This week started off well because it started a day late. Having Monday off for Memorial Day was a welcome break from endless online meetings and appointments. It was also a particularly somber Memorial Day, as our nation reflected on not only the many thousands of brave Americans who gave their life in service to our country through the armed forces, but also the nearly 100,000 Americans who have died from COVID-19. Just as our men and women in uniform sacrificed themselves for our freedom, the early victims of COVID-19 are helping to keep the rest of us safe through the medical and scientific insights that are being derived from their symptoms and care.
Coming into the week more rested and relaxed has improved my mood and focus. I had a productive work day, and my kids were mostly cooperative with their schedules. I am proud of all the effort they are putting into school and know this time has not been easy for them. I am amazed at the coping skills they have developed and recognize that they are strengthening a lot of non-academic skills during this time, in addition to keeping up with school assignments.
During a recent staff meeting for my job, we were encouraged to use our vacation time, as needed, even though our travel options are limited. I have always been a fan of the staycation, and feeling the relief of having yesterday off is making me think about when to schedule time off to be with my family without the constant demands of online meetings. We won’t be taking the beach vacation we had considered for this summer, but we can find other amusements closer to home that will help us relax and shake off the burdens of COVID-19.
We all need a break now, and whatever vacation time we use will not be “wasted” because it isn’t spent going to an exotic destination.
There are natural bookends to time on the Jewish calendar. The holiday of Purim is one month before Pesach (Passover), which is in turn seven weeks before Shavuos. After Shavuos, the summer unfolds with a period of mourning, known as The Three Weeks, whose conclusion, the fast day of Tisha B’Av, is seven weeks before Rosh Hashana. It all ties together and then begins again in an endless circle.
But, of course, no two years are alike, they just have repeating patterns. I find comfort in these patterns, and I have been thinking about social distancing and its parallels to the Jewish calendar.
It was a day or two after Purim when many of us began to grapple with the seriousness of COVID-19 and its imminent effects on our lives. Already on the holiday, some celebrations in my community were being canceled or scaled back, though it was unclear at that point what was precautionary and what was needed. By later that week, life had changed dramatically, with schools, houses of worship, and most retail businesses closed. As a result, the beginning of social distancing, in my mind, is indexed to Purim.
Pesach this year was at the height of the pandemic, with death rates peaking in many cities during the holiday or just afterward. And now, on the eve of Shavuous, restrictions are easing and life is beginning to return to normal. Every time it has seemed that life could go back to “normal,” we’ve had to cope with the realization that the virus will be with us probably for years to come.
Now we’re all calculating our personal risks and comfort zones for returning to pre-pandemic activities. It’s not easy, because it’s not just about whether we ourselves get sick, but also how we affect others. It’s a huge responsibility.
Contrary to their usual themes, Purim this year was a time of concern and Pesach was a time of sadness and restriction. Shavuous has the potential of retaining most of its usual character, just with less communal gathering and more caution. Until this virus is no longer a threat, that’s probably how much of life will be — balancing normalcy with added caution. It’s much better than what we’ve been through, though not what we were hoping for.
I had planned to write an entry for May 28, but life — as it tends to do — interfered with those plans. On Wednesday evening, my daughter fell while riding her bicycle, resulting in a fracture below her knee. After a long night in Children’s Hospital, she came home with a full-leg cast and a set of crutches. Exhausted, I took a sick day from work, and focused on helping my daughter adjust to yet another “new normal” while completing preparations for Shavuous.
The 48 hours from Thursday evening through Saturday night were spent totally unplugged from the news, and quietly celebrating the holiday at home and resting. Then, last night, we were bombarded with news of our nation’s unrest.
At some point last week, I became aware of the horrible death of George Floyd. Like Ahmaud Arbery, Tamir Rice, Trayvon Martin, Philando Castille, and many other black men and women before him, George Floyd’s death was violent, disturbing, unprovoked, and unjust. I have been at a total loss of words for how to react to his death, and how to express my empathy for and solidarity with my black friends, who live every day with an awareness of institutionalized racism in our society.
Racism is not new, but I find its virulence of late to be incredibly disturbing. I am certain there were racist attacks by civilians and police in my growing up years, but we didn’t have smart phones then, so witnesses didn’t have the same power to document and share what happened. (A notable exception was the police beating of Rodney King in Los Angeles in 1991, whose video-recording precipitated wide-scale riots.) As a result, most of us went about life with certain assumptions about whether or not the police used force fairly and appropriately with minority communities. These assumptions were influenced by our own interactions with police, which were in turn heavily influenced by race.
It wasn’t until I was in graduate school that I became acquainted with the concept of “driving while black,” which means that dark-skinned motorists are much more likely to be pulled over by police for minor infractions, such as driving slightly over the speed limit, having a busted tail light, or simply driving an expensive car. Once pulled over, these minor infractions, or perceptions of infractions, could escalate to arrests, violence, and worse.
The ubiquity of smartphones in recent years has brought to light many injustices that in past years would have been quietly covered up, and has forced us to grapple with the fact that simply being born with dark skin in the United States places people, especially boys and young men, at greater risk of drawing the attention of law enforcement, whether or not they have done anything wrong.
This information is not new. There is a lot more awareness now of things such as “racial profiling” and “unconscious bias.” There are law enforcement protocols designed to prevent unwarranted violence and unjust application of police power. With all that is known, and especially considering most law enforcement officers do their jobs with integrity and respect for all, these horrifying events should be a thing of the past. But they aren’t.
I am haunted by the image of a police officer with his knee on George Floyd’s throat. I am disturbed that this could happen, and that anyone with police training could think that it was in any way acceptable. It happened in broad daylight, in a day and age in which we all know that any public act may be recorded. The flagrance of this killing is deeply disturbing. No wonder people all over our country, and all over the world, are protesting now.