(CNN)With a growing number of Covid-19 vaccinations administered in the US, many Americans have reemerged into public spaces after over a year of isolation. CNN Opinion contributors share their experiences venturing out in this new “normal.”
By David M. Perry
It’s a warm Minnesota night in May 2021, and there’s maybe thirty people on the patio when it’s my turn to call the song. I play an E-minor then walk it up and around, hitting the low strings to create a bass line. My friend Ann comes in over the top on the fiddle. I start Five Days in May, a song by the Canadian cowboy rock band Blue Rodeo.
We’re at Ann’s house and it’s her birthday. She met her husband John on a canoe trip one May long ago, so as far as I’m concerned the song has always been about them. By the time I hit the chorus, “Sometimes the world begins to set you up on your feet again,” everyone on the patio is singing.
On March 13, 2020, I went to a friend’s 60th birthday party and we all sang together, a little afraid of the coming pandemic, but still ignorant of the losses ahead of us. It was the last night of “normal.” I finished by playing “Hold On,” by Tom Waits, unaware of just how hard it would be to hold on over the coming year.
When I don’t play music with other people for a while, a part of me goes missing, my mental health frays, the world drags slowly down toward gray and it’s harder for me to locate joy. But singing, specifically singing, emerged as a risk factor for the spread of Covid, so except for a few moments in one bubble or another, making music together vanished from my life.
But on this day in May, 16 months after the world came to a screeching halt, we’re all vaccinated. We can sing. My eyes fill with tears and my throat closes with emotion, but the chorus is done and I nod to Ann to take it away on her fiddle while I pull myself together, and all is just as it should be.
David M. Perry is a journalist and historian and co-author of “The Bright Ages: A New History of Medieval Europe.” He is a senior academic adviser in the history department of the University of Minnesota. Follow him on Twitter.
I returned to my home: a comedy club
By Judy Gold
For my entire adult life, I have spent most evenings standing on a bare stage telling jokes. It may sound crazy to those who have never stood in front of an audience and made people laugh on purpose, but getting a laugh, especially with a new bit, is beyond exhilarating.
I equate it with being an orchestral conductor. Conductors pore over the music, I write material; they study the time signatures, I make sure there is the correct number of syllables; they rehearse, I try out new material.
Then, finally, the seats are filled and we are standing in front of a mass of people, a baton raised or a mic gripped. Their upbeat is my setup, their downbeat, my punchline. Their music is my laughter.
It is a give and take, and when a comedian gives and the audience takes, it is truly awesome.
Fourteen months of hearing delayed laughter coming out of my computer speakers was like listening to The Vienna Philharmonic on a transistor radio. So, last month, I took the subway to my home — The Comedy Cellar in New York City. I hugged my comrades, and when it was my turn, I grabbed a clean mic, stepped on stage, thanked the emcee, and looked out into the packed house. I told my first joke, and just like that, it was as if those months had melted away. Every instrument was perfectly tuned — woodwinds, brass, strings, percussion — not one missed note, all in perfect rhythm. They laughed out loud, and I cried with joy inside.
Judy Gold is a stand-up comic in New York, actress, writer and winner of two Emmy Awards. She is the host of the podcast “Kill Me Now,” available on iTunes or at judygold.com/podcast. She is also the author of “Yes I Can Say That,” from Dey Street Books. Follow her on Twitter @JewdyGold.
We danced in the streets again
By Roxanne Jones
Dancing with my people. That’s what I missed most during the quarantine. Sure, I’d listen to music at home and solo shimmy around my living room but it just was not the same.
I vowed that if the world ever opened back up, I’d dance more.
But when the world did start to open up, and my Brooklyn friend called me and asked me out to lunch about a month ago, I hesitated. Pandemic restrictions hadn’t been fully lifted in New York and although I was vaccinated I didn’t trust being around other people. Staying inside had kept me safe.
Reluctantly, I agreed to go to a sidewalk cafe, provided the tables were spaced out and the restaurant workers were all masked. We headed to a fun spot in Bedford-Stuyvesant called Besos. As we left the cafe, we heard music playing down the block and started following the crowd to see what was going on.
“There’s a block party today,” a neighbor told us.
That’s all I needed to hear to erase my fears. I knew I needed to dance. In Brooklyn, especially in Black communities, block parties are a summer rite of passage. As we turned the corner, I saw hundreds of beautiful Black and brown people line dancing in the street, dressed in glorious colors, hands lifted to the heavens as they twirled and dipped in unison to songs like “Before I Let Go” by Frankie Beverly and Maze, a staple at any block party.
As I joined the crowd and got in sync, it felt as if the sun and the music were healing me, soothing the pain and loss I’d suffered over for the last year. I looked around and more than a few of us had tears in our eyes along with the smiles on our faces that even our masks couldn’t hide. I’ve never felt such gratitude in a crowd.
That day in Bed-Stuy we danced till the sun went down, all of us grateful just to be alive.
Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has been a producer, reporter and editor at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. Jones is co-author of “Say it Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete.” She talks politics, sports and culture weekly on Philadelphia’s 900AM WURD.
As I seek the closeness of friends, I fear the closeness of strangers who hate
By Jeff Yang
I’ve never been much of a hugger. But during my recent first trip back to New York since the outbreak of the pandemic, I ecstatically hugged my mutually vaccinated friends just to feel the substance of human beings who weren’t my family. These were people I’ve known for decades, and this was the first time we’d seen each other beyond the frame of a computer screen in nearly two years. We eagerly indulged in one another’s three-dimensional warmth, in part to remind ourselves that doing so was something we should never take for granted again.
Meanwhile, in public, on the streets of Manhattan, I constantly wore my mask — not to protect against disease, but as a means of camouflage. I reflexively stepped back when random people suddenly drew near. I stood as far away as possible from the edges of subway platforms and flinched from accidental contact whenever I was in crowds.
Years of separation had made me hungry for physical closeness with friends. But months of random violence against Asians, as seen on grainy phone videos posted to the internet, have made me wary of it from strangers.
Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s bestselling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.”
Seeing my coworkers again made working together worth it
By Natasha S. Alford
The last time I worked in my office pre-pandemic, I looked out 6th Avenue and thought to myself, “I’m so lucky to live in New York City.”
The city was bustling and so was our newsroom at theGrio, a vibrant community of journalists. After being away for over a year, I went back to that same office for a meeting with some colleagues two weeks ago and felt like I was entering a strange time warp. The building hallways where we once laughed and dished on the news on the way to lunch were eerily empty, still. Blank walls had been covered with signs reminding people to social distance and to use the newly provided containers of hand sanitizer.
But as soon as I opened the door and entered our office space, the energy and joy of seeing my teammates in person after months apart injected life into what had seemed like a vacant building. Despite what anyone says, Slack is no substitute for in-person conversations and this reunion proved it.
Although we had to do elbow bumps and what now seems like a standard “I’m vaccinated!” before reaching out to hug someone, it was as if we were picking up where we left off. Of course, we know so much has happened since — births (including my own baby!), moves, accomplishments, and sadly, lots of loss.
But being in a room with people who made work worth it — knowing we were still here, standing strong and ready to, in a way, start again, was a special moment.
Natasha S. Alford, a CNN political analyst, is VP of Digital Content and a senior correspondent at theGrio. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram at @natashasalford.
‘I don’t have a real normal to return to’
By Neelam Bohra
I still remember the panic that fluttered through me the first time someone stepped onto my apartment elevator without a mask on. It was February, before vaccines were widely available where I live in Austin, Texas. I held my breath for 7 floors — as if it would make a difference.
Now, it happens every day. I still hold my breath, squeeze into the corner as more people file into the elevator at each stop, and pray that every fully exposed face belongs to someone who is vaccinated. Sometimes they come in groups, talking and laughing. I know they don’t see my entire body freeze up in fear.
Maybe it doesn’t sound rational to you, but I won’t dare take my mask off in public, not even when I’m on the sidewalk. As a kidney transplant recipient, I’ve been admitted to the hospital even for something as mild as a normal cold. Between new variants and uncertainty over the vaccine’s effectiveness in immunocompromised people, the threat of Covid remains in full force for me.
And I don’t have a real “normal” to return to.
I quarantined for a month after my kidney transplant surgery in 2019. I stocked up on hand sanitizer and wore a mask when I had to venture out. The caution people have practiced during the pandemic — for those privileged enough to stay home — is the same caution I’ve always needed to keep my kidney safe.
So, I’ll be avoiding indoor dining, concerts and movies for a while. My mask will stay on in the elevator and all other public places until I trust the outside world again. And that may never happen.
Neelam Bohra is a rising senior at UT Austin and a national news desk intern for CNN Digital this summer.
The day I spent welcoming home formerly incarcerated people
By Ashish Prashar
Visiting Exodus Transitional Community — an organization that provides services for adults and youth affected by the justice system — in Harlem again, for the first time after being vaccinated, and seeing the faces of all the people, reminded me of how much I missed my community, one in which we understand each other’s experience without saying a word. I forgot how everything here is centered around love, safety and meeting people’s needs.
Returning also gave me hope that our future can radically depart from what exists now for people coming home from prison. I was reminded that it’s on us to make that happen. We can create structures for formerly incarcerated people and communities across the United States that are predicated on restoration and healing instead of punishment — structures where people’s lives are respected and they are left in good health. And that begins with care.
While I was nervous because I hadn’t been in a closed setting with that many people — people who I had not met and people I wanted to feel safe around me — I was undeterred, seeing Exodus’ essential workers, and knowing the risks everyone had been facing during the pandemic. They welcomed home one beautiful soul after another throughout the pandemic (Exodus is often the first stop on their journey after incarceration), and the staff’s bravery provided a safe space where returning citizens were loved and supported, and an environment where people could share their experiences.
The day I walked into Exodus I embraced the founder Julio Medina, my mentor. With every step I walked through the venue, the noise grew. I talked to volunteers and welcomed home people — whom I call my sisters and brothers — after incarceration. We came together and shared stories, food and coffee to help everyone keep going. A powerful sense of community ran through me; a reawakening sense of unity and purpose, which brought us all there to protect our fellow human beings.
No one is more hopeful than a person coming home from prison — filled with a desire to make a better life — and Exodus felt like the heartbeat of humanity. It is the sound of people fighting to live.
Ashish Prashar is the global chief marketing officer at R/GA, a marketing and advertising company that designs innovative brands and businesses, and a justice reform activist. He sits on the board of Exodus Transitional Community, Getting Out and Staying Out, Just Leadership, Leap Confronting Conflict and the Responsible Business Initiative for Justice. Follow him @Ash_Prashar.
‘There are hard days still, even as we step into this new reality’
By Mikki Kendall
This year was the first time we celebrated Father’s Day without my father-in-law. The holiday came and went, and my husband declined to do much to mark it — not because he is not happy to be a dad himself, but because he is still adjusting to life after losing his father to Covid-19.
Big Wayne was always present, always someone with opinions and advice, and life has been hard without him. This Father’s Day was our first holiday in the “after” — the new “normal” where you have grieved and will still grieve, but also realize that life is still going to go on. My husband was most comfortable having a quiet day and not talking about it, so that is what we did.
It is difficult to see the line between pandemic and post-pandemic in a way that can be easily expressed when in many ways the pandemic is still ongoing. There have been graduations and birthdays, there have also been funerals, some immediate, many long-delayed by the restrictions necessary for public health. We are coming out of a slow-motion natural disaster in a weird, adult version of that childhood game “Red Light, Green Light.” We don’t know when to stop and when to go.
This new normal appears to require a “two steps forward, one step back” approach. There are hard days still, even as we step into this new reality that is focused on the good days. But still, it is good to know that everything we learned in kindergarten is relevant eventually, including the rules about letting people be quiet on hard days so that they can enjoy the good ones.
Mikki Kendall is the author of “Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot.”
I knew things had changed when I walked into my local Walmart
By Issac Bailey
The day after the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention relaxed mask guidelines for fully vaccinated people, it hit me that the pandemic seemed to end suddenly in the minds of many. This realization came when I walked into a Walmart in Myrtle Beach, South Carolina, then a Dollar General, then a restaurant — and in each place, I was one of a handful of people with something covering my face.
Mask-wearing hadn’t been great in our area before the guidelines changed, but the overnight shift was a bit unnerving. Though I had been vaccinated for weeks by that point and had been wearing a mask out of courtesy and compliance with regulations by select stores, I felt naked when I took it off to fit in with the others.
I know that even today hundreds of people a day are still being killed by Covid-19 in the US, that most of the world’s population has not been vaccinated and because of our relatively low vaccination rates in parts of South Carolina, a resurgence in the fall is a real possibility. But I knew the moment I read that the CDC said the vaccinated could ditch our masks in most places it would signal to even the unmasked that the worst had passed. I just didn’t think I’d see it so quickly manifest itself in a local Walmart Supercenter just hours later, particularly knowing that so many people here didn’t much care what the CDC had been saying before that moment. So many people are following the science selectively now — about masks but not vaccinations. And I don’t yet know how to feel about that.
Issac Bailey is a longtime journalist based in South Carolina and the Batten Professor for Communication Studies at Davidson College. He’s the author of “My Brother Moochie: Regaining Dignity in the Face of Crime, Poverty and Racism in the American South.” His latest book is “Why Didn’t We Riot? A Black Man in Trumpland.”
‘Normal feels blissfully unremarkable’
By Nancy Kaffer
T.S. Eliot got it backward — the world ended with a bang, as our doors slammed shut last March, and reopened with a whimper, as normal life crept in this summer.
Normal, in my home, depends on who you are: my 10-year-old son, too young to be vaccinated, is still constrained by Covid-19 precautions, and has struggled with this year of online learning. His school stayed closed even as others around us reopened, a harmful decision I’ve yet to forgive. He hasn’t been in a classroom since March 2020 — his fourth grade year; he’ll start middle school in person this fall. It’s hard to think about.
I’ve been fully vaccinated since March, when the world still felt awfully dangerous, and none of us understood exactly what protections our inoculation would confer. My forays into regular life were cautious: Wednesday morning coffee indoors and without masks with a vaccinated friend, dinners out with my husband, drinks with my friend at a darling downtown bar, lunch with a friend who just started a new job, a trip to the garden store for daisies and forget-me-nots.
The strange part is how normal it felt. We got used to our secluded lives this past year. We’ve wondered if normal would ever feel normal again. I’m here to tell you: Yes. Normal feels blissfully unremarkable.
Michigan ended its mask mandate altogether this week. I met another friend for lunch Tuesday on the patio of a restaurant that still hasn’t reopened for inside service. We’d eaten there a month before, walking masked to our table, giving our orders to a likewise masked waitress, wond
Opinion: I knew we were in a new normal when I walked into Walmart
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