Farewell, 2020: Reflecting on This Cultural Moment

Picture of people in line, January 2020.
January 2020. In a line to pick up crates of Florida oranges.

One year ago, we were preparing to leave for Florida on a family vacation on New Year’s Day. By the time we were at Universal Studios on January 6th, I had heard a little bit about the new strain of coronavirus, but wasn’t too concerned at that point. When the semester began, my teaching assistant mentioned trying to buy masks to send home to her family in China. I casually remarked that I just couldn’t imagine that Americans would ever be willing to wear masks — that individualism would prohibit such collective active. I had no idea that we were on the cusp of a global pandemic.

By the beginning of February, the epidemic was raging in China and cases had started to appear in other countries. Stories of the quarantined cruise ships signified the virus’s potential spread. Locally, some people were, as I perceived then, irrationally worried about catching coronavirus, prompting me to write this op-ed. (Oddly enough, I’ve observed the same folks disregard the threat of COVID now). As cases spread throughout the world, I became addicted to the Johns Hopkins COVID-19 Dashboard, an invaluable resource that has visually depicted the rise of the pandemic in-real time. Watching the numbers increase, first in Seattle, then in a scattering of other places, I wondered what was to come. I got an email from a New York Times reporter, asking about the politicization of the pandemic (even in February). This inquiry and subsequent article prompted me to really delve into what was being done and the skewed messages conveyed to the public.

COVID-19 entered my county in March. On Wednesday the 11th, MTSU President Sidney McPhee announced that all classes would resume remotely after an extended Spring Break. With this news, I advised my kids to bring home everything that they needed on that Friday, suspecting that they would be out for a bit. March 13th marked the last day of regular school, although we didn’t know it at the time.

With the shutdown, my blog became my outlet to the world. I wrote and shared so many blog posts that Facebook banned my website as spam. For me, writing these usually brief reflections has been cathartic. As our reality quickly morphed into a sweatpants existence, I needed a way to connect. At the same time, having just written a book on epidemics, I felt so many paralleled experiences to those of the past. Despite the blog format, I extensively researched all my historical entries — probably spending more time than one should for something with such little reach.

My explosion of media literacy activities stemmed from both my desire to give my kids something to do and to contribute to the wealth of materials that others were sharing last spring. Like many, my children had weeks with no school assignments and plenty of time to fill. I tried to give them something even remotely educational to help structure our day and attempt to teach them. (Note: they were often not thrilled with the theme days, essays, and other activities). Even though we were definitely privileged in our position, March and April were extremely stressful months for me. I was mostly failing at both teaching my own classes online and educating my children.

Picture of author dressed as Maria von Trapp
My kids were not amused when I woke them up dressed like Maria von Trapp on Sound of Music day.

Blogging provided me a way to express myself without the hassles of formal gatekeeping and to immediately respond to the moment, be it Trump’s outrageously dangerous claims about injecting bleach or the expectations of extending remote learning. Still, I periodically published pieces that went beyond this site, with articles on how past epidemics changed society, why the nickname “Typhoid Mary” shouldn’t be used, and on the shutdown’s disproportionate burden on mothers.

Summer brought more of a return to normalcy. I expect kids to be home then and we no longer faced the arduous list of online videos and assignments. Nice weather and the reopening of some businesses expanded our possible activities and made it feel more like vacation. I slowed down in blogging and writing to teach a class online and spend time outside with the kids. We focused on our Foss world, while keeping abreast of the turmoil of injustice.

With August came more mask mandate questions and school debates. Feeling like it was a lose-lose decision, we opted to send the kids back under the adopted protocol of required masks and distancing. I taught hybrid courses for the first time, lecturing under a mask in a ballroom-turned-classroom that seemed more appropriate for a time-share demo, rather than a college class. But, for what it was, it worked. We pushed through. The kids pushed through. Life seemed semi-normal for August through October as we anticipated that things would fall apart. And then they didn’t.

Masked up and ready for the mock trial of Mary Mallon
Picture of nearly empty ballroom lined with chairs
Last day of class in the ballroom.

November became the up-and-down month. The election and vaccine news delivered hope of a different reality, as did making it through the end of my semester. And yet, rising cases and school closings near locked us down again. Our family of four canceled plans and activities to return to just being us. No Friendsgiving or Christmas trip.

Picture of kids with four dogs in front of a Christmas tree
Fostering puppies to make Christmas at home a little more exciting.

What’s differed from the spring, however, has been this fractured picture of the true reality. News stories and charts have conveyed that Tennessee skyrocketed into a dire state for December, topping the list for new infections. And yet, a dissonance exists here. Everything is open. There’s no statewide mask mandate, just a county one with little enforcement. Aside from school, not much has been canceled. On local social media sites, people are asking about in-person church services, promoting “maskless Santa” before Christmas, and using the word pandemic in quotation marks. Obviously, the lack of public health observance is why were in this situation, but there’s not a lot of acknowledgement of this cause-and-effect.

We have such a split in what we know and what we’re seeing. Adding to this disconnect has been the near-absence of a unified recognition that things are bad. Aside from the numbers and the occasional story, very little media coverage has personalized the dire impact of the pandemic locally. Where are the lists of names and photos memorializing those deceased from COVID? Why don’t we have images of the COVID wards in our hospitals? And, more importantly, how is it that the leaders who endorsed and embraced the March shutdown are ignoring the actual crisis now?

I haven’t been blogging as regularly as I did in the spring, partly due to time, but also frustration. Some posts I never published because they were too heated or too intensely called out those around us. My popular articles focused on pandemic creative writing in 1918 and radio remote learning during a 1937 polio epidemic in Chicago.

Living through a pandemic is a fluid, diverse experience that shapes each person differently and at different moments. What we specifically knew in March has changed and expanded dramatically. As such, my reflective essays are very much a product of a particular moment and set of feelings, which all share uncertainty in the future and a serious concern about the pandemic. Even with the research I conducted for my book, I never could have imagined just what this would be like. I was unprepared for the large-scale denial of a disease that has killed so many people. These months have revealed both the worst in humanity and the best. I sincerely hope that 2021 brings the quick distribution of vaccines and overall, a more unifying time. Even more so, I want life to not just “return to normal,” but to become a better, more equitable version of a reality in which we can be together again, without the social distancing.

Here’s to 2021!

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