I’ve been thinking about writing something for a while, but instead I’ve been quiet. As the pandemic has taken hold, I suddenly read that we are all struggling to balance family and work, to deal with job losses and pay cuts and studying at a distance. I have read about the need to care for students and the difficulty focusing at work while under so much stress during these difficult times. People are getting sick and dying. Tragedy and injustice are everywhere. Along with the proclamations that “the world has changed.”
Then I read The Complexities of Certainty. I enjoyed the article, but the second last line gnawed at me. “But I know they do it while acknowledging this is not the world in which we taught two months before, and that every student is facing disruption, uncertainty and distraction.” Has the world really changed? I’d been struggling with this question for a while so I finally decided to as it.
There is a story behind that question. February was not a good month for my family. A relative died suddenly. Without reason or explanation. She was the same age as my oldest daughter and they were close with plans to travel home together. It hit us hard. We lost a vibrant young woman. We grieved her loss. Her mom was a single mom who had done everything possible to support and protect her daughter. But it wasn’t enough. I couldn’t help but think about the risk factor she shares with my own kids: Being young and indigenous; all other things being equal, this remains a significant risk factor. As my own daughter struggled with the loss, I supported her day by day to keep her on track both as a human and at school. There were days I did not think she was going to make it through. “We just have to get through February. Everything gets better in March.”
Soon after that, I suddenly lost my job. I’ll likely never know why I lost my job. What I do know, is that one day I told four students not to travel to class due to a snowstorm making it unsafe to travel. Two weeks later, I was unemployed. The drama that surrounded my decision to cancel a single day of class now seems ridiculous now, but so it goes…
I was unemployed. Everywhere I went, people asked: What are you going to do? My kids were worried. I told them not to worry, everything would be fine. When people asked, I told them the same story I told myself. “I remember the last time I suddenly needed a job. That time I had no degree, no money, no work experience and five kids under the age of nine. Somehow, we manged.” Inside my own head, I also remember all the other turmoil that surrounded that time: School online late at night, social workers and court dates. And those ten little eyes all looking up at me needing it to be OK, needing me to OK. So it was, so I was. Most of those eyes look down at me now, but they still rely on me to figure it out. Out loud I said, “We’ll be fine. We just have to get through February. Everything always gets better in March.”
While the world for most folks might have changed in March, mine changed in February or maybe it really changed 10 years ago. During that time, below the surface I’ve often been not OK. I’ve pushed down my emotions, wallowed, laughed and cried. I’ve had days where I physically could not work because there was too much. I’ve struggled with ptsd. I’ve found ways to cope. Everything I ever believed to be true turned out not to be and I muddled my way through. These are my personal tragedies and injustices; they make me who I am. But what is relevant here is that for me, things really *did* get better in March.
Back to what started all of this: “The world has changed.” I’ve started to realize what is really bothering me. It’s the claim of universality, the the. More than 40 years ago, Lyotard (1984) declared an end to universal, grand narratives. He suggested that it was time for universal stories to be replaced with the small and the local, what he called petit recits.
And yet here I am watching daily “the” pandemic story, unequal in its effects and yet somehow still told as a universal story. There is little in life that I’m certain of, but I am pretty sure that what we are actually experiencing is a time in which the ways the world was thought to work have changed, for many. Jim Luke pointed to how is has “ripped apart the social imaginaries.” I’m also increasingly sure that this is the type of change that really only ever happens at a personal level.
When I posted the tweet at the beginning of this post, something happened that I didn’t expect. Someone responded with similar thoughts.
I really do keep thinking about when this is “over” for most people, how many others it will not be “over” for. Thinking about who gets to decide when normal standards go back into place and what experiences and resources those people have when they get to decide that for others. – Jessica Chretien
Jessica’s response astounded me and gave me the courage to write more. I do not know Jessica or pretend to understand her experiences but our responses collectively, mine and hers together, point to the non-universal-ness as even something as widely felt as a worldwide pandemic.
What might be gained if instead of a universal experience we treat our current situation as many personal injustices and tragedies intersecting in this time and space. How does the way we frame our current experiences affect how we proceed and what we choose to learn from them now and whenever the pandemic subsides?
Some day, most of us will emerge from our homes and return to work and school.
Will we continue to make space and opportunities for those who cannot leave due to disabilities, family responsibilities, etc? Or will we shut them out again?
Will we continue to contribute to food banks and supports networks? Or will we channel our money elsewhere?
Will we see and seek to fix structural racism? Will we fight to change the “normal standards”? Or will we return to the status quo?
Will we grieve the tragic and unjust loss of others? Or do will reserve our grief for losses only of a certain size and closeness to our own lives and homes?
Will we treat others struggling with personal tragedies and injustices with the same grace and understanding that we are currently asking for (and willing to give to others)? Or are these spaces and courtesies tied only to these “extraordinary” times?
Maybe by rejecting the universal in favour of the personal, we can collectively become stronger, better, more inclusive, more caring. So when when I ask these same questions of myself, I replace the we with I. What will I do differently? How will I choose to change?