Yesterday, I Had a Total Meltdown

It started with a song by Stephen Kellogg. It cascaded when I read an article from the Washington Post. But when I began to think of all those 20-40 year-olds, at what should be the start of their lives, their families, their careers, I lost it until…

Just one announcement before, today’s commentary.

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The Meltdown

I’ve written about our kids before, most recently when Jesse was at the Portland protests. He is 27. He had a budding career going as a volunteer coordinator at music festivals around the world. He had met a French woman and they were becoming a couple. She went back to Paris with a plan for Jesse to join her. Then COVID. Jesse’s career and his relationship are now both on hold.

Our daughter, Joanna is in med school. Two weeks ago, she began her rotations which will place her in one hospital clinic after another. It is a relentless schedule, now made maddeningly scary due to COVID. Her career is not on hold, but I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to worrying about her safety every single day. This is not how her medical career was to unfold.

Josh married Holly on June 30, 2018. They moved to Cleveland, started careers, bought a house, and had our first grandchild. Then COVID. Thankfully, they still have jobs and can work from home, but juggling a toddler while trying to manage jobs is nearly impossible.

I’ve read of far worse stories, but these aren’t just stories from a publication, these are the lives of our kids. And, of course, we can’t see them. We can’t hug them. I can’t give Torrey a bath or read him “Hop on Pop.”

And so, when Stephen Kellogg began his song, “Fathers Day” I began to unravel. He sings the song to his daughter as he is preparing to go on tour. The lyric goes something like this: “If you’re looking for advice my dear, I have nothing to say. I am always at a loss for words when you look at me that way.” I thought about how my kids lives have been turned upside down by COVID and how I really had nothing I could say or do.

As I stewed on these thoughts, I thought of a Washington Post article I had seen online and had planned to review. When I opened the article the headline should have told me: Maybe another time, this may not help me right now. But even more than the headline, “Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives”, the look of despair on the face of Daniel Vought riveted me. As I read the first couple short paragraphs of the piece, I learned how he had lost his restaurant job, how he had $10 in his wallet, was overdrawn on his account and was now five days from homelessness. I also learned that like thousands of other Washington D.C. residents, his unemployment benefits were clogged in an overwhelmed system. Countless calls and visits had gotten him nowhere. As I looked into Daniel’s eyes, I thought of the Kellogg lyrics, “I’m always at a loss for words, when you look at me that way.” I had no words for Daniel.

Daniel Vought

From The Washington Post:

Vought explains how he has called the Mayor’s office, begging an aide:

“Can you do me a solid and just bug them once a day for me?” Vought begged her. “I don’t know if they’re forgetting me. I don’t know if somebody is skipping me in the line. I don’t know if this is just the worst time to have a last name that starts with ‘V.”

The Washington Post: “Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives.”

I kept returning to Vought’s picture above that serves as the article’s cover. I wondered what went through your mind when your eyes look out five days, to when Vought must leave his apartment. What will cross his mind as he exits his apartment for the last time. Where do you go when you are out of options?

And I thought of the 50 million Americans who have lost their jobs in the past months, with a Congress stalled in negotiations as they prepare for their August break and with the GOP refusing to extend the $600 a week unemployment payments or to add a time to the food stamp program, but having passed a robust military budget just two weeks ago. We have the money and how we spend it, tells us about our moral character.

“People pushed into poverty by the coronavirus pandemic could face years of increased dependence on government help, experts say, and greater housing insecurity and homelessness. A single mother with another baby due this summer found herself choosing between buying food or paying the rent. A former D.C. police officer spent months on a relative’s sofa, unable to find work or collect unemployment so he could find his own housing.”

The Washington Post: “Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives.”

The article explores the details of Daniel’s life and the two other COVID victims from the quote above. We learn about  Lakeisha Rollins, the mom of a ten year-old. Lakeisha was studying to be a nurse while working a good job at Whole Foods, one of those essential workers we read about, just getting by, until one co-worker after another tests positive. With a baby due in August, Lakeisha faced an unimaginable choice: continue working and risk infecting her baby or her ten-year old or leave her job and face what Vought faces now. How do you make that choice?

“I could not fathom the idea of what was coming next. I couldn’t look in that direction,” she said. “I don’t want to be in no shelter, so I tried not to think about it.”

The Washington Post: “Ten bucks left, no place to go: How the pandemic and a broken unemployment system are upending people’s lives.”

In the end, none of the three become homeless, a couch for one, a father’s helping hand for another, and the miracle of relief benefits finally arriving brings at least temporary relief to Lakeisha. But these are three proud adults who had plans, had futures, and had been taxpaying citizens. And yet, our system has let them down and forced each to face frightening choices.

As I finished the Post piece, I sat for quite awhile thinking about what how important hope is. I’ve taken to closing each Retake post with “in solidarity and hope” because I felt that these times can so easily wrest hope from us. And in these articles, I saw what that must feel like. And as I thought about this more, I realized how many people in their 20s, 30s, or 40s who had plans, who had futures, who have families or want them and how when they look at their future right now, they must feel like Vought, hopeless.

I pretty much came unglued. I kept thinking of Joanna in a Sacramento hospital, of my grandson and his parents trying to hold it together and of Jesse robbed of a developing career and a developing relationship. I knew I had to write this post, but even as I reached this point in piecing it together, I had no idea how to end with something uplifting. I had started down this path with a song and a lyric where a father had no words for his child. I had to find words.

It came to me that we are not without power. We each have it within us to do something about this mess. So I am closing with that and with two resources:

YUCCA has formed a Mutual Assistance system with options to contribute directly to people like Vought and Lakeisha. Click here to explore how you might help a person facing the same kinds of challenges as Vought and Lakeisha.

But while making a contribution or offering to fetch groceries for a high risk senior may help those receiving those gifts, the system, the COVID and an utterly unresponsive national leadership would remain. And so my other resource, is to ask you to join us tonight for our Zoominar on the election and what you can do to put us on a path toward sanity. If the rest of the world can face this COVID down, so can we. Click here to review our Election Page which has options for your putting time and resources into fixing this mess. There are six priority races in NM to support and Democrats in swing states that need your support.

And join us tonight to be inspired, motivated and encouraged to get in the game. We have so many Lakeishas and Voughts who want their lives back, who want to hope again. And those of us with resources and time, need to do all we can to restore some semblance of normality, so we have the bandwidth to fix this uncaring, capitalist system.

In solidarity and hope,

Paul & Roxanne

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7 replies

  1. Your powerful post also triggered my mini-meltdown, which was overdue. I think you were inaccurate, though, to call it “a Total” meltdown – maybe a refining one. We all need these ‘resets’ to be able to “just do the best we can”, as my mother used to doggedly say, having gone through the loss of her home in the great depression. I know we have all been encouraged by the story of John Lewis’ brave and dogged commitment, (I marched in Selma with him) but we will need to keep sharing our personal emotional and philosophical struggles to keep doing the ‘best that we can”.

    Your sharing strengthens our resolve as followers and supporters of your work, which has great worth!

  2. Great blog today, Paul. Watching our children and teenage grandchildren maneuver through this disruptive time is very difficult and there is truly nothing we can say-old platitudes of you’ll get through this and other just don’t fit today. Thanks for the share!

  3. Many of us have been experiencing this every day, either major or in minute moments of despair. Many are suicidal. You are certainly not alone.

  4. Excellent piece. Very moving and thought provoking. Thank you for sharing.

  5. And we are the lucky ones, Paul and Roxanne. People who work in the service industry, in meat packing plants and in low-wage jobs that don’t allow them to save in the best of times are now destitute. It is, indeed, time to weep for them and for a country that cares so little for its citizens. We donate joyously to the Earth Care Mutual Assistance organization. This is something concrete that we can do to provide direct help to those in need. Hang in there – we’re in for a rough ride, and this may just be the tip of the iceberg. Best, Linda


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