It is an exhausting time to be alive. There’s a pandemic, sure, but also civil unrest and so much political turmoil. Passionate disagreements fill our social media feeds and spill over into every crevice of our conscience, not to mention that many Americans’ livelihoods are on hold with the lockdowns and economic uncertainty.
We are tired. Many are hungry for a change. Throngs of people are feeling isolated and alone. We are craving connection. Our apprehensions seep into every part of our days, even sleep; vivid nightmares reflect real anxieties about the coronavirus.
It feels ominous, even, to engage in what were once simple tasks like visiting the grocery store. With masks and face shields and floors marked to keep us six feet apart, hand sanitizer everywhere, clouds of invisible aerosolized germs seem to surround each person we encounter. These practices run counter to our need for connection as sentient beings.
We are living through a collective experience of “ambiguous loss,” as described by Pauline Boss, an educator and researcher known as a pioneer in the interdisciplinary study of family stress. We are grieving the loss of so many things. Some have lost loved ones and most of us lost the freedom to go about our days as we always have and the ability to freely visit with loved ones and see our friends. Young people are losing the ability to socialize and go to school in the usual manner (this generation will carry that with them throughout their lives). We have lost a feeling of security about our health; so many feel vulnerable and detached.
Unfortunately, this feeling of loss has no full, clear end in sight. In-person rituals and celebrations were originally postponed, but many have since been canceled. This aligns with what Boss explains as the myth of closure to this feeling of loss. We must learn to navigate through life with this feeling, accepting and integrating it into our days.
I keep asking myself: Where do we go from here? What lessons can be learned during this time that we carry with us into the post-COVID world?
One word that I keep coming back to is community. We are not only learning how important it is to each of us in normal times, but we need human connection now more than ever before. I long for chance encounters on the street, crowded cafes and the certainty of schooling for my children. I miss hugs. I would imagine that all of this loss will be transformative in ways that we cannot yet imagine.
We are carrying these losses individually and all together, at the same time. Although we are not physically present with each other as much, there is an opportunity to connect now on a deeper level emotionally. I find more meaning in every socially distant, front-yard chat with neighbors, group text with other moms, stroller walk with friends and FaceTime discussion. I relish when strangers' eyes light up as they try to smile big at me under their mask. These connections are buoying and uplifting; they are meaningful and valuable. Our need for connection hints at a bigger lesson to promote programs and practices that foster togetherness.
Community-building is the primary reason my husband and I moved back to our hometown over five years ago. I see an even greater need to build strong local ties during the current global health crisis, political turmoil and unrest. I claim this city as my homeland so I often ponder what I am defending, a reference to the beautiful constellation of songs on Taylor Swift’s new pandemic-born album, "Folklore."
I am especially inspired by others who are engaged in meeting the needs of the most vulnerable in our community. Since the pandemic began, leaders like Andrae Gonzales have risen to the occasion. Together with his Children First Campaign interns, he organized dozens of educational art and science activity boxes for students in East Bakersfield. The Boys & Girls Clubs of Kern County has extended its hours and offered day camps to provide a safe space (especially for children of health-care professionals and other essential workers) while schools are closed. Houchin Community Blood Bank stepped up efforts to acquire blood and plasma, offering free antibody tests to residents who donate.
During this pandemic, I feel a bit helpless to contribute to global causes but more driven to dedicate myself to local ones. I have renewed passion for our work revitalizing downtown and building bonds of community in the center of our city. Rather than get overwhelmed by the fears reflected in news headlines, we should look to our cities and neighborhoods, places where we can make the biggest impact.
My husband and I have always kept it our goal to fold as many people into this work as possible. Strong communities are built by engaged residents who care deeply about and are driven by furthering its prospects and progress. The more people in a community who commit to it, the stronger it is. Perhaps through this period with less travel, less distractions and more contemplation, refocusing our energies inward on our local sphere, we will emerge with a renewed sense of the importance of local bonds and shared causes, a new appreciation for this special place where we weathered the storm.