I AM NOT A STRANGER TO SOLITUDE. At times it has been my best friend as I strived to reach a writing deadline or just wanted to enjoy silence in an otherwise busy household. However, I didn’t know what true solitude was until the Covid-19 pandemic became a reality.
Prior to this dramatic development, the new year looked promising. After the holidays my husband and I joined a gym and got reacquainted with exercise. We worked long neglected muscles and I felt my stamina increase with each visit. A good start, I thought, until a flare up of asthma and pneumonia sidelined me the end of January. A lingering cough and fatigue, lasting through February, prevented me from most normal activities as word of the spreading virus saturated the news. But, by the first part of March I had recovered enough to resume normal activities. I shopped, visited with family and friends, dined out, and met with a class of students, as I do every year, to discuss my novel, Trains to Concordia, which they read and study as part of their literature curriculum. I felt energized and happy to be greeted by enthusiastic readers.
And then—by mid-March—Covid-19 was officially identified a pandemic. My husband and I listened to daily briefings of the White House Coronavirus Task Force. We saw the sudden shutdown of schools and stores and all non-essential businesses. Sheltering in place was the cornerstone of prevention. It became more real as unemployment skyrocketed. For those lucky enough to hold office-based jobs, working from home became the new normal. There were shortages of every type, especially cleaning supplies and paper products like toilet paper. It would have been a joke, but people reacted in panic mode by hoarding.
Newspapers and television networks reported non-stop on the progression of the disease as its world-wide impact was analyzed. The United States lagged behind in responding to the medical needs of hospitals across the country. There weren’t enough ventilators, masks, testing materials, or tests themselves.
Top health officials reported that developing an immunization was one to two years away with no cure for the disease in sight. Shocking! There was no end in sight in the foreseeable future? Further word was the virus that makes up Covid-19 may have mutated already and could mutate further, making it seem impossible to protect the most vulnerable.
I began to seriously withdraw from normal social activities. As a senior with pre-existing health issues, I couldn’t take a chance. Luckily, I had a husband and family who could attend to tasks which required leaving home.
I quelled my fears as I stopped going to the gym, canceled appointments or had them canceled for me and resorted to my default reaction to stress: I cleaned the entire house. I organized files and photo albums, and tried to bring order into my personal world all the while checking in with family and friends more frequently than normal.
As the news grew more dire and deaths began to mount, the uncertainty grew stronger. Signs of normalcy disappeared. Bottles of sanitizer became the decorative centerpiece on our kitchen island instead of a bowl of fruit. Masks were stowed in cars as well as purses and made convenient to grab before leaving the house. Neighbors waved and shouted across the street, but maintained the recommended six-foot distance.
At some point, even though I was compliant about distancing and wearing a mask, I began wondering how much time I would have to “put things in order” if I were a victim of the virus. I mean, serious disability and death can occur from anything. It doesn’t necessarily have to happen during a world-wide pandemic. Getting hit by a car, falling down the stairs, or sustaining a nasty spider bite that turns into sepsis are possibly more plausible scenarios than contracting Covid-19. Nevertheless, I sat down and wrote my obituary (as well as my husband’s) because if something happened suddenly, I feared I might not be able to muster the mental ability to write our eternal “send off.”
Perhaps, my concern had something to do with the fact that my younger brother died a year ago without an obituary or services of any type. There had been nothing to mark his passing. The subject was haunting me. I didn’t realize how much I had been grieving. So, in April, my sister and I composed a memoriam piece to commemorate the one-year anniversary of his death and had it published in the newspaper. I felt unburdened and ready to move on.
By May, I had been reading voraciously, but couldn’t seem to get motivated to write anything—of length. I started a history-based short story set in Napa, but hit a wall when it came time to do further research, an aspect of writing which I had loved doing for my two historical novels. Instead, I managed to express myself through short simple poems based on subjects of nature. Earlier in February, upset with myself for a lack of productivity, I informed our critique group that I needed a leave of absence. After a month I missed my writing pals and the motivation they provided to the writing process. It may be that I wasn’t the only one dealing with a kind of writers’ block, because they generously accepted me back. We now meet on Zoom nearly every Wednesday evening and I’m so grateful for the contact.
As weather permitted, I turned to gardening. I went about it in a near-manic manner, working to exhaustion. Much of it was mindless, grunt work, but it felt good in the midst of so much uncertainty. In between I walked the dog and became familiar with two Little Free Libraries in my neighborhood. I was content with the relative isolation, but became anxious when I was asked to open our home to friends and extended family. It was too soon! I missed them, but felt vulnerable, even with a mask and six feet of space between us.
By the end of May, as discussions turned to opening up things in the community, we were shocked and saddened to learn that our ex-daughter-in-law had died. It was sudden, having nothing to do with Covid-19, but as we met and comforted our son and adult grandchildren, there could be no holding back. With masks on, distancing fell to the wayside as we tightly hugged one another. Like so many who have passed during this period, a celebration of life had to be postponed to a later time.
In early June, new and disturbing news flooded the airways as graphic footage of police brutality was caught on a videotape and aired. The victim, a black man named George Floyd, died. Demonstrators took to the streets, risking their health in the face of the pandemic. It was as if all those months of fear and isolation had evaporated into one big burst of anger.
Though people gathered in mostly peaceful protest, the inevitable happened: some groups who wanted to take advantage of the demonstrations began looting and rioting. Instead of reassuring the public, national leaders were slow to act, just as they had been with Covid-19. Most shocking was the fact that the President threatened the use of U.S. military intervention against its own citizens.
There have been many frightening political and social challenges these short few months which have run parallel to the pandemic. Frustrated and fearful about the future and impotent at not being able to implement positive change, I have felt overwhelmed and distracted, unable to write. Compelling words will not come.
While waiting for a vaccine for Covid-19, I will continue to be vigilant against the dual threat of viral contamination and political divisiveness. I refuse to feel marginalized by the pandemic or cowed by radical dogma.
I have learned these many months that it is possible to find joy in living more simply. During food shortages I learned to cook with what I had in the pantry. If I baked, I made double and shared with neighbors. I now anticipate bird song in the mornings without grousing about the “noise waking me up.”
I think I have found my place while sheltering in place. And when I find the spark that ignites my writing life again, I will try to contribute something of lasting value. In the meantime, I wrote a poem entitled “Pandemic” which marks my time and expresses my hopes. The last stanza reads:
With one foot in front of the other,
one step at a time,
I keep moving,
I’m still here
putting distance between myself
and the deadly
Marilyn Campbell draws on experience as a former social worker when she writes. In addition to publishing two historical fiction novels for young adults, Trains to Concordia and A Train to Nowhere, she contributed poetry to Stolen Light and to And Yet, Redwood Writers poetry anthologies. Her short stories have been featured in both Napa Valley Writers and Redwood Writers anthologies. Visit her website: www.camitzkepress.com
Note: Marilyn’s essay is part of Writing Through Change, a series of posts and guest articles about life and writing in unsettled times.