A View from the Hill: See past the weeds

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I didn’t think it would happen this way. I wasn’t supposed to write this.

I naively thought that when the pandemic was over it would just, well, be over, rear-view mirror as they say.

Now I’m apparently safe because I’m fully vaccinated, but the pandemic is distressingly far from over. The country has become like two giant tectonic plates grating against each other, the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. Something has to give. 

“The truth is that the vaccinated and the unvaccinated are experiencing two very different pandemics right now,” writes Aaron Carroll, chief health officer for Indiana University in The New York Times. For the unvaccinated, he says, “the pandemic has not changed much.”

I read about a city councilor in San Antonio, Texas, who recently vacationed for a week in New England. On returning home, he panicked at the surge in new cases and sent his staff home indefinitely. (What is it about Texas politicians and vacations during a crisis?)

So here we are again bobbing in a choppy, uncomfortable sea of uncertainty. America isn’t just divided, it is now fractured into thousands of pieces. Multi-colored maps showing covid hot areas across the country are an ever-changing jigsaw puzzle of colors. You’re safe here, the maps tell us, but maybe not so safe in the next county over.

So here I am in the weeds again, having promised back when I thought we were on our way out of this mess that I wouldn’t write about COVID-19 again in this column.

Actually, as it turns out, the pandemic was good for my writing. In the thick of lockdown, it was such a weird time that I could experiment with exploring strange, abstract, even apocalyptic thinking and write in choppy, fragmented sentences and my trio of readers wouldn’t bat an eye. They were as weirded out as I was. They got it.

Then things got better and I started writing about other stuff again.

Then the weeds grew back. If I’m going to find my way out of these weeds, I told myself, I’m going to need some help with perspective.

That brought me to Rev. Jennifer Bailey, a young pastor and social innovator from Nashville, Tennessee. She recently spoke with Krista Tippett on my favorite podcast, “On Being.”

They talked about how landmark historical moments may be represented by a blip on a timeline in a history book, but certain events are seismic enough to steer the arc of history onto a new trajectory. They may be represented by a point in time, but the forces that propelled them reached way back and their resonance would stretch on forever.

The Berlin Wall fell on Nov. 9, 1989, marking the fall of the Iron Curtain. It is a dot on a timeline, but the forces that led to it had been building for decades and the aftershocks continue today.

George Floyd was murdered on May 25, 2020. A tic on a timeline that would alter the arc of history forever, the inevitable result of forces that were centuries in the making.

Likewise with so many other points on that timeline. The story of mankind changes after these events, but it’s hard to see how in the immediate aftermath. A pandemic is such an event.

The only certainty is that we know we won’t go back. There is no going back. We can’t change what happened, but if we step back and take the long view, Bailey advises, we may see opportunities for influencing profound change:

“And so, I find myself with a great deal of curiosity, both about what we’re learning on the other end of 2020 and the apocalypses yet to come (apocalypse not in the dark sense, but literally “the uncovering yet to come”) … there are many things that we aren’t thinking about yet … I think there are ramifications of last year that have yet to be felt.”

That idea can be scary, she acknowledges. But if we step back from the moment and take the long view it may also present an opportunity that we can’t see when we’re stuck in the weeds.

I find that comforting.

Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.