The new dread

As with, I imagine, most of us, a big part of my day has to do with the numbers. How many new cases in our county, the counties of our friends, our state, and eventually, our world? Anxiety promotes the parochial, and throughout the last six months a major source of comfort has been how little impacted Montana has been by Covid, and how within Montana, how little impacted Lewis and Clark county has been. The above numbers say that we’ve had 275 cases, total, in our county of 70,000. Until the past week, we’ve had exactly one day with new cases out of single digits (and that was a day with 10), went all of May without a single case (duh?), and from mid August to mid September had almost as many days with no cases as with any.

*Numbers and chart from NY Times

Of course, three weeks ago we started back to school. “Went” doesn’t really capture the backfires and potholes of the past month. I was back in my office at school, for the very first time since Friday March 13th, seeing clients both in person and virtually (Zoom, phone; reliable internet still being a dicey thing around here). The week before Labor Day students new to the building trickled in for orientation, families electing to stay virtual got their teacher assignments, and once everything had only just fallen into place, school started in the new normal mode on September 8th. In Helena proper we’re one of the few districts in Montana who did not go back with all students in the building all the time. The first half of the alphabet comes in Monday and Tuesday, the second Thursday and Friday. Wednesday is given over to industrial cleaning of the schools, teachers working out what is going on with virtual instruction, and for Little Bear, who is in kindergarten this fall, virtual show and tell (reportedly hilarious and disorganized). Indeed, between when I got started writing this and when I was able to return after a block of sessions, the news let us know that our school district reported its first positive cases over the past weekend.

The timing and inevitability surprised few, I would hope.

The question is not how we’re going to manage this pandemic in the long run. That has been evident for a while, and hinges on an election where we hopefully choose to face the future rather than shelter in the past, a prospect which seems hardly certain during the most fearful time of my life. The question is how we’ll manage the little things, day to day, which add up over weeks and months to almost everything. I’ve had a hard time since March in recapturing the relevance which used to permeate my job as a school therapist, and I have to be optimistic, about the remoteness of Montana, about all that everyone at school has tried to do, about our prospects for learning hard lessons from this, as a country, society, as a planet. Little Bear doesn’t know what he isn’t getting in two days a week at school, and probably more than makes up for it by sharing a classroom with his teacher and 3 other students. I know what I’m not getting, having put my job into the nexus of society which has been willfully eroded by those who insist on bars staying open and weddings taking place. I open to any paper from Montana, see the muddled data and articles about parent groups protesting restrictions on football audiences, and wonder how much of the spike we see today is riding out of the storm, and how much is humans as cattle, facing away from the blizzard and walking to certain death, stoic in momentary comfort.

Anxiety is a slippery thing, all the moreso when it is global in reach. In 2020 few people want to name it, and as populous places in the northerly parts of the earth walk towards winter I find it hard to assume that the dread waiting for us under the wallpaper won’t become our collective delusion, as society decides, for lack of leadership, to deny just how wrong things are. Normalcy and coherence is possible, now, but without public data and without guidance and modeling families and households will make it up as they go, reacting to stress as a deer to flies, in step with their neighbors over all the wrong things. By choosing to deprioritize schools we’ve elected to ignore narrative and community, exactly the wrong lesson from the pandemic.

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