“But that’s only half the story, at least for me. I also need to break out of the routine now and then, turn away from ritual, and engage with the outside world, which means connecting with others, especially my companion. She lives in Athens. What I usually do is spend a couple weeks alone in my house, doing what I do, then take the train or drive to Athens to be with her. A professor at the Greek university and a lifelong student of philosophy, she likes being alone, too. But, after a spell apart, what a joy it is to reconnect. We have so much to say and our bodies are hungry for affection and intimacy. I have a little corner in her small apartment (she graciously gives up her desk and works from the couch and coffee table when I’m there), where I continue to write, but not with the frequency or depth of immersion that I have when I’m alone. But, more important, I’m with the woman I love, and that infuses my life with other presences, which I need as much as solitude.”—Don Schofield
By Don Schofield
THESSALONIKI Greece—(Weekly Hubris)—15 May 2020—I have to admit that in some ways this staying-in-place is life as usual. I’m retired now (after six years, the words still feel strange in my mouth), so spend lots of time at home, writing, reading, texting with friends. In my everyday social life, I can go for days without talking to anyone, except, when I see my neighbors, go shopping for groceries, or get the occasional phone call. I love being alone, love leading a quiet, slow-paced life, one that affords me the time to go deep into my imagination. I have a routine I like—writing for five of six hours in the morning, then texting my companion in Athens, around 2 p.m. a walk in my neighborhood (wide streets, lush ravines, nightingales in spring, sheep grazing on the slopes in summer, wildflowers, a beautiful view of the Thermaic Gulf and Mt. Olympus beyond); later a nap, then a couple hours more of work or doing chores. Then I’ll fix dinner, watch the news, maybe take in a film or text with friends, and last, of course, texting once more with my companion, around 1 a.m., before I sleep.
Most people hate routine, doing the same thing day in, day out. I too, at various times in my life, would do anything to break the daily grind. But now, maybe because I’m older, or because I’m devoted to my writing, I like having a routine. It feels like a rhythm, a pleasant, soothing pace. Or maybe I should call it a ritual. There’s a kind of calm to doing A, then B, then C, without having to think about it much, letting my mind wander where it wants. There’s even a kind of sacredness to sitting at my desk each morning, as if I’m paying homage to the gods and goddesses of writing, immersed in reverence to a creative process. Those six hours every day, working on a poem, or a translation, or any number of other writing projects I have going—they are the reason I get out of bed in the morning. And even when I’m not at my desk, I’m often running a poem through my head, one that I’m working on or someone else’s I’m learning from, mumbling the lines to myself as I walk along the ravines of Panorama, the suburb of Thessaloniki where I live, or as I lie in bed waiting for sleep to come.
It’s all part of an interior life. In this time of lockdown, so many say they’re tired of watching TV news and Netflix, of playing computer games, of having the same What’s App conversations, no sports anymore, no shopping at the mall, no coffee shops or restaurants or trips to the beach. How many times each day can someone walk the dog? But those of us who cultivate an interior life—poets, writers, artists, musicians, all of us who go deep into ourselves in order to create something—we know that deep immersion time (as a sculptor friend of mine calls it) is only effective when there is minimal distraction from the outside world. That doesn’t mean that one can’t create in the midst of other activities—caring for children, shopping, doing house chores, driving in stop-and-go traffic, etc. There are a multitude of ways and times we can be creative, any number of conditions that give us access to the imagination. But when it comes to staying-in-place, those of us who cultivate an internal life are quite comfortable with long periods of “down” time. In fact, we seek them out. We depend on them. Personally, when I’m deprived of deep immersion for an extended period of time, I start to feel off kilter. Lacking it even longer, I feel as if a limb is atrophying. So, stay-at-home, sheltering-in-place, lockdown, whatever you want to call it, is business as usual for those of us who spend much of our time wandering the byways of imagination.
But that’s only half the story, at least for me. I also need to break out of the routine now and then, turn away from ritual, and engage with the outside world, which means connecting with others, especially my companion. She lives in Athens. What I usually do is spend a couple weeks alone in my house, doing what I do, then take the train or drive to Athens to be with her. A professor at the Greek university and a lifelong student of philosophy, she likes being alone, too. But, after a spell apart, what a joy it is to reconnect. We have so much to say and our bodies are hungry for affection and intimacy. I have a little corner in her small apartment (she graciously gives up her desk and works from the couch and coffee table when I’m there), where I continue to write, but not with the frequency or depth of immersion that I have when I’m alone. But, more important, I’m with the woman I love, and that infuses my life with other presences, which I need as much as solitude.
After a while, the need to be alone arises again (for her and for me) and, even though part of me really wants to stay, I return to my house in Thessaloniki (I sometimes think of it as my “Fortress of Solitude,” as Superman would have it). When she can, my companion comes to Thessaloniki. It’s a pleasure being here with her as well. And it’s always sad when, after a week or two, for various reasons—work, family, or other responsibilities—she returns to Athens.
There’s a rhythm to our relationship: together, apart, together, apart. When we’re apart, we communicate frequently, texting or talking on the phone two or three times a day, especially at night, before sleeping. Even at a distance we feel close. That’s in part because we know in a week, at most two, we’ll be together. We long for that while we’re apart. Knowing that we will soon be with each other adds a certain tinge to our solitude. We know we’re not completely alone. Once we emerge from the depths of imagination, the person we love is there. For me the ability to have that intimacy while in the midst of solitude makes time by myself much more enriching. That rhythm—together, apart, together, apart—is also a ritual of sorts, or, more precisely, is a larger, more expansive rhythm that subsumes the rituals of solitude, one that enables me to take pleasure in being alone without being overwhelmed by loneliness.
And that’s the hardest part of lockdown. From the beginning of this stay-at-home regime, my companion has been in Athens, while I’m here. I can’t go there and she can’t come here. When movement restrictions were imposed, she was there and couldn’t leave—for family reasons and for fear of the virus (if she came here it would have to be by train, plane, or bus, since she doesn’t drive)—and I couldn’t go there. So the hardest part of staying-in-place has been the lack of physical contact, and, more important, not knowing when we’ll be together.
That rhythm of together, apart, together has been ruptured. It’s not enough hugging a computer screen or blowing kisses to its camera. Simply knowing that we can’t be together makes separation even harder. Now it’s only apart, apart, apart. No ritual there, not even routine. Just absence. The physical, the sensual, the feel of someone else’s presence—her scent, the sound of her voice, her footfall in the next room—none of that is here now, and won’t be till who knows when. Yes, we can see and hear each other via the Internet—at least that!—but the other senses—smell, touch, and taste—are completely absent.
Now, in moments alone, instead of running a poem through my head, I yearn for what I miss—the foods we eat together, her falling asleep with her head on my shoulder as we watch a film on the couch, me bringing her coffee in the morning, and the multitude of other little interactions we engage in when we’re together. All those seemingly insignificant acts are what enable me to go deep into the other, into the experience of the other, to center myself not in the depths of imagination—however necessary that is for me as well—but in the person I love.
In all this sheltering-in-place, an essential bond has been severed. A living, growing, breathing relationship has been suspended, at least substantial parts of it. It’s almost as if that giant studded ball that is constantly floating across the TV screen during the news, that COVID-19 molecule magnified thousands of times, has wedged itself between my lover and me. Now everything else feels incomplete. We “know” we’ll be together at some point in the vague future, but that knowledge is shaky, much more tentative than the certainty borne of the ritual and rhythm we had before. It seems so long ago now, in some ancient epoch, when I could look up from my desk, and think of her, wonder what she’s doing at that moment, and feel, in that instant, intensely close to her. No such bonding now. I no longer live in that rhythm that enables me to know such thoughts will soon become flesh. Now, sheltering-in-place, as I go through my daily routine, my rituals of solitude, it’s not me who’s in lockdown. It’s my heart.
Note: All photographs in this essay are by the author.