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Abigail B. Calkin

A Blog of Flashbacks

The Results of Isolation

March 2021

It’s been a year now that we’ve been closeted and held up, yes held up, by COVID-19. The countries that do the best, that is, have the lowest number of cases, still remain closed. The results of isolation mean we are all frustrated.

A friend sent a message on Facebook looking for where there were live concerts. I assumed she meant classical. Hopefully there still is not one on the planet. She was desperate though, even willing to fly to Texas if she could find one there. I began to think of my love for Russian Orthodox liturgical a cappella music. She lives in a city of eight million people. I suggested she look there for an orthodox church where she might find a live service she could attend.

Hanging by my desk, I have a photograph from where I went to a Quaker school, Friends Seminary, in New York’s lower Manhattan. The photo is of the inside of the Meetinghouse where the school held meeting once a month, and where on the balcony of the meetinghouse, seniors were allowed to study. Even in the frantic pace of New York City, with horns honking or sirens passing, I found calm in the silence and solitude of meeting. This picture of the inside of the meetinghouse is to the right of my desk, relaxes me every time I glance at it. Meeting has no music, no organ or piano. One day, a person who came to Sunday meeting, sang a religious song. It remains the only time I’ve ever heard music in meeting. While beautiful at the time and in memory, it is the memory of silence that calms and warms me most.

Quaker school

This same big city friend said “too much time between the same four walls!” Her statement makes me look out my window where I see Sitka spruce and hemlock trees heavily flocked with yesterday’s snow. This may not be everyone’s relaxing scene, but it is mine. I live remotely enough that I don’t have to worry about going out on a crowded New York or Chicago street. I can spend a day without seeing anyone other than my husband. That’s not a bad life for a writer and researcher.

However, I remember when my husband left for work on his week on-week off schedule in a different town and didn’t come home for seven days. We have no television and I often listened to the radio when I could get reception. Then one day we had a horrid windstorm and the area antenna was knocked out. No one had FM radio reception for 20 miles around. Every time the helicopter planned to go up to fix the tower on the mountain, it was blowing or the ceiling was too low with rain or snow. We had no radio for seven months. Tired of listening to music, I put in a poetry tape I had. I just wanted to hear a human voice. The man was the Scottish poet, Ian Creighton Smith. He began by saying that he was from the Isle of Lewis, off the west coast of Scotland, and had grown up in a lonely manner. He continued saying his first three poems were about loneliness. That was not what I needed to hear. I started to laugh. These days we have better Internet and radio reception but not always close to perfect and we don’t lose the radio for more than a week or so.

So I sit in what I consider perfect weather—a snow scene.

snow scene

I shoveled my way to my studio at 6:00 this morning and my husband, now military and civilian retired, checks out the ability to use the snow blower to get to the road and through the berms. He always needs to be active and productive. He was that way in the Army too, stateside or deployed.

We went to Juneau to shop and have appointments a couple of weeks ago. One day I stayed in the house to work and occasionally looked out the window. He went shopping. I sat up straighter when I heard the first explosion. Juneau nestles between the mountains and the Gastineau Channel. Avalanche cannons fired Howitzer 150 mm to trigger avalanches on the other side of the channel, that is, to have controlled avalanches when people had advance notification not to be on such and such a road from this time to that. A rock concert bass is 120 db (decibels) and being near a jet at takeoff is 130. Either can damage eardrums without ear protection. Being near a Howitzer when it fires (180 db.) can rupture eardrums. Even though my husband had lived in Juneau every other week for 17 years, this was the first time he heard one of the avalanche Howitzers go off. On this day he had immediately crouched. When he told me, I thought, now there’s a veteran’s reaction.  

I am so lucky I no longer live in a city, whether it’s New York, London, Edinburgh, Eugene, Topeka, or Juneau. I don’t have to deal with any crush of people or the forced isolation between Ruth Anne’s four walls, lack of concerts, or Teresa’s four walls and riding in the elevator one person at a time.

How far do we stay apart from one another? When I was at Fisher Poets Gathering, virtual this year, of course, someone mentioned that one fathom was the distance we need to stay apart from others. Another commercial fisherman said, “But two fathoms is better!” I like that—a fathom away, or maybe two.

Yesterday a friend, who lives alone, said that the person who gave him his vaccine “…lightly pressed a sticker to my chest. No one touches a man's chest. No one has touched me at all for over a year.  It was so strange to be touched, and touched by a stranger.” The purpose of the sticker was to mark the time of his 15-minute stay after receiving the shot.

I think we fail to realize the emotional toll this isolation takes on us. We are social creatures. We live in families or with friends or partners. Yes, there are some who live alone, but usually they go to the grocery store, work, school, or some other setting where we have contact and interaction with people. They did not arrive in this world without a family, however functional or dysfunctional. As a principal I’ve seen how often children touch one another. Going to conference, I see friends, even acquaintances, hug one another, or have the touching of shaking hands. Rather, I’ve seen how often we used to do that. Zoom, Face Time, and other remote ways of interacting are not the same. Twice in public in the past year, I’ve forgotten and touched someone as I’ve done for years. I may have touched a shoulder as I passed by or an arm during laughter.

Last night I had a strange dream. I was in a prison cell, more like a dorm room with three of us. I didn’t know them before, but we seemed to get along well so far. We had a balcony off our cell, thus we could go outside. The balcony overlooked the exercise yard, but we were not allowed to use that. We shared our habits to plan for sleep, work, and exercise routines that hopefully would not conflict too much. The prison controlled mealtimes. We decided that would be a shared time for us. A strange dream, I thought, till I realized I must tell Ruth Anne and Duane that, in spite of my forest and usual solitary walks, I’m not quite as free as I was before or will be after COVID-19.

I can’t help but wonder how will we get back to normal interaction. What will normal interaction be? What happened after the Spanish flu a hundred years ago? How long did it take to return to our usual behavior then? Yes, I know there are probably some who will be left with a form of mild or moderate PTSD. I think though, that we’ll all fall back into our daily lives fairly quickly. I feel very fortunate to live with someone, but I do feel concern by those who stay within their four walls or who have not been touched.

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