CHICAGO Early in the coronavirus pandemic — March, April — some Chicago residents embarked on a joyful ritual of flashing their lights and joining together in nightly song.
People would stand at their windows or gather on their balconies or head to their rooftops and send all sorts of light into the night sky: cellphone lights, flashlights, glow stick lights, kitchen lights turned on and off, on and off.
The songs were usually upbeat — “We Are The Champions,” “YMCA” and the like. Sometimes they were tailored to a specific moment. When South Loop resident Bill Hession was dying of cancer and his family asked the neighbors to find socially distanced ways to bid him farewell, the folks behind the nightly singalongs selected “Sweet Caroline” by Neil Diamond, a favorite of Hession’s.
The ritual was designed as a tribute to health care employees and other essential workers. It quickly became a sort of pandemic glue that bound neighbor to neighbor, heart to heart, in a time when so many face-to-face rituals were disappearing. Radio station WDRV 97.1 started co-hosting the event, playing the designated songs at 8 p.m. sharp for folks to blast in the background.
When George Floyd was killed in Minneapolis on May 25, the singalongs stopped. The neighborhood went dark until June 1, when residents switched to candlelight vigils for a little more than a week. On June 11, organizers invited the neighborhood to once again join together in song: “Americans,” by Janelle Monáe.
The fall and winter brought holiday light show singalongs in the neighborhood: a Diwali celebration Nov. 14, Thanksgiving and Hanukkah and Christmas and New Year’s Eve after that. All in the name of unity and resilience, in the face of death and dying.
Why am I bringing this up now?
Because on Tuesday, Mayor Lori Lightfoot is asking Chicagoans to participate in a citywide COVID-19 memorial service by turning off our lights and our electronics for 10 minutes, starting at 6 p.m. We’re invited to step outside, light a candle and respect a moment of silence in honor of the people lost to the coronavirus.
Navy Pier will go dark. A number of buildings downtown will go dark. The Building Owners and Managers Association of Chicago, which orchestrates holiday-themed lighting for buildings along the city’s skyline, has signed on.
At 6:10 p.m., we’re supposed to turn our lights back on, symbolizing the movement from darkness to light.
The Chicago event is part of a national COVID-19 memorial service organized by Joe Biden’s presidential inaugural committee, scheduled for the day before Biden is sworn in as the nation’s 46th president. A candlelight vigil is scheduled to take place Tuesday about 5:30 p.m. (Washington, D.C., time) at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool.
I really like this idea.
I like it in theory — finding a small moment of unity during a pandemic that has revealed and amplified our inequities and prompted us, too often, to turn against one another. The few times I headed to the South Loop for its nightly ritual, I was moved to tears by the beauty and the juxtaposition of coming together when so much feels as though it’s coming apart.
I like it in spirit — pausing to reflect on the people whose lives were cut short, and all the ways they shaped and changed and improved the world before they left. People like Seth Arkin. And Al Spinner. And Edie Morello. And Allen Sparrow.
I like the symbolism. Darkness, then light. Grief, but hope.
The world is closing in on 2 million COVID-19 deaths. The United States leads the world, reaching a seven-day average of 2,249 deaths per day in January. Chicago has lost more than 4,300 residents to the virus.
We’re still in the darkness. We’re a ways from the light. But we need it to show us the way — and the way will always be remembering and honoring and taking care of one another. It has to be.