Originally published May 7
This week there’s been a quiet buzz, barely perceptible but impossible to ignore — like a scent you can’t place, or a piece of grass grazing your leg, or a hint of cinnamon in a chocolate chip cookie. Our beaches have partially opened (no chairs, no blankets, no sunbathing; yes surfing, yes swimming, yes walking; maybe masks), and a few more places downtown (a coffee shop, bakery, ice cream shop) are open again (for take out). Newscasters are appearing back in studios. Dr. Fauci isn’t quite as constant a presence on TV. It feels like being told the storm is over but dark clouds still loom.
Here in Southern California, a red tide has washed ashore. Supposedly these are naturally occurring events that may last a couple of days or weeks or months. But scientists have noticed an uptick in the number of red tides so maybe they aren’t always “natural” and in part, worsened by human activity. They are caused by algae blooms that scientists say are sometimes harmful to animals and humans but sometimes not. (Information on them seems to be about as clear information on the Coronavirus. You know, clear as mud.)
Aside from making the ocean look not so inviting with it’s reddish brown hues by day, these algae blooms produce a phenomenon known as bioluminescence by night. When the waves crest and crash they turn a neon blueish. (Something about the phytoplanktons getting all churned up.)
The pictures looked impressive (see above) and friends who had gone said it was definitely worth extending bedtime to have a look. We had to go.
We drove down the coast waiting for the long evening shadows to stretch and disappear. As we got within blocks of the beach, it was clear we weren’t the only ones who wanted a glimpse of a rare wonder in these rare times. Clusters of people dotted the shoreline. I didn’t feel like people were behaving recklessly exactly (people seemed to be keeping a distance, many in masks), but the collective number of people made me uneasy.
We found a patch of space and watched. At first it didn’t look like much as our eyes adjusted and focused. And then, as advertised, glowing waves — more teal than blue and very cool. A year ago, three months ago, I might have called them awe-inspiring. I mean, they still are, but with every magical flash of neon, people walked by — some on the way to, some on the way from the shore. Instead of waxing poetic about the beauty of nature, I found myself wondering, “what if germs glowed?” Would neon lines trail in the wake of people passing?
We are slowly “re-opening” but who wants to leave their house? Who doesn’t want to leave? The thought of sitting in a restaurant — a once favorite activity — now feels rife with danger. Who’s touched my food? How many people sat at the table before me? Did they touch the salt? I’ve never been much of a germaphobe but suddenly I see germs everywhere. If germs could glow, would surfaces light up like the night sky?
It is not lost on me that I was the someone passing others on the way to and from the shore — that I carry germs too. For every venture back into the world this week, I’m doing a risk versus reward calculation. Relaxing quarantine measures hasn’t felt very relaxing.
People are still dying and the virus is mutating; killer hornets are swarming; companies are filing for bankruptcy; unemployment is hitting a nearly centurial high. The tension between needing to reopen and needing to stay quarantined has me feeling…tense. Every interaction feels like a potential fatal misstep.
There’s a lone palm tree in a patch of grassy area by our beach. It’s surrounded by a low circular wall. I took the kids to walk on the beach but they wanted to jump up and down the wall. “Can we touch the tree?” What has the world come to when boys have to ask if it’s safe to touch a tree? Have I created paranoia or responsible vigilance?
I was wrong before when I said it felt like being told a storm is over. We’re not at the end or the beginning of anything. It’s more like docking after weeks on rough seas. I’m off balance. Safety and sanity teeter.
I know by now that balance is elusive and the ground beneath us will continue to rock. The only way to recalibrate and find steady footing is to keep moving and adjusting and adjusting again. Instead of focusing on being thrown off by others, maybe its time to remember I can just as easily be be steadied by others (with gloved hands, masked faces, and six feet away).