What’s the mood out there, Richmond? Excited? Anxious? Relieved?
It’s been two weeks since Virginia ended its universal indoor mask mandate in accordance with new guidance from the Centers for Disease Control (CDC). All distancing and capacity restrictions have been eased as well, thanks to the state’s increasing vaccination rates and declining COVID-19 cases. The announcement feels like a major step in returning to life before a global pandemic rocked our world.
For some, the announcement couldn’t come soon enough. But for others, the abrupt change feels strange and disorienting. It’s understandable. After a year in lockdown, we’ve gotten used to the stagnation of everyday life. Some researchers suggest our brains have been rewired, precipitating a mental health crisis (Source: The Guardian). From coping with the loss of everyday normalcy to the stress of trying to stay safe (and sane), COVID has affected all of us in varying degrees – physically, mentally, and socially.
The latest statistics suggest our Groundhog Day existence may be coming to an end – at least for the time being. Virginia has administered over 8 million vaccines with over 68% of statewide adults having received at least one dose (Source: Virginia Department of Health). According to the Governor of Virginia’s website, we’re on track to meet President Biden’s goal of having 70% of adults vaccinated with at least one dose by July 4th.
This is all good news. With each day, our official reentry into society feels more real. It’s becoming more visible too. People are venturing outside, events are transitioning to in person, and our days of interacting solely on Zoom seem to be waning.
As someone who recently joined the ranks of the fully vaccinated, I’ve easily seen more people and done more activities in the last month than I have in the last fifteen. And while I’m not necessarily seeking opportunities to shake hands or gather indoors with large crowds, it’s beginning to feel… not really normal, just a little less abnormal. Because let’s face it, after all we’ve been through, who can define what “normal” is anymore.
This past year, we experienced nearly 600,000 COVID-related deaths in our country, the worst global economic crisis since the Great Depression, a racial reckoning after the killing of George Floyd, a rise in hate crimes against Asian Americans, an insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, and the deadliest gun violence in decades. That’s only what made the headlines and doesn’t take into account any personal struggles we dealt with – the repercussions of which may take years to reconcile.
While we might finally be getting on the other side of this pandemic, the challenges we face as a country, community, and as individuals are still present. It’s a sober reality that’s enough to make even the most optimistic person retreat back into isolation.
Yet at some point, we must emerge and start living life again – fully, emphatically, and with hope that things can, and will, be better.
If there’s anything we’ve learned from this ordeal, it’s that life has to be more than merely existing. It can’t be all work and no play – or in many cases, no work and no play. We need to have experiences that enrich and inspire us; that expose us to different people and perspectives and that, quite simply, make us feel alive.
More than anything, we need each other. Studies in biology, neuroscience, and psychology all show that humans are inherently social creatures. Whether extroverted, introverted, or somewhere in between, we are wired to connect. In addition to offering a sense of belonging, our interaction with one another is conducive to our overall enjoyment of life.
Connection doesn’t always require conversation. Merely being in the presence of others fosters camaraderie that’s necessary for our well-being. It’s why listening to live music, surrounded by people who are fully engaged in the moment, makes us feel amazing. In fact, any shared experience – from eating out to dancing the night away – provides social support that quite literally, helps us live longer (Source: National Library of Medicine).
In the West, particularly in the United States, we tend to overlook the importance of communal connection in our lives. In other words, we don’t always recognize, much less value, the role that people play in our happiness. We may even deny our dependence on others, but it’s as fundamental to our survival as food and water. (Source: Scientific American)
I believe acknowledging, and honoring, this insight is key to our reintegration into society. If we intrinsically need people in our life, then it’s vital we cultivate opportunities that bring us together, naturally and effortlessly. Experiences that remind us that the best moments are often those made with others – friends, family, and yes, even strangers.
On long walks around town, I’m witnessing ways our city is starting to make that happen. The most noticeable difference: a flock to the outdoors. Dining now takes place on patios, sidewalks, parklets, and alleyways. In public parks, groups are engaged in every activity imaginable, from flag football to kickboxing to hip hop dance. Rooftops aren’t exclusively for happy hours, but for yoga classes, group lectures, and business meetings.
Beyond taking advantage of warmer temperatures, the adaptation to the great outdoors signifies something deeper: a newfound interconnectedness. Seeing people out and about, especially in contrast to our isolating winter, is making our city feel more alive, accessible, and inclusive. We are appreciating life again – and each other. You can tell there’s a difference when you pass someone on the street these days – it feels good to make eye contact and greet someone with a smile.
Indeed, how we meet, interact, and socialize is a huge part of our enjoyment of life. Last month, my historic rowhouse neighborhood was transformed into a world of post-pandemic creative bliss. The Fan Arts Stroll came about as a way for people to safely share their skills and talents in an open-air setting. Featuring sidewalk art, porch concerts, and food trucks, the grassroots event helped support local artists while also building community.
Before COVID, my husband and I travelled a lot. In our wanders to nearly 60 countries across six continents, we noticed the importance that community plays in shaping a city’s culture. From the street food stalls of Bangkok to the colorful markets of New Delhi, people aren’t just existing together – they’re living together, wholly and intentionally.
One of my favorite aspects of life abroad is the ritualistic evening stroll that takes place in many cities around the world. Whether it’s the Passeggiata in Rome or the Paseo in Buenos Aires, the concept is the same. Before dinner, people of all ages take to the streets in the historic center to enjoy fresh air, a little bit of exercise, and each other’s company.
It’s uplifting to see such a diverse mix of people of all ages and lifestyles embrace being together – students, professionals, families, retirees and more. Best of all, strolling is entirely free, involves no planning, and has zero agenda. Instead of trying to make plans or coordinate schedules in advance, everyone already knows where to go and what to do. All they have to do is show up.
I’ve often wondered what an evening stroll might look like in Richmond. Happy hour on the lawn at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is the closest I’ve gotten. Before pandemic life rendered all social gatherings null and void, I’d stake out a spot at the top of the hill on most Friday nights in the summer. Nothing beats the feeling of soaking up beautiful scenery while catching up with friends, people-watching, and simply being present.
In my musings, I imagine people convening not just on the VMFA lawn, but along the steps of the grand entryway of nearby Virginia Museum of History & Culture. In many countries, it’s not uncommon for people to gather outside prominent public buildings like libraries, theaters, and churches.
Between the landmark museums, the stroll would start along Arthur Ashe Boulevard where food trucks might be parked, serving snacks and refreshments. It would then continue down Monument Avenue, Richmond’s redefined Champs-Elysées. Sites of former Confederate statues would be replaced with bubbling fountains that light up in the evening to create a spectacular promenade that’s as magical as it is historic.
The fencing around Marcus-David Peters Circle would be removed, allowing the space to once again become a community gathering spot, open to all. Like any central square in Europe, it would serve as a common meeting point – a place for people to come together in the heart of the city. A living symbol of how our dark past is making way for a bright future. When it’s time for dinner, strollers would make their way to local restaurants in the neighborhood or continue their evening elsewhere.
The beauty of this concept is that it doesn’t have to be relegated to a single area in Richmond. After all, fostering a sense of community isn’t bound by geography. It’s a mindset – a way in which we perceive and behave towards other people. Through our attitude and actions, each of us can demonstrate our interconnectedness and in turn, have it be felt and reverberated throughout our entire city.
In the 14th century, Europe experienced an incredible revitalization of art, culture, and philosophy that was later referred to as The Renaissance, taken from the French word for “rebirth.” While many factors led to this impactful time period, noted scholars say the end of The Black Death (also known as the Plague) was the primary impetus.
The global epidemic, which lasted for centuries, killed up to 200 million people and decimated populations worldwide. Life has always been short, but particularly in the Middle Ages when modern medicine did not exist (get vaccinated, everyone, and encourage others to do the same).
The Renaissance brought about enormous social change. One of its most defining aspects was humanism, an intellectual movement that promoted the importance of education, as well as civic virtue, defined as “a person’s full potential both for their own good and for the good of the society in which they live” (Source: World History Encyclopedia). To that end, the Renaissance wasn’t just about celebrating new ideas; it was about celebrating people.
What comes next is uncharted territory for all of us. But as we navigate the new chapter ahead, we have an opportunity to renew our commitment to community. We can help show others – and ourselves – why coming together is necessary to our lives and our collective pursuit of happiness. It can be as simple as looking up from our phones to say hello, supporting a new local restaurant, or taking a stroll around the neighborhood.
Now’s the time, Richmond. See you out there…
Top Photo: Locals meander the streets during the bi-annual Fan Arts Stroll last month. Photo by EVERGIB / Brian Gibson.