Six months have passed since the howling started.
On March 27, Go Outside and Howl at 8pm went live on Facebook with a simple message: "What better time to howl than this time of isolation? Every night at 8pm in your time zone, take a minute to step outside and let out a cathartic howl!....Let's see how many people the world over we can get to howl in one night!"
Founders Brice Maiurro and Shelsea Ochoa got more people howling than they ever could have imagined: Tens of thousands joined their group within just a few days. Six months later, more than a half-million people have signed on from around the globe. The howling phenomenon has been covered around the globe, too.
Here in Colorado, where it all started, Mayor Michael Hancock urged people to howl, as did Governor Jared Polis. In the early days of the stay-at-home orders, so many people were howling — and visiting the Howl Facebook page — that the two Denver creatives who'd come up with the concept were overwhelmed. They organized other administrators to help vet comments; divided the page into threads for grieving, recovery stories, selfies and selfies with pets; and pronounced it a "space of tolerance."
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Still, so many intolerant messages and other "inappropriate shenanigans" showed up on the page that it's now usually closed. Some messages have gotten through, though; the emotions behind them are just too strong not to share.
Recently, there has been howling for the loss of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, howling for a lost husband, howling for a family's lost father, howling for a lost dog, howling for lost sanity.
And this, on May 30, from Maiurro: "We will be howling at 8pm for George Floyd and other black lives taken too soon."
The howling started at the beginning of the pandemic, when people felt lost, alone, adrift. Current events pulled them back into reality, out of their homes and out onto the streets — virtually, if not physically.
"We kind of feel the same way about ending as starting," Maiurro had explained back in April. "We never thought it would get this big...it's kind of out of our hands. People will choose their own path."
Or circumstances —- the death of George Floyd, followed by protests around the country, around the world over racist law enforcement, demanding social justice — would choose the path for them.
I caught up with Maiurro and Ochoa on the six-month anniversary of Go Outside and Howl. "There was a stillness in our community, and that needed to be filled," Ochoa recalls of those days last March. "The big turning point was when protests started. We were happy to get out of the way for that."
And stay out of the way, except for those rare times when they open up the page for the full moon (or not-so-rare times this month, with full moons on October 1 and October 31).
"People are more focused on other things now, important things happening politically," she adds. "It's exciting to see people getting out the vote."
Which could lead to one big howl in early November. Although "it might just be a scream," Maiurro admits.
In the early days of the pandemic, when both started working from home, the rough-and-tumble of politics seemed much further away. "My life was suddenly so empty," Ochoa recalls. "I had to have a thing to do every day, a ritual."
One of their first projects was collaborating with multimedia artist Nick Trotter on the Circo de Nada Decameron, an update on the fourteenth-century work created during the Black Plague. For this 2020 version, ten writers created ten stories over ten days.
Inspired by that historic pandemic, Ochoa and Maiurro soon came up with the idea of hosting a mass howl at 8 p.m. Mountain Daylight Time (so as not to disturb many bedtimes). "It was an energetic release," Ochoa explains. "You could let loose with any emotion, without having to explain yourself. If you're feeling sad or angry or lost, you can let it out." And plenty of people were feeling sad or angry or lost. Or all three.
The two are still amazed at how fast the howling phenomenon grew, and grew. "I remember that night, when it was still pretty new, we walked to Cheesman and heard howling all around us," Ochoa says. "The surprise and awe of this thing was way bigger than us."
The Facebook group was awesome for a while, too, to have a membership "that was so large, across the political spectrum, with people from different walks of life," she adds. But awe was quickly followed by the surprise that some comments had devolved into attacks. As we've all sadly learned over the past six months, civil discourse is one of the first victims of a pandemic.
The two have taken more direct actions to help in these troubled times than simply howling. Maiurro, a poet and storyteller who works at a solar company, has been writing about social justice and organizing events. The founder of the South Broadway Ghost Society, he edited a poetry anthology, Thought for Food, that raised $2,500 for Denver Food Rescue.
Ochoa works at the Denver Museum of Nature & Science — "It's so heartwarming that it's open" — and is applying to schools for a degree in play therapy. "For me, immersive, participatory theater is really an important way the community is going to heal," she says. She's also been curating spaces for difficult conversations; the next, "Facing the Divide" is set for October 4. Soul Stories Denver often result in podcasts with interviews with community leaders, but the next, due out in about two weeks, focuses on Elijah McClain.
But they still have space for a stunt or two. On August 30, in what Ochoa calls a "symbolic act of shedding everything that's happened since 2020," she and Maiurro walked the length of Colfax, starting from opposite ends. He took off from the far reaches of Golden; she began the trek in Strasburg. "There was nothing for miles and miles," she remembers. "It became a symbol of the year. I wanted to have deep thoughts, but so much of it was about survival. It was hard to be reflective."
Then a friend showed up "in the middle of nowhere" with a cold drink, symbolizing the power of one person to make life a little better with a single act. That reflection stayed with Ochoa long after she and Maiurro met up on the border of Denver and Aurora and "pretty much collapsed," she recalls. Footage from that walk will wind up in a short, narrated film that Ochoa is doing for TiltWest.
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Looking back, the howling hysteria — when people would throw off their masks, throw back their heads and simply let loose — "feels like a fever dream," Ochoa says. "Sometimes I forget that even happened. It seems like a simpler time now, even though there was a lot of stress. We don't want to take ourselves too seriously, but it was meaningful to people. This year has thrown so much at us, and now there's this big movement of people getting involved after a time when they were so isolated."
Ochoa has been part of that movement. She was in downtown Denver at the protests on the first night of the curfew imposed by Mayor Michael Hancock...at 8 p.m. "There was this intense moment when people started howling," she remembers, "and the howling turned into screaming. That marked the moment when it all changed, when we really starting taking things seriously."
And they have been. Ochoa and Maiurro rarely howl these days; they make their voices heard in other ways. "It's been a month or so since I've heard anything," says Mauirro. "But every once in a while, I hear from people in random parts of the country."
"Things have calmed down a lot," agrees Ochoa. "But sometimes you just feel it, and you've got to howl."