April 25, 2020

In “things I should be doing” news, today would have been the annual Ice Age Trail conference. What have I done today? Not much. I have a daily routine, but it’s nothing profound — and even that falls by the wayside sometimes. As an illustration, the highlight of my day was making and drinking a particularly good cup of coffee.

Whether overcaffeinated, overtired, or both, I’ve fallen short of the meager goals I set for myself today. I did get to enjoy reading some letters, responses to the flood of cards I’ve sent out. One was from the friend who would have attended that conference with me. More than anything else lately, these letters are weapons against the darkest parts of social isolation. They’re a tangible reminder that I have people out there who care for me.

Besides the letters and my blog, I haven’t put much creative work out into the world since all this started. I’m not getting much out of it, either: I haven’t taken advantage of the wealth of free online concerts, lessons, and so forth. I am simply existing. I can’t give a reason or tell if this is the right approach to these strange times. But it’s my approach, at least for now.

What I’m trying to say is that, if the world ever gets back on course, I hope I don’t look back on this era with disappointment. It may be that I accomplish something extraordinary between now and May 26. If so, I’ll be pleased. But I hope I can avoid kicking myself for not doing more. (Admittedly, I scored in the 27th percentile for “industriousness” in a personality test earlier this year.) 

Maybe I sorely needed this time to relax, to reëvaluate, and to just be myself. After all, doing isn’t always the point.

Mostly Sunny

April 21, 2020

Momentary panic aside, the last week or so has felt like a dream to me. I say “dream” not only in the surreal sense, but in the sense that I’m leading the kind of life I have always hoped for.

I’ve gotten used to the rhythms of my new town. I know how many people I’m likely to encounter on a walk in the park, and which streets are empty of cars (the ones that don’t lead to the grocery or hardware stores). The adjustment has been so easy that I feel as if I’ve always lived here. It’s not even unusual for me to go several hours without remembering there’s a pandemic on.

I couldn’t help but remember the other night, though, after I took a drive through another downtown. This is a place stuffed with as much culture as can possibly fit in a small Wisconsin village. I’ve spent my share of time and money there on beautiful spring days like this one. But that evening as I passed through, I found it completely deserted. I felt shock and disappointment not unlike what I experienced when I lived up north and we’d get blizzards in late May.

Confronted once again with our historic crisis, I was reminded of the need for action. Adjusting to my new routine is the very least I can do to protect my friends and family. And to all of you in your own new routines and smaller spheres of movement: thank you. By giving up some of your old ways, you are protecting the community of which you are a part.

Love to you all, until we meet again.

The End of the Beginning

April 16, 2020 (better late than never)

Staying in, as I’ve come to realize, is a necessary task that keeps us all “safer at home”.  But there’s a part of my brain that insists on treating it like a game, Mary Poppins-style.  How long can I go without encountering another person? How many nutritional meals can I create with only the food in my house?  For the first time in weeks, I feel confident in my ability to make it through.

I’ve assigned myself a few jobs, all fun: blogging, working through my reading list, starting a modest garden.  I’m writing and mailing cards to one or two friends each day. (If you were to read all these notes, you’d see them growing sappier in proportion to my positive attitude.)  And thanks in no small part to the federal government, I am financially stable. So why not walk down to the river to sit among the geese, glorying in the sunshine?

Then I learn that Governor Evers has extended his Safer-at-Home Order until May 26.

When the news arrives on my phone, I re-read it in case I misunderstood. I didn’t: Wisconsinites must tack another month on to the half month we still had left. While the concept isn’t new to me, I think I must have been in denial. Until the official announcement, there was still the small, absurd possibility that everything would resume on May the first. Now finality — and with it reality — has set in.

Let me be clear: I don’t dispute the need for aggressive social distancing (what a phrase!). But I’m grateful for my newfound positivity, as I suspect I’m going to need it.

Disenchanted April

April 12, 2020

A stroll through the misty and deserted streets of my new town was just what I needed this Easter morning.  It’s no substitute, though, for everything else I should be doing this time of year. My not-to-do list has quickly become a want-to-do list.

I’ll admit that there are perks to the homebound life.  But my own life was already fairly homebound pre-pandemic.  I’ve come to rely on a few key social events for my sense of connection.  Now I find myself staring down months of isolation with dread. The warmer weather both tempers this feeling and adds to it: could I even imagine a summer without outdoor concerts, art fairs, or bonfire parties? I’m not sure. I certainly don’t want to.

I might look forward to such a change of pace if I had chosen it for myself. I love walking, biking, watching the river, reading, making crafts, and tidying my apartment — when I don’t have to. This is the same restlessness I used to feel early in the summer, when I was cut off from the familiar structure of school. Despite the name, too much “free time” can be daunting.

I will try to take each day as it comes. If I set my own structure and (reasonable) expectations, this could be a rewarding time for me. In the end — and I never thought I’d have to type or even think this sentence — Queen Elizabeth is right: we will see one another again. Or, as someone in the social-media-sphere recently put it, “April Distance Brings May Existence.” I won’t hold my breath for a normal summer; normal is overrated anyway.

Change of Address

April 8, 2020

The man in his garden was right.  Life does go on amid all this darkness.  Last week, my life took me to a new apartment about twenty minutes’ drive from my childhood home.

I can’t remember why I was in such a hurry to move – all that packing and driving and arranging just so I could sit alone in a different room.  The new place feels right, though. Last night’s pink-tinted moon rising over the bluffs that line the Wisconsin River was one small reminder of this.  There’s also the very big reminder to be thankful that I haven’t caught COVID-19.

With that in mind, as I sit watching the rain and sipping coffee (my home coffee-brewing skills will definitely improve as a result of all this), I want for nothing.  All is well in my corner of the world.

It’s tempting to think of this period as one giant vacation.  But that would be unfair at best to my friends and relatives classified as essential employees.  My newfound leisure time stems from a dire need for social isolation. That’s another reason I love my new place: I can choose from any number of hiking spots and barely even see another person.  I’ve certainly hiked and biked my share since I arrived.

Still, I like to think I’m keeping the goal in mind.  I know there may come a time when I will need to stay indoors, no exceptions (or at least show off how stylish I look in a mask).  As I wrap up this process of switching homes, I’m understanding more and more that it’s the staying home that counts.

New Growth

March 26, 2020

It’s getting crowded out there.  I don’t mean the roads: even the main highway through town has taken on an eerie post-apocalyptic quality.  Gone are those hordes of what I like to call “sun worshippers”, commuters who head east to Madison in the morning and west at night.

The foot traffic by the creek, however, is noticeably heavier.  I used to have the place to myself. Now I pass joggers, dog walkers, and families of all sizes (keeping six feet away, of course). Some of them look determined, like they’re starting an exercise regimen. Others were likely driven outside through sheer boredom.  I couldn’t be happier to see people taking walks, but I wish they would spread out a little.

Travel one block north or south of the creek, and you’re in a ghost town.  Clearly some families have shut themselves in. I imagine I’m being watched out of every window.  On my walk last night, despite the mild weather, hardly a soul tinkered in their garage or mowed their lawn.

One exception was an older couple puttering around their garden.  The woman waved, her face hidden by shrubbery. The man gestured to where a few green shoots poked through the leaf litter at his feet.

“There’ll still be life after this,” he announced to me.  I wasn’t sure if “this” meant winter, COVID-19, or something else.

“I hope so.” I sounded gloomier than I’d intended.

He was right, though.  Spring isn’t going anywhere — and neither, apparently, are we.  Seeing the two neighbors inspecting their turf reminded me of the projects I hope to start during this time. Start them I will, but I don’t plan on rushing. If that cleaning project takes longer than usual, or if I tack twenty minutes onto my nightly walk by the creek, so be it. It’ll still get done and (I wager) I’ll enjoy the process a little more. Then I’ll do it all again the next day. Slowly.

Shelter In Place

March 25, 2020

I’ve heard stories lately of people struggling to return home as travel grinds to a halt.  I wish them the best, which is easy to do when I’m firmly settled in one place. The house where I’m staying is so familiar that I can find my way around it in pitch darkness.  It’s filled with objects that have shaped my daily life over 26 years.

Most importantly, I am surrounded by people I trust (and one cat; the jury’s still out on that one). My neighborhood is the center of activity in this little village. I could spend hours just watching everyone come and go — and I have. It’s a skill I picked up early in life. I’ve been observing my corner of the world since I lived in my childhood home less than a mile from here. I’ll never forget how it felt to perch in that second-story window seat, safe in the shadow of a wooded bluff.

Of course, most of what I saw back then was new to me. I only hope I’ve managed to retain a sense of wonder from those days. The outlook is positive. I can still marvel, for example, at the fact that we live right at the edge of the Driftless Area. On one side of town is a geologically young landscape, reshaped by glaciers 15,000 years ago. On the other is a row of bluffs leading to the million-year-old Wisconsin River valley. How many other towns can claim to be two places at once?

I have been influenced by these natural forces. My personal history is intertwined with this place, just as it’s intertwined with my human neighbors. Whatever happens in the next few months, I’m glad to know exactly where I am.

This Means You

March 24, 2020

In the wake of a “stay-at-home order” from our governor, I suppose I should be making a to-do list for the long weeks ahead.  It feels more appropriate to make a not-to-do list. Don’t attend a play, don’t meet my circle of friends for coffee, don’t volunteer on a prescribed burn.  Having written that sentence, I’m already fed up with my own complaining; I can’t imagine how you must feel reading it.

On the face of it, I have everything I need to get through: food, espresso, a plethora of podcasts.  But that doesn’t account for all necessities. While the loss of calendar entries can’t compare to the loss of human life, it will take a toll on anyone who likes to see someone else’s face from time to time.  I hope we keep that in mind as we re-shape our interactions. It will be a struggle at first. Still, we have tools at our disposal.

One of these is creativity.  I mentioned the free balloons on Main Street.  We have a chance to inject a little of the extraordinary into our daily life.  The more blogs, virtual concerts, light displays, and hours-long phone calls we can put out there, the more chance we have of (a term recently shared by a friend) “surthriving”.

Humor is another.  The other day, seven police officers convened in the grocery store parking lot near my house.  I watched as they monitored some unknown threat, conferred in a tight circle, then got back in their cars and drove away.  All except one officer, who promptly walked into the store to buy whatever was on his family shopping list. Why not?

I don’t have a suitable word for the time now upon us.  “Vacation” doesn’t cut it, for a number of reasons.  But I hope it bears some good beyond the simple avoidance of disaster.

May you all find some shelter in place this week.

A Creek Runs Through It

March 22, 2020 (2 for 2!)

I took a walk yesterday afternoon.  It was one of the odder experiences I’ve had in a while, going out in the middle of the day and seeing a car in every driveway.  Typically my town at 2 PM is reserved for retired folks, stay-at-home moms, and seasonal employees of historic architectural attractions.  This felt more like Christmas morning. And although the sun was forcing me to shed my jacket, not a single kid played outside on a single lawn.

If you can’t picture my town, just know that it’s too small for its own high school but somehow managed to attract its own self-serve wine bar.  Its social center is an independent coffee shop at the edge of a park. It was in this park, across the creek and down a ways from the coffee shop, that I lay in the grass to contemplate our new reality.

A cloudless sky unfolded above me.  Robins surrounded me at a safe distance, cocking their heads in my direction.  (Yet another reason I’m glad I’m not a worm.) A single turkey vulture enjoyed some air current I was not privy to.  The day had all the ingredients of Spring. Still, I couldn’t help feeling uneasy.

I had seen a note taped on the door of the coffee shop.  Printed on red paper for emphasis, it informs customers that the store is closed until further notice.  No more coffee — and no more social center — for who knows how long. It’s a measure to keep people from harm, and I wouldn’t get in the way of that.  But knowing I couldn’t go inside even if I wanted to suddenly brought these trying times into focus.

I don’t feel qualified (that’s my excuse, anyway) to explain in detail why it’s for the best.  All I can say, post-walk, is that we’ll get through it. My town, and yours too. We’ll make it work.  Case in point: the owners of that wine bar put out a bushel of free cut-your-own balloons yesterday to brighten the lives of families walking by. Still, I await the day when I can stroll in the sunshine by the creek with iced latte in hand.

These, they are my people, and this is all I know: the longer this goes on, my friend, the stronger I will grow. -Capercaillie

COVID-19 in the 608

March 21, 2020

I told myself I wouldn’t write a single word about Social Distancing.  But any kind of writing feels better than guiltily staring at a blank page.  It brings to mind what a sympathetic writing instructor once told me: the most important body part to a writer is the one you sit on.  Just sit and write. It’s harder than it sounds.

More frustrating is the fact that I keep looking over at the clock.  What else could I possibly have going on? As it happens, I’ve been waiting for years to find myself in this situation – nothing to do but tackle a writing project.  Still, having the time to write and actually writing are vastly different beasts.

Not that I can complain.  I realize how privileged I am here in small-town Wisconsin, that I can still leave my house to be alone in the woods or by the creek.  That in order to visit my friends eight miles away, I can just enter my own garage and drive my personal vehicle right up to their front door.  (Nothing “public” about this form of transportation, at least until I run out of gas.) That I have room to breathe in a time when even breathing is not a given.

Be that as it may, I want to sit and write.  Always have. Maybe what has been missing for me is accountability and not free time.  Knowing there’s someone on the other end waiting to receive a finished piece might help me set my thoughts down as text.  It’s also very possible that I’m just fishing for praise. Either way, or maybe with a little of both, here’s my first real stab at a blog.