It was two years ago today – Friday the 13th, as it turns out – that we got that fateful email: the campus was closing for the rest of the semester, starting Monday. Students: go home. Professors: figure out how to finish the semester remotely. Staff: figure out how to keep everything running. Everyone: we expect to be “back to normal” in the Fall.
I emailed my class: “We have two classes left before Spring Break. I need more than 48 hours to figure out how to finish remotely, having never even conceived of something like this before. And you all need to catch your breath and figure out what’s what. We’ll regroup after Spring Break. Don't worry about your final projects--we'll figure it out. Go home and try to get some rest.”
Little did I know. Little did any of us know.
Remember that time when we were all trying to figure out how to work over Zoom? How to manage cameras and light and sound and breakout rooms and all the rest? (I know, I know: some still haven't figured it out.) Seems almost naïve now, like looking back at our childhoods and thinking, “Ah, I was so clueless back then.”
The pandemic has been a kind of final losing-of-one’s-innocence moment. It was not a surprise that the pandemic response would be bungled by the most incompetent administration in modern American history. What was perhaps less foreseeable at the time is that a vaccine, rolled out in record time and on their watch, would be politicized and rejected by the same politicians and followers who stood to benefit from it. It was the ultimate illustration of the inside-out, up-is-down mindset of the American right wing.
I think, for me anyway, that was the moment when I lost whatever shred of innocence I might have had about the state of right-wing politics. That was the moment when I realized that the Republican party had become a death cult, uninterested in anything else but burning down the American house – even if it meant burning alive inside.
Meanwhile, millions died. Millions more had their lives upended. Millions upon millions suffered and continue to suffer the debilitating impact of collective grief. For those who were already struggling in the black pool of depression, the waters deepened and keeping afloat became ever-harder. Anxiety and suicide reached record levels among young people, looking ahead to their future, and that of the world, and concluding it wasn’t a future they wanted anything to do with.
Two years. Yet I am sure that we’ll be living with the aftershocks of those years for many, many more to come.
And, so, what happens next? I honestly don’t know. I can no longer remain “blissfully unaware of threat” (my musical friends will know that reference). But neither can I just give in to despair and hopelessness: for me, that’s not a place I’m sure I could pull out of.
Working with college students sums up this dilemma perfectly. On the one hand, I’ve seen first-hand more anxiety and suffering among them in the last two years than I have in the previous ten combined. But I also see these kids continue to show up to practice and make music together every day. I see them effortlessly supporting their trans and queer classmates even as some corners of society puts them in the crosshairs. I see a kindness, a gentleness amongst so many of them. And I hear them clearly and unequivocally rejecting late-stage Capitalism and everything it stands for. I see them caring for our Mother Earth.
They give me hope.
Never have I been more grateful to be in daily contact with young people as I am now. Jeffrey and I joke, in a gallows-humor sort of way, that if we’re lucky we’ll grow old and die just under the wire, just before the whole world collapses. And should that happen we’ll count ourselves lucky, one last expression of our privilege before everything falls irrevocably apart. On my more pessimistic days I’m not so sure we’ll make it, but one thing is sure: these kids will be in the thick of whatever happens next. And that means it will fall to them to address the things that can no longer be whitewashed or greenwashed or otherwise ignored. And I feel, down in my bones, that if comes down to them, they will somehow find a way.
That’s all I’ve got to hold on to. But it ain’t nothing.