I have never considered myself creative. I’m a dogged rule-follower. I can read music but couldn’t improvise if you put a gun to my head. I can follow a recipe but rarely experiment in the kitchen. I could never dream up a clever Halloween costume, and I eventually came to hate a holiday that I had loved as a child because of it.
I have absolutely no artistic ability: I can’t draw or paint or sculpt. I have no interest in or talent for what some might call crafts, including scrapbooking or photo collages or needlework of any type. In fact, in high school I tested in the bottom tenth percentile in spatial aptitude. So much for a career as an architect.
But recently my cousin Charley shared an article that made me rethink my capacity for being creative. In fact, it made me realize that it may well have been my bent toward creative thinking that hounded me throughout my sketchy professional career. For me, every problem was simply a puzzle to be solved. What I didn’t understand was that solutions that seemed obvious to me were perhaps unimaginable to others. Was it my fearlessness, my ability to envision a positive outcome, my willingness to tackle something new in unexpected ways that frequently made my co-workers so ill-at-ease?
In the article “Secrets of the Creative Brain” (The Atlantic, July/August 2014), Nancy C. Andreasen shares the results of decades of research into some of the great creative geniuses of our times, both in the arts and the sciences. Some of these individuals’ common characteristics may not be surprising, but they hit home for me. For example, she found her subjects were “adventuresome and exploratory,” and they were willing to take risks. Check. She added that “Creative people tend to be very persistent, even when confronted with skepticism or rejection.” Check again. Once I’ve decided something is possible and laid out a plan for getting there, I don’t back down. I’m heading to the finish line, whether you’re coming with me or not.
Andreasen also relays that many creative people have broad interests across many disciplines, and they are good at making unexpected connections. That, for me, is the essence of good writing—connecting disparate things in surprising ways, using language or metaphor to awaken the reader’s senses. I’ve always been interested in lots of subjects, but I know little about any of them. In a typical day I bop from immersing myself in politics to paddling on the lake and admiring the wildlife to researching a technical computer issue to reading a novel about World War II to trying to understand a poem that a friend has shared with me to romping with the dogs in my neighborhood. I hate routine. I love variety. I never want to do the same thing twice. In graduate school, my department chair railed against "dilettantes," declaring he would have none in his classes. I would laugh and wonder, “What else are we?”
I recall sitting in fiction writing classes recently and wondering how on earth writers come up with the story lines and the scenes and the conflicts and the dialogue necessary to create a compelling narrative. Up to that point, everything I had ever written had been based on facts, whether I was preparing a technical manual or promoting an art event or writing a faculty member’s bio.
I’ve come to realize that what I sorely lack is imagination. Not creativity. Many have asked me about the subject of my next novel. I swear that I’m a “one-and-doner.” Starting with the realities of a person’s life let me cheat the first time. How could I possibly invent a story and a plot and the characters whole-cloth? I simply don’t have the capacity to do that.
But perhaps I will begin to think of myself as creative. I recognize that I tend to look at things a little differently than others. I am fearless. I don’t mind choosing the untrodden path. I embrace making choices that might bewilder others. I might even propose outlandish courses of action. Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t. But nothing will hold me back if I think I have a shot at accomplishing it.
What a strange spring. What a strange year.
During the winter months, I’m not sure we had five nights when the temperature dipped below freezing. Here, in the middle of May, we’re trying to make up for it.
I noticed this morning that the leaves in the tops of my redbud trees and tulip poplars are black and crumpled. I’m reading that this will not damage the trees, but after one of the most beautiful redbud blooming seasons that I can remember, it’s hard to see the trees’ new leaves suffer in the cold.
It’s May 10, and we have yet to see any goslings or ducklings on the lake. This seems unusually late, but I remain hopeful as I continue to see Mallard and Canada Geese pairs waddling around the neighborhood. And there is a large bird, perhaps a Blue Jay, sitting in a nest just beyond my office window, so some natural spring activity is taking place.
Recently I’ve noticed a lot of birds I don’t usually see: a Red-headed Woodpecker, an Eastern Kingbird, a Scarlet Tanager pair, a Yellow-rumped or Myrtle Warbler with its three astonishing yellow patches. We also seem to have plentiful Tree Swallows, Barn Swallows, Red-winged Blackbirds, Bluebirds, and Killdeer, despite the acres and acres of woodlands that have been turned into muddy deserts here in our neighborhood. Do I have more time to look for them this year, or are they moving into territories where they haven’t always been as plentiful?
The whole world seems upside down to us right now, of course. Nothing seems normal. I guess it’s no surprise that even Mother Nature seems a little off. Perhaps as I acknowledge the usual harbingers of spring, the sheer ordinariness of those events will nudge us toward a more unremarkable time.
Occasionally I have wondered aloud whether the novel coronavirus isn’t Mother Nature’s way of resetting the balance. Few can seriously argue that we haven’t wreaked havoc on this world that nurtures us. Our sheer numbers strain the earth’s resources. And the planet doesn’t need humans to sustain its ecosystems. Without our presence, other predators would pick up our load, or illnesses like chronic wasting disease would run through animal populations, thinning the herd. Much like COVID-19 appears set on thinning ours.
As this pandemic has forced us to put many human activities on pause, nature has been busy reversing the deleterious effects of our obsession with productivity. Around the world, water is cleaner, air is purer, animals such as sea turtles have nested without human interference. In just a few short months, nature has begun to reclaim its domain.
Sitting comfortably in my home, I can’t ignore that this is occurring amid massive human suffering from an unstoppable virus that has stolen hundreds of thousands of lives and destroyed economies. The long-range effects of this pandemic, both human and otherwise, cannot yet be imagined. If the human race is to survive, we must, and we will, apply our scientific knowledge toward finding a way to exist with this virus in our midst.
But while we’re focused on that critical task, can we not also recognize the value of adjusting our impact on this earth so we eventually live as grateful recipients of its abundance, rather than as relentless destroyers of the gifts it has to offer?
Recently I wrote that I now have two books in my “catalog.” As I worked on the second book, it frequently occurred to me what strange bedfellows they are: a first-person narrative by a still innocent 19-year-old naturalist driven to document the flora and fauna inhabiting his halcyon getaway; and an almost gritty tale of a man stripped of his innocence who leaves his home behind and wanders from one commercial/industrial area to another with hardly a nod to the natural world around him.
I love to spend time outdoors, and I sometimes feel ill-at-ease in the city. I am the daughter of a naturalist, a scientist who could identify any specimen he encountered during an amble through the woods. I, however, was never disciplined enough to fully develop his prodigious skills. While I can identify many native woodland trees and common birds, the names of most wildflowers, grasses, and garden plants are a mystery to me. And I truly regret that I can’t recognize bird songs.
For years I was certain that that shortcoming alone disqualified me from writing a novel. Successful fiction is full of lush details of blooming flowers and the bees hovering around them. Or a prairie of grass and the animals that live there. Or a midnight sky and the constellations that awe us.
In “Seeing the World Around Us,” I mused about the importance of being able to name a thing for that thing to fully enter our consciousness. Without that ability, we are blind. We look past the diversity of life all around us. We come to consider ourselves the all-important foreground spotlighted against an indistinguishable background.
I still believe that my deficiency seriously weakens my ability to provide the sensory details readers need to feel a place. The plants and critters who share our space define our world, perhaps even define a part of who we are, even if we can’t always recognize them.
So when I had a story I just had to share with others, and a fictional narrative seemed the only way to tell it, perhaps I was fortunate that that tale largely unfolded in cities or confining indoor spaces—steamy kitchens, tiny apartments, the birthing bedroom. I stole a few opportunities to place my characters outside in the fresh air. In retrospect, it’s clear that my characters, like their creator, look outdoors when they are seeking balm for a troubled soul, or a place for reflection.
I was reminded of my inability to fulsomely describe a lush plein air scene as I read a recent article in Smithsonian magazine, sent to me by my cousin Barbara, about an acclaimed “naturalist, novelist, photographer and movie producer” whose name I had never encountered: Gene Stratton-Porter, born Geneva Grace Stratton in Wabash County, Indiana, in 1863. Perhaps I’m showing my woeful education by admitting I was not familiar with her, since both Rachel Carson and Annie Dillard cite her as a keen influence.
I have not read any of her work—fiction, nonfiction, or poetry—but I can only imagine the richness of the natural scenes she portrayed. Her intimate knowledge of the Limberlost wilderness she wrote about, gained during countless days exploring on horseback and waiting quietly for the perfect photo, must make her tales of plucky young girls and strong women come alive.
Stratton-Porter evidently brought to her writing both my father’s ability to document the natural world and my desire to tell a personal story. She had both the scientist’s eye and the writer’s imagination. In addition, she had the patience of a photographer, willing to devote the time needed to capture the most arresting photo, and then to indulge in the careful writing necessary to relay that vivid image, and her human response to it, in words.
Amid all her talents, Stratton-Porter most relished her simple sensory responses to the world she discovered while wandering outdoors:
“Whenever I come across a scientist plying his trade I am always so happy and content to be merely a nature-lover, satisfied with what I can see, hear, and record with my cameras.”
I, too, am a nature-lover, not an academic or a trained naturalist. As life seems to slow for all of us, perhaps this is the time I need to devote to not only admiring but learning to name the beautiful things that catch my eye and restore my soul.
The author of the Smithsonian article, Kathryn Aalto—a landscape historian and garden designer, as well as an author of several books—is herself a master at describing natural detail. Her first paragraph immerses the reader in northeastern Indiana’s Loblolly Marsh Nature Preserve, a small part of the vast swamplands that Stratton-Porter spent her life documenting:
“Yellow sprays of prairie dock bob overhead in the September morning light. More than ten feet tall, with a central taproot reaching even deeper underground, this plant, with its elephant-ear leaves the texture of sandpaper, makes me feel tipsy and small, like Alice in Wonderland.”
Stratton-Porter also recognized early the danger of mankind’s desire to tame the land for our own use. As Aalto writes:
“Twenty years before the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, Stratton-Porter forewarned that rainfall would be affected by the destruction of forests and swamps. Conservationists such as John Muir had linked deforestation to erosion, but she linked it to climate change:
“It was Thoreau who in writing of the destruction of the forests exclaimed, ‘Thank heaven they cannot cut down the clouds.’ Aye, but they can!...If men in their greed cut forests that preserve and distill moisture, clear fields, take the shelter of trees from creeks and rivers until they evaporate, and drain the water from swamps so that they can be cleared and cultivated, they prevent vapor from rising. And if it does not rise, it cannot fall. Man can change and is changing the forces of nature. Man can cut down the clouds.”
Nobel Prize-winning writer Czeslaw Milosz is often quoted as saying, “When a writer is born into a family, the family is finished.”
I stumbled across this quote recently when reading about the one-woman play based on Elizabeth Strout’s novel My Name is Lucy Barton that opened earlier this year in New York. I chuckled. As I have pursued publishing two books about family members—one about my father who died when I was seven, and the other about my maternal grandfather whom my mother never knew—I have frequently wondered about the propriety or even the dangers of writing about family.
In my case, I did not set out to write a “tell all” book or to reveal any uncomfortable truths about my personal experiences.
In The Last Resort, I essentially let my father do the talking, and I was cautious not to include in the excerpts from his Harvard Forest journal any details that I thought might be construed as too personal or too negative toward those in his orbit. Nonetheless, I did want to reveal just enough to make him feel more fully human to readers.
Next Train Out is, of course, a novel. It is a fictionalized telling of my grandfather’s life. I relied on the facts I had at hand to discern possible motivations or character traits that would lead him to take the actions he did. Some may consider the details of the story scandalous or horrifying. I simply view them as the facts.
Nearly all the people who populate these books are long gone from this earth. That distance gave me some comfort and perhaps the license to share these stories. At the same time, I felt some responsibility for making my representation of the characters as truthful as I could, given the limitations of my knowledge. I would sometimes ask myself, “If Effie Mae’s descendants were to read this book and somehow recognize her in the telling, will they feel I have maligned her memory?” I don’t think so.
There is one character in Next Train Out who is portrayed as a sort of villain, which I don’t believe is truly accurate. But I needed a foil for Lyons, and he was a good choice. I checked with his great-grandsons—my cousins—twice to be sure they would be OK with my fictional representation. They assured me I didn’t need to worry.
Another cousin called recently to say how delighted she was to find her grandfather and other relatives identified by name in the novel. It made the whole story come alive for her. She probably didn’t remember that I had called her late last year to be sure she was OK with my using their real names. During that conversation, she offhandedly shared some physical and personality traits of those family members with me, which I dutifully incorporated into the story.
So it can indeed be dangerous to have a writer in the family. Or in your circle of friends. But, as Anne Lamott wrote in Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life:
“You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should have behaved better.”
Charles Goodlett, of Zionsville, Ind., captures the sense of helplessness and grief so many of us are feeling as Covid-19 strikes our friends and our heroes. If you would like to submit a posting for Clearing the Fog, contact us here.
We heard last night that John Prine succumbed to COVID-19 in Nashville, having been critically ill for at least a week. It shocked and saddened me and elicited a melancholic reflection back 50 years, reminding me how much his music, especially his first album in 1970, infused my entry into young adulthood.
When I was a senior in high school and just coming of age in the tumultuous era of Vietnam War protests, culture wars, Nixon, drugs, and the shock of assassinations, riots, Kent State, and paranoia, this album shed resonating light on the hardships of everyday people with humor, irony, and grit.
“Sam Stone” is a gut punch about the consequences of Vietnam combat, heroin addiction, and PTSD. The carefree pleasure of getting high and “just trying to have me some fun” was the theme of “Illegal Smile.” “Spanish Pipedream” described a deserting soldier's escapist dream. “Hello in There” offered an unforgettable immersion into the loneliness of growing old. And, of course, who can forget the mocking sarcasm directed at hypocritical Christian patriotism in the chorus of the song whose title is its first line:
But your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war
Now Jesus don’t like killin’, no matter what the reason’s for
And your flag decal won’t get you into Heaven anymore
"Six O’clock News" reminds us of the life story behind the shocking destruction of a young man. And then there's the anthem for all rebellious Kentuckians (and a rage against Mr. Peabody’s corporate environmental destruction well before anyone ever mentioned global warming), a favorite of so many, “Paradise”:
The coal company came with the world’s largest shovel
And they tortured the timber and stripped all the land
Well, they dug for their coal till the land was forsaken
Then they wrote it all down as the progress of man
So Daddy, won’t ya take me back to Muhlenberg County,
Down by the Green River, where Paradise lay.
I’m sorry my son, but your too late in asking,
Mr. Peabody’s coal train done hauled it away.
Listen to my 6-minute tribute, featuring one of Prine's most frequently performed songs, “Angel from Montgomery.”
Prine was a singer-songwriter with a legendary cult following who served up folk tales of biting humor—all told in stories about people, the truth unvarnished with searing insights and hilarious wit. He captured life’s humor and made it more interesting and fun for all of us.
Perhaps the most hilariously ironic statement of independence in all of folk/rock is the first verse of “Sweet Revenge” from his album of the same name:
I got kicked off of Noah's Ark
I turn my cheek to unkind remarks
There was two of everything
But one of me
And when the rains came tumbling down
I held my breath and I stood my ground
And I watched that ship go sailing
Out to sea
John, we are all mourning your death while poignantly celebrating your life by singing along with you one more time, with a tearful twinkle in our eyes.
[offered by Sallie Showalter]
In late March, soon after the news broke of John Prine's diagnosis, my friend Peter Berres of Lexington, Ky., eloquent and sage writer about the Vietnam conflict, sent me a Prine performance of "Hello in There."
In Berres' words:
"Forty-five years of bringing, at least, a tear to my eye each and every time I listened (hundreds to thousands?). This seems like one of the most poignant performances, in my mind. I suppose it may have something to do with our times and situation.
Been watching this daily for several weeks. Now, with news of his diagnosis, watching has transformed into treasuring this performance, this song, this man..."
It occurred to me recently that I’ve already heard from people in six states who have read Next Train Out: New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Kentucky, and Florida. I know that individuals in Georgia, Ohio, and New York have ordered the book.
I have been thinking of the book as a “regional” novel, perhaps because of its settings in Kentucky, Ohio, and the Maryland coast. So I’m pleased to see its reach extend to New England, the Upper Midwest prairie, and our nation’s southernmost state. Though I confess that all of these readers have some sort of connection to Kentucky—however tenuous—I want to believe nonetheless that my limited data indicate the book has a wide appeal.
That little survey of Next Train Out readers also made me realize that even during this period of social isolation we can share common experiences with far-flung friends and relatives, as well as people we’ve never met. I’ve delighted in the conversations and email exchanges I’ve had with those of you who have read the novel and have reached out to ask questions or offer critiques. We may not be able to meet for coffee or lunch, but we can still connect remotely and discuss something of interest to us both.
In a much broader sense, I’m reminded that, while we’re in isolation, reading affirms our affiliation with greater humanity. Reading prods us to feel profound human connections with the characters in a book, however dissimilar we believe they are to us. While this worldwide pandemic might force us to become more self-centered in our daily routines, reading coaxes us to imagine ourselves in someone else’s situation. Faced with that character’s challenges, how would we respond? What would we do? How would we feel?
In a time when the empathy of America’s citizens is once again being severely tested, it’s critically important that we look beyond our own perhaps small inconveniences and annoyances and consider the sacrifices and the heartaches of those around us. It’s impossible to turn on the television or check the news without seeing heart-wrenching stories of people who are ill, who have lost loved ones, who are tending to the medical needs of the sick without the necessary life-saving equipment, who are going to work every day to provide us with the goods and services that remain essential, who are struggling to patch together a precarious financial situation, who are wondering if the business they built will survive another month, who are fretting about their children’s education, who are struggling to stay healthy, both physically and mentally, during our voluntary home incarceration.
How equipped are we, individually, to acknowledge their struggles? Do we fully recognize the need to change our habits to possibly keep someone else safe? Are we willing to make those little sacrifices?
Reading widely helps train us for moments like these. It teaches us empathy. And compassion. It reminds us how small our own little world is. It reminds us that there are others with needs so much greater.
In a recent article in The New Yorker, Jill Lepore, a professor of history at Harvard, wrote: “Reading may be an infection, the mind of the writer seeping, unstoppable, into the mind of the reader. And it is also … an antidote, proven, unfailing, and exquisite.”
In order, potentially, to reach an even wider audience—to spread “the contagion of reading,” as Lepore describes it—I have now released a Kindle version of Next Train Out. If you or someone you know prefers to read books on a tablet, e-reader, or other device—whether for convenience or to easily enlarge the size of the text—the Kindle version might be a good choice. It’s also an economical option for those watching their budget during these uncertain times.
If you have read Next Train Out, I humbly ask you to consider writing a brief review of the book on Amazon. That may help other readers stumble across the title as they’re looking for a new diversion during our nationwide quarantine. I remain grateful for your interest.
When I established Murky Press in the summer of 2017, it was originally a means to an end: I wanted to publish The Last Resort. And since I was already working on my novel, Next Train Out, I expected Murky Press would eventually have at least two titles in its catalog.
But once the business was set up, I realized Murky Press could also provide a service for others who had a project they wanted to publish. I didn’t have a clear vision of how that might work, but it seemed a logical proposition to use the infrastructure and the experience I had gleaned to help others get their books in print.
I’ve been so busy with my own writing that I hadn’t yet promoted this idea beyond casual conversations with a few folks I knew had projects underway. But back in December, I was approached by the two editors of Celebrate a Community, a handsome coffee table book that uses photos, historical documents, and well-researched text to tell the history of Perry Township and Fayetteville, Ohio.
I began corresponding with Peggy Mezger Cooper, one of the book’s editors and a recent contributor to "Clearing the Fog," and we gradually put together a plan to reprint the book. They had depleted the copies from their first press run and were seeking a way to meet demand for additional copies at a reasonable price.
I’m pleased to announce that the book is now available to all interested parties. You can read more about it on the Murky Press home page or order a copy from Amazon.com.
If you are working on a book that you think reflects Murky Press’ mission, and you are searching for a way to get it published, get in touch with us. We may be able to help you find your way.
As many of us find ourselves with time to pick up a book, Peggy Cooper, of northern Kentucky, recalls first learning to read. Her ruminations may even inspire you to start putting words on a page. Peggy is the co-editor of Celebrate a Community, reprinted by Murky Press and available now from Amazon.
It was 1960. I’d been ill and out of school because of some childhood illness. When I returned to school, there was catching up to do. Mrs. Johnson brought me to the front of the class so that we could do some work together while the rest of the class did other things. In the front of that classroom on a table perfectly sized for a first grader stood a huge book, a book that was taller than I was. I was going to learn to read.
I knew my numbers and letters. I liked hearing stories and looking at the pictures in books. I liked school and Mrs. Johnson. She had taught my father when he first attended the one-room schoolhouse just south of Chasetown. He could read before he even went to school because he’d watched and listened and learned alongside his brother, John, who was two years older. Because he already knew first-grade learning, my father managed to skip that grade. I didn’t understand what I was supposed to do.
It always helped to see other children do things first. Cousin Barbie, best friend and confidante, sat in the desk in front of my desk at school. She lived in town. She was wise in the ways of the world. She always knew what to do. We would talk and whisper and plan and play together. She was not at the table in the front of the classroom with me. I was lost, in more ways than one.
Mrs. Johnson pointed to the picture in the book. The boy, Tom, was running. Yes, I could see the picture of Tom running. There were big black letters too. S-E-E. Yes, I knew those letters. What did those letters sound like? They sounded like an ess and an eee and another eee. How did they sound together? What did that mean, sound together? And what did Tom have to do with those letters on the page?
Mrs. Johnson had been teaching for many years. In some way that now seems magical, she helped me make the connection between those letters on the page and how those letters could be put together to make words that told a story. I don’t remember how long she worked with me that day or over the next several days; I know it was a struggle. Mrs. Johnson knew how to help: SEE! See Tom. See Tom run! Then Betty joined the story, and Susan, and Flip, the dog. I could read! Triumph!
Now I am putting letters on a page to tell stories myself. The stories, and the writing, are often like that experience of learning to read—a struggle to create meaning from a jumble of things that don’t seem to be connected. Sometimes the stories are about people who have lived and worked together and had a life before I was even born, remembered because it, the story, or they, the people, were significant in some way. Sometimes the stories are memories from my own life, savored because they were important to me. Sometimes the story evolves out of a photograph or a document, again, saved for a reason, and sometimes saved across generations.
The essence of the story is the feeling it provokes, and often the meaning is caught up in the reason that the history, or the memory, or the photo or document, was saved. But, how to find that meaning, put it into words, and then share it? Feelings are elusive—and sensitive—things. Meaning is equally elusive, and personal. And the personal is, oftentimes, private, delicate, and special. A decision must be made—share or not?
Struggle sums up the process.
I’m still working on the triumph.
As a socially awkward introvert, I don’t always look forward to parties. But I was really, really looking forward to celebrating the release of Next Train Out with you.
As I’m sure you have surmised by now, it is necessary to postpone our book launch party scheduled for April 5. We have also postponed my April 14 presentation before the Anderson County Historical Society. I am terribly disappointed. But none of us wants to play any role in inadvertently spreading this dangerous virus.
We hope there will be a time later this year when we can come together and raise a glass of “Bourbon on the Tracks” in celebration. But now it is critical that we all heed the recommendations of our governor and the CDC and remove ourselves from society as much as we possibly can.
The good news? It’s a great time to read! I hope you’ll consider ordering a copy of Next Train Out from Amazon. If you prefer, contact me here and I’ll mail you a copy.
I’ll warn you that elements of the book may now hit a little close to home. There are references to the 1918 flu pandemic, as well as the 1929 stock market crash and its aftermath. I had no clue, of course, as I was writing the book how eerily familiar this period in our history might feel to contemporary readers.
Since I can’t see you in person, I hope you’ll drop me a note or call to let me know what you thought. I’m finding that readers frequently are curious about what in my grandfather’s story is fact and what is fiction. I’ll be happy to pull back the curtain a bit if you’re interested.
Finally, let me say, most importantly, how grateful I am for you interest. Please, do everything you can to stay safe and healthy during these trying times.
For three years I’ve looked forward to finishing my novel so I would have time for other things I enjoy: watching college basketball, attending chamber music concerts or literary events, having lunch with friends, traveling.
You know where this is going.
I am trying hard to maintain perspective on the grave threat our country—and, indeed, the entire world—is facing as the coronavirus spreads rapidly. I understand the exponential rise in cases demonstrated by the line charts we’ve all seen. I am taking this very seriously.
So I’m only going to whine once: Why not while I was already hunkered down in isolation writing the book?!
OK, I’m done.
In reality, I am in an unusually felicitous situation. I do not have young children whose routines and education, not to mention safety or food security, have been upended. I do not work outside the home, so deciding how to fulfill my employment obligations without interacting with others is not a burden. I have no family members in nursing homes or assisted living facilities. As far as I know, I am healthy—even if I have now been defined as “elderly.” My risk of having a bad outcome even if I contract the virus is low.
And I like being alone. I can readily entertain myself. I have scores of books here in my home that I have not yet read. I have big organizational projects around my house I have put off for years. I thoroughly enjoy walking my dog and paddling around the lake (if it ever stops raining). There is plenty to occupy me here.
Nonetheless, even I—an affirmed misanthrope and regular avoider of social gatherings—am feeling the isolation. I think that’s in part because it came on so suddenly. Last Tuesday I was gathering with friends and family at a restaurant in Lawrenceburg. By Wednesday things were beginning to unravel. Today it would feel irresponsible to make plans for such an outing.
I tend toward depression, and I could feel the darkness closing in at the end of the week. I took the actions I could to forestall it. I went for a long run on the beautiful Legacy Trail (in between rain showers). I cautiously attended a cycling class at my gym, trying to avoid the other participants and wiping down every surface I touched. I finished a book I had been reading.
But I do have concerns about the mental health implications of this necessary social-distancing and the open-ended period of isolation we are facing. As entertainment options and our usual distractions become unavailable, where do we turn? As our social network narrows, how does that affect us? Are those with addictions at particular risk? Is anyone preparing for this next crisis?
Many of you know that I’ve fretted over the years as we’ve shifted to online virtual connections and abandoned both casual and committed interpersonal interactions. The fears I expressed about social media in a 2016 op-ed today seem almost quaint. The norm is now to look down at our phones rather than acknowledge the presence of an individual we pass on the street—or someone sitting beside us at the table. It’s not just young people now who don’t know how to exchange common courtesies with a clerk or politely answer a phone call.
We had already willingly moved toward “self-isolation.” How much farther will this pandemic push us? How will we recover as a human community, a community of individuals who genuinely need each other?
I’m much more worried about that right now than I am about whether I can get toilet paper at the grocery.