“Alaska is open again. It’s up to us now.”
The headline in the local newspaper is tinged with both promise and trepidation, at a time when our command over a pandemic is still tenuous.
Fairbanks, a town on the edge of wilderness in interior Alaska, is stirring again. After being cloistered in our homes, safely secluded, we venture out. The world looks the same, typical of a delayed spring in the Far North. Chokecherry trees shimmer white, fragrant on the breeze. The rivers, swollen from the ice melt, are flowing again. Lilacs are beginning to bud and the red tendrils of peonies are pushing their way up through the earth again. Folks drive out of town with campers and four-wheelers, to camp on gravel bars near rivers, to absorb the fledgling green after a long winter.
The atmosphere, however, is skittish and uneasy. We abide by restrictions still in place. We must decide whether an outing is essential or superfluous. On streets that were ghostly empty just a few days ago, cars head towards offices and restaurants and supermarkets. They idle at coffee shops, awaiting drinks that are handed out through drive-up windows by gloved hands, smiles obscured by hand-sewn masks. We cautiously open up our offices again, to ensure that our employees get a paycheck, to make a dent in the unpaid bills that have accumulated for weeks. Co-workers are asked to share staggered shifts. People gather in restaurants, but tables are seated at timely intervals, limited to immediate family members. In the supermarket, we bag groceries and retrieve receipts, minimizing contact with the cashier. We postpone the hairdresser’s appointment, and the dental cleaning, and the workout at the gym. Special events are modified. We try to make the best of the situation, even if it means having Helen’s high school graduation take on the form of a car parade, seniors atop cars, waving and smiling, an important ritual fallen short.
In time, we relax, ease our precautions, shed the masks. Alaska, after all, has always been “open”. It is inherently different from the rest of the world, we tell ourselves. “What do they mean, social distancing?” a patient of Nick says, laughing at the safety guidelines. “I’ve been doing that all my life. That is why I came to Alaska.” People live in cabins and on homesteads, in remote villages, along great interior rivers that can be accessed only by rivers and float planes. There are miles of trails in the woods to walk along without ever meeting another person. We know what it means to be hermetic and withdrawn, particularly after a winter when temperatures dipped steadily to 400 below. Does the world’s “new normal” apply to us as well?
Just a few nights ago, I stood with a friend in my kitchen. She told me about contracting Covid-19 and how she slowly clawed her way to health again, as people nervously eyed her from a distance. “I’m immune now,” she told me, smiling, seeing the silver lining in her ordeal. She still wears a mask in public, however. “I’m wearing it for others now. That way they won’t need to be afraid.” And I think of her grace in the face of adversity.
Being “open” is not about things – gates, or shops, or petunias, or chapters in a book. To be open demands more. It means suppressing our fear in order to listen to a friend. It involves not judging others when their comfort level differs from ours. It means abiding by choices people make even if they do not parallel ours. It calls for finding new ways to connect.
Somehow, I’m not worried. It is what we have has always been best at.