For the last three months, I’ve been exploring new mountain trails, practically out my door, in the Sierras. I’ve been sheltering in Truckee, a California mountain town, where my partner and I were when the governors started issuing stay-at-home orders. In other words, I’ve been lucky. The outdoors has been a blessing, a balm, a solace, even a joy (as I wrote about last month).
Then the pull of New York City got too strong. I missed my home for the last 27 years, even and maybe especially because it was under siege. The last three months were the longest I’d been away. I missed seeing other humans I shared history with in person. Even if I would be at a distance and masked, I needed more than live virtual. And I missed the gift of Central Park runs. The spring trees bloomed vicariously for me this year, in photos sent by friends.
So, on Sunday, I left a quiet, lightly populated, outdoor mecca, to return to the COVID, and now protest, epicenter.
Going to an airport and getting on a plane was teeth-clenching (not that anyone could see that I was clenched behind my mask). At least my mask (handmade by my mother) was pretty. I’m not sure that I took a single easy, deep breath the whole way back. And it was a totally smooth journey, from a logistical point of view. On time. Tight connections, no problem. The guy across the aisle from me on my first flight coughed a few times, mostly with his mask on, but a couple times as he was eating his snack box, too. I was surprised by the lightning zing of anger that blasted through me. I had to unclench my fist.
I changed masks from my first to second flight, to give the tender back of my ears a little break with a different behind-the-head elastic configuration, plus I figured the first mask had enough of a workout from my aisle-mate. From Newark the uber driver was wearing a mask and had taped up thick plastic sheeting between the front seat and back, which felt reassuring. The car spun along the highway and across the river was the skyline that never fails to give me the safe-happy feeling of being almost home.
No surprise, the homecoming wasn’t quite as comforting as usual. Every stitch of clothing came off just inside the front door of the apartment. Sanitized hands. Carted all discarded clothes to the washing machine. Re-sanitized hands. Took a few things out of bags. Sanitized items. Re-sanitized hands. One of my fears coming home was that the apartment would be overrun with cockroaches and maybe mice too, which was not the case. Well, except that the first time I went to the bathroom, as I touched the toilet paper roll, a giant (3-inch) waterbug, who had apparently been snoozing inside the hollow of the roll, jumped out on my foot. I leapt up and shot out of the bathroom screaming. I have dealt with those insect monsters on my own, I probably encounter them once or twice a year, but I was quite happy that my partner allowed me a moment of squeamishness and stepped in to rid our bathroom of its presence.
Yesterday I spent some time just walking around our apartment, looking and touching. I opened kitchen cupboards and just stared at everything on the shelves. I discovered that the peanut butter we had in the fridge was the peanut butter we’d designated as our new fave in Truckee. [Sidenote—pre-COVID we ate out a lot, especially in the city. I rarely ate peanut butter. With the pandemic we went cold turkey to 100% home cooking, no takeout. My partner makes delicious muffins, which we have with peanut butter, tahini and jam. So good!]
I didn’t run our first day back. Instead, I did live virtual yoga. At the end of the day my partner and I ventured outside for the first time for a walk, which turned into a limited grocery run for things Fresh Direct hadn’t supplied. We also went for COVID tests and threw in an antibody test. After all, we were already at the clinic? If I really believed that other countries were managing better with more testing, then I figured I ought to apply the standard to myself. The whole experience of being out and about, even in such a circumscribed way, was unsettling. Never mind the masks and repeated hand sanitizing, the City felt a bit less friendly and not just because we can’t smile at each other so easily anymore. I felt like people’s eyes were jumpier, as if the virus might transmit in a glance.
After Monday’s psychological prep, I thought I was ready for a run Tuesday morning. I headed out the door at 7 a.m. in brand new running shoes I bought months ago. I decided that I was not going to wear a mask while running, unless I saw that most other people were. So newly back to the City, I’m still finding the balance between what I feel comfortable with and my obligations to be communitarian and ensure others feel safe. It turned out that 75% of runners were not wearing masks and at 7 a.m. it was easy to stay more than 6 feet distant (though I might try to go a little earlier from now on). By the time I’d run the few blocks to the West 81st Street entrance (Hunters’ Gate) I was starting to look forward to the Park, which been such a friend for so many years and miles. Within two minutes, I saw a cyclist lying on the Park ring road, surrounded by people. I was quite far away, on the bridle path.
Suddenly I was crying. I’ve seen cycling accidents in the Park many times. But in that moment, the scale of violence in the world felt overwhelming—the violence of a person getting injured on a simple bike ride, the violence of the pandemic, the violence of the protests, the violence of racism, the violence of capitalism (how can the humans inside corporations ask for legislative protection from workers’ compensation claims for workplace COVID?), the violence of righteousness. The too-muchness and my own feelings of helplessness in the face of such monumental problems, with no solutions in sight, shattered my fragile hope for a near-normal run. I collected myself and forged ahead with my run, but the usual joy I get from being outside and moving was muffled. Being helplessly overwhelmed is a sticky feeling. I carried the residue around the park with me.
Did I make the right decision coming home? I don’t know. But I’m here now. I know that I feel closer to my community, just knowing they are a few blocks away, instead of thousands of miles. I look forward to “seeing” friends later in the week from a safe distance. But my run this morning definitely crash landed the new reality into my psyche. And one of my most reliable cleanses for difficult emotions can’t be counted on anymore.
Of course, there are way bigger problems than my outdoor safety blanket getting taken away. A friend says, these are evolutionary times. I sure hope so. We could use some evolution. In the meantime, uncertainty upon uncertainty clouds my senses.