Chatham locals make the most of pandemic’s challenges

Loneliness, isolation are just two of the costs of COVID-19

BY HANNAH MCCLELLAN, News + Record Staff
Posted 8/7/20

At the end of August, when Chatham resident Linda Smith turns 70, she plans to celebrate with a virtual “Zoom” party. Smith, who has only seen a handful of people since the North Carolina …

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Chatham locals make the most of pandemic’s challenges

Loneliness, isolation are just two of the costs of COVID-19

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At the end of August, when Chatham resident Linda Smith turns 70, she plans to celebrate with a virtual “Zoom” party. Smith, who has only seen a handful of people since the North Carolina stay-at-home order went into effect, hopes there will be a lot of people in attendance — currently, her list has more than 100 people on it.

“I may have to trim it back,” she said with a laugh.

Like a growing number of people in the United States — 28% of American households, according to a story published by The Wall Street Journal — Smith lives alone. There have been many stories written recently about the exaggerated sense of loneliness many of these people have felt since the coronavirus pandemic has prevented many of them from getting out as much as usual. But like Smith, many are also turning to new hobbies and investing in old ones to make the most of this new pandemic reality.

A longtime gardener, Smith’s garden has gotten “bigger and bigger and bigger” over the years, which means her gardening keeps her pretty busy. In addition to planning her own birthday party, she’s also planning a virtual retirement celebration for her sister, taking writing classes and cooking nearly every new recipe she finds. More than anything, she said she’s trying to use the extra time she now has to better appreciate the nature and people around her.

“What I noticed really quickly with COVID was, oh, I don’t have to worry about what’s going on out there that I might be missing because nobody’s doing anything,” Smith said. “That’s probably the most positive thing I’ve experienced, is that sense that you know, there’s not really anything out there for me — everything that I need is right here.”

‘That’s probably the most positive thing I’ve experienced, is that sense that you know, there’s not really anything out there for me — everything that I need is right here,’ said Chatham resident Linda Smith. At the end of August, when Smith turns 70, she plans to celebrate with a virtual ‘Zoom’ party.

‘Where do I fit in?’

Though loneliness can feel especially prevelant for folks living alone right now, Chatham-based counselor and meditative teacher Mary Stokes said the feeling of loneliness is much more widespread than just among people who live alone. Just the reality of living through a pandemic can cause people to think deeply about their own mortality, sometimes causing what Stokes calls an “existential sense of loneliness.”

“We have a lot of ways in which we distract from those deeper currents that go on in the psyche and in our emotional lives,” she said. “So, I think right now there’s a lot less ability to distract from something that is somewhat underlying — I don’t know that I’ve ever worked with anyone who doesn’t deal with loneliness.”

When the pandemic began impacting North Carolina in late March, initially appointments at Stokes’ practice dropped, likely, she said, the result of people adjusting to new patterns of working and parenting. Still, she said some people felt the extra time and space they had to sleep, practice creative hobbies and meditate helped them feel happier.

As the pandemic has gone on, Stokes said many people are scheduling appointments again — with the various challenges of losing “normal life” being felt more clearly, Stokes said.

“In people who do more long-term work with me, I’ve noticed them beginning to articulate the incredible amount of grief and sense of loss,” she said. “Not just in relationships, like I’ve lost the ability to go out and see my friends or my family, but the sense of loss that the life that I had and that I imagined I would have, isn’t there. I think a lot of people are beginning, at least this is how I’m feeling it and seeing it, are beginning to have deeper questions about their identity and place in the world. Like where do I fit in if I can’t do those things I normally think of as being my life?”

These questions are difficult, Stokes said, in a time that’s already challenging enough — coping with stress, anxiety and grief caused by unemployment, sickness, death and more. When it comes to addressing our own difficult feelings, Stokes said paying attention to your thoughts, emotions and body is important.

“If people can learn to work and explore that with curiosity and compassion for ourselves, then there’s a lot of untangling and keeping ourselves from spinning out, basically, by recognizing and then learning to train our minds to allow ourselves to feel sad,” she said.

The feeling of loneliness is more widespread right now than just among people who live alone, said Chatham-based counselor and meditative teacher Mary Stokes. She said people should approach hard emotions ‘with curiosity and compassion for ourselves’ as a starting point to address those feelings.

‘To love where you are’

Onicas Gaddis, a local artist, said the increased isolation he’s experienced due to COVID-19 has actually been productive — he’s made 10 large paintings, which collectively, he said, represent some of his best work. Ever since he was a young boy experiencing abuse in the foster care system, Gaddis said art has helped him cope with pain and loneliness.

In addition to painting, Gaddis works at Lowe’s — until he sells his $1 million painting, 2007 “Heaven & Hell” piece, which is part of his spiritual expressionism collection — which helps with not feeling completely isolated. Though he said he was initially concerned about exposure to the virus at work, he generally feels protected as a worker.

Still, seeing all of the death and suffering happening around the world has been difficult.

“It’s the hardest thing to see as the human being right now for me,” he said. “But the isolation part, I’ve been pretty much isolated my whole life — I was always drawing, always painting or I spent a lot of time in my studio. So for me, during the pandemic, it was just like business as usual because that’s what I always did.”

Like Gaddis, Pittsboro resident Suza White has been able to spend even more time over the last few months doing what she loves — gardening. An industrial-grade gardner and horticulturist, White’s “secret garden” is a large part of both her normal and quarantine life.

Pittsboro resident Suza White has been able to spend even more time over the last few months doing what she loves — gardening, a part of her normal and quarantine life.

In addition to her own gardening, she’s done a Facetime garden consult with an old friend living in Pennsylvania. She’s cleaned more, sent lots of postcards (her way of saying, “Hey, I’m still out here!”) and listened to more Elvis Presley. Still getting used to being retired, the longer days have helped her to have less structured, but still productive days. While she said she’s felt lonely at times, she wouldn’t say she’s experiencing loneliness.

“I considered this quarantine, as could anybody, as a challenge to go deep within and find your other levels of being that go beyond going to work,” she said. “That something about each of us that we have when we don’t have all the distractions of trauma and drama...just really being able to love where you are, because, hey, what can you do anyway?”

For Smith, having the time to slow down and appreciate “the little things” has helped give perspective in a time full of its challenges.

“So I try to treasure every minute,” she said. “I know that sounds trite and it’s something we say a lot, but it’s not something we actually do very much.”

Reporter Hannah McClellan can be reached at hannah@chathamnr.com.

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