March 15, 2020, message from the Port Townsend School District:
We are looking forward to seeing students at school on Monday so teachers and students can say goodbye before this extended closure, and to provide some educational resources. We know this is an incredibly stressful time for families, students, and staff, and we are working very hard to address critical needs…
So began the year of distance. Monday, March 16, was the last day of school in local classrooms, as districts around the country began to shutter their doors. The first days of Port Townsend’s school closure fell during a week of spring sunshine, startling in its beauty. While grocery shelves emptied of essentials, the outdoors bloomed with harbingers of spring, flowering currant and fruit trees. It’s hard to remember now, but the initial school closure in Washington State was announced for just six weeks.
In the early days of the pandemic, parents and kids had their eyes set on late April, when classes might potentially resume. My daughter was in 8th grade when school closures began. She hasn’t seen the inside of a classroom for a full year now, although she’s grown almost a head taller, and graduated from middle school. It never occurred to either one of us, last March, that she would start high school in our living room. Young people were among the first to have their lives transformed by the pandemic, and they will be the last to return to familiar routines.
The official lockdown began a week after schools closed. With this order, adults were sorted – as if by the Hogwarts sorting hat of Harry Potter fame – into two distinct camps: Essential and Non-essential. It turns out the majority of us fall in the latter category. I suspect the eagles and otters who keep a close watch on our town have known this for a long time.
We non-essential humans have had a year to consider definitions of distance. 1) The extent of space between two objects or people. 2) The fact or condition of being apart in space; remoteness.
What is social distance? In the new language of Covid, this term perplexed me. From a scientific perspective, the goal was to create physical distance, true to the definition. Space between two people became an act of love for the human race – especially from younger generations for their elders. Does physical distance have to translate into social distance? For teenagers, who are hardwired to move in packs, it did. Social distance was acute.
My husband lands squarely in the essential human camp. He’s a doctor, steeped in the ethic of medicine as community service, raised to see healthcare as a human right. As families around us began to bunker down in isolation, I knew that he would double down on work, as part of the stalwart front line. We’re just close enough to Seattle to feel the first tsunami of the pandemic, yet far enough to have only a handful of ventilators in our rural county. When the local hospital puts out a call for more protective gear, shipwrights were among the first to answer, crafting PPE from supplies in the boatyard. He still wears this homemade PPE to work.
Time began to shift and bend at home, in the non-essential human camp. If our lives are a river, by late March last year my daughter and I had slipped into a back eddy, spinning slowly under branches about to burst with spring. Purposeful currents swept up the essential workers, pushing on toward the sea, but we were not alone. Millions of families and kids under quarantine around the country slipped out of the current with us, spiraling in a moment of still water.
Moms everywhere would bear the brunt of this radical shift in routine. I was acutely aware of our relative good fortune. We were spared from the torrent of immediate distress and loss, as jobs evaporated and elders fell ill. Front line workers are guaranteed work in a pandemic, even as they assume risk. I am grateful for my daughter’s calm, resilient nature, her capacity to embrace slower time. More simply, grateful that she was thirteen, not three, when we began navigating this new reality. She is the introvert of our family, and from the first week of lockdown, I sensed we’d learn from her strengths.
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote that distance is a function of velocity. It’s a book made for a pandemic year. The scale of landscape, Abbey wrote, is a function of the speed we move through it. As our circle shrank last March, my daughter and I began to carve wider and wider circles on foot. The Quimper Peninsula became our continent. Our extended family on the East coast might as well have been on the moon.
The week our hospital ran out of Covid test supplies, the world seemed to weep with us: rain and more rain. Sample “triage scripts” circulated quietly among medical staff. My husband attempted to practice one of these sample scripts out loud at home: “I’m very sorry we can’t admit your 90-year-old mother to the ICU. We understand that this is very upsetting…,” and stops. His own mother is over ninety, also in lockdown, impossibly far away on the other side of the country.
That week we went on a forest treasure hunt in the rain to lift our spirits. My daughter and I set out to a creek bottom in search of swamp lanterns, an early beacon of spring. These flowers emerge from Western skunk cabbage, lysichiton americanus. Their elusive blooms unfurl like oversize Cala lilies, lit from within on a rainy day. They emerge when the weather is raw, in the few degrees that separate rain from snow, with resplendent yellow flowers, gaudy enough to pass for a tropical plant. Our foray feels like a messy Easter egg hunt through ankle deep mud, in search of incandescent flowers.
Epidemics are not new to this corner of the continent. Every day we learn more about Covid, made deadly by travelling in asymptomatic carriers. My daughter tracks the emerging statistics closely, looking for reassurance while her Dad is at work. It could be far, far worse, I try to explain. When tuberculous and smallpox ravaged indigenous communities on the Olympic Peninsula, they left a horrifying trail of death, claiming up to ninety percent of the native population, after waves of contagion. Tribal nations across our region survived this catastrophe, despite countless lost. How did they keep memory, tradition or even hope alive? What do our indigenous neighbors make of this current virus, far less deadly, bringing modern society to its knees?
As governments close borders around us, I picture familiar lines from grade school, stretched out across the landscape, and I’m struck by how irrelevant borders are to every other living thing. Human borders mean nothing to a bird, a fish, or a cloud. Or a virus. Maps of our land and waters look like a puzzle, interwoven with blue and green. The only straight line in this tangle is one someone drew down the channel that separates the Olympic Peninsula from Canada. I never imagined the border closing for a full year. Of course, it was never closed to salmon, who weave us together, or the whales, who follow them.
As we humans learn to practice “social distancing,” the wildlife of our region feels closer than ever. Perhaps we’re hearing our animal neighbors more clearly in the quiet, as we stand apart from one another. One evening at low tide, my daughter hears the barnacles talking. In a lifetime by the sea, I don’t think I’ve ever listened closely to their crackling chatter. I begin to appreciate the indifference of the animal world, as headlines full of horror compete for our attention. Yet wildlife know all about the “triage script.” They’ve been hearing it for years. Resident killer whales are in a particularly precarious place, peering into the extinction abyss. Yet they visit during early lockdown weeks, close to local parks, tracing the water with delight.
The duality of this time is disorienting. Day after day passes, filled with beauty and worry, solace and grief in equal helpings. We humans are learning about vulnerability. I am grateful to breath in a full symphony of spring scents. Losing one’s sense of smell is a sign of the virus, we’re told, so I relish each note. The compost. The first hyacinth. Low tide. No breath taken for granted. After days of rain the clouds retreat, a line of puffy hills marching back to the mountains where they are born. Behind them, a stretch of blue opens to the north, a wide tear in the blanket of sky, opening into a full week of spring sunshine.
One year later, a different sunny March morning: my daughter and I slip into a practiced routine. We talk about goals for the day over breakfast. Review the timing of her online classes, my Zoom meetings. She makes lunch, I make dinner. It’s hard to remember our first test Zoom call, which was a family drill of sorts, although I made light of it at the time. What if her Dad falls ill, I wondered in those early weeks, awake at night? What if I follow? Will our daughter have to fend for herself? For our first Zoom meeting we retreated to three separate corners of the house, each on a different screen, and planned dinner virtually – until our test meeting devolved into silliness, an antidote to the anxiety of a frontline family.
Now I look back over the distance we’ve traveled together in a year. I’m grateful for the silver lining of time with my teenager, an unexpected gift. We carved ruts in the yard playing badminton during lockdown, and we still take long walks together most days. “We haven’t eaten each other’s brains out yet,” she says, and I decide to take that as a complement. Our family has been fortunate, on balance, something I never take for granted. 2019 was a year of personal loss for us, as cancer claimed a beloved family member, too young. That year we tried to compress distance, traveling constantly in response to illness. We never imagined that 2020 would become the year of collective loss. Covid, the new “Big C.”
I worry for students still spiraling in the eddy, for lives upended by a cruel year, uneven in its wrath. It’s a relief, but also strange to see grandparents and elders return to a semblance of normal, as parents and kids wait, last in line, for familiar routines to return. It’s almost time to go hunting for swamp lanterns again, another foray to break up the screen bound days. A full year later. Yet as the clock springs forward, I sense time starting to speed up again. I wonder how to keep some of the closeness born of a year of distance. How to keep listening to the barnacles.
All photos by Jessica Plumb.
A beautiful balance of regrets and healing choices. My family of three were mired in a backwater these two years, supporting the one on hospice. Your traipsing is inspiring!
Thanks, Jessica. Your meditation was deep and exuberant. I’m going to share it with our granddaughter, Greta, age 15, in Portland, OR.
Barb and Mack Boelling
Thank you for the generosity of sharing your experience. It feels important to personalize, to give texture and nuance, to this massive collective experience of a pandemic. You and your daughter are thoughtful inspirations!
a beautiful piece.
This is a beautiful meditation. Thank you.
Thanks for this beautiful, encouraging essay.