I am the opposite of a country singer; I have always felt that real life happens in the big city, and just out of my reach. When we lived in Boston, I felt closer to it, that glorious middle-of-things. But we didn’t live in Boston, not really. We lived in Lynn, north of Revere Beach, which is to living in Boston what Wheaton or Oak Park is to Chicago, like saying you’re from Grand Rapids when you really grew up in Hudsonville. Whenever I took the T into town and walked the Greenway from the North End to Fanueil Hall, or loitered in the exquisite Copley Square library or ate takeout in the sun on the Boston Common, I would feel like I was almost there. I was somewhere in the neighborhood of the heart of it all.
Now we’re in Ann Arbor. My best friend lives in New York, and for months when she talked about going to a Korean Film Series at the Lincoln Center or meeting friends in the Village or a date at a speakeasy in Chelsea I just ached with envy, that she is there in New York where the world is, where life is going on without me.
And now, in this time of global pandemic, quarantine has proved an equalizer. My world is nine hundred square feet and my spouse and my dog. Brenna’s is a fifth-floor walkup she doesn’t walk up to much anymore because there’s no going down because there’s hardly any going out. When she’s out on her daily constitutional and sends me a photo of the precise spot in Central Park where we did crosswords in the sun on the morning of my twenty-sixth birthday, I am sad for both of us instead of just me. Central Park is not really Central Park anymore—it’s just the spot where she can sit in some grass for a change, not unlike the middle school soccer field down the street from my house where we take the dog to run around a bit.
I know—I know, achingly—that this is very, very bad for many, many people, that I am very, very lucky to be secure and well, and I am not here to write about silver linings or what we are all learning from this experience. But I will say that—for me—being confined to my home has sometimes felt liberating in a small and quiet way. The persistent anxiety that life is going on without me somewhere else, that people are being young (or just young-ish, now) in more vibrant and meaningful ways in bigger cities and glamorous rooftop bars somewhere else—that has stilled. It is easier, in quarantine, for me to believe that the life I am living is as vibrant and meaningful as a life in New York, or in Boston or DC or San Francisco. It’s a cliché, I guess, that when the chips are down we remember what really matters. Like when my grandma says she is thankful for health, and family, and God, and that’s more or less the whole list. Like those country songs I don’t listen to.
One of the many hardest things about all this is not knowing when we’ll get New York again, or what New York will be when we reach it. Substitute New York with the name of any city or town or isolated hilltop, whatever you miss—because we don’t know what anything will be after the long denouement of this crisis, and we don’t know who we will be, either, or who will be there with us. And it’s hard to dream or even schedule when everything feels uncertain. I was supposed to go to Milwaukee in March to present at an academic conference for the first time. We were planning to be in Washington in May. Ohio for a wedding, Connecticut on vacation, a family reunion, a Labor Day party, I was planning to teach in a real classroom again this fall, and none of us know what’s next.
I loved Boston—I love Boston—for a million reasons, but in part because you can’t spit without hitting an Important Historical Site. (I love that about New York, too, because I’m just an irrepressible nerd, I guess.) Growing up in the Midwest, it was easy to think of the past as something you visit on vacation; you head to the Freedom Trail in matching t-shirts that tell everyone else on the T that you’re a tourist. Being in Boston made me feel like I was connected to a longer history, centuries of struggle and injustice and bold ideas and failure and protest and bitter disappointment and loss and joy and perseverance—centuries of people who were much like me, in their own moment. It’s comforting to me now to remember all those centuries of people who were living a history so immediate that it was just a Tuesday. They didn’t know, then, that they were already at the heart of things.
Katie is a doctoral student in English and education at the University of Michigan. She loves the New York Times crossword puzzle, advice columns, oceans, and dogs of all kinds.