Mask Up

July 16, 2020: Just like in the comics, I want to be like the hero, the one wearing the mask and cape. This time my mask is my best protection from the invisible enemy, the best way for me to survive. When I go out into the world, I wear my mask (often fashionable and to match my outfits), and not until I enter the safety of my home, do I lay down my armor to rest. 

This was certainly not the 2020 I imagined. I had big plans! Yet, we all know what happens when we make plans, God laughs. I’ve asked God more than a few times over the past few months, why would you bring this upon the entire world at once? You’ve blessed us with so many tools in science and technology, how is it that we are still suffering through this? And every time I’ve asked, I turn on the TV or open a social media platform and hear of another person’s untimely or unruly death, another person who has lost a job, another shooting, another confirmation that this virus is here to stay, for a while. Last Tuesday, I would have been arriving in Uganda for a mission trip with Braveheart for a week, then hopping over to Kenya for a safari and some beach time for the next week, maybe finding my way to another country in Africa while I was there. That trip was of course canceled some months ago. 

This past Saturday, I zipped my last bag, double-checked for my laptop and phone power chords (all my work lives and dies by my devices), and headed to the airport for Jamaica. What a blessing. Every time I turn around, I’ve been met with nothing but blessings. These small victories are what keep me going. I know that this is not the end, our story does not end here. There is something on the other side of this to look forward to, I’ve just got to do my part and keep fighting through this difficult time. I am also aware that my story is certainly not everyone else’s, but it is mine. At 33, single, without a child and in the middle of a global pandemic, a race revolution, a crumbling economy, and a country that doesn’t have the love for me that I have for it, I set sail for Jamaica. My mother jokingly said before I left “Okay Stella, I hope you aren’t going just to get your groove back!” I am leaving, not to escape having to put a mask on, but to breathe a little easier. I’ve had to actively remind myself every few hours to just breathe, as I notice the tension and stress of the world around me weighing heavily on my shoulders. 

(FYI for anyone gasping right now and concerned for my safety – masks are required across Jamaica and worn without much pushback at all. The country has reported a total of 759 cases and 10 deaths related to COVID-19 for their total population of approx. 3 million citizens since the beginning of the pandemic. It’s traveling across the US that will require the most prayer!)

When the pandemic first shut New Orleans down, I’d already packed my bags and told my mom I was coming home to Houston to help her out – she is 65+ (please don’t tell her I told you that!!) and has battled with diabetes since I was young. Her favorite hangout is any place that has a cash register at the front and people who know her name. So yes, I really went home to play the parent and keep her inside. I know a lot of millennials can attest to the struggles of keeping our very independent, but vulnerable, parents at home. All this to say, those two months in her small apartment were the best two months I could ask for. Who knew groceries for a family of four were so expensive, though?! I was able to keep her safe and for the first time as an adult, had an opportunity to build a new kind of relationship with my mother. I simply cannot imagine her not being around. In those two months, we stayed inside and got to know each other, we had field trips to Target (Drive-up orders only!), we went to the park and worked out, we meditated in the mornings and I introduced her to all things low-sodium, low calorie, and zero sugar. There are still some open debates about ingredients. All that to say, pre-pandemic my mom would’ve never made that “Stella” reference with me. And pre-pandemic I would’ve never really considered packing up my car to stay in Houston for two months just to be sure my mom survived. We are different now. 

The rest of the world is different, too. We will feel the changes and disruptions of 2020 for generations to come. But all I can think of are all the super-heroes out there, taking up the simple task of putting their armor on when they step outside the safety of their home. Each time you put a mask on you are protecting my mother so that she can one day see my children, the next generation of our family. Each time I put my mask on, it is more for her sake than mine. And I must admit, it feels pretty good to be her superhero for once when she’s always been mine. 

When we consider how small New Orleans is, how often we run into the same people, it’s easy to see how we indirectly affect each other’s lives, each other’s survival. We often joke about every other city having six degrees of separation, but in NOLA it’s more like two or three. It doesn’t seem as funny when we realize those fewer degrees of separation bring COVID-19 closer to our backyard or kitchen table, every week. So put your mask on, let’s protect each other’s mothers, fathers, grandparents, siblings, and friends that feel more like family. Let’s not enter into the next year regretful – thinking, if only I did my small part and encouraged others around me my family, my circle, might not be that much smaller now. 

July 19, 2020: Hello, from Montego Bay! I knew that once I left the country I’d want to share my experience. So far, so GREAT! Hopefully, it’s not just the honeymoon phase, but welcome to paradise. Nothing has changed about my routine but the location. However, stepping off the plane into Jamaica was like night and day. I was greeted in customs by airport and government workers in full PPE, got into a socially-distant single file line, and was asked to sanitize my hands twice after having my temperature checked. I was then ushered to a chair to complete a COVID interview with a health worker. After she entered my temperature, address during my stay, asked about my possible exposure to COVID, or any other diseases I signed a waiver agreeing to self-quarantine for 14 days (with one hour a day for exercise or the grocery store upon receiving negative test results). This process continued with 2 more checkpoints, including one where I had to download the JamCOVID app, which is a self-reporting and tracking tool that also helps to schedule appointments if you have symptoms and provides data and analysis for each parish in the country. This was first required of all residents and then to all entering tourists and residents returning home. There were 3 more hand sanitizing stations and a visit with the first customs agent before I reached my luggage. On the flip side, I traveled through two airports in the US where I actually watched a 20s-something girl walk around maskless through a crowd, listened as a woman rudely addressed a food concessions employee, searched for hand sanitizing stations, and had a flight attendant lean over the row to get closer to me as she lowered her mask to give me emergency row instructions. 

As I watched from the car driving from the MBJ airport I noticed people still out and about, wearing masks but getting on with life. I thought to myself, this could be us in the United States, continuing with life. So, I leave with two requests before I sign off. I ask each and every one of you to think about you and your community. What are your highest hopes and goals for both? What do you want your community to look like in the next few years? How long do you think it would take to reach the good goals? Now turn to your neighbor and ask them to mask up, so that each of you survive this – whether it be physically or emotionally – in order to see those goals, come to fruition. 

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