The Little Things
By Ella Stritzel
I think about my last night in Boulder a lot.
A friend of mine and I went out and ate at a Thai place, laughing about what comes next and grinning at each other as we watched the rain fall steadily in the street. Eating Sweet Cow ice cream and walking side by side, the streetlights seeming to glow around us, halos reflected in the puddles at our feet. It’s such a simple memory that now seems distant and untouchable. Even with the threat of Covid-19 hanging over us, her moving home across the country and me seemingly trapped in place, it was perfect– like freezing a brief flash of blue sky in a day hidden by dark clouds.
I remember exactly where I was when I got the emergency notification text from CU: sitting on the bus on the way back to my apartment, staring out the opposite window, trying to ignore the palpable anxiety that filled the air as everyone simultaneously received the notification.
An employee had a presumptive positive test result.
No one knew what to do with that information. Some panicked and got out of Boulder as fast as possible. I clung to one important word from the text: presumptive. It was just as likely that they didn’t have it. Things probably wouldn’t change too much, I thought. Then, five hours later another emergency notification text crushed my hopes: classes were canceled, and remote teaching was going to begin the next week. I couldn’t turn away and hope for it to get better, this was real and staring me in the face.
My professors pre-recorded lectures and posted them to Canvas. My recitation sections stopped meeting. I had no contact with anyone. Any semblance of structure I had in my life crumbled at my feet. It was jarring, like some sort of bizarre, unexpected summer break. But even so, I didn’t really mind it. To suddenly have of freedom from everything—classes, clubs, rehearsals, practice—I don’t know how to describe it. Confusing? Exciting? Terrifying? Whatever it was, it was as if I was at the top of a rollercoaster, faced with an impossible drop.
There was no more standing at the bus stop half asleep in the mornings; no more studying late in the library until the words all blurred together; no more waiting in a line too long just for coffee that couldn’t wake me up anyway. No more rushing from the opposite side of campus, praying I’d have enough time to grab food before work. I no longer felt the exhaustion settle into my muscles as I sat nearly motionless at my desk writing three papers due the next week on the same day. I no longer layed on the floor, surrounded by my laptop and textbooks with my notebook open on my face incoherently mumbling dates and names. I no longer feverishly went over Quizlets on the bus in a last-ditch effort to prepare for an exam. It was as if the most stressful part of school had magically vanished overnight.
But that freedom came with frustrating stipulations. In the mysterious vanishing of stress, it also ripped all my favorite activities from my grasp. Symphonic band was done just as things had started to come together for our final concert. My friends and I wouldn’t be trying to hide giggles behind our music stands. I wouldn’t be writing things that were only funny to us between the lines of our sheet music. I wouldn’t feel the thrill of nailing a passage that had tripped me up for weeks, or the chills that would run up my arms when things sounded almost perfect or be unable to suppress a smile mid-concert just from the sheer joy of playing.
Anthropology club was over. I wouldn’t be sitting in the seminar room, confusing the upperclassmen by using unfamiliar slang and listening intently to a speaker who specialized in an unfamiliar area. I wouldn’t be curled up in a chair in the most uncomfortable position possible, listening to our president talk about scheduling events, reviewing what’s coming up next on the calendar or what the underclassmen need to learn in order to take over the club the next semester; all the while, promising us with a smile that “you’re not going to be thrown into it, we’re going to be there with you”.
None of us could possibly have known what was coming our way. But there’s no use in lamenting it now. Even after the world is shattered and brought to a screeching halt, we still have to get going and pick up the pieces.
So, I did.
I watched recorded lectures and put together discussion posts as if nothing changed, even though it felt like a façade. I did the required readings and took notes despite endlessly staring out my window, watching the spring weather change as if nothing was wrong.
I moved back home to be with my parents to finish the semester. I remember staring at my suitcase, at a complete loss of what to pack. I never thought I’d end up moving home in the middle of college. But I did. My childhood bedroom was exactly the same as it was in high school. My posters, drawings, programs, photos, even my flag were still pinned up just as I had left when I moved out. But the person who moved back couldn’t have been more different. It was almost like I had been shot back into my high school body but kept my college brain, experiencing a strange battle of wills. This time around I was independent. I woke up and stayed up as long as I wanted, trying to experience the freedom I now possessed while still desperately clinging to a self-made school schedule that, too, seemed to vanish at my fingertips despite me swearing I had it under control.
Things picked up like they would normally. I had papers due and had to prepare for exams. Things shifted from feeling like a strange summer break back to sitting at a table for hours, watching lectures I had forgotten about, furiously taking notes, my hands once again getting covered in pen and highlighter as I mixed up demographic data across time periods and tried to understand the social upheaval of ancient civilizations. Once again, things had simultaneously completely changed while also not changing in the slightest. My exams went well, but instead of a celebration, smiling in relief, and finally having a satisfying end to a class, it was simply closing my laptop and tossing it aside in indifference, only to sit back down a few moments later to begin preparing for something else.
After the semester ended I’m not even sure what happened. I’d look up and the day would be over. Days bled into weeks. Time seemed to leave me behind. If I’d remember to, I’d Facetime my friends. I’d play video games for hours and stare blankly at the notifications on my phone, none of it seeming to register. In an age where everything is connected at every moment, I’ve never felt so isolated and cut off from the rest of the world. My best friend celebrated getting into Eastman on violin, and to celebrate, I bought him boba. We sat on his porch wearing our masks and talking as if nothing had changed. We watched the sunset and howled at 8:00 p.m. with everyone else in the neighborhood. His brother slid us popsicles, making sure he didn’t get too close. We tried to ignore the anxiety settling into the background and the petrifying ‘what-ifs’ that no longer seemed outrageous. It all seemed to twist and spiral in the darkness just beyond us, kept at bay only by a singular porch light and our quiet companionship.
We are desperately trying to connect at a time where we can’t. I miss the small, innocent moments of a world unbothered and that’s why Utagawa Kunisada’s woodcut Autumn Moon-viewing Scene from Inaka Genji is perfect to me at this moment in time. It depicts five people enjoying each other’s company, overlooking the ocean. While this print is a scene from a story, to me it represents the simplistic moments of life now taken for granted. The scene is so incredibly human, the group focusing on what is in front of them, but still aware that they are doing their individual tasks together. Scenes like this are almost inconsequential, a snapshot of life, and yet given our current situation, seem so far removed it’s nearly unimaginable.
Those are the moments that I miss, where soft everyday occurrences have lost their context and have become a distant memory. I miss standing next to someone in line, instead of glaring daggers at strangers who gets too close. I miss my friends’ smiles and laughter now hidden and muffled behind masks. We’re still making small moments, but the paranoia can’t be hidden away. We see the world change beyond our windows and reminisce. We have a new normal, and despite the fear that seems to guide our waking moments, we can’t abandon it. Humanity is resilient. We survive, time and time again. This too, shall pass. We just have to hang on a little longer.
Image Credit: Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786-1865, Autumn Moon-viewing Scene from Inaka Genji, 1847-1852, woodcut, 13 ½ inches x 9 ¾ inches. Gift of Helen Baker Jones, in memory of her father, James H. Baker, former President of CU (1892-1914), CU Art Museum, University of Colorado Boulder, 67.333.16, Photo: Jeff Wells.