Sunday, May 3, 2020

Can There Be a Silver Lining for "Stay at Home"?

One of my "stock photos" of the field across the way from my home.

First of all, at this time with over a million people infected with COVID-19 and over 60,000 deaths in the United States, characterizing the pandemic as a good event would be the height of insensitivity. Too many people are suffering. On May 3, the Des Moines Register reported the following information about Iowa: "Nearly twice as many people have died in Iowa from COVID-19 versus influenza this season, according to information compiled from the state department of public health. And the COVID-19 deaths occurred in less than a fourth of the time."

Yet even in the reality of these times outside my window, here I am, staying at home as requested, being careful to limit my trips to the store, distancing myself from others, just like other people all over the United States and the rest of the world--and I'm healthy. There's the world event, and then there's the individual event. There's the macrocosm, and then there's the microcosm.

Right now, I'm sitting in my chair next to my woodstove. I've built a small fire to just warm the house a bit . . . and to warm my heart a bit as the sun rises this early morning. The county where I live has a low coronavirus rate at this time . . . at least the verified number of infections is low. My family and my wife and I are well, so on the microscopic value of my individual life, any "suffering" I'm experiencing is either just complaining or an empathetic response to the experience of others.

Apropos to this blog, though, I am home, unable to travel to campgrounds and camp--even local ones--and any camping I do will be from my driveway. As a tiny trailer owner on the first day of May, how can there be a "silver lining" to my camping life? The bottom line is that my camping life has been nipped in the bud this year. I've even got twelve bales of straw stacked in front of my trailer, tarped down, so I can't hook up. How can that be a good thing?

My answer is grounded in my marriage, really, and my lifelong habits of behavior. Henry David Thoreau said it around 150 years ago: "Simplify, simplify" (Walden, Chapter 2, see The Walden Project). That's what my wife and I have been doing since early March, trying to find a lifestyle that fits us and also meets the needs of the times.

This COVID-19 epidemic, then, has become a crucible where we are refining and transforming our personal lives into a more efficient existence, both physically and mentally. (That's an extravagant statement, so I have to add that we've been watching a lot of TV, too, just to keep this discussion real.) Without getting too lofty, we've just been thinking about how we can manage this new time as best we can, and we've found a few key action points.

One point of focus has been food. We've always appreciated foods cooked from fresh and unprocessed, organic ingredients. With our greater time at home, we've expanded even more our self-cooked food selections, making our meals from scratch, baking bread and chapatis, sun tea instead of colas, baking our own deserts, taking the time to make our meals not just nutritious but also beautiful. We've always stocked up with gallon jars of the basics, so we've "topped off" our victuals and are now in a good position to grocery shop once every two weeks.

This leads to the second focus: gardening. I've gardened organically for almost forty years, and this year I've had more time to focus on doing it right. I'm not able to say nowadays, "Yeah, I'll get some stuff in, and then let's go camping!" since I can't hook up and take off. My mini-greenhouse is ahead of my usual schedule, and I've done a make-over of our north garden from a wire-fenced, more traditional garden to raised beds with cedar boxes. It's been a lot of work, but I've had the time, haven't I? It's been a cool spring, so starting the garden this year has been a gradual process, one I've been enjoying, except for a chronic sore lower back from too much lifting, bending, and shovel work.

Two tiny trailers

Although my wife and I have just spent the first Saturday in May with our grandchildren here at our house, we have been spending more time together in isolation as a couple, and that has not been all bad. When the pandemic erupted in early March, our extended family pulled back and created bubbles of isolation, and we managed our extended relationships mostly by Facetime. We did as almost everyone else did and learned how to manage our relationships at a greater distance. At one point after about a month, after we and our extended family had created our bubbles of safety, we began physically interacting again. Then, after home repairs and outside workers coming were required at our children's home, we re-established our iPhone routine for two weeks, which ended last Saturday.

We have some limited "sharing of our bubbles" of safety now, knowing that the current environment is the "new norm" for probably at least the next year. Mostly, though, my wife and I spend our time alone together, and that has not been a bad thing. Rather, we are both more aware of our time alone as we are processing this change in society, which at times seems to be an almost hallucinogenic experience--like Alice in Wonderland who has fallen down the rabbit hole into a bizarre reality. We are wrestling with this new reality, and even though we at times feel emotionally beat up, we are finding a way through to meaning and purpose. We are seeing our new norm as an opportunity to enrich our relationship and to deepen our understanding and appreciation for one another. It shouldn't have been and truly wasn't necessary for a pandemic to occur for us to increase our connectedness, but we are choosing to use the situation as best we can--and have found increasing nurture and unity for ourselves in this time of distancing.

Throughout our navigating these new waters of living and lifestyle, our tiny trailer keeps popping into view--outside our north window as we look each morning at the lush field across the way and enjoy the sunrise to the east; later in the morning as I slowly straighten up to stretch out my back which is sore from garden work, leaning on my shovel and seeing the Green Goddess in the morning sun; in the evening, making sure the garage and trailer are buttoned up for the night, thinking about when I will spend a night in the trailer. I think our tiny trailer is emblematic of our hope that we will negotiate this change in lifestyle from one of naivete to one of more cautious and careful behavior. With continued care, the passage of time, and society's better scientific understanding of this novel coronavirus, we will eventually begin to camp again. We will work it out.

In a Psychology Today online article about the advantages of consciously choosing a more simple life ("Henry David Thoreau: 'Simplify, Simplify"), the author reminds us that happiness is not an object or even a person; it is a state of mind--happiness, contentment, peace. Doing less is a means to accomplishing more if we remove clutter from our lives. As an example, one way to improve the quality of a photograph is to frame the shot to emphasize the most significant detail, thereby removing what is extraneous and distracting. By simplifying, we actually enrich.

For me, I'm working on simplifying my news intake. I do feel it's important to keep current with how things are going in the world, especially with the practicalities of managing our safety. I do feel I especially need to keep current with Iowa's changing management of the virus (or lack of management). However, lately I have been doting on the news, reading too much about the medical situation and the politics of a national election year during a pandemic. "Simplify, simplify," I tell myself. Get off the phone get into the garden. Do not miss the planting time! And that doesn't mean planting gloom, doom, and spin into my consciousness. I know what I need to do and for whom I plan to vote.

The sunrise is much better for my eyes than backlit text on a phone or computer screen. That sun warms the soil for the seeds I plant; it warms my heart. I need to deal with this pandemic and the changes it has wrought in our personal lives and in the world, but I don't need to obsess about it. That's not healthy. It's not 1969, Woodstock, pills and mushrooms, Grace Slick, the Jefferson Airplane, white rabbits, et al. Our current sirens are not nearly so mythic or melodic.

Who really knows what event lies around the bend for ourselves and our families? We can be prepared, but we can also be sure to enjoy the moment, to appreciate the beauty and love in our lives, to help our families and to grow from the experience of giving. We can "simplify, simplify," and find the simple pleasures of life. Wherever we sojourn, we can all make our temporary residence more than just a point on a map. We can make it home, whether our "home" is a traditional one, or whether we are dreaming of our tiny homes on wheels.

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