Watching whales in quarantine


We are up north, in remote coastal California at a house on a beach bluff. Whales puff past as they migrate north. Seabirds dip from the cypress to the hedgy bluff and out of sight.

We came here for the solitude—a little respite, a few days of deep and wild no-internet coastal immersion. And now we’re staying for the solitude—the 14-days-of-self-quarantine kind of solitude, two of us alone together, grateful for the company and the view and a little hungry for stimulation.

Someone I know tested positive for the virus some days ago. I was at her house last week for a party and touched all the doorknobs. There was a lot of hugging. What I’m told is that I’m the one who needs to stay inside to quarantine, as someone who had “primary contact.” People I've had contact with are not threatened unless I get sick. But Rob and I can’t understand that logic, since we are people who kiss each other, so we’re both watching whales for 14 days.

We don’t have internet or phone service, which is kind of good and kind of bad. It keeps us mellow, not glued to our pocket computers in the perpetual downward tug of eternal feed refresh. It also means we have to walk up the road to a gravel pullout to get text messages. We drive to town to sit in the truck in a parking lot and glean internet from an open network. I send emails while Rob reads the news for us and downloads whale documentaries.

And there is a land line—a phone plugged into the wall. Bless the land line. All hail the land line.

Rob’s dad calls; this is his house. I’m so grateful he’s letting us quarantine in paradise. He gives us updates from the East Bay: everyone’s okay, the dog misses Rob. From Rob’s brother we learn there is no toilet paper left in Martinez. 

On our radio, we get two local stations. We listen to the concern move slowly up the coast. At first I think the sense of calm here is because it’s sparsely populated. Fewer people, less residual anxiety in the air? But it turns out the vibe is delayed by about a day: the tone of the radio hosts gradually shifts more in line with the fury and severity we feel from the snippets of Bay Area and national news we get.

The radio gives us critical info. Shelter-in-place has crept up here, two days after it hit the Bay Area. Everything is cancelled, the Thai food place is doing takeout, one person at a time in the herb store. Thank goodness for local radio.

What the radio does not say, but what it makes me think, is that we are not prepared for this. Systematically, logistically, emotionally or spiritually. We have built our worlds on interconnectivity, mutual reliance, leaving the house, spending the day in groups, touching vegetables at the store. We are vectors, both literally in regard to the virus, but in a poetic way, too: we have direction and magnitude. We are positioned in relation to one another. 

Leanne calls from Bolinas with an update from home. The farmstand has installed a hand-washing sink, the grocery stores are open, people are walking together on the beach and surfing. Sounds like normal, minus the dances and dinners. We baffle at how fast some things move, like behavior. A week ago, we were all still hugging! We puzzle over how slow some things move, like information. We worry together about how to be very serious without spreading fear.

Even though my current assigned task toward the greater good is to do absolutely nothing, I stress about what I can do. In recent times of shared crisis, when I feel helpless I seek solace in the company of others, or I offer my energy or presence as help. Right now, I can’t do either, and it makes me antsy.

So I call my dad, home alone in Oregon with his dog, and we talk about the garden. I call Nancy in Bolinas, and we talk about poems. I call Anna, working from home in Point Reyes, and she tells me what it’s like to be a small-town reporter in a global pandemic. Bless the landline. All hail the landline.

Rob and I wonder out loud about the economy and people without homes and elders who live alone and kids who eat free lunch at school. We wonder what this does to the election, and what it would be like if we had a competent federal government. We wonder how it will all go, as time goes on, as we remain siloed for some unknown duration. We make lists of things to look up later, on the internet: Once you get the virus, are you forever immune to it? Do sea anemones have brains?

We are lucky here. We feel our privilege. We feel the privilege of being out of a city. Of being people who already work from home, for ourselves, and can handle weeks away from home and internet. We feel the privilege of occupying a relative's second home. We are lucky we are healthy and that our immune systems are working. Absolutely lucky that the person in my life with the virus is recovering and expects to be just fine. We are lucky that this house was full of toilet paper when we arrived. 

I call Tim, who’s willfully marooned in Inverness. I call Bobby; he’s holding tight in Lagunitas. I yearn a little for home, for even isolated proximity to my friends, my web. My sense of self is shaped in part by the way I engage with my community, and I’m missing a critical piece of the whole puzzle, being away from my people. The landline, the radio and my fleeting glimpses at text messages and news help me feel more connected—thank goddess for communication technology—but they’re no replacement for the real thing, for a squeeze or a kiss or talking together in the same six feet of air. I suspect this feeling is widespread.

In the meantime, I read entire books. Rob draws. I take vitamins and drink tea from a big jar. We wear warm jackets and walk in the afternoon low tide, in the dips and juts of the cliffs we see from the window. We rescue a starfish. We dunk ourselves in the cold sea. Rob brings a big piece of burl wood home. We walk to the gravel pullout and turn on our phones and sit by the side of the highway, checking in.


Nicole Lavelle, an artist, lives in Lagunitas.