A frightening roller-coaster ride for my psyche


September is here, and if these last few weeks of summer are any indication, the outlook for getting the pandemic under control, and regaining our old lives, remains highly uncertain.

The weeks leading up to the first month of fall offered a roller-coaster of emotions, with any encouraging news about the pandemic offset by a barrage of warnings and negative statistics about the coronavirus’ resurgence.

After an optimistic Fourth of July, we were bombarded with warnings about the dreaded Delta variant (the latest version of this never-ending virus) and “breakthrough cases” (testing positive for COVID-19 despite being fully vaccinated). Mask advisories led, in many cases, to mask mandates. And those of us who did the right thing and got vaccinated fear that the rest of 2021 will be, to quote a phrase attributed to New York Yankees great Yogi Berra, “Déjà vu all over again”!

That’s life in these early days of September, but the summer didn’t start out that way. Indeed, with vaccinations at more than 70% in Rhode Island, Massachusetts and across New England, people were psyched up at the start of the summer – instead of having their psyches scarred yet again.

Things were fairly upbeat over the Fourth of July, when I felt really good about myself for the first time in a very long while. In those now-innocent days, my good vibes were reinforced by running my first in-person race in 20 months: the 53rd annual Arnold Mills Road Race, a 4-miler held in conjunction with Cumberland’s Fourth of July parade.

I was one of more than 400 runners who toed the starting line a few hundred yards from the North Cumberland Fire Station on a day that was blessed by low humidity and temperatures in the 60s.

Optimism reigned that Monday morning (the race was held on the day after the Fourth due to the holiday falling on a Sunday). While warming up, I saw smiles on more runners' faces than I’ve ever seen before a race. We couldn’t wait to return to the road after being limited to virtual races since March 2020.

On that morning, we lined up almost shoulder to shoulder, with only a smattering of masked runners. Participants were chatting and wishing each other well while waiting for the sound that we had yearned to hear for a year and half: the firing of the starter pistol. For one day, things seemed almost normal.

However, by the time I ran my next race, on Aug. 1, the situation had begun to deteriorate. We were being warned about “a pandemic of the unvaccinated,” and the Delta variant had become the latest threat to our increasingly fleeting chance of soon regaining our former lives.

Nonetheless, the 19th annual 5K Run/Walk to Remember went on as scheduled, with 105 participants. For me, the experience transcended physical exercise, as the morning proved a gigantic boost to my morale and mental health.

I say this because the 3.1-miler, organized by the Community VNA, of Attleboro, to raise money for its Hospice program, was the road-racing equivalent of “Cheers.” Like the hit NBC-TV sitcom about a Boston bar, the staging area for the race, Veterans Memorial Park, in downtown North Attleboro, was transformed into a place where, like at the Bull & Finch Pub (the real name of Cheers), everyone knows your name.

You couldn’t take more than a few steps without someone greeting you by your first name. It was an experience to savor – and proved a powerful antidote to the constant drone of doom-and-gloom news relating to the resurgent COVID-19 virus.

People were so relaxed on this one morning that they took advantage of free massages in the park, and they hung around for the post-race awards ceremony and raffles – activities they used to take for granted, but would never again.

But as I wrap up this column in late August, our good feelings have been replaced by many of the most depressing features of 2020. Many indoor mask requirements are back (I never stopped wearing mine in stores), arguments over mask mandates have become physical in many instances and, worst of all, the gulf between the vaccinated and unvaccinated is so wide that it threatens to keep the pandemic going well into 2022, if not longer.

That’s why life deep into our second year of the pandemic feels very much like a frightening roller-coaster ride.

On one hand, I’ve been fortunate to have run a pair of live races, and I’ve met friends for lunch. On the other hand, whenever I attend the rare social gathering, I’m nervous about the vaccination status of those I don’t know.

How do I react? Do I whip out my mask even if it insults the host? Do I ask other guests whether they’re vaccinated? Or do I just play it safe and stay home?

I’m also leery of traveling, and my early-summer desire to return to Fenway Park or to check out Worcester’s new Polar Park, has been replaced by renewed concerns about attending large gatherings. In addition, we’re now being told, after several mixed messages from our top health officials, that we’ll need booster shots.

With that backdrop, it’s no wonder that my fears about living with this virus are on the rise again. The only thing I know for sure is that my worries will worsen the longer the pandemic persists and the more divided – and selfish – that we remain as a nation.

That’s why, heading into the fall and the Jewish New Year, my psyche is more fragile than ever.

LARRY KESSLER (larrythek65@gmail.com) is a freelance writer based in North Attleboro. He blogs at larrytheklineup.blogspot.com