On a midafternoon walk to clear my head, I’m surprised to see so many people in the small neighborhood I pass through on my way to the woods. Generally, it’s just me and the same dog walkers — all a good twenty years older than me, sometimes singly, sometimes in chatty pairs. But couples and families are out — everyone keeping their distance — some folks walking dogs, some simply strolling in the sunlight.
In Vermont, we’re on a Stay Home, Stay Safe mandate — my polite state’s kinder and gentler version of crouch down and shelter-in-place. Later in the day, we hear Vermont schools won’t re-open this year. Even for those who don’t have a student, the message is crystalline: there’s no end in sight. The other side of this disease — for health, for our economy — lies in a chasm.
But we’re not living in a chasm.
Across the street — way more than six feet — strangers and I take our time and pointedly greet each other. Later, during a phone interview for work, I talk with a woman I’ve never met. Far outside of the article’s topic — the homeless in Vermont — we talk and talk, exchanging stories of our daughters, our early motherhood, of these uncertain times. Why not? I thank her profusely for the call, not an email, and we agree to meet in person…. in some future time.
The summer river.
It’s happy to walk across it.
My hands with zori sandal.
August, long ago
In the grocery store checkout line — six feet at least apart from everyone — the man in front of me starts in on a rant about Boeing and the proposed bailout. I set down the gallon vinegar and my bag of purchases I’m sure our family utterly needs in a pandemic, like masa harina, and assure the stranger I’m with him.
In this utterly strange world — far apart but suddenly socially unleashed — I ask him question after question. A Vietnam Vet, he and his wife are sewing masks for medical workers. He raises a cardboard box of wire ties the grocery store donated to aid their efforts.
I don’t know if those masks will impede the virus or not. I’ll probably never see this stranger again, who lifted the box just before he left, while I cheered him on and thanked him.
Yes, it snowed nine inches in Vermont. Yes, we’re under a Stay Home order, the governor’s distinctively less-alarmist version of shelter-in-place with your arms over your head. Yes, the governor’s on the radio every day, assuring Vermonters we will endure. And, yes, this, too, will pass.
In the long run, we shape our lives, and we shape ourselves. The process never ends until we die. And the choices we make are ultimately our own responsibility.
Like I hope everyone else — I hope — we’re holing up for the long haul in our house, figuring out our world day by day, in utter suspension of any “normalizing” of life. What’s normalcy again? Something we’ll never return to — or so I imagine at this point.
In the evenings — some balmy like last night, or others spring-raw and wet — we go for walks. The open-ended time reminds me of being a young mother again. Days and nights with young children had frustrations and challenges, sure, but also the deep pleasures of those endless walks and wanders I took with my daughters, learning the names of wildflowers, splashing through streams.
When I pick up beef for our freezer from a friend’s farm, he stands on his deck while I’m at a distance. In a wind so cold I begin shivering, we talk and talk. He asks about my daughters — he always does — and I tell him how my older daughter had considered moving out this summer, but she’s offered to stay home now, for whatever the long haul might be, pooling our resources.
She’s smart, he says. Now’s the time for unity.
When I leave, driving carefully around his flock of snow-white geese and slowly along the mud-rutted back road, I turn off VPR in my little Toyota. There’s never any returning full circle in this life, never getting back to where you once were. But we’re still here, our little family, sometimes irritable at each other, sometimes joyous and laughing. It’s different world, an American dream utterly broken that my daughters will redefine for themselves.
And for these days, I hope wherever each of you are, you’re settled into your own version of social isolation, with the sky’s beauty around you.
What? my older daughter said. You brought out the cards already?
I am determined to remained holed up. My older daughter, as a medical worker, comes and goes, but my younger daughter and I — we’re staying home.
So, honestly, what’s more reassuring than a deck of cards? I’ve been playing Crazy 8s since I was three — maybe younger? — and my kids likely can’t remember when they began. My whole life, we’ve always had packs of cards around.
Today, unexpectedly, I learned our internet speed is suddenly amped up, with no additional fee. Until when? my younger daughter asked. I read the email again and thought, What does when mean anymore?
I finally answered, Until we don’t. Right about then, I started shuffling cards.
In sorrow, pretend to be fearless. In happiness, tremble.
Kitchen, Day 2
Last night, I attended a town emergency meeting with just a small number of people. These are all people I know in one way or another, and I’ve attended countless meetings with different combinations of these people: school board meetings, town meetings, select board meetings, library trustee meeting, Old Home Day committee meetings….
Woodbury has always been a town that epitomizes warmth, and that was the same last night, physical distance between all of us notwithstanding. In addition to discussion about the food shelf and where to store the increased supplies the state is sending our way — in addition to noting who’s elderly and in particular need — we also talked about who among us was still working, who’s still getting paid, and the endless possibilities about what might be coming our way.
I closed the town library yesterday, too. When I locked the door, I wondered when I would leave that door propped open as I have so many times.
If there’s one thing that’s very clear, it’s that the coming time will require us to delve deeply into creativity, into reimagining and recreating our world. I’m grateful to live in Vermont, where those reserves of community and mindfulness guide our towns. My thoughts with all of you, as each of your places in the world shifts, too.
A mother and her little girl stop in my library to stock up on picture books. She reminds me that I have lived in a state of emergency in Vermont before — in the aftermath of Hurricane Irene when the state slowly began putting itself back together. In those days, shovelful by shovelful, we could set our hands to work.
Now, with illness invisibly stealing in, the dynamics are completely different. To keep communities safe, libraries are closing — in utter antithesis of how librarians have always operated. Goodness, keep the library open at all costs! Be a social center. Not so, now.
As the social center becomes our homes, I lean hard into my query about the meaning of writing. Of creation and art? In these trying times — and in the days, months, quite possibly years ahead that will confound and challenge us — I know more than ever that writing and art illuminate the threads that stitch us together. As we inevitably grope through uncertainty, through fear, through a fragmenting of the everyday world we know and expect, art tugs us back to that inevitable story that, this, too, will pass. Writing reminds me that the human story spreads vast as the sea, with each one of us living our own particular story.
Here’s word from my sunny corner of Vermont. I’m so darn glad to be outside, the melting snow running in streams down to the rivers and winding its watery way north to the Atlantic Ocean. I hope your patch of earth is well.
Hope locates itself in the premises that we don’t know what will happen and that in the spaciousness of uncertainty is room to act. When you recognize uncertainty, you recognize that you may be able to influence the outcomes — you alone or you in concert with a few dozen or several million others. Hope is an embrace of the unknown and knowable…
— Rebecca Solnit