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Reflections on Shelter-in-Place

​CoronaVirus is a disaster unfolding fast: on our screens if we’re lucky, before our eyes if we wait long enough, and eventually in our bodies if we’re admitting to the reality of this disease. But it is, at the same time, infecting large groups of us with an essential instinct: a desire to walk, think, make, create, connect, that (in the long term) could cure even as it kills.

My fourth day spent strictly at home, all of the nature around me feels bigger, more here. There is no anxiety of missing out; of pulling at the periphery of a productive society. Now, the peripheral is the central. I feel I’ve arrived — not just physically, but energetically, somewhere I’ve longed to be.

I am descending a steep street with my White German Shepherd, returning home after a vigorous hike. When I walk, I feel myself a pedestrian again; that some bipedal past laying dormant in my body has resurrected and reanimated my limbs. Walking and staying within walking distance from my home, I feel a link to an animal ancientness; to a time when cars weren’t, and when to get wherever you were going, you’d have to move there yourself.

When the grade flattens, I look to my right and see something both familiar and out-of-place: children color the sidewalks with plastic buckets of chalk. They’re focused; their entire bodies are involved, working their limbs into positions that will allow them to draw the right line, color in fully the rest of their design. A brunette girl, age six or seven, stands up, knees dusted in green. She looks down at her teal sun with a tilted head, dark bangs falling and fanning over her face. I imagine her day — how it probably began with home schoolwork, rewarded by some screen time. At what point did the outdoors call to her? When did the habit of overstimulation shake and quiet within, at least enough for her to hear children from decades and centuries before, beckoning her to come outside and play?

I pause for a moment to take it in. But when I continue in the direction of home, I see I haven’t left. The itch to come outside has been spreading, like a virus itself. Pastel pink, yellow and green carpet the sidewalk for five houses down. Individual masterpieces connect in a continuous, collaborative mural. It looks as if a rainbow has laid down on the street and stretched into a straight line.

On the other side of the road, a group of parents and their children congregate in the bike lane. They’re laughing and talking. As with the chalk-artists, there is a meeting here between the physical and social body. It feels radical. As if the houses, framed by their discrete landscaped yards, challenge the continuity of their walking, talking inhabitants. Like the girls on their hands and knees working together with chalk, these walking families are creating something colorful and continuous against an architecture of isolation.

As I pass, I recognize the Swiss Mountain Dog in the center of the talking circle. He lives across the street from me, about a mile from here. They’ve been walking for some time, I think. It makes me wonder if these families have ever spoken before; more, if they’ll continue to speak, after this is over.

Walking, it seems to me, expresses more than a desire for exercise. It is a desire-in-motion to connect, to re-member a self increasingly dismembered by lifestyles that separate work (and connectivity) from the working body. Rebecca Solnit, in her book Wanderlust, reminds us of this mind-body connection that walking can recover:

“Walking shares with making and working that crucial element of engagement of the body and the mind with the world, of knowing the world through the body and the body through the world” (29).

Even as we socially distance ourselves, we are coming into contact with what makes us all human. When we stay in one place, and walk to get wherever we want to go, we feel our true proportions — to each other and to the world: we feel our smallness against the bigness of the mountain; our largeness next to the poppy that’s bloomed after the rain; our relative sameness next to our fellow strolling neighbors. Rebecca, again, puts it nicely:

“Walking returns the body to its original limits again, to something supple, sensitive, and vulnerable . . .” (29).

Without meetings across town, flights across country, we return to the fact of the body, in both its powers and limitations. We come home to our own skin as if it, too, were a place to go, to be, and to stay. Here, the distance — and difference — between each other, is easier to cross (barring the precautionary 6 feet, of course).

This article is not a dismissal of the terror being experienced, and on the horizon, for so many. It is a reflection on how shelter- in- place is bringing us home to more than our literal shelters: it is returning us to something humble and sacred that might look like a pause in progress, or a slow in our movement, but that — if you look from another angle, perhaps on a hill of history — is the antidote to a society grown increasingly disconnected from the ground on which it walks, and from the shelter of the body, in which the modern brain lives.

Admittedly, resources and health invite me to see these scary times as ones with gifts to bear. But it isn’t only my privilege speaking. The need to stay close, to be still, to make dinner at home, to walk the distance from your house to your neighbors down the road — these exist across class, space and time. They are universal, ancient instincts that, though perhaps numbed and forgotten by some, run like a river beneath our moving cars and planes, all the time.

I’m extremely fortunate that I am not consumed (at present) with individual need; that, between walks, I can indulge in the contemplation of universal, poetic truths, while others scramble to fight a pandemic ravaging their bodies and homes. Before that changes — which it very well could — I wanted to share these ponderings.

Thank you for listening. I hope you, too, find some hidden truth, some sense of home beyond the house, and even some bipedal pleasure, in the weeks to come.

With love ❤

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