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  • katherine halligan

Out of the Frying Pan, Into the Fire

It is a truth about human nature that we most want what is often just out of reach. The grass is nearly always greener on the other side of the fence.

All spring, my children and I were desperate for the misery that was distance learning to end, and for the summer to begin. We longed frantically for freedom from the screen, from the surreal tedium of login failures, from the eye-wateringly dull online assignments, from teachers spending lesson time coaching children through IT glitches rather than educating them, from the utterly atrocious behaviour of other people’s children invading our home, from a noisy houseful of simultaneous Zoom calls creating a cacophony of the random voices of strangers.

Then school was finally, blessedly over. Freedom! Joy! We skipped, we danced, we sang (especially me). We traveled and swam and played and had adventures great and small. But that joy was relatively short-lived, as we realised we’d leapt out of the frying pan, and into the fire.

Endless expanses of time spread before us, but we were like birds with clipped wings: there was a vast sky up there, but no way to fly into it freely. The promise of freedom began to feel a bit cruel, because it was an empty promise. As heart-lifting as our little trips were, travel during a pandemic was ultimately unsustainable and actually more exhausting than fun.

Instead, we spent days — far too many of them — languishing at home, trapped indoors by heatwaves and the unending waves of virus and, lately, dangerously smoky air and falling ash. We would venture out, then worry we’d overdone it and return to our shelter to hide for a while. As our county’s (and the country’s) infection levels rose and fell and rose again, so did our emotions, and the exhaustion of riding the corona-coaster took on a new form. We were tired of being tired, bored of being bored, sick to death of sickness and death.

Summer was becoming a great big bummer.

Without any of the usual swimming lessons, camps or other activities, intense inertia set in. We had no rhythm, no momentum. Without the impetus to go anywhere or do anything on time, we became still, stale, stuck. I could actually feel myself becoming stupider. It’s not surprising that I have been depressed, given the state of the nation, but it’s very difficult to watch young children become palpably, visibly, almost literally depressed: they wilted, flattened, lost their spark. Their eyelids grew heavy from watching too much TV. Their little lights went out. Nearly every day I would manage to lift myself out of my own misery to do something special with them, and our spirits would soar temporarily before flagging once more.

Although we did our level best to create magical, memorable moments for our family, as the long, empty days —or was it just one very long day?— wore on, we all began to long for the structure of school. Even in its much poorer, two-dimensional form, it would mean that we had places to go and people to see.

Please don’t misunderstand me: we had fun this summer, bags and bags of it… until we didn’t. When our children were tiny, they did not go to lessons and camps and activities — you can’t miss what you don’t know — but our days had their own exhausting-but-fulfilling rhythm: wake, eat, play, sleep, repeat. Then, in the intervening years, our calendars filled to bursting and our days were an endless and often exhausting whirlwind of activity… and we liked it. Losing all of those many things we normally do was a profound shock to our system when the state shut down on March 13. I used to complain about my juggling act, but suddenly I was like a clown trying to entertain my audience with just one ball: no juggling, no fun.

So although we were longing for a freedom that during these times of chaos and unrest is denied us, we were also craving structure and order and routine, while I have simultaneously lost my ability to create any or to follow any plan or schedule. I am adrift and exhausted, too drained and hollowed out to continue to create order where none naturally exists anymore. Normally when I am down, I allow myself to sink to the bottom, knowing that soon enough I will find a toehold and push off, back up to the surface where I belong. But these days it seems the ocean is bottomless and there is no depth to which we cannot sink. The sands are shifting so constantly I cannot find my footing. So instead of letting myself float slowly downward as I sometimes do, I realized that I need to dive down deliberately so that I could push off hard and find a way back up to where I can breathe. So I stopped pressuring myself to recover, and allowed myself to make that deep dive into the murky depths. I allowed myself to be sad and angry; I cannot whistle a happy tune all the time, and so I didn’t.

But as I foundered, I realized that I needed some external impetus to drag me back up to the surface and haul us all back to the shore: I needed a fairy godmother in a life-raft. I needed other people who cared about my children to help with this enormous job of navigating these choppy seas. I needed teachers and I needed school, perhaps even more than my children did.

So it was with great excitement that we started back to school this week, jumping gratefully out of the flames of our ennui into the relative safety of the frying pan. But then all too quickly we remembered how uncomfortable that frying pan can be. Because it’s not real school, with classrooms and teachers and friends and no parents in sight, but distance learning, at least for now.

For now, it seems that we are very much in the same frying pan as before: crowded and messy and decidedly uncomfortable. This morning my younger daughter — who detests remote learning with a deep and abiding passion — passed me a note, in a delightfully retro way. It said: “Mom this is torcher” [sic]. And, as I was held hostage in the room with her, having rashly promised to keep her company to assuage her loneliness during the first week back online, I can attest that it was.

As much as she adores her teacher (who also taught her older sister, so we know how very lovely and capable she is), it was the behavior of her fellow classmates that was driving her to distraction. Other children and parents interrupted their teacher —and each other — as she heroically tried to help these little lost souls connect with one another and to reacquaint these small feral people with the concept of sitting still and listening. My daughter wept in my arms on a faked bathroom break, complaining that she wasn’t learning anything. I tried to explain to her that we are all learning differently now: it’s less about multiplication, and more about learning how to cope with the world as our problems multiply. We are all learning more about ourselves, as we test not our spelling skills but the limits of our patience and understanding.

So now the fire that was our summer break looks appealing all over again. Already I want to leap back into it, after just three days. As large swathes of California are ablaze, cities across the land are burning, and the whole country appears to be going down in flames, I wonder which is worse: the frying pan or the fire?

Of course the apocalypse that is 2020 would be the year that we Californians see our fire records broken: over 2.5 million acres burned so far; over 14,000 firefighters battling at least 28 fires — most of which are only partially controlled — across the state. And it’s only early September. So far, thankfully, there has been far less loss of life than was suffered after the horrors of the Camp Fire, which ravaged the most ironically named town ever to be burnt to cinders: Paradise. (Paradise Lost, more like.) But while eight fatalities is far less horrific than the one hundred people who perished in 2018, those eight lives lost are still a tragedy, especially for their loved ones whose lives have been ripped apart.

They are, of course, a drop in the ocean of COVID-19 deaths. And as we approach the grimmest milestone yet — nearly 200,000 lives lost, with most scientists, academics and medical professionals suspecting serious undercounting — Nero fiddles (or golfs, or both — though it’s a different sort of fiddling in his case) while Rome burns. The parallels between that tyrant and this are many, from callous megalomaniac insanity to an utterly cavalier disregard for the fall of a once-great empire.

We are going down in flames, and up in flames, all at the same time. Who knew that was even possible? But with each passing day, the impossible becomes possible, the unthinkable becomes reality, the nightmare becomes the norm. Perhaps I should not tempt fate by suggesting things cannot possibly get worse. Because if things don’t go well in November, and Nero doesn’t get booted out of the White House and into prison where he belongs, then things will very definitely be worse, as we descend from a nationwide forest fire to the raging infernos of hell.

So I hope against hope that things will soon be different, brighter, better.

The grass is indeed always greener.

Unless of course it’s on fire.

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