Shutting down

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As the weather begins to tilt toward winter, one of the President’s lies that carries an especially toxic sting is that the pandemic is “rounding the corner.” The evidence to the contrary is everywhere in plain sight, both here at home and around the world. That means a continuation of the current constraints that most of us have resigned ourselves to, at least until spring, when the magical vaccine will liberate us from our monastic cells. Don’t bet too heavily on that either.

The quarantine has been a shade more tolerable because it began on the cusp of spring and has continued through the summer and early fall when we had the option of living a good portion of our lives outdoors. I’ve written in earlier postings about how liberating and affirming it’s been for us to work our plots in the community garden where we could dare to lower our masks as we planted, weeded, watered and harvested. It was during those hours that we felt most “normal.” Why, this is what we do every year during these months! It’s a healing gift that nature has offered us in this season for millennia.

But now it’s time to start shutting down in preparation for the long winter. This afternoon I will head to the garden to help unload the truck delivering straw to the gardeners who will use it to cover their beds to prevent the weeds from staging their sneak attack in the spring when the cycle of growth resumes. We’ve already harvested most of our crops, with the exception of a few frost-hardy survivors like kale and chard. I will load up a wheelbarrow with the dead tomato, pepper and zucchini plants which have been so generous to us this year and deposit them on the compost pile. It’s hard to complain since it’s late October.  In our gardening years in New Hampshire, all this would have occurred five weeks ago, so we feel as if nature has gifted us these extra days. Completing the shut down process feels like accepting a voluntary house arrest. Without the garden as a destination, there’s less incentive for being outside, which portends a worrisome assault on our psychological well-being. More about that in a minute.

Our sixteenth-floor apartment offers an unobstructed view of Lake Michigan, which is a joy in all seasons. But in these warm months we’ve been able to squeeze our collapsible folding chairs onto the tiny deck – in truth a fire escape with a concrete floor – and watch the painting-worthy boat traffic when we look up from our reading. Now, despite the occasional freaky 70+ degree day, that route to the outside is shut down and a heavy glass door stands between us and that magical scene.

Anticipating the dark days ahead, we decided early in the summer to seize the day, literally, and designate every Friday as a time for outings. It’s astonishing how little we knew about the natural beauty that is close at hand to the city. Both our own Cook County and the surrounding suburban counties oversee expansive forest preserves which contain a number of our destinations, including one only three or four miles from our house, a tiny section of land adjacent to the South Shore Cultural Center, now famous as the site of the Obamas’ wedding reception. All our choices were guided by safety concerns – was safe social distancing possible – and this site fit perfectly since we were the only people inside its boundaries from which we could see the city’s skyline and the lakeshore as we admired the wildflowers and the varieties of trees, a new fascination these summer excursions has nurtured.

One Friday, we went apple picking about an hour west of the city, something we’ve neglected to do in our 25 years in Chicago. We had to traverse rural roads studded with Trump signs, punctuated by the occasional Pritzker Sucks gem, but the cider donuts awaiting us at the end of picking made it all worthwhile. Last week’s trip to one of the many hiking, biking and picnicking areas along the North Branch of the Chicago River was a painful reminder that the party was almost over. It began to drizzle as we pulled into the parking lot and a cold wind accompanied us to the tables in the open-sided pavilion where we ate our lunch, wishing all the while that we had dressed more warmly. After a short walk we were glad to return to the warmth of our car, even though by then the sun had begun to peek through.

This doesn’t mean that the change of seasons will force us to shut down our connection to the outdoors completely. In our years in New Hampshire we occasionally set out on evening walks when the temperature was -20 degrees, joking all the while about the feeling that your nostrils were collapsing under the weight of all that cold air. It did mean that it was going to take more effort to separate from the seductive warmth of our apartment and submit to being encumbered by many layers of protective gear.

The real danger of this time of shutting down is not just physical; it’s psychological as well. Again, recalling our New Hampshire years, there was always a period deep in winter when people contracted “cabin fever,” a time of emotional withdrawal when you were convinced that no one really cared about you enough to emerge from their dens for a visit or even a phone call. Of course, you were engaged in the very same turning inward, hunkering down both physically and emotionally, perhaps in imitation of survival strategies our early ancestors practiced. After these eight long months of quarantine with no clear end in sight, it would be all to easy to withdraw, to shut down in despair.

If we’re going to emerge whole from this pandemic nightmare, we can’t allow ourselves to sink into a “slough of despond.” Fortunately, these past months which have deprived us of so much, have also brought gifts and potential remedies to ward off the isolating effects of cabin fever. Many of us have learned to use Zoom to reinforce and expand our relationships – regular meetings with family scattered around the country and the globe, periodic check-ins with friends we normally see only once or twice a year, more focused time with grandchildren we might otherwise engage only in passing as they zip through their social schedules. Just yesterday, we spent an hour on Zoom with granddaughter Dalia as she interviewed us about our families’ immigration histories, during which we were able to share details she never would have sat still for in normal times.

A friend who is kind enough to read my postings regularly commented that there seems to be a recurring theme about the importance of relationships. And here I am again, arguing that nurturing our web of relationships is the proper antidote against shutting down in the dark months ahead. I’m also resolved to get out, even in days of nose-collapsing cold, to remind myself that there continues to be a world out there to which we will safely return one day, if only we can combat the deadly impulse to shut down.

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Marv Hoffman

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