Lessons Learned in the 2020 Apocalypse

From pandemic haircuts to broken friendships, the past year has involved lots of staring out the window and coming to terms with hard truths.

The pandemic has been tough on eight-year-old Sammy. 

Between the passing of two family friends, a halted Spring semester, and a single mom who had to balance her own PhD course load with both a job teaching undergraduates and parenting full-time, Sammy’s little world shrunk abruptly in a flurry of nationwide chaos. 

She has also struggled to come to grips with the fact that her father, who she does not live with and who has refused to self-isolate, has become more absent than ever before. Because her mother is at high risk for COVID-19 (and because stopping the spread should be a priority for everyone), Sammy’s parents decided she would not visit her father for the length of the pandemic. Unfortunately, her father didn’t pursue socially-distant Facetimes much, either.

One night, when her father finally called to video chat with Sammy — he cut the call short, saying that Sammy’s mother had texted him and told him to get off the phone. Sammy saw right through her father’s excuse.

“He chose not to talk to me anymore,” she says. “He chose not to see me.” 

That night, Sammy cried for a very long time. Then, in a classic fit of pandemic-fueled angst, she gave herself a wickedly choppy, riot grrrl-esque haircut. 

When Sammy’s mother Audrey told me that story, I found myself empathising with an eight-year-old more than I have since I was, myself, eight years old. This is not because I am the daughter of a single parent. Rather, it’s because I too have often felt abandoned amidst the disaster that is 2020.

But I also think I have become a better person because of it. In fact, I think the entirety of 2020 can be seen as a very successful period of growth — at least for me.

“One thing that I often forget — even now that Sammy is eight-and-a-half — is that kids have almost no control over their lives and are acutely aware of this,” says Audrey. So too, as the virus spreads, have many of us become acutely aware that we cannot single-handedly control it. We have also become acutely aware of the fact that we cannot control the actions of others — no matter how disappointing or difficult to understand their unsafe coronavirus habits may be.

Room with a view. (Photo: Veronica Irwin)

It makes me want to cut all my hair off, too. 

For a while, San Francisco had become a relative success story in the United States — experts once said that if the president had been as wise as our mayor, 150,000 Americans killed by the coronavirus would be alive today. For a while, living here was a relief, especially when compared to the progressively worsening situation in my hometown of Los Angeles. And yet, as the months went by, so-called “coronavirus fatigue” infected even our relatively conscious city. The tables have turned, and now it’s my friends in New York — who I once prayed for — that are worried about me. 

Through all the peaks and valleys of pandemic risks and local mandates, I feel not only disoriented but left behind. First, there’s the social media layer: seeing my friends in areas where restrictions are milder, like Denver and Miami, attending maskless parties makes me feel like San Francisco is on a remote island detached from the rest of the country. There’s also a local aspect: when I see large groups congregating in Dolores Park to take advantage of a warm weekend, for example, I feel like the CDC-guided boundaries I put on my social interactions must be ridiculously overbearing. 

This is how the machinery of society-wide gaslighting works. Society’s tendency to pretend “everything’s fine,” can make one feel crazy for noticing that, in fact, everything is not at all fine. Through the pandemic, I have learned how to fight those feelings — to start finding security in my own boundaries, and to embrace the discomfort in knowing that our entire world is upside down. 

I was reminded that I’m not alone in this revelation listening to Amanda Gorman’s inaugural poem — a diamond polished in the roughness that was Jan. 6. “It’s because being American is more than a pride we inherit / it’s the past we step into / and how we repair it,” she said. Confronting wretchedness, rather than dismissing it, is often the only way to heal. 

Audrey is someone I consider both a friend and mentor. She is a mother, so of course, I take her advice seriously, and she’s a couple years older than I — not by a lot, but enough for me to say I look up to her without my 24-year-old self feeling personally weird about it. She’s also brilliantly eloquent, and her analysis of news events and history have helped me put my complicated feelings about this pandemic into words.

One thing she said I found particularly insightful: she pointed out that the word “apocalypse,” which so many have used to describe the pandemic, comes from the Greek word apokálypsis, or “uncovering.” “It’s hard not to think of this past year as a multi-scalar uncovering, or forced reckoning,” she says. 

Evidence of this is clear, says Audrey. Physical violence enacted on Black people at the hands of the police is not new, but an unprecedented summer of protest has exposed that violence for all to see. Wildfires have shown us both the dire effects of climate change and of taking land from the indigenous peoples who were much more responsible stewards. Many Americans seem willing to sideline the lives and livelihoods of people at high-risk for COVID-19 so that their own lives can return to normal. And of course, there’s the most glaring example: the same white supremacist violence that has haunted this country since it’s inception reared its ugly head on Jan. 6. These are only some of the difficult realities our country is, at least in part, being forced to face. 

On a smaller scale, the interpersonal negotiations over coronavirus safety have unveiled the ways power and privilege have always tainted our social interactions. Audrey, for example, is deaf, and finds herself constantly fighting for accommodations like closed captioning. In fact, she has had to spend significantly more time asking for accommodations during the pandemic than she does during a typical in-person school year. She says the pandemic has exposed how this labor often falls on people with disabilities, and how the power that comes with hearing in an ableist society makes many people ignorant, if not dismissive, to the needs of peers. The pandemic has also exposed how the health and comfort of the wealthy is prioritized in our society — I, for one, ended a relationship with a long-time friend when I learned she was purchasing ventilators, during the early pandemic shortage, to hoard in her home in case she fell ill. Though to me it was obvious how this hurt other Americans — to her, this was simply a privilege she was afforded because of her family’s “hard work.” 

Audrey and my conclusions are the same: this pandemic has shown who is willing to shed their privilege for others, and who reverts to their most selfish instincts under duress. “Personally, a lot of these uncoverings have meant that if someone in my life is choosing to not do the work of uprooting ableism, anti-Blackness, heteronormativity, misogyny from their own hearts, I don’t want to know them,” Audrey says. If I have any New Year’s resolutions, it’s to stand even stronger in my values — and hold my peers to a higher standard, too. 

Of course, inequality can again make things complicated. Because of inequities in education and targeted disinformation campaigns (also exposed by the pandemic), for example, some people still don’t believe masks are effective. Others, faced with more urgent hardships, may consider coronavirus precautions a comparatively unimportant concern. 

However, most of my friends do not fall into these categories. Many of my 20-something peers, pockets lined with tech money and rent-free budgets while they work from their parents homes, have been willfully ignorant. Reconciling the years I have loved them with the selfish behavior I see appear in my social media feeds has felt like one, horse-sized pill to swallow. Ultimately, I’m glad the medicine went down. 

As we draw nearer to the one year mark of San Francisco’s shelter-in-place order, I sit, like many Americans, reeling from the horrors of this past year. I face family who, because of the disinformation they read, are unable to empathise with this distress. I face peers who, because of some combination of selfishness and denial, are unwilling to accommodate my requests for Facetimes and socially distant hangs. I walk into this year feeling, late at night, lonelier than I ever have before.

However, I find comfort in the advice Audrey gave her daughter — advice that she says she also gives her inner eight-year-old self. “It hurts when we say we need something from someone we love, and they can’t or won’t give it to us,” she said. “So let’s be sad about these things and also realize that we won’t die from it.” 

Problems only start to go away after the truth of them has been uncovered. And though sometimes the truth hurts, that doesn’t make it any less worthwhile to learn.

Quarantine Thoughts is an ongoing personal essay series focused on how the coronavirus, social distancing mandates and the economic fallout of COVID-19 is impacting locals. Read more essays here.

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