on the pandemic blues
and why its second year was so much harder than the first one
I did not expect to find the second year of the pandemic so much harder than the first. Dhananjay and I had both gotten vaccinated; so had, too, the older relatives we had spent the past twelve months worrying about. We could travel, again – albeit with a litany of bureaucratic requirements; and see those friends whom we'd seen only only on our screens. We could have our friends over to our apartment, at last, for my thirty-first birthday party.
And still, throughout the fall and winter of 2021, I found myself in one of the most melancholy periods of my life. I was not sure what it was, exactly, at the time. Perhaps, I thought, it was the rise of Delta, or of Omicron – and the uncertainty of making plans when we did not know whether we would ever stop synchronizing our heartbeats to daily counts of hospitalizations and deaths. But then I – and half the people I knew in New York – got Omicron in December; we isolated; we emerged, none of us significantly ill, ten days later, and still my sadness persisted. I stopped going out – not because I was afraid of getting sick, now, but because I no longer wanted to leave the house at all. I abandoned the outdoor hobbies I'd made during the pandemic – the twenty and thirty miles I'd biked daily during the spring and summer of 2020, when the subways still seemed vectors of disease, and when I had nothing else to do.
It took a long time for me to realize that my depression was as tied to the pandemic's partial end as to its thudding continuation. The first year of the pandemic was terrifying; it was dizzying and surreal; it was also – I realized this only later – one of the happier years of my life.
Of course, I was wildly lucky. As a writer, I'd always worked from home. I was able to work, consistently, throughout the pandemic, without much of a change in my daily life. I remained in good health; so did the people I cared out. I was newly-married – Dhananjay and I had eloped just as everything around us shut down – and living in an apartment large enough for me to work on my novel in one room while he taught on Zoom in another. We did not have children or older adults to care for. Had any of those things not been the case, I doubt I would have had the time or freedom of thought to let that strange and strangely tranquil year affect me the way it did.
But that first year of the pandemic was, in many ways, the eye of a storm I did not even know had come over me. Life was put on hold, then, and although so much good was suspended, so too were so much of life's bad habits, or at least the bad habits of life in a place like New York. There was no networking, no sense of seeing and being seen, no worrying about a career as an entity separate from doing work that I loved to do and the ability to support myself doing it. My world contracted – it cleaved itself, definitively, from the world – and contained, for the first time, only those elements of life that really mattered, those that were worth fighting for.
When I think of those first few weeks of lockdown, what I think of first is food: the meals that we (well, usually Dhananjay) prepared in the kitchen we were sharing for the first time. We had ordered food in bulk to minimize trips to grocery stores — non-perishables, mostly: cans of pulses and jars of kimchi and bags of grains. We had plenty of time and not a lot of choice: we had to make do with what we had. And so we invented dishes, combined spices, cooked down pulses, marked the days by writing down what we had cooked that day: week one, week two, week three. Our meals were rarely elaborate; nevertheless, they were the highlights of our days: the thing that differentiated a Monday from a Tuesday from a Saturday. The constraints of life under lockdown forced in us a kind of inventiveness, a sense that, to maintain sight of normal life, we had to do something, hold onto something — something as simple as a good dinner concocted from whatever we had on hand — to remind us of what mattered.
As the weeks and months passed, this sense of making it work pervaded all aspects of our lockdown lives. The things we wanted most — social contact, time outdoors, engagement with the arts — we had to fight for, to figure out how to get under constraints both legal and social. We gathered online for virtual opera nights, dressing up to watch the nightly Met free streams with friends, turning on our Zoom cameras during intermission. We watched “Zoom theater” — Theater of War’s Oedipus Rex, starring Oscar Isaac and Frances McDormand, remains one of the best pieces of theatre I’ve seen in any medium — and even a private Zoom concerts with a folk musician, Joe Pug, whom we wanted to support. We spent our Wednesdays on Zoom doing Evening Prayer live and Sundays watching mass on YouTube, rituals that, as Lent turned to Easter turned to Pentecost, made me more conscious than I have ever been of the pace of liturgical time.
But it was the gradual discovery, two or so months into lockdown, that outside was safe — that even outdoor, distanced socializing might be safe (at least, according to public health authorities in other countries), that got us through the rest of the pandemic’s first year. Astoundingly grateful to be able to leave our apartment for the first time in months, we began cycling all over New York — to Astoria, to Red Hook, to the Rockaways. We began to see our friends for a weekly picnic at the same place and the same time each weekend, a tradition we continued, with the help of mulled wine and unfashionable Snuggies, throughout the following winter. Suddenly the whole city, newly devoid of cars and chaos, became, more than it had ever been, a public space; streets and parks and promenades and waterfronts and plazas all existed for people to gather, to see one another, in the only way we could. .
I’d never loved New York more. I loved the makeshift outdoor dining setups and the yoga classes in city parks, the picnics on side-street plazas and the ubiquity of open-air cocktails, the outdoor concerts and the guitar-players and the boom boxes.
It remains among my greatest sources of anger in our handling of the pandemic that we did not stress the safety – and equally the necessity, for the sake of our collective physical and mental health – of outdoor gathering in our public health messaging. I am angry, too, that the goods that kept the two of us not just sane but often genuinely happy through the pandemic — regular social contact, online and off; the judicious use of newly car-free public space for exercise and time outdoors — were not just ignored by our public health and journalistic establishments, but often actively condemned (remember all those moralizing photographs of crowded beaches)? Those who defended the importance of regular social contact, even in measured and distanced ways, were all too often caricatured as selfish babies, willing to kill their grandparents for a night at the disco.
In the end, we were happy, in 2020, not just because we were able to get through it with our community, but because — by the very virtue of the pandemic’s limitations — our whole lives became about community. In the absence of obvious indoor gathering-places, and obvious “things to do”, we had to direct all our energies toward figuring out how to safely see the people we loved. One December night, I remember, a group of us went to the West Village to hear Dhananjay sing Christmas carols outside a hospital with his choir, hand warmers in our shoes, taking turns warming up, masked, in the subway station below.
When I think of that year, now, I think of how hard we worked to make the life we wanted possible, and how simple the life we wanted — shorn of illusion or distraction — really was. We wanted to do work we felt mattered, and to do it well and to be able to support ourselves doing it; we wanted to eat and drink well and share those meals with the people we cared about; we wanted to walk around, outside, and sometimes even, as they say, touch grass. It was not, I think (at least I hope), the cottagecore version of the fantasy, an aesthetic-consumerist trope of escape, but nevertheless it was perhaps in dialogue with the very best of what that fantasy tends towards: a sense that our attention, limited as it was by collective trauma, could only be directed towards the things that actually mattered, the people it was worth the risk of illness to sit six feet away from in a Snuggie in November rain.
The first days of hot vax summer were, in so many ways, a wonderful continuation of that life: a raucous, shared, celebration of being able to hug one another again and to sing next to one another again and also to finally be able to go indoors when it rained. But come fall, I found myself ill at ease in the world I had thought had missed, in a world where suddenly things had gone back to a normal I didn't know I didn't want. Although my own community — to my immense gratitude — remained close (our weekly picnics continue), the world as a whole felt alien to me.
Cocktail bars reopened, just in time for Tiktok virality to be a thing a person was supposed to court; restaurants and neighborhoods were once again trendy, rather than simply places where the miracle of being able to touch each other took place. There were so many cars – driving so much more erratically than before – that cycling around the city as I once did no longer felt advisable. Boutique $40 exercise classes were back, and so were influencers – our picnic spot was full of them – and so was the sense of a world that existed gleefully, carelessly, by and for consumption. At times it felt like we had collectively forgotten how valuable what we had almost lost had been.
Too much has been written, already, about the “vibe shift” in New York City: the faux-transgressive hedonism of a generation that is (I think rightly) frustrated with the hypocrisy of a covid-cautious liberal-managerial class unwilling to hold up genuine human connection as a good worth fighting for, and (I think wrongly) interested in channeling that frustration into a nihilistic celebration of all things (smoking, waiflike bodies, indie sleaze) associated with ill-health.
We have, I think, lost faith in a discursive system unwilling to hold up human social contact as a genuine good, one that ought to be held up alongside (though not, of course, instead of), the preservation of life. But, I think, what has replaced it is a frenzied fantasy of excess: a sense that nothing matters, any longer, so you can’t trust anybody and so you might as well come back to normalcy with a vengeance, without a sense of what normalcy ought to look like.
If the “cottagecore” fantasy (ed.: for the record, we christened our sourdough starter Bready Friedan) so prevalent during the pandemic had anything worthwhile to tell us, it was this: sometimes, the good life is simple. Sometimes it is enough, to be happy, to make a hearty meal from whatever is in the pantry, and to see the people we care about in whatever medium we are able to see them, and to go outside, once in a while. That ought to be the goal. Any political system that does not help to secure those goods for people — by ensuring that they are financially able to isolate in a pandemic and to get affordable medical care when they need it, and also by, hell, providing safe bike lanes and clean public spaces and focusing public health messaging on how to gather safely — is broken. And, too, is broken any culture that ignores or forget or denies these goods, in favor, say, of doing bumps of caviar.
The elements of the good life are interrelated; they are political not just at the level of policy, but at the level of us gathering as a political community. Our access to health care and our access to our friends, our time spent away from work and the way that we commute to it and what our childcare looks like, the food we eat and how we buy it and how and if we have leisure to cook it are, as the pandemic has made plain, connected.
I came out of my melancholy eventually — helped by the same goods that got me through the pandemic in the first place: good friends, good food, plenty of long walks outdoors, and limiting my time online. But I remain angry – angry at the failures of a public health system that both failed to protect a million people from dying and also did not prioritize finding ways to foster human connection for three hundred million others. And I am angry, too, that the normal that the world has gone back to has not (it seems) taken into account the incredible grace of our vulnerability to, our longing for, our loss of, one another.