Ivi Fung

The best day of the year at Yale is the first day the temperature reaches above 60 degrees during the spring semester. Sunlight shakes the entire campus from hibernation. Students play frisbee on Old Campus, daze on blankets on Cross Campus and swing in residential college hammocks. We shed our winter coats and don our crop tops and shorts. We had tucked away this lightness for the past few months, to protect it from the unforgiving cold. Now, we glow.

We won’t be glowing this year.

If we were still on campus, around now the cherry blossoms outside Vandy would emerge, pink and silky, and a gentle breeze would cast them on a dreamy float through the air. With them would come the Instagram posts about the onset of spring. I, too, participated in this storied cliche last year. In one photo, I pose with two of my friends, tongue out, blossoms forming clouds around me. One friend flicks back her hair, and the other looks directly at the camera, her expression seeming to say, “Can you believe who I’m stuck with?” We’re caught mid-laugh. When I look back at the image now, I feel only distance.

They say cherry blossoms are beautiful because of their transience. There for a few weeks in April, fading by the time we pack up and leave campus. When we return in the next semester, no trace of them remains, their gentleness overtaken by the blinding sunlight and dense heat of late summer.

Of all the articles about COVID-19 that dominate our news feeds these days, I find myself most drawn towards narratives about the lived experience of illness. A pattern defines these stories: one moment, the person feels fine — invincible, even — working, exercising, cooking. Then comes a minor chest pressure and mild fever. Within a few days, they can barely get up, barely speak, the virus hollowing their body and replacing breath with shallow gasps. In particularly bad cases, the authors of these articles write from hospital beds. In the worst cases, the author is not the actual patient, but rather a family member or significant other, left in isolation, struggling to understand how their loved one transformed from invincible to mortal — blatantly, painfully mortal — in a period of weeks. In these narratives, transience feels like injustice.          

At Yale, time follows different laws. We’re preoccupied with the future. We secure next summer’s internships in the fall, plot out four-year plans to guarantee our admissions to medical schools and law schools. At Yale, time is in short supply. Before everything changed, I also gasped for breath, though it was a different form of suffocation. I spent the two weeks before spring break dragging myself through midterms in a struggle that felt physical, growing increasingly accustomed to the sourness of black coffee and the resignation of going to bed while the sun rose. I desperately wanted to leave. I refused a final lunch with friends on the last day before break because I had to catch up on work for a class. Had I known I wouldn’t see them for the next few months, I would have said yes, yes, no matter what.

Time is relative. For those at the center of the crisis, time has run out. Every day brings a new apocalyptic shortage: test kits, N95 masks, hospital beds, ventilators. If we just had more time. Before I flew home for spring break, I spent a day in New York City. The threat of COVID-19 loomed, but at that point, as we waited in dense cafe lines and fought for seats in crowded subway cars, it still felt impossibly abstract. Now, the lines and crowds have transported themselves to hospitals instead, leaving the rest of the city eerily empty. Three weeks can transform entire worlds. That’s the nature of exponential growth, epidemiologists had warned. 

But how could us normal people — who let deadlines sneak up on us, let memories slip away unacknowledged — grasp this?  

Most of us are trapped inside now. Under quarantine, we can do nothing but wait for the pandemonium outside to slow down. All of a sudden, for most of us, time has become an abundant resource.

In some ways, the mentality of Yale time endures despite it all. Yale conditioned us to maximize our time, and now that time has all but stopped, we grow restless. We continue to worry about the future, even if we can’t quite make out what that future will entail. We search for remote internships, our carefully laid plans spoiled. We debate grading policies. When the crisis blows over, our educations will still matter, particularly since a severe recession looms.   

But in the most important ways, Yale time has lost all relevance. Concerns over missed 0.1-point GPA boosts matter little in the face of a pandemic that has upended life — in terms of physical health, mental health, economic stability and more — for millions. Some days, I still go to sleep when the sun rises, though it is because I have spent the last few hours anxiously reading about the panic gripping the world and questioning what it means for my family and friends, not because I have been fretting over a fraction on a p-set. That is to say, I long for Yale time; I am paralyzed without it.

Transience is painful. I am not a senior, though I have to assume that for the class of 2020, this concept is all too clear. And transience is even more painful when the ending is sharp and unforeseen. When you study history, they don’t tell you how quickly the major events transformed from immaterial to all-consuming. From home, I keep lingering on the minor luxuries that I wasn’t prepared to miss. My favorite hoodie, left in my dorm room because I didn’t think I’d need it over break. The meal swipes I could have used on Durfee’s chicken tenders. The winding walks and late-night laughs, moments I didn’t properly bask in. The 60-degree days that could have been. The goodbyes I didn’t take seriously enough.

Transience is beautiful. It is nostalgia and sadness. It is the fragility of each moment, dictated by the precarious whims of time and circumstance. The transience of the Vandy cherry blossoms makes them precious. Under quarantine, I will not see them this year, though I am lucky in that, unless fate and the future are particularly cruel — there are no guarantees these days — I will see them again next year. That future will also come and pass, more quickly than I would prefer. But transience, at its core, is not about the future at all. I hope to appreciate this by the time we return to Yale, to normalcy, though I struggle to comprehend it now. I hope to live in those small buds of lightness, when we toss aside our winter coats and allow ourselves to bask in the sun, if only for a moment.

Isabella Li | isabella.li@yale.edu