Written by Bob Kunzinger for the collection: 'Life in the time of #COVID.'
Henry David Thoreau chose to leave society and live at Walden Pond for a couple of years so as to take that time to evaluate his priorities and his ambitions. He wished to live simply, with just the essentials, so that he might return to society with a better understanding of his place there, always knowing first who he is in the bigger picture. Thoreau was not “running away from” or “hiding from” the real world as so many believe; he just stepped aside to catch his psychological breath. Did it work? Well, that was more than one hundred and sixty years ago and we’re still talking about it.
It’s our turn. Certainly, we did not choose this condition, but in a twist to the standard “the house is on fire and everyone is forced to leave” narrative, the metaphorical fire that has swept society still burns, and we have all fled to the confines of our homes. Few people are working, many are dying, many more are terrified with fevers and dry coughs wondering if now, without warning, life ends.
For most of us our sentence is simply to wait, safely walled in. Some work online; some count pennies waiting for assistance; some sink deeper into depression in the rising tide of anxiety. But all of us have left behind one world and stepped into this ill-defined purgatory not yet knowing what world awaits when the gates finally open.
We have been told to separate ourselves from each other to survive. This is the opportunity philosophers from the transcendentalists to the practitioners of mindfulness have waited for. What better chance will there ever be to evaluate what life was like before now and then decide, truly and honestly contemplate, what needs to change?
This process can be as simple as cleaning out the closets, both physically and figuratively, to getting back in touch with what is important. I look around and assess what I needlessly gathered back when I was still swept up in the current of society’s latest “need-to-have” craze, and I separate that from what I carried from childhood to first apartment to first house. In the attic I found those hopes I scribbled in a journal from long ago. I wrote once about my future—now—and what I thought my life would be—which it isn’t—and I sit on a dusty carpet in the rafters and wonder, suddenly, aside from the money, do I miss work?
Seems like now might be a good time to find another way to live out the rest of these years. I didn’t walk out; I didn’t decide to live hand to mouth, but I find myself here like people all around the world find themselves here, and it just might be an opportunity. This is it; this is the examination of the soul we usually never get to have because we never have the courage to quit or leave or try again. Suddenly we are all in the cabin on the lake in the woods near Concord, Massachusetts, only instead of escaping from the world we are hiding for a little while from a possible death sentence, and we all can look out patiently and realize, like Thoreau, that we really don’t want “to reach the point of death only to find out we never really lived at all.”
This is the time to show our children we get scared too, but we have faith, and sometimes we doubt too, but we have hope, and sometimes we want to give up too, but we have tomorrow. Certainly, we have tomorrow. The world is cleaner than it has ever been; literally wiped clean from top to bottom, disinfected. Let’s not return to that world with blood on our hands from clawing our way across justifications and rationalizations. Now is the time to wipe the slate clean of anger, of misdirection, of self-deception and doubt.
I’ll sit on the porch and listen to the spring peepers and dream of Spain, of the hot sun and the endless paths through eucalyptus forests and the open plains. I’ll look out through the woods here not far from the Chesapeake Bay and maybe hear an owl, most certainly a whippoorwill, and eventually I’ll head inside and upstairs to try and rub two sticks together on the keyboard. If nothing ignites, that’s alright; there’s time. I just need patience. They are the two most powerful warriors, Tolstoy reminds us—patience and time. And we’ve been told we’ll have plenty of time, maybe months.
Each day I know I’ll walk to the river and note how predictable the herons can be, fishing the same spot where the water bends along the sand, as they always have, long before this, long before that. Nature has a way of reminding us to come out of the allusive moment, pick up our faces from the flood of current events and study the timeless presence of now, the motion of the tides. Isolation at home is a good time to go out, even if only to a small patch of grass in a park, to find some piece of sky and remember or plan.
Some will push strollers, some walkers, and some will walk alone, slowly and against all warnings, preferring the fresh life of nature along a creek behind an apartment complex to the confines of a sterilized hallway. “I just want to go for a walk” someone might say, having never had to say that before.
Perhaps we might all come to understand that Covid-19 has nothing to do with us needing to live this way; we have always needed to live this way; we just never did. Sometimes there simply isn’t enough time to take even the slightest of moments away. “Life is paper thin,” my friend poet Toni Wynn wrote. Yes.
All of us have been forced to live deliberately at exactly the same time. Incredible. This is a rare opportunity for all of us to prepare ourselves to step back into society knowing exactly who we are and what we hope to become and to find out for certain that in the end it is true: man hits only what it aims at.
Bob Kunzinger's work has appeared in many publications, including the 'Washington Post,' 'World War Two History,' 'St Anthony Messenger,' 'Southern Humanities Review,' and more. He has published eight collections of essays, and several have been noted by 'Best American Essays'. He lives and writes in Virginia.