To one degree or another, Mainers have been living within the grim parameters of pandemic pain since last March: students out of school; adults out of work and out of money; businesses teetering; Thanksgiving plans – not to mention the global economy – turned upside down; health care workers beyond weary; parents beyond bleary; and coronavirus illnesses, hospitalizations and deaths increasing at a terrifying speed.

These are hard times.

But without downplaying the suffering, and recognizing that until recently Maine has had it easier than many other parts of the country, some Mainers say there have been unlooked-for bright spots, too, large and small. Many involve the gift of time, a commodity often in short supply in the 21st century, allowing people – or forcing people – to reevaluate and reorder their priorities.

Asked about it, Mainers listed such pandemic silver linings as mindful time with spouses and children, the chance to teach a daughter to read, and time to truly come to grips with the premature death of a parent. Mainers this year have found new careers, bought sailboats, adopted puppies and grown close to their neighbors. They’ve explored their state, transformed their gardens, and reveled in easy Old Port parking and the freedom of a Maine summer without perpetual house guests. They’ve said good riddance to cursed commutes.

“As a society, the Western world is so caught up in the rat race and we are so busy all the time,” observed Craig Mathieson, who lives in Portland and works as a loan officer for Residential Mortgage Services. “The pandemic, for all of its devastating effects, it’s forced us to just take a step back and evaluate the way we have been living life and the ways we could actually improve that. It feels like the machine was never going to let us do that, but the virus has been like, ‘Well, let me just throw a wrench in the cogs.'”

THE CHILDREN’S HOUR

Mathieson himself is busier than ever because of the spike in home-buying and refinancing. (His wife, on the other hand, has had to close her makeup and spray-tanning business for the time being.) Like many others, he has been working from home.

“My kids are at such a young age,” he said. “It’s so important that they have both their parents as present as possible. Up until this year, I have been present outside of work hours, but Monday through Friday, it’s all about Mama, and Daddy is this guy who just shows up once in a while.

“So to walk out of my office and meet my family face to face in the kitchen, it’s just a couple of rooms over, and have lunch and interact with them and just be present in their lives?” he continued. “That’s pretty special.”

Other parents have their own versions of this story. As a single parent, Kathy Biberstein, an attorney who lives in Freeport, faced an exhausting, never-ending struggle to balance the demands of parenting two sons with the demands of a high-powered career. Today, her boys are grown, one in college, the other in grad school with a serious girlfriend, and Biberstein herself has retired. “Along comes COVID, and they all end up at my house,” she said.

“We had this time,” she said, “a quieter, softer time,” six months of shared meals, study breaks, midnight snacks and good talks. “I was in their lives in a way I never ever could have predicted. It was extraordinary for me, a single parent who did the best she could but never thought she would get to make up for some of that (lost) time. I will take that with me forever.”

As “horrible” as the pandemic is, Biberstein went on, “I think my story is being told in different variations in living rooms across Freeport, across Maine, across the country.”

Shannon and Ross Adam married in early November in York Harbor. “I was prepared for rain and gloom. But the skies parted, there was sunshine, it was 75 degrees. It could not have been more kismet,” Shannon Adam said. She and Ross moved in to together, got engaged and married during the pandemic. Photo by Amy Gauthier Photography

FAMILY TIME

The pandemic has reshaped relationships among other family members, too. Mindy Fox, a food writer and consultant who lives in Portland, has been married for 17 happy years to her husband, Steve, an architect; they share hectic professional lives and social calendars. The pandemic, though, has brought quiet to the couple, now both working from home, so together “24/7,” Mindy Fox said.

“To be able to be with your person, if you have a person to be with, and just see that you still love that person so much, as your best friend,” she said. “You can still just be together. It’s still really wonderful, maybe even more so. You get to appreciate the person again.”

Similar story, shorter timeline for Shannon Adam of South Portland, who last March because of the pandemic moved in with the man she was dating, Ross Adam, and his two children (she lost her job, he lost his child care). Earlier this month , the couple married in York Harbor before 12 friends and family members. The pandemic, she said, “strengthened our relationship. To go through these trials and tribulations and work as a team to figure out how to navigate these times, it made us go, ‘Yeah, this is exactly what I want. This is exactly what I need.’ ”

Portland resident Maeve McInnis tells a very different sort of love story. Her father was diagnosed with cancer in February; he died in late October. McInnis, who in normal times travels up to two weeks each month for her job with food service company Sodexo, said the pandemic canceled her work trips and allowed remote work, giving her treasured time with her father.

During the pandemic, Sophie Olmsted changed course. She is now studying for a master’s in teaching at the Maine College of Art. Ben McCanna/Staff Photographer

Sophie Olmsted’s mother died four years ago, of metastatic breast cancer, before anyone had ever so much as heard the words “novel coronavirus.” When Olmsted’s chances for a permanent job at the Portland-based Council on International Educational Exchange were dashed by the pandemic, she went to live with her dad for a spell at her childhood home in Massachusetts, “just for a sense of safety, I guess.” Her siblings ended up there, too. It was the first time since their mom died that they’d been able to spend a real stretch of time together.

For Olmsted, “being in my childhood home all together, but without her” was a bittersweet gift. “We had a lot of intense and healing conversations that I don’t think would have happened without the pandemic. We wouldn’t have had the space to talk and pause and heal. ”

Abigail Pratt’s East Bayside backyard before the pandemic. Photo by Abigail Pratt

During the pandemic, Pratt and her partner transformed their backyard into a garden. Asked by a reporter if she had photos of the garden, she answered proudly, “Are you kidding?” Photo by Abigail Pratt

CAREER MOVES

The pandemic reconfigured Olmsted’s career path, too. She’d been working temporarily at CIEE and was gunning for a full-time job. But the economic impact of the coronavirus on the business nixed that. At her childhood home, she brushed her teeth each night, rinsing with a ceramic tumbler she’d made at Bates College, where she’d studied art. In her bedroom, she slept under a linoleum print she’d made in middle school. She walked the dog past her old high school each day, thinking, darkly, “‘Where am I going? What do I want to do with my future?'” Olmsted said. The answer was staring her in the face: teach art. She raced to apply to the Master of Arts in Teaching program at Maine College of Art, where she now studies.

Sophie Olmsted made this hand-pinched tumbler as a student at Bates College. Using it during the pandemic reminded her of her love for art; it was among the objects that inspired her to return to the field. Photo by Sophie Olmsted

“If I hadn’t gone home and felt the feeling I felt in my house, I wouldn’t have had that pause,” she said. “I paused and then I guess the other word is ‘pivot.’ I pivoted back to something I’ve always kept tabs on. I’ve always thought of myself as a maker and a creative person.”

Abigail Pratt may have found a creative new career, too – hang on, we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

When the pandemic hit, Pratt, a textile designer and upholsterer who lives in Portland’s East Bayside neighborhood, had to cancel a buying trip to Peru and postpone her plans to open a retail store. Suddenly, strangely, she had time on her hands. It started with the chickens. Her partner had long wanted laying hens. Soon, Rosalita, Carmelita, Norma and Lucy were ensconced in the yard supplying eggs and entertainment in equal part. It continued with British gardening shows – Pratt became obsessed.

“I knew we were going to be home a lot this summer, so I wanted to create a beautiful outdoor space that we can enjoy,” she said.

The couple went to town. Following Pratt’s design and relying on her partner’s carpentry skills, they built beds, benches, fences, patios and a custom chicken coop with a pagoda roof. Pratt transplanted and planted anew. A summer’s labor transformed a backyard into the “beautiful, magical outdoor oasis” she’d dreamed of. Without the pandemic, she said, “we 100 percent would not have done it.”

Now Pratt is mulling over a new career. “To tell you the truth,” she said almost shyly as the interview concluded, “I actually think I may go into garden design.”

OUT OF ADVERSITY

Mischa Schuler, a community herbalist in Portland, has also savored her garden this year. In June, she gave up her Wild Carrot Herbs business office, a pandemic-induced financial decision. “I just didn’t know what would happen,” she said. Working at home, though, has meant instant access to her beautiful garden dense with skullcap, motherwort, tulsi basil, ashwagandha and the like. “That isn’t necessarily weeding,” she explained. “It’s just sitting in it. Just being there.”

Other Mainers found similar small, quiet upsides in these wrenching times. Avid cyclists enjoyed the lack of traffic last spring. Birders able to work from home enjoyed spotting hummingbirds at backyard feeders. Kerry Michaels, an artist who lives in Freeport and often entertains, enjoyed a break from house-cleaning.

“We ate outside all summer. I quickly realized my kitchen could be a bloody mess and it didn’t matter,” she said. “It made having people over so much easier and so much less stressful. I’m messy, but I’m not dirty. My shoes are all over the house. I have stuff all over the house. So I panic. It’s so nice not to have that sort of panic. Our friends are all casual, and I’m sure they could care less, but it’s still that guilt-shame thing if your house doesn’t look like a magazine. I blame Martha Stewart.”

Just down the road, Fiona Wilson, another Freeport resident and the deputy chief sustainability officer for the University of New Hampshire, has been watching her students cope with the impact of the coronavirus, coupled with a bitter election, accelerated and devastating climate change, and outrage over racism. 2020 may be America’s annus horribilis, but is there just a little light?

“Among students, understandably, a lot of angst and uncertainty is being created by COVID-19 and all of these interconnected challenges,” Wilson said. “They are hyperaware of the issues facing the world and their generation, and it is invigorating their desire to be part of the solution and engage in work that makes a positive change. The silver lining for me is this generation of students is all-in.”


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