As 2020 shudders to an end, many of us will be eager to move on, hoping that 2021 shows a path out of a pandemic that has upended our way of life. In that spirit, we asked Monitor writers and editors, near and far, to reflect on what COVID-19 has taken away and what, paradoxically, it has given us. It’s a journey into what we yearn to experience again and what we have come to appreciate most, to the point where we may no longer feel the urge to revert to old ways when the risk recedes.
For some writers, it comes down to habitual pleasures denied, to friendships and family ties put on hold. For others, the pandemic has forced a deeper rethink of what is and isn’t important, from communal gatherings to ritual greetings. Whether these individual aspirations and insights are profound or poignant, all are deeply human impulses grounded in the sense of disruption that an unusual year in world history has wrought. We share them with you as glimpses of what, we hope, will be a brighter future.
– Simon Montlake / Staff writer
Parental nonguidance suggested
I look forward to significantly lowering my standards when it comes to parenting. Actually, I plan to toss out the verb “parenting” altogether – that anxiety-laden transformation of a noun into an activity that comes with ideologies, debates, comparisons, success markers. During the pandemic, intensive “family-ing” has pushed intensive parenting out the window at our house.
And I think that’s good.
Intensive parents know – because we have read all about it, in our quest to be the best caregivers possible – that pouring unprecedented time, resources, and attention into our children may not have been doing them (or us) many favors. It is relentless, exhausting, and, according to many experts, ill prepares children for realities ranging from boredom to adulthood to laundry.
The pandemic has shifted my focus. My girls do more chores, and they know that I must actually work – and occasionally zone out to “The Home Edit.” They know they can amuse themselves. They know they are part of a family and that means responsibility as well as security. They know they are loved beyond words. After the pandemic I want to keep this approach, with no stressing about extracurriculars, play dates, missing a school day, or “preparing for the future.” I want to stay committed to family-ing.
– Stephanie Hanes / Correspondent
It turns out the activity that I loved the most in Toronto is probably the worst thing you should do in a pandemic – crowd together in a windowless room at the back of a pub, belting out everything from David Bowie to the Beatles. Choir!Choir!Choir!, a weekly drop-in choral group started by two Canadians in 2011, drew me in from the first session I attended in the summer of 2018. It was probably my weakness for “Get Lucky” by Daft Punk.
I hardly ever socialized – I came and sang and took the subway home – but the sense of community, of creating harmony with perfect strangers, left me feeling more connected to Toronto than any banter on the street ever did. When I return, it will be with a keener sense of what that experience really means. Heck, I might even try to strike up a conversation with an alto.
– Sara Llana Miller / Staff writer
Driving Mr. Collins
Maybe you’re not a car person. The crunch of tires on a gravel drive? The harmonics of an aftermarket tailpipe? Nah, you sputter. Driving’s a drag, conveyance by appliance.
Joy ride? That’s just a guilt trip with a combustion engine.
Let me drop you off right here.
First of all, what’s a car but a pod of imperturbability, pandemic isolation in motion?
I love the driving that I can still sneak in during the coronavirus: the quick spin – top down, heat on, mask up, scattering leaves through the twisties close to home. There’s driving I miss: the road trip, planned or serendipitous, not worrying about whether the rest stops are quarantine clean.
Then there’s the driving I did pre-pandemic: stuck in a ruby river of brake lights, grateful – not smug – in a hybrid, but still grinding through a commute to get to an office and break out the same laptop I’d been using to do the same work at home. (Thanks, Zoom. You even sound like a word for proper driving.)
Regular road-roving is an act of privilege. Trains can be better. Bikes work. Car guy here; just get me started. The best days of driving are just around the bend.
– Clay Collins / Director of editorial innovation
Croissants and conversation
The hardwood counter at Chez Mémé is always cluttered. Emptied coffee cups pile up. Croissant crumbs litter plates. Neighbors-turned-friends stand elbow to elbow, chatting about the latest political gaffe or the incessantly cloudy Parisian skies.
I was starting to finally feel a part of France’s cafe culture. Marie, the owner, knew my name. She knew I’d order a café allongé and eventually cave for a flaky pain au chocolat, my laptop open, pretending to look like I was working on something important.
Then the pandemic hit. Cafes and restaurants closed. Now, the four white walls of my living room – my de facto workspace – are enough to make my eyes bleed. The silence is deafening. I miss the clanking dishes as Marie rushes around the cafe and the assortment of characters I meet – Richard with his belly laughs, Laetitia always lounging against the counter, George studiously reading the free copy of Le Parisien.
It’s hard to find community in a city of 2 million people. Sometimes, now, I’ll see Marie out for a walk in the neighborhood, both of us calling out “bonjour,” with knowing smiles of what we’re missing.
– Colette Davidson / Correspondent
Hollywood in the driveway
I live at the end of a street where you can pass the salt between houses. We watch out for each other, take newcomers to dinner, share garden vegetables. Some of us used to hit the movies together – but then theaters closed. So we built our own – and laid the foundation for a deeper connection in our already closely woven neighborhood.
On the surface, it looks like this: We go to Peter and Kathy’s driveway, where PVC pipe and fabric form a screen over the garage door. We bring our own popcorn and seating. Atmospherics include a full moon, neighbors strolling by, the occasional coyote howl.
But look deeper. Movie selections are chosen by a democratic vote. After the showing, we discuss what we saw – the influence, likely, of the teachers in the neighborhood. As the final credits roll, we smile, bid each other warm good nights, and lug our chairs home, utterly satisfied.
It’s pandemic-driven viewing. I hope it lasts long beyond this moment.
– Amelia Newcomb / Managing editor
Neon fonts and hiking jaunts
Laguna Beach, Calif.
Like Disneyland’s old Adventure Thru Inner Space, in which riders shrunk to less than the size of an atom while their surroundings exploded in size, my reduced pandemic orbit has somehow expanded my experience. I don’t feel reduced. I feel enabled. And I like it.
My planned weekslong trip to Asia in 2021 has evaporated – a 20-hour flight cozied up with hundreds of passengers is now unappetizingly inconceivable. In my new pandemic horizons, I’ve put 10,000 miles on my car in cross-country trips I might otherwise have missed: permission and time granted to follow unexpected byways and stop and stare at the neon font on an abandoned midcentury motel.
My perfect – triple-movie – weekend is over. But I’ve doubled my viewing pleasure, streaming in the comfort of a chair that isn’t a public health menace.
Jaw-clenching places-to-go-and-people-to-meet schedules and commutes … gone. And with no other place – or pace – to go, I’m hiking. Averaging 30 miles of deep thought a week, I regularly choke up at rosy California sunsets, exquisite blooms, and the fleeting gleam in the eye of a roadrunner crossing my path.
– Clara Germani / Staff editor
A globe-trotter revels in nesting
I have led a peripatetic life as a foreign correspondent, and the coronavirus pandemic, because of the travel restrictions it imposed, was always going to cramp my style. But when COVID-19 put me in the hospital last March, and nearly took my life, I was truly grounded.
As soon as I was well enough to travel, we left Paris and sought refuge in my wife’s family home. I have been here ever since, in a secluded Burgundy village (decimated by plague in 1751 but untouched by COVID-19), learning to appreciate the unexpected pleasures of a long pause and the value of a sense of place.
The house has been in Edith’s family for many generations. Each has lent the home its patina of furniture and decoration; now we are doing the same. It is imbued with the rhythms of continuity and security that I had shunned for most of my career, but now find deeply reassuring.
I had feared I would feel trapped in my rural retreat. Instead I am restored, ready to roam again when the opportunity returns.
– Peter Ford / International news editor
The church universal
For people of faith like myself, the pandemic initially seemed to threaten our sense of church. After all, what’s a congregation that can’t congregate? But going online to worship and minister to one another has actually expanded and enhanced who we are.
Being together online enables sharing of faith stories and growing alongside people from places and cultures we’d never engage otherwise. Church not only draws more people now. It’s also more interesting, exciting, and challenging than it used to be. We will never go back to gathering as “just us.” After in-person gatherings resume, we’ll keep allowing people to engage remotely by feeling loved, making meaningful commitments, and taking risks that are the grist of spiritual transformation. Talking heads on screens will be a lasting presence not only in worship but also in small groups and mission activities. Powered by technology and the tireless Holy Spirit, we see the ancient vision of a church universal materializing.
– G. Jeffrey MacDonald / Religion correspondent
Intimacy at a great distance
It seemed a poor substitute, but it was the only option: The memorial service for a longtime friend would have to be held via teleconference rather than in person in Portland, Maine. But when we logged in, it soon became obvious that something unexpected and special was happening. You can attend a Zoom meeting from anywhere, and our friend had a wide circle of friends, many of whom were now encountering one another for the first time. Participants from as far away as Honolulu and London were present.
On Zoom, you look directly into the eyes of every speaker. You’re virtually seated right across from everyone attending. We were all equals: no in-person vs. on-video guests. Some expressed surprise to discover the breadth of our friend’s network.
The experience changed my mind: At first, a Zoom memorial seemed too easy, even undignified. Now I’m persuaded that the reach and very nature of such a service (and everyone’s increasing familiarity with the medium) can provide remarkable intimacy, connection, and solace – even discovery. A smaller, in-person group would have been good. But as it was, many more of us met face-to-face and heart-to-heart over the internet.
– Owen Thomas / The Home Forum editor
Going with the crowd
Remember crowds? I do. I remember them more fondly than I might have guessed if you’d asked me a year ago. And I don’t mean just intentional crowds, like inside the arena where I last saw that spectacular Radiohead show, or that incredible Boston Celtics game. I mean ad hoc crowds, accidental crowds, inevitable but unorganized crowds on subway platforms, in department stores during the holidays, among the human tides that swamp the streets after big events – all of us talking, knocking shoulders, window-shopping for an available restaurant table.
I remember how crowds sounded. I remember how crowds felt.
And, sure, I know life won’t be re-crowded this winter. But come fall, say? Come next Thanksgiving? Crowds just might be back. And when they are, well, you won’t need to wonder where to find me.
I’ll be adding to their number.
– Michael S. Hopkins / Correspondent
A wedding anniversary among the masses
As spring burst forth this year, my wife and I dearly missed celebrating our wedding anniversary with a jaunt to New York City, something we try to do annually. With careful planning we can jam three Broadway shows, an intriguing museum exhibition, and a morning pilgrimage to Central Park to spot migrating birds into three days (and two expensive hotel nights).
We’re looking forward to when we’ll again be able to cram onto an Amtrak train, emerge into the pandemonium of Grand Central Terminal, transfer to a packed subway car, and huddle together in a crowded cafe for an afternoon treat. We’ll cap the day by wading through the waves of humanity at Times Square, marveling at their sheer enormity and diversity.
We may be just two more anonymous out-of-towners, but for a short while we belong to the city. We breathe its air and become part of its throng, the thousands of individuals who en masse tell a vast and varied story.
– Greg Lamb / Correspondent
As a child, I was a voracious reader. At a certain age, my parents bought a lamp to clip onto my bed frame and said I could read as late as I liked, but they were soon forced to set a reading curfew. With that memory in mind, I made a New Year’s resolution for 2020: read 12 fiction books, one per month. I consume political news articles for hours each day, but I’ve stopped reading for fun over the past few years.
That’s because as a 27-year-old in a big city, I never considered reading to be an ideal way to spend my Friday nights. Instead, when a friend would text me to get dinner, or suggest that we stop by another friend’s apartment, I’d always say yes. By the end of March, I was 0 for 3 in my book resolution.
But then COVID-19 upended our lives. Soon I had no choice but to spend my Friday evenings chipping away at the stack of overdue library books on my nightstand. I remembered how wonderful it was to resist turning out the lights as a book’s plot unfolded.
One recent Friday, I finished book No. 13.
– Story Hinckley / Staff writer
Opening Studio K
After working out for months in my living room and then the kitchen when the local pool closed, something had to change. I needed to create a space for myself instead of exercising in shared spaces. So I turned a dark corner of the basement into my private gym on a DIY budget. I painted the drywall bright yellow, bought interlocking floor mats, strung up fairy lights, and mounted a smart TV to stream workouts. My family calls it “Studio K.”
I also convinced four friends who live across the country to sign up for the same workout program so we could train “together.” I used to get up at 5 a.m., head to the pool, hustle home to change, and then rush to catch an 8 a.m. train. But now I have no commute and can work out with friends virtually anytime. I love Studio K so much it will take effort to get back to the pool when it reopens.
– Kendra Nordin Beato / Staff writer
The pub as a community hearth
Round the corner and up the hill toward the water tower sits a German pub that has been owned by the same family for more than a century. Opened the year before World War I began, amid a landscape still populated with windmills, the pub now nestles inside one of Berlin’s most densely packed neighborhoods.
I often wonder, parked inside its wood-paneled walls, how its pork knuckle has evolved since 1913. I’d like to think it’s the same dish today. The pub’s few drinks on tap all pair perfectly with the Wiener schnitzel, its breaded crust fried golden-brown. My wallet is only €8 lighter for the experience, and it’s the tastiest I’ve had in Germany. Usually weak-kneed for greasy pub fries, I always opt for the fried sliced-potato version.
Tables are nearly impossible to reserve after sundown – regulars are given top priority – but the coronavirus delivered both a blessing (for us) and a curse (for them) in their hastily arranged sidewalk tent. It was nearly always empty, and open to walk-ins like me. Pre-pandemic, I’d been wishing my way toward a spot at the regulars’ table, perched by the main window. Realistically, I am a couple of decades away from being shown to that coveted spot.
– Lenora Chu / Special correspondent
Tea for two, and two for tea
When I was growing up, my parents regularly invited people to tea on Sunday afternoons. Nothing fancy, just a nice pot of Earl Grey with a homemade spice cake and a view out the sliding glass doors to our garden in suburban Washington, D.C.
It was usually one or two guests, rarely more than that, since my parents wanted a meaningful visit. The sessions were a chance to get to know newcomers at church, reconnect with old friends, or have a neighbor over. I remember these afternoons as wonderfully intimate and relaxed, and carried them into my adult life.
My husband and I planned to start these up when we moved to the Los Angeles area in 2019. But just when we were ready to brew the tea and make new friends, the pandemic hit. For a short while, a neighbor organized regular “check-ins” in the middle of the street, and so we at least recognize people and give a friendly wave on our walks.
But it is as if we are frozen in time, not fully moved in, not really connected. It’s nothing that a little spice cake won’t fix, with views to our birds of paradise instead of cherry blossoms.
– Francine Kiefer / Staff writer
Virtues of subway straps
I may be crazy, but I actually look forward to riding the Metro again. Yes, Washington’s subway system has its shortcomings. Before the pandemic, breakdowns could strand riders for an hour or more. And forget 6 feet of distancing. In rush hour, 6 inches felt like a luxury. Working at home truly has had its advantages.
Yet cities promise to remain vital seedbeds of culture, politics, and business – and mass transit is a functional mainstay. All the more so in an era of global warming.
For now, the pandemic has eviscerated ridership and forced steep cuts in big-city transit budgets. Longer term, Zoom chats will have their enduring place in a low-emission future. But I’m eager to ride those rails again – to be part of the varied masses on board, to struggle to keep my balance amid the hum of the electric acceleration.
– Mark Trumbull / Economics editor
Street food with street cred
A black-bean tlacoyo, smothered in slimy nopales, sour cotija cheese, spicy green salsa, raw onions, and cilantro: This was my go-to order when I craved street food pre-pandemic. I’d walk around the corner to two umbrella-shaded women working a steaming griddle with precision and speed. I’d call out my order over a scrum of other hungry customers, and if my timing was right, I’d score a dining spot on an upside-down bucket, where I’d devour this blue-corn delicacy off a plastic-wrapped plate.
It’s a ritual I’ve missed terribly during the pandemic. I was just getting to the point where I felt comfortable navigating the unspoken rules of ordering street food – after all, there’s no clear line, no menus, and half of the ingredients have names in Nahuatl, a pre-Hispanic language. Dining curbside was such an important part of integrating into my adopted home. So much of life is lived outside and among neighbors in Mexico City, and losing that, even temporarily, has made me feel untethered from my community. I’m eager to get back to shared meals with strangers and a feeling of connection.
– Whitney Eulich / Special correspondent
When I see a friend, there is only one true way to say hello: I clasp his right hand, pull in for a one-armed hug around the back, lean my right cheek next to his, and air kiss. I then switch sides and lean onto his left cheek and plant another two kisses. If I really miss him? An extra three or four.
This is the greeting between male friends and relatives in my adopted home in Jordan and many parts of the Arab world. It is a sign of brotherly love, respect, friendship, a bond that spoke to me and led me to embrace it. In societies where body language is more important than words, much is said in a kiss-greet. I can squeeze a little harder on the hug, press my cheek to show how much I value our friendship. If his cheek does not touch mine? Then it’s probably not genuine.
Since COVID-19 hit the region, we now greet each other as instructed by government televised public service announcements: We place our hand over our chest and bow in respect from afar. For me, the physical affection and connection is lost. Yet in an era when we’re trying to care for those around us, that is in its own way a gesture of love.
– Taylor Luck / Special correspondent
Learning a new language in isolation
A language school had a discount – and I had time – so I signed up for online Arabic classes. Every Thursday night since June, I follow along in pencil as my Arabic script flows right to left. The learning is slow, but our teacher is patient; someday I hope to report in Arabic. My current vocabulary may resemble a toddler’s (“He is a tall baker”), but it’s already unlocked simple joys beyond my laptop screen.
I live in New York City near “Little Egypt,” an area I’ve recently rediscovered with fresh eyes. As I walk the strip of hookah bars and halal eateries, the mystery of storefront signs has begun to melt away. Starved for connection behind a mask, I introduce myself with my favorite new word: tasharrafna (nice to meet you). I’ve learned which grocers have copies of free Arabic-language newspapers, and I visit a store that sells me kindergarten texts. “Come again when you finish,” says Sahar, an amused shopkeeper, as I exit with an alphabet workbook. I’ll be back soon.
– Sarah Matusek / Staff writer
A new slant on light
What I am appreciating more than I did before is light. Being forced to stay in one place for months has taught me to be a connoisseur of light, and I’m learning to savor all its permutations. With no commute, I now have time to notice the way the sun moves across the sky outside my home office windows – high and fierce in the summer and low and slanting in the winter.
I walk the same route almost every day, and I can appreciate the nuances of the sunlight hitting the bark on the trees, the filtering of morning light through the leaves, the subtle changes of the seasons. I understand better why painters return again and again to the same location, trying to capture the quality of the light. Before the pandemic, I was moving too quickly to notice how light changes everything about the day, and my mood. I expect this awareness to last beyond the months of quarantine. The other thing I have realized: My windows desperately need cleaning!
– April Austin / Weekly deputy editor and books editor
When this is over, I’d like to have the house to myself. I’ll bid my wife and two young children a wonderful time at their grandparents, the museum, or wherever they want to go as long as it’s elsewhere, and the moment they’re out of sight, I’ll open a family-size bag of Tostitos.
Then, at long last, there will be silence. Except for the crunching.
I’ll put on a film whose title is a single word and a Roman numeral. Something like “Stab II” or “Snakecano VI.” Definitely not “Caillou’s Holiday Movie.” After that, I’ll think long thoughts, the kind of profound, uninterrupted cogitation available to Hobbes, Spinoza, Kant, and all those other eminent thinkers who never married or had kids.
After a few hours, I’ll feel something I haven’t felt in ages: I’ll miss my family. When they return, we’ll embrace, and I’ll ask how their day was without already knowing the answer. Then I’ll tell them about all the philosophical problems I solved, and how I have no idea what happened to the Tostitos.
– Eoin O’Carroll / Science writer
The sounds of soccer
Oh how I miss my Saturday ritual, watching my beloved Arsenal Football Club from the stands. (It’s more plush seating in the stadium these days, with the bleachers gone, but the sentiment remains.) It’s not quite seeing your immediate family, but it is just as profound, magical, and full of community. I look forward to reinstating my weekend pilgrimage that involves wrapping myself in a red-and-white scarf, walking through the packed streets of North London, smelling the scent of burgers you wouldn’t dare touch, and hearing the cacophony of 60,000 people as kickoff approaches.
Watching football on television isn’t quite the same. Football has been an empty shell without its crowds. I’ll be doing what I usually do, but with more zest than before: screaming, shouting, and chanting in unison with thousands displaying the same colors. We become one, speaking a common language of desperation in loss or utter joy in victory, holding a stranger in our arms when a goal is scored, and embracing the unscripted drama that unfolds on a patch of grass under the floodlights.
– Shafi Musaddique / Correspondent
Discovering what’s already there
The realization set in slowly, the way the darkness tiptoes into the corners of a room. We wouldn’t be celebrating our 20th wedding anniversary in Puerto Rico, after all.
It could have been disappointing. Instead it just – was.
Here we were. Together. And that would be OK.
As our expectations narrowed, something magical happened. We started to see our home and our neighborhood through new eyes. Isolated from many of the people we care about, we got to know our avian neighbors, not just by species, but as individuals. We discovered a hidden pond and a tiny meadow, both just a 10-minute stroll away.
The irony of course is that these adventures had been waiting for us all along. We’d simply never looked because we’d always been on our way somewhere else.
Our surprise at just how much we’ve overlooked in our own neighborhood has recently given way to a new resolve to focus on the present, the here, the now. And, of course, each other.
When the post-pandemic comes and we’re able to gather and travel freely once again, that’s something we’d do well to remember.
– Noelle Swan / Weekly edition editor
My homemade mobile home
I didn’t plan on buying a car.
Like many urban millennials, I’d made it through most of my 20s eschewing car ownership in favor of public transit, ride-sharing apps, and carpooling with friends. Relying on shared resources meant I saved money and occasionally could splurge on long-distance travel – flights, hotels, and rental cars.
But with the world changing in perhaps irrevocable ways, I reassessed. A car of my own offered enticing freedom. So in May, I bought a used Toyota RAV4 – in purple, my favorite color. It’s the first car I’ve ever owned, but it’s much more than that. It’s a refuge, a mobile home-away-from-home.
With the help of plywood, a saw, and some screws, I transformed my car into a bedroom and kitchen on wheels. Stored beneath a memory foam bed, camping and hiking gear makes it a veritable adventure mobile.
During the pandemic, my car camper has helped me connect with loved ones from a safe distance. I’ve slept in my parents’ yard and made hot drinks for friends at trailheads. But it also expands my possibilities for adventure after the pandemic. Perhaps I can satisfy my wanderlust as a car owner, no flights or hotels necessary.
– Eva Botkin-Kowacki / Science writer
That first day of kindergarten
Parenting is full of firsts – first smile, first step, first word – and parenting during a global pandemic is no different. It’s brought us another set of firsts, albeit many of them less celebratory: first remote school day, first masked foray.
But recent months have also kindled deep gratitude for the parenting adventures we’ve already had and a heartfelt expectation for those long overdue. When the masks come off and social distancing ceases, I’ll be excitedly waving as my daughter boards the school bus with her neighborhood friends for her first day of kindergarten, proudly smiling as she snakes down the waterslide at the community pool, and enthusiastically cheering her on during her first soccer game. I may even coach it!
The arrival of these milestones will be all the more joyous, though, because of the mountains we have climbed to get there – and they’ll be all the more special because of the grace, fortitude, and compassion we’ve learned along the way.
– Casey Fedde / Chief copy editor
I have been living away from home since I was 17, when I left to study abroad and, later, to work. But it wasn’t until the pandemic that I realized how much I had taken air travel for granted, or what it really meant to be living thousands of miles away.
I used to try to make it back to Brunei at least once a year. It’s now been over a year since I’ve seen my parents in person. I miss being able to travel freely without worrying about health and quarantine. I miss sunsets on the plane – the brilliant vermilion rays casting shadows on the clouds to form otherworldly landscapes in the sky. And I miss my husband, who is in London, an ocean away.
We’ve adjusted to seeing each other through a screen for now. I call my parents more often. I am also more intentional about staying connected with friends in Asia. It is hard not knowing when I can be with my loved ones again. But I’m also reminded home isn’t where I am; it is where my heart is.
– Connie Foong / Staff writer
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