Sydney M. Williams
Essay from Essex
April 4, 2020
Above and beneath
We are as close
As anyone can be
Now you are gone
Far away from me
As is once
Will always be
Crowded House, 1993
New Zealand – Australian recording artists
The coronavirus has driven us to self-isolate, to socially distance ourselves. Man is a social animal, so what we are doing is contrary to the laws of nature, at least for most people. There have always been hermits, recluses, loners, but most of us thrive in the company of others. The idea is that if we stay apart, the virus will be unable to leap from the infected to the non-infected – a sound bit of advice. Our first day remaining on the property where we live was Sunday, March 22, later than others, but still two weeks ago.
Apart from having two newspapers delivered – I used to go out and get four papers – there has been little change in my morning routine. I rise around six or six-thirty, brush my teeth, shave and exercise. I then wash up, get dressed and prepare breakfast, which has become my biggest meal of the day. Having read (or mostly read) the papers, I log onto my computer, go over my e-mails, scan the news, including what aggregators have sent, print stories I want to save, jot down notes on subjects of interest, edit an essay in progress and/or start writing a new one. Afternoons are spent writing, reading and relaxing. Evenings are short, a light dinner with a movie, thanks to the marvels of Netflix, Amazon and Apple TV.
One change has been a delight. Essex Meadows is located on 100 acres, with a thousand acre preserve adjacent. I had been accustomed to walking alone, along trails through the woods and across fields and streams. It was a good place to think. The important – and most difficult for me – aspect of writing is to be clear in what one wants to say. “Clarity, clarity, clarity,” wrote E.B. White in The Elements of Style, “When you become hopelessly mired in a sentence, it is best to start fresh.” The daily walks still occur but are now accompanied by my wife. Like teenagers, we hold hands, but now to help hold one another up, though the sensuous feeling of intertwined fingers reminds us of long-ago days. We sometimes meet other residents, but most of the time we are alone, together alone. It is a nice feeling, as though we were walking through our own woods, watching our birds, looking at our turtles. We stop to sit, soaking up the sun’s rays, getting our Vitamin D, enjoying one another’s company after fifty-six years.
Back in our apartment, we return to our computers – me reading, researching or writing, Caroline reading her e-mails, Googling this and that and checking for sales. Later, after lunch, we’ll retire to our den, turn on the electric fireplace, read, write or watch the news or a movie…sometimes fall asleep. What we don’t do is go for a drive. We loved to wander the back roads, cross the Connecticut River on the East Haddam ferry, pass by the house in Durham where we lived fifty years ago, shop and, best of all, visit grandchildren in Lyme, Darien and Rye, N.Y.
It is not that we cannot drive off the property, but it is strongly discouraged. There are about 240 residents at Essex Meadows. Most in their 80s, but they range from mid 70s to over a 100. Most are healthy, but age carries with it fewer immunities against a disease as contagious as coronavirus, so common sense says stay home, don’t go to stores where the virus might lie in wait, maintain social distancing and practice good hygiene. The staff that works here are special and devoted. But because they travel home every evening, they wear masks when at work, looking like the bandits I remember playing as a child, when we would put bandannas over our faces, and pretend we were rustlers. We had no cattle, so goats had to suffice.
Staying home is not all terrible. More time is spent with my wife. I read, continuing to divide my attention between fiction and non-fiction. The stay-at-home mandate has made us better understand what is important in life, and it makes one realize that what for us is an inconvenience is a way of life for those in less free countries. There are other benefits. My American Express bill is smaller, and I haven’t bought gas for three weeks. We have learned how to use Zoom. Recently, we visited all three families simultaneously, together alone. I had a Facetime call a few days ago with a doctor, something I never thought I would do. I think of how fortunate we are to live today, with modern medicine and all our technological conveniences, rather than as my parents and grandparents did. We conserve what we have, to make everything last longer and try to avoid waste. All positives. And, say what you will about China, but twenty rolls of toilet paper bought on Amazon last week were shipped to us yesterday from Shanghai!
But negatives come out on top. There is the loss of personal freedom, the missed lunches and dinners with friends, a cancelled trip to London and Scotland, and the dish washer runs more often. Vacuuming and cleaning bathrooms are chores I would rather not do. In this big world of ours, I sometimes wonder: Is anything else happening out there besides the battle against coronavirus? They say that no news is good news, but I am not so sure. As well, there is the uncertainty that comes from a virus we do not understand and against which there is no protection, other than the common-sensical remedies that we and others employ. But the biggest negative of being anchored to our homes is the inability to visit our children and grandchildren. Zoom is fine, but you cannot hug a grandchild in a video.
We are more fortunate than most. My wife and I have each other. Many of our friends are alone. Our furthest grandchildren are eighty miles away, at least when not in college. Friends have children scattered across the Country and in Europe and Asia. We are able to stock our larder and entertain ourselves. If feeling lethargic, with Netflix and Apple TV, we can be entertained. A son nearby brings things we need. We live in a place of caring people and educated, interesting neighbors. “Keep Calm and Carry On,” was a poster created by the British government in preparation for World War II. “And this, too, shall pass away,” were words Abraham Lincoln attributed to wise men advising an eastern monarch. So that is what we do: stay calm and carry on, together alone, with the knowledge that this, too, shall pass away. Each day that does pass away is one less day to wait, together alone.