Playing Tourist at Home in Oregon

Grotto

Five days ago, I wrote that no cases of the coronavirus had been reported in Oregon. Maybe people were overreacting. But those reactions had caused me to cancel my trip to the AWP conference in San Antonio and stay home. Now there are 14 known cases in Oregon, and Gov. Kate Brown has added our state to the ones declaring a state of emergency.

The Archdiocese of Portland has asked its churches to stop giving out wine at Communion and to stop shaking hands at the Sign of Peace. I’ve been to Mass three times at three different churches in the last week. At two of those Masses, nobody held hands, shook hands or touched in any way. At our own church yesterday, our pastor noted that life is full of risk and we could decide for ourselves whether to hold hands—so we did. He also reminded us to use the big bottle of hand sanitizer on the way out.

What’s going to happen? Nobody knows for sure. I still worry that the reaction will cause more harm than the disease, but I could be wrong.

I was supposed to be celebrating my birthday today with friends in Texas. Instead, I’m back at home with no birthday plans beyond eating a red velvet cupcake I bought for myself and watching the Bachelor finale on TV. Stupidest season ever? It is, but do not call me after 8 p.m. PDT.

Since I was already out in the world with a packed suitcase, writing materials and free time, I played tourist in Oregon last week. I wrote in the mornings and went exploring in the afternoons, which sounds like a perfect vacation for a writer.

The weather was sunny but cold when I visited the Grotto, a Catholic sanctuary in Portland. I walked the paths admiring the plants, statues and shrines, reading and thinking about Jesus, Mary and Joseph, walking the labyrinth, saying hello to the ducks in the pond, and feeling all my anxieties melt away. I was exactly where I needed to be. When my feet got tired, I sat in the warm glass-walled meditation chapel soaking in the quiet as I looked out over the city past the freeway to Mt. Hood. Leaning back in my soft leather chair, I watched the white clouds moving slowly by and felt blessed.

Salem RiverfrontFrom Portland, I headed south to Salem, where I checked into a much nicer hotel, then walked through the Riverfront Park, which I hadn’t even known existed. It offers miles of walking/jogging paths along the Willamette, a playground and a carousel. I walked, then sat on a bench in the sun watching the world go by, taking pictures, and writing in my notebook. When hunger hit, I treated myself to a steak salad at the Capital Café.

The next day, I went shopping in downtown Salem, where I was sad to see the sidewalks jammed with homeless people and their possessions. So many. And it was cold. I was heading into the stores with money to burn, having filled my wallet with cash for the Texas trip that didn’t happen. I found treasures—music supplies, clothes, books—but I felt guilty as I stashed them in the car and left for Silverton, the small town on the way to the Oregon Garden.

Oregon Garden 3520Early March is not a good time to visit the garden. The visitors’ center was closed, the fountains were turned off, and most of the plants were still dormant for winter. The roses looked like dead sticks, the trees were bare, and the daises were just dry leaves. Only the daffodils were blooming. On the good side, I had most of the garden to myself. I walked and walked, resting on benches in the sun, thinking and taking notes for a poem about “potential,” about how inside these bare sticks are the makings for glorious flowers and fruits.

While the world was going nuts over coronavirus and while my favorite candidates were dropping out of the presidential race, while the stock market was plummeting in panic and both sides violated their agreement in the war in Afghanistan, I roamed among the sleeping plants and let it all go. I felt the sun on my face, breathed in fresh air scented with fertilizer, and watched a squirrel watching me from a stone wall. He was close enough for me to admire the different shades of brown in his fur.

I usually give up French fries for Lent. This year, I have chosen to give up Internet, TV and radio for two hours every day while I do something physical and real. We all need this. It’s so hard to tear ourselves away from our screens and our perpetual noise, especially with so much going on in the news, but we need to focus on what’s real right here and now.

I’m sad that I missed AWP. I’m sad that I didn’t see my friends. I’m sad that today is my first birthday without my father, but the sun is shining, I played a ton of music over the last two days, and now I’m here at home writing in my pajamas as Annie dozes nearby. What’s better than that?

How about you? Has coronavirus changed your plans? Are you worried about the illness or its effects? Is there a way to make lemonade out of these lemons? I welcome your comments.

 

 

Coronavirus Fears Change Travel Plans

The best-laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Robert Burns

I expected to be in Texas by now. Instead, I am typing this in a crummy hotel near the Portland airport because I decided at the last minute not to go to the AWP conference in San Antonio and follow it up by visiting friends and exploring Texas by car. Even as I drove north toward Portland for my “park and fly” hotel, I was debating whether or not I’d really get on the plane. Why?

Sure, I hate flying, and I hate leaving Annie, and I hate being without my piano and guitar, and and and . . . It was none of that. It was the coronavirus and not even so much that I was afraid of getting sick or spreading the disease, although those are worthy fears. No, it was that publishers, editors and speakers were cancelling out of the conference by the dozen. The mayor of San Antonio had declared a medical emergency, mostly because one woman in quarantine was released for 12 hours and turned out to have the virus. She’s back in quarantine now.

My own publisher of Gravel Road Ahead cancelled Tuesday morning, and the publisher for The Widow at the Piano wasn’t going in the first place. All those famous writers I had hoped to see, all those connections I had hoped to make—it was not likely to happen. Not because of the coronavirus but FEAR of the coronavirus, a flu-like illness that has killed only a few people in the U.S. so far but many more in Asia.

It does seem to be spreading rather rapidly, although you can find plenty of people who say it’s no big deal and that folks are making too much of it. I don’t know. But my conference was not going to offer what I wanted.

I prayed, asking God, go or no go? Everything was all set up. My color-coordinated clothes, books and handouts were packed. Annie’s sleep-in dogsitter was on her way.

But if I didn’t go to Texas, I could do all the things I hadn’t had time to do before I left, like get my hair cut and pick up more medicine for my dog. I could go to the Grotto, Oregon gardens, and Mt. Angel. I could shop in all those stores we don’t have at home. I could sample guitars at the music stores and promote my books at the bookstores.

When I was an hour from Portland, my friend called to say she was sick and not up to company so I should not come.

Okay, God, that’s a pretty clear sign. I would go as far as Portland and no farther.

I spent three hours on the phone trying to cancel my reservations, most of that time waiting for AAA, through which I made the reservations. I suspect thousands of people are cancelling their trip plans. The obnoxious hold music went on forever. Finally, I got a guy with a Jamaican accent who informed me that my plane tickets were non-refundable and I might as well just not show up. Then he put me back on hold for a young woman who told me I’d pay a $200 penalty on my cancelled rental car. A young woman in Massachusetts told me she could not do anything about my reservation at the Marriott in San Antonio; I should call back in the morning. (When I did, a Texas woman told me she would cancel the reservation. Refund? Too late.) Calls done, I took myself out to dinner at the Shilo Inn and got drunk on red wine.

As for the conference, they’re applying this year’s fees to next year’s shindig in Kansas City. They should have just cancelled. I understand that they have worked on it all year, but throwing a poor conference full of empty tables and missing speakers surely is worse than not doing it at all.

I’m going to be out $1,500 or so for the privilege of not going to San Antonio. I looked forward to it. I bought the tee shirt. I envisioned walking along the river outside the hotel. Well, I’ll go to Texas another time—by car. This week, I’ll enjoy the local attractions and go home early.

Meanwhile, the world is beginning to panic. It’s probably justified in China and other countries where lots of people are sick and dying. But even on the Oregon coast, where not a single person has been diagnosed with the disease, people are stocking up on hand sanitizer, water and toilet paper. Our church has decided we will not have wine at Communion and should not shake hands or touch in any way. Okay, we have done that during flu epidemics, and this virus is trickier because people are contagious for days before they show symptoms. While I’m healthy, some of my friends are not, and I sure wouldn’t want to make them sick.

Yet, at this Super 8 where nothing looks clean, I was at the breakfast bar trying to separate a lid from the pile for my Styrofoam coffee cup and thought about how other people have also touched the whole stack trying to get a lid. They have touched the coffee urns, the tongs and lids for the food, the buttons on the orange juice machine, and the dipper for the waffle iron. Should hotels shut down their breakfast rooms? What about restaurants, stores, gyms, swimming pools, schools, businesses? How far can the precautions logically go? Will this lead to an economic collapse?

I feel very safe from illness at home in the woods with Annie, but if you step out at all—and you have to at some point—you take a risk, whether you’re in Texas or anywhere else.

What’s happening where you live? Are you afraid you’ll get coronavirus? Have you cancelled travel plans or stocked up on supplies? Let’s talk about it.