I Am Worried We Will Forget
Violent insurrection, nearly 500,000 dead in a pandemic, and our desire to find a silver lining
Caption: A memorial to victims of COVID-19 is seen at the Lincoln Memorial pool on January 19, 2021, in Washington, DC. Image via Getty.
Some days, when I am walking or running in my neighborhood, I will look up and everything will look like a completely different town. I feel disoriented and confused until I remember that I do live in a completely different town. On August 10, 2020, my town was destroyed by an inland hurricane called a derecho. Over 70% of our tree canopy was destroyed. Hundreds of people were left homeless in a pandemic and even more incurred the loss of their roofs on their homes. We are still grappling with the full scope of what this disaster means. For example, how many people were sick because they didn't wear masks during cleanups or were forced into homelessness? How many more people could not afford the repairs because of job losses through the pandemic? And how much of this pain and disaster were made worse by the inefficiencies of a slow and uncaring government?
Everyone seems to want to forget that this happened. People assure me we are rebuilding, that we will be back and we will be better. TV ads assure me that we are all in this together and that we are #IowaStrong. But I don't want to forget. Because if we forget, we will do all of this all over again. Currently, the mayor who oversaw the horrible disaster response has decided to run for reelection.
Early on in the pandemic, I saw friends of mine posting about the silver linings of this disaster. "What's one way you've grown during the pandemic?" one woman, a self-styled life coach asked on her Facebook page. A friend of mine sent me the screenshot along with the comment, "A mass extinction event is not your opportunity for personal growth."
I learned a metaphor in therapy once. The metaphor goes like this: you are walking down the street and you see a child get hit by a car, and the car drives away without stopping. What do you do? Do you help the child? Or do you chase down the driver of the car? The lesson is that you help the child. But often, in our rage and fear, we are so focused on chasing down the driver of the car that we forget to help the child. I thought about this metaphor a lot in the aftermath of the derecho. I even explained it to a couple of city leaders and lawmakers when they asked me why I was so intent on pointing out the systemic failure that led to people being homeless in a pandemic when it didn't have to happen. Why couldn't I just move forward? Because, I'd say, we have to remember who we leave behind.
I've been watching how the people I know and love have been handling the pandemic. I've been watching them on social media. At first they were very careful, and then they were justifying vacations, trips, brunches, sporting events, and Christmas with family—and all of these announcements and pictures are hedged with the language, “We are being as careful as we can.” Which is a lie they are telling themselves and the rest of us, but I imagine they believe it. A friend of mine who I used to work with who has children the same age as mine went into quarantine because she was diagnosed with COVID-19. In her post about the diagnosis, she said she had been careful, but I remembered brunches, trips, vacations, indoor dining, Christmas with family.
I think this is the reality for a lot more people than we'd like to grapple with. In isolation, we cannot see the effects of the pandemic. We cannot grapple with all of the loss, so we think it doesn't affect us. I wonder a lot about what will happen years from now, when people reflect on those crazy pandemic times. How many people will say they wore masks when they didn't? How many people will say they sacrificed, when all they gave up was indoor dining for a couple of weeks? How many lies will we be allowed to tell and get away with? And who will be the witnesses who will remember? Who will say no people died because of you?
One day after I broke my wrist, I lay in my bed with Advil and a little bourbon in me because the Tylenol with hydrocodone that they had given me at the hospital was weak and ineffective. The pain in my arm was so sharp, I couldn't think. All I could do was watch TV and text friends using Voice to Text. The pain had been so bad that at the ER when the intake nurse asked me, "What's going on?" I thought she meant what was going on with the whole world, and I told her, "I don't know. Everything is so crazy." And she looked at me and blinked as if she was thinking whether or not to accept this answer, and that's when I realized what she wanted me to say was that I had broken my wrist by slipping in the snow while playing with my children. That's what was going on. So I laughed and apologized and told her how I broke my wrist. The next night, the pain was worse and I lay in my bed and I watched Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez speak on her Instagram live and bear witness to the pain of her sexual assault in the uprising that happened in our nation's Capitol. She spoke about hiding in the bathroom as a hostile Capitol police officer broke in and asked, "Where is she?"
It's not hard to understand that they wanted her dead. In my time reading letters to the editor for my local paper, I often came across letters that were violently misogynistic toward Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nancy Pelosi. Even if they didn't outright threaten death, the things they said about their bodies, about their minds, about the way they dressed, about how they were disgusting cunts… It wasn't hard to see the violent anger beneath the words. And if that's what I had seen from a plumber who lives in Iowa and on Facebook professes to love his family, then what else had AOC seen? What does she see to make her live in fear and to have those fears be realized when one day insurrectionists break into her office and ask where she is?
I watched AOC bear witness to her pain and to the violence that had happened in the Capitol. The next day, journalist Michael Tracey would mock AOC for her emotion, for her remembering, and for her vulnerability. He tweeted that she was being manipulative. But anyone who has suffered trauma knows that the vulnerability is the hardest part. The remembering is the hardest part. The bearing witness to the violence that was done,that's the hardest part.
Right now, we are in a battle of memory against forgetting. So many people who incited that insurrection, who incited the violence, are now whitewashing their reputations through plausible deniability. "Why look back?" they seem to ask. "We should look forward to a future!"
We should focus on the positive. We should focus on unity. If you remember the pain and the people left behind somehow you are the one inviting negativity.
Recently, I fought with an editor about a line she tried to put into a column. She wanted me to say there was a silver lining to the pandemic. I refused. There is no silver lining to a mass extinction event. She put the line back in. I took the line back out. Finally, it stayed out.
Our future is built upon how we perceive the past. And if we are so focused on forgetting the past pain, we'll just replicate it into the future over and over again.
Iowa House Representative Skyler Wheeler recently proposed a bill where Iowa schools would be prohibited from teaching the 1619 Project. The Pulitzer Prize–winning project was an effort to reclaim part of America's history of violence and slavery, to point out the ways that we whitewash the racism of our country, and how we've been doomed to replicate it over and over again. Never learning.
By seeking to make the violence of racism in our country invisible to schoolchildren, Wheeler and others like him are condemning them to a cycle of violence that can only be broken by the truth and the bearing of painful testimony.
Some medical studies have shown that when we forget pain, we are more likely to repeat the action that caused us the pain in the first place.
We want to move on from pain. But pain is a necessary element of survival. Over millions of years our bodies have evolved to experience pain as a warning of danger. The beauty of our pain is that it helps us remember, and then remembering, we form a political act.
Lucille Clifton wrote in her poem `“why some people be mad at me sometimes”:
they ask me to remember
but they want me to remember
and i keep on remembering
I am worried that we will forget all the lives that have been lost in this pandemic.
I am worried we will forget the dead. Forget that they didn’t have to die. I am worried we will whitewash insurrection. And I am worried that we will mock people who bear witness to the pain of this year as weak. I am worried that we will make a silver lining out of blood.
I am in pain. I am writing this with a broken wrist, speaking into my phone. I am counting down the moments until I can take a little bit more Advil and drink a little bit of bourbon. A friend joked on the internet that the pandemic had literally broken me.
I remembered that after I fell and landed on my wrist and felt like I was going to pass out from the pain, I looked up and saw my small son looking at me. "It's fine," I told him. "I will just put snow on this until I feel better."
I packed snow on top of my wrist, waiting for the pain to go away. It didn't. I tried to remind myself to take my own pain seriously. I remembered the story of the child and the car. I had a friend come pick up the kids and take me to the hospital. But even in the hospital, when the doctor pointed to the pain chart and asked me to chart my pain on the Wong Baker pain scale (You've seen it. It's the faces that go from yellow happy face to red sad face), I couldn't do it. I tried to remember all the pain in my life: childbirth, breaking a toe, that time I had sciatica and a kidney infection and passed out on the bathroom floor in front of my toddler daughter. Was it a seven? Or was it an eight?
I went with seven. I wish I had said nine.
This is the first time I've broken anything major, which is incredible considering all the trees I fell out of as a child. And I've always wondered about the stories of people breaking a bone and then convincing themselves it was fine. It wasn't a break and everything would be okay. I wondered how they could do that. Now I know. Now I know how easy it is to convince yourself that your pain is not important. That you can just pack snow on it, and it can go away. When I posted a tweet about my broken wrist on the internet, people responded with their own stories of ignored pain.
Stories of hobbling around for days on broken ankles. The stories of pretending the broken arms were not broken. Stories of relief and tears when someone said your pain is real. Your pain is important and something has been broken.
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