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A Writer’s Sacred Task to Observe

Fort Collins during quarantine by Miles Samuel

As writers, one of our sacred tasks is to observe, to pay attention to what’s happening around us. Some of us journal or keep diaries, but that’s not the only way to observe. We can also just stay present, be here now.

Our now is not particularly pleasant. It’s weird and uncomfortable and unpredictable. Are we nearly through this whole mess, or will it resurge in the fall? What’s going to happen to us politically? Socially? As a country with a national identity?

No one knows.

Not knowing is getting old, for all of us. It was one thing to imagine we’d just hunker down for a big crisis, get through it, and then pick up our lives on the other side. We didn’t expect this long, endless slog. I mean, it’s not getting bombed every night for nine months, which is what happened to London during the Blitz. It’s not the Black Death. It’s not a lot of things.

But…you know, it’s now. It’s Our Times. As writers, one thing we can do is stay present and notice what’s happening. In March and then in June and now, and continuing on until we are finished. (Even the Blitz ended. Even that war. Even the Black Death. Even this.)

Last week, I took a photo of my granddaughters and me in my garden. It’s a lush summer day. Squash vines wander up the trellis in the back. Blanket flowers burst in exuberance at our feet. Lavender and phlox are blooming.

Observation: My garden is a marvel this year.  I have bushels of cherry tomatoes, three kinds of squash, and an experiment with the seeds of Aloha peppers that is yet to be finished. It may be that I end up with some form of ordinary sweet pepper, but as I was stuck in my house and feeling fearful that I might not ever be able to shop the way I had in the past, the experiment with the seeds seemed worthwhile.

The garden is lush, of course, because I’ve had time to lavish upon it. I haven’t gone anywhere since late January, so planning and rearranging and starting seeds in the new greenhouse have been my passion, my relief, my escape, as gardens have been across the country.  It’s one of the blessings of the pandemic, this focus on growing, touching the land, burying our hands in the earth to bring forth things we can eat.

Looking at that photo, I felt the sense of time speeding up. Traffic is more noticeable again, and parking lots are a little busier. The numbers in my state are dropping dramatically, so people feel safer, and wander out, blinking, to socially-distance shop.

One day, sooner than we can imagine, it will be over. All of this—our pain and fear, our strange new pastimes and happy explorations of homely arts, our stockpiling of cleaning products, our long days home—will slip away into the past.

So where are we now? What’s happening? What can you see from where you are?  What has changed, both in your local world and for you personally?

It might be worthwhile to spend some time writing about what you see from here, right now. Right now, you might be able to capture and incorporate some of the observations that we missed during the height of our fears.

In my neighborhood, people started walking. It’s an outdoorsy state, so there have always been people out, but the number of daily walkers has exploded. Couples, friends, siblings, little family groups with dogs and tricycles, everyone out for a daily constitutional. I hope that continues. Walking is a kind, healthy, simple habit.

I hope the gardening continues, too, and the bread baking, but—will they? It’s time consuming if you’re working and commuting, balancing family and exercise and all those other things people did every day before the pandemic.

Will that change, I wonder? Will people really want to pick up the intensity of those overly-busy lives? Will time be more precious?

Things have shifted for me. I spent so many days on the road last year, teaching and helping with family challenges, that I was an exhausted, grouchy wreck by the end of the year. I was also writing a novel, and then revising it, much of that work done in hotel rooms. I love travel, but …do I like that kind of travel?

Maybe I don’t.

If there had been no pandemic, I’d be on trip five or six by now, at the very least. I’d be struggling to eat well on the road and telling myself it wasn’t at all lonely, and that I liked sleeping without a cat on my head, all things I told myself to keep moving, keep fulfilling my responsibilities.

The book I wrote this year came easily, mainly because I wrote it right here at my desk, with an ergonomic set up that suits me, and all my things around me (a cat on my feet, my special Auckland coffee mug, laundry tumbling in the dryer down the hall, my healthy snacks just a flight of stairs away).  Despite the worry and the weirdness, I wasn’t constantly exhausted. I spent my energy on that garden, and the reward is remarkable.

Before the pandemic, would I even have noticed that I was so tired?

I don’t know. I doubt it. I would have just kept saying yes because I thought I should. The gift of this time for me is a chance to stop and listen to what I might really want. I still want to travel, desperately, but maybe not the way I was doing it before.

How about you? Have you learned something about yourself and your life? Write about it. This pandemic season will end, sooner or later. What will you miss? Write about it.

These are the things I’m observing in my world, mid-pandemic. What are you observing about yourself and your world?  How will these things influence our writing going forward?  Let’s talk about it.

About Barbara O'Neal [1]

Barbara O'Neal [2] has written a number of highly acclaimed novels, including 2012 RITA winner, How To Bake A Perfect Life [3], which landed her in the RWA Hall of Fame and was a Target Club Pick. She is a highly respected teacher who also publishes material for writers at Patreon.com/barbaraoneal. She is at work on her next novel to be published by Lake Union in July. A complete backlist is available here [4].