Early fall mornings in Chapel Hill–bright skies, bits of color shooting through the green, morning glories in full bloom. The day’s worries will arrive, but they are not here yet as I head into campus. Students, on foot, scooter, or bike are off to class with masks in hand. Over the summer I started coming in to my office twice per week, then three, and now every day. There are chats in the hall with colleagues and a few in-person meetings. But our school rule–no eating or drinking in the building unless you are by yourself–means I eat my lunch with the newspaper. Yet the restaurants are teeming with people. I receive a lunch invitation. Should I go? I’m hungry, so I do.
An administrator called me not long ago to talk about why people feel unsafe on campus given the science, our high vaccination rates, mask requirements, and testing protocols. The person who called was struggling to understand the fear that remains. By any measure, our university communtiy is highly vaccinated–93% of students, 93% of faculty, 80% of staff–and getting better by the day thanks to the extraordinary efforts of so many. But our hospital remains very full, many beds occupied by individuals from outlying counties where vaccination rates are lower. Everyone knows somebody with a particularly nasty breakthrough infection. Science is indeed on our side, but science and safety are not synonymous. Psychological safety is what people crave and I’ve come to wonder whether that is created, bestowed, or merely something that we choose, just as I chose to go out to lunch and eat indoors.
Interspersed in this normal but not normal half-life are moments of deep joy. I spotted my oldest son, now a junior at UNC, walking across the quad. The last time that happened he was a first year and acknowledgement of his mom on campus came only if he chose. But this time I waved spontaneously, and he bounded over open-armed for a quick hug. Then I watched him cross to the J school, remembering the lump in my throat when we packed up his little dorm room and installed him back in his high school bedroom in March of 2020.
My younger son is back to Friday nights at the football game, sleepovers, and going to the gym. After the first month in our highly vaxxed high schools, the daily announcements about positive COVID cases have all but ceased. The planning and forethought, the changing lunch and bus schedules, seem to have worked. He heads out the door to cheer the team on, awash with teenage cologne; I cross my fingers and send up a little prayer. Outdoor game, he’s vaccinated, thankfully feeling at home in high school–It’s okay, right? It’s okay. Isn’t it? See you after the game. Be careful. Have fun. I love you.
As I respond to phone calls and emails from colleagues worried for family members, angry at elements of our campus plan, those who hate teaching with masks, and those who are so happy to be back in the classroom, I feel like a ping pong ball, like Godot always waiting, though I don’t know for what–disaster? normalcy? Or perhaps just clarity? Are we in a crisis or not? Can we go out to dinner, or should we keep entertaining at home? This friend is just back from Greece and had a great time. How can the college football game not be a super spreader event? But guess what? It’s not. Balancing between anecdote and science is a struggle both to live and to listen to.
I’ve now taught my weekly three-hour class seven times. Although there have been scares even among our small group, no one is sick. It is so much better than staring at zoom squares for three hours, the conversation at last free from the ubiquitous “You’re muted” refrain. Although I don’t miss teaching on Zoom, I do miss being able to pop into a zoom without having to factor in travel and transition time. My son sets his alarm for 25 minutes before his classes because he’d forgotten to allow time to walk from his apartment. And I miss the routines, flexibility, and novelty of life at home–lunch with my husband and son, five minutes on our sunny porch to mitigate zoom induced eyestrain, so much found time to write a little more and reflect. Dinner prep at lunch made trying a new recipe easier. The ritual evening walk in the woods once again requires planning to fit it in.
This weekend, I began reading a book called Plague Year by Lawrence Wright, which begins with the virus’ earliest days in Wuhan. It is traumatizing to read–I’m at the part right now where they lock family members away from their elders–and my husband asked me why I’m reading it. Maybe it is to face what has happened in its totality. To confront trauma is to spend time with it, to order the fragmented feelings and memories into a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end; to decide what meaning the suffering has, a hard task when there were such clear yet poorly made choices. We deserve better than this half-life in which we read about doctors rationing oxygen in Alaska as they treat unvaccinated, desperately ill people before hopping in our cars to drive through a vibrant downtown humming with smiling faces. How do those dissonant realities go together?
The question is worth asking and, as I read, I caress it like a worry stone my son once gave me as a gift. But I also know I have to put it down. Cook dinner. Review the dissertation article. Write the report. Prep for the meetings that sprout like weeds on my calendar. Cheer the football team, even if I just listen on the radio. Live the life I’m given, not as a half-life but as a whole one, one that is “…mortal, confused, deluded forever…shot through with beauty, with love, with glints of courage and laughter…”*