Like a lot of my colleagues in the academic world, I've been struggling to figure out how to acknowledge these unprecedented times for what they are while also reassuring my students that there are historical lessons to learn from and brighter days to look toward.
In some ways, I feel like I was better prepared than a lot of my community thanks to...a lot of unresolved legal issues?
For those not already following the saga, here's a brief recap: my father died on March 5, 2016. The first lawsuit related to his estate showed up approximately 2 days later, and I've been buried in legal proceedings ever since. Running tally: 1 very unscrupulous lawyer charged; 3 very conscientious lawyers currently on retainer; 1 court-appointed mediator ousted; 1 court-appointed mediator at wits end; 57 court appearances made (an estimate); 1 very large and unwieldy property remaining tied up in court; 3 extremely hoarded and dilapidated homes cleaned out (mostly). Basically, it's been 4 years, and I've won a ton of battles, but am somehow still stuck at where I started, with no real end in sight.
And somewhere in the midst of that, I managed to finish writing a book (coming!) and continue to be what I think amounts to a reasonably attentive teacher and adviser.
In other words, there was a lot going on before we started talking about the Novel Coronavirus strain currently disrupting life as we know it. And I had, what felt to me, like a bit of a heads up, because I had a court date on March 4. At the time, it just felt cruel and frustrating, being forced to have a court date on the day between my father's birthday and date of death. Now, because I'm a human prone to looking for meaning in all things, no matter how coincidental, it's starting to feel a little bit like Dad was looking out for me after all.
Before I left for court, I forced myself to go to the store and pick up pantry staples and groceries. Any time I fly in the spring, I try to be prepared in case I catch the flu or a bad cold. I followed those principles. I also bought a 2-pack of N95 face masks and a 6-pack of latex gloves. Not because of COVID19, but because I was anticipating having to spend an entire day in the house I grew up in, in all it's mold, mildew, and rodent-infested current state.
Then things happened. My plane in Dallas had to reject it's first take-off due to a wind shear warning and I got into California over 4 hours later than I was supposed to. The friends who were supposed to pick me up had to work. There was a residential fire that delayed getting to my AirBnB. By the time I finally got there, it was too late to go to the house, so I didn't. I ended up going the next day - another story - all dressed up for court and without my trusty face masks, and returned home with those supplies still sealed up in their packaging in my suitcase. At the time, I was annoyed and wondered if I had over-prepared (again). No one was really talking about coronavirus when I left - even in California, there were minimal signs of it. An Uber driver in a facemask here and more hand sanitizer than usual there.
I walked to dinner that night and discovered a series of chalk-drawings on a sidewalk that under normal circumstances I might have glanced at and barely noticed, but in these they felt like a message from the other side - a little note of comfort from Dad.
The following week, on Tuesday morning, I stood in front of my classroom and my students and I half-heartedly joked about what might happen after Spring Break. Later that night, I dismissed my second class with a missive that there was a seemingly real chance that it might be the last time I saw them for the rest of the semester. We all took a minute to let that sink in, and quickly dismissed it as an unbelievable impossibility.
On Thursday morning, one of my students brought up how uncertain things suddenly seemed, and asked if I had been through anything similar. Was this what H1N1 felt like? That was a pandemic, right? (That was 10 years ago...and they know I'm old. So.) And it hit me then, trying to find a balance in explaining to them that yes, historically speaking, we've been through things and statistically speaking most of us will survive this too, and acknowledging that this is something truly unprecedented, and no, I don't have any relevant experiences that will help here, how big this thing is that we're facing. I watched their faces slowly channel through the uncertainty and disbelief of realizing that the semester might, effectively, be over, and knew in that moment that things were about to change in a way that's only now, weeks later, becoming clear.
With so much looming uncertainty, I just needed a place to organize my thoughts. Like so many others in the academic world are pointing out, I feel obligated to keep some sort of running documentation of what's happening, for posterity.
In this time, we all have to think about the little pieces of ourselves we'll leave behind for others to learn from - isn't that, after all, what we preach in telling students about change over time and the human condition and the archival record of the past?
So here are some of those pieces. Please be gentle with them. It's not clear yet what will emerge whole from this and what will break.