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.

“The Pandemic Is A Portal” – Arundhati Roy

Is it belated? Much has been written already. By writers enthused to share what works for them or maybe just on deadline. By people coping with uncertainty by digging into work, into words. By those with some actual expertise to share. I did sketch out how to remain an environmental activist during this time. Mostly I’ve been quietly reacting (by which I mean, posting on Facebook and Twitter) to the daily, sometimes hourly, news updates related to COVID-19.

Maybe I’m not late to writing this considering the main message in those updates: We have a long way to go. I could probably (and perhaps should?) write a novel in the span of time we’ll be sheltering-in-place. Although, frankly, I lack trust in my fellow Americans to commit as fully as necessary to staying home, to staying away from others, for the duration required. If the bet was on which Americans are more likely to do – give up our freedom of movement until a vaccine is developed or accept that the virus is going to sicken and kill a bunch of us – my money would have to be on the latter.

I know.

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My daughter and her boyfriend returned from a year of travel on March 11, a date by which fear of COVID-19 had heightened but prior to the full-blown, stay-at-home situation in which we now reside; San Francisco had canceled gatherings of more than 1,000 people, the NBA suspended its season, the World Health Organization declared the disease to be a pandemic.

Those of us with vulnerable people in our lives (husband with asthma, son with Type 1 diabetes, nephew with cystic fibrosis) had shifted behaviors, ramped up the disinfecting, sent link after link about the disease to our friends and family not yet inclined to give up normal. Despite my fear of what might come and my body aching to be home, I stuck to my work schedule and attended the California Coastal Commission meeting in Scotts Valley, an enclave just north of Santa Cruz. That county would order a mandatory shelter-in-place four days later. The day after the meetings, we received word that Steve Padilla, Coastal Commission chair, had tested positive for COVID-19. Steve would end up in the hospital, in ICU, requiring a ventilator. As of yesterday – three weeks later – he’s finally recovered enough to return home.

When I heard the news, my own heart rate quickened, and for a moment I could not catch my breath. Steve getting sick made the COVID-19 threat real in the way that knowing someone hit personally by whatever tragedy, politics or pandemic is hitting the world in the moment does. The virus and I had been in the same room together. I worried for Steve. I worried about what this meant for the family I was about to return to. I grew even more furious at people still going to concerts, still having playdates, still meeting their friends for happy hours at the local bar.

With all that on my mind, I journeyed back to Humboldt, stopping in San Francisco to wave goodbye to my little nephew Dudley through his window. As far as I know, I did not bring back COVID-19 from the Coastal Commission meeting. I wish we had enough testing that I could have been sure, but that is not how our country has chosen to respond. In the weeks since returning, I’ve felt – to use a surfing metaphor – trapped in the impact zone, powerless to do more than take another quick breath before the next wave crashes down on my head, unable to turn and get to the beach, unsure I’ll ever make it to the outside.

My daughter and her boyfriend needed new plans – the jobs they’d lined up no longer existed, the place they’d secured now felt like a bad idea given the vast uncertainty of what lie ahead. My other daughter only lives with us part-time, meaning a continued coming and going despite the shelter-in-place orders. My son, keenly aware of the risk to his own health, is taking this seriously, but the situation is imperfect. My husband continues to work.

Keeping everyone safe – and making sure they are keeping everyone safe – has been complicated and full of conflict. Every trip to Costco, Target, Grocery Outlet, the Co-op and CVS requires research to see which has what in supply, the double-and-triple checking of lists to avoid the headaches and minimize the dangers. I accidentally picked up cat food instead of dog food yesterday and want to cry because now I have to go back out.

And then the hours spent disinfecting, handwashing have accumulated into a part-time job. How are people finding time for Netflix? I thought the world slowing down would enable me to stick to some sort of routine, to finally check off all the habits I’ve been trying to instill, a sad silver lining to this unsettling time we’re in.

Instead my days have rollercoastered between productive and hopeless. I manage to check off work tasks, relieved to still have a job and income. I skip the home workout routines I’ve bookmarked. I let texts and Zoom happy hours invites go unanswered. I do little for the greater good beyond staying home and ordering pie and books from local businesses. I am not making masks! I have only time to take a breath before another domestic situation threatens to flatten me. I can’t decide what’s rougher in this time of pandemic, being trapped at home with small children or being stuck with adult ones whose behavior you can’t control. Sheltering-at-home has a way of magnifying whatever dysfunction exists.

But let me step back, gain a different perspective. Yes, some legitimate shit, the kind that understandably keeps me up at night and fills my days with tension, definitely exists. And yet, what if this had happened when Bobby and I lived in Long Beach, waiting tables and working in a print shop, pre-internet, parenting a toddler? Or when we lived with his mother in the desert, three small children, me tending bar and Bobby working at Kinko’s? Or even after we’d moved to Humboldt but before I’d gained a salaried position making decent pay and while the children were still school-age?

I feel in my gut the economic pain hourly workers are going through. My heart aches for the families without resources panicking through their days. I’m worried about all the people on the front lines, especially the underpaid and under- or uninsured. In addition to the elderly and otherwise at-risk, this disease, due to America’s economic framework, seems designed to kill off the poor, the working poor, the working class. If not directly, then by leaving millions without a way to buy food, provide shelter, get health care. Mass crisis tends to expose a country’s weak spots and I fear the coming election, assuming it happens, will be, at best, too little, too late.

I can’t imagine too far ahead because I can’t pick out the path that gets me to the happy ending. Instead I look at what must be done today, what can be done today. Sweet stories of neighbor dance parties and long-distance song-making abound, as does financial generosity. The internet overflows with opportunities to connect, to find enjoyment among the endless, endless information. My friends continue to exist out there in the world, my family remains healthy for now. The old cat has finally taken to his little cat house. We’ve made progress yanking the winter weeds in preparation for the spring garden. I posted about the wonderfulness of DeepSeeded Farm’s CSA program and someone anonymously gifted Bobby and me a full share! The lilacs bloom. Even if it eludes my vision for the moment, these facts remind me that, today, hope still exists. And that alone is reason to keep going, keep striving, keep loving, keep working toward a better world.

Let the world delight you, regardless.