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  • katherine halligan

When my husband and I were first married we lived — due to his job and my need to be near a mainline rail station to London for mine — in a town in central England called Market Harborough. Our house (the first we’d owned) was a stone’s throw from a delightful path that went right through perfectly lovely countryside. We simply walked out our door, crossed the road, passed the butcher’s shop, crossed another road, passed the pub, cut through the corner of the beautiful chestnut-tree-lined park, passed some allotment gardens full of runner bean vines and rows of cabbage, and found ourselves in the middle of beautiful fields in five minutes flat.

The hills around us were rolling and gentle, but the path itself was straight as an arrow, smooth and flat. It was wide, but not obtrusively so, and neatly maintained. We loved to take long walks there on the weekends, when we saw such things as dormice nestling in the brambles and — on warm August nights — the diamond trails of meteor showers.

My husband is an avid cyclist (or was before his lack of knee cartilage made it too painful to persist with his beloved hobby), and so he had the idea to cycle down this path. We had previously acquired a friend’s tandem bicycle, which had resulted in some dreadful-at-the-time-but-hilarious-in-hindsight escapades before I finally learned to master my role: sit on the back, pedal often (but not necessarily constantly, since he generated enough momentum for both of us), hold on to the handlebars, and close my eyes when things got dicey.

We’d had a few mishaps, thankfully minor, which could have been far worse. But after spending a birthday afternoon in a country pub and then having my only-slightly-intoxicated husband pedal hell for leather down an extremely steep hill, with my rather-more-intoxicated self holding on for dear life behind, I’d announced I was not getting back onto that bike, ever.

He wisely waited a while, and then cautiously proposed that we stick instead to the country path. Even for a complete chicken like me, it was perfect: no traffic, no hills, nothing to fear.

Except that there was.

The reason that the path was so smooth and flat was that it was an old railroad track, which had — in a delightful example of the excellence of European infrastructure and planning — been graded over and transformed into a walking path when that particular rail branch had become defunct. And like any self-respecting railway line, it had a few tunnels along the way. If you have never been inside a disused railway tunnel, I can assure you: you never should. Startlingly long, so much so that the other end is just a pinprick of light, the worst tunnel on the path (for there were more, but the rest ranged from merely worrying to simply scary) was absolutely terrifying in its utter pitch-blackness.

Ever-prepared, my husband had a head-lamp as well as a good, bright headlight on the bicycle, but this pair of normally-bright lights did little to penetrate the depth of the gloom. Along the way there were a few wells of light from openings high in the walls of the tunnel, but they did little other than to cast a bit of light through their prison-like bars and make the darkness on either side all the worse.

As an experienced spelunker, my husband proceeded undaunted, while I — not at all put off by heights, large cities, foreign languages, adventurous travel off the beaten path or other such potential dangers — clung perfectly petrified onto the back. As we entered, my goosebumps were as much from the deep chill which pervaded the tunnel as from pure, abject terror that took hold of me as soon as the light behind us disappeared, which it did shockingly quickly. My eyes screwed shut tight, I could not see the potholes around which he navigated us (usually, for sometimes they loomed ahead too quickly for him to avoid them) and which were mysteriously filled with water, even though no rain could fall there.

There was something elemental and primal about that darkness, and I was completely convinced that at any moment something winged and dreadful would reach out from the icy stillness and pull me to another realm from which I would never return. It did not help of course that we could hear rustling, of bats or rats or both, in that darkness. I would start off singing and talking, to ward off the fear, but the happy tune I whistled inevitably petered out as the lump in my throat and the clutching at my heart grew.

That tunnel scared me more than the tunnels through which we drove in rural Norway, which went on for miles through mountains, rough-hewn and unfinished with any niceties of concrete, looking as if they had been forged by trolls who might be lurking around the next corner, ready to devour any invaders who dared breach their fortress. Those tunnels were so bad they made even my preternaturally calm husband quaver a bit, as we wondered if the rocky roof might cave in at any minute and bury us all in the mountain, or whether someone had forgotten to finish the way out and we would wander forever in a stony labyrinth.

But this one was worse.

There was always a point, usually about halfway through, when I would look back, wishing we could turn around, knowing we would have to return through this place. More than once, we did, because my husband was fearless but not unkind. It was the sort of place where horror movies are set, or Gothic novels. It was not deliciously scary, like that ride down the hill (which was really rather thrilling): it was properly, soul-curdlingly sinister.

With time and hindsight and the maturity that comes from living through truly terrifying experiences, like the serious illness of a child, that tunnel has lost its power over me. I can see that it was nothing more than dark and cool, and that I was never anything but perfectly safe as my husband bravely (and never patronizingly) carried me through the shadows and out to the light.

But sometimes the things that we fear are real, and they are not the product of a ridiculously overactive imagination.

So when everyone — myself included — began to talk about the light at the end of the tunnel that has been the pandemic, I thought immediately of that tunnel.

Because, yes, there is light: our rates are down, especially here in California; an increasingly high percentage of people in the UK and US are vaccinated, especially here in California; vaccinations are being trialled for children; there is federal funding for testing, treatment and vaccination, at unprecedented levels.

The light is very much there.

But there is also darkness between there and here.

I did not think that Rochelle Walensky (who, for my overseas friends, is the new head of the US Centre for Disease Control, and a breath of scientific fresh air after the former appointee/ apologist) was a Cassandra when she said felt a sense of “impending doom” at the end of March.

She understands that between where we are now and that pinprick of light on the horizon there are untold terrors lurking: new variants, vaccine hesitancy (and outright resistance), a developing world which has not even begun to turn the tide, a European fourth surge (for they have not begun to turn the tide yet, either), reports from India of a new variant and a rise in hospitalisations of people in their 20s and 30s.

Of children sickening to the point that they too need hospital care.

When our children are at risk, I can hear the rustling wings of those primitive, unknowable beasts that lurk in the darkness.

So even as I relish the selfish knowledge that the magical elixir of the Pfizer vaccine is flowing through my body, I am afraid. I am afraid for my as-yet-unvaccinated loved ones in the US, in Britain, in Ireland, in Spain, in Canada, for friends in France, amigos in Argentina, in Brazil, in Ecuador, Dubai, the Bahamas, and beyond.

I am afraid for my children; I am afraid for yours.

Last month I had some symptoms. Not the fire-ants-eating-my-lungs, food-tasting-of-cardboard symptoms I had last March, but enough of a cough, enough of a sore throat, enough of an aching body to drag myself in for a test. I was negative. But in the 24 hours while I awaited a result, I thought: I didn’t want to be the soldier who falls at 10:59 on Armistice Day; I didn’t want to fall at this final hurdle.

Now, thanks to the ingenuity of scientists and a president who is fighting this war like it should be fought, I won’t.

But others will.

I hope — fervently, with all that I am — that I will not lose another loved one to this scourge. And because we live mostly in the mostly developed world, I may well not.

But others will.

Lose loved ones. Livelihoods. Lives.

So there is light, but it is far.

However, with the liquid courage of my own vaccination keeping me afloat, I owe it to the rest of the world to remember, to keep them in my sightline, to hold onto hope for us all.

I will keep my eyes on the light this time, not closing them and letting someone else lead me through.

I will focus less on the ominous rustlings in the dark, and more on the road ahead.

I will brush off that sense of impending doom.

Because it is far, but there is light.

  • katherine halligan

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

I’ve touched more than once on the topic of insanity, and how we’ve all been wrestling with it of late. And though there are too many causes of our collective madness to list here, I am laying the blame for the bonkersness in our house almost entirely on our now-thankfully-ex president and an evil penguin.

(Oh yes, she has truly lost the plot, I hear you say. But allow me to explain, for I have not fallen off the Cliffs of Insanity entirely. Or at least not yet.)

If you have a child and that child hasn’t had the great good fortune for your school district to spend tens of thousands of dollars of taxpayer funds and hard-earned PTO money on this program (instead of, say, an art teacher who comes more often than once a month), then allow me to share it with you. In a bid to avoid libel or whatever the IT equivalent of saying true things about bad systems might be, I’m not naming any names. So this program, whose name I shall not name, may or may not be fronted by a particularly pointy, peevish-looking penguin mascot who leads you through a virtual world of math problems.

It’s supposed to feel like a game, but for my children it’s actually a form of torture that feels anything but fun. Both girls are good at math on paper. (I was too, all the way through pre-calculus, but then full calculus nearly did me in — though in my defence I had a teacher who lit your quizzes on fire over the trash bin if you didn’t do well, and was relieved of his position not long after my brief spell in his classroom, due in part to his serious gambling problem and possibly also to his dubious teaching methods— and so I just quit). But when they are faced with these unfathomable activities without any directions to explain what it is they are meant to do on a given level, they are frustrated and confused.

As am I: when they come to me for help, I have no idea what to tell them about the purpose of those stretchy alien arms, paint splashes and worryingly violent-looking blasters. Just… none. I am, as I’ve noted, fairly good at math — especially fifth grade and second grade math, at which I totally rock — but the relationship between a pie-eating monster and a crane and subtraction, at least in this iteration, leaves me completely flummoxed. So I sit down to help, and often end up the victim of violence, little fists flailing in fury and frustration as I fail to resolve immediately whatever problem faces us on the screen. This program touts itself as being intuitive; I pride myself on having excellent intuition, so its utter unfathomability often feels like a very personal assault on my own sanity.

I’m sure there are benefits that I don’t know about. Just like there are benefits to the questions asked in printed math books too, which I simply don’t know enough to appreciate, like — real example — how much does Marisa’s TV weigh in comparison to Toni’s. Who are Marisa and Toni, and why on earth are they weighing their TVs? Especially when they could be doing something so much more productive, like weighing their siblings. Or their math books. Or doing online math.

My children dislike it so intensely that the other week, when my second grader completed her obligatory half hour of this program, she then opened her actual math book (the printed and bound one where real learning happens) and completed 14 pages without pausing for breath. That fact alone tells me that there is at least some merit to this computer program, although I doubt it was the one which its creators and zealously keen adopters intended.

My frustrated progeny have had to do this program-of-dubious-benefit ever since it was adopted by our district, which happens to be as long as we have lived in California; my older child remembers doing “proper maths” from her days in England, but my younger one knows no world in which this hasn’t been required (though mercifully her kindergarten teacher looked the other way when they didn’t meet their targets and handed them crayons instead). In these pandemic-ridden days, it now it looms disproportionately large. It is but one more digital component of over their overly digitised lives, but it is the one onto which they vent all their frustrations.

It has become their nemesis, the penguin that broke my children’s back, their bete noir (or, in this case, noir-et-blanc).

Sometimes it is far too easy and slow, and they are forced to watch while the penguin walks through an obstacle course or moves a bulldozer or does something strange to flowers in a bid to explain the problem they have just answered correctly (which seems somewhat backwards to me: shouldn’t they explain the problems they don’t get right? But no; in that case you are left to wander around lost in the program, the penguin crashing into walls and making the “bonk” noise that reminds you that you don't understand what's happening instead of the “bing" noise that tells you that you’re correct, until you somehow stumble upon the correct approach to solving that particular problem.)

And sometimes, far too often, it’s just too hard, and it is this repeated sense of failure with no explanation or support that drives my children, completely understandably, around the bend. In a world where there are no teachers or classmates right there to help them find the right answer they are left to wander blindly through a maze, bumping into walls and coming away bruised, until they accidentally stumble upon a solution.

This is, of course, how most of America felt under the last administration: failed, forgotten, abandoned, trapped, confused, alone, utterly lost.

So it is not at all surprising that both my children have had nightmares in which the pointy peevish penguin is chasing them; it is even less surprising that the waking nightmare we all lived for four years seeped into their dreams.

But enough of that — I am too exhausted by it all to write anything further about it, just as I suspect you are too exhausted to read anything further about it. I heaved a massive sigh of relief on January 20, and exhaled — I’d been holding my breath for four years, and it hurts — and so now I am relishing a collective national return to sanity (she says, optimistically). But for now, I’m leaving aside the macro and heading back to the micro, where I prefer to be anyway, and which is a luxury one can only really enjoy with the knowledge that we now have a competent adult running this country again.

So, once again, I mindful of my gratitude.

I am thankful that their biggest problems these days are caused by a penguin, not a president.

I am thankful that I gave up my career (twice) to stay home and mother my children through whatever life was going to throw at us.

I am not at all thankful that that often entails me sitting next to them, soothing their frustrations at the penguin’s latest antipathetic antics — but I am thankful that I am there to do the soothing.

I am thankful that I can sit here in my pajamas at 9:00am on a weekday, and that both my children are here with me, and not out in a world where mentally ill people can purchase assault weapons as easily as strawberries or milk and then go out and murder complete strangers who are actually buying strawberries and milk, or who look different than they do or who were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. (Because of course there shouldn’t be any place or any time that is so very wrong to be in, in the first place. Of course it shouldn’t take a pandemic to keep us home and therefore safe.)

I am thankful that — because of the pandemic, which has been tragic on an epic scale, but which has also given us tiny gifts to treasure and carry us through the dark times — I am able to manage, to a small degree, impossible messages and conversations that no one should have to have. This is possible because our children are here with us, and as much as they might wish otherwise, we have all (admittedly, the grownups more than the children) found cause to celebrate our constant proximity.

I am thankful that I can be a fly on the wall, that I can witness the learning even if I am doing pitifully little to advance it, that I can enrich their days at least a tiny bit with art and stories and hugs. That I can listen in on their virtual field trips as they gaze at redwoods and meet Holocaust survivors, and that I can then help them try to gain perspective: that we are small, that our present troubles are few, that this too shall pass.

I am thankful that I can help to sop up their rage and their fear and their frustration.

That I can be necessary.

That they can feel safe, and loved.

That I can help fend off the evil beasts — from penguins to pandemics to ex-presidents — that stalk their dreams.

  • katherine halligan

Updated: Mar 24, 2021

If you worried during my recent and increasingly long stretches of radio silence late last year that I’d succumbed to some sort of illness (especially THAT illness), thankfully you would be wrong.

Unless, that is, you’d suspected I’d become a victim of mental illness, in which case you would be somewhat correct: I spent the final several weeks of 2020 pinned, glued, pinioned, plastered, and otherwise and in all ways firmly affixed to my younger child’s side for what felt like 27 hours a day, and as a result I began to wonder whether I was actually, finally, truly losing my mind.

Having misplaced it for large stretches of the summer, I’d found it again (my mind, that is) sometime in late September, and was feeling pretty chipper about having my wits about me once more, since the previous six months had involved long stretches of time where I felt certain that my sanity was dissolving around the edges.

Imagine, if you will, the Cliffs of Insanity as depicted in William Goldman’s The Princess Bride (and if you haven’t memorised the entire film script as I have, with dozens of viewings as a teenager and again as the mother of two avid young fans, please watch it tonight; you will not be disappointed). Sometimes, over the past year, a mere pebble of my mind would slip down those cliffs, as I dangled from my fingertips Westley-like and undeterred in my quest to reach the firmer ground at the top. Other times whole sections of my previously highly functional brain would come crashing off those cliffs in an avalanche, and I felt plunged instead into the Pit of Despair.

Little did I foresee how the whole country would soon fall prey to a similar experience, as the very foundations of our democracy threatened to crash down those cliffs when Prince Humperdinck did all in his not-inconsiderable power — and more, for his hunger for an imperial sort of omnipotence broke nearly all the norms of the office — to destroy the electoral process and the trust of the people along with it.

(It’s worth pointing out here that I actually wrote this post in late November, well before things slid from profoundly disturbing to downright terrifying; little did we quite imagine — despite a nebulous, amorphous fear surrounding the transfer of power — how deeply destructive that utterly unprincely prince would turn out to be.)

Now, lest you worry further about me, allow me to reassure you that I am not wild-haired-woman-running-through-the-streets-in-her-nightgown crazy (or King-of-Florin crazy); I’m merely COVID-crazy. I’ll talk more (because of course more is more) about the specifics of that in another post, but for today, suffice to say that the relatively-few-of-my-previously-many marbles that have been lost of late have simply vanished because of this pandemic and because of the political poo-fest that is this country. So it’s been a totally healthy and rational descent into madness. We have all been losing our minds, to greater and lesser degrees, for entirely logical reasons.

But this particular teetering on the edges of the Cliffs of Insanity was precipitated by our pulling our younger daughter out of her physical school, thereby condemning both her and myself to the torture of virtual school. And so it was that my mental health, fragile at the best of times this past year, suffered once more.

If you have never sat through an entire morning of virtual second grade with a seriously frustrated child by your side, then return with me to those Cliffs of Insanity for a moment. When she returned to physical school in early October — brief though that doomed experiment was — it was as if I had nearly reached the top of the cliffs, having hauled myself hand over hand up the rope over the summer months; I was ready to parry with Inigo Montoya or whatever else might face me at the summit… and then Vizzini cut the rope and I plummeted down towards the rocks.

Like Westley, I held on by my fingernails, but that fall was rough and my arms hurt. Unlike Westley, I was neither magnanimous nor charmingly jocular in my near-defeat. Even knowing that I was here to rescue my princess, I sighed and harrumphed and was utterly ungracious, and once (or possibly thrice) I even shouted at my small daughter, and so I am forced to admit that my patience is even more limited in its capacity than I had previously feared.

But then, at long last, I began to feel like I had truly arrived at the top of those cliffs once more. We had negotiated a way of working that meant we could, occasionally, function in separate spaces; she was managing the monotony of entirely digital education admirably well. My Buttercup is brave and was proving herself entirely able to contribute to her own rescue — as I’d known she could. And so I pulled myself from the vertical cliff face onto the horizontal plane of terra firma, and heaved a sigh of relief.

With my feet on solid ground again, I felt ready for sword fights with charming-but-vengeful Spaniards and wrestling matches with giants, ready to befriend my kinder enemies. (And as for that battle of wits with an evil Sicilian, well, the good guy prevailed, and the bad guy got a taste of his own medicine.)

We have all ventured through the Fire Swamp, dodging the flame spurts, escaping the lighting sand that threatened to drown us, fighting off the Rodents Of Unusual Size who attacked us but could not destroy us.

(Or most of us. Because of course some in our number — half a million in the US and 2.5 million worldwide, numbers which are truly tragic in their magnitude — did not survive those terrors. We are the lucky ones, who are coming out the other side of that swamp.)

And even for the lucky ones, our stint in the Pit of Despair has robbed us all of very-nearly-a-year of our lives. Or more. For, just as Westley’s time on the rack stole years of his future, we are learning that American life expectancy has, since the advent of the pandemic, dropped by a year (for the lucky ones), by two for Latinx people, and by three for Black people, whose tortures have been greatest and who have been robbed the most.

I know that I am not alone in having felt mostly dead all year. But, as Miracle Max reminds us, “There’s a big difference between all dead and mostly dead. Mostly dead is slightly alive.” As we all jostle for our place in the queue for Miracle Max’ special cure, we can begin to feel the life flowing once again in our floppy limbs; we can truly begin to celebrate being slightly alive.

So let us hope that there will be a happy ending for us, as there was for Buttercup and Westley, as we ride off into our future, whatever that may bring.

It feels, finally, like we have a future once more, that sanity has been restored, that we might live happily ever after, after all. Or if not happily ever after, at least better ever after.

Because the future won’t be perfect, but it’s life — and for those of us still living it, we can be grateful. The road ahead will not be easy, but we are here to travel it. There will be more battles to fight, more demons to conquer, more justice to pursue.

But we’ll take that life, thank you very much.

For, to quote the final lines of Goldman’s novel (if you love the film, you must also read the book), “I also have to say, for the umpty-umpth time, that life isn’t fair. It’s just fairer than death, that’s all.”

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