Michiana Chronicles: The Wider World
In May, the New Yorker magazine featured a cover of little cartoon people tentatively opening a gigantic door. It was easy to imagine the creaking sound that captures our collective anxiety and hope about this season of emergence. Hasn’t it been weird, worrying, and sometimes wonderful?
After 16 months of sanitizing protocols, isolation, and, for me, straining to teach students through hicuppy Zoom screens, my spouse and I stepped through that cracked-open door in early May. Double-vaxxed at last, we took a training-wheels trip: An overnight at Sleeping Bear Dunes, pre-season, on purpose. As planned, we had the big dune to ourselves. We struggled to absorb the sublime surround-sound experience, cobalt water dotted by spruce green islands, the wind brushing our prickling skin after so many months in virtual shadows. When we clambered down to the beach for our first lake sunset of the season — oh, delicious phrase! — we were almost alone, except for the bloom of billions of little black flies, swarming and reminding us of our puny place in the grand ecosphere.
How will we remember this time … our collective re-hatching? Experts urge us to use story-telling to “process what we’ve lost.” Psychologist Dan McAdams suggests we listen to whether we tell “redemptive” stories of learning and growth about our quarantine, or “contamination" stories of loss … though I’d bet most us would twist together those strands of sweetness and sorrow. For me, mourning friends and their family members who died from the virus is part of the complex tapestry I’m still weaving as we rejoin the human swarm.
After our practice trip, we packed our Honda Fit with enough cheese, fruit, and seltzers to drive straight from South Bend to New York City to see our young adult children and one’s beloved. Ohio, Pennsylvania and New Jersey were a smear of hustled pit stops at gritty, mask-less gas stations until we rushed into the arms of our children. I marveled at their warmly fragrant necks, just as I had in their infant days, my eyes again drinking in the details of their eyelashes, the timber of their laughs, so uniquely them.
And yet in New York City, I swooned as much at the feeling of moving again in the burbling stream of fellow humans, strangers who were fellow travelers. Mask protocol in Manhattan was rigorous. The collective trauma of having been a coronavirus epicenter was evident everywhere, in boarded-up storefronts, creative mask-up posters in subway cars, and light-sparkled outdoor dining structures still squatting in traffic lanes.
But strangers’ eyes kept crinkling into smiles as we passed on the thrumming sidewalks. We lingered in front of the new Women’s Rights pioneers statue in Central Park, and three generations of women paused both to enthuse and to offer wry commentary on the long feminist road ahead. And in museums, patrons were positively chatty. I’d forgotten the fun of collective appreciation, and I bobbed along on the babble of contemplation in international tongues. At the Frick museum, I paused before Joseph Chinard’s bust of a hunky Napoleonic bureaucrat, and a woman in her 70s sidled up, murmuring through her embroidered mask, “Oh, my, that’s a handsome man. Mmmm mmmm mmmm!” I laughed in appreciation; she laughed back. That moment of mutual lust for life has kept me humming.
That low murmur, no matter the language, and the movement of fellow feeling reminded me of the roiling beauty of murmurations of starlings. But for the first time, I felt part of a living, harmonic — ok, redemptive — cloud. Like Joan Didion, whose essay “On Keeping a Notebook” has inspired my public eavesdropping for decades, I logged dozens of snatches of conversations, each weird and endearing. I heard one woman declaring to a friend, “That Adam Grant essay in the Times about languishing — that was me, but no more.” Another quick confession from a different pair: “It’s shallow, I know, but thank God lipstick is back.” I caught a precocious grade-schooler on a scooter tell her hipster, jogging-along father, “I think I just wrote creative non-fiction, so I gotta check some facts with the school librarian.”
On our last day in the city, as we nosed around Greenwich Village, one daughter seized my sleeve as we turned a corner and whispered: “There’s Fran Lebowitz!” “No!” I said. But yes, there, tromping along in her signature blue blazer, the city’s comic curmudgeon unmistakably was, separate from the swarm, and sure in her stride as we parted for her. We sought the wisdom of the crowd, whose smiles of recognition but cautionary eyebrows telegraphed: Know your place, friend; only a fool would stop to ask for a photo with Fran. We moved along.
Music: “All the Things You Are” by Charles Mingus