Journaling Through Catastrophe: The View Outside My Window

We weren’t refined or perfect. Our voices were pretty raw at times. I led the workshop, 30 Days: Journaling Through Catastrophe. Every night at 9:00 p.m. EST, I posted a prompt–writers had 24 hours to respond. It was structured like a Massive Open Online Class (MOOC). I wanted us to co-create a narrative, a story, a public document that would carry us through the early days of the pandemic. The work we shared was blunt, poignant, often brilliant. We wrote about the perfect day in the future, the stress of food shopping, the disruption of our lives, but also the poetry and unexpected grace of a bird or a hike through the Calfornia desert. We wrote about our children and our lovers. I chose Prompt 3 for this issue: Describe the world outside your window because, in the new normal, the world had taken on a new shape—paradoxically familiar but also very strange.—Lillian Ann Slugocki, AFLW Projects Editor


30 Days: Journaling Through Catastrophe

Prompt 3

The World Outside My Window

Esthee Schonken

I have this sacred spot in my house where I go every morning, cup of coffee in hand. It’s all about the window and the view, the quiet time I have to reflect before the day starts. I always look for my favorite signs that the day will be a good one. Any sighting of an Australian Pelican fills me with so much joy, I just know that whatever the day might bring, I’m going to be OK.

We live in a suburb about 25km (15 miles) outside Melbourne right on the edge of a small man-made lake. In the 20 years since its transformation from salt marshes to family living, the water birds have also moved in. Black swans, Pelicans, Cormorants, Australasian Darters and thousands of the Eurasian Coots frequent the lakes and swim past our home.

Many families visit the little sandy beach on the opposite side of the lake. Chinese tourists taking photos to show their families at home, as they are shown property to invest in; Indian girls posing for professional photos in traditional dresses as they celebrate turning into women; the elderly father of the Chinese family living on the corner doing his morning Tai Chi exercises; young teenagers using the barbecue facilities to have a picnic.

The first time I saw the beach quiet was in January this year. I woke up for my morning coffee and could taste smoke in my mouth. I immediately opened my emergency app on my phone to see if we were in danger of any fires. But there weren’t any in the whole of Melbourne worth mentioning. The whole world was starting to take note of the fires in Gippsland 320km (200 miles) away. As I walked downstairs, I made sure all the windows were closed, but only one small window was open. I stopped by my window to look outside over the lake and couldn’t see anything. It was just an eerie smoke haze. I could see two swans sitting on the edge of lake on my lawn about 2m from me.

We were told to stay inside, to not exercise, to wear masks if we were to leave the house as the smog from the fire was so bad, we would permanently damage our lungs if we did venture outside. We turned off the cooling in the house for fear that it might let smoke enter our homes, no small thing in the 40-degree (104F) heat. People worked from home and face masks sold out. Our air quality became the worst in the world. Hospitals were put under strain as people with pre-existing conditions were having heart attacks due to the struggle to breathe. The beach remained quiet and empty during that month as we all looked on in shock, wonder and admiration at our brave firefighters and thought how we would tell our grandchildren of the great fire of 2020.

This morning, the beach is still empty. All parks and beaches have been closed. The police visit it a few times a day and write tickets to the few people brave enough to sit down and look out over the water.

As I sip my morning coffee, I look for my sign and see two Australian Pelicans floating by. I’m grateful for the privilege to be able to look at them from my sacred spot.


Lillian Ann Slugocki

I live in Hastings on Hudson, right outside of New York City. I live high on a hill overlooking a river on Warburton Avenue. The sidewalk below me is wide, and the housing stock is eclectic. It feels like a slightly seedy resort town, but still charming. Now, outside my windows, the world is mostly empty. But there are still so many birds. There are more birds than people at any given moment. In fact, they rule not only the roost but everywhere else as well.


About two weeks ago, when Cuomo said, every day, flatten the curve, flatten the curve and everybody went inside– I was looking down on the avenue, at the world outside my window. As I like to do. It was about 5:00 p.m., and usually, it’s filled with joggers, kids on bikes, the lady downstairs who screams at her boyfriend, commuters with backpacks, the guy who sits on a lawn chair with a radio and a cigarette–but on that afternoon, it was so eerily quiet. And empty. Everything looked the same, the houses, the sky, the river, the trees, but no humans. I’m the only person I see. There are no cars, no busses. No dogs out for a stroll–I don’t see Luna or Bobbo or the tiny chihuahua on a pink leash. It is surreal. It is fiction.


Because it’s right before the sun sets, and the river is now a very cold blue, which almost matches the sky, and there are birds everywhere. And down on the avenue, two enormous buzzards land on the sidewalk. Enormous. I’d seen them before, yes, skulking around the garbage cans, but never this brazen. They are as big as turkeys, but so much more sinister. Turkeys are goofy, but buzzards, believe me, are not. And they just stand there. Like they own the place. And I think I have to get a picture of these birds, when the largest of the two–stepped out onto the avenue, like royalty. A crown prince. And this bird is so big and so imposing that cars slow down and go around it. One lone man approaches but turns back.

Who gave this bird such authority?


Francisca C George

The world outside my window is wet these days. Tears from the sky roll over the porch. Crowns created on impact. They softly stroke my window, leaving trails of their existence. I want to be like them. Leave something behind when I fall from my sky. Even if it’s just a dried-up spoor that tells the ones after me that I strolled here, once. A simple trace on glass. See-through but existent.

I live in the clouds that eat the mountains outside my window. He stretches below the fluffy blanket, an old dinosaur. Sometimes he growls and shakes as if he aims to rise only to decide against it. People named him Cajon, the drawer. Like an old piece of forgotten furniture tossed into the landscape. But I know better! He watches back and when he does not get enough attention, he rattles the windows. The Cajon wants to be noticed. I don’t mind. I feel him as he rests beneath the dam and dreams over the reservoir. He steams in his sleep, in his nightly mares of people’s inability to see the world. Often, I long to reach out and breathe with him, there in the spring green hills that turn yellow brown under the soon arriving sun of long Southern summers. I grow here-into the hero of my own myth. Together we oversee the world as it spins below, the mountain and I.

But, at the moment, our watch is not enough. Confusion rules in the valley. A stir of anxious hustling. A fear of things to come. We are lucky up here. We can feel uninvolved. We can stare up through the clouds, let the raindrops whisper along or cheeks in caress and dream the world away. Until it’s all over …


Ruth Nolan

This April, if things were normal, I’d be watching and listening as a huge surge of cars, windows down and stereos cranked, scream tires screaming downhill from the mountains along Highway 74, rushing towards the Indio Polo Grounds for the start of Coachella Festival, Weekend 1. Instead of being blasted with the unleashed party energy of 200,000-plus visitors arriving for the world’s biggest, most famous annual music event, canceled this year for the first time since its inception in 20 years. I look out the window, and hear nothing except the sound of one lone car, tires splashing in the odd April rain and then, only the sound of raindrops on palm tree fronds.

This April, I sit on my couch, as I have been doing day after day, all day for weeks, and watch the junior high school age girl who lives next door practice twirling her big blue flag for her drill team. She’s been out there day after day since schools shut down, practicing and, predictably, dropping the flagpole ever so often, a sound that irritates when it hits the sidewalk. I don’t know her name. I don’t know her parents’ names, though we always say hello when I see them in the parking lot. I haven’t seen them in weeks; their vehicles appear to not have moved recently. I watch and listen, and silently root her on to help win the game.

This April, I look out my kitchen window toward the golf course, which should be brimming with golf carts and people playing tennis on the courts nearby. April in Palm Springs is almost always filled with long sunny days that aren’t yet unbearably hot as they will be by June. Instead of golfers, I see only jackrabbits, more than usual, munching on the tediously tended non-native flowers that club gardeners have maintained all season; their job is to keep snowbirds happy. But the winter snowbirds have gone. My neighbor didn’t have time to prepare her vehicle for its long storage from May-November before international borders shut down-her car is uncovered, not parked in a carport, wheels still attached, her paint job and Canadian license plates exposed to a soon-to-be blistering sun.

This April, my upstairs guest bedroom offers panoramic views of the far-off desert mountains that form the southern perimeter of Joshua Tree National Park. This is the time of year for wildflowers there, the time of year I will start to disappear into secret canyons without roads, the time of year I’ll wait in the shade cast by huge rocks and wait for the silhouettes of bighorn sheep to appear on high ridges as the day grows long. I stand at this window more than any place else inside my restricted windowed world these days, imagining the flush of yellow desert dandelions and purple phacelia carpeting the Mojave Desert for endless miles, and wait for this rain to end so the party can begin.


Lily Love

I am back in Baltimore, in the house I grew up in, and for the first time in years I’m sleeping beside a window. I look out onto a backyard where the trees are bare in Apri—a strange sight after nearly a decade in Los Angeles, where the branches flaunt their greenery all year. Yesterday there was a sudden rainstorm, groans of thunder, raindrops flinging themselves against the windowpane with a violence they don’t often muster on the West Coast. It lasted only a moment, then the storm blew itself out.

I’ve been back in Baltimore less than a month, and the weather has ranged from high 70s, humidity hanging low; soft sunshine and temperatures in the 60s; and now, two days before Easter, below 50 degrees with a frigid wind making the branches wave outside my window. With the pandemic to worry about, we may have forgotten about global warming, but it’s still here, the unpredictable weather reminding me how much the world has changed since my childhood.

From my window I can see the playhouse my father built for me, a 6-foot-tall act of love, now with the door half-broken, window shutters and roof shingles missing, ivy growing over the sides. I see ghosts of the younger, dreamier me, the little girl who spent hours swinging and singing at the top of her lungs, so sure that she and her voice were beautiful, wearing her Little Mermaid T-shirt and believing she could be anything and inhabit any world she wanted. I see the older, teenage and early-20s me, bigger in height but smaller in mind, who spent hours sunbathing in that backyard, hoping she could hide her flaws behind golden skin. I see winter nights hushed with snow; summer evenings lit up by fireflies; pastel spring flowers and firey autumn leaves.

With all those ghosts around, it’s easy to forget about the pandemic that brought me back here. It’s easy to forget that my home for the last few years has been an apartment with no backyard, where I always keep my blinds drawn to avoid the dangers of Peeping Toms on city streets. A terrible place to be locked down, locked up, for months.

Now, I’m caught in-between: not wanting to return to that small apartment, that small life full of work and hopes for a future I can’t quite believe in; but not wanting to stay here, in a house full of ghosts.

It’s too much, like this pandemic is too much. The next time I look out the window, I’ll try my best to see nothing but trees.


Annlee Ellingson

The weather is stunningly beautiful today—a perfect Los Angeles spring afternoon, sunny and breezy.

Out on the balcony, hummingbirds float by the feeders—so close that while their wings whir so fast they’re invisible to the human eye, the birds’ small, fragile bodies hold so still you can appreciate the unique markings of their feathers.

The hummingbirds have been feasting for weeks—now that we’re home all the time, we keep the feeders full. One in particular—a tiny brown scrappy thing we call “Peb”—is the boss around here. She posts up in the palm tree out front to chase off younger, bigger birds, and she hovers outside the French doors when we bring her feeder inside for a refill, tapping the chain from which it hangs with impatient anticipation. We added a second feeder this week to see what would happen.

The neighbors are playing music. Sometimes in my office in the back of the apartment, I can hear someone in the neighborhood practicing the piano, which is lovely. Today, outside the front of the house, it’s club music. A woman accuses her boyfriend(?) of making fun of her—a mid-day dance party? I think I catch a whiff of pot in the breeze.

Henry—the tall, lean, bald guy who’s lived kitty-corner across the street for as long as I can remember—is discussing the coronavirus and Middle East affairs with an Orthodox Jew who is standing in the middle of the street. Henry has one of those deep, resonant voices that always carries, but today’s he’s especially projecting as he maintains social distancing protocols from his stoop.

Henry’s a writer, too, I imagine—who else is home all day, every day, even before the pandemic?—and a centerpiece of the neighborhood because he steps outside several times a day for a smoke. I’ve never spoken to Henry, but I’ve eavesdropped on many of his conversations like today’s.

Their chat ends, and the Jewish man—full beard, dressed head-to-toe in a long black coat—continues down the middle of the street, shouting and waving hello at someone half a block away. It’s the Sabbath. I think I hear someone call him “rabbi.”

I live in the Fairfax District, a 10-minute walk to the Farmers Market and the Grove, the first block north of a busy crosstown thoroughfare on a street lined with four-unit apartment buildings. Yet traffic is virtually nonexistent. Instead, there are dogs out for walks, families out for strolls and neighbors taking out the trash.


Dana Muwwakkil

The world outside my window: There is a Sinclair across the street. It’s close, really close. Too close. Anytime I feel like I NEED a soda it’s too easy to run across the street and get one. It’s been a problem before me before this thing started. Its still a thing today. There is a dinosaur outside the Sinclair. A brontosaurus of sorts, it stands about 5 feet tall. It’s green and is usually dressed for the various holidays. A few weeks ago I realized someone fashioned a face mask for the dinosaur. I had seen a young woman dressed in scrubs the other day, she pulled out her phone and took photos of it.


Beatrice Clark

My body lays prone in a guest bed meant for no one in particular. It is mine for now, and indefinitely I suppose, but I shudder to think of staying here long. The bookshelves are filled with books without owners, the furniture is an amalgam of other peoples’ lives. Two windows do abut this bed, though. Once the sun goes down and my eyes can tolerate a pulling of the blinds, the night reveals itself to me. April has arrived and the crickets are aplenty. In the distance, yips of foxes or coyotes echo menacingly, yet playfully.

A major benefit of leaving the city is the clarity with which I can see the stars. They gleam more brightly than I can ever remember previously. Perhaps this quarantine will give the ozone a break, after all. Just at that thought, a fast and expensive-sounding car speeds by. I cringe at each car I hear pass throughout the day. Are they wearing gloves? A mask? Do they have Lysol with them? How essential is their errand? Is it someone rushing to the hospital? My own stepfather leaves the house daily. It infuriates me beyond measure. Not only is he diabetic and is at increased risk of contracting the virus, but he also has the infallible ego of a teenage boy. I close my eyes and remind myself of what I cannot control.

The night sings sweetly to me, a delicate wind crisply filling the room. I am grateful for this temperature, this chill. I imagine months from now when the inescapable humidity will fill every crevice-ooze sweat from every pore. Will we still be homebound then? Will I have escaped to a home of my own? Will the mandatory lockdown ensue, and the summer stars grow ever-brighter? Multiplying the clarity of asteroids in flight? The puppy at my feet stirs and I am struck by the simplicity of the moment. My gratitude knows no bounds for a safe place to rest my head-my bed, or not. Outside my window is a full but waning moon, beaming proudly. I thank her for her power. Restorative, prophetic, shepherdess. I crave the night outside my window and breathe fully of the ritual it deserves.

My body aches in ways the doctors, healers, hypnotists and shrinks cannot seem to cure-otherwise, I’d be out there. Walking or running, dancing ’round a fire. Weeping silver tears illuminated by her luminescence. The moon has watched so many moments of the earth. She is watching now, as we all take pause and, with little more to do, peer out our windows at her.


Kelly Collins-Adolphson

As I sit on my patio and have my coffee, the only thing I hear is the birds singing their songs. It’s so quiet and peaceful. The noise from the world has stopped. I take it all in and feel a stillness that, in my old world, I struggled to feel. The sun rises and shines on the trees lighting them up leaf by leaf. The trees are even still, in total acceptance of what is in this moment.

Pre-quarantine-Mr. Sunshine is happy as usual and the elementary school is right around the corner from my house. As the cars start to roll up in front of my house, I watch the little ones shuffle out like baby ducks with their backpacks. Others are walking their kids to school, moms and dads with strollers and the dog. It’s a family event.

But today is different. Today the streets are empty until afternoon and it’s so quiet you could hear a pin drop. I hear a noise for the first time today. It’s the sound of a razor. I look out the window and see a pile of kids with dad. The kids are grinning from ear to ear. Here comes another family on their bicycles. I’m seeing a new perspective. Everything has slowed down and everyone enjoying the simple things. I’m mesmerized as I am the witness to the human ability to improvise, overcome and adapt. We are back to simplicity, we are at peace.


Read more contributions to ’30 Days: Journaling Through Catastrophe’ here.