A View from Crazy Town

Chris Dell, Washington, D.C.

In some ways Washington lies at the very epicenter of the virus, at least if you follow the politics and the daily variety show from our institutions of government. But at a personal level, everything is surprisingly calm. The cherry blossoms have bloomed and peaked around the Tidal Basin (although the park has now been closed to prevent socially unacceptable non-distancing), the dogwood trees are getting ready to follow with another wave of color, and a glorious spring is reminding us that Mother Nature nature is actually pretty indifferent to our petty human affairs.  


I happened to be here on 11 September 2001. Today the streets are almost as eerily quiet. Although we saw a lot of silly behavior leading up at the decision to close all non-essential businesses (the Friday before, the bars were jam packed), since then people have taken it quite seriously. In fact, a study of mobile phone tracking data (a whole other question!) says that traffic in Washington has fallen by 60%. That earned us an "A" rating, and extra gold stars, no doubt (for reference, the only state in the country to get a failing "F" is Wyoming; I'm not sure if this reflects a stubborn cowboy refusal to accept the new reality, or the need to drive long distances to do anything, even getting a pack of cigarettes "down at the corner.") At a guess, I'd say the reduction in traffic locally is more like 90%. I had to go to National Airport briefly on Monday and there weren't a dozen people in the entire arrivals concourse, including staff.

The (not?) surprising thing is the number of dogs that suddenly seem to be demanding multiple walks daily. Who knew so many people had them or that the pooches were so insistent? My sense is that having faced 9/11 and other challenges in the past, Washingtonians are by and large being quite responsible. Let me hasten to clarify, I mean the ordinary citizen. The political class seems to have decided that while the rest of us shelter at home, they're free to run riot all over the national stage.  Life at home has quickly developed into a nice routine. My wife is tele-working to her job at U.S. AID and has turned our kitchen table into her office. I have retreated to my little office on the top floor where I spend my days pretty much as I had before being ordered to stay home. Social distancing is the key to mental health as well! The only differences in my routine being that I have to try to exercise at home rather than the gym, and both my part-time employers have more or less told me that while I'm welcome to keep working for them, I shouldn't expect compensation any time soon.


So, I've turned back to a long-shelved personal project - writing a popular history of the Portuguese Discoveries. Lots of time for reading and writing now, and frankly, the crazy scary challenges faced by the navigators in the 15th c. put our current woes into a whole different perspective. The mayor of Washington has refused to order a total lockdown of her citizens, so we're taking a long walk every day as long as we still can (weather permitting) and discovering whole new beautiful neighborhoods in this extraordinarily diverse city.


Hello From the Hudson Valley

Sue, Lower Hudson Valley, New York

26 March 2020  The sun is shining today. Jay and I watched it rise early this morning just before 7am when we were out for our hike on the Rockefeller Preserve. At that time of morning we see hardly anyone. What surprises me is that very few of the few people we do see are willing to say hello. I say hello and sometimes Jay wags his tail. I think about how we all have this same enormous burden on our minds and we are all doing what we can out there to forget about the enormous burden by submerging ourselves in the peace and the beauty and the fresh air. We are, in a way, like a very small community who has found our way to a heaven-on-earth refuge. Maybe people don’t say hello because they are in a constant state of nervousness or maybe they don’t say hello because they are afraid that by opening their mouths the virus will rush in. I don’t understand it. I say hello because…well…why not??  I have been enjoying everyone’s Plague Journal entries and I as I read them, I imagine how lovely it must be to live in villages where people are supportive and friendly in these upended times. Thank you for telling me about places like that.


Musings from self isolation

Billy Hearld, York

It is a strange time.  

I find these words once more pushing themselves up my throat and out of my mouth.  

It is a strange time.  

Part of me finds the normality strangest of all- people jogging, shopping cycling; part of me is most shocked by the shops allowing only six people inside at a time.  

Very strange indeed.  

I think the fact that makes it feel so alien is the way in which we are forced to consider time. Time not as an abstract concept in the metaphysical sense, but time in a very real, tangible way. The way in which we fill our days with ‘busy work’, plan out our day in hourly increments to give some semblance of order.  

These are strange times.



John Underwood, Norfolk


Thinking time. Sometimes you come across a binding project that requires a more than usual amount of thinking time. Many books are fairly straightforward, and the way ahead is obvious. The Bible that is in front of me is an exception. I am annoyed with it on several levels. I am binding it for an elderly lady who found our advert in the local Parish Magazine. She had probably talked to another local elderly lady who I had advised about the old, tatty and damp Parish church Bibles and Prayer Books. You can’t charge for this kind of consultation as all you are doing is offering advice. “ Take the books off the damp floor, wipe off the grey mould; this one is worth rebinding, it is a Baskerville Bible. Let me know if the church would like it rebound or wishes to sell it.” Because the lady is elderly, and local, and rather nice, I found myself drastically under quoting for binding her family Bible. There are several names, photographs, clippings, devotional bookmarks and such tucked into the pages which will be preserved, and so as a family record it is invaluable. I have taken it apart, and it came apart easily. The gutter margins have been cleaned, and the sections sewn and glued together. And there I stopped. I have rebound another book whilst musing about the Bible. There is no simple way of putting it back together as it was originally bound, and the alternatives might not work. Because of Coronavirus, I have had plenty of time to think about it. There might be three months of this I think. There might be six. The whole Summer, Autumn and Winter stretch ahead without any real fixed points. No holiday. Planting and tending the garden will take place when planting and tending is needed. Books can be bound, or left until later. The shed can be painted, or not. Ally and I are actually using the Summer House that we built on the concrete bases of some old sheds a few years ago. Until now, we never found the time to sit and look, to chat, to enjoy afternoon sun. Meanwhile, the Bible waits for inspiration. I will have another look at it today, and maybe take off the embossed leather on the boards, whilst thinking how I might, at some future time, reattach them. A tiny worry compared to wondering if you will still have a job, be able to pay the rent or buy food for your children. To worrying about a sick relative in hospital who you may never see again, or your family, in their homes, with feverish temperatures.To facing your own death. I distract myself with bookbinding. What do other people do? Will we be able to put things back as they were? Will we want to?


Stay at home

Ann, London


Last night I had a multi-participant Green Party video meeting on Bluejeans.  At 10.15 my father (just 89) calls me unintentionally on my land line and I hear him speaking to his cousin in South Africa telling her that he can’t finish their Whatsapp video call and that he can hear her clattering pots and pans in her kitchen. I hang up.  After my German lesson on Skype, I clean my Coventry Eagle bicycle that I have not ridden for about 30 years. It had been parked in the basement for 20 years and was covered in dust. After lunch I go for a ride the length of Hyde Park and back again in bright sunshine and under a clear blue sky. This was in addition to my hours walk at 6.30. Don’t tell anyone.  

Later, I experience the two-metre rule when queuing at M&S, then at Waitrose. These two mini supermarkets are only three shops apart and at one point the two queues almost merged.   When I am preparing supper, a car pulls up outside and a young man plays Amazing Grace. The sound quality is excellent and the music loud. I view this from my bathroom window. He attracts a number of my neighbours’ attention too. I shut the window when he starts preaching.  At 20.00 I join the clapping for the NHS, leaning outside my bathroom window. A respectable turnout, I thought.  The staying at home still feels odd, even though I have been out three times today.


In Flat N.4

Petra Wonham, Edinburgh

Up in Edinburgh it was a misty morning on the meadows as I set out for my run, it was raining slightly, a breeze blowing, a day I would have considered as bad weather a few weeks ago. However, as I only have one chance to go out daily, I don’t have the luxury of having these thoughts anymore, so out I head into the drizzle.  


I used to make reasons to excuse myself from getting out and going for walks, or going for a run, but now, as it’s my only chance to leave the house it has become a lot more appealing. Everyone else seems to have had the same idea as me, for the meadows were busy with runners, all keeping a good two meters away from each other. I strayed off the paths a bit trying to social distance myself that extra level, however this led to running (walking) up more hills than I expected when leaving the flat, this is unfortunately the price you pay when you try to do good.


The Marchmont People's Front

SWSJ, Edinburgh

These past few weeks have instilled in me the same feeling I imagine an Olympian feels as they wait for the crack of the starting pistol – I have trained my whole life for this moment. A degree in Physics demands aptitude in social withdrawal. As such, social distancing has meant little else but keeping a few friends at arm’s length (my flat mates: Peter, Tom and Dante), whilst bringing others a little closer (Papa John et. al). As ever, we are more than willing to exchange pleasantries (obscure YouTube videos relayed from crumb-lined armchair to crumb-lined armchair), but can no longer prepare cups of freeze-dried coffee for each other in mugs lined with the residue of hot beverages from days of yore. As of late, I am forced to confront the low-lying, existential anxiety that plagues my very existence; I live to work, and I work to build a future for myself – of even harder work of the same nature. If nothing else, this pandemic has forced me to contemplate the futility of my current existence. I live in search of the answer to a question paradoxical in its nature – can I withdraw from something that I was never fully part of in the first place?


Thoughts from the Suffolk Coast

Harris Galbraith, Between Aldeburgh and Southwold

A trip out today. Had to go to the surgery with the repeat prescription and needed milk as completely out.  The surgery looked ready for all disasters. It felt so clean. They could probably perform open heart surgery in the waiting room. Hand sanitizer awaits at the entrance. Masked staff and some masked patients. Queues with spaces. Not a lot of smiling going on and not much chatter. Sterile. The same in the supermarket. No one laughing. Plenty of milk, eggs, butter and loo rolls. It was lovely to walk through town. Some food shops open. Normality in places. Elsewhere signs offer regret. “Closed as per government instruction”. Could not face the news. Didn’t buy a paper and didn’t watch the 6 o’ clock ‘round-up’. Played Vivaldi instead and then turned on television later to find a programme of 1970s songs. Cliff Richard sang “it’s so funny how we don’t talk anymore”. I didn’t realise that we ever spoke, Cliff, and didn’t know that you cared.  Am missing people. Phone contact is not the same. Text messages get misread. Wrote three letters. Tore them up. I’m too flippant or too melancholy.  A tot of ginger wine before bed. Delicious. Night night all. Big hugs


Midwife 42

Emma, NZ

A busy few nights on the maternity ward and I’ve had my first tearful wobble. 


Such an enormous part of our job as Midwives involves touch. From a smile and a squeeze of an arm, to helping a brand new human into the world. We are restricted - and guided to treat everyone as a possibly infected.  


I worked with new mums last night, struggling (as they all do) to get their exhausted and overwhelmed minds around the tiny bundle in their arms.  Trying to guide breast feeding from the end of the bed, in protective wear, feels like I’m working in a strange laboratory - and utterly useless. Imagine someone shouting from the other side of the road instructions on how to drive a manual car for the first time?   


My hands are horribly sore from constant cleaning and I’m exhausted by the constant vigilance. This all in a hospital that has no covid patients - and if the lockdown does what it’s meant to - maybe it won’t get much worse. (It feels like horrid tempting of fate to even write that!)


My heart goes out to our friends in the UK, USA and Europe that are working frontline.   


But, coming home is glorious. Hot showers are an absolute joy. Snuggled into bed with toast bought by the children and the reassuring weight of my returned cat.


Strange New World

Liz Pelzer,Toronto, Canada

We are in self isolation, the ninth of fourteen days, having arrived back in Canada from Mexico, just in time before the airlines quit. We are prohibited to go for walks, shop or socialize. The days are developing a pattern and I am realizing structure really helps. We make a list in the morning of things need doing. It helps even when we stray. 


Our friends arrive with vital items, it is times like this that you really appreciate those who are there for you. My exercise class on Zoom starts at nine. I am stiff and creaky having not participated since January, but I see my fellow classmates. I check the freezer for something for supper and leave some beef stew to thaw. This is a good way of using up forgotten packages.


March seems mild this year, no snow and temperatures hovering around freezing. Our house is on a ravine and we are starting to rake up leaves. 14 large brown paper bags to date.... at least we get fresh air.  The days are getting brighter and longer but everything is still in shades of brown. There are signs of bulbs beginning to poke through the dark earth, too early as I fear they may be damaged, as we are due for dipping temperatures and snow. 


I painted a watercolour this afternoon, but still the day seemed slow and I wonder how long this may continue. Our pandemic is just starting.


We sit by the fire and watch BBC World.  It is time to have a glass of wine.


The foxes were the first to notice

RJG, Birmingham

A fox – alone in the hedge: sensing, listening, eyeing. Hidden. Above – jagged bravado in black and white: the magpies. Watching. Beyond the boundary, the sound of movement.

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