It all started—or really ended—on March 10, 2020, my husband David’s birthday. We had agreed to treat it like an ordinary Tuesday because it was the last meeting of my travel writing class and I was scheduled to present my story about our trip to Rajasthan in Northern India. That class meeting turned out to be the last social event I have attended for at least three long months.
As each of us entered the classroom, we eyed each other warily. We tried to make ourselves small, afraid of encroaching on each other’s space. We had no idea how close was too close. All of us were experienced travelers, but we felt a kind of shared dread about what was coming next. That day we were all more interested in those tiny, lethal molecules from China than in my Indian adventures. Six days later the San Francisco Bay Area locked down tight.
When the door slammed shut, the world cleaved in two: inside and outside. The well and the sick. The living and the dead. Those who could shelter at home and essential workers. Medical first responders and the rest of us. The privileged who could work remotely and people who braved public transportation and possible contagion to get to work. The divisions multiplied like virus cells, laying bare America’s fault lines.
In those early weeks we were inoculated with fear. Fear kept us home and kept us safe. We watched scenes of hospitals that looked like war zones. There wasn’t enough PPE. I’d never heard of PPE before. Ventilators were in short supply. That actually scared me; I have a mild form of asthma that puts me at risk.
TV news was my frenemy. Watching the numbers climb day by day, sometimes hour by hour, was unnerving. Listening to Dr. Fauci was calming. Watching Trump was not. Every night we numbed ourselves with edgy fiction or relaxed with cooking shows.
I grew jumpy. Sleep was in short supply. I could barely read, let alone write. My Rajasthan piece sat untouched on my desk. In a world where people were dying and losing their jobs, travel writing seemed pointless and insensitive. No one was going anywhere. Sadly David and I had to cancel a May trip to England, Israel and France. I had no patience for Facebook, despite missing friends we’d met on our travels. We all needed virtual hugs, but I was hunkered down. I didn’t want to get sick. I wanted to be sure that that this virus would pass me by.
Indeed, Passover was our first big test of adapting to the new reality. How do you celebrate a holiday with friends and family when you have to stay apart? Virtually, of course. We organized at least three Zoom Seders, complete with wine and blessings. When we poured out drops of wine to remember the plagues that befell Egypt, we added coronavirus to the list, acknowledging that we too were in the midst of a historic plague.
Sheltering in place also reminded me of being in Bali during Nyepi, the Balinese New Year. There is a 24-hour island-wide curfew. The streets are empty. Silence reigns. The international airport is closed. Why, you ask. Because, the legend goes, if everyone hides inside, unseen ogres will think that Bali is deserted and will go elsewhere for their mischief. Half a world away, we also hoped that huddling at home would defeat our unseen enemy and flatten the curve.
We finally settled into our new routines. Errands were not allowed except to the grocery store or pharmacy, and those required advance planning worthy of a small military campaign. Armored with gloves and Clorox wipes, we anxiously braved a minefield of potential enemies pushing socially distanced shopping carts through aisles much too narrow to stay six feet apart.
Once home, we wiped our bottles and boxes or let them sit for three days before opening them. Even our fastidious mothers never wiped down packages they brought home from the market. But the whole exercise got me thinking: Were some of the things our mothers taught us about washing our hands, not touching our faces and being ever vigilant about potential dirt and scary strangers the residue of what people learned from the 1918 flu pandemic? It’s too late now to ask, but wash our hands we did, singing “Happy Birthday” on repeat, over and over again.
As weeks passed, we slowed down. We began to appreciate the quiet, the lack of traffic, the clear skies.
Bird songs replaced the roar of jets. We cooked. Cookbooks I’d long ignored became my new best friends. First there was chicken soup, a necessity given that a mysterious virus was swirling around the world.
Then came brownies and homemade ice cream. Chocolate was clearly mandatory.
As the world contracted, it also expanded. Going for walks and exercise was the exception to the stay at home rules. Two miles almost every day.
Up and back along San Francisco’s Great Highway fronting the Pacific Ocean, we watched surfers escape their worries in the curls of waves. We breathed deeply, letting the fresh air bathe our lungs, and we hoped that sunshine actually did boost immunity.
Sometimes our peaceful walks turned edgy. As more and more people tired of staying home, we found ourselves competing for socially distanced space with runners, bikers, skateboarders, rollerbladers and kids on scooters and trikes.
An alternate route takes us to Stern Grove, a San Francisco park known for free Sunday concerts that attract thousands—cancelled this year, of course.
We rediscovered magical eucalyptus forests growing out of hillsides carpeted in yellow and orange nasturtiums. At Pine Lake, at the park’s western edge, we could hear coyotes howling in the brush.
We also passed homes with teddy bears in the windows or chalk paintings on the sidewalks. And we paused to smell the roses, abundant this lovely spring, belying the virus.
Back home, Zoom became our classroom, concert hall, synagogue, yoga studio and more. Our calendar filled with virtual cocktail parties, seminars, author events and training sessions. Sadly, we also attended a virtual memorial gathering for my cousin, Ellie Gindoff.
Eventually I settled down enough to try meditation and a journal-writing class.That journal-writing class turned out to be a gift of unexpected power. In just one hour, exploring just one potent word, I came back to my pre-pandemic self. When the facilitator suggested reflecting on a word or phrase, I choose P E R M I S S I O N. I’m an adult. I don’t need permission. But with the world standing still, I needed to free myself to act. As soon as I said, “yes,” an invitation to an online writing workshop showed up in my inbox. The workshop worked, and I’m writing again.
But I’m not the only thing that’s changed. Our cities have started waking up as if from a Rip Van Winkle sleep. There’s traffic on the streets again. We can go to more places, but we need to wear masks.
Restaurants and stores are in a half-opened state, waiting for permission and new rules about how to safely reopen.
Following a season, yes, a full season, of looking inward, events pulled people out to the streets to protest the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis and Rayshard Brooks in Atlanta.
The cry, “I can’t breathe,” has taken on new meaning. The eerie quiet of sheltering in place has given way to serious, nationwide consideration of the grave inequities unmasked by the pandemic and police overreach. People are connecting the dots and seeing the links.
If my travels have taught me anything, it’s that history can change on a dime—or a tiny, round molecule. An assassination in Sarajevo triggered World War I. Who knows what the murders in Minneapolis and Atlanta in the midst of a pandemic will ultimately generate?
It looks like we’ll have several months or more of limbo before there’s a vaccine to prevent the coronavirus. In the meantime, there’s plenty of work to do to cure the social virus of racism. Imagine what a blessing it would be if we emerged from sheltering in place to create a healthier and more just society.
An excellent article and summation of the whole time, as it is so far. So well written!
The shutdown looks great! Beautiful pictures and so well written . 👍
A personal yet universal description of our pandemic perspectives. Love the Zoom Seder picture of all of us!
You have succeeded in expressing everyone’s pandemic experiences poetically. We in New York have also had to cancel trips, stay indoors, fight for space on the sidewalks and in the grocery stores, and try to figure out how to deal with the constant fear impregnated in us about this deadly virus. If I were to have read this beautiful article before you posted it, the only recommendation I would have made would have been to use the word “pandemic” to describe the virus of racism. Racism too is a virus that is everywhere in the world. Will there ever be a vaccine for it? Will it be possible to overcome it? I wish I could think of perfect solutions to both of these horrific pandemics. Take care. Stay safe. Hope to see you the next time you venture to NYC.
Beautifully written ! Gorgeous nature photos to contrast the horrors of what is destroying us ….. keep on giving us your observations !
You have inspired us to “wake up and smell the roses” through your beautifully written and photographed observations. This was a joy to read, Ellen. You have found your gift. Thanks for sharing and love to David..
Thanks for sharing your thoughts in this beautifully written piece. Everyone goes through something like this “Shelter in Place” differently but you have shared with us your inspirations and a touch of your soul. Thank you.
Thank you all for your warm and kind comments. And those of you far away, let’s set up some Zoom calls and talk soon. Hugs to you all.
Ellen, your piece is extremely profound and eye opening. Yes, my life has come to a complete slowdown and very welcome at that. When this Pandemic begins to really slow down, it will be a very different America out there. I Pray it will be a better one!
You expressed so beautifully what most of us are thinking and experiencing. Extremely well done. Thank you.
So happy to see you back. This really captures the changing moods, the ups and downs, the silence, the beauty, the sadness, the moments of joy. Thank you!
So glad you’re writing again. Great post and I hope more to come—soon.
Thanks for this. I could see all of us, cringing in Don’s last class, when you’d pulled your story of Rajasthan together so beautifully. I’ve written lots since the virus, now that commuting provides at least an extra hour every day. Usually, I use up those commuting hours glued to my online news (unfortunately). I hope you’re able to find a place for the Rajasthan article–someday this will be over and we’ll be able to travel again, but as you say, now is not the time to think about that. Stay healthy, and thanks again for including me on your list of blog recipients.
Loved this Ellen! Good to see you and hear what you are thinking and feeling. We echo the same down here in Santa Monica. It’s truly a strange time. Hope you and David are well.
Ellen, it’s great that you’re writing again. I missed your stories and perspective.
Lovely Ellen. So nice to see our City’s beauty amidst the gloom all around us. And your writing is always a treat.
Ellen, you gave a beautiful description of the past four months in America, with a San Francisco accent. Brava! You’re a wonderful writer, and I hope you can expand your audience. Also, what a glamorous look you have cum mask et al.
Waiting for Dr Fauci to give us permission to start traveling again! Until then, love reading your pieces.
So happy to find you writing again, Ellen, and so eloquently about life during the pandemic. Living in Oakland, I don’t think I’ve crossed the bridge to SF once since the lockdown so I loved your descriptions of the sheltering city and all the vivid photos both of people and of emptiness.
I’d love to share in the next Wed/Friday Writers’ newsletter!
So glad to be back at your site finally – on your birthday! Your wonderful writing and photos really capture the pandemic experience and will remain evocative in years to come.