Will This Year Actually Change Us?
Reflections on caterpillars and public spaces.
I didn’t want to write about the pandemic in this newsletter because if there’s anything we’ve all had enough of at this point, it’s Covid. However, a memory from the fall resurfaced a few days ago and I couldn’t get it out of my head, so it became the starting point for this piece. It’s also worth noting that my personal pandemic experience has largely felt removed from its most ugly side, and so I’m certain my perspective is reflective of that. Lastly, this really isn’t about ‘Covid’ at all, but how we might change in response to it. (4 minute read)
Last fall, I spent some time in coastal Maine — a string of quiet days largely isolated from the outside world that felt at once like a gift and also seemed to amplify 2020’s signature dystopian vibe. I felt as removed as ever from my ‘normal life’. A daily run along a hilly five-ish mile route became a fixture in my routine, a way to commemorate the passing of another day.
I’m used to running in Charleston, where it’s not uncommon to cover miles without any elevation change whatsoever, so at first the hills were challenging, even frustrating. But over time, I noticed the loop become easier. I felt myself running faster. I found this simple shift in my own perception to be very satisfying.
My runs often went uninterrupted - sometimes I’d stop to take in the view when I reached the beach. But one day, as I rounded a corner up a hill, I noticed a caterpillar in the middle of the road and I stopped. Slowly, as caterpillars do, he inched toward the other side of the street. I couldn’t help but watch him. I became fixated on the caterpillar’s journey — that at this stage of his life, he will spend all day going from woods on one side of a road to woods on the other side. Then one day he will find a place to take a nap and days later he will wake up and know that it’s time to meet up with his butterfly friends and fly to Mexico. (For the purpose of my story, the caterpillar is a Monarch.)
I found this thought to be funny — the dichotomy between the existence of a caterpillar and that of a butterfly, a slow life on the pavement vs. covering a hundred miles in a day, headed south of the border. My first thought was: I want to go to Mexico, imagining a mild sunburn and the taste of mezcal. And then I couldn’t help but draw comparisons about how time in the pandemic had its parallels to life as a caterpillar; these were slow days on the pavement. I kept running.
Months later, the road to wherever it is that we’re headed no longer feels endless. All indicators point to the end of the Covid-era, at least the end of its most disruptive chapter. So we begin to wonder: what next? Much has been said about a ‘new normal’. If I’m being honest, this phrase elicits a particular ‘cringey’ feeling deep from within me. The ‘new normal’ crowd always seems to relish in telling us that we’ll continue to stay divided by plastic, confined to our private spaces, reliant on Zoom to communicate.
To get to the root of why I find that variety of ‘new normal’ to be so irritating, one has to be able to see the difference between the type of person who is far more concerned with not dying than they are with actually living. This isn’t an assault on public safety measures or a commentary on how to get Covid under control. For the sake of the article, we will assume that one way or another we are approaching a day when we’ll be able to mingle without much, if any, additional health risk than existed before this virus showed up. And who will we be then?
I’ve read enough articles about how the world might look once this is over; that ‘WFH’, remote learning, and at-home workouts are here to stay.
None of this is particularly interesting.
I’ve started to wonder if we’ve begun to use ‘safety’ as an excuse for ‘convenience’. On the surface, convenience is a logical thing to strive for. But, over time, the accumulation of decisions to not leave one’s home, to not interact with others in person, is sure to have a lasting effect that almost certainly isn’t positive. This thought leads me to reflect on all of the technological advances we’ve made in the name of convenience and ask if our lives are better (or even actually more convenient) for them.
Rather than continue to explore the ways in which we’ll go on embracing remote living, I’m far more curious to examine how we might adapt and improve our shared, public spaces.
A personal mantra that I only feel stronger about in light of this year: ‘walk more and be a regular’. At the peak of Covid strangeness, aimless walks around my neighborhood did a lot for my sanity, but as the city has opened up, I’ve found myself opting to walk wherever I’m headed unless it’s necessary to drive. Doing so has made me feel more connected to the city I call home. And because we saw a lot more restaurants close than open this year, I feel particularly loyal to my favorite spots. I’m less concerned with the latest buzzy opening and more grateful to the places I frequent, with a heightened appreciation for how nice it is to be on a first-name basis with people who aren’t close friends, but add depth to my everyday.
Still, beyond all of our own little bubbles lies an enormous opportunity to consider our public spaces: parks, government buildings, hospitals, airports, schools, transit. Rather than figure out how we can all become more remote, what if we doubled-down on investing in public spaces, and not only in making them safe (better ventilated, etc.), but making them delightful?
In the days between the Capitol riot and the Inauguration, I remember reading this article in the New York Times about our government buildings becoming ‘less public’ over the years, and frankly, it bummed me out. Initially I reflected on my own visits to places like the Capitol or to monuments and thought how sad it would be for future generations not to be able to experience these places as I had. But it became clear that in the instance of government buildings, closing these places off leads to the loss of more than future memories — when people have less access to their leaders and representatives, the gap between ‘the people’ and ‘the Government’ only widens. The government increasingly becomes the faceless other, feeding the growing erosion of trust in our institutions.
Neglecting design and access in each public place comes with unique implications. When we turn our shared spaces into sanitized fortresses, at the very least, we should acknowledge what is lost, but at best, we could do ourselves a gigantic favor by utilizing the big pool of creative talent we have in the country, and on the planet, to invest in turning shared spaces into places that serve us and inspire us, places that we’re proud of.
Of course, there are obstacles — namely, costs. Still, even as we’ve come to prioritize aesthetics (largely due to the exponential rise in the exchange of photos), public spaces tend to leave much to be desired. In an era where our sense of in-person connectivity has been increasingly fractured and siloed by technology, and now has been completely upended by this pandemic, we should recognize how not having full access to many of our shared spaces has impacted our emotional wellbeing. Great public spaces can strengthen the fabric of society at a point when we desperately need it. It’s the perfect time to start designing them for the future rather than let them decay while we stay at home.
And whenever this is ‘over’, I still might want to take a trip to Mexico.
Have a great week! -A