Op/Ed

Ways of Seeing: Finding hope in this scary time

I was a child in New York City.
Have you seen the pictures of the white tents in Central Park across from Mount Sinai Hospital in NYC? The tiny humps of rock, where I used to run and play with my best friend Susan in sight of our mothers, but far enough away to feel independent, and the softball field, where the boy hit me on the head with a baseball bat, so Susan’s mother had to drag me to the ER across the street — they are now engulfed by white tents, a field hospital.
From my friend Jeff’s 23rd-floor apartment on the West Side, where he watched crowds gather below as the Navy hospital ship Comfort docked, he tells me there are white refrigerated trucks lined up —overflow morgues.
From the apartment windows of New Yorkers every evening at 7 p.m. they cheer the healthcare workers and all the people on the frontlines while I weep. Weeping comes easy these days.
Memories reframed.
Vermont feels blessedly far away. We shut down relatively early, except for essentials: groceries, pharmacies, hardware stores and farm stores. That Agway and Paris Farmer’s Union are open is comforting.
There’s been a run on chicks and seeds. A group of us in the neighborhood ordered a truckload of rough-cut hemlock boards from Gagnon sawmill in Pittsford to build raised beds as we enlarge our gardens. When I started seeds for what I call my Victory Garden a few weeks ago, it wasn’t wholly about growing food; I needed to see shoots of new green, Nature’s green before gold.
More grateful than ever for the wide-open spaces here, and the trails in the woods, I follow the blooming of ephemeral spring wildflowers more carefully for any sign of rebirth and beauty.
But this sounds rosy, the life of someone lucky enough to have a safe place in which to stay home, and, for now, one paycheck coming in. When the schools let out, vast numbers of kids on school breakfast and lunch programs would be left without. School districts now send daily lunches and snacks to every child in the state via school buses; there are coolers at most street corners for the drop-offs. Not every home has a computer or broadband Internet. On top of the fear of getting COVID-19, many folks are underinsured or have no insurance at all. So many people have applied for unemployment benefits the system has buckled.
Our eldest son, immune-compromised, is in Italy in the Northern epicenter. Hunkered down in a tiny apartment and, for the moment, telecommuting, it is not clear how long their jobs will last. But their healthcare is covered and the cost of living is much lower there. He must be extremely careful because he simply cannot get this virus. 
Here’s the thing: when I asked him if he wanted to come back here — the State Department had just decreed ex-pats should come home, or plan to wait out the pandemic abroad — he said he felt safer in Italy because folks are following the quarantine rules. Everyone has bought in. Yes, it is a horror show, but Italy’s curve is turning down, while the U.S. curve is shooting up. And given the bungled leadership from Washington, he feels safer in Italy. Safer in Italy.
We have friends with COVID-19, Vermont’s 9th and 13th cases. They managed on their own at home. Five weeks out, they have started to feel better. Another acquaintance survived after five days on a ventilator, living to describe how it felt: “the scariest thing that has ever happened to me.” Another friend’s plumber contracted the virus on a job; he’s on a ventilator. A doctor friend up at UVM Medical Center describes the horror in New York City’s hospitals while counting the blessings, so far, of being in Vermont. I know there are people who think this is all a hoax, but in time every family in the world will be touched directly.
My niece works in a nursing home in Shelburne so far spared the virus. She taught me how to make the right solution of Clorox for sanitizing, so I use ripped up washable rags. I can’t source disposable wipes now anyway.
My younger friends are balancing homeschooling children while getting work done, if they still have jobs; one is pregnant with twins; another, relatively new to town who still has a job, is a single mother with two children under the age of five. My greatest frustration is that I can’t help care for these children right now. 
Time has changed. A friend wrote that now there are only three days in a week: today, tomorrow and yesterday. 
Memory plays tricks. I know where I was when President Kennedy was shot.
And when the planes hit the towers on 911. But when COVID-19 hit, I was in many places.
My mother remembers where she was when word came through of the attack on Pearl Harbor: standing by her mother in the florist next to the cemetery in Green Bay, Wis., where her grandparents are buried. “I remember the feelings I had that day and now I have the same feelings. But this is different — it is in such slow motion.” We talk on the phone a couple times a day, but we can’t be together.
I wonder: will we slide back into American busy numbness when the country “reopens for business,” without focusing on what needs to be fixed in our society? COVID-19, a snippet of naturally formed RNA, has exposed the cracks in our society. The idea that we will get back to “normal?”  I am sorry, but that “normal” was actually abnormal, unsustainable. It worked for the few, not the many.
What will we have learned when we humans finally figure how to live with COVID-19?
To be honest, I am filled equally with fear and hope.
Stay well. Stay home if you are lucky. Wash your hands, and please, stay in touch. And give thanks to all our neighbors daily returning to and from the front lines.
Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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