Looking back, it’s hard to remember the exact moment we left the old world behind, and entered this new one. How did Ernest Hemingway describe going bankrupt — “gradually, and then suddenly”? Like that.
Was it last month, when the trip to Italy I’d booked with my partner was cancelled? “Just to be on the safe side,” my hosts told me at the time.
Or was it three weeks ago, when I first noticed that hand sanitiser at my local pharmacy was sold out?
Maybe, in this new one, we will better understand just how much we need each other, now that being together in one room has become so hard.
Was it a week ago Sunday, when I got the message from Barnard College’s president that classes for the coming week would be held via videoconference?
Or was it the next day, when the Dow Jones Industrial Average plunged more than 2000 points?
Maybe it was last Wednesday night, when US President Trump delivered a wooden speech, condemning the “foreign virus”? (Even when he’s talking about disease, he has to sneak a little racism in.) Or two days later, when in response to a question about the lack of widespread access to testing, the leader of the free world said, “I don’t take responsibility at all.”
Each of these events captured a moment when it became clear the crisis — both pandemical and political — was getting worse, day by day.
But the moment that will always remain in my mind is Monday, March 9, as I rode the subway north. The doors opened and closed at Chambers Street. Then a deranged man started yelling about the coronavirus. At the next stop, almost everyone in the car fled. Then it was just two of us, the crazy man and me. He looked me up, he looked me down. I don’t know what he saw when he looked at me. A frightened older woman? Something else?
I remembered riding the subway in the early ‘80s, and the panic over AIDS, my terror as friends got sick. I remembered how President Ronald Reagan had been unable to bring himself to even say “AIDS” until four years after the disease had been identified. All at once I was in my twenties again, and the feeling of panic rising in my heart felt strangely, eerily familiar.
I teach at Barnard College in the spring semester each year. The rest of the time I live in a small town in Maine. I miss my family, and my dog, and my friends while I’m working in New York, but on the whole, being part of the college has been one of the great blessings of my life.
Gradually — and then suddenly — it became clear to me that, as I packed my bags for spring break last week, I might not be coming back to New York when break was over.
Safe to come back?
I looked around my apartment. I’d been here for nine weeks. Was it really possible I might not return until next January? Will it be safe to come back here then?
That night, I noticed I had the sniffles. I coughed. There was a time when I’d have paid this no mind. Now, I felt my heart pounding. Was I infected? I took my temperature. It was normal. But for how long?
When I was a child, I was haunted by the idea that I’d die in the year 2020. I don’t know how this delusion first came to me, but I remember thinking of it at least as early as 1968, when I was only 10 years old. I’ve thought of writing about it in my column this year — and about the way all sorts of things only come true when we take deliberate steps to prevent them.
But I’ve demurred, thinking such dark thoughts are best left unspoken.
On Thursday night I sat up in bed, suddenly remembering my childhood certainty about the year 2020. It’s coming for you, I thought. Now is when it comes.
I woke in the morning, symptom free, but still in the grip of other afflictions — those of fear, and emptiness, and panic.
On Friday I walked up Amsterdam Avenue and saw an image spray-painted on the sidewalk. “PROTECT YO’ HEART,” it read, along with a picture of a heart upside down. Later, I learnt it was the work of an artist from Queens named Uncutt Art.
It reminded me of how important it is to care for our spiritual selves during a time of crisis. The Protect Yo’ Heart project, I learnt, took its name from Proverbs 4:23: “Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it.”
The world we lived in has vanished — slowly, and then suddenly. Even if we manage to defeat the coronavirus, that world will not return.
Maybe, in this new one, we will better understand that in a moment of national crisis, you need someone who can bring us together. Someone who can express empathy for others’ suffering. Maybe, in this new one, we will better understand just how much we need each other, now that being together in one room has become so hard.
I’m back in Maine now. I don’t know for how long. Wash your hands. Protect yo’ heart.
Jennifer Finney Boylan is an American author and a professor at Barnard College of Columbia University