Annie Essay Heading link
Last Wednesday night, I found myself at the Hideout, there for its weekly Soup and Bread night. S&B has become an essential part of my routine this semester: after getting out of my afternoon art class, I’d bike or take transit (or both) to get to the Hideout, tucked into the Elston industrial corridor, a space rich with the spirit of intentional community-building. As the first S&B directly impacted by the quickly-changing circumstances surrounding coronavirus, the mood was decidedly different: soup was ladled into single-serving, sealed containers, and volunteers wearing safety gloves handed out bits of bread. Despite the strangeness of the experience, it felt meaningful that we still gathered together, seemingly taking appropriate precautions, but enjoying one another’s company nonetheless. After we finished eating, my friend Anna and I took a long walk to Logan Square, to visit a window front installation called “Jackie Land,” a paper-mache city floating just above our own, full of whimsical buildings with titles like “Halloween Every Day In Here” and “Memes You Haven’t Seen Yet.”
Yet within 24 hours, everything had changed. By the time we met for 506 on Thursday, it was clear that we’d likely not see one another again for at least several weeks, if not longer; even still, I had no sense of how much more change was coming our way. Within days, we’ve watched our entire world confront the realization that drastic measures were the only possible option against a virus that takes the most basic human instincts and turns them against us, making public life into something fraught with danger. Many are still in denial, and fairly so: it seems impossible to conceive of life as we’re now being forced to live it.
What keeps us grounded? It’s a highly personal question, of course: what gets one person through these peculiar times might make everything even worse for someone else. For me, walking is a ritual that’s not only allowed me to work around the grim reality of social distancing, but also reminded me of what’s so magical about living where I do. More than anything else I’ve turned to in the past week, getting to go on walks, whether alone or with nearby friends, has helped me stay within my body and in this moment in ways that have made the thought of getting through everything feel possible.
I’m fortunate to live within a five-minute walk of a good handful of friends, many of whom I’ve already gone on extended walks with in the last few days. Each time, we’ve been careful in our approach: keep a friendly distance from another, avoid anywhere that might have larger numbers of people, hands kept firmly in our pockets. By following these basic precautionary measures, I’ve been able to keep seeing close friends, sharing our surroundings and maintaining them as an active presence in our lives. It’s brought me closer to my own feelings about everything happening right now, as well as making me appreciate the city so much more than I thought I ever could have. In our new world, even the most familiar walk has been reborn, countless surprises springing forth from well-known terrain.
What does that mean? On an extended walk with my friend Sophie, we journey all the way from our homes in Andersonville into Rogers Park, taking Greenview until the Red Line finally pushes westward above us. Little details resonate: multi-hued aquamarine tiles shimmer; a vacant hornet’s nest dangles precariously; our resonant footfalls sharpen into focus. Through our unhurried gait and gradual conversation, I become more aware of how I’m feeling about the rapid shifts we’re all encountering, as we take stock of strange new realities like shuttered restaurants, working from home, eerie stillness where once there was life. After two hours together, I’ve shed the vague dread sensation which had settled in the night before, no more certain of the path ahead, but comfortable knowing that walking would lead me onwards no matter what might lie there.
The undeniable quiet permeating my surroundings has reminded me that the urban environment is at once a backdrop for the liveliness of the human experience, as well as an enduring presence in its own right, just as stoic and present now as it was a week ago, before everything changed. In that silence, it’s become possible to inhabit the city without assuming a predetermined form for it to take, to stop taking for granted the myriad activities the city permits us when the world is not stilled by a collective need to shun public life. Familiar walks take on new dimensions; utter emptiness accentuates the feeling of being separate from one another as we return to our individual apartments, while the presence of other people out walking reminds us how easily we seek the presence of simple companionship, now missing from everyday life.
In a time of unanswerable uncertainty, I want to hope that the simple act of putting one foot in front of another will be enough. I think back to something shared with me a few weeks ago at a conference, in response to the question of how to keep trying to change the world in the face of seemingly intractable resistance: “You do the right thing, and you keep doing it until the path emerges.” For the moment, the challenge of finding one’s way forward through the day-to-day uncertainty is most acute, particularly for those who have seen once-certain employment disappear in a trace. Witnessing the scale of displacement inflicted upon so many people, but especially for those already most vulnerable before the outbreak, can make it painful to imagine what more will happen when nothing makes any sense to begin with.
Still, I do my best to hold onto a simple Nietzche parable, the only thing that stayed with me from my ill-advised attempt at taking an existentialism class in my first quarter as an undergrad. The parable points towards a more optimistic future, one which we seek in advance of its arrival, but it resonates just as acutely in our own moment of uncertainty. Though the temptation to imagine a near-term future in which things are restored to basic working order still lingers, I try to hold myself in attention to what I’m feeling right now, keeping my shadow from leading me into the unknown:
“My thoughts, said the wanderer to their shadow, should show me where I stand, but they should not betray me to where I am going. I love my ignorance of the future, and do not wish to perish of impatience and of tasting promised things ahead of time.”
Annie Howard- MUPP