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First there were the sirens. New Yorkers are used 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 . Before long, huge swaths of Americans, especially in our cities, were parked in their homes, facing a form of self-imposed isolation none had ever experienced.
In the beginning, there wasn’t just great unity about the temporary and measured use of confinements, there was even a kind of perverse excitement. There were supplies to procure, remote work arrangements to make, Zoom cocktail hours to organize, and classrooms to shape into our homes. But soon the unity and newness wore off, as a deep winter of lonely quiet fell upon America.
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Today, as we mark this anniversary, the crisis seems to be finally behind us, although thousands are still dying from or with COVID, depending on how you count and who you ask. Almost to a person, we were changed by the experience.
For some, normal lives have been pushed into activism, for or against the restrictive measures. Some haven’t set foot in their offices since the virus descended like a cloud. For still others, the consequences at the bottom of vials and needle tips have been destructive and deadly.
At their height, lockdowns negated many of the most basic human rituals and experiences. Those who died alone with a last look at their loved ones on impersonal screens will never again have the chance to die with the grace of human touch. Those who could not bury them with honor will live long in this loss.
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Even the mildest denials from church, bowling leagues, or book club have left so many in a lonely place where they’ve never been before. The irony was that even when our constant need for human contact with others became so clear, we turned on each other.
The irony was that even when our constant need for human contact with others became so clear, we turned on each other.
Just as social media produces cruelty and nastiness absent from our in-person interactions, our isolation has dehumanized those with whom we disagreed, they have become avatars of a position, not our brothers, sisters and fellow citizens. There may be some who have never fallen into this trap, but I haven’t come across many, and I’m certainly not one of them myself.
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In the spring of 2021, the flint ribs of physical isolation gave way to a confusing maelstrom of medical messages. Vaccines stopped getting COVID then they didn’t, they stopped someone 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 drop in 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 everything we have can be lost in an instant we can’t control. We imagined ourselves masters of the natural world only to be crushed by and of our pride. This is what was new, impotence. We have people with degrees and magic machines. This shouldn’t happen again.
Two years is a long time. Long enough for us to learn to live without each other. Loneliness strengthens us, but again it leaves pain. Many of us are now looking forward to a Jubilee year, to, as the Bible says, “To proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants: it shall be a jubilee unto you, and you shall return every one to his possession, and you each of you will return to his family.”
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Today, if you close your eyes in New York, the dull rumble of the hive, the dull din of millions of moving people breathes again in your mind. It covers the mermaids. But the sirens are still there. Death, as much around us as life, has again withdrawn into the shadows, no longer managing our daily lives. And yet, we will never forget that he did it for two years. Now we have to move on.
The walk is over. Ladies and gentlemen, please get out of the car in an orderly fashion.
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