Column: A sense of time and seasons skewed by the pandemic

  • Fort Worth Star-Telegram illustration -- Jennifer Hart Fort Worth Star-Telegram illustration — Jennifer Hart

For the Valley News
Published: 8/24/2020 5:52:00 PM
Modified: 8/24/2020 5:51:57 PM

Try to picture this scene: a mid-July afternoon at the tail end of a heat wave and I am driving on Vermont Route 14 with the White River running along the passenger side. Cars are parked in pull-offs where trails lead down the bank to the river, and there are people in the water cooling off or just standing on rocks and watching the sparkling water flow by. It’s one of those gorgeous moments that flow from the wellspring of Americana, but what I’m feeling is dislocation because there is a snowplow mounted to the front of my truck.

I had sold my 2000 F250 and bought a new one, and that meant I needed to rig my new truck for my old plow. Better to take care of this now than in November, was my logic, when garages are overbooked. Once home, I detach the plow and cover it with a tarp, and by dinnertime most of the weirdness is gone from my head.

Actually, here in the Upper Valley summer anachronisms are not uncommon: We see cordwood piled high on lush grass waiting to be stacked for winter, and snowmobiles with “4 Sale” signs parked at the foot of driveways next to a spray of lilies. Just a few days after driving my plow home, I stood looking down from a mountain crag near Stowe and saw a faint smudge of yellow in the carpet of green treetops. We know to not panic when we see leaves on the ground beneath our apple trees before the fruit is ripe; we know that we may have to cover our tomatoes some night in August against the first frost. We love summer, and in our hearts we are more grasshopper than ant.

But there is a different feel to this year. Since March my sense of time has been skewed by the pandemic and my longing for the day when we will be able to talk about it by looking backward. Spring showed up on schedule with her buds and blossoms, with lush grass and the rich smell of plowed ground, but for my grandchildren school was closed. Even for their lucky parents who were able to continue working or for their grandparents whose retirement is a planned shutdown, nothing was quite the same. The future looked murky, and when we tried to talk about it, our verbs drifted into the subjunctive.

Normally, I’m firmly rooted in the present. I love the seasons for what they are — even the gray drizzle of November when the woods look forsaken, or a polar vortex in January when for a week the temperature never breaks zero. But this year, before summer really got started, a switch flipped in my head. Perhaps it was triggered by the anti-climax of a Fourth of July without the town parade, without the joyful cheers of children at the frog-jumping contest, or the shoulder-to-shoulder seating at the Volunteer Fire Department barbecue. My thoughts lurched forward, not just days or weeks, but months, at first not to a single date or event but wistfully to a general sense of normality.

But the pandemic frames everything these days with its daily reports and its maps, graphs and grim statistics. There will be an end to this, we all say, even when the beginning of the end keeps receding before our eyes. I want the virus cornered and killed dead, but the epidemiologists keep telling us that it will take selfless discipline, foresight and patience to get there.

I try to avoid politics in my columns, but if it is selflessness and discipline and patience we need to address what is threatening our democracy — whether the threat comes from COVID-19 or social injustice or income insecurity — these are not words we ever hear applied to our leadership in Washington. The novel coronavirus has been humbling and our national response humiliating.

So now for me, Nov. 3 is a specific event that, if it could be tomorrow, I’d trade the rest of summer and the glory of fall. Is it crazy to pine for a time when mistakes and failures shine the way to new solutions, or crazy to hope that the phrase “Black Lives Matter” can be heard, not as a threat, but as an affirmation that inequity needs to be addressed? Or to pine for a day when complicated issues like heath care, climate change, immigration and hunger don’t automatically drive us into partisan camps?

In this summer of pandemic there is so much I miss — the chatter of the crowd between the pitches of a baseball game, outdoor concerts with friends seated in lawn chairs, trips to a playground where grandchildren make instant friends — but I find myself strangely unsentimental about this loss. I long for a day when our national leader believes that hardball questions in a news conference deserve thoughtful answers, a day when the term “fake news” refers to what is patently untrue and not to an embarrassing truth. And I long for a day when our leader leads by example and treats our allies with respect. I’m not so foolish that I believe new leadership will automatically solve our problems, but I know our current leadership is not up to the task.

Of course, there is no way to hurry the turn of our planet. November will come, but only after October and September. The virus will follow its nature while we do our modest part to slow its spread. A week after I drove my snowplow home I tested my new tire chains to make sure they would fit when I needed them, and in the second week of August my son and I built a pair of picnic tables. Like the Roman god Janus, I look at once both forward and back, and one day, I hope, to be able to think of the summer of 2020 as a time of transition.

Jonathan Stableford lives in Strafford.

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