Don’t Forget How This Felt

It was the first in-person meeting of a course I had taken online all semester. I was excited to see my instructor because he was one of the first instructors I met at College of Menominee Nation and he had a lot of influence on me despite the fact that he was only my teacher for one course. Somehow the conversation turned to the elephant in the room: the pandemic. You would think by now we were all talked out about COVID-19 but much like virus-carrying saliva droplets in a grocery store full of anti-maskers, the topic still hung around in the air as a grim pall. We were talking about how things had changed, much like we had been talking about for the better part of the year.

But this time, the conversation had a sunnier tone. My instructor—who is an older man—had been vaccinated and was through his efficacy window. I had also received a shot, which combined with my KN95 covered with cloth and our extensive social distancing, meant that I felt pretty good about being in that room. Our cases were going back down. For the first time in forever, the college campus seemed to be coming fully alive again, like an animal lurching out of hibernation to greet the blooming spring. And we talked about something that feels very complicated: the good things that COVID-19 had brought.

The pandemic is of course not something any of us want. If I could turn back time and undo all of this, I would do it in a heartbeat. But amidst the overwhelming trauma and grief, there have been things to come through that have been good. I have never been closer to my parents and to my close friends. I have spent the entire year checking up on my family relentlessly, finding that I cannot sleep if I don’t know that they’re safe somewhere, happy and healthy. I have stayed up nights talking to my friends and virtually holding their hands, listening to their lives with more presence than ever. I have always cared but now I hang on their every word because I am constantly, pressingly aware that you really never know when it could be your last time hearing their voice. I can say without question that I know who’s in my corner now—the people who I can really rely on—and there are people out there who know now without a doubt that they can rely on me.

My community, although wracked with grief, has found ways to come together and be there for one another. We offer help, support, information. I spent a lot of time in the last year driving around the rez in my fuel-efficient car with boxes of assorted teas, Lysol wipes, hand sanitizer, vitamins, and Gatorade to leave on the doorstep for friends who had been forced into quarantine to protect their families and were in sudden need of supplies. More people than ever have wanted to talk to me about climate change and about problems that require community solutions because for the first time, people are keenly aware that our survival as a species might hinge on our willingness to think and behave as a larger organism rather than as individuals.

After we had finished cataloguing these tiny moments of hope, which had come about through such incredible grief and pain and fear, I felt a sudden heaviness in my heart. “I hope it lasts,” I said, unaware that I was even saying it out loud.

You see, it’s not an accident that these moments of resilience, community, and appreciation are coming out of a time when we have experienced so much loss. Sometimes, that’s what it takes. Although we are a species cursed with knowing that our journey on this specific plane of existence will one day come to an end, and that we don’t even know when that end will occur, we always find a way to act as though we don’t know that our time here is finite and precious. We find a way to take for granted that the people we love will just be there when we need to talk to them. We find a way to forget what we owe to each other as human beings. We forget what life would be like if we were—as we so often pretend we are—really in this world all alone. And of course we have to do that, right? What would life be like if we could not sometimes push all of this to the back of our minds? How could we go about our daily lives at the grocery store, in traffic on the way to work, fighting over something at tribal council meetings, or doing the many mundane things we need to do as adults if we were constantly reminded of our own mortality? What an enormous burden that would be.

But maybe that’s why we need to make more of a point to remember this. Pain like this is a source of trauma that will live with us for a long time. There is no doubt about that. But pain can also be an important and powerful teacher. As more in our communities receive vaccines and the cases continue to go down and there appears to be some hope on the horizon, finally, I hope we allow this horrible experience to teach us what so much in this world has been trying unsuccessfully to teach us all along. If we’re going to overcome any of the problems our species faces, we’re going to need and to look out for each other. Climate change—like COVID-19—demands the collective action of our species if we’re going to survive it. The same is true for the plastics problem, ocean acidification, poverty, the drug epidemic. Are there major contributors to the problem? Sure. But fixing it in any meaningful, lasting way and making sure that our communities come out the other side is going to require some cooperation.

This wasn’t the first pandemic or major disaster to hit our species and it won’t be the last. And no matter what that next thing looks like, we have to remember right down to our DNA how this felt. It seems like an enormous burden to bear, and maybe it is, but the sheer immensity of it is a sign that we are not meant to bear it alone.

Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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