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There is a passage in the children’s book The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle by Avi that I’ve been thinking about a lot throughout the pandemic and shutdown. The premise of the book is that our protagonist, Charlotte Doyle, was put on a ship from England by herself in 1832 to join her family in the United States. She wasn’t supposed to be the only passenger, but she ends up being the only passenger, the only child, the only girl or woman on the voyage. The captain promises to look out for her-they are from the same class after all and he can’t have her falling in with the uncouth sailors-until it becomes clear that the men are going to stage a mutiny and she eventually realizes that they had just cause because the captain is cruel. She decides to join the crew, who have justified suspicions about her initial closeness to the captain, and so is presented with an initiation rite to solidify her place and her protection with them. She has to climb the tallest mast up to the crow’s nest and back down again.
It’s a terrifying task. The heights alone are bad enough to frighten anyone her age, much less the rough and unstable rigging. The swaying of the ship becomes more and more pronounced the higher she climbs. At some point she realizes that her reward for braving this seemingly insurmountable obstacle is that she will have to do this same impossible thing multiple times a day as part of her work for the crew for the rest of the voyage. It truly seems unthinkable until it is done. Then it becomes just part of her life.
We keep being presented with terrifying or incredibly difficult tasks where the reward for facing them is that we get to keep facing them over and over, but with now some new measure of familiarity and experience.
About a month ago I took my first COVID test because I was symptomatic. With all my chronic illnesses, with all my pain and fatigue and prickly skin and fog throughout the years-even when I went to the ER with chest pains and had to rule out a heart attack and even when I’ve had walking pneumonia- I have never had shortness of breath. I have never felt like I was gulping for air, that every few breaths I had to concentrate to consciously expand and fill my lungs against the constriction of my ribcage. I asked my doctor if taking a COVID test was appropriate and she sent me to their respiratory clinic-a converted immediate care center where I was to wait in the car when I arrived so that the whole staff could get into multiple layers of PPE. When I was allowed in, I was the only patient, and was given a second mask to go over my cloth one. Plastic sheeting narrowed the lobby into a ribbon of a hallway so that all the soft surfaces of the waiting room had a barrier between me and them. I told the doctor all of my symptoms, as much of my backstory with chronic illness as I could. We did a chest x-ray in another thoroughly sterilized room. It was explained to me that this particular COVID test doesn’t have false positives but there is a ten percent incidence of a false negative, so even with a negative I would need to quarantine for ten days after being symptomatic. At the end of the appointment I would take the test by driving to the back of the building and sitting in my parked car, head leaning against the headrest as the nasal swab went further up than I expected. I went home, had my husband get my brand-new prescription inhaler from the pharmacy. I limited my movement inside my own house so that I had less contact with my kids, wiped down everything I touched and waited two tense days for the negative result.
I was terrified. From years of doctors not taking me seriously I was terrified to speak to a new one. From years of chronic illness I knew that if I had contracted COVID that it might be horribly difficult to fight off. I might not be able to. From years of my children covertly worrying about my health I knew that this could wreck any emotional well-being we had carved out of isolation and disruption. The building I went into for care looked like the set of a horror movie where I was not meant to make it past the first act. The idea that I might have been around other people who didn’t have fifteen layers of protection between us felt like the worst mortal sin I could have carried. Not knowing what was causing my shortness of breath sent me into a purgatory not knowing how long I might have to live in not knowing-it might have been forever.
Now? The memory of feeling so terrified that day that I couldn’t silence alarm bells pounding through my brain has faded just a few weeks past my quarantine ending. I don’t know and can’t say whether it becoming a normal “something-I-did” is psychologically healthy in the long run, but it is protective now. I have data in my mind of what would need to happen if I was sick again, or if one of the kids was, or if someone else in my family was. I would not need to contemplate every foothold and rough rope as I climbed a second time, experience would have given me ease with something I would rather have absolutely no familiarity with at all. But that choice wasn’t up to me. My reward for doing something terrifying is that I would know how to deal with it myself again, or be able to carefully shepherd someone else I love through the process.
So quickly, so rapidly, the circumstances of our lives have changed. Our understanding of the world has changed. In some ways, irrevocably. Some things that have needed to change have finally broken open. Just like the mutiny on Charlotte’s ship, building wealth on the broken backs of people you couldn’t care less about has inevitable consequences. Some things that should never have come to pass are terrifyingly present and a clean cold light is shining on them. For example, a country’s leader who barely looked up from a Tweet or a golf club as 160,000 of his people died. I marvel pretty much every day at some new understanding or revolution or horror that in ordinary times would have been years in the making (or undoing) but now happen and become a new reality in the blink of an eye. Because it’s all so fast it’s exhausting and hard and it’s difficult to give each moment the depth and detail of exploration it deserves. But it all changing so rapidly gives room for new ways of thinking about ourselves, our world, how we have always operated within it and whether that is at all acceptable to our souls.
We keep climbing to the top of the main mast, gritting our teeth against fear, keeping as intense a focus as we can on splintering wood or fraying knots or the wide gap between footholds big enough to swallow us up if we slip. And when we get to the top and realize we are proved capable of doing what seemed impossible just a little while before, there is some exhilaration and freedom to look out from those dizzying heights to see ourselves and the world differently. When we come back down to the deck there are crew members who have become friends waiting to do this hard work every day. We now belong to each other in ways we hadn’t before. Our reward for facing down the impossible fear is to keep showing up, to keep facing it for as long as it takes with other people who are showing up with us to do the same.