Coping with the coronavirus, week 1

03/18/2020

With the novel coronavirus spreading and the public ordered to stay home, these are unusual times in West Marin. Just a few days into a minimum three-week shutdown of all non-essential activities, people are feeling the effects—financially, practically and spiritually. Alongside our news coverage of the pandemic, the Light each week will offer windows into the lives of our readers. This week, we talked to a restaurateur, a senior, a mother and a vicar. 

 

Each day like a week

For Sheryl Cahill, owner of the Station House Café and Side Street Kitchen, the coronavirus spells a disaster like no other. She’s dealt with dire situations before: In 2008, the financial collapse forced her to take out a loan to avoid layoffs. More recently, when PG&E shut off power in Marin, she closed for four days and lost $60,000. This situation is more severe, she said, especially coming at the end of winter. With over 60 employees, Sheryl’s biggest responsibility is her staff. This week, she stayed open with sanitation measures until she was forced to close her doors, then switched to takeout in an attempt to keep employees working. But with no new food orders and customers dwindling, closing altogether seems inevitable.  

“In the face of disaster, I am accustomed to figuring out how we can nurture the community, and this is so counterintuitive because we have to do the opposite,” she said. “The conundrum is wanting to keep my staff working, knowing they have rent to pay and families to feed. Walking the line between that and social responsibility is confusing.” She is pointing staff toward unemployment assistance and hoping for grants. The days are long and stressful, but she’s been brought to tears of gratitude twice: when her staff gave her a big thank-you for staying open last weekend, and when a frequent diner bought a $500 gift card. “I think my chef said it best,” she said. “‘Every day is like a week.’”

 

Cabin fever

Charlie Morgan had polio when he was 5 years old. The experience awakened him to the harsh reality of disease and the importance of taking measures to prevent its spread. He’s hoping that a vaccine for the coronavirus will be developed, and while experts work on a cure, he’s focused on passing the days without his usual activities. Although he can keep working as a caretaker in Terra Linda, he is worried that his other income as a handyman will slow down. As a KWMR programmer, he hosts “Musical Varieté” on Tuesday evenings, but the station shut down. He typically enjoys watching television with his fellow tenants at Walnut Place, but the gatherings have ceased; baseball, one of his great joys in life, is postponed, and the Western, where he often enjoys music, is closed. “It may seem superficial, but it’s important to me,” he said. 

He stocked up on movies and shows before the library closed—British crime is his favorite—and is anticipating the challenges of sheltering in place. “This business about staying inside just gives you cabin fever,” he said. “It seems like what we need is to figure out how to be together without contradicting the biological facts of the situation.” 

 

Softening the message

Zoe Crowhurst, a preschool teacher and Point Reyes Station mother of two, is thoughtful about how she discusses the coronavirus with her 8-year-old daughter, Emmylou, and her 10-year-old son, Colton. She prefaces each conversation by saying this is a scary and unpleasant situation, but that they are okay. She pares down the message about why they’re staying home, avoiding words like “lockdown” and “death.” She answers any questions they pose, then ends the conversation. She doesn’t discuss the situation with others in their presence, or watch the news while they are in the room. “When you’re 8 or 10, you need five minutes at most, then you need to go be a kid,” she said. “I’ll leave the rest of the space in their heads for looking at a grasshopper on the ground.” 

With both children home from their school over the hill, she is finding relief from their on-the-go lifestyle, but they’re also staying engaged. Colt is following his little league baseball coach’s instructions on how to maintain muscle memory without organized practice, and Emmylou is video chatting with her piano teacher. They both have online curriculum, and Zoe relaxed her rules about texting so they can stay in touch with friends. As a teacher, she’s creating online material for the preschoolers at Huckleberry Garden, with familiar songs and stories. Her husband is hoping he can keep work in construction, but their always-tight budget is stretched especially thin after stocking up on groceries last week, following the advice of Zoe’s aunt in Italy to stay at home.

 

Separation and longing

For the congregants of St. Columba’s Episcopal Church, sharing physical space has always been key. Mass is more than the words of the sermon—it is kneeling, bowing and standing, it is incense, candles and communion. “We are a tactile, warm, huggy community, and anybody who comes here is wrapped up in that immediately,” said Father Vincent Pizzuto. Now, the Inverness church’s roughly 80 congregants are coming together on Zoom, a video conferencing platform, for weekly mass, and their meditations are centering on separation and longing. While virtual mass has its drawbacks—such as when everyone tried to sing together and it came out a jumbled mess—there have been beautiful moments too, Fr. Vincent said. Last Sunday, during a two-hour service, he invited everyone to hold a candle to their camera for a five-minute meditation. The virtual chapel has attracted congregants from around the world. 

In coming weeks, his message will center on the fundamental nature of human longing. He is borrowing from an old poem, Ode on a Grecian Urn by John Keats, in which two lovers are forever stuck in a state of longing, painted on an urn a millimeter away from kissing. Although it may seem like a tragedy, longing is a fundamental part of the human experience, he said. Everyone feels it at some point, whether they are longing for another human or to be closer with God. Longing drives us, fulfills us and unites us. When we are physically isolated, this longing is intensified—and it is a gift, because it teaches us the importance of connection, and it brings us gratitude when we reunite. While the spirit of the church remains strong, the money situation is more precarious. The church and retreat house is in a “financial freefall,” Fr. Vincent said. The retreat house guests, the site’s main source of income, were cancelled, and the building was locked in case the Red Cross needs to use the beds.