As we near a year of life under the siege of pandemic, how will we make sense of what we’ve endured? When the daily counts slow and the infographics fade from relevance, what will help us register what just happened?
Sense-making is tricky business. And finding lessons in immiseration and indictments among enormous loss will still never fill the more than 520,000 craters in the world as we once knew it. As many seek to now mark the time that has passed, perhaps the place to begin is with how the time has marked us.
For about the last year, my local grocery disabled the sliding glass door at their front entrance, sending customers instead to the side door where, if a line formed, it could bend uninterrupted through a parking lot rather than into the street. Over time, they also shrouded the front entrance with boxes, removed the shopping carts, and placarded the glass with signs pointing to the new main entry, on the side. A change that initially felt unnecessary—and quickly became inconvenient—was now a part of the slowly and sometimes imperceptibly shifting landscape around us.
I came to walk, without objection, directly to the side entrance of my grocer the same way I came to accept that the once-crowded corridors of my car-lined street had turned quiet, with vacant parking spots now evidence of an exodus from urban life. Where tearful goodbyes might have marked the losses we endured, instead we stood by windows, watching moving vans or ambulances coming to collect the things and people we had grown accustomed to, more than known. Masking our faces from public view, dripping in antiseptic and anxiety, and distancing from all manners of intimacy, many of us spent the year shielding our bodies and our personhood from each other.
Even as we shared pains, personal and collective, we moved separately, often mourning the loss of humans and housing and employment and perhaps even some of our dignity—in solitude and loneliness. On some days, I offered more prayers on Twitter than I did after closing my eyes at night, as strangers posted of dying parents, aggrieved colleagues, and ailing friends—and I took a second or two to try to hold their hurt and fears in my heart, next to my own, even if that second felt futile at best, and performative at worst. On other days, I sat by the light of my screens, listening to the humans I loved most struggle to complete a sentence. The same place where perhaps others had to catch the fading glimmers of beloved friends and family, Zoomed in from hospitals and nursing homes, who weren’t held in the end.
And so the daily contours of life in the pandemic became less an act of acceptance and more a kind of surrender mixed with shame. Surrender to the change and loss and grief we were helpless to stop. And shame for feeling both loyalty and disgust toward a nation that would render so many vulnerable to premature death.
What kind of people herald the most expendable among us as heroes—and then simply look on, unwilling to protect them while they die in the fight for us to have meat, and mail, and medical care? What kind of country leaves its people, many of whom are in their most vulnerable moments, so utterly alone?
And this is perhaps how the time has marked us—with truths we are no longer able to avoid. Among the restrictions and shut downs and distancing, we’ve had to acknowledge that the other side of staunch individualism is searing solitude. The other side of boundless privatization is a failing state. And the other side of what some called normal was uncontested white supremacy.
While the pandemic has given all Americans a reason to mourn, our nation’s losses have never been evenly shared. The absence of neighbors never simply reflected a voluntary exodus; often it was also the result of a pushing out. Our shifting urban landscapes capture not only the whims of the privileged but also the ways we punish the poor and relocate the evidence.
As the scourge pilloried our emotional, physical, and economic lives, the image of what could be wilted next to what was. And what is. And what remains in the wake of shared suffering is the truth we were attempting to live without. That in a nation whose chasms of inequality make life unlivable for some of us, 520,000 craters could begin to touch all of us.
The truth is, our nation’s investment in racism, capitalism, and white supremacy shredded our safety net, almost cost us our democracy, and stole many of our loved ones’ lives. In the middle of our loneliest year, our dependence on each other—for public education, public health, public utilities, and public recreation—was the truth buried beneath our pain. As we begin to slowly emerge from the depths of this plague, how we make sense of that truth will determine our future.
Recently, I walked by my local grocer, and the sliding glass doors at the main entrance just opened right up. Just like that—the boxes were gone, the carts returned, and the main entrance was up and running again. And so perhaps this is how it will be. Things will just silently run, like motion-sensor doors responding to my footsteps, the way they used to.
Or, perhaps there is a chance for more.