“Thwump, thwump, twump.” I felt the air shift over my head and slowly turned to follow the motion. I saw her just as she settled on a high branch of a Douglas fir. Barred Owl.
I stood looking at her as she swiveled her head, finally fixing eyes of black pools on me. We stood looking at each other for long moments; I not moving, hardly breathing; she swiveling her head away then back to me. Interested, not interested, interested.
It’s been a challenging week, betwixt and between. Last week, after a storm in Seattle resulted in widespread power outages that closed virtual school and sent the family home a day early, I found out I had been exposed to someone who had been exposed to someone who later had a positive Covid-19 test. Which meant, at the end of that string of pearls, my family—my pod—had potentially been exposed.
Emotions raged. I was scared. I was righteously angry. For all these months I have been so damn careful. I started wearing a mask before it was popular; I closed my Airbnb; I stayed away from family and friends; I rarely grocery shopped and only at dawn; my hair got long enough for a ponytail; I didn’t get a single pedicure. When summer came, I hiked in a mask and—full of self-righteous judgement—looked evil-eyed at the many who didn’t.
Against my better judgement, family beyond my pod came for a few hours on Christmas and I held my breath for days after until I knew we were all safe. And then, after eleven months, two weeks ago I let down my guard one more fucking time.
We waited. The first victim lost taste and smell and went for a test.
We waited for her test results while I imagined symptoms. My throat is scratchy. My temperature is normal but maybe the thermometer is broken. Was that a cough? Are muscle aches viral or from yoga? Is my chest tight because it’s been tight for eleven months and especially since January 6, or is it a symptom? I drank quarts of water. It took 30 forever hours for the results. The text message came at bedtime.
Positive. Shit. Shit. Shit.
I raged, I cried. I notified my live-in family, then found a place to get tested myself and snagged an appointment for the next day. I took a full dose of NyQuil so I could sleep, waking every two hours, assessing the status of my throat—it’s worse, it’s better, it’s worse—and cupping my hands over my nose to make sure I could smell.
While I wait for test results, I walk in the woods. The owl is only the second one I have seen there, the first years ago and spotted first by a friend. Two weeks ago, though, the thwump of passing wings flew over me from my self-created Three of Earth Farm trail toward the second trail—carved out through the blackberry vines and fallen branches last spring—where I stood this week looking into hooded eyes seeking sleep in the quiet foggy woods. I didn’t see that one, but I christen the unnamed trail “Owl Trail.”
I startle a deer and she bounds off, then turns to look at me. Her movement alerts a second one who leaps the trail in front of me and also stops to make eye contact. I see many deer on my property, but other than one a few weeks ago, have never seen one in the woods.
“All will be well,” the owl and the deer seem to say. “Be not afraid.”
The family is tested the day after my test, and—in the city—results are back in less than 24 hours. All negative. The first victim is not too sick, my scratchy throat has gone away. I am cautiously optimistic as I wait for my report. But we are quarantined, and I have an unexpected ten-day break from pandemic school.
Back in the woods, with my camera now, I stand still and look up for the owl, but don’t see her. I practice walking silently, imagining my feet clad in soft leather rather than teal rubber. I am in sacred space; space that belongs not to me, but to the creatures. I am an interloper, ethically bound to show respect. I slow down, still my chatty head, try to be aware only of the breath of the forest. I try to let go of worry in my body and for the world beyond. When fear creeps back in, I return to the breath, to the trees.
Dew-covered spider webs glisten in filtered sunlight. Fog settles around the sword fern. A flock of small birds flits from branch to branch in the tops of the trees. I don’t see the owl again, or the deer, but they are here. Watching. I disrespect them when I walk fast, paying no attention to the sound of my feet, the swish of my coat, the click of my camera, even the sound of my breath.
On Sunday, my police officer son is on standby in Asheville, North Carolina for crowd control Tuesday and Wednesday and I worry. On Monday, I order groceries online for the first time, and pick them up the next day in the parking lot. On Tuesday, I look for where to get vaccinated after the age requirement for Phase 1-B vaccination eligibility is lowered to include me, but there are no unfilled slots for the current supply of vaccine. On Wednesday, I get an email telling me that due to large demand, my test results will take longer than the promised 1-3 days. Because the family is sequestered in Seattle, I am able to watch inauguration coverage all day and I feel the pressure in my chest lift as a kind, competent, diverse administration is sworn in. At the end of the day, there has been no unrest in Asheville, or anywhere that I know of.
Adrian calls on FaceTime. “Gigi,” he says, “do you want to do our pretend stories? Do you? Do you? Because that’s what we say.” Yes, my dear child, that is what we say; you and me. We tell our stories, we live our stories; our pretend ones and our real ones…it’s hard to know the difference sometimes, but they all belong to us.
And every day, while I wait, I return to long, slow, silent walks in the forest.
On Wednesday afternoon, taking a break from post-ceremony news coverage, I stand on Owl Trail, head tilted back scanning the trees for the owl, and a brown-headed American eagle flaps silently, majestically over the tops of the bare alder trees. My heart stops. I feel in the presence of great truth: America’s journey into her future will not be a glide, it will be hard work, it has always been hard work; but a democracy is still who we are. Our differences do not divide us, our lack of acceptance for difference does. With strength and dignity, we will draw a circle, and invite everyone in.
Thursday morning I wake up to an email on my phone from Project Baseline: “Coronavirus (COVID-19) test results available” says the subject line. My breath catches, my chest tightens. As the days dragged on, it seemed like a foregone conclusion that I was not infected. Either that or I’m asymptomatic. But suddenly now it feels like all bets are off. All that matters is the content of this email. I click it open. A purple box says “VIEW RESULTS.” I click, ready and not ready to know for sure. A sign-in page. I click “next” under my ID and password. The top box directs me to “click here to get tested.” The next box “click here to view results.” It’s like Russian nesting dolls. Maybe I don’t want to know what the one buried inside says.
I click one more time. “Covid-19 Testing: Negative.” Every molecule of air in my body leaves.
I thought it would be anti-climatic. It was not. I am released from a way too close call. I send good news to my family and the six others I’d told who had supported me as I waited. And then I check the vaccine delivery sites again. Full.
You can find me in the woods. But be quiet; we are not alone.
“…Let the globe, if nothing else, say this is true:
That even as we grieved, we grew
That even as we hurt, we hoped
That even as we tired, we tried…
…For there is always light,
if only we’re brave enough to see it
If only we’re brave enough to be it.”
—Amanda Gorman, National Youth Poet Laureate