I am waiting on the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York — the designated spot where I will meet my friend Cookie.
Neither of us has been in New York during the coronavirus pandemic, a city I have loved since the beginning of time. Fifteen months gone from a place I once called home.
We plan to see art — the Alice Neel exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, which requires visitors to mask. I am curious about Neel and cannot stop reading about her. I’ve watched a documentary made by her grandson.
I have a Neel obsession — my latest in the arts, which sustain me still, and unfailingly through the past 15 months of the pandemic. I don’t know who I, 60 and living alone, would be without the arts.
When I was growing up, my family didn’t have the money to go on vacations, but a few times a year, we went to the theater and sometimes, the opera. My parents saw Judy Garland perform several times, including the famous Carnegie Hall concert. This exposure is part of what shaped me. Later, I found the symphony, the ballet. And an undying affection for good television and voice-driven books.
Throughout the pandemic, art in all forms saves me, again and again.
My “day job” is as a clerk in a grocery store. This is its own kind of theater. Some days, it feels like Ping-Pong, bouncing between chaos and isolation. Some days, the isolation is a balm, a church of sorts. A slowing for reflection, something that the pandemic teaches us, according to former US poet laureate Billy Collins.
The slow-down is something, he said in a commencement speech at Choate Rosemary Hall, that poetry also invites. The words. The images. In a way, words and images, stories, have also stopped me in my tracks during the pandemic.
The train from northern New Jersey has more people than I expect, though still not anywhere near what I, a former commuter, would describe as crowded. There is plenty of room and seat selection feels almost like entering a private Quiet Car. Everyone is required to mask, regardless of vaccine status.
Staring out the window as we draw closer to Penn Station, I’m surprised to feel my throat tighten.
I’m one of an energetic crowd in Penn Station. One of many beating hearts. All of us heading somewhere, having some place to go — again. A city that was an epicenter of the pandemic. And now, a ghost town awakened. The sidewalk pulses. I hear the symphony of the street, smell the warm summer air. The scent of unrelenting persistence. The hum of insistence. Breathing it all in.
What I know about these past 15 months is about outstaring the darkness. To make joy, to make good, at every opportunity. To see beauty — in the everyday and in the work of artists, who I believe will help us find ourselves again. This helps me, and maybe you, too. I believe art will help us carry our loss when the ocean cannot hold our sorrow.
I think of the musicians, including students from the Berklee College of Music and Yo-Yo Ma’s “Songs of Comfort,” offering music online, the Italians making music from their balconies. Who can remember who referred which video, or the stumble down a rabbit hole that led to discovery? Still, I feel the joy of the discoveries. And I marvel at what people can find inside of themselves and what they can make in service to others. Even during a pandemic.
And now, in light of the vaccines — 48 percent of eligible Americans are fully vaccinated — and the lifting of restrictions, we are all figuring out, again, how to be in a pandemic with dangerous variants.
We are all finding our way.
Seeing a recent poll by NPR, the PBS News Hour, and Marist, I know that I am not alone. Americans differ in our beliefs about when things will return to normal, when to mask, and what we are willing to do, including going out to bars or concerts, attending religious services. Fifty-five percent of us are planning vacations.
I am waiting on the corner of 34th Street and Seventh Avenue in New York. A hand touches my shoulder. Cookie.
In a New York minute, Cookie and I cling to each other. We are sobbing, our eyes squeeze tight, our tears stain our T-shirts. Our hair entangled in our tears. Minutes go by, like the endless cars moving through traffic lights, like the passersby who might have taken in the scene of us.
The world keeps spinning, opening to me and Cookie. We are ready for reentry.
Mary Ann D’Urso’s column appears regularly in the Globe. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.