“A winter’s day, in a deep and dark December/I am alone, gazing from my window to the streets below, on a freshly fallen, silent shroud of snow/I am a rock, I am an island.“
When written 55 years ago, these lyrics struck me at possibly the most receptive moment of my young life. I was not oblivious to the ironic message–I might even have been acquainted with John Donne’s poem, which it echoed–yet instead of embracing the promise of friendship and laughter, I found isolation appealing, even admirable. What adolescent hasn’t sometimes felt safer taking refuge in one’s own sense of self than in cultivating it publicly? A generous observer once described my outlook as “somewhat bookish.” How much more difficult it must be now, after the arrival of ‘curated’ identity, when opting out is scarcely an option? Every post presents a test of peer conformity and an opening to the judgment of others. Still, turning wholly inward feels like a loss.
Today, in my adopted home of Minneapolis, I find myself in literally this posture, looking over a newly refreshed cover of wintry whiteness (not for me the poetic impact of “silent shroud”), interrogating my attitude to the scene below. The joyous dazzle of Christmas Day has waned; what remains is solid, seasonal cold. Scattered small knots of city-dwellers stride around the frozen park, not feeling an obligation to “get outside”–though that kicks in when the wind-chill does–but just seeking calm enjoyment in the company of fellow members of the pod or even in solitude. One family group is clearing the ice to begin a hockey game. This is how the week after Christmas unfolded last year; it looks “normal.” This time, however, the span of days leading up to New Year’s has solemn undertones; this will not be a festive Kwanzaa. Lights are few, restaurants are closed, the pandemic “projections” for January are “terrible.”
The vaccine is coming, to be sure. Within a few months, we might have no more to fear from this pathogen than we do from a computer virus, maybe less. What then? The twin lessons of proximity will be interpreted by the survivors: everyone is potentially a vector of disease, everyone is closely dependent on others. This place has endured not only the national ordeal of Covid but also some very particular wounds. In a city struggling to become a community, the temptation to withdraw onto an island, to become a rock, is quite understandable. Yet it threatens our expectation of better days. Too many of those for whom a new snowfall represents not an invitation to play but rather another layer of life-threatening refrigeration remain unsheltered. The will to enforce the laws even at the expense of individual dignity looms over every encounter between the poor and the comfortable. From the fourth floor of an apartment building, the sight of agile young skaters brings pleasure. They are harbingers of hope in the guise of strangers. Could the face of every passerby, finally unmasked, nourish that same feeling of shared welfare?