Matthew J. Gallagher
Notes from Coventry Lake
My last class at the University of Connecticut before the lockdown was not momentous. I told a class of 24 students jammed along with me in a basement classroom in an old building that resembled something out of Harry Potter that I expected we would be back a week or two after Spring Break, early April, 2020. Most seemed to agree with that timeline.
But Covid-19 had other ideas.
A friend of mine from Ohio University came down with it. Eddie was a superb lighting designer who had created an elegant scheme for one of my plays, probably the best received of any I had produced. He went on to become a Tony-nominated lighting designer for Wicked and To Kill a Mockingbird. I soon learned he was now fighting for his life in a New York hospital where he would remain for over 45 days. He was on a ventilator.
Miraculously, thanks to an experimental treatment from Israel, he would survive. And then he would have to learn to walk again.
What was happening was all too real.
There was a psychological term that emerged from this pandemic. They called it languishing, a state of anxiety and despair in which you are often incapable of fully engaging in life, which, of course, causes lethargy. It also causes you to lose a sense of purpose. I suppose I experienced this to some degree, but, more often than not, the forced lockdown caused me to engage more fully with the people and life around me.
Each Sunday, I would write a brief, but specific note to my two sisters on Facebook messenger. I would tell them what I was doing and ask how they were. The three of us are the products of a dysfunctional, though often joyous, childhood, if that makes any sense, and we’ve never endured long periods of separation. But there was always a remove I felt from them. And, at a couple of significant times of crisis in my life when I needed their love and reassurance, their caring was missing.
And so were any real responses to what I wrote. At first, I kept a cheery tone, rejecting any untoward thoughts at their lack of interest. Then one night, my younger sister wrote me a terse, unkind note claiming that I hadn’t asked about my brother-in-law, a police officer in New York City, during a time of unrest and gun violence in the short months after lockdown. It was so incongruent to the weekly messages I wrote that I replied with dismay - and a little more than that. At that point, we stopped speaking and I stopped sending anymore Sunday notes. My other sister rather coldly told me in a phone conversation that she “could see how I might feel,” but she offered no apology. She also proudly told me she’d voted for Trump. “He didn’t incite anything that day at the Capitol,” she declared.
This became a theme. Had I been blind to those who cared about me and those that did not? I was in constant contact with my aunts, uncles, cousins, friends. We held socially distanced parties for birthdays and holidays, mostly small groups, and it was obvious how much it meant for us to be together. I love being with my extended family and friends and, during Covid, more than ever.
It dawned on me that this lockdown was a kind of cruel, if necessary, gift. I’d helped one “friend” with a project, we were in touch for several months, and it ended, perhaps because my usefulness was over. The “theme” continued.
But then I would be reminded of true kindness and caring. I heard from students, now being taught by me online, stating how much they had gained from my teaching, how grateful they were that I had answered every email, whether it came at 9AM or 2AM. They had emotional issues and pressures.
So did we all.
But - most importantly - I began to take long, daily walks and short runs around a lake I have lived on for the past decade, four years with a girlfriend, the rest with a wonderful landlord who travels a lot and leaves me in charge of the property. That happened by accident too. I left a terrible situation at one college, not knowing where I was going to land, and ended up in better teaching positions in Eastern Connecticut. After several nice house rentals, I rented part of this home on Coventry Lake, which is properly named Wangumbaug Lake, where melt from a retreating glacier formed it 13,000 years ago. Wangumbaug means “winding river” in Algonquian, settled by Native Americans before European contact. My own “winding river” had led me here.
Each day, I saw birds appear I had not seen before - we’ve lost numerous species in the past decades due to climate change. I saw bees and bugs reappear in the summer grass. I had become an outdoorsman these past 10 years, kayaking almost daily for most months of the year, swimming, doing yard work, building rock walls, and spending as much time outdoors as I did when I was a boy.
I took time to chat with our neighbors, many of whom I knew only from a nod and a brief hello, but soon came to cherish our now longer conversations. I saw a lake I had not seen before, from new angles and vantage points, with moments of serene gratitude. Connections had become important. And they needed to be true. That much I knew.
My favorite novel is David Copperfield and, like its lead character, I have been blessed with my own Betsey Trotwood, David’s benevolent, if sometimes brittle, aunt in the story. “Never be false to anyone,” she tells him. “And never be mean and never be cruel.” My Aunt Julie, in her own way, has taught me the same things. When I related some of the despair I felt over the treatment by my sisters, or a prospective girlfriend, or the issues of the day that saddened us both, she would simply say “be strong,” and carry on with my life and ventures and, surely, some good things would result. They have. Just as I had taken my lake life for granted, I’d taken for granted my Aunt and mine’s - at least - twice monthly extended emails covering topics near and far, enough to fill several volumes.
Thoreau wrote that “I am alarmed when it happens that I have walked a mile into the woods bodily, without getting there in spirit.” Those daily lake walks taught me patience and discernment. They taught me not to overlook unkindness, but to understand that not everyone will be your brother, sister, friend, girlfriend or admirer. These are lessons I should have learned a long time ago, but I can’t underestimate how meaningful it is to learn them now. I did not languish during this period. I kept working on my writing, I kept connecting with people and nature anyway I could. I kept reminding myself that it was necessary to travel some hard roads, to feel hurt or betrayed, to experience gratitude and joy, to arrive at a stronger understanding. Covid should not have been my teacher for all of this.
But, if I’m being honest, it was.