This week, the governor of Massachusetts extended our previous two week stay-at-home advisory through May 4, a total of six weeks. That’s when I almost started day drinking. Many imagine this will be extended even further to stem the spread of the virus that has, in the matter of less than a month, hijacked the lives of most, in one form or another.
Our shared crisis has enlivened the rampant use of newer phrases — social distancing, virtual meeting, remote learning — all of which I loathed nearly instantaneously, all for the same reason: they mean apart from other people. Distant, separated, far removed.
I used to joke that I liked animals better than people (which is sometimes true). I used to joke I didn’t even like people (admittedly, that was when I worked in customer service. Enough said). While I couldn’t be more appreciative of my furry brood (the dogs are a great joy and comfort while working from home, but one of the few), the fact that I am downright giddy with anticipation for the sight of my coworker’s faces onscreen via Zoom during said virtual meetings demonstrates how much I miss human interaction.
I’m a writer. I need some alone time. I often thrive on solitude. But this is not that; this is loneliness.
I’m one of the lucky ones; my job as digital communications director for a local college was very simple to relocate, and I’m deeply grateful to have essential work to do (albeit much of it urgent and crisis-related, and altogether too much) and I feel appreciated for doing it. Staying busy and being useful helps ward off my sense of isolation for several hours each day.
Unlike the photo of a doctor I saw, I don’t have to say goodbye to my child through a glass door, the outline of our palms matching up, but not actually touching, because my work is so dangerous that I have to be that stringent. It reminded me of how visitors to prisons have to visit their loved ones without hugging or holding hands, how so many have to look deeply into each other’s eyes through a hard, impermeable pane. How keeping people from touching each other is punishment.
Children in orphanages in parts of Eastern Europe, left in cribs with ample food and good medical care, but nothing in the form of human affection — no cuddling, peek-a-boo, or soothing sways; no physical connection — those kids often failed to thrive. Another terrible term. They didn’t develop social skills, had learning difficulties, many ended up on the autism spectrum. Lack of touch caused life long problems.
I can leave the house and see my neighbors from across the street, but I can’t walk over and chat with them face to face. I’ve had the pleasure of taking walks with a couple of friends, six feet apart of course, in wide open spaces. I have a standing weekly Zoom cocktail hour with my two best girlfriends. We mime hug at the tiny cameras on our laptops, push our wine glasses toward it to pretend we’re toasting, blow kisses at the screen. These moments are more nourishing than I ever imagined such activities could be, yet I still feel very far away.
My gratitude for email, texting, social media, and the vast array of online meeting platforms knows no bounds. I work in the digital sphere all the time anyway; I know this transition is easier for me than for many. (Though the phrase going viral will never feel quite the same again.)
But deep down, I’m an analog human. I’ve always liked meetings in person. I like hearing people’s voices, seeing their gestures without pixelation, trusting that I can read their facial expressions. I’m touchy-feely; I like shaking hands, patting shoulders, putting my arm around friends, hugging, hugging, hugging.
To think, a month ago, I was amused by elbow-bumping people as I met them at a conference, which was actual touching! Today, I had to jerry-rig a face mask from a bandana, which I never thought I’d do. I hate that humans are feeling scared of other humans because of all we just don’t know. We had enough fear of each other and our otherness before all of this. People were already far apart.
Closeness is all I want to feel. I’m so hungry for human contact that, if it were safe, I would throw myself into a mosh pit and slam dance with strangers. I got a bloody nose that way once, and hate crowds, but it sounds downright therapeutic to me now.
I can’t wait until the day we can walk down the sidewalk and not cross the street because another person is coming our way, when we can bump into someone in the grocery store and only have to say “pardon me,” when we aren’t hiding in our homes, afraid to encounter anyone. I promise, when this is all over, I will not take for granted the ability to go out and linger over a cocktail at a bar with a friend, browse aimlessly in a lovely shop, eat dinner at a friend’s house without sitting across the room, go out to see live music and literary readings squished against bodies in the audience. I will say YES to all social invitations.
Most of all, I will never again pass up the opportunity for a real hug.