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first person

Illustration by Adam De Souza

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I get admonished by my daughter every time I strike conversations with strangers. “Mom,” she says, “you’ll get into trouble some day. Can’t you ever keep to yourself!” I brush aside her hissings. Oh, how I enjoy flashing a smile or whispering an encouragement to unknown people. In this mad, sad world, there are too many lonely souls. So why can’t I be a paint-tipped brush and splash the canvas around me with bright patches? Now, these smiles and encouragements mean more than ever.

Before I began working from home, I rode the subway to work and wouldn’t bat an eyelid to tell a lady that I loved her purse. There have been times when such a simple remark led to a full conversation. Most people responded with a warm smile and a thank you. Sometimes, the compliment led to a conversation and, before we knew it, we had forged a comradeship. The next time we see each other on the commute, conversation quickly became easy chatter. Some people expressed how I had lightened their mood after a difficult day at work. Sometimes mindless, unpretentious conversation helps to buoy the space inside us. I have quite a few subway friends – we talk about family, work, hobbies, travel and so much more.

I’ll chat with the transit drivers, too. After one trip, just before alighting, I commended my bus driver on the way she handled a raucous argument between two male passengers earlier. I didn’t want to sound patronizing, I just wanted her to know that her job was not easy and she was good at it. This beautiful woman, wielding the huge bus, sounded so vulnerable when she then confided in me. She had been in an abusive relationship and everyday she had battled to keep her head afloat. I’m sure that the pent up emotions in her lightened for a nanosecond as we chatted along.

Another time, while waiting for a dentist appointment, the mother in me sprang out when I noticed a young girl crying. I put my arm around her involuntarily, whispering if I could be of any help. She lifted her tear-soaked face and said no one could help her. Surprisingly, she didn’t ask me to leave her alone. I continued to hold her lightly for quite some time until she was called in to the dentist. When she came back, she walked straight to me, touched my arm lightly and said a quiet thank you. I wish I knew what was going on in her life. Maybe I could help, maybe not. But at least I could lend her a sincere ear and a shoulder to cry upon.

Then, into this world of mine entered the phrases “social distancing” and “physical distancing.” I have always been a bit slow in catching on to new words. Decades ago, when my son had replied to my text with an “lol,” I was flabbergasted. Was that a shortened version of Lolita? Why would he call me that? When a friend responded to a text with “lmao,” I had to ask her what that meant. In short, I am behind the times in the new word order. “Social distancing” threw me off balance once again. Can one be social and distant at the same time?

During the early stages of the pandemic, I felt disoriented. It is difficult to curb a genuine flow of exuberant spirit and it was painful not being my usual self. Working from home kept me inside and, of course, I would call up family and friends and narrate positive, funny anecdotes to lighten the mood.

But whenever I stepped out for a walk I would focus my attention on the ground. I kept to myself. If I saw anyone coming my way, I avoided looking at them and discreetly crossed over to the other side. I was so unsure of myself. What if I threw my arms around a buddy?

I focused on the nature around me instead. Never before had I noticed how bravely the grass breaks through the thawed soil and rolls out the green carpet. I listened to birds chattering away and watched squirrels scampering around and the occasional bunny hopping in wide-eyed wonder.

As days stretched to months and with the end of the pandemic nowhere in sight, my spirit has found ways to spread warmth. I dropped a book of Sudoku at my neighbour’s doorstep knowing that this would keep him busy in his lonely world. The elderly woman across the street does not drive. Maybe, I could fetch her groceries? After all, I needed to refurbish my freezer, too. I noticed another neighbour’s children pressing their faces against the window, wondering why they couldn’t go out to play. Little did they understand what the world is going through. Their faces haunted me so much that I ordered some colouring books and crayons and had it delivered to their home.

Finally, I was able to find a balance in this tormented world. There are so many ways we can add a pinch of flavour in each other’s lives. We need to be together emotionally and psychologically more than before. It’s a call for all of us to practise physical distancing as we socially glue together as one world. This phase will eventually end and it should not leave us maimed but stronger.

I like to remember that famous line spoken by Winston Churchill: “Kites rise highest against the wind, not with it.”

Madhu Chakola lives in Toronto.