shelter in place

doe and fawn

5 days ago I wrote that I’d finished The Occasions, a novella I’d been writing since last summer. In it, I wanted to commemorate a place and human attachments to it, as well as to one another. The novella takes place in a single day and involves preparations for a party to celebrate a significant anniversary. It is also the last party of its kind, for reasons known only to two of the characters. It closes with a group around an outdoor fire.

We listen, as the light fades and the mosquitoes come out to find our arms and ankles. Sit near the fire, Nick suggests, and we move our chairs, find places in the grass to plant our glasses between swallows. The music transports us to another world, where the strings of an oud release long passages so beautiful that some of us brush tears from our eyes.

3 days ago, I described how John and I were preparing ourselves for a form of self-isolation. (Selves-isolation?) We’d shopped, gone to the library (just before it was shut down), and I did a casual inventory of the food we have on hand, the firewood, the wine. The garden and what we can hope for from it. Because we’d had a swim in an empty pool and because the life-guard said she didn’t think the pool would be closing soon, we were looking forward to at least continuing with our swims. But yesterday our regional district closed the recreation centres. I agree with this move, of course, but I’ll miss the water. And then we heard on the news that elective surgery was being cancelled in the province (probably everywhere else too) and that was hard to hear, though understandable in these circumstances. John has been waiting for a double hip replacement and was told by his orthopedic surgeon during a November consultation that his surgery would happen in 4-6 months. So April? Early May? He can’t walk well enough for the hikes we used to love. He does what he can outside (we’ve had two trips up the mountain to bring home chipped cedar for the garden paths from a pile left by someone) but the day before yesterday, hearing of a dear friend’s fall in the garden that shattered his femur, made us realize that even more care will have to be taken. The longer he goes without surgery, the harder it will be for him. For the thousands who are in similar situations. If it was summer, we’d do our morning swim in Ruby Lake before anyone else was there. We’d hear the kingfishers and see the evidence of animals drinking from the lake before our arrival — the prints of deer and bears in the soft sand by the edge of the lake. There’d be loons. Ravens passing overhead. Those days will come again. I hope.

I’m shaken, as we all are, by how quickly our personal safety and our collective safety has been changed and compromised. We will eat well, yes, and we will talk to our friends and family on the phone. I went to the library yesterday and have a stack of books by my bed. I have a work-in-progress and even a title for—well, what? A novella? A long essay? Something, anyway, that came to mind as I woke the other morning. The River Door. Actually, it didn’t so much come to mind as sound itself in my consciousness. In a day or two, I’ll see if that door will open.

In California, people are being asked to “shelter in place”. That’s a term that sounds less lonely than “self-isolate”. Acknowledging that a place can (though not always) shelter us, offer us its care. This morning the fire in our woodstove is warm, sourdough bread is rising on the counter, and the makings for a big vat of bolognese sauce wait in the fridge. I’ll freeze most of the sauce though I’d love to invite a crowd of people to share spaghetti and fresh bread with us, glasses of wine by the fire.

Humans and their hominim ancestors have gathered by fires for a million years. Were those early Homo erectus inhabitants of caves in South Africa cooking on their fires or using them for warmth? Or were they places of congregation? Shelters in place, with sources of heat? The fire in The Occasions is a gathering place, a collective experience. Its inspiration, the stone circle by my vegetable garden, has a little ash in it, from the last time people sat there, talking. How long before we’ll have those occasions again, I wonder?

Ashes denote that Fire was —
Revere the Grayest Pile
For the Departed Creature’s sake
That hovered there awhile —

–Emily Dickinson