Driving around Omaha on Monday at 4:22 P.M., an outsider might not think much has changed in Omaha after the outbreak and spread of COVID-19. Under a bright sun and some clouds, plenty of cars are still on roads and highways during the rush hour. Residents of the Omaha metropolitan area (which has no stay-at-home order) are heading back home from work, or they’re going to pick up dinner. Families are still going to local parks to play around, and friends are meeting up for a game of golf or other recreational activities. But as much as some of Omaha’s residents are trying to maintain a sense of “business as usual,” a more critical viewing of Omaha points to reality being anything but normal.
This is Dodge Street, Omaha’s main street and busiest road. Usually cars are backed up along Dodge during this time, but now, there is not a trace of congestion. The source for this slowed movement? Countless businesses, both corporations and local stores, are closed or have moved to take out options. This location of Village Inn, a chain restaurant I worked at for three years, permanently closed down in early April. It was an important place where I developed a sense of myself and of those in my community, and it is now gone. More significantly, in this current moment, its closure left many of my old coworkers wondering when they’ll get their next paycheck and how they’ll take care of their families. Two of my old coworkers are even expecting to give birth any day now. This unsureness, emptiness, slowness, is not normal. We are so used to moving and working that when we’re forced to stop, we become disoriented and confused - and sometimes even overwhelmed when life keeps going. Can you get a sense for what it might be like to bring another human into this world during this time?
This time of slowness, during which we are forced to pause, can jar our sense of normal if we stop and observe for just a second. When my friend and I stopped to take photographs, we were so confused by the appearance of a school bus. All of Omaha’s schools went online at least a week before this picture was taken - so why are school buses driving about? What is their purpose? When looking for more information online as to why school buses were out and about, nothing showed up. When the sight of an everyday occurrence is something that you suddenly question and look into, how can we sit with that to make sense of what’s become our new normal? Interrogating this new normal can help us pinpoint what exactly has changed and brainstorm the ways in which things should change. For instance, thinking about the uses of Omaha’s buses could reveal that they can be used to transport meals to kids who are no longer receiving lunch from their schools.
Driving through the University of Omaha’s main campus, we were struck by its emptiness. Common everyday occurrences startled us - a car pulling out of a parking garage, a student walking on a sidewalk, and one building’s parking lot that was oddly full of cars. The move to online classes has left many students feeling isolated, alone, distant from reality. No more bumping into friends between classes, and no more trying to pass through the intersection before the light changes so you can get to class. So, even though we’re now stuck inside of our homes doing classes and anxiously waiting for this all to be over, where does this take us? What are we more sensitive to, and what SHOULD we be more sensitive to? I think a recent saying that’s been going around on social media sites frames the answer to the latter question: We all may be experiencing the same storm, but we all don’t have the same boat. Following this saying, there are some wealthy people who are in their multi-million dollar cruise ships - and there are working class people on rafts struggling to cross the sea. And there’s all sorts of ships in between those ends - but there are definitely more rafts than cruise ships. How can we sensitize ourselves to those on the rafts, and more importantly, how can we support and liberate them from their struggles?
When this is all over, we’ll be approaching an intersection; at this crossroads, we’ll be forced to consider - do we go back to what was normal? Here in this video, there are certainly people who are trying to maintain a sense of normal by driving around, getting food, going to work, running errands; heck, even driving around helped me feel things were somewhat normal still.
Or, do we take a turn and go down another street? Having been forced to attune ourselves to death, loss, and loneliness, how might we now be attuned to others who have experienced the same (but also, experienced it in different ways)? During this slowness, maybe the first thing to do isn’t buying a new video game to play or binge watching entire seasons on Netflix. Maybe the first thing to do, rather, is to slow down and stop. Pay attention to the ways in which we’re understanding ourselves. Sit with what we’re feeling as we keep driving forward. Become aware of the intricacies of our isolated selves within our environments. Make connections among our own selves and the others we pass on the road. And really, critically, reflect on others’ situations during this crisis. And ask ourselves, what needs to change? What direction do we need to turn to next?