Column: How do you celebrate in the middle of a pandemic? A dog and a man outside in Chicago, wondering what they are seeing.

Chris Jones, Chicago Tribune
·5 min read

Heal, /h 1/4 u0113l/, verb, (of a person or treatment) cause (a wound, injury, or person) to become sound or healthy again.

The dog and I, both carrying our burdens, headed out at eight, our strikingly similar noses peeking out the door and sniffing the warm Saturday sunshine in disbelief. Not a cloud in the sky. We just wanted to be together and to walk.

For a city with so much terrible weather, Chicago always somehow manages to come through with an autumnal aberration when it matters the most. In 2008, a Chicagoan named Barack Obama accepted his presidential victory on an impossibly balmy November night, as if his hometown understood what it owed him. The Nov. 2016 World Series parade for the Chicago Cubs took place in brilliant sunshine, the seasons suspended in a jubilation that the cosmos knew to be justified by the length of the wait.

And so the dog and I strolled on down and up Chicago’s North Side, staring at the rich, red colors of the leaves still clinging to the trees, defiantly holding out against the coming, plague-stricken winter like golden antivirals. We walked past joggers, sleepy babies, bikers, all headed outside for safer communion as if they could not quite believe the luck of this day.

We saw restaurant workers coming out of doors and putting out tables on patios that they thought were toast for the winter, the season taking down their jobs with the cold. We watched huge plate-glass windows of bars get cranked open, making it legal to watch college football, drink a beer, help save a business and breathe. We saw slivers of doors crank open for business between boarded-up windows.

We were still out when an elongated presidential election was called and horns started to honk and people danced on Halsted Street and anyone smart enough to put down their tediously repetitive social media feeds and head outdoors saw ... well, it was complicated.

How do you celebrate in the middle of a pandemic? How long does it take a gash in the collective psyche to heal? Does relief deserve a parade?

Belief and certainty do not come easily these days and thus the dog and I found ourselves wending our ways down diagonal streets through the tentative, which is not a thing Chicago usually is.

Before celebrating, people needed to know if it was safe, and everybody defines that noun differently in 2020, and one person’s sense of safety impacts that of another. And, let the record show, no amount of sun could dissipate the exhaustion caused by all the little risk-tolerance decisions people have had to make for months, fearing the judgment of their preening peers with every last darn one.

We overheard cynicism that this outcome would stick. We watched virtuous celebrants worry about what they were signaling, just by even emerging. Absolutists immediately worried about complacency, we heard talk that the enemy was still within, that the struggle had no end.

Pausing for blessed relief (for one of us), we heard arguments flair over who had really achieved this nail-biter of a thing and who would benefit and who was truly deserving and whether or not this came close to enough. One of us knew his feeds would be full of this kind of divisive rhetoric, being as feelings of forgiveness and reconciliation just don’t prime algorithms monetized for outrage. The new president of the United States will need to be wary of this, he thought. Maybe this above all.

But the scents were pleasing and we walked on.

And it still felt like some who would have just crossed the road the day before were now willing to give us a nod and a smile and a wave. This mattered more to us than we had previously thought. And it was happening even as nobody quite knew what to do, having forgotten how to turn off the outrage lever and face the messiness of compromises and the stubborn resistance of so many of our fellow humans to do what we want to do, or to think of themselves using a linguistic system that seems clear to us and beyond debate but that they refuse to embrace. Leading us to condescend.

We went home and got in the car. We got an Uptown car wash, which felt good, especially since we took on the interior. Curious, we drove out of the city, along a road near the lake, wondering what was going on up there.

One of us traveled with her usual stoicism, mostly enjoying the flow of the wind in her nostrils. One of us tried to understand what he was seeing, whether the honking horns and the geniality on the sidewalks meant anything significant, whether all this was a turning point within this crisis-stricken year or just another example of the human inability to focus on what matters most, to understand that a clutch of genetic material doesn’t care about political dissent or celebration, and that we persist in this even when the entire species is at risk.

We drove on, up into different area codes, past bigger houses with values buoyed by pandemic dreams of yards and space and work-at-home hopes for a happier life, maybe. We saw more happy humans moving that we had seen in a year or more.

Were guards going down? Was this hope for American restoration premature and soon to be dashed? Or was this an essential step?

Would an old man who is willing to admit he is a transitional figure, who speaks of unity and the banishment of inter-mural hostility, who understand loss and the need for a higher purpose and who insists he will tend to all Americans, be able to live up to all or any of this? Were we kidding ourselves because the weather was nice?

The dog and I looked at each other. We didn’t know much. But we’d had one fine day together in our Emerald City.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

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