he pandemic has been a series of replacements, one after the other until the world itself has been rendered slightly off-kilter. Having gained a little lopsided perspective to match, I try and push my brain’s propensity for pessimism toward thinking of this year as not necessarily lost, but replaced.
It was the one-year anniversary of the pandemic when I caught myself absentmindedly wearing my mask at home with no one else around. Chopping a crisp bunch of celery, I noticed the lower half of my face tucked away between folds of high-quality cotton fabric, a significant upgrade from what I had bought back when Time felt less viscous. I laughed and relieved myself of the familiar elastic tug pressing on the backs of my ears. When I did, I noticed something metallic, something bitter in the sound. Cheap fabric, replaced by slightly better fabric. Laughter, bubbling up from my stomach, replaced by the clenching of my throat to hold back a steady stream of tears.
Now mask-free, I remembered it wasn’t too long ago that I was spending Friday nights out with friends in bars with sticky floors. Overpriced liquor now replaced by a weekly ritual of making homemade popcorn, and then promptly forgetting for a month that I actually like popcorn (this also being part of the ritual). I let memory tear down the walls of my apartment, transporting me back to my old campus. A city of marble and metal where the smell of cigarette smoke and leftover frying oil would cling to the layers of jackets students wore as they discussed the banalities of foreign policy. The air, teeming with the idealistic possibility of what the world could be and of what we could be.
With these sly replacements having crept in, everything seems much quieter now. And in this quiet blooms a skepticism. Porous. Spongy. There are layers of it now — folding in and out of itself, making its presence known in subtle and grandiose ways as I push through the minutiae of everyday life. I hear it as I ask the cashier in the checkout how their day is going and I get the reply, “I mean, it’s going.” Not going well, not going badly, just going. The incessant pushing forward feels like too much and too little all at the same time. And there it is, a layer peeking out from the corner of a question I keep asking myself: “Is this all there is?” and if not, what comes next? To which sunlit street corner do I walk to find the choices that push the perimeters of my world a little wider?
It is a balancing act, to live in the present moment, everything underscored by an acute sense that things are not “normal.” Not to mention, the suspicion still taking root, that perhaps things never were “normal.” But there is something about this weightlessness, this liminality, that makes everything so present for me. That feeling that there are absolutely no guarantees makes it easier to ground myself in what I can touch, hear, feel, see — right here, right now.
And so we press forward.
Saturdays in a pandemic approach with all the gusto of a rush hour traffic jam —that is, painfully slowly. Still, there is a sweetness that comes with the eventual arrival of something you’ve been waiting for, and sometimes anticipation is its own prize. I get caught up in anticipation often. When it works out in my favor I call it “dreaming big”; when it doesn’t, the name I give it is “failing to live in the present moment.” Sitting in anticipation is the state in which my mind works best and does what feels most natural for it to do.
Extrapolating wildly from the present into the future, my mind fills in the gaps with whatever arbitrary persuasion of the moment until it finds a storyline with some weight to it. These days my head feels absent of plot points and probabilities. There is just weightlessness where there used to be multiverses waiting to step into reality. All the monotonous certainties of a pre-pandemic world, replaced too, with shifting sand underneath my feet. The boundaries of my own mind, always in perpetual motion, stilled by the amorphousness of the moment. There are no stepping stones from which to leap wildly into another eventuality. Just the sand. Shifting, turning, churning up clouds of debris.
I’ve never had much of a knack for finding silver linings, but now they are the things that push me forward. Sometimes, when the dust clears and I can look around, I don’t always see a pretty picture. Sometimes, I smile as I notice things about myself or the world around me silhouetted by the light of a new day. The purple-haired girl in the beer section of the grocery store recommending her favorite flavors (“If you like sours, this is a great one!”). The bright tendril of a new leaf on a stubborn plant. Fleeting moments materializing in flashes of brightness, daring you to notice them. Reminders, always unexpected, that let me catch my breath.