Phil Gulley: Fallen Idle

As I sit in my home writing this, we are two weeks into Governor Eric Holcomb’s quarantine, with God only knows how many weeks to go. I’m forbidden from visiting my customary haunts as pastor—hospitals, nursing homes, rehabilitation centers, and the homes of the sick and elderly—so I’m organizing closets, cleaning my office, and tinkering on my motorcycles in the garage.

One hates to think about such things, but in the event that I get the coronavirus and die, I’ve made provisions for my motorcycles, as one would a child or pet. Dave Helton will inherit my 1979 Honda CB650, which is in pristine condition. Dave’s been a wonderful friend, utterly dependable, and will therefore receive a motorcycle consistent with his nature. I’ve made arrangements for Brian Ritchie to get my 1980 BMW R100RT motorcycle. It’s generally reliable, but has a few annoying quirks. Are you starting to notice a pattern? Mike Goss will get my 2017 Triumph Bonneville, because he owns a Harley-Davidson and should experience the joy of riding a real motorcycle before he dies. I’m giving Ned Steele my 2008 BMW R1200RT, because the only BMW motorcycle dealership in Indianapolis just closed and it will be fun to sit up in heaven and watch Ned try to get a German bike serviced. I’m not giving my friends Rod Collester or Riley Tharp any of my bikes because Rod has more than I do and Riley doesn’t have enough room in his garage for another one. Rod and Riley will have to be content with my warmest wishes.

I had made no secret of my wish to have the summer off from work, but I wasn’t counting on getting it this way. It’s hard to enjoy any respite that costs other people their lives, but I am finding some pleasure in these days of isolation, namely enjoying our granddaughter while our older son is working his farm. It turns out my son’s farming vocation is considered essential, while my pastoring and writing aren’t.

“Well, I’d like to stay and chat,” he tells me, “but my work is essential, so I mustn’t linger.” It doesn’t help one’s self-esteem to be branded nonessential by the governor.

I had to clean my office because it’s now being used as a studio. John Essex, from our Quaker meeting, visits each Friday to record my weekly sermon, which he then distributes to anyone desperate enough to watch it. When our younger son participated in the 4-H gun safety program, he made a black powder rifle that now hangs over my desk. Quakers are pacifists, so I have to make sure to take down the rifle before John films me. I wouldn’t want my fellow Quakers to know I write my sermons under the watchful gaze of a .45-caliber Hawken rifle. My life is rife with hypocrisy.

It turns out my son’s farming vocation is considered essential, while my pastoring and writing aren’t.

While most aspects of our lives have seen dramatic change, some traditions continue unaltered. A neighbor boy and his friends still play basketball in his driveway. It is Indiana, after all, and certain customs won’t take a back seat to any virus. Now that youth sports are canceled, parents and children are learning that organized sports are, like me, nonessential. The driveway hoop is every bit as exhilarating as the school gym, the weedy lawn a field of dreams. Perhaps when this is over, we’ll stop interfering in our children’s play and tell them to go outside, for God’s sake, and come home when it’s suppertime and not until. If this virus teaches us that enrolling our kids in traveling football leagues isn’t essential to their development, there will be a silver lining to the cloud.

It’s not only the kids who are heading outdoors. I’ve seen more adults outside than ever before—walking, jogging, and riding bicycles. My wife is taking this opportunity to promote exercise, though I pointed out it might be wise to preserve my strength, just in case. Like most of our arguments, my wife won, and now she has me starting and ending each day with a forced march. But that’s not the worst of it. She has forbidden me from eating fast food and is heaping my plate with fruits and vegetables. At this rate, I’ll be a vegan before everything is said and done.

Though the governor ordered nonessential travel to end, that hasn’t kept my wife and me from driving the hundred miles south to our farm, where we sit on the porch, reading our stockpile of books. Our nearest neighbor is half a mile away, well outside the CDC’s recommended distance. He bumps his horn as he passes our house to check on his cattle in the upper meadow. His entire life has been a dry run for this pandemic. He already eats every meal at home, keeps six feet from everyone else, and wouldn’t be caught dead in a crowd. Not to make light of our current situation, but introverts might well rule the world after this virus has had its way.

As a hypochondriac, I imagine having COVID-19 at least a dozen times a day when a slight cough, a sniffle, or a tickle in the throat plunges me into a pit of fear.

Fortunately, not even a pandemic is all gloom and doom. There are, amid the hellish contagion, moments of pure hilarity. I’ve been enjoying the articles suggesting things to do while homebound. They always start by suggesting we clean and organize our homes, which I find hysterical, as if I’m going to squander this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity on work when there are a zillion YouTube clips I’ve been meaning to watch. I’m not going to plant a garden either, as one article advised. Or paint my house. Or learn a new language. I’ve spent almost five decades being industrious, and I’m ready to sit on my can for a while. I’m not going to waste my quarantine on something stupid like self-improvement.

As a hypochondriac, I imagine having COVID-19 at least a dozen times a day when a slight cough, a sniffle, or a tickle in the throat plunges me into a pit of fear. Hypochondria has served me well over the years, getting me out of some rather disagreeable tasks, but this virus is much worse than a cold or a round of stomach flu. I heard an epidemiologist refer to it as a “lung-eater.” I’ve grown fond of my lungs over the years, and want to hold on to them as long as possible. I’ve been careful to spare them from cigarette smoke, smog, and other toxins. Interestingly, a heavy smoker recently assured me that layers of cigarette tar actually protect our lungs from viruses. He’s convinced this virus is a hoax, started by the liberals to sabotage President Trump’s reelection chances. Sometimes, it hurts my head to live in America.

Events like this give us a new perspective on life. I fall asleep each night fearing I won’t awaken, then the next thing I know, it’s morning, the sun is shining, the birds are singing, and our neighbor’s dog is baying and barking. That used to annoy me, but now it’s as beautiful as a Mozart opera. Indeed, not dying is so pleasurable, I hope to do it for the rest of my life.


Philip Gulley is a Quaker pastor, author, and humorist. Back Home Again chronicles his views on life in Indiana.