Susan Rakov: Covid Wanderings

That first week, the moment I break down is when I get the email that CBB is closing its doors.  I was involved in a painful decision a few days before to close down 50 offices and cancel thousands of summer jobs, but the emotional impact hits when I read that email.  My Shabbat as I knew it is gone. No more Torah study in the chapel, no more morning minyan — I won’t sit in a room full of hungry minds, I won’t feel our neurons reaching out towards each other as we trek through a complex text, I won’t sing my heart out in prayerful harmony while a three-year-old plays on his father’s lap across the narrow room.  That’s when I cry.

I reclaim (and newly understand the need for) the blessing for washing hands.

I turn aggressively to making home life work for my husband, my 18-year-old son, my 21-year-old daughter.  We invite her boyfriend to move in and be part of our pod. We collectively veto my husband’s near-daily stops at the store, throwing his patterns out of whack, and put the young people on the grocery detail with elaborate new shopping spreadsheets.  We assign our son to daily disinfection of doorknobs (so he can quiet his anxiety by knowing he did that job himself).

I have a powerful impulse to mark (or perhaps limit) the time by enumerating it. It isn’t planned, but that second Friday night before I light the candles, I say, out loud, “end of week one.”  Then “End of week two.” I don’t think my family likes it. I don’t think I like it. It doesn’t stop until June.

I make myself available whenever anyone at home needs me.  I am more than ever the sounding board and psychologist for this group, and at the same time the lioness of the pride, laying down the rules and demanding compliance. I try to help everyone stay in the moment, but when young adults can’t envision the future at all, what is the moment worth? We start drinking hard kombucha.

My work life is all-COVID-all-the-time.  What public health reforms are needed? What levels of government are the most appropriate or likely to create those reforms? What pressure points can we trigger to help bring those reforms about?  Thinking always about the rising tally of deaths on the hands of our government in this All-Star failure of leadership. (Once again Yeats is right: the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.) Not knowing if our work is making any difference.

On Memorial Day weekend I watch as the tragedy of April begins its excruciating replay. I wake up in a rage, I lie down to sleep utterly defeated.

As reopening appears on the horizon, I think daily about the construct we’ve become enthralled to — the golden calf of economic growth. We need the economy to grow — because if it doesn’t, people won’t have the money they need to live.  We see no alternative. And yet almost all the activities that grow the economy are built on assumptions about consumption that are no longer tenable. For decades we’ve been living beyond our means, using up and destroying natural resources — the air, the water, materials from the earth, the atmosphere — at a pace that cannot be sustained. COVID is just one more result of human encroachment on the natural habitat of animals we were not ever supposed to come into contact with, the proof of our overreach that finally changes our lives. It was only a matter of time.

And the golden calf of our sense of entitlement to live as we did before March 12. Most of us have never lived through a world war, or a plague. We’re desperately lonely, we miss each other.  We need, need to get “back to normal,” we have some sense that normal was promised to us.

With the calf dancing in our imagination, after 40 days or so, although nothing about the virus or our preparedness to deal with it has changed, we decide we’re done staying home.  Moses went away up the mountain; he didn’t teach us how to meet this challenge; he didn’t give us benchmarks for how we would know when we could safely go back to normal; he didn’t prepare us to take care of ourselves and each other during this time, or help us figure out how to continue to grow as a community.  So we get restless — we’ve got no leadership, we’re frightened and abandoned, and we want our sense of order and direction back. When Aaron says, let’s all pitch in and forge an image of our golden calf, we’re ready.

In this story, Aaron has many faces.  The local shopowner who has no income and can’t pay her employees.  The airline executive who faces a complete overhaul of the industry.  Aaron has been tricked into thinking that the goal is to get back to normal, when normalcy has been a destructive and untenable path all along.

Aaron needs Moses to come back, to remind him that the whole reason we’re wandering around in the desert in the first place is to learn how to cope with change.

Moses, too, has many, many faces.

I don’t want to play this metaphor out further.  Moses still isn’t here. And the earth looks fully ready to open up and swallow a lot of us, because we lost our patience.

Every now and then I try on this thought: this process, whatever it is, can only be counted in years, not weeks.  We’re still at the very beginning of our post-COVID life. Everything we do and think today comes out of fear — that we’ll lose our lives, either literally or just as we’ve known them, and that we’ve lost all direction.

But human beings are highly adaptable. What happens when we adapt to living with our fear? When we look around, recognize that we must become the leaders we need, and take charge of our future? When we do finally come out of our bunkers, blinking in the bright sunlight, can we imagine and then build a new world that fits within our limits and takes advantage of our enormous prosperity in ways that make more sense?

I wash my hands again, and again. Al n’tilat ya’dayim.

Susan Rakov is the director of Frontier Group, the research and policy development shop within The Public Interest Network (which includes advocacy groups CALPIRG and Environment California here in the Golden State). She is a native of Newton, Massachusetts; lives on the west side of Santa Barbara; has been a member of CBB since her 21-year-old daughter Emma was in the fourth grade; and really loves to sing, especially with her husband Vince Semonsen.