A year ago, I was living in Berlin and lucky enough to sneak out on Tuesday afternoons for the free concerts held in the foyer of the Berlin Philharmonic’s beautiful hall. You had to get there early, outracing razor-elbowed German retirees and tourists for your square inch of carpet.
The reward was so great. I thought, at the time, that the reward was the music. But now I know it was more than that. The reward was watching the audience: A woman in a bright pink turban, a man who brought his grandchildren, even the guy attempting to stuff a Matterhorn of cheese into his piehole before the concert began.
I’ve always disliked crowded places, but now I miss them. I tell myself I won’t complain when they return. If they return. It’s been a year of losses, of grief, of abysses. Some are smaller than others, but they all leave a hole.
As I write this, 14,228 Canadians have died of COVID-19. Each of those deaths is a whirlpool that disorients everyone around it – family members, friends, the valiant caregivers who were there at the end. I lost my mother at the beginning of the year, just before the virus gripped the world in its talons. For months after, I would chastise myself for using the word “lost.” She wasn’t a phone, or a pair of keys. She wasn’t going to be found again. But saying the other thing was just too painful.
Talking about what we’ve lost this year is also painful, because it must begin with lives and livelihoods. But it doesn’t end there. We can also grieve for the small, dumb things that were once so firmly fixed in our daily lives that we didn’t even notice them. My mother, for example, never left the house – not even her bedroom – without red lipstick. Now when I grieve for her I also mourn the half-dozen lipsticks rattling around in the bottom of my purse, unworn since my mask went up. Another connection to her, and the old world, lost.
I asked a bunch of people what they missed about the previrus world, and I found myself nodding along with all of them. Lunch with co-workers. Flirting with strangers. Working alone in a coffeeshop. A matinee at a movie theatre. An empty house. Live music. Browsing for useless things. Halloween and Thanksgiving and Christmas. Graduations and birthday parties. The sobremesa, which is what the Spanish call the lingering idle talk over a table when the meal is finished. “What did I lose?” one friend asked in response to my text. “I’m pretty sure I lost my mind.”
People even admitted to missing things that had once made them anxious, like “sardining with strangers” and “awkward hugs that turn into kisses.” They talked about feeling nostalgic for their office desks and chairs and lunchrooms. I understood this twisted logic: Sometime during the past year, I began to feel personally culpable for the loss of things that were not my responsibility, such as Chuck E. Cheese going bankrupt, even though I’d never experienced its delights. When Ikea announced it was cancelling its paper catalogue, I thought it was my fault for buying all my Blergs and Skrjans online.
What makes the losses worse is that we’re not sure if they’re permanent. If you call something lost, that suggests it exists to be found again. But what if it doesn’t? What if the world doesn’t reset to a shape that we recognize? The human brain is not very good at managing uncertainty. I’m pretty sure I can live without the Ikea catalogue and Chuck E. Cheese and air kisses, but don’t make me give up my Saturday night at the movies with a tub of popcorn and overpriced, watery Diet Coke.
As the crisis wore on, things began to disappear that seemed to indicate darker clouds gathering, such as “hero pay” and cash money. Supermarket chains seemed happy to augment the wee pay packets of their staff for as long as it earned them accolades, but then when the public’s gaze was lost – pffft! The hero pay disappeared, too. And cash, a form of payment crucial for people who don’t have access to credit or debit cards, began to be refused by retailers. Even now, when we understand that the risk of transmission via bills or coins is low, many stores are stubbornly insisting on a plastic-only policy.
Some useful things were lost, too, such as the illusion that “we’re all in this together.” The pandemic made clear that in this particular Titanic, some of us are in the first-class saloon slurping oysters while more – many more – are trying to bail down in steerage. We learned who was bearing the real cost of this crisis: racialized communities, who are disproportionately sick and dying; underpaid workers in food processing; women who left the work force; the elderly who are warehoused for profit. And we learned who is reaping the rewards: The world’s 2,200 billionaires, whose wealth has grown by a collective US$1.9-trillion since this all began. Canada’s top 20 billionaires amassed an extra $37-billion in wealth in the first six months of the pandemic, according to the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.
In other words, some of us lost a lot less than others. Let that be a lesson we keep after all this is over, along with the promise to do better and be better, to appreciate the small things and fight for the big ones. Some things disappeared but others were unmasked, like the cracks that divide us.
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