I went to Trader Joe’s on Sunday, the first time I’d seen real live humans in-person outside my house for ten days. I’d had to drive to Massachusetts to retrieve my child’s belongings so they would have what they needed to start school on Thursday, online, for the remainder of their senior year of high school.
Those waiting to enter the store stood in a long line, six feet apart from one another. I eased Big Mama Blue into a parking space near the entrance, wanting to feel pleased by this unusual bit of magic from the Parking Fairy but disturbed by the shift to this new way of being that continues to unfold. I debated about waiting in line. Being on my feet too long spikes hours (sometimes days) of increased pain, and I’d left Wheelie Beast, my wheelchair, at home to make space for Skye’s guitar and bike. Figuring I’d have to get to a store soon anyway, I decided to get it over with, and damn the consequences.
I joined the line on the shaded sidewalk behind a few dozen other silent people. Ungloved and gripping my crutches for support, my hands grew cold, and I was glad I’d remembered to don my jacket before leaving home. I felt anxious and uncomfortable until I looked up at the blue sky. Despite it all, the sun still shines. There is still light within us and around us if we can just open to it. It struck me suddenly how strange it was that everyone, including me, was standing on the sidewalk in the shade. There was no constant stream of traffic, no danger to pedestrians. I stepped into the road to wait in the sunshine.
The woman I’d been standing behind turned to look at me. I shrugged, and said cheerfully, “I need to feel the sunshine! I’m waiting here.” A few more people joined the line. Each took up their place in the shade; each was silent. For a few minutes I was outside myself, watching the scene. People standing in the darkness when just a few steps away was warm sunshine. People staring at the sidewalk or the building’s walls when a simple shift in gaze could open a panorama of sky and clouds. People silent when a few spoken words, at that distance from one another, posed little health threat and offered an opportunity for human connection. Frankly, it scared me.
In this time of crisis, we’re told that “social distancing” is the only way to stay healthy and prevent spreading the virus. I’m sorry that the advisory has been labeled “social distancing” instead of “physical distancing” because the language we use shapes how we understand ourselves and how we behave in the world. I wonder how this catch-phrase will impact our culture in the coming months of viral threat, and beyond.
A deep concern has been growing in me that this crisis will further erode the already crumbling foundations of social connection with others we encounter in our day-to-day lives—not our friends and acquaintances, but the people we see walking on the street, in the library, at the post office, in line at the store. (Even with increasing shutdowns and orders to shelter-in-place, we will continue to physically encounter fellow humans when we venture outside our homes). Last week my mother-in-law shared with me an experience that upset her. She went out for a walk to get some fresh air and saw several people doing the same. She told me something along these lines, “Nobody would look at me or even say hello, even from across the street.”
For decades I’ve watched along with other observers how our social interactions with people we don’t know have changed. Not everywhere, not always, but gradually over time it seems that most people have become less friendly and more sequestered within the tightly boundaried spheres of their own already familiar social circles. I find this upsetting.
I like living in a community where neighbors know each other and look out for one another. In a community where people smile and say hello as they pass each other, and sometimes even strike up a conversation. I’m missing this deeply since my move to a new community. Though not every interaction with someone I don’t know ends up being a good experience (and some are terrible), I treasure the encounters I’ve had with total strangers that lead to a real connection, and even once in a while to lasting connection. Just last May in the N section of fiction at my local library, I ended up talking for a long while with someone I’d never met. At the end, each of us departed with the other’s list of book recommendations and contact information so we could continue the conversation. Had we not made eye contact and said hello, this never would have happened.
I’m hearing from lots of places that this crisis has actually fostered increased social connection. More people are interacting more on social media, and there have even been beautiful examples of social bonding moments when, for example, neighborhood residents sing together from their respective balconies. This makes me happy. What concerns me is that as the virus spreads and people’s fears for their own safety increase, we will conflate physical distancing with social distancing in our inevitable, even if rare, in-person encounters with one another. That we will begin to experience what my mother-in-law experienced on her walk—a turning away. And I’m concerned that this shift will continue for long after this pandemic has been tamed.
So, I took the risk I hope we’ll all continue to take. The risk of being friendly.
Standing in the middle of the road while I waited to enter the store, I suddenly felt a tiny bit self-conscious. I realized I’d left the house still garbed in my morning’s fashion selections not intended for public view (the deeply unflattering multi-colored leggings my son gifted me for Christmas and a purple turtleneck topped old blue crocs adorned with smiley face buttons and showing off my hot-chile pepper socks). I’d already caused some confusion with the line by stepping away from it into the sun, and I’d caused a bunch of people to stare at me when I shouted “Thank YOU!” to the store’s staff member who came out to give us an update on the wait. “So, why not?” I thought. I spoke to the woman in front of me in line.
“Is this your first time out for awhile?” I asked. She paused before answering, perhaps debating about whether to engage with this be-crutched and eccentrically dressed middle-aged, possibly crazy person. Then, she stepped out of the line too, to join me in the sunshine, at a safe distance. She answered my question, and a conversation began—first about the pandemic, then about cooking, then about gardening, then about other things.
Not a single person joined us in the sun or in conversation. I had a moment when I wondered whether I’d missed some CDC directive to cease all in-person conversation, whether this woman and I were somehow putting ourselves and others in danger by talking. But no. What we were doing was, I think, just risking connection with a stranger so they wouldn’t be so strange anymore, and so we would feel just a little less alone in the world.
Then, it was her turn to enter the store. The connection buoyed my spirit for a long while afterward. And just now, after I read this draft post to Skye (who had waited in the car during this event), I learned something. Skye said, “Mom, don’t you remember that when you came out of the store, the whole line of people was standing in the sun?”