Over the past year, on the rare occasion that I’m talking to someone other than my boyfriend, or my close friends, or my family, I’ve trotted out the same stupid joke.
“Thank goodness for law school, I’m almost too busy to notice the pandemic,” I’ll say into the wan light of my laptop screen. “I never thought I’d miss the law school library!”
The joke, of course, is on me. I do miss the law school library, which has the aesthetics of an airplane hanger and the ambiance of a morgue. I miss awkwardly catching acquaintances’ eyes and running into friends between classes. I miss the scalding, tasteless coffee from the vending machine on the first floor. I miss anywhere that isn’t my bedroom.
Life has felt narrower this past year, and soon, hopefully, it will seem very big, perhaps overwhelmingly so. I almost forget what my life was like before all this. Was it good, the way we lived? The endless churn of travel and happy hours and people, other people, everywhere, constantly. Maybe, maybe not, but it was more abundant.
How easily we get used to things! I’d never worn a mask before last year; I own several now, white KN-95s and black cloth and pink cotton, and I wear them every day. I give people a wide berth in the grocery store and on the sidewalk. I’m used to attending class through a screen. Normalcy, so seemingly immutable, is more flexible than I could have ever suspected.
The other day, we went to Alliant Energy Center to get tested for the fourth time. As we drove into the cool gray light of the amphitheater, past the towering, empty stadium seats, one car in an endless chain of hundreds of cars, I thought, I will tell my grandchildren about this. And they will never understand. And then a blue-gloved National Guardswoman stuck a swab far enough up my nose to touch those strange thoughts.
Amidst widespread precarity and social isolation, this has been one thing that has brought me hope. Quarantine has proven that we can radically change our lifestyles. Maybe the American way of life can give way to something better. It will have to, after all, if we’re going to prevent catastrophic global warming; but perhaps it can also embrace the good things in life. Quarantine revealed the things that, even at risk of life, people were unwilling to do without: mainly, other people. Maybe we can apply that same creativity towards living within the Earth’s resources, and outside the strictures of capitalism. Just imagine! Walkable, bikeable communities. Wind and solar power. Four-day workweeks, shorter hours, and abundant national holidays. Paid parental leave. State-of-the-art public transportation and high-speed rail. All unthinkable now, but then, 2020 was unthinkable to 2019.
Maybe capitalist realism isn’t as unyielding as it seems.