Shelter by Patty Somlo

I don’t remember the first time I heard the term “shelter-in-place.” Like many expressions that come out of nowhere and get repeated ad nauseum, turning into clichés, shelter-in-place probably entered my consciousness from the local nightly news. Until the coronavirus began to dominate TV news coverage, reporters in my area, which covers San Francisco and its sprawling suburbs, focused on grizzly car accidents, house fires, and of course, shootings. From time to time, a shooter would be pursued, and residents warned to shelter-in-place.

The term has been used more frequently in the past two decades with the rise in school shootings. Students practice active shooter drills, in which they shelter-in-place until first responders arrive and the danger has passed.

We’ve come to rely on sheltering-in-place to save us from a dangerous world. The shooter will stay on the street or in the school corridors, we pray. Toxic chemicals released into the air will remain outside.

Instead of sheltering-in-place, I grew up in the duck-and-cover era. We practiced duck-and-cover drills in school, scrambling under our combination desks and chairs, in preparation for, of all things, an attack with a nuclear weapon. I was much too young to realize the utter absurdity of expecting a thin sheet of pine to save me from nuclear annihilation. I simply did what I was told. Years later, I know the horrendous damage done by the atomic bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and recognize that school desks couldn’t have saved anyone. 

It’s unclear to me if the world was more dangerous then or now. I do know that the dangers have changed. In the face of some, like the perils from rapidly accelerating climate change, we are doing little, which is about as helpful as hiding under a small schoolroom desk. Rather than sheltering-in-place, we’re often forced to evacuate, when the effects of the climate crisis, such as devastating wildfires and floods, occur.  

Of course, now we have a new reason to shelter-in-place, the highly infectious and potentially deadly coronavirus. The current threat is different from others we have recently faced, but the misinformation and denial surrounding it remind me of my duck-and-cover days.

As someone in the age-related risk group for serious consequences from COVID-19 and living with an immunocompromised spouse, I only feel safe when I’m at home. Regardless of how much our local or state shelter-in-place orders have eased, my husband and I won’t be venturing far, until the daily Covid-19 cases go way down.

This situation has made me think about people in the United States and around the world who don’t have the option of sheltering-in-place, no matter how serious the threat. Nursing homes, where the largest number of at-risk people have had to shelter, have turned out to be the most dangerous. One-third or more of the deaths in this country from COVID-19 can be attributed to nursing home residents.

Then there are the incarcerated, held in jails and prisons, which from all accounts weren’t the least bit safe before the novel coronavirus, and have now become veritable petri dishes in which the disease spreads. And it’s impossible to shelter at home for people who didn’t have a home before the virus hit.

Whenever I think hard about a word or phrase, I like to consult my dictionary. The book is huge and heavy, with a dark blue cover and a large title in shiny gold lettering. When I’m in a hurry, I Google words for their meaning, correct spelling or synonyms. Yet I still love the old-fashioned way of looking up a word, in such an impressive book.

My copy of Webster’s New World Dictionary of the American Language says the volume was published in 1978. I’m not surprised to find that this version, the Second College Edition, doesn’t include the term, “shelter-in-place.” It does, though, have the word shelter, which means something that covers or protects. One synonym is refuge.

The irony of trying to stay safe in a dangerous world is that you sometimes have to retreat from it. Several years ago, I taught a weekly writing workshop at a large homeless shelter, located at the edge of town. I didn’t befriend too many of the men and women who found themselves needing to sleep in that warehouse-like space. But from the people I did get to know, I concluded that being homeless is a kind of retreat from the world. Many of the chronically homeless, who suffer from various mental health challenges and addictions, feel threatened by what other people consider normal life. Retreating from that life and creating an alternative one on the street feels safer.

For some people, home is a dangerous place, either in childhood or as an adult. It’s also impossible to ignore the plight of too many people of color, who feel threatened wherever they find themselves.

We have seen the pandemic rip apart the notions of America’s exceptionalism. Racial and class divides, and yawning inequality, have become too glaringly obvious to be ignored. So, in this sense, it’s clear. Sheltering-in-place is a privilege, only available to some.

A therapist I saw for a number of years often counseled me to hold both. It’s possible, she would remind me, to feel both happy and sad, at the same time. For instance, ending even a bad relationship can feel like a loss.

So, every day, I try and remind myself to hold both. On the one hand, I am grateful to have a home, enough money to buy plenty of food and toilet paper, and a patio and garden, where I can sit and enjoy the outdoors. On the other hand, I miss life. I miss greeting friendly Lisa and handsome Hector when I check into my local YMCA, and then chatting with Morgan and Scott in the workout room upstairs. I desperately miss spending time in the library, searching for a book I can’t wait to crack open. I miss going to San Francisco and strolling around my old neighborhood, eating dim sum at a favorite restaurant on Geary Street and reminiscing with my husband about the fun times we had when we lived there. I miss restaurants, getting a teeny bit dressed up, to go out and meet friends, who’ve gotten there before us, because I’m always late. And of course, I just miss life.

Every so often, I wallow. I look ahead and consider how long it might be before we can go back to the life we once enjoyed. Each time I do this, though, I try and pull myself back to the present, saying, You must only focus on now.

That’s when I recall lessons learned in a mindfulness meditation class I took several years ago, that helped me get through another difficult time. In one session, we were introduced to the concept of Beginner’s Mind, in which you try to see everything, as if for the very first time. We closed our eyes, and someone came around and placed several small objects in our hands. We were told to touch the objects and imagine their characteristics, as if they’d been brought by aliens from another planet.

I knew right away that the small, squishy things were raisins. But I pretended otherwise. At one point, I thought, This is uncooked dough. I could pop these into the oven and bake miniature pizzas.

Objectively, I also know that this shelter-in-place can sometimes feel more like a prison than a refuge. I’m aware that we may not be released for a long time. But I will do my best to focus on the pleasures of tending a garden, which until now I’d been too busy or lazy to work on. And when the tomatoes ripen and I take that first bite, I will celebrate the almost indescribable flavor exploding in my mouth, knowing I’ve never tasted anything quite so delicious before.   

Patty Somlo’s most recent book, Hairway to Heaven Stories, was published by Cherry Castle Publishing, a Black-owned press committed to literary activism. Hairway was a Finalist in the American Fiction Awards and Best Book Awards. Two of Somlo’s previous books, The First to Disappear (Spuyten Duyvil) and Even When Trapped Behind Clouds: A Memoir of Quiet Grace (WiDo Publishing), were Finalists in several book contests. Her work has appeared in Guernica, Gravel, Sheepshead Review, Under the Sun, the Los Angeles Review, and The Nassau Review, among others, and in over 30 anthologies. She received Honorable Mention for Fiction in the Women’s National Book Association Contest, was a Finalist in the Parks and Points Essay Contest, had an essay selected as Notable for Best American Essays, and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize multiple times, as well as to Best of the Net.

Twitter: @PattySomlo


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