The Giant Pause and the New Now
This is the first in a Columbia News series, titled Lessons Learned, which invites the Columbia community to reflect on the pandemic and the insights, personal and professional, they have gained from their COVID-19 experience. These essays speak to the innovation, creativity and resourcefulness we have witnessed during this period of unprecedented challenge, as well as some of the silver linings in the actions we have had to take by necessity.
When we all began isolation in early March, like many New Yorkers, I already had made lots of plans way into the fall. I had dinner dates; theater, concert, museum and airline tickets, as well as hotel reservations. I also had many activities on my schedule for the School of the Arts––exhibitions, showcases, film and playwright festivals, public programs and, of course, back-to-back meetings. These plans shaped my days and nights.
Then, suddenly, all plans had to be undone. I called that phase My Cancelled Life. But soon it was not necessary to cancel anything; everything was being cancelled for us. We understood that we were all on a Big Pause, assuming we would resume our plans at an unspecified future date.
Every repository and venue of culture had been forced to shut its doors and move online. Daily life, spent running from person to person and from place to place, had quickly become an alarming memory: there wasn’t anywhere to go.
Nonetheless, on March 25, my partner, Jack, and I left New York for rural Michigan, to hole up in our small cottage there. It was a difficult decision––to leave friends and our valiant, suffering hometown, and those sacrificing themselves every day to take care of others, but underlying health issues made it essential for us to do so. We were just fortunate to have somewhere to go.
When we arrived in Michigan, spring had not yet come to the Midwest, as it already had to Central Park. Even as people were dying at a horrific rate in New York City and all over the planet, spring had ascended. Now, as the season began here, we could watch it burst into life one more time.
I began to realize that, even with a tight and stressful Zoom work schedule, I still had patience enough to observe nature’s complex, spectacular performance underway––not enacted for a human audience, but rather for the birds and the wind, necessary participants.
Daffodils and narcissus came up first, through dried leaves and snow, then the flowering serviceberry trees, followed by fragrant spice viburnum, Japanese crabapple and redbud trees and a finale of enormous lilacs. We had never before been here long enough to watch spring unfurl in slow motion, and to sit quietly, marveling at it.
Nature Revitalizes Itself
On a much grander, global scale, the individual and collective slowdown of cars, planes, ships and manufacturing plants that has devastated most economies has inversely allowed the natural world to revitalize itself. When the Big Pause began, many of us were heartened to discover videos of Venetian canals—usually slimy from the churning caused by cruise ships and vaporettos—now so clean you could see to the bottom and watch the returning fish.
Dolphins once again were sighted in Sardinia, Australia, California and other locations. Herons strolled through San Francisco. Pronghorn antelopes and other wild animals came down to the lowlands of our national parks. The drop in carbon emissions improved the air quality in China, the United States, Europe and elsewhere. The “cultural vibrations”—the human din felt deep into the earth—has quieted to such an extent that seismologists believe, in theory, that they should be able to hear small earthquakes as never before. And the absence of cruise ships and shipping has made the oceans so still that whales can now have more frequent and complex conversations.
Even as too many humans are suffering terribly, the earth is replenishing itself. Although we have known for some time that the way we live, produce and consume is traumatizing the planet—and often compromising our own health––we did not stop, until forced to. Humans never set out to do so much harm, and yet we have. Our frenzied lifestyles have separated many of us from nature and, therefore, from ourselves. Nonetheless, after a day of Zooming, when we finally emerge from our shelters, if we can, and walk outside, we are almost instantly renewed. The physical has never been so present or seemed so precious, as it does now in its absence.
Time to Reflect
Perhaps those of us who will be fortunate enough to reemerge from the Big Pause and hit Play again need to consider how we will live in the future––individually and collectively. Because we have lost hundreds of thousands to this brutal virus, and because the pain for so many more is enormous and irreparable, the suffering must not have been in vain.
Some have already recognized that being separated from what we love most—each other, our work, art, culture and travel—has provided time for us to reflect on what brings joy, regenerates us and makes us useful citizens. From the beginning of the shutdown, artists have been offering accessible versions of what they do, freely, as gifts to those whose spirits might need their work most during this time. While the art world is reimagining itself as a virtual network of ideas, creativity and connectedness, it also is recognizing that small might be more sustainable, and that when we are quiet, observing the world intimately, our stillness helps everything on the planet to thrive and brings us clarity, peace and new ideas. These realizations—of our interconnectedness with each other and with the natural world—have begun to permeate the thoughts and actions of many. Hopefully and cautiously, I call this state of mind the New Now.
Carol Becker is the Dean of Columbia University's School of the Arts.