20th Sunday in Covid

1 March 29th

The dogwoods hadn’t yet bloomed back then. Before.

I still wore sweaters during the day and sometimes my fleece jacket at night. The sun set around dinnertime, and I was usually up before the sky lightened in the east out over the bay. It was March, and the winds from up river could be cold, but more often balmy.

The geese had just started migrating back and the scouting hummingbirds began to come around, so I put up a hanging basket with red flowers until we could get the feeders ready.

It really shut down for us about the 18th. I remember because the last time I was in my mother’s apartment was Saint Patrick’s day, the 17th. I believed then that I’d not be back inside to visit with her for a few weeks at the least. That was five months ago. It was March and Saint Leo University, which is now closed for good in Virginia, had no intention of closing, Tim and I had planned to head to lunch in about a week, and just a month later I would have headed to Florida to conduct non-fiction workshops at the Sandhill Writers Retreat. Spring training had just started; the Mets were looking good. 

The river in March is cold, running down from up past Fredericksburg, and the crowds in the area for oyster season were still adhering to the rule that oysters are best during months with an R in it; they thought they had another thirty days anyway, but the local oyster place on the Rappahannock would shut down completely before April arrived.

It was Spring Break when the change found me. Old Dominion University extended the vacation for a week with the hopes of returning seven days late, figuring things would settle down. That was more than one hundred thousand deaths ago. 

So I sat on my porch that first Sunday and looked out at the deep blue sky, the kind of sky under which it isn’t possible for anyone to be sick, let alone unable to breath, suffering their last few hours on a respirator. I sat and looked out through the bare bones of the oaks and took a picture. In my mind the contrast was obvious. That was the First Sunday of Covid for me, twenty weeks ago. I never saw my students again as we went online, and the rest of the semester passed via zoom from one of the tables on my property, behind which they could see the leaves fill in, hear more birds, watch my clothing go from sweaters to polo shirts, watch my hair go from above the ear to longer than it had ever been. And each week at the start we’d talk briefly about how “this can’t possibly last very long.” And each week we’d fall further into the realization that nothing would be “normal” again.  

And I sat on the porch and remembered 1979. This reminds me of then.  

When I was a freshman we started a radio show at the college station. I produced and engineered it, and the hour long, Saturday morning program was hosted by my friend Dave Szymanski and Franciscan priest Fr. Dan Riley. We were so young and still had idealism and the deep-seeded belief everything we did had long-reaching ripple effects. We worked so hard on that show, called “Inscape.”  Each week we would have a guest–writers, administrators, people in the community who had been doing work in service to the area such as soup kitchens, shelters, and more. Also each week we would feature a musical artist such as James Taylor or Dan Fogelberg or someone else relevant to our hour long talk, as well as music reflective of what was in the news. The theme song for the show was Chuck Mangione’s “Hills where the Lord Hides,” and the first song for the first episode was Taylor’s “Secret of Life.” Then in November of that first year Dave pulled the news off the UPI machine and read about fifty-two American hostages at the embassy in Iran. Fr Dan spoke gently and powerfully of their fate and spoke of faith, of coming together, of the need to share in the burden of “hoping for a swift resolution.” 

The weeks passed and every show from November on started with the news of those men and women. We switched musical artists and guests like clockwork, but each week the news was the same, and always followed by the same comments of “this cannot last too much longer.” Winter break came, Easter, summer break came. We returned in the fall as sophomores and continued talking about the poor hostages. Carter debated Reagan, the Winter Olympics coming that February had been boycotted, we left for Thanksgiving, and then we left for Christmas break, and when we returned, second semester our second year, Inauguration Day, it ended. The following weekend on air Fr Dan commented on how since the show’s inception the hostages had been unable to leave their quarters, quarantined for 444 days. 

It is almost fall now, and colleges–no matter how they handle this–are returning to some form of education. This is the twentieth Sunday since March, and the woods in the front of the property from my vantage on the porch are thick and deep, and I can barely see the sky, let alone the road. I listen to the news only to be aggravated and severely depressed at the thought of the financial crisis both personal and nationally, more saddened by the news of those poor souls ill and dying and already gone, and how it seems like this will never end. 

So I come out on the porch to listen to the wildlife and the soft August breeze at the tops of the oaks, and I wonder what can I possibly do to get through this, and I turn on some music to help me cope. 

And somehow it all seems so much more manageable, just briefly, just for a few minutes.

The Secret of Life is enjoying the passage of time.

Any fool can do it. There ain’t nothing to it.

Nobody knows how we got to the top of the hill

But since we’re on our way down, we might as well enjoy the ride

–James Taylor


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