Editor’s Notebook: A tumultuous privacy of pandemic

October 13, 2021 6:05 am
A red leaf on damp earth

The leaf that turned, too soon, and fell. (Dana Wormald | New Hampshire Bulletin)

Sometimes a bright red leaf on damp earth is enough to break your heart.

I took the photo in August, during a long walk on a quiet road, a full four weeks before the official beginning of autumn. It was a warm Sunday afternoon, and I wasn’t so much caught in the rain as chasing it. As an adult I’m always running from the weather instead of joyfully into it as I once did, but for one little splinter of summer I broke free.

There are other photos from that day, too: a hastily constructed stone wall, a fallen tree, raindrops on the river. But I know about those only because I can see them in my phone’s camera roll. I never forgot about the leaf. And on Monday morning, during my first real commute into an office since March 2020, I couldn’t stop thinking about it.

The leaf that turned, too soon, and fell.

And somewhat randomly, or so it seemed on Monday morning, I thought about a Ralph Waldo Emerson poem titled “The Snow-Storm.” The first stanza reads:

Announced by all the trumpets of the sky,
Arrives the snow, and, driving o’er the fields,
Seems nowhere to alight: the whited air
Hides hills and woods, the river, and the heaven,
And veils the farm-house at the garden’s end.
The sled and traveller stopped, the courier’s feet
Delayed, all friends shut out, the housemates sit
Around the radiant fireplace, enclosed
In a tumultuous privacy of storm.

For a year and a half, the pandemic has been the ultimate “tumultuous privacy of storm.” As the tragedy unfolded, many of us were forced to swap old routines for new ones. We ventured out only when absolutely necessary, learned the ins and outs of Zoom and Google Meet, and mixed almost exclusively with the treasured members of our bubbles. As the vaccine became widely available in the spring, the world opened up a bit, but a summer spike in cases sent many of us stumbling, dazed, back into our cocoons.

What I realized on Monday morning, with surprising melancholy, was not only had I made peace with the routine thrust upon me by an 18-month “tumultuous privacy of storm,” I had actually become fully attached to it. In these troubled times, I was anchored by monotony.

I was a homebody long before the pandemic, but I was hardly a recluse. I liked going out into the world now and again to see a concert or eat at a restaurant, maybe catch a basketball game. And although I won’t say I loved going into work before March 2020, there’s nothing quite like being in a newsroom. 

But what I really love is time with my wife and daughters, and that’s the one thing the pandemic gave rather than took away. For hundreds of days in a row, we were trapped in our privacy of storm. Yes, we were scared and watched helplessly as so many lost so much. And inside our protective bubble, I saw with painful clarity how much my girls were losing of their adolescence – not just academically but socially. I knew that even if they made it through all of this without ever losing someone to COVID or contracting it themselves, they would carry its scars forever. 

It has been the greatest tragedy of our lives. But through it all, we were together.

On a hot August day, during a long walk on a quiet road, I spotted something ahead that seemed unnaturally red. Trash, probably, I thought. As I got closer, though, I realized it was a leaf that had turned, too soon, and fallen. Nature makes no mistakes, but it was an obvious bit of foreshadowing clumsily stitched into a verdant landscape. 

Still, the first day of school – in-person school – was just a week away then, and soon enough the Bulletin’s new office space would be ready for its eager tenants. Autumn was coming, and change – good change – along with it. Ever so slowly, the “tumultuous privacy of storm” was breaking.

And, then, on Monday morning, as I traveled toward the office along that same road I had walked during a light August rain, I saw tree after tree bursting toward full autumn glory. Amid a sea of gold I thought only of one red leaf – a solitary harbinger of change on the horizon. One chapter ending, ready or not, and another beginning.

Sometimes, it’s enough to break your heart.

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Dana Wormald
Dana Wormald

Dana Wormald, a lifelong resident of New Hampshire, has been a newspaper editor for more than 25 years. He began his career on the Concord Monitor’s news desk in 1995 and later spent more than a decade at the New Hampshire Union Leader. In 2014, he returned to the Monitor to serve as opinion editor, a position he held until being named editor of the Bulletin.