You may be by yourself, but you’re not alone.
I couldn’t have foreseen sitting outside in our lovely outdoor space on the first warm, sunny spring day in Vermont while our world suffers through a pandemic, but here we are. Yesterday The Chef pulled all the outside furniture out of winter storage, brushed off the seat cushions, cleaned the glass tables, rolled out the rug. Looks like everything overwintered just fine, with only one small wart that’s completely fixable. Our outdoor room is officially open for the season, all the leaves and detritus are cleaned from the lawn, and Van Goat’s over on the fence row munching on some mulch. Might snow again, like it did this past week. No big deal; it’ll be gone in a matter of hours.
I also couldn’t have foreseen being laid up with a torn meniscus, yet here I am with my knee properly iced, compressed, elevated, pain meds coursing through my veins, all the silly little exercise printouts inside the house on the coffee table; I’ll do ‘em later on. I went to see the orthopedist last Wednesday and have my marching orders. Or sitting orders, you might say. I have naught but myself to blame for a completely avoidable injury, where I stupidly pushed through pain on a run just about two weeks ago, instead of listening to my leg and opting to walk instead. So now an old injury is wide awake, and it will be a couple of weeks before I can think about walking, to say nothing of running, if I play my cards right. If I’m lucky. Too bad for Scout, but he has the gift of this delicious day outdoors chasing squirrels and barking at imagined interlopers, at least.
I’ve been trying to figure out why the stay-at-home lifestyle isn’t bothering me the way it appears to bother others. Maybe the bother simply hasn’t set in yet because I’ve enjoyed almost daily running until recently, and a more or less a normal weekday routine.
Also, though, I think living where we do now in a town with a little critical mass to it, I feel surrounded by humanity—even if I can’t see or hear people, I know they’re there, and that’s enough. We’re still running to the grocery store once a week, The Chef and I, so there’s that, too. But before all this started, the weekly shop was our date—he is a chef, after all, and I also love fiddling around with cuisine. We shop like we eat, savoring the moment, carefully picking through cheeses and produce and fish and hemming and hawing over prices, wondering whether we should try another store to see if the salmon looked any better there, or changing our dinner plans on the fly because there was some bargain on a beautiful piece of swordfish that came from somewhere trustworthy, not sourced from a suspect place wont to turn its back on standards and all.
But our date isn’t really a date anymore; now it just feels burdensome: Pull up the face mask, get in and get out, sanitize hands and steering wheel and gearshift and door handles, get home and unload, and then wash down all the food packaging and the fresh produce. It’s tiring and takes many times longer than it should. And our grocery store shelves are still fairly empty, but it’s a surprise from one week to the next what will be missing—no pasta this week, but plenty of tomatoes. Next week, pasta shelves are starting to come back, there are no paper products at all, but now the produce section looks reasonably well stocked. This past Friday, Chef managed to find a tub of antiseptic wipes, which we hadn’t seen in weeks—he scored the last one, and that is the truth.
I am not complaining, but grateful. I know so many others are far worse off than we. Still, I have another theory about why I don’t feel especially shut in right now in this moment of worldwide isolation.
When I first arrived in Vermont nearly eight years ago, I lived in a delightful little cottage in the Upper Valley on the shores of Lake Morey, not too far from Hanover, New Hampshire. I had scoped it out about three weeks prior to moving, made sketches, measured the rooms so I could figure out where my furniture would fit, imagined where I would hang my artwork, and in general fantasized about how my big midlife reboot would look. I was equal parts terrified and excited. The move happened in late August, which is a lovely time in New England. My kiddo was still a teenager, though just, and came along to help me and to see where I’d be living and working; it felt somehow important to me for him to have a picture of all that in his mind’s eye, since he’d still live with his dad down in Tennessee post-divorce.
And then at the end of moving week, I put him on a plane home and settled into a bewildering new life in a strange new land where I knew nobody, with Clarence-the-Canine as my only company. For the first few months, things rolled along more or less smoothly; the lake was abuzz with people and animal life, and there were a couple of sleep-away camps across the lake from my shore, where we could see and hear all the kids; sometimes on our runs we watched them rowing or practicing archery.
And my work life was satisfying enough.
But then the kids went home, the camps buttoned up for the season—and the neighbors I had on the lake closed up their cottages, most of which were second homes, and they left. So by the time my boy came back to see me for the Christmas holidays, we found ourselves quite alone. I’d met Chef David by then, but he lived a couple of hours from me and we saw each other only on weekends. I had a television but no service, the radio station I like came in static-y on most days, and so most of the time the only sound I heard was my own voice, or maybe Clarence growling in the night at something outside. I know many people would find this peaceful and meditative, maybe even restorative, especially after a bad breakup like the one I’d just suffered through.
I found it mainly scary and lonesome, and then it got worse.
Soon after I set up house on the lake, I realized the support money I was counting on to supplement the earnings I anticipated from my new teaching post was not coming at all. This money had been part of a careful calculus I made when I accepted the job—teaching ballet alone would not be enough to keep me afloat, but I could definitely make ends meet with both resources. I’d need to find cheaper housing after my lease ran out; until then I would watch my bank account shrink from one week to the next, while I scrambled to find extra work.
Fortunately, one of my colleagues happened to own a piece of property close enough to the school, with a beautiful loft apartment and plenty of storage in the garage below it. She was willing to make it available to me for roughly half of what I was paying to live on the lake. So on a rainy September weekend a year later, The Chef, and one of his friends, and a generous family from the ballet school, helped me schlep my belongings, again, across the state to my new place. A new, new beginning, this time on 180 jaw-dropping acres in the middle of nowhere in central Vermont in a little township called Sharon.
Many would call it peaceful, meditative, and restorative at first blush; my coworker, a former American Ballet Theatre soloist and a beautiful human being, mentioned to me so many people had found healing living in her loft. I know she meant this only as encouragement. But by then I was simply trying to keep my head above water; however lonesome the little lake cottage had felt, this place, in the beauty of its natural surroundings and all, felt isolated beyond measure.
Clarence absolutely loved the new digs; it was the place I’d learn to trust him off-leash, and where the three of us—Chef David, Clarence, and I—struck out on adventures, or cozied up in front of the wood stove and watched rented movies, or made exquisite meals in the tiny, apartment-sized oven there. It was also the place where my boy would again visit for Christmas, and where he’d have so much fun up in the cozy little sleeping loft on Christmas Eve, texting his friends back home. But he’d suffer through a major panic attack on the coach I put him on to send him home via Logan down in Boston—it was a miserable day just before the new year that served to underscore how much was still wrong at home down in Knoxville, and how alone and helpless I remained in far-off Vermont.
The place in Sharon was also where Clarence would fall ill with degenerative myelopathy; I would take him to the vet one late-January morning to be euthanized, when it was abundantly clear he was suffering. After the ground thawed later on in the spring, Chef David spent most of an afternoon digging a deep grave on the edge of the woods to bury my beloved companion, and that is where we left him.
I experienced loneliness in that beautiful place the likes of which I’d never felt—there was nothing remotely restorative or healing about living there, I thought at the time. In my third winter in New England, the area saw snowstorms even the most seasoned Vermonters admitted were bad; the worst of them brought high wind and ice, and left snow as measured in feet, a tough call for a skinny ballet teacher from the South with unimpressive winter skills. The driveway onto the property was about a quarter-mile long, with a hairpin turn at the halfway point. All season long the plowman had kept it groomed, but by late winter it was only just wide enough for my car; The Chef called it a luge, for the sensation you had navigating around that curve—sometimes the car would bounce into a snowbank like a bobsled. When the ice came in that memorable storm, branches of the trees on either side bent low and met each other overhead; the driveway was rendered essentially impassable.
I suspected I would soon lose power, and so I filled several large plastic tubs I used for laundry with water, and waited. For five or so days, the power would come on and stay on for an hour or so, and then would fail again and stay out for a dozen hours. I kept the loft warm with the fire going in the wood stove, but had no communication with the outside world except through my cell phone, which I kept charged in the car—even the land line I’d procured failed, and then at the worst possible time, the phone company workers went on strike. I could hear trees in the woods behind the loft crack and split, and then fall to the ground; I was mortified.
I started seeing my life in Vermont as one not only of solitude, but of exile. At least, that is what I thought at the time: You could die out here, I kept imagining, and nobody would know.
Which of course was untrue. The logical, rational, thinking person that still lived somewhere inside me kept on reassuring myself that Chef David would help were I truly desperate or in some kind of serious danger. But when you live in that kind of darkness and isolation, rational thought becomes elusive indeed. You may be by yourself, but you’re not alone—it’s a mantra we’re hearing a lot lately, and it’s one my David reminded me by phone late at night as I lay in my bed in the beautiful loft in Sharon, fighting back tears, afraid, missing my dog, missing my kid so far away.
Call it isolation, meditation, exile, or maybe even a trial by fire, or ice—whatever it was, now sometimes I wonder whether healing finally happened after all, or maybe it was just grace, but I failed to recognize it. My heart goes out to everyone right now who finds themselves suddenly, terrifyingly, watching hard-won resources drain from the bank account, maybe giving up beloved possessions to make ends meet—and living in isolation, even loneliness: I have so been there. But grace and beauty can exist in solitude and isolation—it’s happening all around us, even in the middle of nowhere, and even if we fail to recognize it. Last time around, I had to dig down deep and reinvent myself. Maybe you’ll have to do that, too. But maybe we’ll finally all emerge from this exile, the lucky ones, and live to tell our children and grandchildren a story of beauty and grace.