Miles from Nowhere

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My walk was chilly today, a breeze coming from the northwest stirring up the surface of the bay and pushing away the false hopes of an early summer. I love—embrace—the feel of this time of year on my skin, whether it be warmer days or chillier nights. For now, it’s early spring again, closer to late-winter, and I walked along the water and past the farmlands, nothing to see but sky, deep blue sky, clear to the horizon. A young eagle swept across the road and along the duck pond near the river, and the same blue heron I see every day was there only to take off like she always does with a deep honk  to glide across the pond to the marsh, landing in the shallow water without causing so much as a ripple. The kingfisher on the wire as well as the gulls along the rip rap are braver, not caring so much about my routine. The herons, however, and the egrets and buffleheads all distance themselves as fast as possible.

A sign of the times, maybe.

Everyone I know is inside; the entire planet is isolated or quarantined or Staying in Place by whatever decree the local, state, national authorities updated today. It’s like the whole world was put in a Time Out for three minutes or three weeks or three months. Some people are engaged with the news watching the numbers go up, and I suppose it helps us stay in tune to the gravity of the situation, keeps us in check, but it feels an awful lot like for some the CDC tally has replaced Sports Center. I’m not indifferent to the desperate and unprecedented nature of this crisis; it’s simply that I’ve done all I can do at this point. My art and writing students are in check, the kitchen and pantry are stocked, I’m not going anywhere, and by nature here at Aerie I don’t see any more or less people now than I have in the twenty-four years I’ve been out here on the eastern edge of the peninsula.

Still my mother called earlier to make sure I was safe, avoiding contact with people the best I can. I told her, “Mom, I have to drive somewhere to have contact with people.” She felt better. Until tomorrow. As for her, she’s in her independent apartment in Virginia Beach in a facility that keeps her safe, the property spotless, and everyone else—including family—away. Isolation means being away from others. It is safe. But it is also very sad. For some, tragic. Isolation, while the best course of action, contradicts the soul’s desire for human interaction. It is one thing to choose to be alone; it is an entirely different thing to have aloneness thrust upon you. Some, I am sure, would rather die.

But back out here in the Wilderness, the sky is “blank” tonight. That’s what my son and I call the sky at sunrise or sunset when no clouds are resting along the horizon, stirring up the dust, calling up colors for us while we sit and watch or take pictures. Sometimes the western edge just above the reaches of the river, up past Tappahannock and outwards toward Fredericksburg, is so streaked with dark reds and blood orange that we can’t decide whether to shoot pictures or just stare silently while it all goes down. We might hear a boat out past the point, or sometimes Mike landing his P-13 a mile or two to the west at Hummel Field, but mostly it’s just the water, softly, right there, every few seconds at our feet.

But tonight, well, tonight, as if to underscore the news blasting out from literally every town on Earth, the water is rough, coughing up white caps and slamming the rocks at the end of Mill Creek. Parrot Island looks half submerged, and the pier near the old boat ramp is underwater. It’s like nature knows.

Of course it does.

It’s like the earth is saying, “You’re not paying attention!” It’s like the earth is telling us who is in control, from violent storms to virulent disease, it is calling out for some humility, some humble self-reproach. This crisis has demonstrated, clearly, as if under a microscope, how indiscriminately we brush off people and time and life itself. I know so many will be complimenting the efforts of billions worldwide, and showing how we’ve come together, showing how we’re sewing masks, or clapping for nurses, or thanking cashiers, or washing our hands. We’ve pulled ourselves together to get through this, yes. Yes.

But it’s only now, six feet apart at best, miles apart for sure, lightyears away from each other for certain, that we appreciate the eye contact, the walk along a city street, stopping in stores, sitting at a café; that we appreciate shaking hands, a quick hug, the friendly embrace. The economy will return to something better than this, the chance of contracting the disease will back off, the colleges will reopen for face to face classes, and we will be able to sit at Starbucks and laugh, sharing a muffin. Of course, But I fear it is going to be sometime before we have those sensory experiences, the visceral explosion of life on our souls.

It’s getting dark and my skin is cool, almost wet from the night air. I can taste the salt from the bay on my lips, and my face is lashed red and wet. It feels good, and I can take a deep breath, a deep deep breath, and walk up the hill past the farm under a half-moon into my home for the night.

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