Silent Quarantine: Processing the Pandemic Through Literature

By Dian Parker

In silence, the world comes in close. Drops of rain sliding off the eaves seem to be inside the bedroom, on my pillow. The cat at my hip in a fluttering dream; her twitches against the quilt are nearer to me than my own heartbeat. In the middle of the night, the moon is in my hair, young and tender, keeping me awake.

I turn on the light and read a Chekhov short story, “The Darling,” translated by the great team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. A darling story about a darling young woman who everyone thinks is darling, only she has no thoughts of her own and cannot be alone.

The silence can be lonely, leaving me orphaned in the sheer vastness of space. Silence is sometimes accompanied by the clicking of a chickadee at the bird feeder worrying a sunflower seed. Or the house groaning from winter’s inward thrust. Or two birch branches rubbing in ten below temps. But when the phone rings, the windows rattle and so does my brain—an intruder into the expanding silence that has become my constant companion.

My dreams are anything but silent, filled with teeming crowds, and I’m frantic, looking for a place to wash my hands all the while thinking, don’t these people know about social distancing? No one is wearing a mask! I scramble for safety but there’s nowhere to hide. When I wake, I know the virus will last a long time. 

Coyotes in downtown LA. Kashmiri goats ambling through a Welsh town. Stray cats overtaking the streets of Paris. Seven crows crowd my compost pile early in the morning, shattering the silence of the moon, cawing and cackling. Fox prints in the snow. A rafter of turkeys stalk my front yard. A doe and her fawn finish off my peony leaves.

Distractions. Relief. I try to stay inside silence, the isolation, grateful for the opportunity to go deeper in, unravel new states of awareness. A lot of the time I grow impatient and have to do something. I cook and watch movies. Play chess online. Try to write, but grow weary with my stories.

With a friend who lives far away, I read Proust. Fifty pages every week or so, then we talk on the phone. I’d never read Proust before, though I’ve started many times. Long meandering descriptions, meditative examinations of time and memory, few paragraph breaks, lengthy social conversations among the upper class—I never seemed to have the patience to delve in. Because of my friend, I persevere.

We eventually finish the first volume of Proust’s In Search of Lost Time

Reading him put me in a kind of trance that I found comforting, but I had to surrender to the length and breadth of his sentences, reading slowly and deliberately. If I wasn’t fully conscious, sentences would go by and I’d not absorb them. If I read slowly and paid attention, the riches were many—his generous study of people, dealing with anything and everything, trivial or profound; his ability of immersion immersed me; the beauty of his descriptions were places I could live in, like a spell. “. . . even if we have the sensation of being surrounded by our own soul, it is not as though by a motionless prison: rather, we are in some sense borne along with it in a perpetual leap to go beyond it, to reach the outside, with a sort of discouragement as we hear around us always that same resonance, which is not an echo from outside but the resounding of an internal vibration.”

Proust helped me to slow down. 

During the second month of the COVID-19 pandemic, I took up yoga again after many years of not practicing. It was excruciating. I often felt nauseous holding a pose. I figured it was because I was so out of shape, joints blocked with jammed-up energy. When released, I felt like passing out. After a few weeks I could feel my body opening, relishing the attention. That’s one of the perils of being a writer—being in the head and forgetting about the body. 

After months of practicing, yoga has become a refuge, a place and time where I can sit inside myself and not be so much in the world. Writing can do that too but in order to find refuge in writing, I have to work through my resistance to get inside the imagination and let it rip. Yoga helps me to work through resistance until I gradually let go, deeper and deeper, sometimes reaching a point of stillness, nothingness, calm.

These are not calm days. The rage that rips through me is like the pain when I’m holding a pose and my back is screaming and my arms are shaking. I want to give up and lie down. I avoid listening to or watching the news just like I avoid working on my book, or picking up Proust for another chapter, or subjecting myself to another round of sun salutes and planks. Writing is a chore; yoga is a chore; Proust is a chore. And what is happening on the news is nearly unbearable. 

It’s essential that I don’t feel victimized by the pandemic. I check myself continually that I don’t complain about the inconvenience, the loneliness, even the fear of getting sick. I refuse to see this as damaging to my way of life. I adjust. Surrender. Control my thoughts. Live inside silence. Silence throws me back inside myself. Helps me to remember I am not the center of the universe, no matter how I may strive to make it so. And inside of me is a home, always present, if I would only calm down and surrender. 

Don Juan, in Castaneda’s book, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan, taught the importance of carrying death on your left shoulder as a most trusted advisor. “An immense amount of pettiness is dropped if your death makes a gesture to you. . . . Your death will tell you that nothing really matters outside its touch.” Perhaps the fear of silence comes from being associated with death. Everything stops. And we know nothing about it. Nothing. The cold steel hand of the unknown overtakes and we’re dead. Gone forever. A timeless nothingness, for us that are left anyway. Who knows for the dead? 

So often silence is equated with loss—a loved one, a time in life when all was so much better. Bittersweet melancholy. Memories quivering in the folds of daily life. I lost my best friend. She vanished into thin air. I’ve not heard from her in years. Silence. Complete heartbreaking silence.

***

Time is different in silence. Clocks tick, watches buzz, time clocks punch, the cuckoo chirps, the bell tolls. Time races toward death in slow motion, unless you are in an ICU with COVID-19. Here the acceleration of time is pitch perfect; a coloratura’s high F. For us who are not yet sick or who may never be sick with the virus, time has also shifted. We’re scrambling to make sense of our days; the hours, minutes, seconds passing into the next. 

I want to drop into silence and surrender. Why fight? I fight because silence is foreign to all I’ve ever worked for: friendships, marriage, children, degrees, money, success. Silence isn’t in that equation. It is something alien, like the pandemic. 

If I breathe inside the silence instead of into the divisions of a day—hours, nights, weeks—the day doesn’t have to be measured, it can simply go by. No need to hurry. Plenty of time for everything. Bake cookies, make an accordion book, walk in circles, read Proust: “He had acquired the habit of taking refuge in unimportant thoughts that allowed him to ignore the fundamental essence of things.” Or read Simenon’s detective stories: “He spent more than an hour studying the carpet with a magnifying glass and he collected about thirty barely visible threads . . . silk!” 

Time is merely more or less . . . unless. Unless. There are a lot of unlesses.

The pandemic stretches out with no time for its end. We’re not accustomed to not knowing the beginning and end of events. But then we never know, really. This is beyond our control, and that frightens the stuffing out of needing to be in control, so counter to human nature.

***

I’ve been thinking about Jack London and Chekhov, and listening to a lot of Beethoven. In 1913, Jack London was the best-known and highest-paid writer in the world. He made over a million dollars on fifty books and spent it all. He built himself a mansion, bought a ranch, sailed a yacht, and died from suicide because of debt, overwork, and liquor. Chekhov wrote over five hundred stories and fourteen critically acclaimed plays. At the age of forty-four, he died of tuberculosis in Germany, three years after marrying his great love, Olga Knipper, the leading lady in his plays at the Moscow Art Theatre. His coffin was sent home to Russia on a green freight train, marked FOR OYSTERS. 

In the novel The Star Rover, Jack London writes about a convict confined to a prison cell. “In solitary one grows sick of oneself in his thoughts, and the only way to escape oneself is to sleep . . . I now cultivated sleep. I made a science of it. I became able to sleep ten hours, then twelve hours, and, at last, as high as fourteen and fifteen hours out of the twenty-four. But beyond that I could not go, and, perforce, was compelled to lie awake and think and think. . . . And time was very heavy and very long. I played games with flies, with ordinary house-flies that oozed into solitary as did the dim gray light . . .”

Chekhov is a master of fat, rounded silence in his prose. Silence hovers around his sentences, between people, in his ability to treat all creatures, human and in nature, with equanimity. Reading Chekhov soothes me. And I listen to Beethoven’s seventh symphony over and over, sometimes six times in a row before turning off the music and allowing silence once more. The seventh is so joyful; buoyant and life affirming. I imagine galloping at high speed along a beach, waves splintering underfoot. I lie on the couch and let the music absorb into my cells, imagining my mitochondria building muscle to fight the virus. I make soup and listen to the symphony. I play chess and listen. But I insist that my yoga be done in silence. Full stop.

***

Like London, I explore modes of consciousness. How I perceive, how I think—key to how beneficial silence, and this time, can be. Finding pleasure in exploring states of dislocation. Examining, deeply, what loneliness really feels like; in the head, toes, fingertips. How does my frustration play out? What is causing the anxiety? Is it because reality is disrupted and I’m unable to recapture the comfort of being in control? Is my fear coming from being too certain about my place in the world and not dubious enough about reality?

The Italians, great lovers of food and wine, have coined the phrase dolce far niente. This means to work as little as possible; blissful laziness, carefree idleness, indulgent relaxation. The art of slow living. If we are being urged to take precautions and avoid crowds, to stay home in the worst-case scenario, then aren’t we moving into slower times? Working from home in our pajamas, cutting back on work travel, vacations, eating in restaurants, going to parties, concerts, sports events—all the interactions we’ve taken for granted as our human right. It is a blessing that I can work from home. I have to remember this.

***

Silence comes in all forms. Silence in listening deeply. Silence in resentment. Silence in apathy. And then there’s the silence in communion with something greater—the natural world, the cosmos. The beyond.

I’m finding that silence is a welcoming space and prohibits nothing. It is available any time, any place, in sickness and in health. But I must seek it out, knowing full well that silence is a formidable presence.

Silence is sweet and tender in the early morning. At night, unable to sleep, silence cuts deep. Silence envelopes everything, permeates the marrow of life. If allowed in, given room in my brain, it can be nourishment. If I let myself surrender, I can leave myself. Enter another world. No hurry. No complaints. In silence, I find I am filled with gratitude, and give in. Who knows what I’ll become?


A previous version of “Silent Quarantine” by Dian Parker was originally published online by Chelsea Public Library’s COVID-19 Community Archiving Project.


Dian Parker’s essays and short stories have been published in The Rupture, Critical Read, Epiphany, Tiny Molecules, Anomaly, Channel, Westerly, Adelaide, Event, Deep Wild, Art New England, among others, and nominated for several Pushcart Prizes.

Photo of Dian Parker
Dian Parker

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