As an elementary school age child I remember one of the first assignments we were given when we returned to class in September. We were directed to write a composition, something today we would call an essay, on the subject “How I spent my summer vacation”. Since we all lived in a beach resort and few if any of our families actually went on a summer getaway, our compositions all pretty much read the same.
Like most of my classmates, mine would contain the usual remembrances of our 10-week hiatus from school. Daily trips to the beach; nighttime visits to the town’s iconic amusement park; backyard barbecues; taking in a few Red Sox games with Dad; and a host of other summer pastimes typical for a kid living in a seaside community.
As I think about writing an adult version of such an essay reflecting on the Summer of 2020 the theme and tone would be quite different. My Summer of COVID was spent in near isolation. I ventured out rarely and then just to go to a doctor appointment or to the grocery to re-provision the kitchen and pantry. There were no restaurant trips. The only interaction with others was in the virtual world of Zoom or via social media platforms, phone and email. As I think about my Summer of COVID I’m reminded of the summers of my youth and the popular black and white television series, The Twilight Zone. After all, this summer could have been the stuff of an excellent episode for the show’s creator Rod Serling. I’ve been holding on to the wish that the Summer of COVID would eventually turn out to be either a bad dream or a science fiction story. But of course neither would be true.
The Summer of COVID was filled with the daily death and infection counts from the global pandemic that was killing people in every corner of the world. The ever-present counter on the CNN screen was tallying the death toll like the tote board of a dystopian telethon.
Newscasters brought us stories of senseless murders of black Americans at the hands and knees of those who were otherwise sworn to serve and protect. And while the vast majority of them honored their oaths with distinction too many of their fellow officers snuffed out too many black lives, each of which mattered.
This summer we mourned the passing of the field marshals and foot soldiers of the civil rights movement at a time when their voices and leadership would be needed more than ever. The deaths of Rev. Joseph Lowery, Rev. C.T. Vivian and Rep. John Lewis extinguished the lights lit by Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. And with the loss of those iconic human rights leaders the nation would wonder what new voices would replace their silenced advocacy.
We watched as millions of everyday men and women filled the nation’s streets in peaceful protests to stand for justice and equality only to be beaten and gassed not seen since the 60’s. Peaceful protesters found their cause hijacked by firebomb throwing looters who blended into the crowds making it impossible to tell the honorable from the deplorable. In the end, all were painted with the same brush of racism and violence by far too many local law authorities and federal troops.
When we ran out of brutal beatings and killings of people of color we turned our attention to the ugliest political discourse and behavior of our lifetimes. The venomous spewings of many of the nation’s highest elected officials and their wingmen and women felt like wrecking balls were constantly swinging at the structures of our democracy.
Our economy became one of the costliest victims of the Summer of COVID. Our unemployment lines reminded us of the lines at depression era soup kitchens. 50 million people lost their jobs or were furloughed. Food banks saw lines of cars that stretched for miles with people who used to drop off donations but who were now looking for a box of food to get them through the week. Countless families and individuals lived in fear of eviction and foreclosure.
Migrant families and asylum seekers became the target of Gestapo-like squads of Federal agents who found new sport in separating children as young as one-year old from their families and caging little ones like animals in squalid conditions.
The Summer of COVID created cottage industries pedaling the necessary supplies that we were either mandated to have or wanted to buy because it would save our lives. Face masks, face shields, nitrile surgical gloves, hand sanitizer and toilet paper was on everyone’s shopping lists but these essentials were in short supply and even if available they came at an increased price. Grocery stores limited the purchase of meat, cleaning supplies and other staples.
Retail stores were shuttered along with bars, restaurants, gyms, hair and nail salons. We became a society dependent on home delivery from Amazon, Walmart, and other retailers. And local restaurants could feed us only by home delivery or curbside pickup.
Even as the summer was only half over parents had no idea how their children would be taught when schools were supposed to re-open. In person? Online? A combination of both? No one knew for sure and the anxiety of families was off the chart.
Working remotely from home, once considered a reward for diligent and faithful employees was now the way in which much of the American work force would navigate to their office.
Worshipers could not congregate in Churches, Synagogues or Mosques. Their only ability to join in communal prayer and connection was from their home watching a livestream on their computer or television.
This was the Summer of COVID and Labor Day, the traditional end of the summer season, will not bring an end to all of this. It will extend into the holidays we celebrate in November and December. And we may even be denied the pleasure of sports to distract us from our troubles. It is uncertain what the fate of college and professional football will be. The shortened baseball season may not even be able to complete its shortened schedule.
These are the low lights of the Summer of COVID and my remembrances of how I spent my COVID summer vacation. It was and continues to be a grim and worrisome time for all of us. But the human spirit still has a way of fighting back against evil like the hoped-for vaccine that will eventually fight off COVID.
Despite all of the darkness in what should be the sunniest time of the year we still find ways to prevail. We still find ways to be of help to our friends, family and neighbors. We still find ways to make the best of terrible circumstances. We still look out for ourselves and those we care about and even those unknown to us. And most of us work hard to find ways from sinking into the depths of depression and self-pity for the losses and inconveniences we experience. But sadly not all of us.
The lesson of the Summer of COVID is to find ways of being grateful for the blessings we enjoy even in times of great challenge and difficulty. We also need to remind ourselves that even at a time of scarcity and loss there is still much that we can give to soften the pain of others.
I learned that lesson in my childhood when our home was ravaged twice in thirteen months by flood. We were taken in and cared for by our neighbors. They helped ensure that we would weather the storm even though the actual storm had passed. And that is the lesson that has been embedded in me through my entire life. You see it all the time in natural disasters. You see it in times of unimaginable violence and mass killings. You see the indomitable power and strength that can be offered to those who are suffering even by those whose own struggles are real.
The Summer of COVID has been one of the most devastating periods any of us can remember and certainly one we wish to never experience again. But it was not without its lessons and it has taught us something about ourselves. We have overcome. We can overcome. We shall overcome.
Gratitude for what we have in our lives far exceeds the despair we might feel for any sense of loss we may experience. An attitude of gratitude can be a soothing balm for the wounds of a broken spirit or troubled soul. But as with most medicines, gratitude only can reduce our pain if we make use of it.
So, my adult version of the iconic school child composition How I Spent My Summer Vacation is complete. The Summer of COVID was no ordinary summer vacation. But then we have discovered that we don’t have to be ordinary victims either.