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First there were the sirens. New Yorkers are accustomed to darkness, even blackouts, but the silence pierced only by the wail of emergency vehicles was unheard of until two years ago this week when Gotham went into lockdown. Soon after, huge swaths of Americans, especially in our cities, were parked in their dwellings, facing a form of self-imposed isolation none had ever experienced.
In the beginning there was not only vast unity on the temporary and measured use of lockdowns, there was even a perverse kind of excitement to it. There were supplies to procure, remote work arrangements to be made, Zoom cocktail hours to organize and schoolrooms to fashion in our abodes. But soon both the unity and the novelty wore off, as a deep winter of lonely quietude fell upon America.
Today as we mark this anniversary the crisis feels like it is finally behind us, though thousands are still dying from or with COVID, depending on how you count and who you ask. Almost to a person we have been changed by the experience.
For some, normal lives were thrust into activism, for or against restrictive measures. Some have not set foot in their offices since the virus descended like a cloud. For still others, the consequences at the bottoms of bottles and tips of needles have been destructive and deadly.
At their peak the lockdowns denied many the most basic human rituals and experiences. Those who died alone with final glances at loved ones on impersonal screens will never have a chance to die again with the grace of human touch. Those who could not bury them with honor will long live in that loss.
Even the less dire denials of church, bowling leagues or the book club left so many in a lonely place they had never been before. The irony was that even as our abiding need for human contact with others became so clear, we turned on each other.
The irony was that even as our abiding need for human contact with others became so clear, we turned on each other.
Just as social media produces cruelty and mean spiritedness absent from our in person interactions, our isolation dehumanized those with whom we disagreed, they became avatars of a position, not our brothers, sisters and fellow citizens. There may be some who never fell into this trap, but I didn’t meet many, and am certainly not among them myself.
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By Spring of 2021 the flinty ribs of physical isolation gave way to a confusing maelstrom of medical messaging. Vaccines prevented contracting COVID, then they didn’t, they prevented one from spreading COVID, then they didn’t, masks were good, masks were bad, well, who can really say? Instead of a Summer of liberation, we had a Fall of COVID spikes and death even greater than anything 2020 had inflicted.
In the flickering digital America of hypermodernity we don’t have famines, those Biblical warnings that all we have can be lost in a moment we can’t control. We fancied ourselves masters of the natural world only to be crushed in and of our hubris. That’s what was new, the helplessness. We have people with degrees and magical machines. This wasn’t supposed to happen anymore.
Two years is a long time. Long enough for us to learn to live without each other. Solitude strengthens us, but then again it leaves pain. Many of us now hope for a year of Jubilee, to, as the Bible puts it, “Proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and ye shall return every man unto his possession, and ye shall return every man unto his family.”
Today if you close your eyes in New York City the hiving low rumble, the dull din of millions in motion once again breathes into your mind. It covers the sirens. But the sirens are still there. Death, as much around us as life, has once again receded into the shadows, no longer to manage our everyday lives. And yet, we will never forget that for two years it did. Now, we must move on.
The ride is over. Ladies and gentlemen please exit the car in an orderly fashion.
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