Dispatches From a Pandemic: Between Breaths

Ahhh, Camp. I come Upta Camp, to the lakeside cabin in the North Woods of Maine every summer for a week with my not-quite family: step-brother and his wife, their two daughters and my step mother. This year, Covid kept them home. This summer, it was just me.

My serious commitment to writing started here, five summers ago, after everyone left and I was alone at the lake for two days. The new notebook at Bob’s Feed Store, grandma’s 20-year-old ballpoint pen, me sitting at the breakfast bar in the kitchen on the wicker stool that spins around, the stools my step-aunt does NOT want you sitting on in a wet bathing suit. It was here that I discovered the freedom of Morning Pages, journaling at dawn before the monkey mind takes over. It’s still a daily practice in my writing routine.

But this weekend I’ve promised myself a vacation of doing little or nothing and I haven’t written in three days. Quiet. Solitude. Eat, kayak, read, repeat. The stillness of life reflected in the glass of the lake, rippling with nothingness. No one at camp but me and the haunting call of a loon in search of its mate.

This weekend I spend between breaths. No date set for the return to my island, or on the distant horizon, the eventual return to Arizona. I give the lake my worries and sorrow. And with each stroke of the kayak paddle, the lake replenishes my hope.

Fritos, chocolate sugared donuts, Helluva Good onion dip, Cheetos…I’m here to enjoy, not feel. I take the peace the lake dispenses, its smooth bliss washing over me when I glide through the murky depths.

It’s an alternate universe here in the North Woods. Locals believe the virus (“The Cova” as it is called here) cannot touch this spot or is a hoax or both, each conversation starting with: “It will be gone after the election…”

Every house within a 5-mile radius of the Rod & Gun Club sporting a KEEP AMERICA GREAT: TRUMP 2020 sign in their dooryard. Every house is a rusted out mobile home with metal awnings. I guess everyone has their own definition of “GREAT.”

Even so, there’s a mad rush of out-of-staters buying up every square inch of lake property, every camp that’s been for sale for the past decade, even the dilapidated, boat-access-only, unwinterized camps. In March, an old friend who plows for the town nearly ran his snow plow into a flatlander blocking the Shore Road with his Mercedes. “How do I get into my camp?” the man asked.

“I’d suggest a shovel and a big breakfast,” my friend told him. Then, an aside: “I weren’t about to plow his ass out.”

Eventually I left the lake, bound for my island home two hours south and parental obligations. Ahead of me on the Dodge Ram, a bumper sticker: KEEP HONKING, I’M RELOADING. The only reloading I’m doing is this summer involves Fritos and onion dip.

Dispatches From a Pandemic: Small Bites

The down time of the pandemic has me doing everything in small bites: write a paragraph here, clean the kitchen. Edit half an essay, walk the dogs. Meditate on my purple yoga mat, write haiku. Balance my mother’s checkbook, read a chapter in another dystopian end-times novel.

I have found immediate gratification editing in small bites. The recipe goes something like this: Combine all elements of the first draft, let simmer for a while. Assemble the pieces in the right flow. Leave out to rise, the sourdough starter of a story. Punch down. Revise. Print, read, revise.

As writers, we already tiptoe along the emotional tightrope between self-doubt and the manic euphoria of inspiration. It’s summer. It’s a weird time in our lives. Let’s embrace our short attention spans. Let’s lose the “shoulds” and accept what is.

Dispatches From A Pandemic: The Old Normal

It begins with a question: “How are you?”

The question that makes me cringe as much as the phrase “new normal.

It’s the third time I’ve been asked how I am today, between phone calls and hastily-yelled conversations across the post office parking lot.

Each time, I answer: “Great!” And, for the first time in months, I actually mean it.

I’ve just returned from paddling the kayak around three neighboring islands. Sitting on the deck of my 200-year-old childhood farmhouse, John Cole’s “In Maine” essay collection in my lap, iced tea by my side. Across the street, high tide slowly fills the cove.

Thinking: It’s all so damn normal here.

Here, on this small Maine island with its one case of Covid. Here, with the three-room schoolhouse I attended for six years. Here, where even fifty years later, nothing much has changed. Here, you don’t have to return to normalcy, because normal never really left.

Later, as I head out for groceries, I’m stuck in the typical string of cars waiting as the old swing drawbridge that connects island to mainland opens to let a sailboat through. This occurs every summer on the half hour. This summer is no different.

During the ride into town, I pass kids fishing, sunlight glinting off their aluminum dinghy. Two shirtless guys building a deck, on a smoke break. The thump of tennis balls on the public courts. The Yacht Club regatta drifting by, with their puffy cotton ball sails. In town, tourists have tentatively returned, reverently masked, strolling along the wharf. The air thick with onion rings and fried clams.

I nibble a few fresh-picked strawberries from the farm stand on the way home, their sweetness evoking teary memories of the shortbread my mother once baked before dementia stole her ability to follow a recipe.

I am here; I am home, overwhelmed with gratitude for this pinprick of normalcy in an otherwise crazy universe. Grateful for the rhythms of island life. A doe and two fawns at dawn under the apple trees in my backyard. The seal chasing pogies two feet from my kayak. Time measured by the flow of the tide and passing of the seasons, not by levels of antibacterial soap and rolls of toilet paper.

Life is not easy on an island, self-isolated by design. But Mainers are a resilient folk, their lives spent coping with extreme everything: weather, job shortages, poverty, aging. Through centuries and generations, they have learned to adapt to conditions. To coexist rather than to control.

The pandemic may be the most extreme challenge any of us will ever endure. And each day we’re faced with a choice: either evolve or disappear.