GRAND FORKS — Gratitude is a good thing, but it’s getting harder to remember why. Perhaps it’s the season, COVID-19 or advancing age. It just seems that things are falling away.
No doubt November exacerbates that feeling. Each day dawns a little later and each sunset occurs a little earlier, and so the days grow unremittingly shorter. The cold increases. The experts threaten us with ever more serious occurrences of COVID, and the numbers prove them out, even if we don’t believe them and even if we don’t care.
Then there is antiquity. I just passed my 73rd birthday, and the only thing I have more of than I did a year ago is hair, unkempt, uncut gray hair. That’s a consequence of COVID, of course. I just don’t get out of the house as much, and almost no one gets in the house. In the nine months since COVID invaded our lives — not ours literally, but American lives — we’ve had only five people who are not family members in the house, two delivered a platform rocker and the others were friends who came by for coffee … socially distanced coffee.
I have not seen any member of my family since early in the year, when I stopped by Turtle Lake, N.D., on the way to Bismarck. My older sister lives there. Suezette has family in Grand Forks, and we’ve seen them at our place, at theirs and at medical appointments and occasional shopping sprees. These get-togethers are both shorter and less frequent than they used to be, and most of the conversation took place in the open air, which we understand reduces the risk of spreading the virus, should any of us have it share. We’ve also entertained friends on our driveway.
The inevitable consequence of isolation is a loosening of ties. We’ve not been with Grand Forks friends whom we used to see frequently. Last year, we Jacobs cousins had a reunion in Powers Lake, N.D., and vowed to have another reunion this year, but of course that didn’t happen.
The biggest “fall-off,” though has been in the business where I spent my career, newspapering. At the beginning of the year, North Dakota had 10 newspapers that qualified as “dailies.” Today, there’s only one, a six-day paper. The Grand Forks Herald, which I can’t help thinking of as “my paper,” arrives in print only two days a week.
Oddly, though, these losses have brought gains. I actually subscribe to more news sources now than I ever have, and I read them more regularly. Most of these are newspaper websites, many far away, in cities such as Washington, New York, Toronto, Winnipeg and Bismarck. Each of them offers news alerts, so I have more access than I have had before to instant coverage as well as in-depth and varied commentary. To be clear, I assiduously avoid social media sites, at least for news. Should I see something of interest there I look for confirmation in the mainstream media. Sometimes, these are sites maintained by broadcast networks, but print-based sites remain my go-to sources.
Somewhat the same thing happened with family and friends. At the cousins’ reunion, I renewed a relationship dating to childhood. Over more than six decades we’d had little contact, though we followed one another’s work, hers as a teaching nun in Tanzania and mine as a newspaperman at home in North Dakota. Now we are email buddies. With distant friends we’ve had online reunions, and with one group these have become regular occasions, like gathering at someone’s house on a Saturday evening. I also allow myself a socially distanced coffee break with a Herald colleague.
These occasions and other online get-togethers help reduce the sense of isolation and even, to a degree, the unsettling feeling of anxiety that sometimes comes from being alone. Perhaps the greatest thing is learning to be alone. Suezette and I have developed an entirely new routine around the house. I read a lot. Charles Dickens is my special project for this winter. I’m halfway through “The Pickwick Papers.”
I’ve also stepped up my walking program. During the summer months, I walked morning and evening, and frequently neighbors stopped to visit through the windows of their cars – or more often their pick-ups. I walk in all kinds of weather, and I see the changes in scenery as trees leaf out, wildflowers bloom and crops and grasses ripen. My overwhelming impression, though, is that the light is never the same. I pester a friend in Virginia with pictures of the landscape, sunsets, snowfalls, ripening crops. He’s the fellow I sat next to at UND hockey games in the old arena – the really old one – the one we called the barn. This was in the 1960s, remember.
So, it’s not so hard to remember what to be grateful for, after all, including all of you who read this newspaper on paper or online.
Mike Jacobs is a former editor and publisher of the Grand Forks Herald.