COVID came to their town, as it did all the others. At first the citizens believed that their distance from the cities would protect them, as in olden days when the miasma was expected to hover above a populace and not spread through individuals, but modern realization soon proved that humans, as always, were the biggest threat to humans. People left the town, of course, going in their cars to visit relatives or in planes to visit beaches, and then they returned to the safety of home and the normalcy of work and school and church and daycare and gym and clubs with just the people they knew.
The first people to get sick did “just have colds”, and indeed most of them after that were only mildly affected. Few people knew anyone who was very ill, so it was easy to believe that there was nothing in the news reports and health advisories that had to be taken seriously. For people who relied on the down-to-earth practice of responding primarily to things that immediately affected their lives and livelihoods, the lack of concrete evidence of disaster flummoxed many. There was no clear action to be taken. People did not know what to do, or indeed if they should do anything.
The real problem for many townspeople was that there was so much information pouring in through radio interviews, social media, podcasts... it was more than the average small-town citizen with a lifetime of forming thoughts according to local opinion, the local paper, and the nightly news could handle in a sensible manner. Once the coffee shop was closed, as well as recreational clubs and even church, there were few places where people could come together to examine the facts, the speculation, the fears and the realities of this strange, inconvenient era.
There were, of course, some avenues for the airing of grievances that were not taken away. Government services, for example, would always be available to anyone with legitimate business, and, in a small town, this necessarily included a customer’s choice recitation of The Latest News and Views. The school, home of special, child-oriented concerns, cycled between opening and closing as outbreaks waxed and waned, and places like the Home for Older Folks were used to running on the old-fashioned telephone system of News and Revelation. These avenues remained accessible to most as outlets for daily dumps of information.
It so happened in this town that it was five friends who experienced the brunt of the community’s conflicting ways of thinking. Sarah, a teller at the bank on main, was often presented with the full spectrum, from left to right, within the morning hours, followed by a recap in the afternoon. Sandra, the librarian, was at the receiving end of friendlier, but longer rambles as people pretended to look for reading material when what they really wanted was confirmation that the outside world had gone mad. Post Mistress Pam, who had spent her career culturing an atmosphere of free and open speech so long as it contained flourishing gossip, was wishing she hadn’t been quite so encouraging. Audrey managed the Home for Older Folks where the telephone grapevine was matched by the “socials” online. Fran, the school principal, could at least screen her messages, and the mood with which she answered them, but each required a timely, level-headed response.
The five friends were hesitant to unload their daily struggles on one another, knowing they had all experienced similarly frustrating, overwhelming days at work. Yet, with little else to talk about other than their own need to clear the information overload and reset their intellectual compasses, they soon found that talking led to laughing and then to feeling lighter and more capable of handling another day. They told each other how they felt responsible, in a way, for providing this talk therapy service to the weary, frightened people who came to them. That made the five feel better, for a moment, but they went back to work and were dragged down once again, and they told themselves that something had to give. They told each other this, and then they made a plan.
Audrey came from a farm family with the heavy equipment they might need. She suggested they use land that was set aside for a new Senior’s Housing Facility. It was central, yet discrete, and certainly large enough. Construction plans had been put aside for the duration of the pandemic, so there sat the unused space. Sandra set about researching. She studied pandemic history, psychology, health and wellness, and any projects or services remotely similar to what the five had in mind. Sarah was in charge of the budget, as well as presenting the idea to the Town Council. She was careful to look into insurance and liability as well as any bylaws that might apply. She worked with Fran to create a simple supply list, and Fran received approval to purchase materials and organize the high school students. The School Board agreed it was as good a project as any for kids who were supposed to be outside as much as possible, and who could certainly benefit by doing something useful in the community while their curriculum was interrupted. Pam began a publicity campaign artfully tailored to appeal to the people she knew so well.
All of the friends used their unique positions within the town to get the word out. They had found themselves a natural hub for the stress of their community, and they were going to use that to their advantage. They congratulated themselves - and one another - on the secret power they could wield.
It took several months, but construction was finished by the time school let out in June. A rough structure now stood on the land. It looked like a modern reconstruction of an ancient fort. Open to the air and elevated on a low mound for drainage purposes, it consisted of nine cubicle-sized spaces in a grid, each with a swinging, outhouse-style door. Between them ran open passages leading to the outside of the structure. Really, it was a set of nine free-standing boxes with no tops. It was temporary, but reinforced in multiple ways to withstand whatever might come. The five friends were satisfied with the physical realization of their vision. Together, they posted a sign next to the structure with the simple instructions: “Come on In and Shout it Out”.
They were less satisfied with the response from the community. The five had done all they could to inform the townspeople of the project, which they had begun to call “The Airing”. Most responded politely, simply raising their eyebrows, nodding with exaggerated slowness, and, as an unexpected bonus, wrapping up their business more quickly than usual. They would surely scurry to pass on the news, or at least an interpretation of what they had heard. Some responded with the quick and, to them, certain and final judgment that the idea was utter nonsense - or words to that effect. Still, they would pass the information to their peers. The five had learned there was no telling what people might say, or do, in public now, but they hoped that some at least would go home and think it through.
Summer brought a loosening of provincial rules as well as of individual reserve. People were outside mingling, travelling and revelling in their freedom, carefree or careless depending on the situation. The radio, TV and even the internet news did not have the grip it had gained during the dismal winter. There was sun, there was fun. There was no need for The Airing. It stood empty except when curious children, who had no fear that people would see them, met to romp in the rooms and passages.
Summer came to an end, however, and the Covid did not. It may have been latent, but it lurked, and now it reared once more just as it came time to decide whether children should go to school, whether the arena and curling rink should open for the season, and whether Thanksgiving plans should be considered. People had assumed things would be normal again, and then the news, Tweets, posts, reports, studies and announcements were all back in action at full force. Again the people sought public forums to voice their fear and indecision, irritation, and general outlines of how the world ought to work. The townspeople were no different. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to make a scene. They wanted to air their grievances.
When this occurred in the presence of one of the five friends, as it often did, the speaker was directed to The Airing. It was such a simple thing, and yet no one wanted to be the first to try it. Most knew it would be good for them, so their human nature kicked in and told them to wait until someone else made it an acceptable thing - preferably, everyone else. The Airing stood empty as frost covered the ground.
One day small footprints appeared in one of the passages, although there was no one but their maker to witness them. A child, in the midst of the strains and stresses that only a child can know, had sought a quiet place to make some noise. There were truths to be told, such as “I hate carrots and peas!”. There were sorrows to express, like “I miss my friends!”. Thankfully, there was nothing more serious or concerning in this miniature mind than the fundamental admissions: “I’m scared we’ll run out of money!” “I’m scared someone I know will die!” and “I don’t get ‘greater than’ and ‘less than’!” The child was exhausted, but mustered the strength for a parting shot: “It doesn’t make sense!!!”.
It was a fine rendition of the common refrain that echoed around the globe, and most suitable to be the first one uttered in The Airing. The five would have been proud of this tiny pioneer’s monumental discovery. They would have been pleased to know that there was one delivery of grievances that none of them were forced to receive. Their plan had been successful at least once.
Winter’s chill proved to be a surprising ally. Cooped up, short of sunshine, and heading toward the most stressful months of the year as well as suffering the usual doldrums of the season, people were desperate for an outlet. Going to the bank was extra stressful and a little embarrassing for some. The Post Office was too busy for lingerers. The library and schools had closed due to the second wave. The Home for Older Folks ticked along as usual, but their news was as worn out and stale as news anywhere else was by then. Outdoor activity was the only safe and approved form of activity. During the longer nights of November and December, multiple sets of footprints began to appear in the snow that settled in The Airing. Someone even shovelled it, and whether the motive was to try it out or simply to provide some exercise, the act was beneficial to a growing number of townspeople.
At first, there were tentative explorations of the freedom and privacy of The Airing. It was something new and undemonstrated. There was no one to follow, no chance to see how others went about the business. But the instructions were simple enough, and after a short battle within the brain wherein the part trained by society was pounced upon, subdued, and rolled into a corner by the primal part, there was immediate progress.
People let loose in a way that warmed their bodies, hearts, and souls. It was a release that went down in history, immortalized in rhyme by an obscure local poet and given a special page on the Town website:
We shouted, hollered, bayed, and keened! We argued, cried, wailed and screamed! We bargained, questioned, confessed, revealed! We moaned and groaned and made our appeals!
We roared, howled, bellowed and bawled, yelled, clamoured, and caterwauled until, nearly spent, we sat back, sprawled, and gasped, astonished, but not appalled.
Long after Covid had lost its capital letter and become “the covie”, just another flu with a yearly vaccination, the people of the town made use of The Airing. For a little while, when the joy of going back to normal surged, it was empty, but then people realized that normal never was without fear or stress. When everything was in place for the new Home for Older Folks, a new Airing was also built, this time at the top of the hill on the outskirts of town, where there was parking, a trail through nature, and an overlook where one’s voice could be freed into miles of open space and beautiful vistas of sky and land. It was no longer reminiscent of an ancient fort. It was an open forum with columnar trees, fields, and stars to listen to all who came to Shout it Out.
The five friends, of course, were key players in the making of the park. Their interactions with the public became much more pleasant once everyone took up the practice of unburdening themselves at The Airing, and, because their idea was seen to be a good one, they enjoyed the approval of the townspeople. At about the same time, all five realized that none of them had used The Airing for a good shout, and they told themselves that it wasn’t because they were waiting to see what everyone thought of their idea, it was because they were fortunate enough to have such good friends to talk with that they had not needed an Airing themselves.
The five had other things on their minds. Predicting that the world would not end with Covid times, nor stress and frustration either, they had put in place a business venture. Sandra’s research had extended as far as patents; Sarah was informative about loans; Pam pursued shipping options; Fran had a pool of prospective summer students, and one of Audrey’s charges was keen to rent his shop and equipment. Everything came together as if the universe was rewarding the five for their patience and long-suffering.
Soon there were Airings all over America, and copycat structures cropped up in plenty of places where the trendiness of paying for mental well-being was unheard of, but do-it-yourself acuity was still prevalent. The five had plenty to congratulate themselves about, and one another too. Despite their success and all their experience, they never ceased to be amazed by two things. First, that every human being on the planet now or ever in the history of time has had the same primal fears, frustrations, and stresses. Second, the incredible cathartic power that is unleashed by hollering “I am afraid of what I don’t know! It doesn’t make sense!”