In the fall issue of Radcliffe Magazine, current and former fellows, alumnae, and students reacted to the grief and unrest of 2020 in essays that both inhabited and observed the moment. Here, to mark the year anniversary of worldwide quarantine, the editors present a selection of these essays in audio form, read by the authors or by Harvard undergraduates affiliated with Theater, Dance & Media.
“I hold space for my deeply felt and necessary grieving, but I will not let it consume my work and my joy.”
Essay by Evie Shockley
Reading by Ruva Chigwedere ’21
Illustration (top of story) by Rebecca Chaperon
Until 2020, I had consistently found joy and refuge in making art. Poetry has been my way of recording and processing my journey, particularly the paths I’ve taken toward understanding the social, physical, and geopolitical world; the forces shaping these distinct yet overlaid and deeply intermeshed configurations of the planet; and my place as one creature among many on the earth. Working out ideas, beliefs, questions, and commitments by filtering them through research, observation, conversation, emotion, language, and imagination, and trying to make something illuminating, delightful, provocative—that is, memorable—in the process: this multifarious act of poetry-making is fundamental to who I am. Even when the subjects I take up are vexatious or agonizing, there is pleasure in the artistic endeavor, satisfaction in gaining a new purchase on the problem or pain.
The first half of this year strained my relationship to my poetry beyond anything I’ve previously experienced. Coming into the period of the pandemic, I’d not had much time to bring the poems bubbling inside me to the surface. As distressing as it was to see social circulation grind to a halt for so many around the world—and to watch those whom we couldn’t live without come rushing into view, in all their vulnerability and essentiality—I assumed I would fill the hours left free with poetry. But within days, as the names and photos of the dead began to appear in the media, it was clear I’d been wrong about that. I was “free” to anxiously pore over maps and charts of coronavirus cases and to obsess about under-resourced public hospitals in Queens or the maddeningly high per-capita rate of infection in the Navajo Nation. I could temporarily “escape” into long, engrossing novels—especially dystopian fictions depicting problems worse than ours and people surviving them. Poetry, however, seemed out of reach. And three weeks later, when I unexpectedly lost a beloved friend and mentor under circumstances aggravated by the pandemic, if not due to the virus itself, my impulse to create poetry shut down altogether.
I could barely look at my notebook. Oh, I read reams about the developing science around COVID-19; I played political podcasts and fumed at the White House’s indefensible incompetence at managing the pandemic; I consumed more novels and whole seasons of a long-deferred TV show. I even finally got back to work on my scholarly writing. But poetry? No. Poetry requires you to be open and attuned to the interplay of your thoughts and emotions, to stay with them long enough to fully perceive and unpack them. William Wordsworth famously wrote: “Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Well, I had very powerful feelings, but I was doing everything I could to keep them suppressed. I couldn’t simply “recollect” my grief and anger; I was still swimming in these emotions, and the shore of tranquility was nowhere in sight. I had to function: to teach, advise, report, plan, and show up for my family and friends. Poetry seemed to threaten all that.
I now recognize I was mourning death in forms that were not unprecedented, but certainly new to my firsthand experience: death on an incomprehensibly large scale, and death unexpectedly, piercingly near. I couldn’t yet process it, didn’t want to.
Slowly, over the summer, as I wondered if the rupture in my art-making circuitry would ever heal, I found my way back to poetry. Sadly, it was the atrocious killings (I’d call them murders) of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and Daniel Prude, among others, surfacing in the national consciousness—and, finally, the national conscience—that gave me my direction. These were an all-too-familiar kind of death: authorized by the white supremacist, anti-Black racism that generally inscribes Black people with criminality and deputizes white people, in or out of uniform, with state policing power. I returned to Gwendolyn Brooks’s 1968 poem “The Second Sermon on the Warpland,” which offers solace and encourages resistance. Her words speak resonantly to the pain and radical vision of those working to make Black Lives Matter in this warped land—not just vis-à-vis policing and gun violence but also the broken health-care system and unfair labor practices that disproportionately endanger Black lives, as the pandemic has made clear.
Brooks writes: “This is the urgency: Live! / and have your blooming in the noise of the whirlwind.” Her poem’s refrain, these words realign my spirit. I hold space for my deeply felt and necessary grieving, but I will not let it consume my work and my joy. I am a Black poet, living in “the Warpland,” and my inheritance charges and equips me to “nevertheless, live” and bloom—to make art that reveals and cultivates the “furious flower” of these perennially harrowing times.
In Memory of Dr. Cheryl A. Wall
Evie Shockley was a 2018–2019 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. She is a professor of English at Rutgers University–New Brunswick and a poet whose most recent collection, semiautomatic (Wesleyan University Press, 2017), was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in poetry and a winner of the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award in poetry.
“Maybe what’s happening is that after all these years my real face is finally emerging.”
Essay and reading by Junot Díaz
Illustration by James Steinberg
When I returned to the States, forced back by COVID, I didn’t know what to do with myself. The job was off, all the community work shut down, my friendship group was in bunker mode, no one seeing each other, and because I didn’t feel like risking death I was doing the same. The larger world was roiling, but my world—my small world—had gone quiet. Given all the shit that was coming down, perhaps it’s no surprise that I began to fall into depression. I don’t do depression light; once I fall into the hole, I go right to suicidal ideation. I knew I had to do something. My friends urged me to stay busy, my therapist urged me to stay busy. So I stayed busy. I taught myself to cook, I read until my eyeballs ached, I volunteered online—but it was the walking that helped the most.
All the research about how intrinsic walking is to our mental and physical health—count me a believer. Walking helped me focus; walking took the edge off; walking became survival for me. Kept me from obsessing on all the losses: my oldest sister dead of a stroke, my poor sister.
Was it Bellow or Hemon who said, “I saw and saw and saw”? Well, I walked and walked and walked. All over Boston and Cambridge. Three miles a day became five miles a day became ten miles a day, five days a week. I hadn’t been a runner for years but some habits die hard.
We all figure out ways to survive. I blew out shoes.
Which meant of course that I was wearing my mask a lot. Uncomfortable, at first. And then it became routine, and then by the second month it turned into something else. Something strange.
My face felt like it was cracking open. Don’t know how else to describe it.
One must understand: I grew up a poor immigrant Dominican boy of African descent during the Crack Kills ’80s. You didn’t grow up where I grew up and how I grew up and not learn to turn your face into a mask of sorts. (What they call in the biz “impression management.”) Whether it was with the other Black and Latine kids or with the white people who would call the cops on us for breathing, you learned quick to regulate your facial affect. When a stray frown could make you a menace or a tired look a criminal or a smile an easy mark, when everything you did or didn’t do with your face was misinterpreted and could put you in some kind of danger, oh how quickly you learned. Your face was an open door, and in my neighborhood we learned very early on to bolt it. Moving into predominantly white spaces of academia or literary culture didn’t change much—same shit, different types of consequences. Nothing special about any of it, really—just ask my sisters, one a lawyer and the other who used to sell high-end cars. They were the original Facedancers.
But here I was wearing an actual mask for large chunks of my day and no one could see what my expression was. Me, whose face always meant too much—I suddenly had no face at all. Not really. I could smile, I could frown, I could laugh, and no one would be the wiser.
(I think of my sister-friends reporting relief at no longer having to deal with random men telling them to smile.)
After a while my face started feeling very odd. Like it wasn’t a part of me at all. Like it wasn’t my face anymore. And then I began to think . . . maybe that isn’t what’s happening.
Maybe what’s happening is that after all these years my real face is finally emerging.
Fascinating, and sorrowing, to finally experience what it’s like to have a face that’s free—a face that doesn’t have to pretend. A face that is safe, without danger.
A decolonial face.
And now it’s been over seven months and I wonder what will happen when, however far in the future (or near), we finally shed the masks. Truth be told I fear for this new face. I hope that when the masks do come off, the other, older mask doesn’t return. It would be nice if my first face would stick around.
I’ve only just started to know it.
Junot Díaz was a 2003–2004 fellow at the Institute. He is the author of the Pulitzer Prize–winning novel The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao (Riverhead Books, 2007) and, most recently, of the picture book Islandborn (Dial Books, 2018).
“It’s lonely to be isolated, but it’s lonelier when human interaction is right there, just across the street.”
Essay and reading by Iman Lavery
Illustration by Hollie Chastain
On the last Saturday of March, I went to borrow a Bundt pan from my grandmother. The whole world was making banana bread, and I had no intention of being left out.
It was warm—the kind of afternoon that would normally send droves of Seattleites to the lake or the park. Warm days are precious here, and we have a remarkably low standard for what constitutes T-shirt-and-shorts weather. I traded the sweatpants that had been my uniform since I was sent home from school two weeks earlier for real denim shorts and set off on the quarter-mile walk to my grandparents’ condo.
I walked quickly. One block north, around the corner and down the stairs, then one block west, like so many times before. But when I saw someone walking toward me on the sidewalk, I didn’t say hi. I crossed the street, stayed away, tried not to make eye contact. It’s lonely to be isolated, but it’s lonelier when human interaction is right there, just across the street.
At the building, I dialed the number of my grandparents’ suite with the hem of my shirt pulled up to cover my finger. I heard the buzz, the click of the lock, the reassurance that I was allowed to be here. I used my shoulder to push open the door.
I didn’t stay for long, because short, efficient exchanges are a sign of respect these days. My grandparents invited me in, invited me to sit, asked “Do you want something to eat? To drink?” I kept my distance—out of love. The Bundt pan tucked under one arm, I promised to bring them a couple slices and slipped out as quickly as I had come in.
The bananas were in the paper bag on the counter where I’d left them overnight because Google told me it would make them brown faster. I set out the rest of the ingredients for Chrissy Teigen’s Twitter-famous banana bread—eggs, canola oil, flour, sugar, vanilla instant pudding mix, baking soda, salt, shredded coconut, dark chocolate (chopped into chunks).
I like order, organization, predictability. I like to bake when I’m stressed because I like to follow recipes, to know that if I complete each step as instructed, I can re-create the mouthwatering, well-lit product in the photo. It’s something I have control over. I couldn’t control the fact that I wasn’t at school, or that my other grandmother wasn’t allowed to leave her assisted living facility or have visitors, or that the end was not in sight, but I could make Chrissy Teigen’s banana bread in a borrowed Bundt pan and share it with my family. It’s not enough—this gesture at regaining control. But it’s something.
Making banana bread is a project. It is finite; it has an end, a product. With the future so uncertain, we are all looking for ways to see something through, beginning to end. I mashed the bananas, mixed in the eggs and oil, and felt a thousand hands on mine, five thousand fingers wrapped around the whisk. We combined the dry ingredients. We stirred the batter together, poured it into the pan, slid it into the oven. We watched it rise.
Iman Lavery is an intern in the Radcliffe Institute Office of Communications. A concentrator in English with a secondary in film and visual studies, she is a member of the Harvard College Class of 2022.
“If I am feeling tolerant of the disorder that surrounds me, I sit at my desk and write. If not, I start fixing stuff.”
Essay by Will Mackin
Reading by Jonathan Castillo ’21
Illustration by Brian Hoffman
I can tolerate disorder for a short while as long as I recognize it for what it is—the bedroom door that won’t latch, the grinding noise from the icemaker, the funky smell from the shower drain. Something in the recognition itself soothes me. It tells me that my give-a-fuck remains intact. And as long as that’s the case, I will not descend into chaos, at least not yet. I know that chaos is coming for me and everyone I love, regardless. I understand that there is no way around it, no compromise to be made. For all I know, the inevitable triumph of chaos may be divine, but I will settle for painless. I will settle for a suspension of loss. In the meantime, I make the bed every morning. I wind the cuckoo clock and set its pendulum in motion. If I am feeling tolerant of the disorder that surrounds me, I sit at my desk and write. If not, I start fixing stuff.
One thing that needs frequent fixing is my old Toyota 4Runner. The first time it blew a head gasket, I rebuilt the engine. The second time it blew a head gasket, I removed the old engine and installed a remanufactured one. When the crankshaft in that engine broke, I pulled the engine, palletized/shrink-wrapped it, and shipped it off for repairs. Months later, I reinstalled the now re-remanufactured engine. It ran fine up until January, when the heater core burst, dumping steaming radiator fluid into the passenger-side footwell.
As its name suggests, the heater core is central to the vehicle’s production of heat. Hot antifreeze from the engine passes through its coiled tubes, warming the surrounding air, which can then be piped into the cabin through the vents. With months of winter remaining, I ordered a new part and got to work removing the old one.
The heater core is buried deep inside the dashboard behind pretty much everything: radio, airbags, steering wheel, glove box, speedometer, each of which I unbolted, pried free, disentangled, disconnected, and removed. Along the way, I banged my head and skinned my knuckles many times, and used just about every tool that I own: mirror, headlamp, swivel joint, impact extensions, deep sockets, gear wrench, needle-nose pliers, mallet, tweezers, hacksaw. Looking at the ever-growing pile of ducts, wires, brackets, switches, and dials accumulating on the garage floor, I had no idea how I’d get it all back together. Finally, I used a monkey wrench to yank the damaged heater core from its rusty bed, then I held it up to the sky as if it were Excalibur.
The pandemic arrived soon thereafter. The resulting shutdown gave me no reason to drive, let alone finish repairing the heater core. Eventually, I moved the pile of dashboard parts from the garage floor into the 4Runner, which was parked in the driveway, and I locked the doors on the entire mess. There it sat for the remainder of the New Mexican winter, covered in ice and snow. Spring winds brought dirt from the nearby desert, rain turned the dirt into mud. Summer baked the mud into a hard coat of grime. Spiders took up residence in the wheel wells. Entropy continued apace, and my tolerance for it grew. News from the outside world worsened every day, and the denials, lies, and anger provoked by the news seemed even worse. I worried that no amount of give-a-fuck could counteract the approaching chaos.
One morning, as I was writing, the doorbell rang. I opened the door to watch the UPS truck drive away. On the step was a large rectangular box addressed to me. I carried the box, which felt lighter than air, into the kitchen. I cut the box open with a steak knife and started removing wads of paper. I wondered if the box contained nothing but wadded-up paper, if the whole thing was some kind of joke. Then I saw it, the new heater core. It looked just like the old heater core only shinier, like a bright and functional message from the future. I’d long since forgotten the steps I’d taken to remove the old heater core. There was, however, a hole where it used to be. I’d start there and work my way back.
Will Mackin is the 2020–2021 Perrin Moorhead Grayson and Bruns Grayson Fellow at Radcliffe. A 23-year veteran of the U.S. Navy and a fiction writer, he is currently working on a follow-up to Bring Out the Dog (Random House, 2018), which won the PEN/Robert W. Bingham Prize for Debut Short Story Collection.
“I’m writing on the day that justice was not served for Breonna Taylor.”
Essay by Crystal Z Campbell
Reading by Devonne Pitts ’21
Illustration by Hélène Baum
I do not believe in numerology. For believers, 2020 would translate to 2+0+2+0=4. If you, unlike me, believe in numerology, you might suggest that 4 is the universal year number representing stability, peace, and justice. Just shy of 10 months into 2020, and seven months of isolating and masking my breath, I cannot be convinced.
I spent the first few months of the year trying to access a former slave cabin that stands behind a university president’s home in the old South. I would walk along the two-lane road from my studio toward the campus, to check on it—to look in on it. On the way, I passed horse stables, saddle seat riders, jumpers. This campus is known for schooling women and housing horses. The horses are “ready to teach and challenge you, whatever your level.” But the local customs have not always been so inclusive. Until 1966, the college remained willfully bound to educating only “white girls and young women.”
I am thinking about the architecture of the slave cabin on a campus that was once a plantation. On a map of the grounds, the 250-square-foot room hides in plain sight, identified only as a “19th century cabin.” These days, the space belongs to silence and spiders. I peer through flimsy geometric veils in search of antiquated cues. Brochures on the cabin’s history lie crumpled and water-stained upon the floor. Sparsely hung tools, remnants of the site’s agricultural history, dangle from the walls.
Set just behind the big house, the cabin has a view of distant mountains. I find out that this shotgun cabin once housed the plantation’s overseer. The overseer is a complicated part of plantation management, a strategist who had to navigate the vantage point of the master and maintain order of the slaves. I wonder what the overseer saw, and how they defined justice. Did they accept bribes, or favors? Were they favored by anyone? I wonder if they saw the proximity to the big house as a form of surveillance. Or did they favor being in proximity to power? I wonder what the overseer oversaw. I wonder what the overseer pretended not to see.
Down the winding road, a bit to the right beyond a picturesque silvery lake, is a field of overgrowth, dotted by stones that suggest a meandering circle. I check the map: Sweet Briar Plantation Burial Ground. The stones bear no names. If there were ever names, they are now covered by weeds. A field of known unknowns.
I’m writing on the day that justice was not served for Breonna Taylor. The site of her killing is well-documented and well-known. Once more, a pivotal ground for reckoning has been covered over. I want to believe there is an equation for justice. I want to believe in the potential of numerology.
Crystal Z Campbell is the 2020–2021 Radcliffe-Film Study Center Fellow/David and Roberta Logie Fellow at Radcliffe. A multidisciplinary artist, experimental filmmaker, and writer, she is currently producing an experimental film, titled SLICK, that excavates public secrets through the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and its longstanding effects on the City of Tulsa.
“My stasis wasn’t amnesiac—I still felt the overwhelming melancholy of the world—but rather a kind of surrender.”
Essay by Lauren Groff
Reading by Molly Peterson ’22
Illustration by Clara Rubin
I am a born catastrophist, a constant future-dreader. I’ve feared that we were overdue for a pandemic since my first short story was published in The Atlantic in 2006, a retelling of the Abélard and Héloïse legend during the 1918 influenza epidemic, which I researched compulsively. When I imagined what such a pandemic would look like in contemporary America, I foresaw our collective slow boil of fury at a right-wing government’s intentional incompetence, the thick outrage that wells up when a man without a mask sneezes at the grocery store. I imagined the radical loneliness so many of us feel these days; it wasn’t a surprise when I started dreaming at night of sitting in cold, clear museum-light among throngs of strangers, only to awaken to another day of artless, empty private space.
I did not, however, expect the pandemic to radically fracture my perception of time.
We fled our house in Florida after the state opened up in early May; I didn’t have much faith in Floridians to be responsible, and, lo, they were not. We drove north toward New Hampshire on the apocalyptically abandoned highways, stopping only to get gas and pee in the bushes. To alleviate my apocalypse fears a few years ago, I had converted my parents’ tiny 19th-century horse barn to a little house. Here we fall asleep to frogsong in the nearby pond and awaken to birds louder than any alarm clock. There’s a large garden for vegetables, and forests for my two boys to get lost in. If I didn’t have to go down the hill to the post office or to the grocery store, we would be entirely sealed off from the world.
All of this should have made for an idyllic summer; yet the virus looms so large, the chilly shadow of suffering thrown on so many people out in the world, that even here it is impossible to feel peace. As I write, my hopes for the summer have seeped away. Whatever ambition I had to write fiction feels paltry, warm ash in the hand. It is a good day if I exercise, make a balanced dinner for my boys, and convince one of them to sit on my lap for a few minutes, even if I can’t remember the last time the little boy took a shower with soap. The ways I mark time have faded: I used to travel to give lectures and book talks three or four times a month, which kept me ticking to a tight schedule, but all that is gone. Day bleeds into day, the weekend the same as the week. The major marker of time passing is in the way the light of summer is slowly leaving us earlier in the evening, and the brilliant cycling of the plants, columbines in the ditches overcome by bird vetch, bird vetch overcome by ragweed.
A week ago, I stood in my bathing suit and goggles on the dock, intending to swim laps, but instead found myself watching the newts lying thickly in the warm brown water and the way the sun behind me seemed to shine in rays out of my silhouette. My mind emptied out. My stasis wasn’t amnesiac—I still felt the overwhelming melancholy of the world—but rather a kind of surrender. I couldn’t work the anxiety away this time. My agitation would help nobody. And so I felt time go syrupy, and I let it go. My children would later tell me they kept looking up from their books to find me standing there, motionless. Eventually my dog clicked up the dock and put her nose in my knee and helped drugged time slide back to normal. Not entirely, though; time still feels strange to me, a little thick and slow and moody. Of all the changes rippling out of the pandemic, this is one I hope will stay.
Lauren Groff was a 2018–2019 Suzanne Young Murray Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. She is a writer of critically acclaimed literary fiction, and her most recent book is Florida (Riverhead Books, 2018).
“All of us will emerge from this period having pushed some kind of personal reset button, from the superficial to the profound.”
Essay by Linda Greenhouse
Reading by Rachel Share-Sapolsky ’22
Illustration by Mast3r
I was a road warrior.
My habit of keeping track of everything leads me to carry a small notebook in which I record the year’s travels: how many hotel nights, how many flights, how many trips on Amtrak from my home in New Haven. For 2019, the answers were 88, 37, and 36: visits to London, São Paulo, Madrid, Toronto, Jerusalem, Mexico City, Dublin, Calgary, just to name the foreign destinations. With a few exceptions, most of the trips were to give talks, serve on panels, teach a class, attend a conference.
Sometimes the enticement was an honorarium. More often, it was the chance to see a new place or revisit a favorite one, to meet interesting people, to learn something. I actually like to fly. I even enjoy a modern, well-laid-out airport—think Denver, Detroit, or Terminal 5 at JFK. My access cards for airline lounges were always in my wallet. My suitcase was packed with the essentials. My passport, approaching its expiration date, was filling up with entry and exit stamps.
Then came 2020. The pages I had set aside in my little notebook for the year’s travels are, of course, nearly blank. My last flight, from Los Angeles to Philadelphia, was on March 9.
All of us will emerge from this period having pushed some kind of personal reset button, from the superficial to the profound. Friends who colored their hair for years decided to give it up and just go gray. Others, relishing the release from arduous commutes, are contemplating major career changes. One former colleague moved his young family to a farmhouse in northern Vermont and plans never to go back to Brooklyn.
In my case, as spring turned to summer and one obligation after another disappeared from my calendar, what I felt, to my surprise, was not disappointment but relief. Why had I agreed to give that talk? What did I really have to say to members of an organization I didn’t belong to and knew little about? That conference would probably have been fun, but would it really have been worth three days out of my life?
I’m fully aware that these musings come from a position of great privilege: poor dear, her free trip to talk to American expats in Mexico won’t happen this year. I do know how lucky I am, and of course I’m aware that the pandemic and its bungled handling by our government has inflicted great suffering on millions. My discovery, after 40 years of marriage, that I can actually enjoy planning and preparing meals, not for a dinner party but just for my husband and me, night after night, when there’s no office to rush home from, is of little moment against a canvas of pain and loss for so many. I think it’s my feeling that luck brings obligations that led me to volunteer at age 73 for a Phase 3 trial of one of the experimental COVID vaccines.
The great societal reckoning on race that began with the killing of George Floyd has given us all a lot to think about, and the pandemic has given us time to absorb some uncomfortable truths about our country and ourselves. Time is the one asset that can’t be replenished, and I suppose that what I’ve learned during this period is to reclaim, and try to bring back under my control, the time I have left. May I know how to put it to good use.
Linda Greenhouse is a 1968 graduate of Radcliffe College and a senior research scholar in law at Yale Law School. A Pulitzer Prize winner, she reported on the Supreme Court for the New York Times from 1978 to 2008 and currently writes a twice-monthly opinion column on the court as a New York Times contributing columnist.
“One of the things that makes me feel most alive — winning over a new friend — has been taken away.”
Essay and reading by Ivelisse Estrada
Illustration by Keith Negley
A horrifying thought came to me the other night (as they do): What if I never again make a new friend?
There’s a certain rush in making a stranger known. In looking into their eyes and really listening. In trying to understand where they come from, how they think, the point they’re trying to make. In catching their subtle joke.
Building a rapport is like working together to build a sandcastle—and, yeah, sometimes your efforts aren’t compatible. Ideas clash as if from entirely different blueprints, the conversation stalls, the delicate structure crumbles. But just trying to build that sandcastle can be a beautiful thing. The listening—it takes concentration. And it’s a way of seeing: as you tune in, that person’s real self comes into focus. Soon you discover whether you are susceptible to each other’s platonic charms.
Over the years, I’ve found myself wrapped up in the magic of new characters at parties, in the cozy garden-level pub that is my local, over the roar of a local band. Each time, I reveled in the alchemy that turns a stranger into a friend. When others joked that it would be easier to point out who I didn’t know, I joked that that should be expected when one mingles in a small town and considers people a hobby.
It’s hard to pin down my metamorphosis into a social butterfly. Anyone who knew me in my fraidy-cat childhood surely wouldn’t have predicted it: I came to tears a little too easily, making me an easy mark for the taunts of my more feral cousins and classmates. But I slowly transformed over my late teens, and by college—emboldened by the 1,800 miles between me and my past—I found a different self. In the dining room of my massive freshman dorm, I would make full use of dinnertime by flitting from table to table. As my first round of pals finished their meals and returned to their studies, I’d spot someone else I knew and join them for a “quick hi,” a cycle that would continue until every last tater tot had been spooned out of its metal tray and there was no one left to talk to. Even now, I have to work at not being the last one at the party.
But what does the butterfly do when the social calendar is blank and—masked protests aside—opportunities to gather with unknown others have dwindled? The coronavirus has driven us all indoors, and being among strangers feels foolish if not downright dangerous. One of the things that makes me feel most alive—winning over a new friend—has been taken away.
I’m left instead to sit in my home office and listen to the rumble of the delivery truck, the clang of its metal door as it opens and shuts, the thud of the Amazon boxes as they’re delivered to front porches along my street. I listen to the smattering of barks that announce the arrival of the Happy Tails dog-sitter and the whining of my neighbor’s pup, Jolene, as she joins the doggy singalong. I listen to the hum of the refrigerator, and the scratching that announces my cat’s latest bathroom accident. I hear the murmur of neighbors’ conversations on the street below and peer out at them from behind my curtain, wondering if someone will be out there when I make my own trip to the market, ready to listen.
Ivelisse Estrada is the associate editor of Radcliffe Magazine and a senior writer at the Radcliffe Institute, where she also leads on social media.
“Do not think of the abyss, I say to myself, like St. Augustine before the city of god.”
Essay and reading by Henri Cole
Illustration by Sam Kalda
The splash of rain against my windows, as wind lifts it from the park,
daffodils gleaming under street lamps,
morning light so full of softness and sounds—a wet cardinal, a distant ambulance—
a blue hydrangea on the kitchen table,
as I read the newspaper in my bathrobe,
without any fever, sweat, ache, nausea, exhaustion, cough, phlegm, or struggle to breathe.
Later, I stretch out on the bedroom floor and observe a vivid sky, with fluffy clouds,
like the uncut hairs around my ears that give me a less austere, Roman look.
Do not think of the abyss, I say to myself, like St. Augustine before the city of god.
Soon the lilacs will begin their exhalations in green light,
the lawn will roll out its plush carpet,
and the late-night sky will appear deeper, as swallows fly diagonally into it.
Once again, we’ll eat endives and ham, eggs every style, and peaches in red wine, forgetting confinement,
as the upright robins, six feet apart, tuk-tuk-tuk on the wire.
Henri Cole was a 2014–2015 fellow at the Radcliffe Institute. He is the Josephine Olp Weeks Professor of Literature at Claremont McKenna College and the author of 10 collections of poetry, most recently Blizzard (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2020), and a memoir, Orphic Paris (New York Review Books, 2018).
“The vastness of the cosmos, for all its grandeur and beauty, cannot help us find a solution to our earthly woes.”
Essay by Edo Berger
Reading by Isaac Heller ’23
Image by NASA
The unfathomable vastness of the universe, the extreme nature of its denizens, and its myriad mysteries have always appealed to me. When I was 12 years old, my parents gave me a pair of binoculars to celebrate the appearance of Halley’s Comet. Instead, I trained my binoculars on apparently empty patches of the night sky and was struck by the staggering number of stars that became visible even with a crude instrument. I was hooked by these distant points of light.
These days, I use many of the world’s most powerful telescopes, including the Hubble Space Telescope, to study cataclysmic cosmic explosions and their aftermath. These events—the death throes of massive stars and the high-speed collisions of neutron stars and black holes—unfold at vast distances from Earth, measured in billions of light years. In fact, the most distant explosion I have studied thus far occurred 13.1 billion years ago, when the universe was only 4 percent of its current age, and 8.5 billion years before the solar system formed. The burst of light from the impact was captured by our telescopes after traversing nearly the entire history of the universe. I have gotten so used to thinking and speaking in “astronomical” scales that oftentimes billions of light years or billions of years make as much sense to me as the miles and minutes it takes to drive to the grocery store.
Recently, with support from my Radcliffe fellowship, I have been studying the collisions of neutron stars, dense objects that pack the mass of the Sun into a sphere the size of Boston. When such objects collide in space at about one-third the speed of light, they generate gravitational waves, ripples in the fabric of space-time itself. The explosions also release copious debris, which is highly enriched with platinum, uranium, and gold, my team has shown. How much gold, you ask? About 10 times the mass of Earth in each collision! A similar event in our own Milky Way galaxy billions of years ago littered the gas cloud from which our solar system formed with such debris, and eventually, some of the gold settled into Earth’s crust, where it has been dug up, fought over, and entwined with human history for millennia. You might be wearing a piece of it right now.
And this brings me to what I have learned in this most unusual year. For the past two decades, I have valued astronomy for its emphasis on the largest scales of space and time. I recognized, intellectually, that our existence is intimately entangled with the universe (after all, the very atoms in our bodies were forged inside the stars whose explosions I study), but I appreciated the emotional separation from everyday human experience. No longer. As the pandemic forced all of us into a new life of isolation, and as social injustice and racism in the United States have been laid bare for all to see, I have been forced to turn inward rather than upward—to reflect on how the vastness of the cosmos, for all its grandeur and beauty, cannot help us find a solution to our earthly woes. I am not abandoning my love for the universe, but I find that it needs to be supplemented. Luckily, I have an incredible wife, whose work on cancer drug development connects her intimately with painful and uplifting human struggles, and two rambunctious little boys who help ground my life here on Earth. Maybe next year we will also get goats.
Edo Berger was the 2019–2020 Mildred Londa Weisman Fellow at Radcliffe, where he currently serves as a science advisor. He is a professor of astronomy in the Harvard Faculty of Arts and Sciences. His recent research has explored how gold and other rare elements are created in the universe.