At the end of February, I left Minnesota on a journey to pursue and check off a bucket list item. After switching out the snow tires for regular ones, I steered south, arriving at The Writer's Colony at Dairy Hollow in Eureka Springs, Arkansas on the first day of March. Although my career armed me with countless opportunities for drafting words to communicate messages -- grants, newsletter articles and website content to name a few, the production of all these projects merely teased. The itch to write grew weightier by the year -- to express something on a loftier scale; to immerse myself in a grander story.
In the summer of 2019 during a search, I found the perfect place to experiment with becoming a novelist. I struggled with self-confidence, but pushed forward with an application and sat back waiting for a reply. With the surprise appearance of an admittance letter, I allowed myself to slip further into the fantasy of penning a book. Planning my time and deciding on how best to prepare, I signed up for a class and acquired three books on the art of composing fiction. This preliminary work put a solid sense of possibility in motion.
As I entered this beautiful small town in the Ozarks, astonishment struck. An unexpected treasure with a flourishing historic district, vibrant shops and welcoming people greeted me. For those of us coming from the snowbound Midwest to the first signs of spring, delight and appreciation is always found by those of us who reside in frigid environments. Both the need to savor sunny skies and temperatures in the 60s became irresistible and distracting. Like a thirsty dog coming upon a lake of cool water after a sustained run through the woods, the world of outdoor warmth and green grass beckoned.
The first few days, I coped with writer's block and placing words on paper (and laptop), self-doubt and an overwhelming need to escape into the world beyond my windows. To quell my desire to walk freely without binding winter garments and knee-deep white stuff, I created a new ground rule. This new directive took on a contrasting type of discipline -- quit fretting over producing a predetermined number of words per day, no need for a forced drill; allow the free spiritedness to take hold.
A pattern soon emerged -- compose words in the mornings, take a walk, sightsee in the afternoons; and, at end of day, relish a chef-made healthy feast in the lodge with others in the evening. Gathered at our communal table, our talks covered careers, politics and of course, the written word. My fellow writers in residence, so amenable to parsing out their knowledge, feedback and resources, shaped my know-how. In the first week, the coronavirus, newly advancing into our nation's conscience as a plausible troublesome pest, remained on the sidelines of conversation, not yet a worthy subject for our festive exchanges.
With a loose agenda as my guide, I released my spirit to align with an intuition-based timetable that proved fruitful. The morning after Super Tuesday, motivation hit to draft an email to the editor of the Saint Paul newspaper. The Pioneer Press called the next morning to acknowledge my response to the rapid-fire revision of the hierarchy of DFL front runners and would be printing it the next day. Magic ensued. With my cell phone in another room, the device began to mysteriously play music, while off. Out walking, I trekked up the vertical roads for a great workout, and in time, added several more hills to my circuit. On one occasion, I took a double take at an approaching animal with first thoughts that a dog trailed me, but to my amazement, the little creature walking in-step with me was a fox. Jitters crept in while I did a quick assessment on how to handle this friendly mammal. I scurried without bursting into a run, afraid of initiating a chase situation. Then, on second thought, I lessened my stride and so did my new pal. Surveying me with curious eyes, this red-furred, black booted critter appeared as a therapist, ready to tune in and advise on some deep dark secret. I dropped the fright and instead savored the moment. On my daily afternoon strolls, I encountered the trolley bus multiple times as it traveled a circuitous route around town picking up residents and visitors. The driver, a head-turning image of St. Nicholas, when passing by in the opposite direction gave a jolly greeting with a wave of his hand, every single time. After a few days of these encounters, I found myself humming it's a beautiful day in the neighborhood. The world took on a sense of enchantment, captivating me with all its charms.
While meandering through the curving trails around town, I swung into boutiques where shopkeepers chatted with customers, explored area treasures such as the collection of historical natural springs and the beautiful glass Thorncrown Chapel. In imitating the persona of the carefree locals, I now sported a quirky self-assurance and wandered into a microbrewery for a cold brew and live music. After ordering, sitting by myself lasted only a few minutes before a group invited me to join them. Relaxed, we drank a beer together as I listened to their narratives and observed town folk coming in for petition signatures along with a full report on the proposed impact of a pending vote. The clown who that afternoon performed on Main Street Plaza, sat eating dinner with his family while a musician opened with a song all about Minnesota.
In my windowed room overlooking the steep, wooded park across the street, words flowed as I worked undisturbed to ponder life and find a new story. Earlier struggles gave way to believing in myself and an unwavering focus while losing track of time. With enforcement of a no hard-and-fast structure in place, my mental blocks dissipated and my tale to tell took form. The concealed figures existing beneath my work world documents for decades, now sprung to life. These sassy and spirited people, after parking in neutral for way too long, were ready to shift into drive and exchange dialogue with me concerning their backstories and stash of untold tales. Unique personalities materialized and I began connecting the dots, threading the components together, transcribing a story and witnessing the birth of a book before my eyes.
These uncharted waters of unencumbered time and space gave way to freeing my imagination and dwelling in a brand-new locale called creativity. Deeply involved in discovering plot and a cast of many along with enjoying the charisma of my adopted town, I underestimated the powerful metamorphosis of everyday life into hot spots of percolating contagion. Unlike the accounts of people on off-the-grid vacations who stayed clueless to the fact of a global pandemic, my morning news intake kept streaming an ever-changing flow of conceivable cures and models of potential spread. The first few cases, reported at the start of my excursion aligned with a false sense of safety -- a belief this sort of thing occurs in other places and to other people, not in our own backyards. Day-to-day routines carried on. Slowly, the affliction began a choke hold on countries and cities across the world, finally leaping past perceived protections and embedding itself in our own hometowns and worried minds.
The reporting took up a vast majority of broadcast space, drowning out other newsworthy items. Like everyone else, I now sat up and paid attention thinking what if. Over meals, the original discussions still passed between us, now with the inclusion of the coronavirus topic. This plague, on an exponential growth curve was unleashing a path of disease and death, pushing us to reluctantly let go of life as we know it. Professors, professionals, and new authors hunkered down together within a hideaway to transcribe their internal voices, would now return to teaching online, office closings flipping the workspace to remote makeshift home offices and staying six feet apart from every human being. Basic life charges such as grocery shopping, bringing children to school and visiting friends and family would end. Every day encompassed a sorting and assimilation of new information -- all from afar. The false sense of a protective barrier came crashing down while observing the crisis in New York City, businesses and restaurants closing, kids facing homeschooling, and the leaders of my new town questioned breaking tradition by canceling the long-held St Patrick's Day parade. The time had to come to head home.
The weather did not cooperate after packing my bags and loading up my car and a deluge of rain prevented me from departing for two days. Writing continued but distractions abounded. New cases aggressively mounted and textbook instructions on handling a pandemic were constantly revised, handing down a sense of exhaustion and confusion. Weariness increased and at long last, bright sunshine woke me and I headed north. The interstate stood relatively empty with a sense of foreboding. My first break and peak at the world in person was to fill up at a gas station. Inside, I sensed the palpable nervous energy and witnessed early social distancing taking place. In the strangeness of it all, this ordinary occurrence turned into a SCIFI movie scene as people with glazed over eyes sitting atop masked faces avoided looking at one another, like visual contact alone would shoot poisoned arrows in all directions. Stunned, I anxiously hopped back in my car and took off, now more anxious than ever to be homeward bound.
A road trip often provides a platform for reflection and I drifted into the realization that a monumental editing of life was taking place; home would essentially be new territory. The radio kept me briefed and expanded my uneasiness simultaneously. A sense of dread persisted and accelerating a bit harder than usual gave me a sense of control, that each minute brought me closer to a semblance of security waiting back home. As if to prove me wrong, in the space of approximately 200 miles, I drove by three separate lifeless dogs on the side of the freeway. Those carcasses sent a shiver through me -- an unfolding impression of an apocalyptic warning. Anticipatory anxiety flooded over me with worry regarding what was to come, along with a sensation of having to give up all I recently obtained in a small mountain town.
Since the virus began its descent on European nations before I left, somewhere in my subconscious mind a low-level cautious mode took hold and I purchased disinfectant cloths with a just-in-case attitude. I arrived for my one-night hotel stay and assessed every possible touch point -- faucets, light switches, door handles -- and scrubbed them down vigorously with my now much-in-demand Lysol wipes. After completing the sterilization procedure, I settled in to turn on television for the first time in weeks. Quickly overwhelmed by a leadership briefing on the state of the microbe, along with maximum velocity data overload, I shut it off. I needed to maintain calmness for driving the rest of the way and this blast of disaster talk did not help.
Contemplating how life went from bliss to bleakness in a such a brief time, I recognized a sense of familiarity with this anguish. This upheaval bore emotional similarities to my cancer diagnosis twelve years ago, reminding me that life is a temporary status. Linking these incidents granted me strength with past insight on how to find a pathway through a collapse of normalcy. With serious illness, initial shock and disbelief permits a slowed down version of recognizing reality, making an allowance to adjust and navigate without letting angst take you down. Once the rocketing despair plateaus, a clearer mind assists in moving forward and adapting to an unknown future. This all takes time to grieve the loss of life as we know it and formulate measured steps to redirect course.
Once home, new structures and strategies took hold as we accepted this for what it was – we were in it for the long haul. Foreign rituals became routine. The reticence on wearing facial cover-ups gave way to matter-of-fact, even providing lightness in the moment when prideful fashion statements took the lead over foolish feelings of channeling a bandit. In the process of finding our way to the new normal of no hugging, donning colorful masks, missing our family and friends and haltingly stepping through the stages of grief -- denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance -- a new firestorm erupted, affixing to an already altered place in history.
In Minneapolis, on Memorial Day with the excruciating death of an unarmed black man, George Floyd, the stage was set for releasing long suppressed emotions. Like the characters in my book simmering for an eternity and waiting for the opportune time to rise up, the festering agony and restlessness of racial injustice ripened and moved to the forefront. Protesters, rioters, and National Guard members filled the streets resulting in peaceful demonstrations, burned out street corners and a call for change. Banding together, groups collected food and supplies for those hurt by the riots while business owners initiated storefront watches to take charge and protect primarily minority-owned stores. Many neighborhoods were left with only ashes.
In the foothills of Arkansas, I soon realized my time spent in self-discovery doubled as a training ground for forthcoming life-altering events -- a boot camp and primer for formulating a grand new story. What I sought on a personal level, to open my soul to the inner voice, readied me to open to the full chorus of voices now emerging with powerful stories to tell.
In the coming year, we will work together to make accommodations and alterations. The public will submit their own bodies to test vaccines and treatments to find effective and safe solutions for the coronavirus; and others, determined to move society to a better place, will offer their own histories, viewpoints and proposals on how to begin the staggering task of dismantling centuries of racism. This painful, uncomfortable, marathon year of unknowns and uncertainties has a fork in the road. One way is maintaining a rigid fixation on the way things are done and remain silent and subdued; or, the other way is to come out of hiding to participate in bringing into existence a new script, one embracing all realities. And in our narration, we can choose unity over discord and unleash our own hero, immersing ourselves in an awe-inspiring story just waiting to be told.