The fourth day I was back in the city, I didn’t go outside all day.
I didn’t imagine that dystopia could feel more cemented. It was all, already, thoroughly depressing. But after she died I felt that perhaps it wouldn’t get better. Perhaps we were all on a fast train towards the end. The big crash was coming, this was just the acceleration.
On the fifth day, I walked down towards the heart of the city, where white marble buildings protrude from each corner and tourists usually weave throughout the streets like they’re at DisneyLand. It had been months, seven months in fact, since I’d been down there; six months since the lockdown began. Though I didn’t expect it to look the same, I didn’t expect it to feel so different either. The shops were boarded up with sheets of particle board–the glass windows and doors blocked and protected. Signs littered the entry-ways, exclaiming in earnest: “We’re still here!” “We’re still open!” “Please, please come in!”
People with masked faces passed by, at a too-close distance, heads down, movement quick and focused. The gray sky only added to the sense that this is what a city looks like after it tumbles from grace. The capital of the great United States. Divided to its core.
The closer I neared to the National Mall, the more plentiful the boarded windows became. Messages of strength and solidarity emerged in paint on the store fronts. The nearer I drew to the heart of the city, the bolder and brighter the colors became, until the boards became art, and the art became murals, and those murals became hope. Out of nothingness, suddenly something.
This is a city that was built by ancient men. Who sat in oak-paneled offices and dreamed up plans, then put into action, and put into laws; schemes to continue their power for as long as possible. RBG, the notorious, challenged that power. A tiny woman, flanked by black-robed patriarchs, who smashed the system for equality.
It wasn’t that I had been a particular follower of hers while she was alive–though I had a healthy respect and understanding of who she was and what she did. It was that she stood for something that was hard to put into words. As a woman, she stood for me. Without her, and with a country that seemed to believe in her antithesis, I wondered what would become of our progress.
On that morning, I lay a note down next to the thousands of flowers that shrouded the steps of the Supreme Court.
“We will continue the fight,” it read.
I scrounge around for my old hard drive in the back corner of my bedside table. I’d been meaning to update it for months, but never get around to it. I know what the mess of images stored in my phone looks like, and the thought of sorting through the photos gives me no small amount of dread. Yet, I have a distinct fear that they will all somehow disappear–and my memories will disappear along with them.
I plug in the old hard drive and listen to the loud whir of the machine as it powers on. It’s as if the machine is signaling its old age through both noise and size. A folder pops up on my desktop and I see how I’ve categorized my life. Snippets of time labeled haphazardly. I’m supposed to be populating this device, adding in the latest chapters, but my hand is pulled towards a folder that says “Early High School.” Though I’ve seen the photos countless times before they look different to me now.
My friends’ faces are rounder and softer. Our makeup is bold and black, tracing fully around the inner loop of our eyes; our hair is glossy–stick straight and shining. I flip through hundreds of images of my fourteen year old face. My former self pursing her lips in different shapes, moving the camera around, trying to get the ideal shot.
The images on my hard drive bring a small pit of anxiety into my stomach. My mind absorbs the images of these teenage women, all dressed up and ready for the world. I feel a distinct sadness because I know now that I would spend the next 13 years of my life doing just that. Dressing up, putting a camera to my face, never seeing enough good in the images that stared back at me.
I’ve felt so unbelievably tied up in my own small world this year. No escape from my own thoughts and company. It is for this reason that I’ve felt the desire to repent for my sins.
I notice I have been mentally scanning back through my young life, reflecting on where I’ve gone wrong. I have been reaching out across distance to those who were once in my life with apologies–trying to see if even across all this time and space, there is a way for us to see each other again, to see who we are today, rather than who we were then.
As I categorize my sin, I realize that those sins, ultimately, amount to simply growing up. A snide comment, a stolen kiss, a selfish choice. It’s all part of my story. And I’d like to forgive myself for the things I did not know–like how to be kind no matter what and how to respect my skin and mind.
But it’s not that easy. We don’t get to start being human at adulthood. Our humanness, however novice, tends to stick with us.
If, as the legend has it, a photograph takes a piece of your soul, then I have given my soul away thousands of times over.
I always thought I had more time.
When we talk about the end of the world, I always thought we were talking about someone else’s lifetime. Of course, the world ending has never been a settling thought. But it’s hard not to feel a bit relieved when you’re considering how it all ends and you imagine that you won’t be there.
Would we notice? I’ve been wondering.
Would we notice the crumble? Or would it happen so slowly that we will simply adapt and adapt and adapt until the last adaptation we can make is simply to cease and desist. The ultimate checkmate.
I was thinking the other day that the mark of a healthy world is whether or not birds fly through the sky.
Gazing out my apartment window, perched eight stories above the ground, I often see small black birds moving in flocks outside my window. Today, when I look out I see two. Then, after a few moments, another pair, and then a lone bird flying off into the muted blue. No clouds in the sky today, just haze.
I wonder if there used to be more of them up there. Millions of stars used to be visible in the night sky. Today, only a handful. Were the birds like that, too? Did birds used to fill each quadrant of the sky? A dazzling highway of feathers in the air.
I looked it up and I found a report from late-summer. “Birds falling out of the sky in mass die-off in south-western US.”
So we do notice. Or, someone does.
These days, a tree is worth more dead than alive. So the death of humanity must be worth a fortune. There will be no one to receive the pay out later. But at least we were all rich today.
I bounce between feeling like time is whipping past me at light-speed, struggling to understand how I have the fine lines of wrinkles already settling onto my face. (Surely I haven’t already passed my peak ripeness? Like an avocado with a window of perfection, could I already be in decay?)
Then, on some days, the hours stretch out in front of me and I can’t quite fathom what else I should be doing with the time I've been given. After I’ve spent 8 hours staring at a screen and writing emails, after I’ve forced myself onto a yoga mat to move my stagnant body, read, journaled, cooked, cleaned the apartment...what comes next? Is life just about staying more or less distracted? It feels that way these days.
I don’t have trouble sleeping, generally, but when I close my eyes to take a nap I can feel flashes of disagreement in my mind. As if my mind is on auto-shoot, one thought that I’d rather not think pops up, and then another, and then another. And, as if my brain is the referee, I have to step in and stop the spiral. What if it all ends? I think.
The Buddha taught us non-attachment.
I am noticing that I am not good at detaching.
Just as I watched the green spread its way slowly through the city–bringing it back to life after a winter of dusty grays and browns–I now see the leaves changing colors again. Greens into oranges into reds.
Standing on the roof, after months of living in the bubble of the pandemic, I am reminded that I no longer notice how quiet the city has become. This seems like the way it’s always been. Only the sounds of a few cars, a honk or two, but no incessant buzz. Looking across the rooftops I notice that the city seems at peace. If I look far enough, I can see the apartment building where RBG lived, alone in the end.
Life has continued, but the way this city is being utilized has shifted. The people are inside those tall rectangles. I can see them through the windows, standing at desks or cooking a meal. They are home more than they are away. They don’t move across the streets quite so often. Thier homes, those tiny squares, aren’t just a place for rest anymore. That is where life is happening now. In confinement. Even still, I look and I see smiles.
We are, if nothing else, adaptable.
I am comforted by that small thought. Comforted by the fact that even if all that I see turns to dust–if all my memories of what is and what will be, my notions of right and wrong–if all that fades away, the green will always return. The buds will sprout. And our time on earth, once considered so natural, will be seen for the fragile thing it was.
Even now, standing above the trees, looking through the glass doors into other people’s lives, I realize that we share something important.
Our ability to notice.