The Spring That Wasn’t: Coronavirus and Experiencing Nature in Isolation

A fleeting glimpse of a passing spring left an indelible mark in memory and human experience: snippets of a fragmented diary about life in self-isolation in Virginia.

A picture from the Cherry Blossom Festival in Washington, D.C.

As flowers enveloped trees amid the earlier-than-expected arrival of spring, there is something missing in the air. The inspiring beauty of the landscape does not inspire any joy or exaltation. There is a brutal irony between the all-conquering allure of spring and the frightened human being who locked himself/herself to the walls of his/her residence.

Normally, these are the times to celebrate. But these days, the fear of an unseen enemy — a deadly virus — overwhelms the joy of the spring. The contrast has never been sharper. The promise of the sunlight and the fear of the dark clouds of virus appear to be in a perpetual clash in our mental map. We are prisoners in our own house. A fleeting glimpse of a passing spring fails to capture its soul and essence. For this reason, it would be safe to state that this year “the spring that never was…”

I wrote those impromptu lines above no more than a week after I confined myself into self-isolation at a relatively beautiful townhouse in Fairfax, Virginia, back in early March. I remember the day very well. It was March 10 when I, earlier than before the state lockdown, made up my mind after being overwhelmed by the horror tales of a globe-trotting virus and its lethal, contagious power. During this time (if the concept of time means anything), I suspended my freelance work outside. Since my school and other work moved online, there was only one thing to do: self-study, remote work and idling. It was not like the famous phrase attributed to the Roman Emperor Nero: fiddling while Rome burns. Mine was like a prisoner’s tale. Someone who was stuck at home against his own will. The forces of nature were unstoppable and beyond my control after all.

A week later, I scribbled down the note below:

Some occasional messages. And the rest is long intervals of silence. An eerie silence, sometimes deafening, sometimes unbearable… the only sound at home, a maddening, non-stop sequence of drops from a broken pipe in the laundry I lately failed to fix. The scene is no different than “Notes From Underground” by Dostoevsky. What I do right now is not only to wage a battle against an unseen enemy — it can be anywhere, here or there — but also to preserve my sanity against the overwhelming forces of boredom and the mundane things of a boring daily life…

Although I did not chronicle my observation of the self, the lockdown, nature and a passing spring as passionately and detailed as many artists/writers did, I still sought to ruminate over the profound impact of this period on me, with the house as the dominant set character, plot and central theme in this ever-moving (or unmoving) drama. The home became not only a natural venue for my habitation. It has also become an extended office, a prison of sorts and my entire world whose outer boundaries are demarcated by the outside doors. It no longer separates the outside and inside world since there is no outside and inside left. They all dissolved into a single unit in the mental continuum of the ‘concept of home.’ Everywhere is home or nowhere is home if there is one left at all.

Occasional walks reminded me of the changing nature. But the experience of nature was as elusive as it ever could be. It was the first time that I was reduced to a mere spectator from a distance while spring, with its almighty beauty, slowly slipped away.

The conditions of austerity in terms of movement and strict adherence to distancing while even walking came to redefine human nature as a social animal. Our societal side has been utterly shredded. In the span of these past three months, I, along with roommates, went to D.C. once, only to stay in the car. This was late March. Our hope to witness Cherry Blossom fell victim to a gross miscalculation. It was like an invasion of D.C. by bored people on that sunny Sunday and we simply turned back from Washington Monument even without our setting foot outside the car to avoid the risk of getting close to the crowd.

Weeks followed, then months passed. Time rolled forward in its eternal pace.

On work and study, I came to notice that the digital connectedness to the outside world has had its own pros and cons. Without the time-consuming commuting, I’ve had more time indeed. But having an abundance of time does not necessarily mean full-scale productivity. It oscillates between mediocrity and a proficient study, depending on the mood.

In another short take, I wrote on my phone after a failed attempt to sleep in April.

“It’s been more than a month now. Another attempt for early sleep ended up in a failure wrapped up by darkness, confusion and a loss of sense. For more than two hours, I was in bed, wallowing in endless thoughts. And sleep slipped away from me, gone.

When I literally became a prisoner in my own home since the lockdown triggered by the outbreak of Covid-19, I summoned all my courage to look at this self-isolation from the bright side: I told myself that I would have plenty of time that I would ever imagine. Paradoxically, I saw a spectacular decline in productivity. I’ve had abundance of time yet I was not able channel it to more study. With time came laziness, poor management and planning, a complacency that blunts my wild dreams of extra-study. My sleep order crumbled. I go to bed late and consequentially wake up late.

Though I try to stay away from outside world at least mentally; it keeps me hostage to heartbreaking news and worrying developments. This war against corona is as much mental as it is physical embodied by the austere regime of social distancing. After all, my own wellbeing means little when thousands die and when the fear for our beloved ones always keep us on edge, on alert.

All that said, the conscience of guilt is now defined by the level of our study. When it goes down, my mood, too. I must recoup myself by unshackling the chains of this laziness and mental confusion in a quest to project all my energy and focus solely to study in order to achieve months-long dream: landing a job at a place of my dreams. All other options spell doom for me. I can’t afford to fail; mentally, economically, physically. And certainly not this time…”

Then came George Floyd protests. The capital of the nation was convulsed by protests, occasional clashes and a curfew. The tragic death of George Floyd, a black man killed by a white police officer who kept his knee on the 47-old victim’s neck for eight minutes on May 25, animated a nationwide social protest to demand justice for the deceased victim. Protesters also demanded sweeping reforms to fix the broken public trust in law enforcement following one incident after another that exposed the chronic mistreatment of black citizens by the police corps.

President Trump’s deployment of the National Guards in D.C. marked a unique moment in the history of the Republic, something that I never saw before since I moved to this city more than three years ago. Understandably, my professional instincts kicked in. But wisdom and self-restraint overcame the impulses of following the protests on the ground as my school came close to an end. I had no luxury to devote any time available to things other than the school.

For someone who came from Turkey, the nationwide social protest has more than a passing resemblance to the monthlong Gezi Park protests that rattled Turkey in the early summer of 2013. I was on the ground at that time. The way how President Trump handled the Floyd protests, the language he deployed to frame protesters and the mindset he displayed was almost identical to President Erdogan who crushed the Gezi protests with a heavy-handed response. With an unveiled contempt, both leaders described protesters as looters(Erdogan’s invocation of capulcu — Turkish word for looter — instantly became a defining slogan and a marker of identity proudly embraced by protesters); both prioritized the mastery and control of space to deny protesters large gathering; both heavily relied on security forces; both saw the street protests as a threat and direct challenge to their rule. Trump’s photo-op with a Bible in front of a Church and Erdogan’s display of a Quran during post-Gezi rallies was another but no less important similarity that came to mind.

Another point that struck my attention was the police violence targeting journalists. As someone who faced police violence while covering the Gezi protests, I was appalled to see the police’s lack of regard when they deliberately targeted press card-holding journalists in front of cameras. Trump’s inflammatory and incendiary rhetoric seemed to have had an impact on law enforcement in their freewheeling dealing with the members of media.

The state of Virginia officially moved to end the state-wide lockdown in a bid to re-open the economy in early June.

For me, it has changed almost nothing. I’m still at home. The only escapade I did was going to Shenandoah National Park to enjoy the sunset. The life gradually came back to normal in parts of the state and Fairfax county. But the deadly resurgence of the Covid-19 and the surge in new cases and fatalities give a pause for summoning fresh optimism for summer plans. The story is far from over, the end is not in our grasp yet.

Naturally, there is no plan for vacation whatsoever this summer. Survival is our new mode and mood. As a believer, I certainly respect the formidable forces of nature and destiny. It is beyond my control after some point. But as far as my personal duties concerned, I do not passively and stoically resign to a still-unfolding fate in a fatalist/defeatist fashion. After invoking hope and summoning pray, I take all the personal measures, dutifully adhere to all the warnings of the health officials and do my best in this fight against the pandemic. The rest is certainly beyond my reach and capacity.

I hope humanity comes with a vaccine soon and this nightmarish virus would lose all its lethal power before it devours countless more lives.

With love and regards from Virginia…

New York-based writer. Politics, culture, literary criticism, art, and technology. American political affairs, Turkey, MidEast, and beyond. Twitter: @abyasun

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