Column: ‘Pod picnics’ and other uneasy adjustments

  • Mary Otto. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 6/15/2020 10:10:14 PM
Modified: 6/15/2020 10:10:11 PM

The skies were cloudless and the outdoor temperature moderate on the mid-May evening of my older daughter’s birthday gathering. It was a joy to join her, her family and a few other friends around the warming fire pit that drew us together despite our socially distant positions required by the pandemic.

Even so, it was bizarre. My husband opened the wine he had brought and filled glasses from our picnic basket just for us. Conversation bloomed and we relaxed into the comfort of being together. As time for dinner approached, I reached into the basket for plates and served the two of us our own cold shrimp with a sauce, salad and bread. I watched the other guests fill their plates with made-at-home main courses. Being together to celebrate was paramount; remaining in our own respective “pods” for the evening was the way to do it and still feel safe. Most likely, pod picnics and other adaptations will be required adjustments during the summer ahead. Our old habits won’t return soon.

It was during the early days of March when we became characters in a dystopian novel. The evening news began reporting rising numbers of COVID-19 cases around the world and here at home. Videos showed medical personnel faced with the realities of inadequate preparations and bodies piling up in morgues. Everywhere offices closed, working from home became common and layoffs were legion. My doctor rescheduled an office appointment to a phone call. Theaters cancelled performances and restaurants shut their doors as they turned to take-out meals and curb-side pickup. I bought extra groceries and we delayed our move to a retirement community. Before long, my family got together from various parts of the country for our first Zoom dinner; the novelty was exhilarating given the isolation we all felt.

By now, several months later and having learned important lessons, we are cautiously emerging. In an essay called The Rise, Wendell Berry describes the first few minutes of stepping into a canoe and pulling away from land: “No matter how deliberately one moved from the shore into the ... violence of a river on the rise, there would be several uneasy minutes of transition. It is another world. ... There is everything to get used to, from a wholly new perspective.”

Berry’s description of stepping into that canoe is comparable to life in this summer’s America. Here and now, we too are faced with getting used to things “from a wholly new perspective.” Pod picnics will be just the beginning of taking in the world and making the needed adjustments.

A distressing aspect of this new perspective for me is that now, as never before in my life, I make decisions about where to go or not go, what to do or not do, whom to see or stay away, by weighing risk against reward. Trying to assess whether I or my family will be safe, day by day, is an alien mindset. Yes, many of those decisions are already made for me: the graduation isn’t being held, the summer concert series is cancelled, and I’ll join a meeting or yoga class electronically. All of these changes indeed reduce the risk of exposure to the virus. But sadly, they also leave us at home, alone or with a limited number of others, more often than we want during these beautiful months of a New England summer.

We can acquire our “pandemic posse” as time goes on — including those people properly quarantined or known to be safe. Still, we’re guarded around one another. Contactless payment may work for buying groceries and other necessities, but for how long will this social distancing work for us as humans? Even now, our spirits shiver in the dead of night.

I like to think we will also build on what we’ve done before and can do again — or that we will try something for the first time. The Appalachian Trail may be closed, but we can easily take advantage of the world outside and its wonders, alone or with a couple of friends or family members.

Ultimately, I wish that we could view the losses, deprivations and failures of our present lives as permission slips: to assess what went wrong; leave some of our old ways behind; and construct the future in more hospitable, satisfying, responsible and kindly terms. A huge undertaking, for sure, but making that adjustment would be the most crucial one of all.

Mary K. Otto lives in Norwich.

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