Editor’s note: More than 70 students in the Cornerstone Integrated Liberal Arts program submitted entries into the “My Quarantine Story” contest this spring. This essay by Margaret Hutchinson was selected as the second-place winner.
Faith- humanity’s unlimited source of strength. In this time of turbulence, it is one of the few things that gets fully stocked every night. When we turn on the nightly news, the first stories are always grim, but, at the end of the 30-minute broadcast, there are always stories that fill my family and many others with hope and faith. Faith in our families, our communities, and all of humankind. As someone who has lived in New England coast my entire life, I have experienced nor’easters, hurricanes, and everything else Mother Nature chooses to throw our way. However, the fallen trees, power outages, and flooded homes were never as destructive to my community as this virus. These months of my life, my 5-year-old neighbor’s life, my 87-year-old grandmother’s life, are lost, or are they? When I first read ”Verses upon the Burning of our House, July 10th, 1666″ I never believed I would be able to so closely relate to the poet, Anne Bradstreet, as she woefully watches her belonging turn to ash.
The poem starts as Bradstreet peacefully falls asleep, but then quickly escalates as she becomes aware of the fire. For Americans, when the virus was overseas, it was like having a fire in a fireplace, dangerous but controlled. However, as February drew to a close, more and more sparks flew out of the hearth and into our home. These sparks were easy to ignore at first- it was ok because people were working hard to put out those small fires. There were only a half dozen hotspots in the United States when college students left for spring break. We thought that we would come back to school in a couple of weeks. Just a short stretch of inconvenience before we would return to our lives.
I decided, against my parent’s wishes, to keep my plans to go to San Francisco with a group of friends. We were not the kids who were going to mosh pits and ignoring the warnings. Instead, we stayed outside in public parks and gardens or drove around the city, observing the spectacles from the safety of the car. We left the morning the stay at home order was put into place. That was the day that we were able to see the potential of this virus. It was not just a few sparks anymore, this fire was engulfing our country and we needed to escape to the safety of our own homes before we were in serious danger. When Bradstreet looks upon this fire, her first emotions are those of sadness and grief. As a Puritan woman, her duties were to be a mother and a homemaker. The fire took everything she had worked hard to build, while she was forced to stand and watch helplessly. It engulfed every aspect of her life. The virus infections that started in city hotspots jumped from county to county and state to state, the country was becoming an inferno by Easter. It stole away incomes, food, safety from hardworking people- now made to stand aside and watch everything burn down.
Once I got back from California, everything had changed. Flying was too much of a risk so my father and I drove the 14 hours from Connecticut to West Lafayette to pack up my dorm room. Every stop required gloves and hand wipes and once on campus, it was almost difficult to recognize. Never had I seen the campus so quiet- not even when I walked back to my dorm at 3 am on a Wednesday after a late-night study session in WALC. Once we arrived home from that trip, the public areas in my town were shut down, much to the dismay of my puppy who had grown used to her weekend trips to the dog park. When my family walks around the neighborhood, we consistently see neighbors and friends cross the street to avoid each other. We stay far away to keep ourselves safe from this danger, and all we can do is watch as the stability of our community slowly starts to crumble.
There comes a turning point in the poem. It takes the reader by surprise. The rhyming pattern and tempo of the poem change abruptly as Bradstreet states, “Adieu, Adieu, all’s vanity.” This arrives when she takes a second to realize what is most important. For me, this moment came during the first zoom call I had with all my mother’s extended family. Grandparents, cousins, aunts, and uncles who we normally see once or twice a year, all in the same call- laughing and catching up, an event that has now become a weekly occurrence. It was the first time I saw that maybe it was not all bad.
After the revelation, Bradstreet’s mind rises from the fire. She sees beyond her goods being burned to ash and instead focuses on her faith. As the virus rages on, it pulls at the seams of our society. However, it is our faith in one another that holds us together. For some, faith comes from seeing the volunteers handing out food to those who cannot afford it. Others from watching on the evening news that a couple in Kansas sent a highly coveted N-95 mask to New York, hoping it could be used to keep a nurse safe. It is faith in the goodness of one another that gives us the strength to continue to live, continue to keep each other safe. Instead of running into the fire, risking lives just to save a small piece of what we had, people instead are choosing to stay on the side. Staying safe so that when the fire is out, we have the ability to rebuild.
My faith in my community has grown exponentially as these months wear on. Just the other day, two dozen cars drove by my house honking their horns with excited kids waving out the windows to wish a six-year-old happy birthday. I have seen neighborhood book exchanges turn into food exchanges. Faith is a superpower given to every member of the human race. Some, like the Puritan, Anne Bradstreet, harness it as faith in a God. Others, as the goodness in people around them. This period of our lives has not been lost but instead changed. While it is important for us to recognize the somberness of our current situations, I believe my experience during quarantine can best be captured by the sorrow-filled, yet hopeful words of Anne Bradstreet.