By Dianne Aprile, Creative Nonfiction Faculty, Spalding’s School of Creative & Professional Writing
Many thanks to my brother Kevin Aprile, an editor in Ohio for the Chronicle-Telegram, who invited me to write about living at the epicenter of Covid-19 in its early days. What follows is an updated version of the original column that ran on March 29.
My husband and I have a longstanding breakfast-table ritual. Over coffee and toast, we routinely and enthusiastically interrupt each other’s private thoughts as much as possible by calling out surprising or outrageous headlines ripped from the pages of one of the two print newspapers we read each morning.
“Listen to this!” One of us reads from an editorial page. “Can you believe…?” The other slaps his forehead. “You gotta read this!” Both of us, often at the same time, shake a newspaper in the direction of the other person, as if to baptize him or her with the astonishing news of the day. Bumbling politicians. Stupid celebrities. Mind-blowing crimes. Juicy government gossip. Both of us veteran newspaper reporters, we are resigned to the embarrassing truth about our marriage: This is how we like to start our days.
Long about the end of February, however, our breakfast routine became not so much fun as it used to be.
You see, we live at what was Ground Zero, the Epicenter, in the very neighborhood of the very town in Washington state where a very, VERY nearby nursing home just happened to become the first in the nation to report an outbreak of Covid-19 on February 29.
In other words, we live in Kirkland, the town where it happened.
If I sound as if I took this distinction lightly, be assured it is only morbid humor you detect—one of the early symptoms of being First in the Nation. But well before the dark jokes came a sense of perplexity. I remember well the Facebook post I sent out, late in the evening on March 1 while my friends slept soundly in the eastern quadrant of the nation—where I was born and lived until resettling a decade ago in the Pacific Northwest.
“I don’t think I’ve ever lived in an epicenter before,” I wrote at the top of a link to a Washington Post story that proclaimed my adopted hometown, an eastside suburb of Seattle, “the epicenter of coronavirus response.” I remember at the time feeling a bewildering mix of excitement and fear as I wrote those words. Why here? Where are we headed? What comes next?
What came next, at least for me, was increasingly stressful news arriving at an angst-arousing pace, followed quickly by growing frustration and irritation as I read dismissive texts and emails and social media posts from friends and family living thousands of miles east of me. Their messages hinted that I was overreacting. The bits of information they shared were meant to subtly contradict what they heard as panic in my Kirkland reports. Gradually, of course, the sense of heightened anxiety that we in Kirkland felt for weeks before anyone else did made its way across mountains, plains, cornfields, rivers and metropoli, landing squarely in the consciousness of all but the most blind-as-a-bat Corona Deniers.
In some odd way, I’m glad the New Normal started here. Our local leaders seemed more ready to take it seriously and be proactive than have a lot of places since then, including, most obviously, the Oval Office. I am grateful for the sane and science-supported leadership I see here every day, on the city, county, and state levels. Governor Jay Inslee has stayed calm but resolute at regular press conferences, as have County Executive Dow Constantine and Kirkland Mayor Penny Sweet. I am proud of my fellow Kirklandians who have rallied, for the most part, to do the right thing: stay put as much as possible. I’m proud of my neighborhood hospital, Evergreen, where my husband and I both have in the recent past been treated by its emergency room doctors and nurses, where the medical staffs have now been suffering for over a month, surrounded by death and lack of basic protective devices, yet haven’t stopped performing their jobs as best they can. Neighborhood Facebook pages are replete with offers from younger residents to help older residents shop or pick up meds at pharmacies. Friends share their hard-to-find hand sanitizer. From the get-go, there’s been an “it takes a village” warmth and generosity of spirit on full display.
Yet. There is caution and concern palpable at every corner and cul-de-sac.
Things have changed at our house, too. Starting at the breakfast table. News items we now trade are far more ominous than a month ago and, in some cases, they leave us slack-jawed.
Perhaps the most telling, and possibly predictive, recent headline: Lt. Governor Cyrus Habib, a rising star in Washington politics and the first Iranian-American to win statewide office anywhere in the USA, announced his decision not to run for re-election, deserting a promising public-service career to—no joke—join the Jesuits. Now that’s a radical reading of the social-distancing rule.
And then there’s Gov. Inslee, a gem of a leader, who signed off on one of his early news conferences with lines from Song of Myself by Walt Whitman: Be of good cheer, we will not desert you.
Beyond politics, I think of all the families here and across the country who are facing dire straits as they witness the elimination of their jobs. The stylist who cuts my hair whose salon has closed down. Our favorite server at our (now closed) neighborhood bistro. My niece who was furloughed from a job she loved. A nephew whose long-anticipated wedding was postponed. Friends and strangers. Loved ones, all.
Meanwhile, it’s been weeks since we’ve been out of the house for any reason but to tend our garden, take a socially-distant walk, pick up meds at the pharmacy or buy necessary supplies. And no, we’ve not bought up a year’s worth of toilet paper. But yes, Kirkland was among the first communities of TP hoarders in the country, a group to which (at least for now) I am proud to say I do not belong.
Wistfully, I remember my last meal shared with a friend at a restaurant round about the first of March. She rose from her seat when I arrived a few minutes late. I leaned toward her. We hugged. A lovely, quaint custom—now as rare a sight as a bottle of hand sanitizer on a drugstore counter.
Among my community here in Kirkland, I have a neighbor who has been in medically imposed quarantine for more than a year, fighting leukemia. She emailed recently that her only outings now are weekly visits to Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, where the staff have become “good friends.” Another dear pal, a bit younger than I am but with underlying health issues, has not stepped further than her mailbox at the edge of her property since the virus erupted here. We keep up through phone calls, emails, Facebook. Her posts these days seesaw back and forth from soothing quotations from Buddhist sources to feisty harangues against the deniers and unconcerned among our citizenry who huddle in large groups on sidewalks and beaches and shrug off the fact that what they do (or don’t do) affects everyone else, not just themselves.
Yesterday I hosted a virtual meeting with my book club, a group that reads and discusses poetry collections each month, rotating from house to house. On my Zoom page, I watched as our internetted faces, one by one, popped up on-screen in gallery mode, lined up in neat rows, like cards played in a game of Solitaire. We took turns recounting stories of trying to find balance in the Era of Uncertainty. The six of them live in Seattle neighborhoods, across Lake Washington from me, but their accounts are similar to ours in Kirkland on the East Side. Tales of walkers who quickly cross a street rather than rub shoulders with a neighbor on a crowded sidewalk. Markets that have painted X’s on the floor beneath store shelves to demonstrate the need to practice social distancing. Pot shops, legal here, whose eager (and numerous) customers circle buildings waiting patiently, as stores now limit entry to only two at a time. When bars, restaurants, ski slopes, and even campgrounds are closed, the rugged individualists of the Pacific Northwest WILL find a way to relax.
On Zoom, we book-clubbers joked and laughed about the absence of our usual snacks. No cheese and olives, no glasses brimming with Washington state wine, no homemade desserts passed around a table. The book we’d read was, aptly, my teaching colleague Fenton Johnson’s At the Center of All Beauty: Solitude and the Creative Life. Fenton and I were scheduled to have a conversation on this topic at Seattle’s Town Hall on March 29, one of a zillion or more cancellations in the literary and arts world since Covid-19 turned everything upside down. We’ve rescheduled for November, when one can only hope we will be again out and about. (Our next selection, another timely choice, is Ellen Bryant Voigt’s Kyrie, a book of poems about the 1918-19 flu pandemic that killed 25 million worldwide, half a million in America alone.)
Our book club members spoke of feeling blessed with friendship, and we vowed to meet again online soon. Afterwards, the lone male in our group, a Seattle physician, sent out an email to each of us with a poem he found timely. The poem, “in beauty it is finished,” by the late Washington poet/activist Jody Aliesan, is about the rush of emotions experienced by the poem’s speaker when she thinks she is about to die in a plane crash. It ends at the moment of the plane’s safe landing. But before getting there, the poet reminds us, as Peter put it in his group email, “there is something about paying close attention at a difficult, life-threatening time, that can heal or at least help ease” the worry.
Paying attention is clearly what’s called for now. What we know here in Kirkland after being the first in the nation to have to figure out what to do next, after a month of unwanted publicity, inane insults from the Rose Garden and continued self-isolation, is that it’s not over yet. Not even close. So now’s the time to figure out a strategy for long-term survival. Staying put is putting strain on families, teachers, solitaries—all of us.
I find my own greatest comfort from the walks my husband and I take at a park by Lake Washington’s Juanita Bay, a few miles from our house near downtown Kirkland. People mostly respect each other’s space on the boardwalks and trails. But it’s wildlife behaviors that I’m heeding as I hike from waterside to woods. It’s spring here, so the redwing blackbirds are back, teaching us that a simple song is worth a thousand White House news conferences. The stately green heron shows us how to be graceful and unruffled in solitude, standing motionless against the rippling reeds in the bay’s shallows. Solitary beavers stay busy building dams. Bald eagles fly the sky in pairs only, while turtles of all sizes and shapes sun themselves on floating logs, oblivious to physical distancing, yet awesome in their calm self-containment. I come away reassured.
We can do this.
Aprile is the author and editor of nonfiction books, including two collaborations with fine-art photographer Julius Friedman. Her essay “Silence” appears in the anthology This I Believe, Kentucky. Her poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies. Aprile was the recipient of the Al Smith artist fellowship from the Kentucky Arts Council and grants from the Kentucky Foundation for Women. She is a recipient of a Hedgebrook Women Writers Residency and Washington State Artist Trust Writers Fellowship. As a journalist, she was on a team that won a staff Pulitzer Prize for the Louisville Courier-Journal and was an award-winning columnist. She is currently working on a family memoir. She holds an MFA from Spalding University.