I've been hesitating to write anything about these gloomy days, but my thoughts have grown repetitive and stale. I have to find the outside of the self, and going daily to my little garden for conversations with the flowers about to blossom was consolation for a time, but isn't enough anymore. The green leaves stare up at me like baffled children, and wonder what I'm doing there. I don't water them, and I don't cultivate their roots with a little garden fork. My face is unfamiliar, and I'm just this figure towering over them with a certain menacing look. I need consolation. I need more birds to sing when I roam around in my sweater and khaki pants. Where are the angels when you need them?
The sight of Trump leaning over the lectern making things up as they come to him is like having to drink a glass of milk of magnesia. You feel your stomach churn. You know he's telling lies, or exaggerating his participation in the corona crisis. He's a businessman, sort of, and if he's not plotting how to make money, he's pretty useless. The task of helping out a nation is foreign to him, and he stretches to his last zoa pretending he actually cares about anyone other than himself. He prates and struts about while the voters of Wisconsin line up in dread at the polling places, knowing they might catch the virus no matter how bulky their masks are, or how they struggle not to get too close to the people around them. But the Supreme Court weighed in and made these worried citizens go to the polls anyway.
Friends ask me how I'm doing. I'm fine, I say. I don't want to bore them with my complaints about being frustrated, feeling cut off from all the little pleasures with which I once indulged myself -- like going out to lunch, dawdling at the hardware store, loafing on the sidewalk while people strolled by chatting and laughing. They all feel the same way, I'm sure, so they don't need to hear me kvetching. I try to sound cheerful and eager to greet the day when we can all walk out and resume our old routines. But in the dark corners of my heart I know that that day will not come for a long while, perhaps not even during the summer. I'm told that normal times won't be back until November, or even later. I cringe to think that might be true, so I keep my counsel and say some pleasantly breezy thing about the sunshine, the return of the robins.
My wife was astonished to realize that everyone was giving her six feet of leeway at the natural food store. She enjoyed chatting with other women she knew, and all at once the masked and gloved shoppers were strangers, afraid of standing too close to her. She felt robotic reaching for the bunch of asparagus or the jar of miso and moving on. Head down, gloved hands on the cart handle, eyes focused a few feet in front of her. The frozen fish were metaphors of a profound alienation she also felt. The odorless interiors of the store were part of some detachment Americans preferred to maintain from nature. You couldn't submerge yourself into the mortality of the cornfields, the potato mounds, the radishes sweating in their fertile pouts of red fruit, the abstractly tangy bins of oranges long removed from the branches of Florida citrus groves.
But we had Facebook and Instagram, and Zoom if we ever needed it. And lots of squibs from friends telling us they had planted their zinnias and were pruning their hedges. A few snapshots showed a couple bent over their coffee mugs at the dinette table, with the window behind them, the one that looked out into the fragile world of springtime. They were about to talk, even though the conversation would not stumble upon some epiphany that might reveal some secret lode of affection that lay covered in dust and bones. Over us like an exterminating angel was the specter of our dwindling savings, our nest egg designed to endure most storms and cataclysms. The ghosts of famine and desolation roamed outside, behind the green shoots of the fenced garden, ignoring us for the time being, but aware of where we lived and how easy it would be to force us out into the mean streets.
We drove up into the hills yesterday and observed the little silver creeks rushing away glittering like tinsel. Bears were abroad so my wife cut short our little hike up a muddy service road in the Green Mountain National Park. I was reluctant to quit since there were so many odd trees standing there like druids in all that fragile afternoon light. The moss was thick on their trunks, and the earth was sodden and voluptuous with worms and half-started roots of things. The forest had been mined in this little area and the new trees looked forlorn after the power saws had come through. Deer were not to be seen, not even a few fawns or a wandering stag or two. The bears were waiting for nightfall, sitting against a tree stump munching on acorns, thinking about the tranquil world now that humans were staying home. Our footsteps made no impression on them, as far as I could tell.
At the little general store in Ripton, we stopped to buy a local paper and some ice cream sandwiches made to look like Oreo cookies. They were huge and we ate half of them and tossed the rest into the weeds. Ahead lay ranger cabins and the mustard-yellow clapboard houses of the Breadloaf campus, where writers gathered every summer to study under professional poets and novelists. The porches looked inviting, and the trails were still covered in snow the color of our ice cream Oreos. Robert Frost had lived nearby in a small cabin where he had written some of his best-known work. A park wound around with markers here and there quoting those poems, and you could feel the chill of his thoughts in the damp air.
You were determined to forget the days you struggled through, but without warning some dull pain would begin in your legs and work its way up into your feelings. You might want to stifle a sob before going on. I preferred to fake a few hacking coughs to make me think I was coming down with something. That was just enough distraction to repress my shock at the failure of government to take up the crisis and lead us back to safety. We were stranded where we stood, out here in the drained blue sky, the sharp odorless wind that slid through the naked branches. It was like something powerful had died, something that was once a conscience, a spiritual comfort no longer near you. FDR's ghosts was far away, perhaps irretrievable in this glum season. The granite buildings of Washington D.C. were half-empty, the corridors dark and silent. The White House stood there in its square of dark green grass behind high iron fences without the power to radiate the air, to fill the emptiness with some benevolent voice.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, I heard myself say, and I have miles to go before I sleep. A few loose tresses of cloud drifted overhead, and some pepper flakes whirled out of them that turned out to be crows. They were participating in some ritual that preoccupied them and kept them from thinking about us. They were laying the groundwork of summer in their arcs and loops, making sure there was a possible paradise to believe in. By then the irises would be in full bloom, the rivers would be quick as mercury with snowmelt coursing over their beds. The past would be riveted to the future, as it always is, solid and well-constructed and welcome to the little flutters of mortality that we bore with us as we trod through the leaves on the way back to the car. I was thinking of the glass of wine I would pour for us. I would turn on the lights in the dining room and go out to get wood for the fire. I would be coaxing up a flame as my wife was pulling out a pot and beginning to prepare our supper. The world was turning under us and we were here, in the grip of time, lashed to the orders of space. We were happy to be prisoners of nature, to be part of its mystery, no matter what befell us.