s house. That said, it is a lot to manage.

All of this would probably be OK, if there were moments for gathering with friends, sharing a tea, a coffee or a glass of wine, along with a hug. But as we all know, we cannot see our friends and loved ones like that now—at least not safely. So we are carrying heavier loads than ever, as our homes have been transformed into offices, school rooms, rec centers and everything in between. It is a heavy burden whether partnered, single or somewhere in-between.

The absolute cruelty of this virus is that we must be cut off from our human connections at a time when connection is vital. While many of us are connecting via Zoom, FaceTime, social media or the old-fashioned phone, my own experience is that it all falls short. Those of us who are still working are spending untold hours meeting via Zoom, thus being “Zoomed out” has become a real thing. The paradox being that we miss our loved ones but we are overwhelmed, which increasingly leaves little time to connect, despite the fact that we are all just at home.

Yet the loneliness of being at home, day and night except for trips to the grocery store and a fresh air break, isn’t healthy. As time goes on, I do wonder about the impact on our collective mental health.

In the early weeks, I noticed a lot more reaching out, but as the new reality settles in, I find the check-in calls and messages are dwindling. I know that when I have reached out to others, if they aren’t one of my single friends, I feel like I am imposing. My fellow singles thank me for reaching out and, as a friend told me, “It makes me feel like I still matter.”

I consider myself to be a relatively emotionally healthy person and even I can feel this weighing on me, hence my late-night cry. In this moment, as we fight to stay physically healthy for ourselves and others, it is equally important to tend to our emotional and mental gardens.

American culture, with its roots in whiteness, has always focused on the individual, with kudos being given to those who are proficient in “rugged individualism.” It strikes me though that if we are to emerge from this pandemic alive and well, we will need to focus on the greater collective. That means for those with the bandwidth to spare, reach out to friends, even the ones you assume are fine and check in on them. No need for a two-hour call every time, but a simple text can make all the difference in the world. Especially if you know that someone might be struggling, either overwhelmed with having the entire family home or overwhelmed with the never-ending silence of physically being alone.

We also need to create space so people can be honest about how they are feeling on any given day. Right now, those who dare to share that they are struggling and are often seen as brave, but what if we all gave ourselves permission to admit that we are struggling? What if in this unprecedented time, we took off our carefully constructed masks and talked openly about what we are feeling? What if we gave voice to the fears that someone of us will only unpack late at night.

It may be months before we can see our friends and family but to know that others are grappling with this new reality—and that when possible, we can offer one another emotional mutual aid—would go a long way in creating a better way of being in this world.

This is something we can do aside from wearing our face coverings and practicing good hand hygiene—and along with social distancing and staying at home—so that we can continue to flatten the curve but not let each other fall flat with despair. Most of us cannot do anything else other than mask-up and wash and distance in order to combat this pandemic and the fallout that it will continue to bring—we cannot directly fight the virus. But we can cultivate deeper connections that provide support and acknowledgement for ourselves and others in our social circles and directly fight one of the viruses more ill effects.

As for me, most days are not bad. I have kick-started my home yoga practice as well as ramped up my spiritual practices. I am seeing my therapist (on a virtual basis, mind you). But the absence of adults in my life is hard at times. There are nights when I would give anything for a hug or to be cuddled or have my hand held. In the meantime, I have become proficient at wrapping myself up like a burrito—at least until the hot flashes start to kick in.

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Want more BGIM? Consider booking me to speak with your group or organization.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.