The Covid Diaries, II: Outside Perspectives

(May 2020)

For the K119 Happy Cats

“For our journal exercise today, let’s write about our feelings. For example, Ms. Marshall says she feels tired, because she got up early this morning. How about you, O? How do you feel today?”

“I feel sad today.”

“Oh no, why is that?”

“Because I can’t go outside and play.”

“Oh, I’m sorry, O. It will be over soon. We know how you feel.”

… but actually, I don’t.

Going Outside

Living in a ramshackle old farmhouse house at the dead end of a dirt road off of a dead end dirt road, being outside was often more pleasant than being inside—especially before Dad left, when there was a lot of fighting.[1] We didn’t have much money, especially after Dad left, and it was hard to heat the whole house with its shoddy insulation and single-paned glass windows. So when it was winter for five months of the year, we slept with as many old patchy blankets that we could stack without feeling crushed from their weight. It’s a good thing Mom knew how to quilt and sew, because it would get so cold in the house that we could see our breath. Oh well, right?

And when the shampoo froze in its bottle, we’d thaw it out with the precious, precious hot water in the shower—precious because the house didn’t have reliable running water, because the well was a hundred fifty years old and would run out sometimes. Mom got it hydrofrackted and, while I didn’t know how much it cost, it was expensive enough for her to cry about it—and stress chain-smoke who knows how many packs of cigarettes. Because the water was always at risk of running out, even after the hydrofracking, we had a rule in our house: if you can go outside, then go outside.

Ah, but something city people don’t understand is that it’s fun to go outside! You just have to know which leaves to use.[2]

Going Outside

I wonder about the quarantine up in the rural border town by French Canada where I grew up, fifteen miles from Quebec way up in northern Vermont, where no New Yorkers dare venture or build fancy vacation homes that up the property taxes to the point where locals can no longer afford to live there.[3] Up where people vote for Trump or don’t vote at all to remain in solidarity with the Second Vermont Republic separatist movement. Most of the towns up there don’t have grocery stores or stop lights [4]– just general stores and stop signs, often riddled with recreational bullet holes. Up where most people keep to themselves, both as a social norm and as a social courtesy; mind your own business, you know? It’s a New England thing.

Like many in northern Vermont, we raised cows, pigs, and chickens as a family on what my parents dubbed the Double Diamond Farm[5]. We grew most of our own vegetables, raised our own meat and eggs, and only went grocery shopping – in the next town over, about thirty minutes one-way – when it was necessary.

But we did buy milk, since we raised our cows for meat and not dairy.

Growing up on the Double Diamond Farm meant that I did barn chores, even in the dead of winter when I once got buried alive in snow and the dog found me (thank the-higher-power-whom-some-of-us-choose-to-call-God). It meant that I picked rocks in the garden during the (relative) heat of September, when my father would bitterly quip: “It’s Labor Day, and that means work!”

Stern, proud, nearly absurd work ethic. It’s a New England thing.[6]

Farm life meant that things like hauling my first full five gallon pail and collecting eggs from the chicken coop were landmark accomplishments for me; it also meant that I was familiar with the concept of duty, an awareness of where food comes from, and respect for and acceptance of death. This isn’t to say that I didn’t get sad when my animal friends would become meat for the next year, but I understood that all things come to pass… that sickness and death are, although at times heartbreaking, a part of life.

One winter, Kastle[7] — a Holstein calf– was thin and sickly. I remember being excited about her because she was our first milk cow, but I didn’t think much of it when she suddenly wasn’t there one day. After all, our animals came and went every year, and I’m sure my Dad made up some story to assuage the curiosity (and feelings) of his two young daughters, who played with our cows as though they were barn cats,[8] stroking their faces and kissing their wet noses and giving them leaves and flowers while standing in a rusty metal box we dubbed the Food Bin.

The animals were, in retrospect, my friends. All of the animals—even the chickens, who escaped and ran loose in the pastures and even in our back yard (which wasn’t dissimilar from a pasture, in size and scope), with Mom trapping some of them in a laundry basket while the others pecked at our ankles. I even named one chicken that particularly tugged at my pathos: a whitish-tan fluffball I dubbed Softy,[9] who pecked me every time I tried to pick her up and hold her close to my chest.

Months after the winter thawed and my sister and I were tromping about in the fields with bare feet and homemade dresses, we found a mysterious rope leading from the barn out into the north pasture, the one bordering with the Juaire’s property.[10] The rope was white and red. Excitedly and nervously, we followed the rope out to one of the many rock piles on our property—another New England thing. Old piles of rocks, probably from when farmers of the 1800s were foolhardy enough to think of tilling this granite-y land, and where they abandoned what would later be seen strange old farm equipment, vintage Coke bottles and even booze bottles called “Father John’s Medicine” that my sister and I would bring home, and that Mom and Dad would hang up on the woodshed or put in the windowsills, respectively, as decoration.

When we got to the rock pile, there it was: Kastle’s body, half rotted, covered with deer flies. Dad shot her because she wasn’t healthy enough to survive the winter, and it would have been a waste to try… cruel, in fact.

And in that moment, we understood that, and respected it.

No, I may not have had many friends as a kid, because I didn’t know how to make thenm or how to be myself at school. Given where I grew up, I didn’t interact with many people besides, and so school was my only chance to socialize.

But I did know how to run on wet rocks in the woods without slipping. I knew where to find wild strawberries and raspberries; I knew where it was safe to drink water in Black Creek. I knew how to catch snakes and frogs; I knew how to stop and look at the light filtering in through the leaves, and how it feels when summer was almost over. That beautiful light in late August… the way the wind sounds through poplar leaves. The way the air smells when the seasons are about to change.

Indeed, when I was little, going outside was a retreat to safety. It was where I freely be myself and play with my friends :the animals, the leaves, the rocks, the moss, the wind… the flowers….

Are the kids in Northern Vermont, with no one around for miles, being told to wear masks when they go outside too?

Interlude: Homeless

It was in early September, or maybe the tail end of August—either way, it was a strategically planned time when I knew there’d be fewer people at Coney Island beach. I love New York, but sometimes I just can’t deal with the crowds, the noises… the chaos…

Maybe it’s a New England thing.

Walking back to the train and deciding to meander outside for a bit after swimming and before waitressing, I suddenly heard one of my all-time favorite songs was blasting out of the bumper car spot: Crystal Waters, “Gypsy Woman (She’s Homeless)”.

And so I went in, and the DJ was warming up by herself for a gig there later that night. I dropped my bag, laughing, and waved hi to her. And I danced.

She played the extended mix. Thus was Coney Island yet again rendered my special place in the beautiful, chaotic Concrete Jungle that is New York (although Tokyo, too, calls itself the Concrete Jungle—perhaps there are many)… another reason to be grateful to be teaching the kids of this kitschy corner of Brooklyn.

Thinking Outside the Box

But it’s not about you. You could get others sick… it’s about not being selfish.Ah… “selfish.” Definitely don’t want to be SELFISH. Meanwhile, this message is transmitted – through the news, through social media and #stayhome hashtags, through overheard conversations, through passing comments — to a woman teaching kindergartners in her bedroom on a make-shift desk set up on top of her radiator, working on a per-diem pay basis. Never mind the fact that she’s teaching material some have actually forgotten since #stayinghome. Meanwhile, her roommate playing ukulele top-volume in the living room, high off her third spliff of the day, and Instagram live-streaming herself writing in a diary earns significantly more drawing unemployment.[11] Never mind the fact that she earns more than many, if not most, of the “essential workers,” which ultimately reveals cracks in our society that is systemically oriented toward punishing – nay, oppressing – the socio-economically challenged, which so often overlaps with Black Lives and people of color. Never mind that the children of those who don’t have the privilege of #stayinghome and either telecommuting with a cushy office job or collecting that Covid unemployment check likely comprise our students who are most vulnerable now… who are, yet again, most affected by the systemic racism weaved into the very fabric of our society.

But I can’t point that out. I wouldn’t want to be SELFISH.

-Sure, the risk is small, but that’s not the point. It’s the principle. Staying at home is the safe thing to do.

Ah, “safety.” Another word you can’t argue with, lest you be SELFISH. Nothing makes me feel SAFE like being surrounded by messages telling us how dangerous it is to basically do anything except sit inside and purchase items off Amazon and contribute to the staggering wealth of its near-trillionare CEO while binge-watching Netflix[12], or hashtag your #gratitude for the #blessings of the chance – the privilege — to #stayhome. Nothing makes me feel SAFE like being silenced by messages of how SELFISH I am for wondering about the long-term efficacy of these measures… for wondering about all the independent businesses and art galleries that will never recover. For wondering about hypochondria and black-and-white-for-us-or-against-us thinking. For wondering about what effect this will have on education, on the children we teach.

Yup, SAFETY: best ensured by resentfully monitoring the behavior of others through a hive mind mentality!

At times, 2020 reminds me of aspects my childhood, when I was afraid to be me. One wrong move, and I’d be punished. And because what constituted a “wrong move” changed on a daily basis, I was hypervigilant, and therefore silenced. After all, there were limited chances to cultivate an inner sense of emotional stability because most of my energy was diverted toward making sure I didn’t get “punished.” What’s more, because I – like all children – loved and idolized my parents as Gods, whatever intuition about how the severity of “punishment” or lack of consistent healthy attention was squelched, I turned these inklings against myself, supposing that there really was something inherently, fundamentally wrong—defective – about me as a person. In turn, I believed that I didn’t even deserve to question whether I should be treated better…

This is the script of toxic shame: when asking questions to begin with is considered, wrong, immoral, or selfish. This also constitutes our current media environment, where one can easily feel shamed for not immediately falling into 100% agreeance or compliance with measures —  mindsets — meant to protect our safety.
For those concerned about the SAFETY of children, are we considering that similar scripts may be playing out in homes as we speak? Are we considering that our media culture perpetuates a culture of shame that could very well shape the young, beautifully optimistic minds of our children—especially those already at emotional and spiritual risk?

Are we considering the perspective of someone who grew up in what was a violent home, or is is it too taboo – too outside the “norm” — to be seriously considered?

What troubles me isn’t staying inside per se, but this climate of not being able ponder without being shamed for wondering about the long-term social repercussions of Covid-19 in the first place. It troubles me is that, as a society, we’re seemingly choosing to act out of fear: out of blanket “what if’s” and “better safe than sorry” ways of thinking that, applied to other situations, we would actively discourage our children from even entertaining.

What if we told our kids:

-You want to be a musician? That’s not a stable enough career, and if you don’t make it you’ll be broke. You should train to be something else.

-There’s a risk you might get hurt swimming in the ocean, so you’d better play it safe and sit on the beach. And better yet, since you might get sunburned and get cancer, you should stay inside with the shades pulled down.

-Well, you didn’t do well on that math test. This data indicates that you’re probably just bad at math and, according to these statistics, you’ll continue to be terrible at math at a progressive rate for the duration of your secondary education.

What if we told our kids:

-As a Black person, a person of color, and as a girl, the odds are stacked against you. Questioning this could be risky, so you’d better play it safe and do what you’re told. And even in the event that something terrible and unjust should happen anyway, accept it– you don’t want to make it worse for yourself.

I don’t mean to compare these rather paltry, flippant examples to a global pandemic – save for the last, which connects to an increasingly urgent conversation about systemic racism in our society — but rather to illustrate that we run a greater risk to our sanity – our humanity – if we cope with danger using fear-based tactics. To what extent are we fighting what might be a stark, but inevitable reality of life in our increasingly globalized world? This isn’t to say that mass death is inevitable, or acceptable; it is devastating, and we should take precaution and action. But as the social repercussions from the stay-at-home orders and shutdown of all but essential businesses is revealed like tangled reefs from a receding tide — it seems that we’ve entered territory where ideas of “safety” might encompass the active deprivation of livelihood, in multiple senses of the term.[13]
We must remember now – more than ever – what we seek to preserve. Now more than ever, we should break out of fear that strips ourselves of what makes life worth living.

Maybe it’s because I grew up on that farm that, to me, the risk of death is part of life. Life is to be valued, but if we cling too tightly to ideals of what life should be, a shadow emerges that obscures the light we attempt to preserve.

So I propose an attitude of radical positivity as an antidote to the existential challenges we face in 2020. What if the problems of our society, so dramatically revealed during this painful year, gives us clear the chance to finally improve upon them?

What if losing friends and loved ones is a call to show those we love how much we care about them while they’re still here?

What if job precarity allows us to re-evaluate what our unique talents truly are, and how we can best utilize them to be of service to ourselves and others?

What if the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others breaks the denial of white supremacy, and the culture of silence that perpetuates the systemic racism in our country?

What if we truly accept that death is a part of life?

What if now is our chance to truly make the world a better place?

What if our students, with their natural optimism and fortitude, will recall the rupture-like changes of 2020 not as sheer loss, but as raw moments of opportunity?

I, for one, do not believe these questions to be outside the realm possibility.

[1] Which isn’t to say that these were all bad times. It was a lifetime ago, and today, my Dad (and my Mom) are my best friends – along with my sister. Divorce was the best thing that could have happened to our family, and I’m grateful for all of it… every last tear. We all did the best we could.

[2] Moose maple leaves are by far the best—leathery, yes, but soft, and with plenty of surface area.

[3] During my waitressing days at the Mafia Restaurant in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, I had the Vermont conversation a lot with tables who often asked about my accent. “May I implore you to guess?” I’d ask, and after throwing out some Scandinavian or Germanic guesses, the customers would more often than not be surprised to learn of my (barely) domestic roots. That said, the conversation often swiftly turned in a direction that made me quite uncomfortable: small talk about vacation homes in Vermont, how “lovely” it is there, etc etc. While it is certainly lovely —  nay, the most beautiful place in the world (in my completely biased opinion) – where I’m from is most certainly not a touristy area. What’s more, one table – unsolicited – offered their opinions of the very Northern New England, which I am proud to call home, and regaled me with tales of how “uncultured” and “backward” the people are “up there.” In the end, I did not bite my tongue and let slip, still with the impeccable diplomacy executed only by seasoned waitresses, that I, too, know—as I grew up there myself. And hey, I still got 20%.

[4] It seems most New Yorkers dare not venture north of Stowe, unless for a quick excursion to Burlington before hightailing it back down to the safety of their seasonal homes—which, by the way, up the property taxes for the blue collar locals who, in turn, often can no longer afford to live in Vermont as a result. Ah, rural gentrification: proof not only of an important point of intersectionality between race and socioeconomic status (which are so often conflated in urban areas), but of privilege as well. Plus, along with Bernie Sanders, Brooklyn and Vermont have some things in common!

[5] Double Diamond being the most difficult rank of a ski trail—and yes, I grew up on skis, too, since my father remains to this day an avid, and beautiful, skier. And before anyone gets in a fuss about the bougy-ness of this sport, and what may be perceived as an inconsistency in my life story about having the privilege to undertake such a WASP-y sport, Vermont ski areas give discounted rates to locals and almost free rates to children. So THERE!

[6] Which Max Weber writes about in his seminal work (pun intended), The Protestant Work Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. A little light Sunday reading for anyone interested in understanding the various supplementary mechanisms of the capitalist machine…

[7] The name of a a well-known ski brand. See the theme? To this day, my father is an avid, bold, and amazingly beautiful skier.

[8] And at one point, we had seventeen barn cats—which, for me, was heaven. We named every one (including the Poop Eaters I, II, and III) and played with them in the hayloft of the barn, even pretending to be cats along with them.

[9] I was jealous that my older sister, Brooke, had found a more creative name for her chicken (Little Brown), but in retrospect, Softy is just perfect. As is Little Brown. Ah, sibling rivalry! It wasn’t (and isn’t) about “beating you,” Brooke… just about catching up. Everything you do is literally amazing to me, and I love you.

[10] Brooke swears that I wasn’t there for this, but I respectfully disagree. I REMEMBER.

[11] No hard feelings to my dear roommate and friend, the illustrious S. It’s just how I feel now, and it will evolve and grow and pass into something else—something more positive. But the way to get there is to embrace what’s going on right here, right now. I know you understand. ❤

[12] Which I don’t have, on principle. It’s bad enough I have an Amazon account… maybe I’ll delete that today.

[13] Moreover, “safety” is increasingly equated with “model citizenry” as the pandemic becomes politicized—a discussion for a subsequent entry in the Covid Diaries.

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