I took a seat on the first of several long, broad concrete stairs descending to Lake Clara Mere in the middle of Piedmont Park, Atlanta. On the dock below me, a father and son minded a fishing pole in still blue water. Wind gently materialized in the rustling of gardenia flowers. Flashes of grey and brown tails ricocheted between thick green bushes. So much peace in the midst of an invisible pandemic. This was the duality I needed to conjure a headache.
I felt the presence of trillions of hazardous molecules orbiting around me; invisible to my eyes but all around. The sun shed warmth on the eroded concrete slabs of the stairs. I felt it on my skin—pale and out of place—from a Poughkeepsie winter. The moments seemed slightly out of rhythm, lagging behind reality by a brief lapse in my perception, and I felt paralyzed by this slow quiet, sensing that something frantic and robust was standing still.
The ominous title of this piece is not an exaggeration—it’s not a keen insight or a falsifiable assertion. It’s what I felt, sitting at home in Atlanta on a Monday eating lunch at 11:45 a.m., watching a commercial for another new lite beer. I saw gleaming millennials in target audience apparel prancing through multicolored clouds, blissful and together. Women with luminous skin sip their drinks back-to-back, wearing slow motion smiles. “Social distancing” isn’t something this world knows about.
Friday afternoon, I was walking my dogs on a slow and warm Atlanta afternoon, exactly where I didn’t think I’d be in mid-March. My spring track season was canceled. Four-hour bus rides to New Jersey meets vanished. The sweet possibility of post-race Nutella and bagels vanished from my stomach. Racing, training, and all the above—simply not going to happen this semester.
I quietly pondered what the semester might look like with a hole the size of a 400m oval in the center. The season would have been tough for other viral reasons. For the last month, before when the panic was no more than a distant meme, and during the meat of our regular season grind, when we push our bodies from mildly in shape to peak performance, I was sick in bed. Nothing too severe, but by the time I returned to practice, my stride had fallen flat and my lungs gulped less air than I knew they could.
Running is addictive. Patrons of recent Why We Play know this. Despite the fact that I won’t stick safety pins into my racing bib, lace up my spikes and toe a start line again until a whole other cycle of seasons is complete, I plan on running.
Running is a sport concerned with solving the only operation that matters: time divided by distance, and whittling that proportion down to the best of your abilities. But a lot has changed and stopped since I was competing in my sophomore year track season. Meets are like a test every week. With or without school, I won’t need to solve equations any time soon.
More than an email or a news break, the most obvious sign that my season was over is that today, I ran without a watch. I didn’t know my pace or distance—I don’t care to know, truthfully. Then, I did something unnatural. I stopped. I sat on some steps above the lake in Piedmont Park. I watched. I listened.
A father and daughter played frisbee. When they left, they embraced, one arm around each other, hugging gently. A man, dressed in a blue Oxford shirt and Blundstone boots (but no pants) walked by, and asked if I had seen anyone taking pictures. I hadn’t. I kept the image of him turning his back, his briefs barely visible below his shirt.
For the first time in years, I had no plan or regimen. I was nervous. I was tired, so I sat there with the restless and unrequited momentum of this semester settling inside me. I stood up to continue running, which I planned to do…at some point. I looked down at my legs, to the muscles I’d given hours to strengthen. I rubbed my fingers between the cartilage, bone and fat, and felt a stillness I hadn’t known in quite a long time. I set out at a slow jog and joined the other live images surrounding me.
Living in this time of pandemic, we see that seemingly unrelated moments have obvious parallels. Unrelated stories pull into sharp relief the crisis of the present-day.
Some 82 years ago, a Jewish boy and his parents were one of many families to flee Germany. The escaped in 1938, the year of kristallnacht, a night when Nazi’s stormed Jewish neighborhoods and smashed shop windows and synagogues emblazoned with yellow Yiddish and Hebrew. Impossibly, the family escaped to New York, worked as maids, and in an auspicious decision that bewilders me whenever the thought crosses my mind, began saving for their grandchildren. Not themselves. Those savings eventually helped send their great grandchild to college, who is now at home typing this in his running shorts.
On Friday, I drove my mom to the airport. Her father, that German Jewish boy, was going into surgery for a new heart valve. At 86, and with so many swarming confoundments, anything was possible.
In times when social geography is leaped over by ultra-fast bit rates, coronavirus is a black hole. Its gravity pulls anything within remote degrees of separation into singularity. Like the once again thumping heart of my grandfather, it pulses with all the color of living. We realize that within it, without it, and without exception, we are all inseparably wound in this steadfast pinpoint, searching for unlikely miracles at unlikely moments.