You have no items in your cart. Want to get some nice things?Go shopping
During the coronavirus pandemic of 2020, it was a dog who saved my sanity.
Quarantine began in early March, which is still winter where I live, in a central New York community that includes my elderly parents and four grown children. The college where I work sent our students home and told us faculty to “shift our classes online,” a phrase that made the process sound deceptively simple. On Friday the 13th (nothing ominous about that), I dragged an old table out of the garage, set my computer on it, and hunkered down to work from home.
I’m an extrovert. Meet me at a party, buzzing with the high of multiple conversations, and you might even call me high energy. But here’s the dirty secret about us extroverts: that energy is not self-generated. We feed on the energy of the people around us, like vampire bats who need to suck blood from another creature every couple of days. During quarantine, separated from family and friends and even small talk with strangers, I drooped like a houseplant who had been moved to a dark room.
I live with my husband Bill, it’s true, but he’s an essential worker. Worse than essential, really: where he works, he’s the guy in charge. So during those early weeks of the pandemic, my husband was working frantic 16-hour days, making phone call after phone call, thinking and rethinking anxious decisions. I was huddled in an upstairs bedroom, maintaining distance because of a worrisome cough, snuggled up with my laptop as I moved my courses online. My husband couldn’t afford to get a cough, whether or not it was COVID-19, and so we’d each taken a separate bedroom, a separate bathroom. Hearing my husband’s muffled voice through the heat register was not enough social connection to sufficiently energise me.
Anxiety, I discovered as texts chimed in from family members, affects people in different ways. My son Devin and his wife Emily, for instance, became hyperactive. During that first week at home, they built a chicken coop: They made a time-lapse video that shows them digging holes, putting in posts, pouring cement, constructing walls, and hammering on a roof, all at frantic speed. Once that project was complete, they ordered more chickens, set up beehives, bought a smoker, and ordered bees. They delivered laptops and homework packets to households all over the city of Syracuse, where they both work as teachers. They went grocery shopping for their grandparents and offered to deliver eggs to any household that needed them. I think the only time that Devin stood still was when he got accidentally locked in the new chicken coop, and even then, he was pounding on the door and yelling for help.
But for me, isolation and anxiety brought paralysis. Those first few weeks of quarantine, I watched more Netflix shows than I’d watched in my entire previous life. I chomped my way through the huge bag of chocolates I’d bought for a big family gathering that was now cancelled. I knew that I was lucky to live upstate. Many of my New York City students told me that they were waiting until 2 a.m. to take walks, just to avoid crowds on the street. The land behind my house is mostly wooded, and I could walk there any time I wanted without meeting another soul. And yet, instead, I spent my day hunched over my laptop. Some of the time, I was working from home – that is, teaching college students who were now scattered across the state – but mostly, I was reading the news and worrying. If you’ve ever been to our local zoo and gone into the dim area where the sloth hangs, inching its way along a branch, you can imagine what I looked like sitting alone on my couch just a few days into quarantine.
Powerful emotions, it turns out, can’t be soothed by binge-watching Gilmore Girls. Believe me, I tried. There were not enough twinkle lights in Stars Hollow to distract me from worrying about what would happen if one of my elderly parents needed medical help during this crisis, and I couldn’t go with them to the hospital because of the pandemic protocol.
During a crisis, my family usually gathers at my house for brunch. Everyone crowds into my house – my parents, my four grown kids with their partners, three grown nieces with their partners and children – and we spend the morning eating and talking, holding babies, and playing games. But now that simple ritual had all the makings of a super-spreader event.
Instead we texted and emailed and talked on the phone. We had Friday evening family Zoom meetings, where we could see each other and hear each other but never hug each other. One afternoon I drove to my daughter Shannon’s house just to stand in her driveway while she walked out onto her front porch and waved to me. She pulled her shirt up to show me her pregnant belly. My husband and I went to my son Sean’s house to sit on the front porch and talk to our grandson Arlo through the glass. What a weird impression of the world that six-month-old was getting.
“He thinks the front door is a television screen,” Sean said, watching as I made faces to get the baby to smile. “And he’s like – why is it always on the same channel?”
I started calling Shannon three times a day. I suspect that she alerted her brothers about my descent into lethargy, because I got a call from Devin, offering me one of his three dogs. And that’s how my grand puppy Appa came for a long visit.
Here’s where readers will ask what kind of dog Appa is. And to be honest, I have no idea. Some kind of terrier mutt, I suppose. I do know he was a rescue dog who almost died of parvovirus. The first time I met him, several years ago, he was a skinny puppy shivering in the front seat of my son’s car. “Wash your hands after you play with him,” my son said. “We think he has mange.” But Appa survived the parvo to become a healthy little dog with lots of energy.
I’ve always been more of a cat person than a dog person, and Appa is nothing like a cat. He looks and smells like a dog. He’s not soft to cuddle. His fur is coarse and hardy. He’s the kind of dog who barks and runs through the woods, digs up stumps, and growls when a stranger comes to the door.
So I was surprised at the rush of affection I felt for this scruffy little mutt when he curled up next to me on the couch and stuck his nose into my lap. That first night, every time I woke up coughing, he woke up, too, and snuggled close to me, ready to guard me against the terrors of the night. I had read about how poor ventilation was a factor in whether or not people died from COVID-19, so I slept with the windows open, even on the nights when it was snowing, and having a warm body cuddled next to mine felt good.
My husband grinned when he looked in on us that first morning. “I can see I’ve been replaced.”
But I could tell he was relieved as he left for work, knowing that I wouldn’t be alone.
I knew that going outside into the woods would be good for me, but I needed a nudge to get me out of my warm house. Appa provided more than a nudge; he put two paws on my chest and a long pink tongue in my face. And he had a secret weapon: I knew that if I didn’t walk this dog, he would eventually pee somewhere in the house. That thought got me off the couch.
Appa was eager to explore the woods behind my house, and he didn’t care how cold the wind was. He ran around my kitchen in circles, impatient, while I pulled on a red winter coat and tall boots. (I always wear bright colours in the woods, just in case there are hunters. My neighbours have been known to target practice outside of season.)
I admit that the moist fresh air felt good in my lungs. Appa raced eagerly across the yard to the beginning of the trail. My friend Guy, who died of cancer at 59, the age I am now, used to say, “If something bothers you, go into the woods. It’s like walking through an invisible wall that catches all the things bothering you. You will always feel better.” As I stepped onto the trail, I could feel my spirits lifting.
I don’t want to paint too idyllic a picture of my land. It’s what people here call “the sticks.” There are no hills, no cliffs, no scenic vistas, just acres and acres of flat wooded land, flooded by melting snow. An ecologist would call it a swamp. I sank into mud at every turn and splashed through water deep enough to soak the jeans tucked into my boots. Appa didn’t hesitate; he ran fearlessly through icy cold water, leaping to keep his head out.
Normally, in early spring, I’m in the thick of the semester, which doesn’t give me much time in the woods, but now everything on my calendar was cancelled. It was a gift, really, that I could walk my trails on a Tuesday morning in March, on a cool day with virtually no bugs. The swarms of mosquitos wouldn’t hatch until May.
The woods were brown, mostly. Muddy trails wound through ground pasted with dead leaves and broken tree branches. The young beech trees still clung to their leaves, flashes of gold against the sky. Big dead tree trunks sprawled across puddles of snowmelt were covered with moss, a brilliant green.
In the woods, my body striding through the underbrush, my brain calmed down enough to let me name the emotions that had been simmering just below the surface. Walking felt like meditation, or therapy, or both.
I was angry. I’d been pushing that feeling down. I didn’t want to engage in the name-calling and jokes that I kept seeing online. I wanted to be kind. My daughter Shannon, a clinical psychologist, has taught me that we shouldn’t call anyone “crazy.” So as I stomped my way through muddy puddles, I formulated the kindest thing I could say: Our president has a mental illness that makes him unfit to be president.
The botched response to the pandemic was, though, more than just the failings of one man. I blamed many of the people around him, politicians so hungry for power that they supported whatever he said, no matter how illogical it was. I was less angry at the voters, some of whom are my neighbours. Yes, they were the ones who put a narcissistic, incompetent man into the White House, but they were fooled by rhetoric that they were never trained to question. And they were the ones who would be most likely hurt by his actions.
The blame goes to more than just the one president who fired the 2018 pandemic team, who called the coronavirus a hoax, who downplayed fears, who didn’t prepare the country for the pandemic, and who refused to listen to scientists. Scientists have been predicting a pandemic for years, not because of a single incompetent politician, but as a result of the myriad ways in which the dominant culture has destroyed the balance of the natural world. Science observes the creatures and the plants and attempts to record their wisdom. I don’t know why we keep ignoring it.
When I sat down on a fallen tree beneath the beech and hemlock canopy, I felt grief welling up within me. I had a friend who had to stay home while her father died alone, quarantined in a hospital. I had college students who had to leave their hopeful futures to go home and babysit siblings in tiny apartments, their plans cancelled. I thought of friends and family who had lost jobs, their lives forever altered.
As I climbed over broken branches and pushed my way through brush, I allowed myself to grieve for the little things. I knew that the world I loved would change. My daughter and I had planned to spend the second week of March in lower Manhattan, one last mother-daughter trip before her baby was born. We expected to do the same things we always did: watch the street performers in Washington Square, where we usually ended up sharing a park bench with strangers; wander into loud, colourful street fairs, where we bought delicious foods we didn’t know the names of; cram into a basement jazz club, elbow to elbow with other music lovers; crowd into a train to head uptown to a museum; wander through Chinatown and Little Italy, stopping to eat at tables crammed together on the sidewalk, buying silk fans in narrow little shops; walk to Claude’s Patisserie for croissants that we would eat in the park filling with students and tourists and anyone who wanted to enjoy the late afternoon sun; and get swept along, as we always did, by throngs of people hurrying along the streets, that great tide of energy that is lower Manhattan. I suspect that the city I love will change forever as small, lively, unique businesses go under and big corporations, with their blank and box-like structures, survive.
I grieved for time lost with family members. I couldn’t visit with my daughter Shannon during the exciting months of her first pregnancy, and the new hospital protocols meant I wouldn’t be at her side when she gave birth. My grandson Arlo was six months old. In January, I babysat him once a week, cuddling him in my arms even while he napped, but now quarantine meant I was missing his first attempts to crawl. My parents were 86 and 89, and usually I visited them several times every week. These could well be the last months of their life, with or without the coronavirus, and I hated that they were spending it in isolation.
Perhaps the biggest emotion that rose to the surface was anxiety. I worried about nurses and doctors and grocery store workers, about working class people in my community who can no longer work, about children trapped home with abusive parents, about people with cancer and cystic fibrosis and asthma, and about Asian Americans facing a new onslaught of ignorant hate. Being in the woods didn’t make this anxiety go away, but the physical labour of clearing trails helped push me out of the paralysis that the anxiety had caused.
The pandemic shone a spotlight on the inequities in our culture, and it was clear that I live a privileged existence. I had food, a warm house, family nearby. All four of my grown children had jobs that shifted them safely home, where they were still getting paychecks. I should be feeling grateful, I told myself. But gratitude these days felt much more like survivor guilt, no matter how much money I threw at worthy causes. Out in the woods, though, my thoughts smoothed out. I watched as the sun came out, illuminating the brilliant mosses, shimmering down through branches of a young beech tree that still held gold leaves. I was grateful, right now, for this moment.
I think it’s important, the knowledge I got from reading the New York Times each morning, but I also needed another kind of knowledge: the wisdom I get from walking in the woods. The current crisis looked different in the context of a larger, older narrative. The smell of mud triggered memories. These are the woods I walked when my sister was dying of breast cancer, and my anxiety was so high I could barely breathe. These are the woods I walked after September 11, when the world came crashing around us. The trees greeted me like old friends, still standing in the same spots they always have, much like my friends who showed up at my sister’s wake, just to stand there, keeping an eye on me, ready if I needed them.
Comfort from the natural world was different than the comfort I sought from Netflix. The woods didn’t numb my emotions. No, the emotions didn’t go away, but they felt less overwhelming as they retreated into the context of something way bigger.
Appa’s nose read the landscape: a fox ran past here, a raccoon climbed this tree, and a flock of turkeys roost here. When we reached the hemlock and beech grove, we found deer droppings and coyote scat, and he was beside himself with excitement. I saw the flash of three white tails as three beautiful deer bounded away.
As I worked on my trails (by that I mean, I grabbed dead tree branches to stamp into the mud), I listened for the jingle of Appa’s collar to make sure he was nearby. I could hear branches creaking, wind pushing through pine boughs, and songs from birds returning for the spring. There was music in the woods. I understood why the quarantined Italians were singing from their balconies so that all the neighbours could hear.
Spring was arriving all around me. Green ferns that had been flattened by snow were beginning to rise from the ground. Soon the tree frogs would sing, and the garter snakes would emerge. I could see the tracks of deer and raccoon and fox. The fiddleheads were pushing their way through the mud.
Here in the woods, I was not alone.