Sometime last month, as the weather started warming up and the days began to get longer, I realized that I was breathing deeper, feeling hopeful, and closer to “normal” than I had in a long while. It made me aware of just how tense I had been this past year: shoulders tight, jaw tight, brow furrowed. All the time.
Like many of you, I have spent much of the last year tight with fear and anxiety, worrying about how to keep my loved ones safe, how to help the kids get through this, how to create positive memories in the midst of it all, how to practice gratitude, how to try and support those who need help and those who are working to make things better, how to be a friend without the luxury of shared time and space, how to prioritize, self-care, and keep connections.
My friend Nancy Hightower is a college professor and writer living in New York City. She spent much of the last year of quarantine alone in a city that is well-known for bringing people together.
Nancy, like many people, moved to NYC to be with people. What happens when all those New Yorkers, who usually breathe life into the public spaces that are the nervous systems of that vibrant city, are forced to disengage and isolate themselves?
Nancy would mask up and go on walks every day in her neighborhood, and she started taking photographs of what she encountered.
What Nancy photographed over the last year is the subject of her Patreon (and for those who don’t know what that is, Patreon is a crowdfunding platform that enables supporters/patrons to pay and support artists for their work). She shared a lot of her photos with me over the changing seasons, and they were rich food for my imagination. I think it’s a similar reason that so many people took refuge in Animal Crossing, Instagram, and TikTok. We needed windows into worlds outside our own.
Nancy’s photos capture relics of this moment; they are tiny portals into people’s lives left on doorsteps and balanced on mailboxes, draped over fences and hung from lamp posts. It was as if New Yorkers, forced into their apartments and unable to inhabit their museums, cafes, restaurants, galleries, bars, and parks, started leaking bits of their lives and themselves onto the streets. Here was a cookie jar beside a pair of vintage cowboy boots filled with plastic flowers, there was a lamp and a typewriter and a bag of rice. Sometimes it felt like poetry, other times like an art installation, or a Rorschach test for the state of mind of a city mourning and struggling.
Nancy has started sharing those photos with accompanying essays on her Patreon. The most recent one about how we have been changed by the pandemic struck a chord with me, and I wanted to share it. She’s made it public, so you can follow the link to see all the photos. You can join her Patreon if you’d like to read/see more.
Nancy writes: “This Spring you might find yourself being simultaneously hopeful and exhausted. You might not know who you are anymore–alone, or with other people. I’ve had sporadic dinners with pod friends over the past year, but nothing close to real, sustainable community, no touch longer than quick hug. I wonder what I’ll look like by the time I can be in a group, maskless and yet changed, a time traveler finally trapped by time.”
We have all been changed by the events of the past year, for better and for worse—as a nation, as cities, as neighborhoods, families, and individuals. We won’t be able to see just how far those changes go for a a while, but I think they will go deep.
We are still in a pandemic. The numbers are rising even as more people are getting vaccinated. There is hope, but there is also a need to remain disciplined. I feel like when I look into the mirror, I’m more than a year older. I think about my grandparents and their parents before them, who lived through war and famine and so much death and sacrifice. They were changed by those events too. Some of them shared their stories, and I am grateful.
It’s going to be important to remember, to document this time, to share our stories, to listen to one another when we finally come together, to really see ourselves and our neighbors as we emerge from this—inevitably changed.