Life During House Arrest

By Jamie Stiehm

March 18, 2020 5 min read

WASHINGTON — Spring is famously sweet here. Daffodils and cherry blossoms paint the land in lush colors.

My March calendar was full of fun: a concert, a bar mitzvah, a birthday dinner, a trip to my college campus in Philadelphia, an English friend coming to visit.

Sigh. The coronavirus changed all that. It came crashing down on the country like the plague. Was it only a week ago that our calendars and worlds turned upside down? How long will we live with a pandemic, burgeoning by the day?

Not even President Donald Trump knows.

Truly, it's like living a kind of social death for all. Schools and workplaces, coffee shops and cafes, airports and train stations, are shuttered — or nearly so. Most Americans are under virtual house arrest, told to work at home. Students are supposed to learn online.

Online is not the same as real life. I felt this sharply when my college's alumni council meeting was rescheduled from a weekend trip to a six-hour Zoom session. Philadelphia was first to be crossed off the calendar.

"Canceled" was the word coming to town.

We're all social animals to some extent. Facebook fades fast for company, and the telephone is no longer in use.

For lonely extroverts like me, sudden isolation at home and "social distancing" when outside are a strain. Psychic pain and suffering are not far behind. A writer needs some solitude, but caffeinated or carbonated conversations also inspire with soul mates and strangers.

The brick Georgetown library, where I give history talks, is closed until April. So is the patisserie down the hill where my friends and I often go. The District of Columbia mayor, Muriel Bowser, ordered restaurants, cafes and bars to stop serving patrons, except for takeaway food.

Then this knell: The National Press Club is suspending normal operations. The Senate is the only game in town, taking its time to pass a coronavirus aid package.

In city society, we depend on circulation, congregation and chance crossings, maybe more than we knew. When coffee shops and other haunts close, a sense of community gets lost in translation.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which has failed on the job, does not factor our mental health into its public health decisions. It does not count the cost of crushing social interactions.

Spring is the season for falling in love, but not in 2020.

Back to my middle of March. Yes, I could be reading Jane Austen to pass the time, but I already know her novels by heart.

One friend, who reminds me of her heroine Emma, was about to cancel her birthday dinner party for 15. I spoke to my father, an immunologist, and saved a merry evening from ruin.

Meanwhile, my English friend landed on the East Coast, where her choir was to tour with the Yale choir and orchestra. Yet the Yale singers and musicians canceled as soon as they arrived.

So, there was no concert at the Washington National Cathedral Saturday night. I never saw my friend Rachel. She took flight back across the Atlantic, fearing she'd be quarantined if she coughed.

I expected the only event left, the bar mitzvah, to be canceled, as it mixes all ages.

But Noah's show went on. He was called to the Torah, chanting before the solemn throng for a couple of hours. Everyone was glad to see his tall 98-year-old grandfather, a top CBS newsman who once reported from the Caravelle Hotel rooftop in the Vietnam War.

Young Noah inherited that family poise and presence.

The Hebrew was Greek to me, but I drew comfort from the tales of Moses, the beauty of the Bible's poems and psalms. I'm not religious, not Jewish, but at the lunch, I felt the belonging, a sweetness I knew would soon be gone.

When the band played familiar notes and the dancing circle started, grandparents, aunts and uncles amid Noah's friends, I held on to the moment. After all, a bitter spring lies before us.

To find out more about Jamie Stiehm and other Creators Syndicate columnists and cartoonists, please visit the website

Photo credit: tpsdave at Pixabay

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