As the COVID-19 pandemic sheltered humankind in place, a prose poem penned by a Jefferson County woman went viral, capturing a glimmer of hope during this uncertain time and painting an idealistic outcome toward which all the world should strive.
Titled “And the People Stayed Home,” the poem was written by Kitty O’Meara of the town of Aztalan. It is a stream-of-consciousness observation that something good can come out of this time when a deadly virus has changed our daily lives and slowed our usual frantic pace.
O’Meara and her husband, Phillip Hagedorn, moved to Fort Atkinson from Milwaukee in 1994. She was a teacher at St. Joseph’s Catholic School and he taught science at Fort Atkinson High School. In 1997, they moved to the town of Aztalan and, within a few years, both entered the health-care field. She now is retired from her career in palliative care and as a chaplain at Meriter Hospital in Madison.
O’Meara said that as the days and weeks of self-isolation went on, she was noticing people around the globe starting to discover their love and passion for life once again, and the Earth healing in the process.
So she wrote down her thoughts.
The words in her poem, O’Meara said, were nothing more than a Facebook post.
But, oh, did they hit home.
“O, Oprah Magazine” published a story about the poem in March and Annie Lane reprinted it in her “Dear Annie” syndicated newspaper column.
“I am still overwhelmed,” O’Meara said. “People keep taking this poem and trying to make it into a song.”
She never intended to set the words music, or make art, for that matter. O’Meara said the poem simply shares reflections in the back of her mind as she watched states start closing schools, businesses and nonessential entities.
She and her husband had self-quarantined before the general public, their health-care backgrounds providing them with a knowledge of what likely was to come.
“To tell you the truth, it was a stream of consciousness of a lot of things I had been thinking and mulling over,” O’Meara said of the poem. “I really didn’t think of it as a poem.”
While she watched environmental changes in the wake of the coronavirus’ spread across China, Spain and Italy, it occurred to O’Meara that wildlife were returning to areas where they had not roamed for years.
“And all that was mixing in my mind,” she said.
At the same time, she was anxious about the coronavirus’ advance and that she could not be of service. She also was worried about her friends still working in the health-care profession.”
“I was getting kind of sad,” O’Meara told “O, Oprah Magazine.” “There was nothing I could do. I couldn’t help my friends. I was very worried about them. My husband said: ‘Write. Just write again.’”
So she did.
The words flowed quickly, and she posted the poem on Facebook March 13 ... a Friday.
“It wasn’t anything that I sat back and said, ‘Wow, this is gold.’ I closed my computer,” O’Meara recalled.
After dinner, she went back online and read an email from a friend in Albuquerque asking if they could repost the poem.
“Yes,” she said, not giving it much thought.
Then about three days later, one of her husband’s former students reposted the poem, and she wondered how he had come across it.
What she didn’t realize was that in that short time, “And the People Stayed Home” had become a global sensation.
“Kind of stunning when something like that happens. It was not at all engineered that way,” O’Meara said.
“One week, you are sitting after lunch putting a post on Facebook and a week later, ‘Oprah Magazine’ is asking to call you. Sort of unreal,” she added
“And the People Stayed Home” looks at the possibilities of what this quiet time away from the fast pace of life can offer: time to listen more to others and ourselves, and time even to make art. And as people begin to heal, so does the Earth, O’Meara said.
“People would be allowed to slow down.” she said. “I thought this would be an opportunity for our whole culture and our world and some of the troubling things we have caused. And we have the capability to heal and overcome.”
There is a mindset, she said, that America has to rush and overdo things.
“If I get up at 5 a.m., I can get more work done,” she said. “We’re not giving a lot of attention to our peace and our joy.”
She always has been a writer, O’Meara said, but one needs a career to make a living. Art, for her, is something to which she always returns.
She writes a blog called “The Daily Round,” and on it O’Meara has been posting different versions of her poem created by people around the world. There are songs, readings and videos expressing their individual art.
Among them is Jane Foote, a nurse at the Mayo Clinic, who used the poem as inspiration for a song she composed.
O’Meara said it is overwhelming to think that her Facebook post would inspire so many people to create their own art.
“But this has given people comfort and has inspired people to create,” she said of her poem. “Be these things you always wanted to be.”
O’Meara said she is mindful of the difficulty that the pandemic has caused the world, but she believes there also is a blessing in this time of quiet and stillness.
“And I hope we can come out and change in good ways,” she concluded.