Two years ago, the Key West Conch Train stopped chugging past my house. I missed it for the longest time, despite the hassles as it would miraculously make it down the street and around a wicked dog-leg corner. I missed it because the folks who packed every seat were just about the happiest people on the planet.
The train is a reminder that these are the visitors who make it possible for me to live here. And, as they rolled past my house, they were asking the same question I did decades ago: Wouldn’t it be wonderful to live here? Oh, indeed, I would say.
And, then The Covid.
On June 1, 2020, when we re-opened the Overseas Highway to the outside world, it dawned on our small island that what we thought we knew lay in tatters. We began to understand there wasn’t going to be a magical returning to whatever used to be normal. Layer Covid’s trauma with a decades-long shattering of our American “normalcy” and with the unavoidable tragedies of simply being human, and, heck, we can’t even define normal.
We are grieving. We grieve the loss of our plans and what we knew before Covid-19. We grieve not being there for friends and family for weddings, births, birthdays and, yes deaths. Your list is as long as mine.
We struggle to find sure footing on precarious foundations. We argue and flame each other on social media. We’re frustrated and irritable. We, some of us anyway, have pulled the hole in after us, unwilling and unable to wrestle with the gawdawful challenges of making a new normal.
Dr. Pauline Boss calls this “ambiguous loss,” a term she developed in the 1970s. Today, she applies her research to the loss and grief that come from inexplicable, uncontrollable, out-of-order events, of which Covid-19 is but one. Her work is smart and accessible — and affirming. We need not remain in this stasis that says “this is not how I wanted (planned, hoped, thought) it would be.” Key to the metamorphosis, she says, is resilience. These things, she says, build resilience:
- Finding Meaning
- Adjusting Mastery
- Reconstructing Identity
- Normalizing Ambivalence
- Revising Attachment
- Discovering New Hope
How Key West copes with loss
Key West’s legendary resilience fascinates me. Pick any moment in its 200 year history and watch as its citizens wrestle with impossible disillusionment, gut-stabbing failures, slavery, wars and plagues. Stratospheric wealth cheek-by-jowl with crushing poverty. And woven though it all a near constant threat of storms and assorted Mother Nature pestilence. Not to mention no reliable local sources for water, electricity and communication.
That Key West thrives today is testament to its resilience. The island’s people absorb their losses, accept them and allow them to shape what will become a “new” Key West. Whether it was this Southern-sympathizing, slave-holding white community coming to grips with being a Union Army-occupied military base or finding a way to bring tourists to Key West after the Flagler Railroad disappeared in a hurricane, Key West doesn’t deny its losses nor offer up wishes for a return to imagined better, normal days.
We are seeing the same resilience today on the island. Quietly, steadily and successfully, there’s a renewed energy coming from locals who, instead of lamenting the ambiguous and very real losses of the past five years, are instead finding ways to incorporate what they’ve learned and create the beginnings of the next Key West.
Look no farther than the local artists occupying Clinton Square Market, next to the Custom House. Or Williams Hall, which offers adult and student educational programs, worship and the delicious Unity Table. Or the public-private partnership, Housing for All Key West, that will eventually build homes that will put Key West on a path to sustain its middle class. Or local artists, like Shade Ceramics and Shutter Photography, who’ve adapted themselves and their art to meet a new market.
There are many more quietly going about their business of working through their grief, accepting their losses, finding new purpose and building the foundation for the next Key West. I mention those because I know some of their back stories. None has escaped the losses of the past five years; all have faced their own personal challenges.
When I was nine, my teacher told my mom that I had a ton of trouble accepting unavoidable situations gracefully. I love making and working plans and when they’re in place, all is right with my world. When they are upended by things out of my control — like Covid — I’m not, shall we say, pleased.
And, then I remember those resilient Key West locals who are, once again, showing how it’s done. Thank you.