Yesterday marked my one year COVID anniversary. A year ago yesterday afternoon I started coughing a bit, checked my temperature, and went….. “Uh oh.”
What a year it’s been.
It feels a bit strange to write about it, but I’ve found it oddly comforting lately to read other accounts of how people have experienced this past year, so I thought I’d put my own journey out there in the hopes that someone else might derive similar benefit.
What’s a year?
In some respects the way humans mark time feels totally arbitrary, but nature abides by years and seasons too.
There’s a pair of red-tailed hawks who have taken up residence in a radio antenna near my apartment in Brooklyn, and they often swoop past my window, catching the updrafts.
The other day I noticed one of them clutching sticks in their talons, and it took me straight back to March and April of last year, when it sometimes felt like these hawks were the only things moving outside my window besides ambulances. To distract myself from being sick and to feel a sense of hope, I spent a lot of time last year watching these hawks build a nest through my binoculars.
I don’t think anyone who lived in New York City last year will ever forget the incessant wail of ambulances, the apocalyptic sight of mobile morgues, the evening cheers for essential workers, the cavernous silence in the spare moments when the sirens stilled. I woke up one morning hearing birds chirping outside of my window for the first time instead of the usual steady roar of the city.
I spent over a month never moving beyond the threshold of my apartment door as I slowly recovered, then finally emerged into a city that was at once unrecognizable and deeply, comfortingly familiar. The constantly quivering, pulsating city that we love had suddenly stilled, but the sense of being in this together, that mutual resilience and respect that comes with living in a such an unforgiving place, some vital fiery spirit remained.
New York City was many things this past year, but it was never a ghost town, and it was certainly never “over.” Those fables were told by those who fled. The ones who stayed were bound even tighter to this city than ever and immediately started planting green shoots.
I saw a tweet last year along the lines of “NYC at its worst is better than everywhere else at its best.” Hyperbole, sure, but a measure too of something essential about this place that was never lost.
The initial panicked stillness of last spring eventually gave way to a new cacophony as protests erupted in the wake of the murders of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd.
I marched with my neighbors through streets that had been empty only months before, saw the burned out remains of a police van, and the ash then turned into art. Sirens returned, and incessant helicopters droned through the night. Fireworks inexplicably boomed at all hours.
The events of this past year had a way of laying bare the inequities of our society in incredibly stark terms. It was now impossible to look away. It was uncomfortable. And this was on top of enduring a president who spent nearly every waking moment of four years waging psychological abuse, and sometimes more, on half of the country.
I hope we took some meaningful steps forward as a society in the wake of last summer. I know we haven’t taken enough. And justice still needs to be served.
We need to do more.
Sometime in the fall, the horror of the spring and the chaos of the summer gave way to a new normal that wasn’t really normal. Trips to the grocery store stopped feeling like scurrying through a haunted house. I settled into new routines that would have struck me as utterly bizarre two years ago, but grew familiar enough.
I sort of… got used to it?
But… I also definitely didn’t get used to it. This new normal was constantly shadowed by fear and pain and loss and the occasional attempted coup. There’s still very little that was actually normal. I couldn’t help but feel at best like we managed to hit pause on the stress from time to time.
For me personally, this sense of being stalled was compounded by my most recent novel being on hold for the entire year for reasons I can’t really get into. I’m a linear person creatively, so not knowing what will happen with that novel means I’ve struggled to work on a subsequent project.
I definitely worked hard and experienced some successes in the past year. In particular, my business thrived despite the pandemic. I figured out how to safely explore my own backyard, gorgeous upstate New York. After suffering from the after-effects of COVID for about three months, I’m now totally healthy and am in better physical shape than ever.
And yet, I struggled to feel these successes. Dancing in the street on November 7 aside, it still feels like a lost, numb year.
While our suffering was unequal this past year, one of the hardest parts of maintaining perspective is the fact that knowing that there are people who are suffering even more than us doesn’t much blunt our individual pain. The mere recognition of your relative privilege in the grand scheme doesn’t always help you get through the day.
For the last six months especially, I feel like I’ve been spinning in circles around the walls of my own apartment. I can’t escape the sense of being stalled out, no matter how much the more rational side of my brain feels like I’ve done pretty well, all things considered.
Sometime early last winter I marked March 15 in my head as the day that the awful pandemic winter would finally feel over. The weather would start turning warmer and allow more outdoor activities, the vaccines would be rolling out, and we might be able to actually feel confident that better days are ahead.
Today is March 15, and although it’s freezing cold today, it actually does feel like things are turning. Spring flowers are sprouting in Prospect Park. My parents have been vaccinated and hugged my niece and nephew for the first time in a year. The hawks have started to build another nest.
And yet we’re also still kind of in it. It’s hard to see exactly what’s ahead or even how we’ll look back on what’s behind us.
I can’t tell if we’ll look back on the past year as a strange void, or whether we’re all coiled springs who have been steadily compressed and are ready to catapult forth, all the energy we’ve had to suppress this past year suddenly unleashed.
There’s talk in NYC of a new Roaring Twenties, and fantasies of people making out in the streets in the summer and living out some glorious bacchanal.
Maybe. We’ll see.
I’m trying to remind myself that no time is ever truly lost. As much as I’ve felt stalled, I know that this year forced a reset that will hopefully pay dividends in whatever lies ahead. As I adapted to an incredibly stressful version of the world, I learned skills and habits that will be useful in smoother waters.
Thanks for being on this journey with me, and here’s to better days really and truly being ahead.
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Art: Folding screens by Mitani Tōshuku