When we went to the Grand Canyon with the kids two summers ago, I felt sick with unused adrenaline almost the entire time. Buzzing jolts of anxiety coursing through my muscles every time anyone got close to the canyon walls. It wasn’t enough to know that I was far away from the edge-I had to know that every other person was also nowhere close to the irredeemably sheer cliffs. My heart knew it couldn’t witness someone fall. There was no thrill for me in seeing someone dance on that tightrope and survive. I realized about halfway through that day that my fight or flight reflex had kicked into full gear and there was no way of doing either that wouldn’t be wildly dangerous. I had this instinct to pump my legs as hard as I could to get as far away from the edge as I could…and then… just had to…stand still. Carefully pick my way over uneven ground. Hold my quivering stomach down with abdominal muscles unused to that task. Watch a woman fall and sprain an ankle in front of me and not lunge for her hand before checking where the guardrail was (someone else caught her, and gingerly got her back up to the road and to a shuttle bus). I wanted to get as far away as possible from something that terrified me, and was utterly unable to do so. I had to move slowly, carefully, deliberately until I felt safe enough, until I was far enough away not to see other people risking their lives. It felt like an eternity.
It’s been a year of that adrenaline-sick state for me now. I count mid-February of 2020 as when I became terrifyingly aware of what was coming. There are a million reasons I am so finely attuned to the worst case scenario- temperament and genetics, medical history and neurology, working in a profession where I witnessed the effects of trauma and was taught how to prevent or mitigate it, raising children with a man who had unthinkably lost everything before he was a teenager –I am keenly aware of how none of us is exempt from the possibility of having very awful things happen to us. And I live in a country where very many preventable horrors are allowed to continue because they are convenient to the greedy and powerful.
For a year now my body has been flooded with an instinct to make big sweeping movements to dispel that awful energy, the energy of knowing there is danger and having no control over its presence. Of watching millions of people dance up to the edge of a cliff, bringing unwilling participants with them, and hundreds of thousands going over. My body wants to run as far as I can from this nightmare. But there is nowhere to run. We are literally kept in small spaces this winter, small circumscribed movements as we nimbly and carefully move six feet around each other in poorly ventilated spaces. In a more figurative sense, there is no way to escape. There is no part of the country we can go to that is safe, no way of leaving to other countries that had a plan and a collective caretaking spirit.
All I can do is make small careful movements. Pay attention to the uneven ground right in front of me. Place each footstep with as much deliberation and grip as I am capable of as my knees try to buckle out from me. Hold onto guardrails when they become available (but check that they are anchored and not rusted out before setting a hand on it). Watch that the people I hold hands with to guide me through, and me them, are trying their level best to get through day by day and inch by inch. Avoid the things that I know can push me over the edge, or have done so before when the drop was still horrible but wasn’t nearly as high. Stay away from those who skip blithely through pretending it’s all just a yellow brick road. Move so slowly my heart feels like it’s going to crack, even though the end is in sight and I just want to feel my legs burn and make a run for the solid wide path that will take us all back to safety.
A long time ago, it’s been maybe eighteen or twenty years now, I worked at the Chattanooga Zoo. I had volunteered there the summer before, helping out with a week-long day camp, and applied for a job as a camp counselor the next with a brand-spanking new teaching certificate. I knew next to nothing about animals, but quite a bit about kids. Seeing as I didn’t actually have to touch/feed/corral/clean-up after jaguars or chimpanzees or kinkajous, it worked out fine for the most part. Yes, there was some local TV footage of one of the petting zoo goats trying to eat my shirt. Yes, the smell of animal pens in summer is pretty strong. Yes, I once dropped a ferret that the kids were taking pictures with because it got super wiggly and I HAVE NEVER EVER HAD A FURRY PET AND FREAKED OUT-but overall the gig suited me. Coloring pictures of zoo animals, putting on animal-themed plays, supervising “Sharks and Minnows”, passing out goldfish crackers and walking kids over to the zoo keepers who actually taught them about the job was right up my alley.
So one of the activities we always did with the kids, no matter the age group, was design “enrichment” for the animals. We froze fruit into giant ice rings and watched the keepers hang it from a tree, and then watched the chimpanzees work to get their treat out. We filled paper towel rolls with whatever food raccoons eat (I couldn’t tell you, despite actually physically holding their food-I absolutely don’t know what to do with animals) and tied tissue paper to the ends to make them puzzle out how to get whatever they could smell but couldn’t see. The Chattanooga Zoo often takes in animals that have nowhere else to go-there might be a serval cat abandoned by its owner here, a declawed mountain lion confiscated from other owners there. These animals are saved and cared for-and not really meant to be in a zoo.
My husband and I have been kind of sharing an office for the last six months. He used to travel every week for work, and this is the longest stretch of time we’ve been in the same state in the last thirteen years. I duck in and out occasionally to get some writing done or to find an old file or grab a new book, but I’ve kind of abandoned my stake in the room for him to get all of his conference calls done in peace. One time back in March or April when I had snuck in quietly, mimed the question, “Are you on video?” to which he arched his eyebrows in a “Yes”, I got to hear a question from his Zoom call- “How are you doing out there?”
My guy laughed and answered, “You know, it’s like being in a zoo. It’s a really nice zoo. It’s got great amenities, all my favorite stuff. I have a good view out the window and I’m keeping fed. But you can’t leave.” I thought about that a lot for the rest of quarantine, about what animals and people are meant to do and what we’re stuck doing right now.
A mountain lion isn’t meant to pace back and forth in an enclosure, no matter how well furnished the enclosure is or how closely the artifice matches its natural surroundings. The tarantulas are not meant to be in small plastic boxes and handed crickets. I bet we had migrating animals that sure as hell weren’t migrating down Holtzclaw Avenue.
When animals can’t do what they are meant to do, they can become despondent-and this is where “enrichment” comes in. Zoo keepers I’m sure have a lot of other tricks and tools, but it never escaped me that having them there to set up new puzzles and games was definitely important to the animals’ well-being. When you can’t escape where you are you need something to keep your mind sharp, novelty to look forward to, a challenge and a treat.
Towards the end of summer before online learning was supposed to start we all had kind of lost the desire or ability to keep morale up. We don’t do much outside the house. When we do it is carefully couched in precautions, or moved to times when we’re less likely to bump into a million people, or spaced out from other outings to minimize our risks. We are working on fixing up and decorating our enclosure. We try to make it more usable and well-equipped. We’ve been in our zoo for six months.
Humans are social creatures, a species that famously enjoys solving new and varied problems by going out into the world and grappling with the complexities of whole communities, whole societies. Everything we just do for survival-feeding ourselves, securing shelter, keeping hydrated-has become a collective activity that involves hundreds if not thousands of people working cooperatively. Human beings as an animal species has evolved over millennia to interact with each other and to keep our brains busy. No matter how introverted I may be, it seems to be an inescapable truth that being on my own with just a few other people the majority of the time is at odds with what is optimal.
We had hummed along doing okay for a long time, and then we weren’t. There is undoubtedly immense grief we need to move through, worry to constantly temper, and uncertainty that erodes the foundations under our feet. But in addition, we have had to be both the zoo animals and the zoo keepers AT THE SAME TIME. We have needed enrichment and don’t have thoughtful caregivers who fuss over our survival and our happiness as their sole job. We don’t have some outside benevolent force arranging things to challenge our brains or surprise us or delight us. (I mean if you’re very lucky you might-Thanks Wendy!) For the majority of the time, especially over a long daycamp-less summer, we’ve had to arrange for enrichment for ourselves. And the longer this summer has worn on the harder it is to come up with something you’ve never thought to come up with before. It’s like trying to tickle yourself-which is to say it’s nearly impossible. You can occupy your time pleasantly enough, you can indulge in treats, but it’s really incredibly difficult to challenge or surprise yourself without outside help. We try to be thoughtful zoo keepers for each other, but generally most zoo keepers get nights and weekends off and have someone else picking up the overnight shifts so that they can have time not thinking about caring for zoo animals 24/7.
The kids started online school two weeks ago. And having been a teacher before, having seen a zoo in action and now really truly getting how important enrichment is for somewhat trapped creatures I hope I don’t sound insulting when I say how happy I am to have some zoo keepers back in our life. Having teachers thoughtfully working out how to keep students engaged and challenged and socially happy has taken a huge weight off of our shoulders. Having a collective of humans working cooperatively so that we all share the load of figuring out how to give kids what they need feels so much more aligned with what humans want to do. We want to have community, we want to solve problems at an interconnected level. This can’t be easy for our teachers, not at all, and I hope against hope that they have time to rest and that they are being cared for by the people in their lives. But I am relieved and happy with this part of our lives changing.
I still have to figure out my own enrichment, but without worrying about whether my kids have enough I think I can. Writing this blog post alone is self-administered enrichment-my brain has something new to focus on, a puzzle to work through, a treat at the end. I heard once that being a writer is giving yourself homework every night for the rest of your life, and that feels true and relevant. I’ve also signed myself up for an online class, so that maybe when that starts I’ll get a break from being my own zoo keeper for a while-since it seems quite unlikely that I’ll get to escape this zoo anytime soon.
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.