Essay: Retreating to Good Contrivance during COVID-19

Note: Originally published in WORD!, Towson University’s Professional Writing newsletter. I graduated from the PRWR program this spring after my final semester was cut short by the pandemic. A surreal way to cap off two years of grad school, for sure, but I’m so grateful that I got to have the experience at all. I loved every person I met at Towson and I got to focus on nothing but writing for two years! What could be better?

by Rebecca Ritter

In the fall of 2019, I applied for the Good Contrivance Fellowship to spend a long weekend of writing at a farm in Carroll County, west of Towson. I wrote my essay, applied, won, and booked the weekend long before the COVID-19 outbreak took hold in the United States. By spring break, classes were moved online, and I found out that I had most likely visited the Towson campus for the last time without knowing it—I would be graduating with my master’s degree in Professional Writing into a global pandemic. The weekend at the farm had almost slipped my mind.

The strangest thing about this pandemic has been the not-knowing. We all feel both in and out of danger at any given moment. Depending on your situation, you can pretend as if nothing is amiss. Every time you turn on the television it sounds like a scripted set piece from the beginning of a horror movie, right before mass panic sets in. But if you change the channel, there’s a Law & Order marathon on somewhere, and you can pretend like everything is normal. If you look to the streets for calamity, you won’t see it. Everything looks almost the same as it always has, until it doesn’t. A car passes by with a surgical mask hanging from the rearview mirror. Signs at the grocery store limit households on loaves of bread, cases of water. Gas is down to a $1.88.

This is, of course, not reality for all of us. I have a feeling that my next-door neighbor, the ER doctor whose husband is building an outdoor shower so she can decontaminate when she comes home, is experiencing a very different reality. My grandmother, who has COPD and hasn’t left her apartment in 10 weeks, is experiencing a different one; my cousin with four children, another. The people I see on TV, driving to Annapolis to protest having to wear a mask—they are certainly in a world all their own.

Even now, as the state begins to open up again, the uncertainty is the thing that scares me the most. And it’s certainly what was on my mind in mid-April, when the date I booked for my fellowship crept up on me.

I spent a long time looking at the weekend, marked on my calendar. I had been isolating as much as possible for weeks; I was (and still am) less afraid for myself, and more for the immunocompromised people I live with. I wrote to Ron, who owns the farm along with his wife Jill. He confirmed that I’d be just as alone there as I was at home, that the space was thoroughly cleaned and would be cleaned after I left. But ultimately, the decision was up to me.

I thought about it carefully, and then I packed a Tupperware of leftovers, a can of SpaghettiOs, two S’mores Pop-Tarts, and a bag of spinach, and I went anyway.

When I arrived, I opened the gate to the driveway, careful not to let out the two brown and white basset hounds, as I had been warned. They chased after my car, howling, as I crept up the gravel driveway, rolling to a stop in front of the barn with the orange door. One of the first things I did after I brought my bags inside was sit down on the leather sofa and take out my journal. (I did actually bring writing supplies, along with the spinach.)

“I’ve come to remember how to be a person,” I wrote. Even with all the time stuck inside, I’d had a hard time putting pen to paper—easier to anxiously watch the news and scroll TikTok. I was hoping that the three days at the beautiful barn house would help settle me, help me focus on the writing.

The barn house is, indeed, beautiful. When I got up from the sofa, I took a few dozen photos of the vaulted ceilings, the pottery in the kitchen, the barn cats lying in the garden. It’s about as idyllic a setting you could ask for.

And I did write. I spent as much time as possible at the desk on the second floor, under the window that looks out onto the farm. I pulled books off the bookcases, wrote found poems with an old Reader’s Digest; journaled and started stories and sketched out ideas for essays. I felt pressure to make something out of the short time I had there, pressure to come out of my pandemic-induced paralysis. I made cups of tea on the gas range; I walked the property; I went out and sat on the warm ground and pulled one of the roly-poly dogs into my lap. I waved to Ron when I saw him ride by on his tractor. I avoided the television at all costs. And I wrote.

If I expected to put away all thoughts of the pandemic, to banish words like “quarantine” from my writing vocabulary—that’s not what I got. Even though I wasn’t watching the news, the thoughts were still there. Uncertainty, especially for a person already prone to anxiety, can be a disease in and of itself. Unsurprisingly, the writing I did that weekend meditated on that.

I don’t know if I expected the retreat to be an escape; somewhere to forget how the world had changed. It wasn’t exactly that. But it was a small reprieve; a beautiful place where I got to write for a little while. And for that I’m glad.

at Good Contrivance Farm
sometimes what the soul needs
is to see two basset hounds,
each the size of a toddler,
run each other over
like the puppies they aren’t,
and to see one
lying with the barn cat,
like old friends, which they are.
sometimes all the soul needs is that.

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