Op/Ed

Ways of seeing: Pandemic offers food for thought

I never knew that when the sap starts rising in the maple trees, the hens would start laying again in full force.
We had a light on for our hens this winter, tepidly lengthening their day, but only the brown eggs kept coming; the green eggs disappeared back in December. But right at the end of February, when a stronger sun striped the woods and the snow started looking tired, a cacophony of loud clucks, signaling the arrival of more eggs, emanated from the coop, commencing a seasonal song cycle.
This is a silver lining: My pandemic hens, ordered from Agway a year ago as chicks, are teaching me about another natural cycle.
The week before the one year anniversary of Vermont’s lockdown, I find myself looking back just as I strain to see forward, wondering when our lives — ruled by the pandemic — might return to some kind of “normal,” whatever that will be. When can we be with friends and relatives in person, hear live music, perhaps just sit in a coffee shop and read, and not rush to put a mask back in place while out walking?
A year ago, February 29, our son flew back to the epicenter of the pandemic in northern Italy, on what turned out to be the final United flight from New York to Milan for the foreseeable future. Two days later, Italy closed down and he went into a policed lock-down for several months in order to slow the spread of the virus.
A year ago, just before our own lockdown in Vermont, I read and listened to the news obsessively, wanting somehow to prepare. Hearing from our politicians that it was “under control,” that there was “no problem,” many of us thought social distancing and masking might be temporary — a month, perhaps two, certainly not more than six. I bought more dried beans and rice, checked the supplies in my freezer. I know I am one of the lucky ones; I have space to store food, and enough income to buy in quantities if need be. My friend Joanna calls this pandemic privilege.
Eager for connection while deciphering meaning, I started two virtual, visual-art communities, one for adults, one for kids, just after the lockdown began. Open to anyone, we focused on artistic practices, while sharing the emerging details of our COVID lives. I’d email a drawing prompt plus some context for the prompt, and everyone reacted through a practice of their own choosing. Once a week we gathered briefly on Zoom to share.
This first week of March 2021 the prompt is: “Make an image, or several — a drawing, painting, photograph, collage (or a written commentary), it must be personally meaningful — about something that is a vital part of your life TODAY that wasn’t a vital part of your life one year ago.”
What will it be? Masks on a hook by the door? The little spray containers of hand sanitizer?
The bread starter, sitting in the jar on top of the fridge, for the weekly rhythm of a two-loaf bake, one to consume at home, one to share with someone as a surprise? The knitting project in the bag by the armchair? The quilt project, made of scraps left over from last March and April’s flurry of mask making? The new tiny wood stove that offers a sense of self sufficiency and warmth? The micro spikes that let us get outside no matter how icy, no matter the time? The padded boots that keep my feet warm so I can sit outside around the pandemic fire pit and catch up with our adult sons, at a distance of six feet? The Zoom schedule of webinars, workshops, performances and gatherings of family and friends?
Or is the “something vital” less tangible? Something as fundamental as more sleep? Or a need to develop a meditation practice?
Over the past year I have learned that in a time of prolonged stress and fear, more patience — so much more — is needed, and way more compassion. That staying in touch regularly with faraway friends is a lifeline. Also that I am filled every day with gratitude for the beautiful place where we live — which I knew before, but now feel more keenly than ever.
I have learned that I need to be outside every day, no matter the weather, breathing deeply, tromping to places in the woods or the fields where I can hear the birds tapping in the trees and, now, beginning to sing; the gurgles of water below skims of ice; where I can see the turkey tracks, the skitterings of mice, the sprinting of rabbits, the single file paw paddings of foxes, and, best of all, an otter slide through the snow.
On the cusp of the anniversary of Vermont’s lockdown and a year of struggle and reckoning, filled with loss, pain, and terror, I wonder how I will build on what we have endured and learned — or failed to learn — to create the next new normal. What can I leave behind? What will I take with me?
How about you?
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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