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  • Loren Niemi

Sometimes the Darkness...


Sometimes the darkness overwhelms us. And I mean us, plural, as well as myself singular. This winter solstice it feels particularly thick and close. There is so much to feel bad about.


Not that it was a bad year in and of itself, but that it was for so many of us another year “lost” to hesitation, uncertainty, denial and grief. A year where as many times as I felt I was “this close” to saying “Can this get any worse?” next began with a sense of sadness and often, with some sense of relief. Next and next. The news cycle and the simple observation of the day, week, month of my (our) wanting people to do the “right” thing.


Wanting what I am doing, where I am living, the politics and culture around me to change but unsure whether it will be better or worse than this present.


I’ve experienced it before. Reached the point personally where staying was more painful than leaving. Jobs. Relationships. All manner of stuck status quo. I’m not sure I am at that point now, but I sure as Hell can measure the distance between where we are as a nation (or at least what I am feeling) and a judgment that this can’t be fixed. It will not take much to flip “let’s try to get through this” to “what do we have to do to make an exit as painless as possible?”


In conversation after conversation, this sentiment surfaces. Sometimes explicitly. Sometimes as a generalized complaint or a question as to “how long will this go on?”


It is not where I want to be. It is not how I want to enter the Solstice or Christmas or New Year’s but I am not the only one sorting through this moment. We want gaiety and community, to be out and about without fear or favor. Not today. There is a pervasive fatigue that creeps up... Blame history. Blame the Pandemic. Blame politicians or economics or “those assholes” who won’t do X or did have the gall to do Y. Blame the fault of our stars, or decisions that made sense once upon a time but don’t anymore. Blame ourselves. Blame myself.


Blame does not make it better. Taking the blame does not make it easier. Placing blame does not change the present unhappiness. It might confirm or reinforce one or another party’s judgment but does nothing to right the wrongs anyone feels. Everyone is on the defensive. A call for civility, an offering of compassion - it is just so much fuel heaped on the angry fire.


What will it take to burn that anger out? The evidence so far is nothing. Responding stokes it. Not responding does much the same. Walk away and in a few minutes or hours later there follows a recycling of all that is wrong, has been wrong, will be wrong going forward. Somehow, we have a sense that expressing anger is enough or a substitute for the pain that resides beneath it.


America in 2021 is full of angry and/or depressed people who are in denial of individual and collective grief and the sources of pain associated with it. We have not accurately named it. We have not thought about where it resides and what we might do to lessen it.


My observation is that anger does little to acknowledge and lessen pain. It is hard to be compassionate about our shared, human, suffering - our grief and pain while we are recoiling from the expression of anger.


It is exhausting. Nothing but the wounds – both specific and somehow associated by kind - are manifest. Again, I am speaking to both the universal of our collective experience and the specific of the personal.


In this second year of the pandemic with the next variant racing across America, just as it is across Europe, Africa and anywhere/everywhere, there is a cultural depression that is settling in that is often phrased as the question, “When will it be like it was before the pandemic?” As if “before” was not beset with problems that made the pandemic response more difficult. As if the pandemic has not underlined the faults of American exceptionalism, post-modern Capitalism and injustice. As if returning to “that” will make anything better.


The irony is that in our desire to get back to a pre-pandemic normal, too many of us are not taking the fundamental containment steps – vaccination, booster, masking, social distancing, testing – necessary to beat Omicron back. We’re just too tired of prevention practices while we see others ignoring the risk or the politicized mindset that does not believe any variant is real or really dangerous. Omicron may not be as “fatal” as Delta but it is not on par with the common cold or flu by any means.


A glance at the infection numbers should be proof of how dangerous. The rate of deaths among confirmed COVID-19 cases at 6.1 deaths out of 100,000 cases for the unvaccinated. For the vaccinated, the number is 0.5 deaths out of 100,000 cases. For those who have become infected after receiving a booster, the rate is 0.1 deaths out of 100,000 cases. It might seem like a small number of cases per 100,000 in each instance but it accumulates to a lot of deaths and more to the point a lot of cases of confirmed infection.


That close alignment between vaccination and survival means that small differences in vaccination rates can make a huge difference in serious cases of COVID-19, the burdens on ICUs, and the number of deaths.


Even now, with over 800,000 deaths in two years, Delta and this current Omicron wave are averaging 1,300 deaths a day and on pace to push us over the million deaths mark by spring.


As I have said in a previous note, the very scale of these deaths is reshaping our world. That we have left the grieving to individual families and friends and not had some collective acknowledgement is an error. Memorial Day began in the acknowledgment of the 637,000 (approximately) deaths in our Civil War. Armistice Day (AKA Veterans Day) marks the end of WWI and 116,000 American deaths. In the two years of the pandemic, we have surpassed the total number of dead of both those conflicts.


But tired as I might be of idiots in denial of risk and consequences, I have a desire, and perhaps a moral obligation to protect myself and those around me – family, friends, co-workers, everyone really – from infection. I can’t make you get vaccinated but as I believe in science and mathematics, I can see that the bulk of infections, hospitalizations and death from Delta and Omicron are amongst the unvaccinated. Also given the fact that Omicron is readily spread before even manifesting symptoms and has gone from less than 1% of infections to 73% in approximately two weeks does not bode well for unvaccinated socializing.


While I was in New Mexico with a state-wide masking mandate, people were generally willing to wear one. Every performance I went to I was asked to show proof of vaccination or a negative test and often had my temp taken at the door. As I was coming back to Minnesota, crossing the Great Plains masks became scarcer. Stopping at a steak house in Dodge City the only people wearing masks were the cooks – not the waitstaff or any of the patrons. Here in the Twin Cities, service folks are masked and signs at the door ask you to or suggest you wear one. Most folks do but not all. I look around and see a future of more unnecessary deaths and many more cases of long-term damage to health of individuals, communities, the economy as a whole coming.


As much as I want to get past this pandemic and the damage it is doing, I can see that our lax, and in some cases, intentional politicized disregard for the science, for the necessary measures to beat it down, mean we are in for at least another year of suffering. Failure to mitigate or the naive belief that we will reach herd immunity and then it will go away keeps COVID active and evolving. Omicron is probably not the last variant we will see.


I like to finish off these seasonal missives on a positive note. With an uplifting story but I am at a loss for that bright note. It’s hard this time to be positive. As I said, sometimes the darkness overwhelms us. And I mean us, plural, as well as myself singular. This winter solstice it feels particularly thick and close.


The most positive thing I can say is that it we will find a way through this darkness. How? When? That is not clear but history is a record of surviving told by those that have. The black plague ravaged Europe for five years and killed off.... wait, that is not a particularly hopeful fact. Many did survive but the cost was enormous. I’d like to think we have learned something since then.


I remember the rules of community organizing and think that in some odd way, these two particularly apply here: 1) It is not the last blow of the axe that fells the tree. 2) When it is time to get on the bus, it is time to get on the bus.


You matter. To me and to others. Get vaccinated and then get your booster. Yes, I know there are some folks who for genuine medical reasons cannot do that, and for their sake, the following is all the more important. Mask up. Be careful about the spaces you enter and the size of gatherings you attend. Social distance when you can. Yes, I know, it is a pain but the practice of caution, while not a guarantee, lessens the risk. Surviving may come down to the balance between risks you can manage and circumstances you cannot.


I hope to be more positive about the state of the world when I write the spring missive and I would like to have you around to read it. Until then, I wish you all the best in this dark season.