Reflections of a Coronavirus Shut-In

As I write this today I am doing my best at “sheltering-in-place” with Mike in our California bungalow on Walnut Street in Berkeley, California. Has it been six weeks that we are in house arrest? Time and space are so transmogrified that it feels like living on a spaceship or a lifeboat. I don’t grasp the rules. Am I a potential threat or a potential victim of the current global plague? Or both?

The last dream of mobility was in mid March. Our suitcases were packed with clothes, books, games, and various delicacies ready to ride 500 miles south of the border to Riverside, California to visit our eldest daughter, Jennifer (a UC Riverside University professor of colonial history and the genocide of indigenous peoples in Mexico), her husband, Santos, completing his PhD dissertation on the Boer War and its role in the creation of “races” in South Africa, and our grandsons, two young teenagers, Salvador, Dito, and our eldest grandson, Santiago, who like his graduating classmates had to bail out of Oberlin College for his final semester that would have ended in a glorious graduation ceremony. It was Santiago who called us to stop our van and stay put in Berkeley: “Grandma,” he said on his cell phone, “Don’t you and Grandpa take the risk. Don’t get in trouble with the highway police who will stop you and ask why you are breaking the governor’s order to stay at home.”

So we turned around and obeyed the new surrealist reality and its rules. How does an active ethnographer deal with immobility? Not too well. Boredom was followed by claustrophobia and finally to an attack of cabin fever: “Get me out of here!” Virtual communications are for the Zoomer generation; the graduating students whose real time lives have been upended. As we hunker down during our forced hibernation, even the cell phone calls and emails become fewer as there is almost nothing to say that might booster morale.

Yes, we are the privileged ones. Our complaints are pitiful. We miss eating out in our favorite restaurants and cafes in the “gourmet ghetto” of North Berkeley. Now we talk, as my mother always did, about “food” itself. We scrabble for groceries. “I got a large can of pinto beans and a box of oatmeal,” my husband said much to my dismay.

“I had two cans of pinto beans, but I gave one to the woman behind me with three little children.” Ok, I got it. Later I sneak out to grocery stores wearing my homemade mask, respecting the 6-foot separation between the chalked lines, and enter the Frey, the carnival, the hustle to grab the last piece of fresh fish and raspberries. But truth is told I sometimes go on the grocery line without looking for anything more than to be next to people.

We ZOOM-In and email-out to keep in touch with family and friends both near and far. A few have been infected; many more are grieving the deaths in their community. Their struggles make it all the more difficult to make peace with the shut-in role while doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and other “essential workers” bravely put themselves in risk. Why aren’t anthropologists seen as essential workers?

It is also difficult to write and concentrate in semi-isolation. But one thinks of Nelson Mandela who managed during his twenty-seven years of confinement and solitary confinement in prison to define a model for the coming democratic South Africa. Or Anne Frank, writing her diary in an attic. For the first time in my life I feel totally useless, and caged.

Slowly, we have to accept our more modest selves. The epidemic is us. Putting on those suffocating masks before leaving the house is a little act of care: I am doing this for you just as you are doing this for me. We have to abide the “hunkering down” in the hope that fewer bodies will be dead by the cruel virus the next morning. We have to learn to live with uncertainty. How long will this last? Will I have the patience? Will I lose my mind? Pulled by social gravity, I take my time sauntering home like an urban flâneur except that there is almost no one out and little to see as so many shops have emptied out and the signs that announced, “Closed Until April 7” have been replaced by signs reading just “Closed.”

Social distancing may be a lifesaver, but it feels like apartheid. We’d love to hug our neighbors, but we can only mimic our desires with body gestures. We bow, we open our arms, and we try to put a twinkle in our eyes, and to carry an invisible smile under our tight masks. The animal world is also shaken: squirrels are skinny and nervous and the birds are quieter during this silent spring except for the “crow conferences” along the telephone wires in front of my window. The latest crow conference took place two weeks ago. On that day the crows were more raucous than usual and their screeching seemed on the verge of mental breakdown. What was the hysteria about? Was it the lack of pizza crumbs and other tidbits on the empty sidewalks? I wasn’t surprised when the crows disappeared the next day not to return the next day or all the days since.

 Earth is Sleeping

While sitting in Berkeley’s former junk site now the restored and beautiful César Chávez Park the rain stopped and the sky opened to a brilliant blue sky amidst a few fluffy white clouds so close one could almost touch them. The air was so clean I could taste its sweetness. Something was wrong: no pollution. With cars and trucks off the road the lungs of the air were recovering. My friend Bernadette Track from Taos, New Mexico told me about the “special period” between late winter and early spring when the Pueblo is in lockdown “while the earth is sleeping.”

Bernadette often calls to remind me of what I should be doing. “Go outside tonight when the moon is new. Be calm.” She said that the elder men of Taos Pueblo had gone deep into the kivas where they are fasting, sweating, and praying to the earth. “We have a lot to amend for the heedless who trample the ground, the ones who don’t know that the earth is alive, that it lives, it breathes, and it needs to rest and to sleep.” During this sacred time the men descend into the kiva, as many as forty of them together. “Should they be so close to each other?” I ask. Bernadette replies: “They are like monks in the kivas. They are still and silent. They cannot argue, they cannot have sex, they cannot work with an ax, and they cannot kill anything. When they come out of the kiva they will be dressed like black bees coming out of a hole.” They keep their monkish life, Bernadette told me, until next fall when they will walk to the top of Taos mountain in gratitude.

Bernadette’s stories remind me of Jon Sobrino, a Basque Jesuit priest who gave three challenges to the Americas: to fix the unbearable and untenable situation of women, especially poor women; to value the great cultural legacy of Native Americans; and to love Mother Earth.

When the crows return, I will take a deep breath.

Maybe then, God willing, it will be over.

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