the future

Pressing Our Ears to the Wall

Illustration: by Luci Pina

For the first year of the pandemic, I was still living in Boston, where I had no family, and most of my friends had already moved back home to recover from the arduous presidential primary and hide in the comfort of their families. In the earliest days of the lockdown, I would weep at the thought of dying alone in my 550-square-foot apartment, of no one hearing me gasp for air if I suddenly lost it, of no one hearing me bang on the walls if I needed help.

Weeks later I learned that my upstairs neighbor, the wife of a 60-plus-year-old couple from New Hampshire, could hear my music, and could tell my mood based on my selections — Lucky Daye when lonely and missing my then-lover; Bunny Wailer when lonely and missing my mother. Later we exchanged numbers, and developed a small tradition of asking if the other needed anything from the store when going food or toiletry shopping, and to check in, just briefly, to ask if the other was doing all right, you know, Hanging in there? And also to say that we could hear the other, moving around, still living, which was annoying, but unusually reassuring, and decidedly welcome.

While I was afraid to leave my lobby, whenever I did leave my apartment, I found myself astounded by the warm, gentle caution of people who were clearly new to the labor of community care and mutual aid. At the Whole Foods, people smiled with their eyes, almost as if to say, “Hello, I am glad you’re well, please be safe.” Everywhere I went, the supermarket, the bank, workers offered me hand sanitizer, offered me an extra mask, told me to be safe. In the checkout line at the CVS, people took an extra step back and swept their hands out as if to say, “All of this space is yours, and all of this space is safe. 

It occurred to me that before March 2020, some of us had never thought twice about the whereabouts of our next-door neighbors, or had never put their ear to the wall to listen closely to the cough of a roommate in the next room. Some of us had never tipped extra for a delivery, or asked the courier “How is your family?” and meant it, earnestly hoping to hear good news. Some of us had never grieved for the owner of their recently shuttered neighborhood joint, bought fresh groceries to fill a refrigerator they’d never take from, or grieved the death of a stranger. Some of us have never shopped for an elderly colleague, or voted for someone else’s interests, or inconvenienced ourselves because it very well might save someone else’s life.

But after March 2020, many of us, many more of us, learned to do these new, scary things under the heavy weight of a violent, deadly disease that’s killed more than 2 million people so far, and could have claimed many more lives around the globe if scientists hadn’t quickly figured out that a single cloth barrier could prevent infection.

With no commonality other than this shared, unfortunate reality, we became a community. With no shared context or commonality other than this reality, people who never knew one another and might never meet were part of a community and treated each other as such, wearing masks to prevent themselves from infecting a stranger, trusting that the stranger would wear a mask to protect them, too. An organic, unspoken understanding of radical reciprocity, of deep care was there, as if it had always been.

Nearly global behavior changes occurred in what felt like an instant, masks becoming an accessory, a welcome requirement. And just as quickly as many of us welcomed this precaution, there were those who rejected mask wearing over an idiotic contrarionist impulse, turning themselves into empowered pariahs — real, living metrics for bad judgment and bad faith.

For many of us, this radical care was and still is new and exhausting. For some of us, it’s the same system in a new context.

Some of us have always had to press our ear to the wall to make sure a loved one is still breathing; some of us have always had to evaluate each action through the lens of how it would directly affect someone else’s life.

If you have had the privilege of being seen as one singular individual, if you have had the luck of evading trauma, then this expanded definition of community and its requirements is likely strikingly new to you, and still hard to adjust to. The impulse to return to normal once we’ve been vaccinated might seem tempting.

If we’re lucky, this expanded definition of community, this master class in compassion, is what we will all take with us into the post-pandemic future. If we’re lucky, we’ll remember that some of us are hungry and are being abandoned by systems that could feed us all. We’ll remember that our waste alone could feed an entire nation. We’ll remember not to waste our resources unless we’re giving them away. We’ll give the woman on the corner who needs a dollar our dollar. We’ll tip extra because why the hell not. We’ll find new ways to check on our neighbors, we’ll think twice about what it means to be well, we’ll give our colleagues grace when they’re late or behind, we’ll bring our children to work and leave our worries about inconvenienced colleagues at the door. Regardless of (but with respect to, with an analysis of) our diverse backgrounds, if we are diligent, if we are thoughtful, if we are daring — this radical care, this expanded definition of community is what will follow us into a post-COVID future and stay with us for good.

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Pressing Our Ears to the Wall