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  • Jan Flynn

Can We Come Out Now?

Ready or not, it’s a different world

My friends and I take a table outside and scan the posted QR code

Three-dimensional menus are largely a casualty of the pandemic. It’s a small but pervasive shift, one of the reminders that life as we knew it has undergone alterations while we were tucked away at home.

All of us find a casual way to mention that we are fully vaccinated. “Yes, but the Delta variant,” says one of us and for a few minutes, the talk turns to the recent announcements from the CDC and Dr. Fauci. There is chatter about how the “whole thing” was mismanaged from the beginning, anecdotes about people we know/knew who survived or succumbed to COVID. Following the commiseration are comments about the crowd of anti-vaxxers who recently demonstrated in front of our city’s largest hospital last week because it has required all of its staff to get their shots.

Conversations like these have become almost ritualized, especially among friends and colleagues who are meeting in person for the first time post-lockdown. These exchanges tend to end the same way. “Anyway,” someone will conclude, “it’s not going away. COVID’s just part of our lives now.”

Nobody ever disputes this. Acknowledging the permanence of the shift in our shared reality somehow frees us to move on to other topics and order lunch. Life, after all, goes on.

So much has changed so suddenly that it’s hard to register

Until late this June, I worked at a middle school where my role primarily involved student behavior. It was a great gig for a writer: my days were full of drama and therefore potential material, but my responsibilities ended at 4 PM sharp. My job didn’t intrude on my weekends, and there were all those lovely holiday and summer breaks.

The pandemic transformed my working life, as it did everyone else’s. Suddenly I was an essential worker in a district that ordered its students and staff back to the classroom in early November. I was on board: there is no substitute for in-person learning, and the district did everything it could to promote safety, based on the best available information. There were air scrubbers in every room, desks were placed six feet apart and cordoned off with plexiglass shields, arrows and stickers guided students to move between classes so that they were never in close proximity, handwashing stations arose everywhere, etc.

The school was in northern Napa Valley, a region that is still idyllic on good days yet is increasingly ravaged by climate change in the form of drought and wildfires. At the end of September, nearly eight months into lockdown, the Glass Fire erupted in the hills surrounding us. Many of us had to evacuate as the flames roared closer and smoke turned the air into a toxic miasma. We didn’t know what we would return to.

When the fire was finally contained, 23 days later, the center of town remained unscathed. But several of our students lost their homes, or their houses still stood but lacked power or running water, and would indefinitely. At the same time, COVID was entering its predicted fall surge.

But life goes on. The school opened its doors on November 2. Rattled by a further level of dislocation, the actuality of going back to school, now that the moment had arrived, was fraught.

What got me through it was the students themselves. It was touching to see how eager they were to be back in school with their peers, how much they trusted us to keep them safe. Almost without exception, they were vigilant about wearing their masks, washing their hands, and even maintaining social distance — a Herculean effort for middle-schoolers. If they could do it, I could do it. Gradually, we all got used to the new routine. Life went on.

Then the nation threatened to come apart at the seams

While we adapted to the dizzying changes in day-to-day life, the presidential election transformed from a pillar of national stability to a flashpoint in a struggle between irreconcilable visions of America. We looked on in horror as armed thugs in bizarre costumes stormed the Capitol on January 6, ransacking and desecrating with anarchic glee, in service to a man who had declared himself the “president of law and order.”

At school, I tried to project calm and reassurance. Sometimes that felt like a lie. It wasn’t until after the inauguration that I felt like I could take a full breath or stop doomscrolling every spare minute. At last, social media stopped being an endless, blaring emergency siren. Life went on.

Spring 2021 came at last, and with it the vaccine

It’s hard to recall the giddy relief when we finally got our shots. For a solid six weeks, every social conversation was dominated by Vaccine Talk. Have you gotten it yet? Which one? How long did it take you to get an appointment? How did you feel after the first shot? How about the second?

For the first time in fifteen months, we didn’t feel under threat from the air around us. Gradually at first, then with increasing momentum, we returned to life as we’d known it, or as we wished it still was. We gathered with friends. We ate in restaurants. We got on airplanes to visit loved ones we hadn’t seen since the Trump administration. We began forgetting to bring our masks. Increasingly, we forgot about them completely, as COVID fear dwindled in our rear-view mirrors.

Life went on.

Our adaptability is our strength. And our weakness

The human brain is wired for novelty; it’s also constructed to process new situations quickly so that they become familiar. It’s a survival technique, allowing us to manage new conditions as successfully as possible. Being human, we learn fast.

We also forget fast. We get used to things, especially the things we feel helpless to change. Released from lockdown, relieved of the unrelenting, escalating spew of chaos over the past five years, we have a hard time finding the energy to fret. We’re done with constraints, weary of loss. Enough with the freaking out: we want to get back to living.

Life goes on, as it must. The tendency is to fall back into our previous, comfortable rhythms. As though the world is still the way we understood it. As though we haven’t crossed a threshold from which there is no retreat.

The Delta variant is presently flexing its viral muscles, showing off its ability to use even the fully vaccinated as disease vectors. We want to be done with COVID. What will it take to get enough of us to don our masks again before we enter a grocery store? Have we honed our adaptability or simply slackened our guard?

The world we’re reentering isn’t the same

It was already undergoing cataclysmic change when the pandemic emerged. But while we were sequestered, did we fail to register a tipping point? The smoke from the Bootleg Fire and other conflagrations in the West has drifted far enough east to taint the air in Manhattan. In California, this year’s fire season is already outpacing 2020, when more acreage burned than any previous year in recorded history. And once again, the eastern half of the country is being warned to prepare for a “more active than normal” hurricane season. Our environment is gripped by convulsions that are biblical in scope.

Still, we go on our long-delayed vacations, drive the kids to swim lessons, and do what we can to stay comfortable in the never-ending heatwaves. Life goes on.

But the rules have changed. If we don’t learn to play by them, and fast, life will still go on. But it may go on without us.

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