I never imagined that I would know exactly where you are while reading one of these columns. Forget the news; if you’re keeping up with the never-ending stream of virus updates from the organizations that have your email address (your doctor’s office, your vet, your place of worship, every store from which you’ve ever ordered anything), you’re home. Working. Cooking. Cleaning. Caring for your family. Wondering what store within a five-mile radius might have paper towels. Taking a walk while staying six feet away from everyone who doesn’t live with you. I’m a little over five feet tall, so I picture myself lying down, add a few inches, and suddenly six feet doesn’t seem that far.
I’ve been out on a few walks. When I pass someone pushing a baby stroller, jogging or walking, we say hello, but that word is more loaded than it’s ever been. We make eye contact, but not for long because we don’t really want to invite conversation; talking usually entails closer proximity than six feet. Unsaid in “hello” these days is, “Can you believe?” “I’ve never strolled around the block at 2:00 on a Wednesday.” “Are you and your family okay?” “How many rolls of toilet paper do you have?” “When will this end?” There’s all sorts of commiserating in that brief, connective moment. When those first few cases started popping up in the United States (let alone my town), I kept remarking about how small the world had gotten. It keeps getting smaller.
I was recently out on a few errands. I know, I know, I used hand sanitizer in the car and washed my hands while singing the chorus of Raspberry Beret twice as soon as I got home. It was such a strange sensation walking around Acme, where I was told there were paper towels (I was too late). There were lots of facemasks, which put me on guard. I thought only sick people were supposed to wear them, so were all those people sick or were they just being extra cautious? Some of the masks were the familiar, paper type, and some were heavy duty with little netted breathing circles, sort of like a storm trooper’s face. I soon discovered that I was wrong about the ease of maintaining a six-foot distance from other humans. It’s nearly impossible to stay six feet away from people in a supermarket. I tried to put my head down and make myself as small as possible when another woman and I were waiting to open the same glass door to rifle through what was left of the frozen spinach and baby lima beans. My thoughts started racing: “I shouldn’t be here. I should abandon my cart and run, but my kids need food. What if we get ordered not to leave our property lines and we run out of tuna?” I swear, the air smelled different. I’ve never noticed the air in a supermarket before. I can’t quite describe it. It just had the subtle odor of a place I didn’t want to be. A place where who-knows-what was lurking.
I’m not an anxious or paranoid person by nature. I roll, stay calm, breathe. I look on the bright side. When I feel overwhelmed, I remind myself of all that I’m way too lucky to have. Being out in this climate (and I don’t mean the gorgeous 70 degree spring kick-off), though, my insides clench. I knew everyone in the Acme was well meaning and hyper-conscious of the risk they were taking to secure orange juice, but when you think about the innumerable surfaces we touch and how torturous it is to avoid taking our exploring fingers and applying them to our eyes, noses, and mouths, it can turn even the most mellow among us into anxiety-ridden heart-pounders. We left the Acme and I exhaled, hoping that if I’ve been blessed enough not to have contracted this thing by now, I didn’t just blow it.
Next stop was the bank, to deposit two checks into the outdoor ATM. Realizing that I had no idea how many fingertips had touched that screen before me (today’s version of ‘when you sleep with someone, you’re sleeping with everyone they’ve slept with’), I used the knuckle on my index finger to tell the screen what to do. I figured that if I lapsed into complete recklessness and scratched an itch on my nose, at least I probably wouldn’t be doing it with my potentially contaminated knuckle. At the ATM next to mine, someone walked away having left his card in the machine, and the man who was up next ran after the person to return it...not an unusual occurrence; the world is full of kind people who do the right thing, but this week, the gesture brought me to tears. I chalk it up to a general fragility that I’m noticing is washing over me. Then, there was the liquor store. You might be thinking, GO HOME, FOOL!, but let me mention that I’m a teacher. Teaching children at home from home. That’s no knock on the kids, rather a reflection of the way we’ve had to reinvent our jobs. The camaraderie in the long line to the cash register was again particularly touching; maybe the bonding caused by universal, palpable fear is a silver lining in all this.
Speaking of my profession, this non-techie teacher has begun rising to the task (we’re all distance learning these days) by video conferencing with my second and third grade lovelies so we can see each other smile. When my young friends appeared in my Zoom chat, little box by little box, I felt a flutter in my chest, sort of like the time I passed Gwyneth Paltrow walking on Hudson Street in New York City. I was starstruck then and equally starstruck this week by my kiddos. Teachers will easily tell you that they love their students, but these days, described so often with words that start with “un,” (meaning “not,” as in not like anything we could have made up in our fantasy writing units) such as unusual, uncertain, and unprecedented...these days, when everyone is sequestered, getting to see my young stars’ baby teeth, their buzz cuts, and their barrettes, and watching them roll around on their top bunks or sit at their kitchen tables, brought forth a wave of love that took me by surprise. Sort of like when you have your own child and marvel at your ability to love that much. And the parents! Their outpouring of thanks has been so warming. I reread those emails in my mind as I walk through the rooms in my house over and over, feeling humbled by their appreciation. We teach respect, kindness, and gratitude, but when they pour out of us organically in an “un” time such as this, their power is undeniable.
Social distancing is hard; it’s unnatural and awkward. Who wants to place two imaginary yardsticks between yourself and someone whose cheek you’re used to kissing? We’re hard-wired to be near each other, but our lungs depend on our ability to separate and go against the grain. During this time of forced physical distance, we have to fill ourselves emotionally with virtual contact, unquestionably a lame substitute. Another way we can convene is by sharing our experiences through writing, and reading about them from the safety of our homes. Until we’re allowed to high five, cheek-kiss, handshake, and hug again, I give you my words.