The Wisconsin Historical Society Press published ‘Hope Is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic’. In this series, we feature five writers who share their experiences as they explore hope in the era of COVID-19. BJ Hollars both edited and contributed to the book.
BJ Hollars | Eau Claire, WI
About a week later, I was taking a walk by the elementary school near our house. It was early morning, and I was preoccupied thinking about what was happening. I looked to my left, and there was mist on the ground. Then this beautiful deer just walked out of the woods and stared at me. As I stared back at this deer, I thought ‘This deer has no earthly idea what’s stressing me out right now.’ Connecting with a creature who seemed naïve to the struggles that we were facing as a human race stirred something within me. I wanted to be a larger part of the human race in that moment—connect with people any way I could.
I’m a strong believer in the power of connectivity by way of words—of writing. I put out a call for essays on hope and used the Emily Dickinson line, ‘Hope is the thing with feathers’ as a writing prompt and asked people to submit essays on what hope looked like to them. The emails came pouring in, and I originally just published them on the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild website. People would check in every morning to see what hope had been posted by whom.
In those early days of Covid, none of us knew what we were in for. The first-day school was canceled, I was the best homeschooling teacher of all time. We had hour-by-hour perfection, and then by day two, complete, utter chaos. By week ten, it was just done for. By then, I had put out the call for ‘Hope is the Thing’ essays. This project really became anchoring for me. People were pouring their hope into my email inbox, and I didn’t want to let them down. It gave readers a slight glimpse through the window of where a neighbor or a friend is at that moment. From there, it spiraled into a larger project and the Wisconsin Historical Society Press took one hundred of these essays and poems and published Hope is the Thing: Wisconsinites on Perseverance in a Pandemic.
My parents are in the process of moving. So I went back to my childhood bedroom in the old family house, which has been in my family for a few generations. It was hard to let that house go. When I went back to the bedroom for the second to last time ever, I came across all the old flotsam and jetsam of my childhood. I have this letter to my future self I wrote as a high school kid, my first Boyz II Men concert stub. But my favorite item is a single page from the book The Grapes of Wrath. When I was in fourth grade this was the first big-kid book I ever read. I didn’t understand half of what was going on with the Joads and the Dust Bowl, but I wanted to try this book. Somehow, this page fell out of the book, so I’ve always kept it. A memento of my first book and the hope I had that I thought I could finish that book.
One of the best things I’ve ever done was a 2,500 mile road trip I took with my then-six-year-old son. We retraced the Oregon Trail and I interviewed people along the way for a book I was writing. We were able to really see America, flaws and all. The trip was modeled in the footsteps of John Steinbeck’s Travels With Charley: In Search of America, where he says, ‘If you want to see America, bring a dog. You could try a child but a dog is better to meet people.’
I now think that bringing a kid is better because no one’s going to be a complete jerk in front of a child. On this trip, I certainly had conversations where people felt differently politically than I did. But no matter who I was talking to, there was always a look that passed between us that kind of held the line of, ‘We’re not going to go there in front of a kid.’ That was a moment of hope for me, that we recognized there are limits to our frustrations with one another—it was more important to both of us that we don’t ruin this experience for a child.
We had some perfect moments on that trip. One day, we traveled 400 miles. It was a couple of days after a rainstorm blew the tent away and we had to sleep in the car. We were exhausted and it was 95 degrees in Douglas, Wyoming. We played putt-putt golf and our dinner was a slice of summer sausage at each hole. Then we read stories and went to sleep. I describe it as a ‘deathbed day’ because I’m going to think about it in my final moments.
I have found myself doubling down in the places where I find hope. If things aren’t going the way I want professionally I think, ‘I’m going to play pickup basketball with my son and we’re going to have a great time’ or ‘I’m going to play this board game with my daughter and we’re going to have a great time.’ And I am still going for 5 am walks. I’ll walk five miles in the complete darkness, some mornings seeing no humans for an hour. It’s like the greatest thing—my only goal is to put one foot in front of the other and observe the world on the world’s terms. I first started taking these morning walks with my newborn daughter in the early weeks of the pandemic. These days, her sleeping patterns are different so I take the dog or I walk on my own. There’s just something so beautiful about watching the world slowly emerge each day. Every time I pass by the school and the woods, that misty morning deer from March 2020 pops into my memory. It reminds me to be grateful for at least not being in that moment anymore. At least it’s a different moment now.
For me, writing helps me untangle my thoughts. When I take my morning walks, all kinds of things start floating through my head. All my concerns and anxieties are there. But they begin to fade a little as the sun comes up, and I can kind of make sense of the world that I recognize again.
Some photos of BJ and his son on their road trip. And a photo of BJ and his daughter, who inspired his early morning walks which inspired the ‘Hope is the Thing’ book project.