The days in social isolation have a rhythm of their own. A rhythm determined by the body, the weather and the immediate environment. Similar to when I trek in the mountains and my body, the weather, and the terrain determine my movement. Now that it’s May, the days are long and sunny from sunrise to sunset in my part of the world. Nature is showing itself in all its glory.
I have a garden that needs tending, a few hours each day. The first harvest of artichokes and lettuce, spinach and greens adorn my kitchen counter. A May turnip offers its taste of sweet white flesh inside its purple skin, a delight for the palate. Cooking with these fresh delicacies brings forth new recipes. Today it’s sourdough pizza with greens, artichoke hearts and the pesto left over in the freezer. Each day something new grabs my attention. Today I wanted to make pizza and build a squash-plant bin, a wire tube filled with compost, manure and a drip line to water the contents. The plants will grow long tentacles outside the bin as the ingredients decompose inside and feed the squash’s roots. Life changes I can see right under my eyes, nudged by my hands. I can’t wait to see how big they’ll get and all the different winter squashes that will appear!
Life is happening right here, right now. My weeks are no longer scheduled full. I make up the day’s doings as my mood requests, and my basic needs demand. As the weeks go by, the world news has become a hum in the background; a litany of data and uncontrollable changes in peoples lives. It’s as if I live on an island ruled by a far away government that decides over my living circumstances. The strife between maintaining a lockdown and opening the world up again with all the contingent risks is not my struggle. As a privileged elder living on a pension, I’m not waiting for the outside world to move my life along.
Living in isolation reminds me of hiking solo on the long trail. Cut off from the buzz of news and media, surrounded by nature and tuning in to a body that walks, eats, sleeps and rests. As I’ve mentioned in some of my hiking blogs, hiking lets me experience life at 2 miles an hour. A pace that allow my senses to take in and process the environment. A pace my brain can absorb. Life in lock-down effects the brain in a similar way. Life is slower, not so jam-packed; there are no places to go; no-one to entertain. Zoom get-togethers lose their charm quickly. So it’s me and the daily routine, determined by my bodily needs and nature’s offerings. Each time I think up a project and what it entails, I soon realize that only essential stores are open, so I have to improvise, make my own, or go without. When I eventually do go to an essential store, I find most of what I need. The times of having what you want at the click of a button — now! — are a thing of the past. I don’t know if I want that time back again. I like this simple living. Each day my awareness expands a little more. I take time to sit, think, observe and be. I hear a bird singing at sunset and I am listening, even if it may take me three days to learn its name.
My birthday balloon, a mark of the beginning of the lock-down - still half-inflated after 8 weeks - the air/gas contained in flowered plastic, dances lower in the breeze from the ceiling fan. How long will it be before it is totally deflated? How long will things last when re-supplies aren’t coming? We may run out of pork on the grocery shelves, I hear. I can be a vegetarian. We may run out of toilet paper, I can create a bidet. Water is still flowing, rain will come again, wind and water can drive our turbines to make electricity. And haven’t I lived without electricity before when I was on the trail? I feel like a child again; a child who doesn’t know yet what can be had, and entertains herself with what is within reach.
This may be a year-long journey, a trek into the unknown. I look forward to what I will discover about life. For now, the change feels expansive. The unseasonal heat of this day is winding down. While the pizza is baking, there’s weeding to do in the shady part of the garden.
It’s quiet in my house. Ordered to be on lock-down as we are, I don’t expect anyone to stop by for a visit. The sun is sending its rays to the garden where new life is sprouting. The garden has been on lock-down for the winter, but life was happening underground and the daffodils and tulip heads bursting into bloom attest to that. Frozen little bunches of green are expanding and growing as the weather warms. I even see a few seed heads sprouting: summer and a cycle of seed making isn’t far away. Our society’s lock-down is in sharp contrast with the budding spring forces.
When the world is busying itself with production, travel, and entertainment, few think about the power of being quiet, the restorative value of retreat. The pandemic has forced the world into retreat, and societies are given an opportunity to rest, review and gather forces for a new season. Will it be a new season? Or will we hurry back to a world as we knew it? A world of "more is better”, a world of "survival of the richest”, a world where "alternative facts” are truths?
Things will be different after all this is over, they say. Like with most retreats, insight and experience will fuel a different way of operating. More people will work from home, if they still have a job. Schools may change and add a home-school component to let children be home more. Families may value each other and wish for more time at home with one another, working and learning. More gardens may produce home-grown fare. Seed companies have experienced a run on seeds this spring! We may vote for a better prepared health-system, health coverage for all. There will be changes. But will this forced retreat change people?
Do people value the power of quiet, do they retain the new insights fostered by rest? I watch a young boy outside my window jumping up and down on a trampoline. He isn’t looking for rest and quiet!
Is it in our nature to be on the ‘go’ until we collapse with fatigue? Are the pygmies who ‘work’ only three days a week to gather food and create shelter an anomaly? Did people want the long factory work hours during the industrial revolution that drove up production, or was it what a few greedy industrialists saw as an opportunity for extravagant wealth? The story that everyone benefits from economic progress is in question. We have time to question. When is enough, enough?
Will the billionaires give up their privileged status and start sharing their wealth? I don’t think so, the ones who do have been doing it already. Will big pharma and insurance companies give up their profits and allow for universal health care? I doubt it. Will our government make them?
In 1835 while discussing the American political system(1), Alexis de Tocqueville said: “There are certain epochs in which the changes that take place in the social and political constitution of nations are so slow and imperceptible that [people] imagine they have reached a final state; and the human mind, believing itself to be firmly based upon sure foundations, does not extend its researches beyond a certain horizon.”
There will be a shift when we get through this pandemic. There will be a reset of how we do business, how we value each other. But unless this virus opens the eyes of evangelicals, corporations, power grabbers, the die-hard individualist hanging on to their constitutional rights, the ones who believe in a system of small government, every-man-for-himself and trust-in-god, the system that produced America will still be there. The people will vote against their own interests because the beliefs they adhere to will explain away the cause and mistakes made during the pandemic. They will go back to business as usual.
Except for a few. Millennials who have dropped out of the American dream to live a simpler life with their loved ones in a rural small town, will feel confirmed in their views that a slower life is a "good life”. The teachers, who have had a chance to experiment with novel forms of education, will not want to return to large classrooms with standard testing. Small business owners who’ve had to re-create their business to survive may become like craftsmen and shopkeepers of long ago, who wove the fabric of the communities they lived in. We can support them if we value our communities.
And then the children. What will they remember of this time? Will they have a long breath out - time to think, watch the flowers come into bloom, find snails and salamanders on neighborhood walks? Will they learn the pace of keeping house and playing together, and refuse to be shuttled from activity to activity?
I hope so. Because these children will be the adults who will change the system. A system that has failed them.
1. Democracy In America, from a new translation by Arthur Goldhammer, published by Library of America 2004