By Leah S. Abrams
To hit PAUSE forces a certain stillness, reflection. A pause is different than a STOP – it suggests a natural un-pause – continued movement, eventually…
Oh, how I mocked the language when it all began. We weren’t going into quarantine or lockdown – oh, no – we were, the governor insisted, going to PAUSE. As a state, as a community, we weren’t, New Yorkers that we are, going to STOP – just… PAUSE. Together. Language, Mr. Cuomo averred, mattered, and words can carry positive or negative connotations. And, while my industry may remain largely decimated, I now believe wholeheartedly in Cuomo’s choice of terminology.
(As an aside, you may want to make a note of this moment because I am far more often found chiding the governor, even more than I do the mayor which is really saying something.)
To hit PAUSE forces a certain stillness, reflection. A pause is different than a STOP – it suggests a natural un-pause – continued movement, eventually, but forcing you to, say, get up for that computer-alert stretch break you typically dismiss.
Last January obviously looked very different for me than the month we’re now wrapping. I rang in 2020 with college friends and their families, as I do nearly every year – something the pandemic would steal from the group at large for the first time in nearly thirty years of gathering. A week later, I celebrated Rona’s birthday at her 54 Below concert, with my mother and Norm who’d made a special trip down for it, and surrounded by this most generous artistic community that continually inspires me. I signed a theatre contract to produce a playwright whose extraordinary gift with language is the very definition of what our society needs in this moment.
In those early 2020 months leading up to the long PAUSE, I saw more than sixteen shows, including “Come from Away” for the third time and “Mazz & Bricks” whose writer/performer I just watched in Origin Theater’s First Irish Festival gone virtual for 2021. I’d made my inaugural outing to the Cooper Hewitt Museum with one of my newest friends who, the week before the pause officially began, would take my bride’s maid’s dress to alter for a wedding that has been twice postponed, before I headed to my final in-person play – Simon Stone’s “Medea” at BAM.
In that time, I’d also attended a protest march when this country’s failed leadership refused to hold its egomaniacal leader accountable for his first called-out impeachable offense, and a concert commemorating the 75th anniversary of the liberation of Auschwitz with my mother and Norm in what would be our last visit for what is now over a year and where I spent the evening well aware of where each security guard was stationed and where were the children in my section who are always first priority in protecting under life-threatening circumstances. And I went to see Hilary Bettis’ “72 Miles To Go,” about a family living in Arizona, 72 miles from their deported mother in Nogales, Mexico.
And, then, PAUSE. Fast forward – a worsening pandemic that much of the country ignores or, worse, calls a hoax; the country watches, on video, police officers deliberately and slowly kill an innocent man, surrounded by civilians; peaceful protestors of that violence are met with kettling and tear gas and clubs and mass arrests; an armed mob breaks into the Nation’s Capital, calling for legislators’ deaths, and is met with no violent resistance.
And people, in every one of these instances, are shocked. I am not. I simply wonder how any of it is news to anyone. Has everyone gone ignorant of U.S. history? Of humankind’s history? I could easily continue down this road, as I often do. Or, I can use the PAUSE – regroup, shift.
One week after that insurrection, the country swore in its 46th President, a man who has spent his life in service to this country and who chose, as our Vice President, the first woman, first person of color, first Indian-American to hold the position – all in one. For the first time, a President’s inaugural address called out our cancer of systemic racism. In their first week in office, both rhetoric and action shifted to pro-immigrant which, as a reminder, is actually the single identity each of us shares unless one is Native American and just now finally being represented in the federal cabinet of the country that was stolen from them in the first place.
And, a week after white supremacists proudly sported “Camp Auschwitz” t-shirts while waving confederate flags in an attempt to overthrow our Democracy’s fair elections, a worldwide community of Jews and non-Jews alike gathered together online to commemorate the 76th anniversary of the camp’s liberation with readings from children’s, from young people’s diaries of the time, after days before having celebrated the 40th anniversary of both the Yiddish Book Center and Klezmer Conservatory Band – two organizations each launched by a college student’s dogged enthusiasm for a culture and language on the brink of extinction.
Like everyone, I miss my pre-pandemic life. But I don’t miss the pace of it – the societal pressure to always be working, doing, striving. I fear the desperation in people to return to “normal” when so much is ailing us will result in lessons having not been learned, a return to complacency.
But then I see so many little glimmers of hope – the friend of privilege who has had an awakening on the subject this past year, the community refrigerators neighbors are stocking for one another, organizers keeping people engaged in political activism and volunteer efforts to care for one another, storytellers and artists of all kinds calling out our truths and continuing to entertain us. And, like so many others report, I no longer wake up in a state of a panic because my government is being led by a madman on a social media platform originally designed to help folks navigate conferences and which has, in this writer’s humble opinion, yielded the worst bastardization of language we’ve ever seen.
The governor was right – language matters. We have a long road ahead, full of work I fear never ends, but to turn on the news for White House press briefings where eloquence and decency are back in fashion, where the people in charge take science and our health seriously, leading by example? That is reason enough to hold onto a bit of faith that starting up again may actually yield improvement rather than simply a neglectful return to pre-PAUSE status quo.