In June, I cried in a team meeting. I’ve dealt with stress before, but my modes of coping included all the things we could then no longer do — trips to the gym for weightlifting sessions, impromptu outings for burgers, cocktails with friends at our favorite restaurants. Sometimes I’d take a book to my favorite bar where Caleb, my favorite bartender, would supply me with Manhattans and keep people away.
The pandemic robbed me of that. While compounding our stress and our tragedy, the pandemic has robbed us of ways to find relief.
When the pandemic came to Iowa, my small, independent newspaper, suddenly couldn’t fill all of our pages – we lost sports and event coverage. So, I worked with our education reporter to create a new section — a kid’s page. It went from idea to reality in less than a week; we both got crash courses in print layouts and page budgets; we worked on it in addition to our full-time jobs. As a single mother, who (like many readers) was then suddenly homeschooling two children, it meant, late nights, doing crafts for the kids page at two in the morning, squeezing in interviews between lessons in long division.
I had tried coping with the stress of the moment, and the stress of my job, and the stress of single parenting in a pandemic, and the stress of homeschooling and the loss of my other coping techniques by learning to mix drinks for my boyfriend — handcrafting simple syrups from herbs in my garden and running together. I looked forward to those small interactions that felt normal. But soon, he was gone too. Another disappointment in a year of disappointments.
And so then, there I was — a single parent, exhausted, overworked, overwhelmed, in an international health crisis — crying in a professional meeting for no particular reason. We were just checking in, updating one another on our work and our company’s finances.
“We feel overwhelmed,” I said, using the third person to avoid the first-person reality. Later, my boss messaged me, to tell me to take a break. “Use your vacation,” he said.
I laughed at the Slack message. Vacation? In this economy? Where would I go? What would I do?
In 2020, there has been no rest for anybody or any of our bodies. We have been granted no respite, no getaways. Unless we are the uber wealthy, even the few getaways we manage are at home or not too far away; we are masked, we are restrained and, even on our breaks, we are deluged with stories of pain, fear and heartbreak. These stories come to us from the news, from our friends’ texts, from the questions of our children, who ask why we can’t go to the pool anymore, why everything is so different. Even on my breaks, I have been unable to escape the burning tension in my back and the stress headaches
Even in our respite, we cannot relax.
This summer has felt like an eternal Pesach. We celebrate because we have been spared, but we mourn and ask why, why, why? The answers are never good enough: Because of the virus, because our leaders have failed us, because I don’t know, no one knows, please go to sleep, I need rest.
When I took my kids to an isolated cabin in Missouri, even the isolation was a reminder of the danger outside. And of course, I was still working. Still spending nights catching up on emails and all the things I hadn’t been able to do as a single mom of two kids working a full-time job, freelancing and writing books.
A week after I returned from that small break, my town was destroyed by what experts are calling a Category 4 inland hurricane.
It took our governor a week to ask for help. It took the president two more weeks to approve all the aid and when I took to Twitter to complain, people responded with their own stories of disaster, of ruin, of leaders who ignored their cries for help.
They were not wrong.
But we were also caught up in a misery Olympics — a losing sport. Who deserves pain and who deserves pity? We fight it out and everyone loses. The intersectionality of misery has never been more raw or apparent.
This pandemic has disproportionately taken the lives of people of color, who are front-line workers or essential workers; their bodies were and are sacrificed for our cruel economy. Just like the winds that destroyed my towns hit the apartments with the bad landlords the hardest, the people without the cash-on-hand means of survival are hit the hardest. When I talk to Iowans about the derecho, they all tell me they are fine, because someone else has it worse.
They are right, but this “worse” has no bottom. This misery Olympics is a game with no winner.
“Cry out,” I tell them — but they don’t. Our Midwestern stoicism means that bootstraps and silent sadness are all we have.
This is our summer. This is our break, which is no break at all.
In 2020, we are all living our own personal and national disasters.
Now that our summer that never happened is over, I understand that what we have lost is more than just beery sways during summer concerts, more than unfortunate makeout sessions in sweaty bars, more than poolside lingering with our children as we worry about our swimsuits and their sunblock.
What we have lost is rest.
Even on our breaks, we cannot leave our spaces — and we cannot leave our realities, which include an unchecked pandemic, and a world of threat and fear and ruin.
Walking down my street with my nine-year-old daughter after the disaster in Iowa, with trees and power lines dangling like depressed confetti for the only party this year deserves, a woman with a half gallon of milk in a plastic sack passed us.
“It can’t get any worse,” she muttered.
We live in Iowa. In the Midwest. In the land of miserable winters. I turned to the woman, “Ma’am,” I said. “Don’t you say that. Please, don’t you dare say that.”
She laughed. And I laughed. And my daughter laughed. We were all too tired to cry.