Reflections on our times

Six months. It’s taken me six months to get back to my blog, this News section. My last post was about being awarded two literary residencies and the weight of expectations, yet it was hopeful. *I* was hopeful. But even as I wrote that entry, the coronavirus pandemic was spreading around the world. Here in Wisconsin, we were two weeks past a truly hellacious news week, the week I marked in my personal calendar as “Coronavirus hell week” because I knew the virus was going to be a much bigger thing than many of my non-news friends were thinking. The journalist in me wanted to keep track of the timeline of events.

Because I organize and run conferences and retreats for both SCBWI-Wisconsin and Fantasy Art Workshop, I paid extremely close attention to governmental reports, even more so than a newshound typically does. I watched as a few in-person conferences organized by others were held when they shouldn’t have been, and I watched as others were canceled.

My co-advisor for SCBWI and I decided to cancel our September 2020 conference as the contractual drop-out date was approaching. We knew that holding the event wasn’t worth the risk to either our members’ health nor the region’s finances should we have to cancel after the deadline. We made the right choice.

The tougher decision for me personally was to cancel the Fantasy Art Workshop Illustration Intensive, an annual week-long art retreat at a local college which my husband and I run. The decision wasn’t harder because I lacked the same concerns of health and finances. No. Our attendees’ health will always come first. What was tough about the decision was that I saw how the whole pandemic would pan out.

Oh, it’s easy *in hindsight* to say that I predicted its path. Even experts weren’t willing to conjecture during the throes of the crisis. The year 2020 changed our lives so profoundly. But I’m not talking about the nuances of the spread. I’m talking about the human nature side of it.

See, you can’t be a journalist for nearly 30 years and not learn something about human nature. You can’t be interviewing people all the time and not recognize the vastly different worldviews of people within different demographics. You can’t talk to people all the time as part of your job and not have seen growing economic and political polarization. You can’t be busting your butt to be fair in your coverage without noticing that other news organizations are doing the exact opposite and being handsomely rewarded by a viewership/readership that is sick of hearing the other side’s view.

So I predicted way back in February that there would be some sort of shutdown of movement, that it would be fairly effective in lowering the curve, and then society would reopen. I told my husband that by the time of our event in late June, the economy would have opened up a bit, and we would be *allowed* by the authorities to hold our event, whether it was morally right or not, but he rightly read that the mood of people in the creative industries would be against holding in-person events.

I couldn’t help but agree because I knew, once the shutdowns eased, that many, many people would rush back into the world, and why wouldn’t they? Some have no financial choice. Others would feel that enough was enough, they’d done their part, and anyone asking more of them was asking to sacrifice the economy. I knew this instinctively from all my years of reporting.

There is a segment of our population that is so fiercely individualistic, privileged, and nationalistic that they would never bow to the collective, especially if doing so went against their “don’t tread on me” attitude. And I knew there was a segment of our population that would be quite the opposite and would plead that everyone follow science as a moral imperative to stop the pandemic’s slaughter. They would hardly be applauded for it. In fact, they’d be jeered for their softness and blamed for fear-mongering hysteria. Such has been the history of millennia. It’s the hawks versus the doves. The suits versus the hippies. Choose your opposites for this exercise. You’ll find many parallels.

My predictions were no great revelation on my part. It was simply years of study and observation. I predicted a second wave in late summer, which would hinder the return to school. And I further predict how damaging virtual learning will be to the women’s movement, as it will be mostly women who will forgo their careers this year to stay home to teach. They’re incentivized to do so as they already make less on the dollar than men (assuming they have such a life partner), and women have already lost standing and the forward trajectory of their careers by being out of the workforce for months or years at a time having and rearing said children. I know of what I speak. I homeschooled (by choice, which means I had the luxury of preparation) for a decade. For all the talk corporate America does about supporting women, reality reveals a stark contrast.

Of course, we know how the virus has turned out. But what we didn’t know would happen is the racial reckoning spurred by the murder of George Floyd and the further brutality against other people of color, including Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, Joel Acevedo (no relation), and Dontre Hamilton.

If you think police aren’t given the benefit of the doubt when it comes to overreaching use of force, then you haven’t had to cover the police as a journalist. The account given by law enforcement is always given greater weight, most especially by the authorities charged with investigating those accusations. Oftentimes the media follows suit. In my decades of news, I’ve covered countless claims of abuse of force and seen far too few reports in which the authorities were caught and justice brought to bear — not because the force may not have existed, but because the brotherhood of protectionism often obstructs investigations. The authorities call their units a “force” for a reason and encourage citizen loyalty with supportive-looking slogans like “We back the badge.” But to back either side’s version as the default truth — or to swallow either side’s story without question or investigation — well, that’s not what ethical journalists do.

So with the pandemic raging, thousands marching worldwide against systemic racism, and an inept response to both, I did something wholly uncharacteristic of a writer. I stopped writing. So did many others. Working journalists kept on, as their paychecks and the world’s historical record depends on their great work. But my freelance journalism dried up. My will to write fiction did too. Few creatives — heck, few people overall — in those first months of the pandemic could hold it together.

We sewed masks, myself included, to give to nurses and other friends facing a deficit during an appalling lack of urgency by our national leadership to provide such items. Or we worked jigsaw puzzles to try to calm our racing hearts and slow the flashes of video-horror looping in our minds. Or we read books or watched TV to sink into any entertainment that could even temporarily numb our troubled souls. Or we leaned into that which brings us meaning. There was just so much anxiety. There continues to be.

But there is a new national conversation underway, one that is long overdue and vitally important. And that is another reason for hope. Caring people must always hope.

This summer, SCBWI hired an equity and inclusion officer to train its regional leaders (yours truly and many others) to be more inclusive among our ranks and have intent in our leadership. The demographics of children in the U.S. is now majority “minority.” In other words, most kids are nonwhite. Writers for U.S. children who purposely exclude people of color are not presenting the world as it exists today. As writers for children, we should strive to allow children who have been underrepresented in literature to see and read characters that are like themselves. And as writers for children, we have a special responsibility to not perpetuate stereotypes that do harm, especially when that literature is targeted to readers during their formative years. I’m grateful to be part of an organization that cares so much about its members and future generations.

This year has shaken the world. It is not hyperbole to say 2020 has brought us disease, death, financial calamity, worldwide street protests, racial violence, class wars, conflicts of conscience, and moral crises.

The coming autumn chill will drive us indoors. Its typical cold-weather illnesses threaten to join the virus. We will get through this crisis just as we have through other crises. But this whole essay begs the question: if we get through this crisis *just* as we have others, won’t the outcome be the same? Isn’t now the time to examine how we got here? Isn’t now the time to fix the systemic flaws that allowed both social injustice and the pandemic to flourish?

I beg you to look around you and see what you can do to alleviate injustice in your workplace, at your school, at your bank. And I beg you to care for yourself and others. We absolutely have it within our power to make the world a better place.

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