That Thing with Feathers: Hope and Literature in a Time of Pandemic

Has your perception of time changed due to stay-at-home orders and pandemic-filled thoughts? In today’s That Thing with Feathers, THP author Rebecca Lawton tracks time based not on work meetings or social engagements, but on when she can expect to hear from her daughter, feverish in Seattle, and other COVID concerns.

Coming or Going

by Rebecca Lawton

Snow blows in horizontal streams. After a winter of little precip, it chooses today to fall, or flow sideways. Today we’re moving. In minutes Paul and I will drive out of the Great Basin in two Toyotas packed to their vinyl liners. Stuffed-to-the-top is a mode of traveling I’d hoped was behind me, belonging to the day when a river season would end, a dorm room would empty out, or an idea would strike that moving to Idaho or Utah or Pennsylvania would be the next great adventure.


Today we’re three weeks past the first US COVID death, near Seattle. We’re one day past the worst first-quarter decline in the 124-year history of the Dow Jones Industrial Average. For eight weeks, Paul and I have been packing boxes. For eight weeks, I’ve been finishing final reports at work, making the last business calls, handing off contacts, keys, files.


My older brother has emailed during our fourteen-hour work/pack days in the emerging pandemic. “Hang in there. There will be an end to it.”


My daughter Rose, in Seattle, has a cough and extended fever. She can’t get tested because she’s not priority, so she’s been diagnosed over the phone and ordered to rest. We can’t go see her, can’t do anything but ask, usually by text because of crap internet and cell reception: “How are you doing today?” The fever is up, or down, or the same. She can walk to the hospital two blocks away but won’t go for fear of contracting a worse case of anything.


It’s one week before the president is tested for COVID a second time, “out of curiosity.” Four weeks before America hits fifty thousand deaths from the virus concomitant with government plans to relax restrictions. Five weeks before he says Let them shoot bleach. Twelve-plus months to a vaccine. God-knows-how-many days until we can see our elderly parents again, if ever.


“We can’t see the ephemeral lake we’ve lived and worked beside, can’t see the geese who’ve been returning for spring migration. We hear their calls, both hopeful and mournful.”

We’re seven hours ahead of a statewide shelter-at-home order. I’m throwing bowlines and half hitches into boating line that’s ice-hard both from cold and having dried with a scrim of silt. My red canoe is the last thing we’ll load. We can’t see the ephemeral lake we’ve lived and worked beside, can’t see the geese who’ve been returning for spring migration. We hear their calls, both hopeful and mournful.


For fifteen minutes after we’re ready, we wait for the whiteout to clear. The way doesn’t open, we can’t see far, but we go. Our eighteen-year-old cat insists on sleeping on my lap, the only one of us who gives in to the urge to curl up and hide.


“We imagine scenes out of post-pandemic literature, Earth Abides and Station Eleven.”

We’re seconds from waving goodbye to the two friends who’ve helped us move. Twenty minutes from crossing Picture Rock Pass out of a community we may never see again. The roads through the Oregon Outback are more deserted than usual: ghost roads. We don’t know if we’ll be stopped, if gas stations are open, what the downtowns we pass through will look like. We imagine scenes out of post-pandemic literature, Earth Abides and Station Eleven.


We’re two hours and forty minutes from picking up dinner and a bottle of wine from the porch of a friend who’s made us a chicken pie. Three hours from arriving at the farm we’ve been invited to, to shelter in place. Three hours and thirty minutes from carrying in only the belongings we need for the night and falling across the bed.


Before dawn I rise to a big moon shining down on the Deschutes River. It’s five hours before I can reasonably expect Rose to wake up and answer my daily question. The moon lights half the water and throws the other half into shadow. An old volcano draped in snow glows above treeline. Snowmelt riffles in the Deschutes canyon, the river’s descent both calm and invigorating. Geese fly low down the river, announcing their coming or going, not hinting at an end to it.



REBECCA LAWTON is a Western author, fluvial geologist, and former Colorado River guide. Her books about water and river subcultures include The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West, a Nautilus Silver award winner, and Reading Water: Lessons from the River. Her work has been published in Aeon, Audubon, Brevity, Hakai, Orion, Shenandoah, Sierra, Undark, and many other journals. Her creative writing honors include a 2014/15 Fulbright Scholarship, the 2006 inaugural Ellen Meloy Fund Award for Desert Writers, the 2015 inaugural Waterston Desert Writing Prize, a 2014 WILLA award for original softcover fiction, Pushcart Prize nominations in fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, and residencies at Hedgebrook Retreat for Women Writers, the Island Institute, and PLAYA. She lives at the Cascade Mountain-Great Basin interface in Summer Lake, Oregon.


This project has received funding from Utah Humanities (UH). UH empowers Utahns to improve their communities through active engagement in the humanities.


The months ahead will be challenging for arts organizations, including Torrey House Press. Connection though story will help us all manage this essential stay home time, and THP will be innovating more ways to give authors a platform to inspire and comfort. We’ll need your help to do it. You can help Torrey House Press weather this by making a donation of any amount today.


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