Lockdown Nostalgia: I Miss Only Caring About What Really Matters

by Tara Isabella Burton at Wisdom of Crowds: It is easy to be nostalgic for all kinds of unpleasant things. We are nostalgic for unhappy childhoods, brutal educational institutions, unhappy relationships, noxious political regimes. Me, I’m nostalgic for the pandemic.

Caveat: I was one of the lucky ones. I eloped with my now-husband the day before New York City shut down; my work has never not been primarily freelance and remote. I lost no family members, nor any friends. The two-odd years of pandemic-tide were uncanny, to be sure, but they were not traumatic. They were, in fact, the happiest of my life.

Life made sense to me, then, as it had rarely before, and only sometimes did afterwards. I knew, with the clarity of distillation, who I was, what I wanted, for what I would risk breathing contaminated air, or touching a polluted surface. For most of my adult life I’d wrestled with an emptiness that enraged me. I was too easily bored; too easily distracted; chasing exhilaration and finding, more often than not, alienation. Then, the world stopped, and in its stillness I found not only peace, but abundance. I started noticing everything: The weeks the leaves changed, and the contours of urbans hills I had walked so many times without ever putting topography to Morningside or Washington Heights, the raccoons of Morningside Park, the difference between a brisk fall day – where you could still safely have a picnic – and the ones where you couldn’t gather at all. I felt, for two years, and for the first time, like I was living my life, instead of waiting for it to begin.

I am not alone in this. Many of my family and friends admit to similar experiences — at least, after the initial shock of the “Stop the Spread” campaign, and its shadowy yet immediate terrors. What we are nostalgic for is the strange normalcy that came after: Pantries considered and emptied, meals cooked in bulk at home, Zoom plays and makeshift outdoor socializing. For those of us without children to educate or elderly to protect, with remote-friendly livelihoods conductible from the safety of our interior rooms, with access to parks and walkable streets, it was actually — uncanny to admit — pretty nice. It was, at the very least, preferable to the seeming mania that came after: A long-heralded return to normalcy that, in New York City, at least, correlated with vertiginous inflation, a massive spike in anti-social public behavior, and a seemingly renewed, TikTok-fueled cultural commitment that everything be as content-worthy as possible.

The life I led from, roughly, March 2020 to early 2022 was, perhaps the least content-worthy life I’d ever lived. Certainly, it was the smallest, in terms of scale and scope. The tasks that concerned me most were the ones in front of me: Getting fed, staying sane. We put together a meal from pantry staples during those months that grocery shopping was still inadvisable (we did try, and fail, to make bread). The pursuit of pleasure, likewise, involved at-times manic effort: To gather, first on Zoom, and then, increasingly, outdoors, occupied the whole of our collective energies. There were the nights, in March and April, when we dressed up “for the opera” – the Metropolitan Opera House’s nightly free screening – and Zoomed with our like-minded friends during the intermissions. There was Zoom karaoke, and Zoom Dungeons and Dragons, and Zoom theatre – beautiful by virtue of its necessity. (A March 2020 production, via Zoom, of Oedipus Rex, starring Oscar Isaacs and Frances McDormand, and centering the panic of the Theban plague, remains one of the most affecting artistic pieces I’ve ever seen.)