Each year as we approach the High Holy Day season, I am drawn to a particular theme. This year, as the holidays come right after the birthday season in our home (two in August, two in September), the idea of the “birthday of the world” is especially resonant with me. As we’ve had all four human birthdays in our house, we’ve celebrated with cake and candles, but this was the first year we couldn’t blow out candles.
We’re all hyper aware of how COVID-19 spreads, and we’ve been avoiding expelling air and fluid particles around others for the last six months. We wear masks to keep our breath from hurting others and theirs from hurting us. We learned this lesson early on, but it didn’t stop there. In Portland and in other cities, it wasn’t just COVID-19 that took our breath away, so to speak. Protestors everywhere have faced tear gas as a way of silencing rallying cries. try and silence protestors.
Yet still, we continued on. At home we hunkered down and embraced the quiet neighborhood streets. With all the family time on our hands, after just a little practice we soon had a new bicycle rider among us and an expert balance biker. We embraced the outdoors for parade parties to celebrate friends and go on hikes. We loved playing on our sprinkler pad out front and having socially distant and safe outdoor playdates with friends.
Despite the crazy of COVID-19, despite the social unrest over racial injustice, we were able to provide relief and some normalcy for our kids. Our big kid even went to day camp this summer, and was able to wear her mask and stay safe the whole time.
We were hopeful when school started for both kids that in-person connection would soon follow. Our first grader started online and looked forward to outdoor, physically distant chances to see her friends outside of school hours. Our preschooler started in-person preschool in the amazing program he’s been part of since he was 1. It wasn’t the exact same routine, but it was a routine nonetheless. Our kids were happier, and things were more manageable.
And then . . .
The west coast began to burn. A week ago was the last time my kids stepped outside. A week ago was the last time we could take a deep breath. Why?
Because ten days ago a windstorm made wildfires exponentially worse, and they got scarily close.
Eight days ago we learned that fires were even in the Portland metro area southeast of us.
Eight days ago our preschool closed because the air quality was so bad even the inside wasn’t safe.
Seven days ago we listened as our kids asked us to close all the blinds because looking outside was “too scary” because the smoke made the sun spooky and the sky dark.
Seven days ago my daughter had her birthday, and instead of a birthday car parade, I stood outside with three layered masks and an iPad so she could connect with the friends who dared to drive by.
As my dear friend lamented, “They took away outside!” Yes, now the smoke, fires, and hazardous air quality has even taken away outside.
Ruach Elohim. When we read about creation in the Torah, we read about the spirit, the wind of God. This wind seems to be the opposite. This wind has taken away our air. This wind has actually condensed our usable space to four walls. We can’t take a deep breath. We can’t actually breathe.
And we’re the fortunate ones. We were far enough from the fires themselves to be out of danger and not have to evacuate. We’ve got a house that has fairy decent seals. We’ve got community. We’ve got income that supports us. Yet our kids, like so many in our area, have had almost every outlet, every sense of normalcy, taken away from them with the latest devastating layer on 5780/2020 .
The reason I’m writing this is because I’ve heard from numerous people saying they can’t imagine what life is like right now. I’ll tell you – it’s not fun. Our kids are already screened out because of school, and they’ve had their fill of yoga, art, games, and pillow forts.
I’m writing this because perspective is everything. In Portland, we’ve been living with awful, off-the-charts hazardous air quality for a week. In other parts of the world, this happens almost year long. We need to change this.
I’m writing for our dog, Stanley, the ten-year-old “puppy” who can’t breathe when we go outside, but who still needs to go outside.
I write because I needed to decide this week if it was better to wear a KN95 mask plus another double-layer mask inside for a funeral and risk COVID-19 exposure or be outside in the same situation and risk the over 500 AQI reading.
I write because I can see what’s coming, and the mental health of adults and children needs to be a top priority for this country right now.
I write because I officiated a wedding for a beautiful couple twelve days ago, and it was windy but beautiful, and overnight those winds took the beauty and replaced it with danger.
I write because we must listen to each other, and use our voices as the ruach, as the spirit that whispers elements of change to one another. The wind, the Spirit of God, is now the voice that tells us climate change is real, mental health must become a priority, and our world will cease to exist if we don’t take this seriously.
I write because, simply, we need to be aware of what’s happening in our world, and we need to tell each other’s stories.
The word “shanah” in Hebrew happens to share a root with the words for “year,” “change,” and “learning.” May this be the year when we learn about how we can work together, support one another, and make change for a better tomorrow.