A Tool for Staying Grounded in This Era of Constant Uncertainty

Recent visits to my high school, where I was a teacher, were a pleasant surprise. A few of my former students met me in the old classroom. As I looked at the pictures, wooden desks and the views from the window, it was hard to believe how many times I had sat here in that room. I was 7 months pregnant and trying to explain the new corona virus to 14-year olds.

The day was just before spring break. We were struggling to complete an online crash course on learning. Since we had expected that virtual classes would only be available for the first two weeks of the semester, it was difficult. It would be weird and annoying for a minute, but then we’d get right back in the swing of things. To put our complaints in perspective, we went around the circle and shared whom we wanted to protect from getting sick—a grandpa in a nursing home, an aunt with a heart defect, a loved one with cancer.

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This was two years ago. Today, I have a toddler running around my house honking about ducks. The freshmen that I used to know are taller than me and wear masks. They also apply for colleges. None of us in that circle—whether we were rolling our eyes or wringing our hands—expected it to go this way.

But there was something else that struck me during that visit, beyond the fact that we still hadn’t gone back to “normal,” or that we weren’t even sure what that meant anymore. I felt a weariness in the school that was deeper than I’d anticipated. The past two years have been difficult. But as I moved through the hallways, the weight was palpable, not in everyone’s words as much as their faces and shoulders. The wind had blown out of their faces. Their laughter couldn’t quite lift off the ground. Many teachers had been exposed to COVID-19, or had children who were diagnosed with it. Low attendance in classrooms made any steady pace or consistency a difficult and exhausting goal.

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Before Omicron swept the world, it felt a little like we’d been caught in some kind of liminal suspension for nearly two years, our limbs aching as we scanned for a patch of ground where we could land—just one stretch of sturdy earth to rest on with familiar markers to chart our location and a horizon to move toward without wondering about quicksand pits. We felt close. Then we realized that it was all a dream.

Courtesy Rebekah TaussigOtto and the author in September 2021.

We’re all stuck in a pandemic—we’re all subject in some way to the uncertainty it creates—but the puncture wounds have taken a billion different shapes. I’d imagined the weight of teaching during a pandemic and thought I had a pretty good sense of how hard it must be, but I didn’t feel the weight of it in my body until I returned to the building. It made me wonder what we’d feel if we were able to slip into each other’s worlds for even a morning. Being in ICU with medical staff, watching educators struggle to manage safety and parents who are desperate, waiting in long isolation while small-business owners try to keep afloat with this virus. It’s humbling to share a room with someone whose mental state is in serious crisis. How can we begin to get better acquainted with each other about this epidemic, which has ravaged the country for two years now?

It was time to go.—our childcare plans changed when yet another person in our orbit tested positive for COVID-19. It wasn’t an unfamiliar experience. With our only child born in May 2020, unpredictable childcare has been the only kind we’ve known. However, I find the level of uncertainty that is present in my daily life to be much smaller and more manageable than others. Now that I’ve switched to freelance work, my schedule can be flexible and, more often than not, is remote, and we’ve gotten so much practice pivoting when the plans change. Have I ever thought of Otto since his birth? Soon, things will be safe, life will settle, we’ll be able to rely on structure,Only to be able to feel the ground beneath me once more?

This is precisely why my reply to the message caught me off-guard. I ought to have known how to deal with this. Instead, I felt like I’d smacked into the bottom of a well, and I might as well curl up and make a home there. My shoulders and chest were tight with worry over the person who had gotten sick, and I was already so behind on work that I couldn’t think about it without hearing my heart pound in my ears. Otto came home with me, I covered myself with a blanket and watched as he ran back and forth over the 5ft. length of our bedroom floor. We can’t keep doing this, It was a thought. I thought. Stop being so dramatic. It’ll just be a few days. But I don’t think my hopelessness was tied to any one day.

I don’t always know how to talk about it. I’m doing fine; we’re really fine. Uncertainty hangs in the air all around us. What will happen to our beloved ones? Do we keep them safe and secure? Is safety and life worth it to others? We will be able find COVID-19 tests. Are our jobs secure? Are we going to be able to go back and do we have the ability? Can our relationship recover? Is it right to celebrate? Do we need to book plane tickets? Do we react too strongly? Are things going to get better in the future? Uncertainty is a song I can’t get out of my head. Although it hits everyone differently, I can feel the impact on each person in one way or another. It leaves us feeling anxious, angry, or even humming in our ears, while our fingers are in our ears and our eyes shut.

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We may be nearing a turning point in the pandemic. It seems that the number of cases is decreasing and the vaccine will soon be available to children under 5. What can we do about these glimmers of hope? Are they trustworthy? We’ve been here before and seen how quickly things can take a turn for the worse. Do we have to expect safety? Order? Reliability? Will it be safe? But only some?

I can see a tendency in myself to soothe the discomfort of uncertainty by insisting on a narrative of certainty—to crush everything I can’t know or control into something as simple as a rock I can clench in my fist. This would be all over if these people did the right things.The desire to extinguish uncertainty might drive conspiracy theorists, I believe. But I’ve found that this impulse to flatten a massive, complicated problem into one small thing I can yell about doesn’t actually solve anything or even make me feel better. As much as I trust the experts, I’m starting to realize that knowledge and scientific innovation are only part of the solution; they can go only so far without things like understanding, collaboration, care, commitment, support. And some days it feels like we’re moving further away from these resources. So I clench my fist tighter, and my brain keeps spinning—overheating like a blender left on too long until I simply burn out. Is there a way to continue without getting tired or becoming a shell of yourself?

Yesterday was a great day for me and my partner Micah.The morning began as many others. We talked about future variants, numbers, and peaking. I gave him Omicron news. It became increasingly difficult to hear one another because Otto began howling up the ceiling, much like a young wolf pup. He loves howling, particularly in a pack. Micah, Micah, and I simply put aside our speculations and began howling. The morning sunlight cast shadows onto the wall as three wolves pointed their noses at the ceiling. It felt great to howl with others.

Courtesy Rebekah TaussigFrom February, a family selfie

Otto pulling us out from our worried dialogue gave me a feeling of pangs. I wonder if he will remember his parents being distracted and thin. Do we expect him to feel anxious and afraid? Is it possible for your whole life to revolve around a pandemic? Everyone is flummoxed by time these days—Two years?! What year was that? One month ago One year ago? We’re untethered, free-floating. Micah, Micah, and I were drifting towards an anxious future. Otto pulled us back into the present moment and found the toddler still wearing footie pants between us.

Continue reading: There’s No End in Sight for COVID-19. How can we tell our children now?

It makes me wonder if there’s a way to stay present without getting swallowed, to keep on without turning to steel, to let uncertainty be big and to feel the fear of it, while also finding tiny islands of certainty, spots on the map to mark with a pushpin and tether us to solid ground. I don’t know if I’ll have childcare next week, if our local hospital will have a bed for my high-risk mom if she should need it, or how we’ll ever heal from this.

However, there are some things that I know and I am able to grasp them when my brain is whirring. As you can see, my tongue is pressing down against the backs my teeth. I’m here. This is my hand cupping Micah’s cold fingers like a snug turtle shell. We’re here. These are the sounds of my baby jumping to the beat of “Heart and Soul” like a heavy-footed bunny. Here. Later, when it’s dark, these are our voices singing the same three songs we sing to Otto every night—the first my dad sang to me when I was little; the second comforted me when I was an overwhelmed teenager; the third Micah heard on his way home the day we found out I was pregnant—three points to chart a path. I’m here; he’s here; we’re here. Mark the spot, before we’re inevitably sucked back into the storm.

The pushpins in the map don’t change any of the uncertainty, don’t solve any of the problems causing the uncertainty, and don’t enact widespread change. But I’m trying to assemble some survival tools for the long haul. It is difficult to accept that the pandemic isn’t the only uncertain that keeps us from complete peace. Life is full of uncertainty, which can be both inescapable or confusing. My map also marks the spots when I became paralyzed at the age of 3, when Micah was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 33, when Otto’s screaming, wriggly body hit the air and I realized that the more love you have, the more terrifying life’s unpredictability becomes.

When I look at it square in the face, it’s too much to bear, actually. So if I’m going to keep at this—keep moving, keep loving, keep showing up for the ones right here—I need some tools. After two years of COVID-19, each of us has crafted our own: the anchors we put down when faced with a future we can’t predict. This one is mine—that I can name what I don’t know, but I also know what I have. The pandemic isn’t over yet, but maybe this tool will allow me to stay soft and present a little while longer.


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