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A passer-by wearing a mask out of concern for the COVID-19 coronavirus, background center, walks past mannequins in a clothing store, Wednesday, April 29, 2020, in Boston. Job cuts have escalated across the U.S. economy in recent days that remains all but shut down due measures taken to halt the spread of the virus. (AP Photo/Steven Senne)

Go back?

To normal?

I'm not sure I want to.

Most days, I am stopped in my tracks at the enormity of what we're all experiencing. The suffering. The anxiety. The grief. I talk with small business owners. Hear from service industry workers. Confront my own vulnerability.

It can feel crushing.

And yet.

During this pandemic, I have found something else quite unexpected.

Stillness.

Spaciousness.

Quiet.

Before the virus, we moved at a speed bordering on exhaustion. Continued rest was unthinkable; sustained contemplation, a postscript.

Then, everything shut down. Stay at home, experts said. Don't go out. Be still. Our quarantine was for medical reasons, but really, it turned into a spiritual retreat.

Now? Gone is my middle-class exhaustion of here-there-everywhere, buying this and that, rushing, scheduling, carpooling. Now? I hear more songbirds than ever before. We eat dinner together, slowly even, or play cards, which we never had time for during, you know, normal days.

Let me be clear: we're not on Easy Street, clinking glasses and making pandemic toasts.

Suffering has found us.

Yet so has a peace.

Both somehow exist together.

The fear.

And the quiet.

The anxiety.

And the spaciousness.

Days like this will never pass our way again.

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David Cook

Coronavirus has given us this precious gift: a pause unlike any other. In our pausing, we have this rare moment to think like utopians. As Tennessee reopens, we stand in the threshhold between yesterday and tomorrow. We ask:

Exactly what kind of world do we want to reopen?

"Historically, pandemics have forced humans to break with the past and imagine their world anew," writes the novelist Arundhati Roy in the Financial Times. "This one is no different. It is a portal, a gateway between one world and the next."

Coronavirus allows us the chance to reconsider and re-imagine what our lives — yours, mine — could be like.

"In the midst of this terrible despair, it offers us a chance to rethink the doomsday machine we have built for ourselves," writes Roy. "Nothing could be worse than a return to normality."

Our economic machine has been paused. In its pausing, we see much of its intention, its nature.

So much of it was not designed for human health, happiness or wholeness. Not designed for contemplation or stillness. Not designed for family dinners.

Or birdsong.

Today, as our economic machine pauses, pollution levels drop.

Animals return.

The air clears.

We contemplate more.

Alongside the suffering, there is healing.

This puts us in a great difficulty: we must restart our economy to survive, yet it's our economy that's also killing us. (I mean this quite literally. Look at pollution levels, environmental destruction, our rates of mental illness, suicide, permanent poverty, homelessness. All of it, normalized.)

So when leaders talk about returning to normal life, we must ask: what is normal?

I don't want to go back to the normalized world of middle-class exhaustion. Or mindless, 24/7 sports consumption. Or dog-whistle, dumb-and-dumber politics.

Don't want to go back to normalized pollution and demolition of our natural world.

Or the normalized $7.25-an-hour labor that fuels our downtown tourist economy.

Or the normalized inequality in this city.

And we don't have to.

During the pandemic, Chattanoogans have raised $1 million in anti-poverty relief, made plans to convert a vacant factory into a medical shelter, released inmates from jail. City government is considering paying nearly $2 million in rent to prevent evictions. Individuals are bursting with selflessness, generosity and bravery.

It's like our own Jubilee Year.

Why can't such abnormal policies become normal? If we can do this today, can't we also do it tomorrow?

I am left with one looming question:

What if it's all connected?

Is my middle-class exhaustion connected to the growing permanent underclass in this city? If I slow down, can others catch up? Will curbing my own appetites and desires help build a larger safety net in our city?

Will confronting my own greed lead to mercy for others? Will my simplicity, as Gandhi said, help other Chattanoogans simply live?

If I can live a more peaceful life, does that lead to more peace for others?

Before us is a door. What will we carry through it — into the Chattanooga of tomorrow — and what will we leave behind?

"We can choose to walk through it, dragging the carcasses of our prejudice and hatred, our avarice, our data banks and dead ideas, our dead rivers and smoky skies behind us," writes Roy. "Or we can walk through lightly, with little luggage, ready to imagine another world. And ready to fight for it."

David Cook writes a Sunday column and can be reached at dcook@timesfreepress.com.

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