Somewhere in the first weeks of the pandemic, a knot settled in my chest. It falls in the middle of my sternum, some physical manifestation of grief and stress and whatever else we have all shouldered these past twenty months. It ebbs and it flows, but it has settled between my ribs and made its home there. In doing so, it has become my most constant companion over the last year and a half, with me through every loss and setback, every step forward.

Sometime that first April, a few weeks after the ache came to stay, I went for a walk in Central Park. It was the middle of the day, and I was alone. I do not mean that I walked without company, though that was also true, but that I was alone: there was hardly a soul in all the Park. I saw one woman photographing the cherry trees along the Reservoir, one man in the wooded Ramble. A father with his daughter in a red raincoat by the statue of Balto down in the 60s. But the famous sites themselves – Bethesda Fountain, the Shakespeare Garden, the sides of the Met – empty.

It was a little bit of a fluke, of course. Like most people stuck in the city, I went walking in Central Park frequently in those early days, and usually there was plenty of socially-distanced traffic. That day I probably hit the perfect anti-New-Yorker combination: it was the middle of the day on a weekday, it was cold, and it was raining. Still, though I remember thinking I was unlikely to see such a sight again in my lifetime, what I remember most about that walk was how comforted I was by the Park itself. The cherry blossoms in full bloom in every direction, the bright red of that little girl’s raincoat, the silent monuments I passed – all of them gave me the space to breathe for just a few hours. When I came home, I noticed that for the first time, the ache in my chest had faded, just for a moment.

Walking has been my greatest recourse of the pandemic, more so than books and television and phone calls and all the other coping mechanisms we have all developed. Every day, rain or shine or snow and ice, New York or Minnesota or any of the other places I call home these days, I leave my apartment and walk at least a few blocks. On Saturdays, when I have more time, I walk for two or three hours, waiting for that moment somewhere past the hour mark when the ache will lessen a little, until it feels a little easier to breathe.

I retraced the rough route of that first long walk on Christmas afternoon this year, in a Park filled once more with people. Even before the pandemic, Christmas Day was one of my favorite days to go walking: it’s a good day to imagine happy backstories for strangers. But I will admit that it is getting harder. After all, this year one could only assume that most of those strangers were facing changed or cancelled plans, downsized family gatherings, or worse, large gatherings and a probable COVID-positive test in a few days’ time, to say nothing of the shadows of illness or deaths in the family that probably hung over the heads of a few more. No matter whether they were celebrating the holiday or, like me, distant observers to the festivities, I read exhaustion in every face I passed.

I am exhausted too. Like many, I have all my coping skills lined up in a row by now: the videos that will make me laugh, the passages to read that will give me some hope, the ways to keep my hands busy so that my mind will shut itself off for a little while. But they are all a little cracked around the edges these days, and sometimes I feel like I need to be rationing them so that they don’t run out. As I traced the familiar paths across Central Park and the ache in my chest did not ease, I wondered for the first time whether my memory of that spring walk, like my memory of those videos and passages and everything else, was a curse rather than a blessing. If I had not walked these trails before, would they feel more comforting this time around? If I had not seen the city in spring, would the quieter beauty of winter move me more? What if I walk for hours and hours and the ache never goes away? Time has kept moving, but I am still on this same circuit, these same paths, tracing these same thoughts. How do I mark time’s passing, when it feels like we are trapped in an echoing loop instead of moving forward?

I turned towards the statue of Balto almost unconsciously, mired as I was in these grim thoughts. (This was itself, it must be admitted, a sign of change: just past a bridge and off of the main road, it’s one of the more difficult statues to track down. When I first moved to New York, it took me months of practice to be able to find it reliably, as I often turned just too early or too late and found myself in the Zoo or out of the Park altogether by accident.) Once there I paused a little while to watch the different tourists take photos with Central Park’s most famous dog, and to reread the inscription. Endurance. Fidelity. Intelligence. Balto was the first statue I ever saw in New York: having spent a childhood obsessed with the kids’ movie and the historical story alike, it was one of two sites I asked my father to bring me to when I visited the city for the first time in high school. Over the years, the statue functioned as one of many of my many NYC pilgrimage sites, distinct only because I loved it less for its national or historical significance than for memories of childhood.

Balto in happier times – the fall of 2019

Recently, however, the story of the real Balto has started to feel a little more relevant. A short refresher, for those who did not take lifelong inspiration from Kevin Bacon’s animated character: in the winter of 1925, the town of Nome, Alaska, faced a diphtheria outbreak. Though by this time an antitoxin had been developed to treat the disease, the town’s supply was expired, and the rate of the disease’s spread meant a new shipment was urgently required. Nome, however, is very remote, near the Arctic Circle, and blizzards rendered the few ways that the town could normally be reached in the winter impassable. The decision was made to relay the antitoxin from Anchorage to Nome via dogsled, with 20 teams running the antitoxin a total of 674 miles over 5 and a half days, the fastest speed ever recorded along the route despite terrible conditions. The final team reached Nome well ahead of its planned date, reducing what might have been a terribly fatal epidemic to a manageable outbreak.

There are many elements that stand out to us to today in a way that they might not have not so long ago. The statue is a good example of how memorials tell some stories and hide others, to begin with. Balto is dedicated to all of the sled dogs that participated in the run, but he is the figurehead for a reason: Balto ran the last leg of the journey and he and his musher, Gunnar Kaasen, received most of the fame and the press for the story. This eclipsed other dogs who had run much longer distances, particularly the dog Togo, who ran the longest distance, 260 miles to Balto’s 55. (Togo has since received his own Disney movie; make of this what you will.) It also hid the many indigenous Alaskan Athabaskan mushers who led two-thirds of the relay. It was their ancestors who had created the original Iditarod trail centuries before, but their efforts went almost entirely unremarked upon in the press, as did the fate of those indigenous people outside the town of Nome who sickened and died. Not for the first time, it strikes one that perhaps for America it is sometimes easier to honor animals than people.

And of course, today the story has much more direct echoes as well. A sudden outbreak and a town placed under quarantine is suddenly an imaginable past to us, and so too are all manners of unusual kinds of vaccine delivery, from helicopters in remote locations to the briefly famous ‘Serbian cave hermit’ this summer. The inscription, too, means more – increasingly, rather than the platitudes about patriotism and duty that are carved into so many memorials, I find myself drawn to Balto’s simple homage to endurance as perhaps the real trick to surviving pivotal moments in history. And while history does not repeat itself, the past has a way of making its way into the present just the same. This winter, COVID vaccines were delivered to rural Alaska by plane instead of dogsled, but the effort was named ‘Operation Togo.’

The world moves on and things stay the same: what feels bleak and stultifying on a twenty-month scale feels oddly comforting in the wider range of history. Reflecting the popularity of the dogs and the story, the statue of Balto was unveiled in the Park at the end of 1925, a mere ten months later, with Balto himself in attendance. Since then, it has passed through many decades, unchanging except for the gradual lightening of the metal where hand after hand has reached up to pet his back or his head. Few other statues in the Park have achieved such popularity, perhaps, but they too have watched history go by, and come out intact the other end. As monuments, of course, they tell us more about their own times than ours – one of the greatest mistakes we can make with history, I think, is believing that it offers us anything so direct as a lesson plan—but as objects, they serve as a physical link, reminding us that there have been other difficult times. Most memorials remind us that not everyone survives them. But some, like Balto, remind us instead that many do.

Still turning over these thoughts, I left the Park at the East 67th Street entrance and walked back up Madison Avenue, before reentering in the mid-90s to return home to the Upper West Side. Somewhere on Madison in the upper 80s, passing nothing in particular, I noticed that the ache in my chest had faded a little. I checked the time – as usual, around the hour and a half mark. Sometimes I can think my way out of the gloom. But sometimes, it just takes a little extra endurance, and a good, long walk.

As I exited the Park again at West 106th Street, watching people moving to and fro in every direction, I filed the memory away for later. Ultimately I think that remembering things is more a blessing than a curse: by adding these happier moments to that still, silent walk all those months ago, I can create a narrative that is not exactly linear, not exactly happy, but still pointing forward. Many things do not change, and certainly not at the rate that we wish they would. But happily, not everything stays the same.

Those of us on the Jewish calendar read parshat Shemot yesterday while others were at Mass, the beginning of the book of Exodus instead of the birth of a messiah. Except, of course, Exodus offers a prototype for the later story: in one of those happily timed religious convergences, we too read yesterday of a little boy, a savior of sorts, who is rescued from the wrath of Pharaoh by the courage of his parents and perhaps a flicker of divine interference. It is tempting to read optimism into this story, tempting to think that as we enter 2022 and recount whichever story we adhere to that we too will be moving forward with some saving grace from darker times to brighter ones. But if we have learned anything this past year, it is not to seize too quickly on the happy ending, and not to place too much trust in one savior alone. Yesterday I thought instead of the Israelites, enduring as best they could, hoping for change, and practicing small acts of resistance and kindness while they pushed forward in the darkness. Maybe the end is in sight, and maybe it isn’t. But as we wait for the ache in our chests to ease, most of us will keep tracing familiar paths and endure the best we can. Hopefully, the new memories of old comforts will help sustain us. If not, the least we can do is walk a little longer.

2 thoughts on “Endurance”

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