“What will you bring back?” The question—a worthy one—makes me imagine I’ve been away, in some other space. On a mountaintop, maybe, like a Beat poet who’s decamped to a lofty fire lookout station, or a yogi performing daily sun salutations, perched atop a rock: but it isn’t so. For many this virus has brought an unplanned pilgrimage, of sorts, but not for me. Sometimes I think it would be simpler to wrap my head around what’s changed (and still changing) if I had been able to leave the city, escape elsewhere—to put a more easily localizable gap between the before and after. Still, though, I understand the sense of distance, between a here-as-things-are-now and a there-as-things-were-then.
“What will you bring back?” I guess what I’m wondering is: are we going back? I don’t mean, will things ever be the same as they were (although I’m not sure they will, or that we should want them to be). I mean: did we ever leave? Not in a physical sense—we’ve been through that—but in the sense that this ‘pause,’ as we’ve been imagining it, was something other than living. For many of course—delivery people, healthcare workers, caregivers—the ‘pause’ has been more like a fast-forward. But even for those of us who have lost jobs, left home, quarantined—have we stopped moving through the world? At first it seemed convenient to believe we had, to postpone the panic, the mourning, the reckoning with reality: an essential survival strategy. And it gave us the chance to imagine going “back.” But I think, especially as the months stretch on, more of us are having to reckon with the uncomfortable, uncanny sense of continuity.
Paradoxically, it’s a continuity that, acknowledged, leaves more room for radical change, since it undermines the fiction of a return to ‘normal’ as the optimal outcome. It means taking stock both of the real suffering on an individual and collective level taking place during this ‘pause,’ of the ways that all around us this virus has exposed and exacerbated the structural inequalities built over decades, but also of the opportunities of this new way of living, with an increased commitment to mutual aid, a bit of breathing space between our identities and our workplaces. Not “what will you bring back?” then, but what do you carry with you: a focus on the present-tense that can help us to avoid either unearned optimism or nostalgia, and reckon with what’s here now.
Yesterday, I painted my nails blue.
I pulled a mask on over my nose and mouth and I put on my “outside shoes” (I’ve now taken to wearing shoes inside sometimes, just because I miss wearing shoes, but I wear a different pair when I leave my apartment, because that’s how the world works now) and I walked over to the drug store and waited until there weren’t many people inside and I bought a little bottle of blue nail polish. “Blue-tiful Horizon”, to be precise. “DIANA Blue”, to be personal.
I don’t try to paint my own nails all that often, but I had to think I would be more dexterous now than I had been trying to paint them fifteen years ago. Turns out nail-painting dexterity does not improve with time. Add that to the list of “Things I’ve learned” this quarantine.
As I painted each nail (and the surrounding area because again, I’m really not good at this) I felt a sneaky excitement percolating in the back of my mind. What a lovely color.
All my life, I have worried what others think of me. Sometimes it is an active buzzing in my head, a heightened perception to the reaction of everyone within range. Other times, it is a more subconscious hand, gently guiding me towards the safer thing, the bottle of red or coral or pink nail polish.
But, as it turns out, expectations are in the eye of the beholder.
I keep catching glimpses of my blue nails. When I’m pouring my morning coffee into a show mug that fills me with nostalgia, joyful memories and mourning of theater past swirled up with cinnamon and almond milk. When I’m chopping fresh vegetables for a Shakshuka (if there’s one skill I will master this quarantine, it will be the art of the perfect Shakshuka.) When I’m watching Netflix. When I’m practicing at the piano, my brain surging with musical dopamine. And when, twenty minutes later, I’m back watching Netflix again because I hit my twenty-minute Quarantine attention span limit.
Life is quirky and begging to be fully lived, but the voice inside your head doesn’t always remember that. So for anyone else who still hesitantly reaches for the pink nail polish, I encourage you to try blue next time. (Oh, and also cook yourself a shakshuka. It’s delicious.)
I can’t think of much that I’d like to bring back. I don’t really know how much of ANYTHING I’d like to remain the same at this point. I yearn for growth, for rebuilding, to look forward. I’d like to bring back the concept of dreaming without fear, organizing, and rising up to be better and stronger and freer than before.
I live very near one of the Brooklyn Law School dorm buildings. Someone who lives in one of those dorms is a pianist, and that person practices daily with intent and fervor and passion that I feel as a distant, foggy memory. Music pours out of the windows, although they’re just high enough up that it’s hard to see through them from street level. I’d never know who played the piano if I saw them around the neighborhood. I often wonder if we’ve passed one another on errands. And, I admit, the sound of making art for joy fills me with a strange combination of jealousy and gentle prodding. I deeply envy the idea that it’s possible to sing out, play out, speak out – to show yourself without the expectation of the invisible cloak of fear and sadness and personal backpedaling draping over your soul to render you speechless for another day – to do something for the joy of doing it. That’s the jealousy.
The gentle prodding is something different, something dormant under that cloak. Something still small and wobbly, reminding me of the idea that it’s possible to exist and create just for the joy of existing and creating, rather than constant commodification. That maybe, one day, I could also feel the need to make something without second guessing, without stopping before it starts, without looking over my shoulder and shrinking as shame runs through the cracks in my psyche. I want to replace that shame with light, with hope, with the idea that I am enough as I am.
In order to bring that back, I’m going to have to go find it in the depths of my past, in the future, in written missives folded up and tucked into pockets that I can forget about until laundry day. I miss hearing that law student play the piano. I hope they’re happy and healthy, wherever they are.