As Phase 2 of the Massachusetts "Re-opening" plan begins, Winchendon businesses are adapting to the requirements at their own pace. Some restaurants have already set up outside dining areas, while others continue to offer takeout menus for the time being. Some "non-essential" retailers are opening their doors. I've been waiting for weeks for a chance to look for a specific item in local second-hand shops, and visited Toy Town Treasures this week. It felt wonderful just to be able to step inside.

At the same time, the loosening of the shutdown restrictions is much like emerging from a storm cellar after a tornado warning. We're finding out what survived the storm...and what did not. Some of our local businesses have been struck a fatal blow. They're holding going-out-of-business sales or simply not re-opening.

This is especially difficult for Winchendon residents because COVID-19 hasn't hit us hard. We've never had many cases and this week's count is exactly the same as last week's: no increase at all, even with CVS opening a testing location here in town. We're a little rural community off the beaten track, and it may be that we wouldn't have had any more cases even if we hadn't shut down. Some residents may have trouble viewing the trade-off as worth it.

There's no possible way to know what would have happened. Nobody's conjecture is more valid than anyone else's. All we can do is deal with the situation at hand. We're grieving for what we've lost--events like Solstice Fair, Fall Fest, Murdock High Graduation, the Winchendon Music Festival, the Cheese Chase, the Strawberry Festival and much more--and sad to see businesses close. But the pandemic is a force of Nature that no one can control, like a hurricane or a massive ice storm. We simply have to get through it. It's receding here in Massachusetts, but it's not over yet.

More than anything else, we need to retain our compassion and empathy, as exhausted and burned out as all of us are. No matter how seriously COVID-19 affected you, someone was impacted by it even worse (because if you're reading this, you're still alive). There is financial help for people who need it. The Town will be taking applications for grants to assist "micro-enterprises," businesses with five or fewer employees of which one is the owner. But blaming, passing on paranoid conspiracy theories and rumors, indulging irrational fears--these only harm all of us.

All of these emotions, of grief and anger and doubt, are contributing to the overblown negative reaction of some town residents to plans for a Black Lives Matter rally in Winchendon. Dozens of communities around us have held them--Rindge, Ashby, Gardner, Fitchburg, Keene, and many more. Some have gathered hundreds of people, most have been much smaller. We're responding to a problem bigger than ourselves, a problem that affects Winchendon as much as anywhere else: systemic racism.

Some people insist that Winchendon doesn't have a problem with racism. But Black Americans who live here talk about racial slurs being yelled at them by passing drivers. We see Confederate flags flying around town. In 1925, a Ku Klux Klan rally with white-robed riders and over 100 cars drove through the center of Winchendon and burned a cross on Benjamin's Hill. As Pogo once said, "we have met the enemy and he is us." Winchendon doesn't exist in a sealed-off glass dome. We're part of the world, and the world is part of us.

We want to think of ourselves as "Toy Town Proud." But Winchendon has another nickname that most people here have heard. I first heard it when I worked in Fitchburg, where people mentioned Winchendon in a tone of scorn. "Winchentucky" is what they called us.

I'm sure you're as offended by that as I am. But when I see people losing their minds at the prospect of a peaceful rally affirming solidarity with Black Americans, and affirming our rejection of racism in any form, I really have to wonder.

Which do we want Winchendon to be? It's our choice to make. Do we listen to the voice of fear and anger in our hearts, or the voice of love and acceptance? Do we want to be "Winchentucky" or do we want to be Toy Town Proud, welcoming and open, a model for others to follow? Our nation is in crisis right now. By healing our own little patch of earth, we can be part of the solutions.

Inanna Arthen