I’m a retired school teacher, and except for a weekly meeting of some sort, I pretty much stay home most of the time, working on fiber and writing a book. So, the stay-at-home order and social distancing are not much of a hardship for me. Yet, what is different for me is the intensity of my observations of people in my community, our state, our nation and our planet.
My curiosity was piqued most likely by the common adage: You don’t really know people until you see them in a crisis. I wanted to see what was lurking behind the veneer people habitually wear during normal circumstances. But also, though I am a teacher at heart, I’m really a lifelong learner, so ultimately and selfishly, I was curious to see how other human beings respond to this COVID-19 pandemic, mostly so I could have a clue as to how I should respond. But the best lessons I found were from watching my own responses to this crisis.
I first heard of the coronavirus as did so many of us, in December 2019. And like many people in the United States, I thought of it as another one of those many unfortunate health events originating far far away outside the safety bubble of the United States. In other words, I didn’t pay it any mind. Eventually, when I briefly thought about it, I felt sorry for the afflicted people in Wuhan Province, then all of China, and all the other countries sharing the Asian continent, including Europe.
Then, the first cases of COVID-19 began appearing in New York in early March of this year. This made me pause just long enough for denial to make its appearance: A lot of stuff happens in New York. It’s most likely a kind of strong influenza strain, but it’ll never reach New Mexico. People were contracting coronavirus up and down the east coast, and I’m amazed how quickly this fact evaporated from my thoughts as I went about my daily living.
Also in March I started hearing news of a cruise ship docked in quarantine somewhere in California. Whereas I have no relations in New York, I actually have family in California. Yet, because I had no idea exactly where the cruise ship was docked, there was a good chance it was not anywhere near my family. This absurd form of optimism is only possible when one only half-listens to the news. Denial’s a funny thing.
Naturally, as the the Universe would have it, by the time I realized that the Grand Princess cruise ship was docked at a port in Oakland, my daughter, step-daughters, and brother were gradually being sent home from work, with or without pay, as the Bay Area began to enforce stay-at-home orders. Yes, the ship was docked in my family’s backyard!
I could say definitively that that’s the moment I woke up. I actually gave a damn. From that point I emerged from my stupor and listened and watched the news in its entirety. I understood then that it was a matter of WHEN the coronavirus would hit New Mexico, not IF. I studied the CDC maps and saw in horror that New Mexico and Michigan were the only states without a single reported coronavirus case! When on March 11, 2020 the first COVID-19 cases were reported in New Mexico, I checked the NMDOH website religiously twice daily, and as governor Luhan-Grisham began to give executive orders, I followed them to the letter. When the governor suggested that wearing a mask when out in public might be a good idea, I went online and found a way to make a reasonable mask from bandanas. I didn’t wait for an order to do so.
So, why in blue blazes did I wait so long to become an active participant in the fight against the coronavirus? I think it has to do with bubbles. I grew up here in the United States, and with that comes an insistence on individual achievement and success. It’s like we each thrive in our own little bubble, and we go about our lives separate from others. What’s interesting about bubbles, though, is that they come in various sizes! So, a bubble can hold a whole family! Some bubbles can accommodate an entire community. A bubble can be so large, an entire state or even a country can fit inside! But really, the role of a bubble is to keep something safe within the membrane and keep everything else out.
So, when I first heard of the coronavirus last December, I was glad to be safely within the membrane of the United States bubble. And my need to feel safe prevented me from feeling empathy for all the people on the Asian continent suffering from the ravages of COVID-19. When the coronavirus found its way to the United States, I found myself tucked neatly into my New Mexico bubble, making it difficult for me to connect to the pain experienced by east coast states reeling from the virus.
My state bubble burst when it occurred to me that my family in California was in danger of contracting the virus. I had to care beyond state borders. I found myself caring about the lives of not only my family in California, but also the lives of people I don’t even know in California. Suddenly, it mattered to me how people in other states were coping with the pandemic. I found myself worrying about people in Italy and feeling sorrow for indigent families in the Philippines. For me, worry, fear, and sorrow are difficult emotions to feel for any length of time, and to be honest, I’m not very good at it. But I do know that, right now, during this pandemic these feelings connect me with every person on this planet. That by itself is a good thing.