March 17, 2020, was, at least for us in Western North Carolina, the last day of “normalcy.” If anything, it would the final page in the “before times,” a daily life (for good or ill) that would shoot off in a completely different trajectory for any and all of us moving forward.
We had until 5 p.m. that day to finish our pints and make our way home, to hunker down with our loved ones, trying our best to abide by the new local, state and federal guidelines and protocols for dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic.
March 17, 2020, was a Tuesday. And I remember that because it’s on Tuesdays that we put out each week’s issue of The Smoky Mountain News. We were all sitting in our offices, putting the final touches on the last-minute stories and aiming to kick the newspaper out the door to the printer: all in an effort to get over to Frog Level in time for a couple drinks before the shutdown hammer came down upon society.
Huddled on benches and around picnic tables at the brewery, the conversation ricocheted between sophomoric jokes and serious concerns. Many of us didn’t want to face what the other side of this shutdown could look like. Who might lose their job? Could someone we know get sick with the virus and die? Is all hell going to break loose?
Those deeply-held sentiments would surface in the banter, only to be erased by a laugh about the “impending zombie apocalypse” and so forth. Saluting each other, we took the final gulp of our beers, placed the dirty glasses in the bin, walked out to the parking lot, wished each other well, shook hands goodbye, and simply went home.
So, here we are, just about a year later. It’ll be exactly one year when you (who are reading this) have picked up the newspaper from the rack or from your mailbox to see the latest on not only the pandemic, but also where we stand as a society, whether locally or nationally — this new era of experience and purpose within the daily life of you, me, all of us.
When everything closed up last March, I would sit at my desk and write, looking out onto an empty parking lot of the pizza joint next door, a silent nearby Russ Avenue that’d normally be buzzing with traffic, whether it be locals or tourists alike. Sit at the desk and let the fingertips roll across the keyboard, trying week in and week out to make sense of what we all were going through together, but apart.
Luckily, I was able to continue working and writing throughout “all of this.” I’m sincerely grateful for that. But, it was hard to interview countless folks about the uncertainty of their small business or artistic profession. So many forlorn faces and voices speaking about perhaps walking away from their hard-earned careers, seeing as there were no customers to eat their food or drink their beer, nobody to come and watch them perform.
Skip ahead to this week. Exactly a year later. A whole new world, with so many different ways we approach this world, in essence. Masks on before entering a building. Six feet apart from the next person in line. Hand sanitizer in seemingly every direction. Such an odd and foreign concept merely a year ago, now a part of our lives until further notice (with some practices probably here for the long haul).
I sit at my desk and look out the window right now on this otherwise low-key and cloudy Sunday afternoon. The parking lot of the pizza joint is once again filled to the brim with hungry patrons. Russ Avenue is a sea of Sunday drivers, locals and tourists alike. Like clockwork, my fingertips are rolling across the keyboard with whatever thought or emotion is coursing through my veins.
And yet, I’m not the same person that sat in this chair, at this desk, looking out this window a year ago. None of us are. But, aside from the obvious medical and economical concerns, I think our shifting in perceptions of ourselves and what we ultimately want in this universe is a blessing in disguise — the true silver lining in a chaotic year of pandemics, politics and toilet paper shortages.
For someone like myself who hasn’t slowed down in my endeavors since leaving that small Canadian Border town for college far away some 18 years ago, this last year brought immense clarity and the truest sense of self I’ve yet to come across.
The apartment I’ve inhabited for going on nine years in downtown Waynesville is different, too. First off, it’s a lot cleaner, with a lot of old junk tossed (whether physical or emotional) due to actually having time to do so (I’m never home, always on the road, normally).
When I look in the bathroom mirror, there’s more grey hairs in my beard and atop my head. But, the smile and focus in the eyes of the reflection is stronger than it has been in years. When I look around my living room, there’s a shiny Gretsch Electromatic guitar on my couch.
A year ago, I’d be dumbfounded as to why that electric guitar would be there, let alone not even having the slightest inkling of knowledge as to how to actually play it. Now? I can’t put it down. And I can’t even imagine my life before playing the guitar, something I (by chance) picked up while living alone and in solitude during the shelter-in-place.
Lately, I’ve been circling back to the melodic genius of English rockers Radiohead, back to the band’s seminal album “Kid A” (arguably the greatest musical statement of the 21st century thus far). On the Gretsch, I’ve been trying to learn the song “Optimistic” from “Kid A,” a tune that seems serendipitous (in nature and in practice) as we march into year two of whatever “this is.”
Life is beautiful, grasp for it, y’all.