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To say it was odd would be an understatement.
But there I was, in aisle 7 of my local grocery store, nodding vigorously as a woman I’d met, but whose name I couldn’t quite muster, shared her family’s new plan to cut back on toilet paper.
“...So my husband says, 'That’s it! From now on, we skip the TP altogether and go straight from the toilet to shower! No wiping!” she roared, laughing nervously as we both eyed the ransacked toilet paper shelf.
I would be lying if I said I was offended by this blatant over-share. The truth was, I hadn’t talked to a human face-to-face in 48 hours and I had been wearing the same yoga pants for just as long. I wasn’t just okay with it, I needed it.
Of all the strange new realities taking hold in this scary pandemic – quarantines, the sudden gold-like value of Purell – I’m struck most by the tiny, radical acts of connectivity. We’re all keeping our distance, yes, but from my small corner of the world, the new rule seems to be: physical closeness is out and social intimacy is in.
It was in this spirit that I found myself shout-talking from the sidewalk with a neighbour across the street. Our usual interactions were limited to a quick nod in passing, but this was different: did I need a ride to the grocery store? Can you believe we’re all stuck in this strange new universe? How are you doing, for real?
And it’s not just strangers. This new mode of social outreach is catching on among people I know and love, too. A new groupchat with my siblings is buzzing along on my phone at all hours, where every absurd meme and news flash is dissected or LOL’ed. Last night my phone dinged with a request to – gasp! – FaceTime with a group of friends. (This is a direct violation of my pre-pandemic social code: don’t call me unless someone is dead or missing. Text-only, please.) But I grudgingly answered the call.
Perhaps I’ve been hardened by life in a big city, where space, both physical and emotional, is the ultimate commodity. We routinely bustle shoulder-to-shoulder across busy crosswalks and elbow each other at the dairy station at Starbucks because we have no choice. As writer Molly Longman explains on Refinery29, this lack of physical space is only made tolerable by the unspoken rules that give us distance in other ways: eye-contact is brief and unobtrusive, chit-chat is impersonal or nonexistent and it’s widely understood that blurting out your bathroom routines is a no-no. In other words, it’s somehow okay that we’re lodged in a stranger’s armpit on the rush-hour train because we never have to see them again, let alone make polite conversation.
Now, we have all the space we need – and yet routine acts feel more intimate than ever. On conference calls at work, we’ve given up the guise that our lives outside the office are separate and private. The background noise of wailing children and barking dogs has broken down any illusions that our coworkers are just people we see in the office every day. They have lives and families and unruly pets – and we can hear all of it when we listen hard enough.
These scary, uncertain times remind me of why I’ve always liked record-breaking blizzards. They force us to confront something big and inconvenient and dangerous by coming together, by sharing our burdens and frustrations, and yes, by participating in the dreaded FaceTime chat.
For now, maybe it’s time to embrace our newfound closeness (from a respectable physical distance, of course). We’ll be avoiding each other’s gaze again in no time, I promise.
What else we’re thinking about:
Like most parents out there, I’m struck with dread at the prospect of entertaining two kids at home while carrying on some semblance of work. So I’ve been heartened by some of the practical advice I’ve been getting from The Globe and others. In the meantime, I’ve been catching up on some incredible stories I’ve missed in the blur of news. This tale of a group of rafters who went off the grid during a trip and came home to a world upside down was particularly fascinating.
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