These days, a trip to the Publix Supermarket in Estero, Florida is a surreal experience with understocked shelves and the haphazard displays of the kinds of frozen pizzas that people don’t want to buy. As I attempt to find words to describe this, my memory takes me back to my days as an English major at the University of Connecticut. One of my last semesters, under the guidance of my academic advisor, Professor Blanchard, I took a nineteenth century British literature survey course. There, I regularly walked the Hogwarts-like hallways of the University’s bricks and mortar library, encountering Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, the Brontë sisters, Oscar Wilde, William Blake, William Wordsworth, Lord Byron, P. B. Shelley, Mary Shelley, John Keats, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Robert Browning, Christina Rossetti, and Lewis Carroll.
Theirs was the century when the modern novel was framed, the time when women developed a strong literary voice and the spiritual insights of poets like Tennyson, fed souls. This century belonged to Queen Victoria and also chronicled the human experience of urban overcrowding, the emptying of the rural towns; the rise of great wealth and, concurrently, of crushing poverty; and the rapid spread of contagious diseases like diphtheria, measles and whooping cough. Great literature provides expression for the human condition in ways that are timeless.
All of which brings me back to the shopping aisles at Publix. I remembered Dickens’ opening lines from A Tale of Two Cities, which are nothing less than prescient: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, …”. We are living here, I realized, at the intersection of paradox as the impact of COVID-19 continues to manifest in our lives: best and worst; wisdom and foolishness; belief and incredulity.
The idea that a virus, which knows no political or national or ethnic boundaries, has brought this country to its knees in a matter of months is incredulous. As I write this 25% of the nation is under shelter-in-place, 81 million of us, confined to home in an effort to prevent what continues to unfold simultaneously in other parts of the world. The staggering death toll in Italy alone defies my comprehension. Instead, I move into the “new normal”, washing my hands after unpacking the groceries, and pulling out a Lysol wipe to clean down the countertop where the bag sat. Then, I throw both wipe and bag out.
I don’t have to understand the supply chain mechanics that narrates the shortage of paper towels, I just know that when Peter found one lone Bounty supersized roll left on the empty shelves, he brought it home and I figured out where to store it in our tiny house. This morning, we texted our neighbors and asked if they needed anything at the store since Peter has determined that the best time to snag fresh vegetables is before 9:00am. Another neighbor who works in the Ranger Station just dropped by with some first class mail for us, bringing it when her shift ended. Another neighbor stopped by to return his costume (I have temporary guardianship of the Koreshan costume closet) and we talked about his decision to venture north to Pennsylvania in a few days, skipping through truck stops hoping for a place to park for the night and shower in the morning. Peter just completed his first-ever FaceTime call on our “new” iPhones, wishing a happy birthday to his best friend hundreds of miles north. It is the details that connect us to each other, to our humanness and vulnerability, that become most important.
Yesterday, we drove home from Tampa after celebrating my son’s marriage. The young couple was supposed to be married in New York City on March 20 but that all changed as our collective lives were re-directed. On March 12, they wisely decided to pull the plug on New York and we all cancelled our flights and hotels and theater tickets. Their plans were shifted to being married in the Hillsborough County Court House in Tampa on March 20. That was much easier since we are a bit over two hours away and no plane travel was required. Then, at 2:30 on March 17, my son called to say he just learned that the Courthouse was closing that same afternoon, March 17, at 5:00pm for an undetermined amount of time. They were rushing over to the Courthouse to get married right away. They made it in time, a joyful testimony to the indomitable power of love, even in these uncertain times. Friday night was a gleeful and light-filled and deliriously happy evening as we celebrated with them, the bride’s mother, and their kids. The nine of us are now all officially blended as step-siblings, and parents and step-grandparents, to one another. It was the best of times.
At the same time, we are uncertain about our time here at Koreshan State Park. All of the events were cancelled officially on March 13 which meant an abrupt end to the Women’s History Month events that I’d been planning. Two of the three special tours, with re-enactors, did happen for which I was grateful since the actors had put so much time into their characters. Peter did reprise his role at Koreshan founder, Dr. Teed, which was also gratifying. My biggest disappointment was having to cancel the two special evening events, but considering that our keynote speaker, author Adam Morris, was coming from California, it all made complete sense confirmed by the subsequent decision by the governor of California to close the entire state down the following week.
With the state parks all over Florida closing, our plan for April, which included three weeks at two of our other favorite parks, is off the table. We are not sure how long we can stay here in the park and are awaiting word from management. We do have some volunteer tasks to complete around our respective programs and that might justify our continued residency for a little bit longer. For example, since Peter’s cooking program suffered the same abrupt end following a very successful early season, he is planning to clean up the kitchen and Cafe areas, creating some recipe cards for next season, and generally tidying things up.
For me, there are still day visitors in the park, even though all regular park tours are cancelled and the buildings are closed. That means an opportunity for us as roving docents. We can proceed with greeting people and answering their questions, all while keeping social distancing in mind. There is also some administrative work to be done in closing down and wrapping up the Women’s History Month program for the season. It’s a time of great uncertainty.
What we do know is that the Quarantine Questions that my youngest sister sent us is filled with great wisdom. I post it here for all of you to consider in these days. There is so much for which Peter and I are grateful including the blessings of good health and for all of you, friends and family, who continue to sustain us. Last week was my birthday and we took a little road trip down the Gulf coast to the town of Everglades City. There, we found a tiny local museum and chatted with the director about Florida in the nineteenth century, Koreshan State Park, and books and resources to consider reading. It was an example, as Peter said, of what we love about this life – fluid, free, and unpredictable
On the way home we drove through the lovely town of Naples, along the Gulf. A little over forty years ago, I had pushed a stroller along these same streets with my son, then a baby, as we came to visit with his snowbird grandparents. That same year, my youngest sister came to visit after her graduation from college. Now, we are the grandparents and my son, now married, lives in Tampa. It would all have seemed improbable in 1978.
On the way out of town, we stopped by Whole Foods for a couple of essential foodstuffs. While there, Peter treated me to a sampling of tasty little birthday treats – key lime pie and little canolis. Of course, chocolate ganache was included. In addition to feeding the soul these days with meditation, Tennyson, and prayer, it is essential to keep the body well nourished with one of the basic food groups – chocolate, at least on my birthday.
And now, we wait, staying present and repeating the prayer of belief and faith that all will be well. May you all be cocooned in grace during these days that are both the best of times and the worst of times.