Editor’s Note: Tess Taylor is the author of the poetry collections “Work & Days,” “The Forage House” and most recently, “Rift Zone” and “Last West: Roadsongs for Dorothea Lange.” Views expressed in this commentary are solely hers. Read more opinion articles on CNN.
A decade ago, just before my son was born, I surprised myself by leaving New York to move back to the small California town where I grew up. Suddenly, for the first time since college, I was living day in and day out in a small bungalow six blocks from the home I’d left almost two decades before.
Returning had an odd intensity: A slant of light or a trip down a forgotten road would open memories of people and things I hadn’t thought about in decades. I’d run into high school classmates pushing kids in their carts at the grocery store; we’d meet – happy, but baffled to be grown.
Return was mostly joyful, but sometimes it was odd. Every so often, just as I thought I knew what I was doing, I’d turn a corner and find that I was lost. One day I set out to drive a route I had driven many, many times only to find that a freeway on-ramp I remembered was no longer there. I parked on a side street and got out to look. Like someone fascinated by tracing a missing tooth in their mouth, I stood, gaping at the gap between my memory and the present.
This summer feels a lot like that moment. Here we are, six months into the year 2021, attempting to return to a world that abruptly shut down 16 months ago. The on-ramps are scrambled. Some of them are gone. It’s a bit like waking up from a dream, except we are different, and the world is different, and will not, despite all the talk of getting “back to normal,” be the same again. Part of reconnecting our lives is wonderful. Part of it necessarily reminds us of our grief at what’s been lost. And every so often, we drive toward a landmark that simply isn’t there.
Maybe this is why, despite the long wait, and the hope, and the pent-up demand, reopening is more confusing than joyful for many of us. And at times, there’s something volatile too: Because we’re trying to return to something that’s actually not the same as it was, or maybe not even there at all, the world is full of strange, disjointed moments, places where our expectations are scrambled. Uneasiness, and even anger can run close to the surface. Some people have made news for their tremendously bad and rude behavior in public spaces, which signals a kind of sad maladjustment to living with other people.
For the rest of us, I’d imagine what we feel a lot of the time is tentative tenderness, trying to make sense of it all. The heart, like Wile E. Coyote, may find itself confused in midair, consigned to a precipitous drop. We’re out of practice being with one another. Going to a first unmasked gathering of friends a few weeks back, I felt afraid I had forgotten how to go to parties. (I hadn’t!)
The pandemic has also created strange forms of amnesia: On my first post-vaccination airplane trip a few weeks back, I (who once rode an airplane nearly every week) realized I had forgotten what an online boarding pass was. I had also forgotten what TSA precheck was, and how to use it. I was grateful for the socially distanced lines in the airport and for the TSA agent who shepherded us with extraordinary kindness. Ever so gently, he kept repeating, “You’ll remember that this is the moment when we ask you to remove your shoes.”
We have forgotten to remove our shoes. More disturbingly, some of us have forgotten how to live together. There has been a troubling uptick of hate and violence in public places. This is just one more sign that we have widespread, steady work to do toward repair (and not just of the damage done by the pandemic). We will need to rebuild our communities – our world – with mindfulness and deliberation.
Yet for all the talk of unruly passengers, what I noticed in the airport was the opposite – a kind of communal gentleness and gratitude, as people gave each other wide berths, and tried to smile over their masks. I also heard the wonder. “I’m going to go hug my grandbaby!” said the woman sitting next to me as we took off. It was marvelous, as a fellow vaccinated person, to give her a big high five.
What I felt was the joy, settling into my seat, and watching takeoff. I was headed to see one dear friend, but what I felt was vast hope in the idea of friendship. We have been on an extraordinarily hard journey, all of us. For some, there’s relief. For others, it’s not yet over.
And: We all have people we really need to hug. I know there are quite a few more parties on the horizon, and some much-needed letting off of steam, but as we reopen I hope we also each carve out moments of gentleness and discernment. I hope that there’s some way to live into the next era – at every level – with a bit more care.
That day in the airport, I had so many different feelings: awe at being out in the world, confusion at having so many people around, the delight of traveling alone, the beauty of liftoff. For my own family, this summer, we’ll have the chance to reconnect with many parts of our lives, even as this pandemic is not done, and even as its very, very clear that the crises of the world ask us to live and move forward with great deliberation.
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Some of the old on-ramps are gone, it’s true. What’s ahead? Instead of treating “getting back to normal” as “returning to the way it was before,” is there a way we could approach it differently?
One of the things that scholars like to point out about airports is that they are liminal spaces – places where we are at the border between the place we are leaving and the places we hope to arrive.
At this edge of the pandemic, as we fumble towards whatever era comes after, maybe we can use this liminal time to consider again what lives we want, what we’re aiming for. Where do we really want to go? How, finally, could we get there?