Context: The Covid-19 pandemic has not yet peaked here in northern New England, but we have reached the point where it's personal -- I know a family that's battling the infection, and they live about 10 miles from my place. At least two in our nearest shopping town have tested positive.
So I made a mask from a pleated paper towel and rubber bands and staples (thank you, Internet), added a pair of reading glasses for eye protection and nitrile gloves left from nursing my husband last year, and headed to a town where there's a friendly "food cooperative."
On the way, I stopped at the transfer station (what we used to call the dump), to drop off a bag of roadside trash. (Farming keeps Vermont green; picking litter up helps you be able to SEE the green, without cringing.) And things had changed. A lot.
"The dump" is where many of us count on a few minutes of old-fashioned socializing. Retired men in hunting jackets or ball caps exchange news. Fussy individuals drop their recycling into the correct bins and pull out the mistakes made by less fussy ones. Town trucks are parked nearby, at the town garage and the fire station.
And everybody smiles and says "how's it going" and "what a day!" and "I hate to let go of this old lamp but we're moving, know anyone who might want it?" Sometimes the school kids collect redeemable cans and bottles to fund end-of-term trips. Once in a while there's a lost dog poster.
Today: A stop sign. Directions to form a single lane. "Social distancing," one vehicle at a time, for those bringing bags of trash to the big compactor. And the young man watching over the recycling shed wore a bright green mask over his mouth and nose.
When I'd delivered my blue bag to the compactor, an older man in charge, with bristling winter beard and mustache, exchanged smiles with me from a safe dozen feet away. He called out, not "stay warm" or "keep out of trouble" (to which one may either grin wickedly and say "who me?" or nod and say "will do"), but "Stay safe!"
Then I drove more back roads toward the food cooperative, and along the way I passed a few couples walking along the edge of the road. Eager to add a little cheering up to the usual "I see you" wave that a polite driver offers around here, I waggled my brightly gloved hand and beamed a big smile at each.
One couple didn't even look. The other pointedly gazed the other way.
I want to guess they were among the folks who mostly live out of state and have come to their "summer place" in Vermont this month, seeking safety from the virus, seeking a place where they won't be exposed to how tough life can be, and how scary it is to be ill. I want to be kind and tolerant, and not picture how they'll react if they "have to" call for emergency services, which around here are often staffed with highly trained, compassionate volunteers as well as EMTs. I want to call "Stay safe!" out the car window.
Besides, they haven't had much exposure yet to how we all depend on each other and come through for each other up here. And I don't want to scare anyone. So I park at the food cooperative, pull my paper-towel mask into position, and wish I'd drawn the smile onto it that I pictured this morning. Nope, on second thought, next time I go shopping, I'll take a red crayon and write words on my mask. "Stay safe! And keep out of trouble. Smile!"