I couldn't blow a bubble.

Written by Brianna Steidle '21

I would give my dog the deed to my house if she asked. A tri-colored border collie with a dash of German shepherd, she’s all eyebrows and tail wags. She’s also a bubble fanatic. When, like so many others, I fled Gainesville to weather the pandemic with my family, no one was happier than Bella. One day, my Thursday morning lecture was cancelled moments before it was supposed to start. I grabbed the bubble wand, and Bella dashed into the yard. She threw her tail into the air and tucked her front paws underneath her, ready to spring. I pursed my lips, raised the wand, and—doubled over coughing. Bella cocked her head. She hadn’t noticed the oxygen cans lined up next to the bubbles.

This was early quarantine, when we still matched our fuzzy socks to our pajama bottoms and a soon-to-be graduate student could walk her neighborhood and furnish a studio apartment on trash days. We’d become overnight mask aficionados—albeit begrudgingly—and scrambled to buy face coverings. Every house on my block was mask-mad, except mine. I’d brought four N95 masks home from Gainesville.

Long before anyone knew how to spell hydroxychloroquine, I noticed what felt like bungee cords crisscrossing my chest. That was November 2018, and I was packing for the coldest Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in a century. I’d been diagnosed an autoimmune alphabet soup five years earlier, but now I had frostbite to worry about. (Thank G-d for hand warmers.) Tightness turned to pain, then a hacking cough, then a bloody one. In two weeks at a Denver hospital, I learned to juggle three balls and that the muscles in my chest wall were nearly paralyzed, compromising my lungs. The common cold could send me into respiratory failure, so I had to take precautions. I couldn’t have known I’d become a trendsetter. A year before COVID-19 struck, I returned to a bustling campus, mask in tow; I felt like a stranger.

Exodus rings with reminders: wherever we are is exile. Wherever we are, we are strangers. The pitch shifts moment to moment—sometimes piercing as after a rash of hate crimes, other times an ambient buzz—but that’s another blog post entirely. What matters (now and always) is that strangeness nurtures empathy. From my Hebrew school days to the open classroom of illness, I’d learned the lesson.

Then came the pop quiz: a pandemic. I already knew how to shout through a mask and satisfy an itchy nose with a well-placed puff around my top lip. Most importantly, I knew breathlessness. For the past year, I’d been conscious of every breath and walked to classes with a box of mints to cover the bloody cough.

I don’t revisit these moments for pity. I know how lucky I am to have the family and financial support that flew me to doctors across the country, and I found fun in the situation wherever possible (my favorite: “Don’t worry, breathing was only a hobby.” Bonus points if I squeezed the joke between coughs.) Just believe me when I say I know what it means to feel like you’re breathing through four-ply cotton. The ways masks itch, stick, stink, erase one’s identity, and complicate conversations were beyond familiar when the World Health Organization called for their widespread use in early June. (Side note: ever sneezed into a mask with a mouth full of oatmeal?) My friends came to me first for advice, then—true to their Jewish birthrights—to kvetch. I’d mapped out this strange land long before they stumbled into it. I must’ve unearthed at least a few pockets of empathy.

By June, I had distance on my side, too. (It’s hard to empathize if you’re waist-deep in the mud.) The Denver team had recommended a new regimen. A few weeks in, I realized that I could breathe in deeply, then force the air out with a huff. I started to sigh at everything. The Times headlines, the dog’s antics, my sister over FaceTime (she’d moved out to protect me while she worked as a summer camp counselor) were obvious excuses. I sighed at the dirty laundry to wash, the clean laundry to fold. I sighed at my sighing. Showoff. My friends’ mask-gripes offered prime-time sighs. I met them where they were, casually and candidly, and whenever possible echoed their words. I feel you. This sucks. I know, it isn’t how I imagined your senior year either. That mask totally makes you look like a Dr. Seuss character.

Then the words started to feel hollow. I wasn’t jealous or bitter. These people loved me, stubborn lungs and all, and I loved them fiercely back—even as I fumed at their whining. They didn’t have to “fight for air” through a paper surgical mask. They “felt like they couldn’t breathe,” but only like it. They had enough air for an endless stream of complaints. They didn’t know—likely would never know—the five-ton fear of tugging out their nasal cannulas and feeling themselves slowly suffocate. They had no right.

Except that they did. Over video calls, I saw the toll this time has taken on the people I care about. Dull eyes, dark circles, and too-quick smiles spoke louder than the mask complaints. I raged about “wimpy” friends and hated myself for it. I hated myself and raged louder. Where we came from didn’t matter. We were all struggling.

I’ve taken enough psychology courses to spot a hypocrite when I am one. Besides, there isn’t enough Ben & Jerry’s in the world to sustain that cyclical, self-incinerating anger. I needed to reframe my perspective. My doctors had given me a choice: face covering or space suit. I bought an N95 mask. I wore it without exception and took my meals to-go (excepting Hillel, where the staff made a Brianna-safe enclave for a few friends and me to enjoy Shabbat dinner.) I needed the mask just as I’d needed a cane when I refused to put off my freshman year of college. Sure, it looked funny, but the mask empowered me to stay connected with my community and passions during the hardest period of my life.

Many of those kvetching friends are now living through their own hardest moments, but the danger is not as clear. For every high-risk college student I know, I count five others who might temporarily lose the joy of tasting discount Halloween candy but, statistically, are not likely to suffer beyond that. Murky risk amplifies the inconveniences of prevention. Masks are uncomfortable and ugly, though there are exceptions (shameless promotion for UF Hillel’s Avant Garde tie dye approach). Friends admit that masks feel not quite optional but certainly not life-or-death. When everything is strange, we look in the mirror and latch onto the first thing we see: a blank. The mask is a poor substitute for dynamic and familiar expressions we once considered a given.

Sometimes, usually after a poor-air-quality or high-pain day, I hang up the phone and feel hot all over. I’m furious. Again. It’s harder than I’d like to admit, but I remind myself that complaining about masks stands in for a more evasive angst. I take a deep breath (relish it) and reframe the situation. Trading my perspective for a friend’s—recognizing both the itchy fabric and symbolic heft—allows for empathy. Empathy forges the connections that carry us through times like these.

If this sounds like Yom Kippur repentance, quarantine edition, it wasn’t by accident. The High Holidays have always inspired introspection in me. I think my parents are still recovering from the shock of their ten-year-old announcing that she was rejecting January 1 and, instead, would begin all resolutions in the Jewish New Year. It will surprise no one that this year was different. My annual attempts to procrastinate less and respond promptly to texts took a back seat to a new goal. Six months ago while playing with my dog, I couldn’t blow a bubble. This Rosh Hashanah, I blew the shofar.

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