I’m sitting in a secluded spot alongside the Willamette river for the first time in forever, on a sun warmed rock, under blue skies pocked with feathers of grey and white. It’s the first day of no rain that I can remember. A speed boat roars by, and I’m annoyed at the peace being broken, but they wave and I wave back. They’re out enjoying themselves too on this June mid-week afternoon. The quiet expands as the roar recedes.
I’m “inessential” and “elderly” these days, according to the economy and the virus. I admit that this news came as a shock. But I’m too achy to even weed the garden much – all that bending and squatting is hard – so I guess it must be true. It keeps me from doing essential things such as protesting (daily here in Portland since May 25), volunteering in the schools (whenever), or otherwise lending a hand to anyone face to face. And it keeps me from traveling too far from home. So here I am, in the quiet for a while.
The sun glistens on the water, wild daisies shimmer in the breeze near my feet, and the warmth from the rock seeps into my hips. The docks and clusters of chairs on the river’s opposite shore are empty, inviting but out of reach. Tiny waves lap on the rocky shore. A stand-up paddler passes, going slowly upstream with no sound, and barely a wake behind her, and I wonder in this quiet, do I really want this quarantine to end?
I’m starting to differentiate between bird calls when I go into the yard every morning. A concert swells as one by one the bird families wake and join me in perusing the garden. Each call is clear, repetitious, and hangs in the air. In the quiet they’ve made themselves quite at home, taking their share of worms, spiders, and berries. They cock their heads at me, but barely flinch if I’m still, more curious than afraid. The small bunny that usually stays well hidden ventured near to me the other day.
Now that the roar of human life has subsided I can hear my thoughts – if not always kind and supportive, at least I can follow them down a trajectory of curiosity, as I allow them to go deeper. I can ponder and change course as needed, and there’s room for all the feelings, both laughter and tears.
The quiet has allowed Black voices to rise, and allows my white ears to hear a little better, as I take the time to explore and consider.
What would it mean to go back to normal? Back to our noisy, indulgent ways, back to wasteful and mindless routines? What do I mourn for, what calls to me?
Author George Saunders said returning to normal isn’t in his best interests. Why go should he go back to old habits that just assuage his anxiety? This time is a breather to rethink the habits that may not serve us.
There’s a lot of things that would be nice to dispense with as I create my new normal. Hurrying, eating poorly, wasteful car errands, busy-ness, wasted time, misdirected energy, jitters about unimportant things. If, when, we go back, I long to keep it simple. To walk along the water, embrace family and friends, sing in community, learn about the world through travel, and meet with, work with, and help others.
Perhaps it comes down to this: I’m always a step away from mortality. As I get older I feel it breathing down my neck. It scares me, so I preoccupy myself to make it disappear, creating busy-ness, silencing it with ice cream, shrugging it off. Usually there’s just too much noise to let it settle into my bones.
But now here it is in my lap, making itself comfortable, an expected companion in my day and a familiar pal lying beside me at night. In the quiet I try to let it in, like the birdsong, the water lapping at the river’s shore, the cloud that floats over and then is gone, blue skies ahead.
by Pablo Neruda
Now we will count to twelve
and we will all keep still
for once on the face of the earth,
let’s not speak in any language;
let’s stop for a second,
and not move our arms so much.
It would be an exotic moment
without rush, without engines;
we would all be together
in a sudden strangeness.
Fishermen in the cold sea
would not harm whales
and the man gathering salt
would not look at his hurt hands.
Those who prepare green wars,
wars with gas, wars with fire,
victories with no survivors,
would put on clean clothes
and walk about with their brothers
in the shade, doing nothing.
What I want should not be confused
with total inactivity.
Life is what it is about…
If we were not so single-minded
about keeping our lives moving,
and for once could do nothing,
perhaps a huge silence
might interrupt this sadness
of never understanding ourselves
and of threatening ourselves with
Now I’ll count up to twelve
and you keep quiet and I will go.