There is a flat aspect to life right now that we are just not used to in 21st century urban America. The world seems like it lacks dimension, like everything has been reduced down to the flat line we’re all traveling on to get to the other side of this crisis. We are so used to lives with so many wonderful aspects, that to be lacking in experiences, whether those are shared or not, renders life strange and devoid of color.
Walking through Manhattan today, I thought about how one of the major impacts of this shutdown is the removal of choice. Being out of the house, walking around a city, my instinct is to be able to take a break in a cafe or restaurant, to be able to go inside a landmark or museum, or to be able to shop if I see an interesting store. All of those choices are gone right now. There is no choice to duck into a store, nor is there an option to sit in a Starbucks and doodle in my journal. At night, the bars and clubs are closed, and there will be no goth club events for the foreseeable future. These small, everyday choices are effectively negated by the pandemic, as all “third places” have been rendered closed until further notice. For a city like New York, which depends on those third places to give its citizens space outside their tiny apartments, this adds a further sense of confinement to the already narrowing world.
The second shared impact is temporal dysphoria effect of the shutdown. The pandemic has created a shutdown state in which we are all reduced to the same daily routines, in the same space, without any of the movement or change that delineated days, weeks or even months. It isn’t just an issue on weekdays, when the workday ends and we lack the transition to home lives. It is the weekends, in which we remain in the same space, often doing the same tasks on a Saturday as we might have on a Monday. It has been the months in which we have not been able to gather for holidays, or attend the events we associate with spring, or engage in any of the societal milestones that usually mark time. Time has lost meaning for many of us, as our spatially based routines have been interrupted and eliminated. Our lives have lost those temporal dimensions.
With the flattening of our experiences though, and the compressing of our sense of time, there is also a shared sense of loss for these strange months. We all feel as if our lives are passing us by. There is a lethargy and a despair that is beginning to set in among New Yorkers, as we go into our twelfth week of quarantine without a real end date in sight. There is a lack of hope setting in, coupled and connected to a deep fear of negative change. We are unable to hope without a timeline for when hope might be practical, yet we are absolutely able to fear the future without a set schedule of when it might arrive. We lack the hope of being able to look forward to all of the things we loved about the city, which leaves us all without a counterbalance to the deep sense of foreboding and dread as to what the city will look like when we are on the much anticipated other side of this pandemic.
Fear without hope means that even this flattened existence feels unstable. The one-dimensional existence we all feel we occupy right now still manages to feel as if it has a deep dread underneath it, as if we are all on a sheet of ice over unfathomable dark waters. Every day we hear new stories of loss, of possibilities being extinguished, either by the disease or by the economics of the situation. It is the only thing that moves time forward, the litany of news that seems to remind us every day that there is a disease threatening the most vulnerable among us, that the urban way of life may be a victim of the disease, and that there is a madman in charge of the country who offers no support or compassion to any victim.
I am hopeful that these will, however, be the darkest days of the pandemic. I am hopeful that we can open up NYC without putting the people at risk who already need more support just to survive, provided we are mindful of that risk as we do so. I am hopeful that experiences and choices will expand, slowly, to give us all back the connection to the city, to each other and to our lives’ experiences we miss so very much. Until then though, we will all have to rely on our sense of empathy and compassion to get through this.