Tales From the Shutdown

Dogwood trail

Tales From the Shutdown

We asked readers for their thoughts and experiences during the period of self-isolation. They wrote about gratitude, hope and other things that grow.

April 29, 2020

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walking along cherokee boulevard.

April in the Time of COVID-19
by Laura Still

April is my birthday month, and even if my allergies make me sneeze, I’m determined to enjoy every part of it, pollen be damned. I write in my journal daily, read good books, and stay in the present moment as much as possible. It’s usually hard to find time for this, but not this year.

This has been a weird April, and I didn’t celebrate my birthday in the usual way, though it was a big one, the beginning of a new decade. Because my dad was a self-employed CPA and my birthday is on April 15, growing up I never got to celebrate it on the correct day, and what celebration I did get was at home, with only immediate family there. So ever since I achieved adulthood and began running my own household I have insisted on having my birthday observances on the 15th, no matter what day of the week it falls on, and inviting as many friends as possible to join the festivities. But not this year.

I feel guilty that I’m having less trouble with isolation than most people. Of all time periods in my life, this is the best one to be quarantined in. My sons are responsible married adults working from home and social-distancing without my help. I’m cooped up with the love of my life, and he’s as low-maintenance as it’s possible to be. Yes, we’re both worried about finances: no money coming in for over two months is a big issue for us, like anyone else. My plan was to take my business to the next level — but it won’t be this year.

But we’re used to being poor, sort of. Our lives are pared down to the simplest things already, and we remain interested in our surroundings, observing the birds who come to sip water I pour out for them, and for the first time we appreciate our too-big yard. It gives us space and constant notice of the progress of the season, plus plenty of projects to work on when we need to get out in the sunshine. Even my run-down house is helping us stay occupied, climbing on the roof to repair it and cleaning the gutters between rain storms. We were going to get it replaced — but right, that won’t be this year either.

Staying focused and productive is not easy, even when you have all the time you need, and anxiety for myself and others is always hovering in the background. The present is not comfortable, but it is what we all share. I work on feeling grateful, deep breaths, and how to care for others long distance. For my birthday, I celebrate being here, sending love to all those I can’t touch. And I pray a lot. I want all of you to be here next year. 

In the Canopy
by Brian Sohn

I wait until it’s late to walk my anxiety-ridden dog. I want my walks to be relaxing, and if I go out earlier she will bark. Incessantly. There are enough nerves with the pandemic, so I walk late.

I try not to think about COVID and its effects. Homeschooling, Zoom meetings, my asthmatic dad in New York, the infinity of the uncertain future. Just see, hear, feel, smell … The new LED streetlights throw colder light and starker shadows on everything, including the trees.

For a human animal, I know a lot about trees. By the time I was 10, I had tapped a maple, bored a tree to learn its age, been taught by park rangers about different species, and explored old-growth forests on my grandparents’ property in Oregon. The trees there cast a spell on me. Soaring Douglas firs, leaning, shiny, red-skinned madrones, striated western red cedars hanging with old man’s beard.

As I grew older I learned I owed much of my comfort to trees as timber. My grandfather owned a sawmill and forestry company. I learned about logging and silviculture. Clear cuts, spotted owls, national forest lockouts. Cruising, road-building, spraying. I even felled a few giant Doug firs.

Before this year, I always learned about trees. It was a science of viewing from without: I, the subject, beholding the trees, the objects. Since reading R.W. Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass, I’ve been learning from them.

It’s good to walk late because the dog sniffs to her heart’s content as I stare at the dogwood blossom terraces and dark magnolia masses and white oak towers and redbud bark flowers and muscular trunks of Japanese maples and the soaring, spreading magnificence of yellow poplars. If neighbors were to see me they might think I’m crazy.

Crazy might help, but the dark and the lack of thinking work wonders. The stature of the white oaks says stand tall, and I walk taller. The poplars’ breadth says to reach out, and I try, hard, to quiet my thoughts so as to reach further. Dogwoods and redbuds share their blossoms, and I imagine my generosity to share without expecting returns.

But the lessons aren’t all easy. Like the best teaching, relationship is the vehicle for the deepest lessons. In Braiding Sweetgrass, Kimmerer says that trees are the older brothers of creation, and so have lessons for us on longevity. On stillness. On generosity. During the throes of a pandemic is an excellent time to be learning such lessons.

A Limerick

When the Tennessee county of Knox
Was beset by a virulent pox
Health professionals brave
Did the populace save
As did grocers and drivers and cops

— Stewart Harris


Echoes of a Revolution

by Jonathan Frey

This COVID Time brings to mind 40 years ago when I spent much of two years curfewed in basements while a revolution seethed outside. The social distancing (enforced for other reasons), the various food and supply shortages, the risks and necessity of going outside only when required, learning to manage the boredom, all similar to today. Also, the attempts at normalcy.

Today, we have FaceTime Happy Hour and fitness routines to emulate the gym. Back then, in Revolution Time, we did many things I guess, but I recall baking the most. I once baked two double-layer cakes from scratch in one weekend. Also, I recall eating constantly, not unlike today. Then, I didn’t put on much weight, being an adolescent. Today, since we don’t have a scale — the gym has always been sufficient — my first weigh-in will likely raise an eyebrow.

And, like then, I feel kinda lucky. I have companionship (my wife today, my parents then), and animal distractions (a dog then, now cats). And there are books and music, for which I am thankful every hour of every day. For reasons I cannot explain, back then I was reading everything Solzhenitsyn (including Gulag Archipelago, of all things). For perhaps equally arbitrary reasons now I’m on a jag about the folklorist Alan Lomax.

Then, I would listen to The Band’s “Chest Fever,” Cat Stevens’ “18th Avenue” and CSN’s “Wooden Ships” almost daily. I often wish I still had that vinyl — original pressings, dog-eared covers, nostalgia-rich — but by the time we evacuated they were unplayable. Today, I think my wife is quite over hearing The Necks’ Townsville every day for five weeks; ditto the Jon Hassell catalogue. No risk of wearing them out, though.


Digging in the Dirt
by Maria Hurt

My story, like many, begins with a garden. I have been working for the last 17 years to transform our three-quarter-acre lot in the middle of the city into an oasis of sorts. I have always had a vision for what the final creation will be. But like every gardener, I have been forced to reconcile my plans with the capricious forces of nature: heat waves, drought, unrelenting rain, ice storms, hail, sudden frosts, unexpected snowfall. And now the pandemic. Suddenly, plans change.  I have more time, or is it less? I am overwhelmed by the epic proportions of suffering that will continue to occur for a truly unforeseeable future. 

So, what do I do? I start digging. I toil to create order out of chaos. Yet I cannot escape the paradox that while each day begins with so much promise — the incredible bird song that heralds dawn, the scent and color of another riotous Appalachian spring — for many it will end in grief and loss. I am reminded of the Welsh word, “hiraeth.” It is a type of homesickness, but perhaps for a home or place or time that never even existed. It is a longing for something that cannot be regained or returned to — a security that has been an illusion.

People start to appear. So many more families are out walking through the neighborhood. Many stop by to encourage my progress. We exchange greetings, couched in the understanding of our new reality. We may not know one another, but we know we and our children are changed. I share flowers and plants as tokens of cheer and goodwill.

A neighbor brings a smooth river stone, the size of a potato, painted in the colors of the sky and sea. She is carrying it with both her hands, because she is only 4. “Lily wants to put this in your yard,” says her mother. 

I lead Lily to put her offering in a place of honor, at the foot of a much larger quarried rock, covered with algae and moss. She confidently smiles as I tell her, “Every time I see your stone, I will think of you. It will always stay here, but if you ever change your mind and decide you want to take it back, it will be here waiting for you.” 

Because of course, the gift is not the thing itself. It is the moment in time when we meet and recognize the best of ourselves in one another. Hope.