BY: Anna Kuyat
Anna Kuyat is a junior at Fordham University studying English and Visual Arts. She is a Spring 2020 intern for Chasing the Dream.
If the coronavirus outbreak has taught me anything, it is how very lucky I am. I began my junior year of college in Copenhagen, Denmark where I was able to have an incredible semester abroad. A few months into the second semester of my junior year, I was settling back into my New York City school lifestyle: grabbing a coffee with a few friends at Prince Coffee House; taking the D train to Columbus Circle for shopping or to Hamilton Heights to meet my brother for a bite at Harlem Public; walking along Arthur Ave; “enjoying” a class in Irish and British Medieval Literature; comparing photos of my study abroad experience with online friends who were currently studying in Copenhagen or London or Granada.
And then seemingly without warning, we were all sent packing. One morning I woke up in the Bronx and that night, went to bed back home in Philly with just a duffel bag full of my belongings. My first two thoughts were mixtures of empathetic concern and selfish relief— “I’m glad I did my study abroad in the fall” and “It must be really tough to be a college senior this year.” When a university closes shop, you know things are serious. And they were, it was —this invisible, protein-crowned virus called COVID-19.
Having no experience with pandemics, I could be forgiven for not thinking in terms of worst case scenarios. Certain things are permanent fixtures—the gym, the coffee shop, the train, the innumerable people who frequent them with me. This is a city that never sleeps. When I woke up at my house in southeastern Pennsylvania, it all disappeared— no coffee shop, no gym, no people. And then, I finally did get the message, and for the first time became afraid. My father, then my mother became infected and quarantined themselves in a separate portion of our not very large three bedroom home. I barely left the house because of something called “shelter in place.” I had to stay away from my high school pals because of something called “social distancing.” I came face to face with my own sense of entitlement— I haven’t gone through anything, and even this is not anything compared with those who are out of work or those who are forced to work meeting needs and saving lives.
I wasn’t really ready for online classes. I had taken for granted how significant the human interaction was, even from that student who seemed compelled to man-splain two or three times per class, or the perky one who can’t stop her joyous mouth from answering another question. They mattered. They helped to define me— I am the non- perky one. I needed them all. Like most people, I also found being secluded at home very difficult. At school, I was in constant motion in search of a new museum or cafe or another place in which to do my school work— my dorm, true to its etymology, was simply a spot to sleep in. And while NYC gave me numerous spurts of inspiration for writing yet another essay, my suburban Philadelphia neighborhood lacked anything close to a Mt. Parnassus. In fact, I mostly felt tired and anesthetized by a nondescript boredom.
But there was something oddly uplifting in knowing that there were only three things happening in a world known for its hyperkinetic abuse of time— being sick, keeping from being sick, and helping those who are sick. Everyone was all about one thing. Nothing else mattered. And we were all together in a new abridged version of living. And I found myself drifting out of myself to wonder about those who were being sick and serving the sick while I had the opportunity to do nothing. Some of my friends were in families that now lacked an income since neither parent’s job afforded the ability to work from home. The mother of another friend was a nurse who had worked 16 hours per day, taking care of infected patients, and having no interaction at home with her daughter. This disease was destructive in more ways than one, but only one way could be treated at a time.
As a healthy citizen of an advanced nation, I felt guilty that we were not in position to provide financial assistance to the unemployed or the small business owners, to distribute PPE or ventilators to every city and state, or to have in place the plan and the equipment for quick reliable nationwide testing. I worried about my parents since their doctors didn’t know the variety of symptoms to expect or what steps to make them more comfortable except to take Tylenol. They could die. For really the first time in my life, death was nearby, an uninvited houseguest. At least they were able to get tested thanks to a drive-thru clinic in one of the parking lots of Citizen Bank Park where the Phillies may play baseball this season. A week after they were tested, this clinic ran out of funding and closed down.
When they beat the virus, I was able to get myself into a routine to avoid being lost in a land without dates and times. This helped with my focus and mental health. Feeling stuck and trapped is a lot to handle. Feeling that one is sinking in an achronicity is asking too much. Measuring time in terms of tasks and rituals gives shape to my day, and directs me toward specifics– facetiming friends, writing, music, dog-walking, meditating, being grateful. A time to be grateful, to be grateful for…nothing beyond this moment. Why would I have to carve out a slot for this? Because I was too busy before, too caught up staring into the kaleidoscope, to take note of many of the forms– their width, their breadth, their identities.
Yes, I still find myself worrying about next year– my senior year– since it is still uncertain whether school will open on campus in the fall. I also think about how I will be applying for jobs very soon, in less than a year. It is disheartening, dispiriting, to know that I may be entering the job market during an economic depression. Finding a job after college and transitioning to “full-on adulthood” is stressful enough.
But then I breathe. I know enough history to be able to identify no more than two times during the previous century when crisis provoked positive change– FDR’s New Deal and LBJ’s Great Society. Perhaps this pandemic that has shed a glaring light on our nation’s deficiencies will spark essential changes to our economy and to our healthcare. I know I am ready to play my part. And there is the very real possibility of a brighter future not insulated from distress, but prepared to live with misfortune wisely and humanely when it comes.