Generally I am not the kind of person who howls. I don’t hop onto each new neo-ritual passing through. Friends call me pathologically rational. But loneliness makes you do things. Before the quarantine, I’d thought I was already well acquainted with loneliness, but that was just a handshake. Weeks without human contact makes for a whole new manner of isolation. I cohabit with two dogs, which helps, but one needs connection with one’s own species, at least once in a while.
But last night I howled at the moon.
A couple in Denver started this tradition for quarantine times. At 8:00 p.m., go out and howl at the moon to show coronavirus solidarity. Howl your gratitude to the front line health workers, and your sorrow for the sick. But also, howl out your isolation. Howl out to other isolated people. Howl to say I am here. Is anybody out there? Howl to establish community. Howl to tell people, If we are alone, we are alone together.
Several days ago I heard Governor Polis, in his COVID-19 update address to the people of Colorado, mention howling at the moon. Then Monday night I heard a howl in my neighborhood at 8:00 p.m. So I thought, why not? I’ll stand in my Northern Colorado backyard with my two dogs and we’ll all howl.
I looked forward to it all day, even felt a tinge of excitement. But at 8 o’clock, the dogs and I waiting, there was only silence.
I didn’t want to be the first to howl. My next-door neighbors were lounging in their backyard; I could see them through the slats. What if I howled and no one answered? What could be more embarrassing? What could be more lonely? I shrunk under the super-pink orange moon and felt smaller and more alone than ever.
And then someone howled, far down the next block. I answered with a tentative, questioning howl of my own. My dogs perked up their ears. Someone down the street howled back to me. Then someone on the next block. I could hear the howls spreading across the neighborhood, more contagious than the virus. As a wave of howls wrapped the city, I threw my head back and howled from the depth of my lungs. I didn’t know I had so much howl in me.
My terrier went nuts, running crazed all over the backyard as if trying to fend off the invading wolves. My husky, who has so much howling potential, just looked embarrassed for me.
By 8:05 it was all over… but I stayed. I could still feel the howl in the back of my throat, and didn’t want to swallow it down. I could still feel the echoes ruffling the night air. I felt silly, but also oddly moved. It felt almost spiritual—a word I don’t use lightly. Calling out into the void, Are you out there? and then receiving the anonymous answer, Here I am.
Deborah Thompson is a professor of English at Colorado State University, where she helped to develop a master’s degree in creative nonfiction. Currently, she’s working on a book project on dogs in America and what they mean.