This past summer we took a weekend family getaway to a small mountain town. It was one of those gimmick places with lots of tourist t-shirt shops, fudge and sweet shops, arcades and activities aimed at family fun. Like typical getaways our family does, we successfully crammed five days of activities into 48 hours and slept very well at the end of each day. I’m thankful for this getaway and it was incredible fun with a much needed break from routine for all of us, but something else caught my attention I was not expecting. I felt like I was looking at the edge of humanity wandering aimlessly among cheap t-shirts with cutesy sayings and it was numb, like everyone was in a guarded daze. There was a roughness to it all that seemed out of place in the picturesque little fun town.
When we first arrived it all looked the same as what I remembered. Little shops and restaurants, street booths, mini-golf and coffee shops crammed cheek to jowl along the 3 mile stretch bearing cute mountain themed names. There were intentionally placed statues and signs with the town’s name and statues you could stand next to for the perfect vacation shot. Traffic moved at a crawl supporting the ability to look around as we drove through to our reserved condo. It also afforded us the chance to share in listening to the neighboring car’s rap song all the way through, swear words and all.
Some of the shops had closed, including an original hotel on the main drag and the wedding chapel where my husband and I had eloped many years ago. Signs of the economic hardships on small business owners due to the pandemic and inability to rebuild from a forest fire showed on the storefronts. Next door to the chapel was now a CBD hut where once stood a gazebo for pictures of happily newly married couples. Happiness of a new kind had taken over it seemed, yet I didn’t see anyone in the shop and no one looked happy. Just a bored looking clerk scanning his phone inside there. That was the vibe all through the town to be honest. Surface level happiness sold in trinkets and cups of expensive coffee.
After we checked into our condo, my son and I took off to explore the shops. We casually walked down the main street we had just traveled, sipping fresh squeezed lemonade and checking out the window displays. It seemed some of the t-shirts and items had been hanging in those windows since the 70s with a dusty aroma to match. Nonetheless we strolled and checked them all out talking about this and that as we went. While the street was full as it always is with other families, I noticed a difference than the other visits we had made here. Certainly the town seemed a little more shabby from the shutdowns and despair of the fire but there was an undercurrent to it all. The people themselves, the tourists, all seemed harder, less likely to smile at each other as we passed on the street. Everyone was just focused on themselves. Perhaps I was just tired and over sensitive though. Surely it was just me.
The next morning, we headed out to breakfast and our packed full agenda of activities of visiting the aquarium, shopping and then heading to the national forest to dip our feet in the mountain water that afternoon. It was an incredibly busy day and we made the most of every moment. There was laughter, excitement and some little trinkets and pictures of our day collected. Yet that undertone was still there and the photo perfect statutes we discovered we now chained to their location. It felt like a layer of dirt on my skin that makes you feel grimy after you’ve been moving all day. Even some of the store clerks seemed to avoid looking you in the eye as they took your money from behind the plexiglass screen between us. It was mechanical and automatic; a separation between people that had turned to nothing more than a transaction.
It isn’t just in mountain tourist towns this is occurring. Even in our own communities we are separated from each other due to political differences, fear of the virus and isolation from each other. We are separated by more than plexiglass and masks, these physical barriers only reinforcing the unaired disgruntled vibe we are all feeling. On the surface it all appears “normal” and just barely under that though is this loss of the humanity between us. We no longer extend and connect through pleasantries, instead we take our children’s arms and pull them along, minding our own conversations and avoiding eye contact with others while we scan our phones. We used to just blame it on younger people who walked down the street texting or playing on their phones but now it is everyone and everywhere. We have become the walking dead outside of anything in our immediate bubble of living.
Perhaps it is just a phase.
The recovery after a long battle against something devastating that took so much of our freedom away has left us exhausted. The burden of the stress from that event still gets jostled on our shoulders as we search for answers and confirmation it is now safe. The acknowledgement we have caused this incredibly large mess of things and are uncertain how to apologize and begin the process of repairs and healing is daunting. We have let things go on rampantly that now we are unsure how to stop them. Our country’s politics are out of control, our economy in ruins and public health concerns continuing to fester. No one is unaffected and untouched by the wake of destruction we caused from this virus and our reactions to it. We did this to our world and to each other. Maybe we didn’t understand the ramifications and consequences at the time but now we all bear the responsibility of those too. We all carry the burden of separation we created as well.
My husband and I stood in front of the chapel where we eloped almost 14 years ago sharing a kiss for a photo our son took. The landscaping was overgrown and there was a touch of fire damage on one of the peaks. The chapel didn’t look like it had seen a wedding in quite some time but the memory of our own wedding brightened the place I think at least momentarily against the purple and blue stained glassed windows we stood near. I remember wearing my dress, an easy one to put on by myself since we were eloping alone that day and the bouquet of wildflowers I made myself. It was a perfect wedding for us, simple yet very much us. As we walked from the chapel to have dinner down the street that day, I remember well wishers from the cars passing us and at the special table at the restaurant where we were seated. Fond memories indeed. Yet today there was just cars passing up and down the street and couple standing in front of a shabby chapel at the edge of town with their child taking their photo.
I honestly don’t know what it will take to heal this world. People speak of this new normal but if it looks like this then I’m not sure we have hit the mark. It feels like a mourning period with grief and pain filled with uncertainty and mistrust. Yet if there are these feelings then there is also the capacity for love and connection too. We can create beauty out of the ruins and heal from the experiences of the past. Even in nature’s winter season when things look their grayest, there is signs of life to come. Hope for warmer weather, brighter days and even an emergence of nature itself growing from the wreckage. Our own ability to seek out nature’s lessons in healing and reconnecting with each other is vital to us all.
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