Teri Orr: The thing with feathers…
At first we knew what to do. We went to the grocery and liquor stores with doomsday lists and stocked up. We would be hunkered in our homes — sheltered in place — for two weeks, maybe more, and we could do that. We took on the adventure of it. There was baking we didn’t do during the holidays and more fires to be had in the fireplace. The book stack grew because to have stolen time to read would be delicious.
Chat groups formed online and in text message links. We could handle this crisis to help stop the spread of a deadly disease we knew so little about. We started binge watching shows and sharing recipes. We took some cash out of the bank — just in case.
By the time two weeks became two months, we could recite the top 10 shows everyone was streaming. We had made all the cookies and burned all the wood. There was no order to our days. Those still working now had home offices even if it was their living room. Mastering a Zoom call became the measure of success. Was the sound good/the lighting/the backdrop not distracting but also not too manipulated? It occupied us for awhile.
The lack of routine meant we could sleep in and stay up late. We could wear comfy clothes and slippers all day long. With the inability to go to normal maintenance appointments, our beauty routines became reduced measures — did I brush my teeth this morning? What do I do with hair this length? And the cleaning began — the giant green garbage bags of too many clothes and towels and sheets and stuff found their way to the Christian Center and the Peace House.
The meal online service we had never tried before got tried and we compared who had great pre-packaged ingredients with recipes that you cooked yourself — imagine that! Then local meals were available for drive-up/pick-up and then a few restaurants opened with distances. And masks became de rigueur until they became political.
After the snow melted and spring showed up it gave us hope, as is its tradition. And despite or in spite of it all, flowers came up without coaching and birds returned and hope whispered some mornings with the new growth.
But the news kept getting grimmer. The dead were stacking up in refrigerated trucks in New York City and on the Navajo reservation where the funeral home couldn’t keep up. So many people were dying that we lost track of what 150 humans looked like dead in one day. And that the families could not be with them to say goodbye broke our hearts. And the horror stories the doctors and nurses told of lack of equipment and/or medicines. Not to cure — just to ease the final pain.
We watched the news too much — all the time. Mostly our favorite channels but sometimes floating over to a channel that offered differing opinions — like visiting another country, really. And then the killings of Black folks had our undivided attention. We watched in a loop the video taken showing the slow painful death at the knee of a police officer — the death of George Floyd. We watched the men hunting from a pick-up truck for Ahmaud Arbery. We heard again the front door break — in the story of the violent police shooting death of Breonna Taylor. And from D.C. to Portland the country blew up. Propelled by police violence against Black people. And we had race riots and protests and buildings burned in cities across the country and even right here downtown in seemingly vanilla-safe Salt Lake City. The perfect storm of unrest was raining down across the country with batons and tear gas and rubber bullets fired at non-violent protesters.
The flags celebrating slavery came down as did the monuments — sometimes toppled in the middle of the night. And the displacement of all those feelings were hot. Tough conversations in families and with friends and neighbors. We had been harboring our daddy’s daddy’s racism and we had to own those pieces of it we hadn’t yet walked fully away from. Even Aunt Jemima toppled along with Uncle Ben and the Washington Redskins discarded their name and found a new one.
And our kids — oh our sweet innocent confused frustrated over-connected children were suddenly kind of feral children. The constant managing of schedules dissolved months ago along with lessons and playdates and regular mealtimes. Their education became our job on top of our job on top of meals and laundry and weeds in the yard. All jobs became our job.
So this week when Michelle Obama confessed in a podcast that she was suffering from low-grade depression — we kinda let out a collective sigh of compassionate relief. If one of the strongest examples for decades — of grace under pressure — was dropping her basket a bit, then maybe it made some strange sense we were too. “These are not fulfilling times spiritually,” she said. And there is a “heaviness” she feels when she wakes up worrying in the middle of the night. We share that feeling.
We don’t have a way out yet. Not from a pandemic — not from a long broken education system — not from systematic racism — not from financial insecurity, not even from food insecurity. We should be sad. We can admit it is depressing. The months of isolation have changed our habits, sure — but also our connections and lifelines and mindsets and values.
“Hope “is the thing with feathers,” Emily Dickinson wrote. I think of this each time I find a feather in my yard right now. I have tucked them into the cracks around my door frame — mostly magpie feathers — some from doves. But this week I came upon a feather I had never seen land in my yard in all my 40 years here. It was white and grayish brown and striped.
“Owl,” I whispered to no one. And I debated about picking it up. In native cultures the owl is traditionally a symbol of death — “I heard the owl call my name.” I remember, too, a medicine woman telling me to not always be so literal — the death could be the death of a relationship or way of life — something more metaphoric. Sometimes things have to die before something new can grow there.
The weight of that owl feather was heavy in my the palm of my hand — suspended in time. Finally, I chose to tuck it in the door frame along with the others. For now, I will refill the birdfeeders and look for feathers — wherever I can find them — this Sunday in the Park…
Teri Orr is a former editor of The Park Record. She is the founder and director emeritus of the Park City Institute, which provides programming for the George S. and Dolores Doré Eccles Center for the Performing Arts.
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