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Scott Brinton

Reflections on a pandemic year


How strange the past 12 months have been, for us all. Personally, I’ve been holed up for most of it at my desk in my bedroom, papers stacked up around me, my cellphone always at the ready, resting against my computer.

I’m not complaining. I know how fortunate I am during this coronavirus pandemic to be able to work as a newspaper editor from home most of the time.

My two adult children, both in college, Zoom in to their classes from their bedrooms one floor below. My wife, a teacher, works at her school, but on occasion has been called to teach virtually from home.

I can’t help but feel cloistered, hemmed in by my bedroom walls. There’s a world outside, waiting for me, but I can’t venture far very often. So few of us can these days, our lives dictated by the ebbs and flows of an insidious viral invader.

I leave my house in Merrick only for short, well-planned errands — no more browsing in stores — to teach three hours a week at Hofstra University, to take walks around the neighborhood or at a local park with my family, or to report a story.

I’ve realized that I’ve never before spent so much time by myself. I had grown accustomed to the nervous energy of a newsroom on deadline, the constant tapping of fingers on keyboards, the chatter of reporters speaking at breakneck pace with sources on the phone, the sound of footsteps moving hurriedly across a carpeted floor.

Then, suddenly, seated at my home desk, there was only quiet whenever I stopped to listen. I could hear nothing but the faint sound of cars on the Meadowbrook Parkway nearby or, here and there, the howling wind. There was no movement, only stillness.

At first, I felt alone. Then, as the months passed, a funny thing happened: I started to embrace the aloneness. My mind was less cluttered. I found I could think faster, write faster. I became a more efficient editor.

As still more time passed, my mind started to wander during the precious moments of free time between editing and writing stories or teaching classes. Often it turned to the woods of my childhood in Yaphank, in Suffolk County — the hundreds of acres of oaks and pines behind my family’s home where I trekked off for hours, learning, by trial and error, to differentiate between poison ivy and Virginia creeper or to navigate by paying close attention to unusual landmarks. It was the only other time when I was as alone as I am now. It was also when I was most at peace — when I could think freely.

As a child, I spent more time than most in the woods. Not only did I grow up surrounded by forest, but also, as a Boy Scout, I ventured into many an upstate park, from the Catskills to the Adirondacks, always feeling a sense of oneness with the earth in the woods. That was, in part, why I spent four summers as a Fresh Air Fund counselor in Fishkill. I could do good for the world — the camp was for underprivileged children from the inner city — while living entirely outdoors. It was also why, the week I finished my master’s degree, I headed off to northern Maine to climb Mt. Katahdin — alone.

The early days of the pandemic are a blur to me, a rapid-fire succession of hard-news stories that I had to write or edit. Over the summer, I marched alongside the Black Lives Matter protesters for miles to document that history-making movement, never stopping to think whether I might become infected with Covid-19 while walking among so many thousands of people.

Then, during the fall, I began to settle into my lonesome routine, sending my mind in search of my past. I wondered why I thought so often about the woods. The answer, I believe, is simple: In the forest, I was without fear.

We are all, I think, searching for some modicum of peace now. We must cling to some form of past happiness, because in it, we find hope, which we so desperately need to give us the inner strength to endure these final months of the pandemic before we reach herd immunity — we hope, sometime over the summer.

In the future, I determined, I must return to the woods more often — to live, as Henry David Thoreau implored us, deliberately. In the woods, as Thoreau wrote, I can “front the essential facts of life.”

I decided to buy a pair of Vasque Sundowner hiking boots — beautiful, brown-leather, Italian-made hiking boots — the same pair that I purchased before I drove off to Maine, but somehow lost as a Peace Corps volunteer.

I hope to climb Bear Mountain, Mount Marcy and Mount Katahdin again, and perhaps others as well. I hope. I hope. I hope. We must keep hope alive to remember why we should do all we can to survive these terrible and terrifying times.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.