Summer 2020 and why we can't escape the heat

Last Sunday night I finally convinced my city-raised, Missouri-born husband to come with me and our two boys to the beach at the city lake near our house.

We changed into swimsuits and packed a backpack with towels and hopped on our bikes, rounding the curve of the path on a closed-down street, a street closed since March when our world changed forever in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.

The orange and white street signs were commonplace now, and maybe we almost didn't notice that the day before we hadn't held a parade, or my kids watched church online, and the only fireworks show was the sporadic bursts of people in the neighborhood setting off whatever they'd bought on their own.

I don't know how I'd know what time of year it was at all if it wasn't for the changing seasons, and here in Minnesota they were changing powerfully, day after day of 90+ degree weather.

The wading pool at the city park across the street was closed for the season, as were the bathrooms and drinking fountains. Kids could play on the playground now, but you had to know it was "at your own risk."

We signed up for outdoor, socially distanced sports for the kids, and then we canceled them when an outbreak emerged among some of the teenaged and 20somethings coaches employed by the city. It wasn't worth the risk, even if we didn't - couldn't - understand the risk in a family where thankfully no one had yet been infected, and none of us were medical workers.

My grandma and her husband were married just a few years ago, both of them in their late 80s for the big day. Until recently, they'd played tennis together and traveled the world. My husband and I played them in doubles when we visited in Arizona. We won, but they were probably the better players. We just had an easier time moving to the ball given our relative youth.

This past week, my grandma and her husband were stuck in their room in the senior apartment complex where they'd recently moved. Someone in the building had been diagnosed with Covid. Suddenly our family was a part of the national storyline, Arizona's eagerness to reopen and the pandemonium of cases that followed was no longer a distant news story, to be debated on social media.

Thankfully, my grandma and her husband tested negative. They probably hadn't even been exposed. Mostly they were hot and bored. They usually spent the summer traveling. Now, any minor ailment was a worry. They were healthy and safe, but the virus lurked in the distance - moving closer to all of us, no matter where we were.

A month ago I joined hundreds on the hot Minneapolis streets to protest the murder of George Floyd and the general loss of Black life in America, whether from police brutality or Covid-19, which has particularly menaced communities of color and people living in poverty, which sometimes, but not always, overlap.

On the hot days the protests gathered outside. Clergy wore our too-tight collars and gratefully accepted bottles of water. It was hard to recognize each other beneath our masks. Our masks hid our expressions. Sweat beaded on our upper lips.

Our American discomfort, particularly for white Americans, has been stifling this summer. The hot days march on relentlessly. Some people protest about wearing masks, instead of racism. It's hard to breathe, they say, not thinking of the deaths caused by lack of breath, in the Covid ward or on the streets of Minneapolis at the hands of Minneapolis police. There is "hard to breathe" and then there is "I can't breathe," and it's not the same.

Still, I hear the protest. I don't enjoy wearing a mask. It IS hard to breathe. It's hard to breathe in the heat. It seems like if you aren't right up next to people outside, you probably don't have to wear a mask, but you probably should indoors. So that's what I do. We've all read so many articles and heard so many different things, that maybe it makes sense to just go back to caring for each other and therefore pulling a cloth barrier over your face inside, protecting yourself and others - from what in many of our cases is still a scary and uncertain unknown.

I tested negative for Covid after attending two protests, wearing a mask, and staying socially distant outside. For a while I focused my energy on learning on how to be anti-racist, and trying to speak for justice. It was clear that America was facing dual pandemics, racism and a society that had been held up by racist systems, as well as the Covid-19 pandemic. White Americans had never wanted to face the first pandemic, and now both were in the forefront; in fact the Covid-19 pandemic had made obvious the first pandemic, and perhaps for the first time, pulled out of our normal routines and obsession with "busyness" - we had the space to confront the hard truth and, as white Americans, our complicity in it.

So it's hard to breathe. People who don't want to wear masks are not wrong about that. Our discomfort is with us all the time, though, mask or no mask. And the problem is not one of oppression or lack of freedom but but of discomfort and an unwillingness to address the evil lurking near.

I don't think it's the cloth masks that are making it hard for us all to breathe, really. It's also the heat: the humidity, literal and figurative, that is pressing down on us (never mind the growing climate crisis). I never learned how to cope with so much uncertainty, though perhaps part of what this pandemic does is make clear how very little control of my life I've always had, and how much I rely on my environment and everyone in it. How much we matter to each other. That would not be such a terrible truth to learn, if it might be possible to love instead of fear each other first.

It's terrifying how close to the surface anger lurks for so many of us, how easily we are offended, without first considering how we might be a part of the problem or its solution.

And still the hot wind blows. My car's air conditioning stopped working at 90 degrees or above, or anytime I had to idle for a few minutes, like waiting in line at the Goodwill drive-in drop off. I got out of the car to stand in the arid wind. My hair blew in the breeze. People stared.

So Sunday night we made our pilgrimage to the lake. A protest against a summer of fear and sadness, we rode our bikes and walked onto the sandy shore and into the water filled with seaweed. My two boys' laughter echoed in the twilight. Across the lake I saw the old bandshell and sailboats. People in kayaks and on paddleboards moved slowly and languidly amidst the ducks and seagulls and buoys.

My older son turned in circles underwater. My younger son gathered rocks and carried them to the edge of the beach. I squeezed the seaweed between my toes and marveled at the clear water. I could see to the bottom. I felt something like clarity. Life was going on. We would emerge from this summer, from this year of grief and death and division and anger and violence. We would wade in this water and be baptized anew for the work ahead.

We biked home that night and showered off. Again the boys wanted to go to the beach the next day. We said maybe. My husband sent me a text message with an article link to the City of Minneapolis.

The beach where we had gone swimming had E. coli bacteria. It was closed.

Apparently our summer was destined to lurk next to danger and sickness the whole time. We had to steal moments of joy when we could, not forgetting our responsibility in the midst of a year of ongoing danger and desperately needed change.

A happier lake outing to a different lake with no E. coli and with grandma and grandpa!


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