Anne T. Donahue is the author of Nobody Cares.
It’s been more than 10 weeks of pandemic quarantine, and most of us have finally morphed into our middle-school selves.
Or at least, that’s how I’ve chosen to justify my ongoing descent into the person I used to be. Hunkered down at my mom and dad’s place, I’ve long abandoned plans to use this time to grow into a well-adjusted super-human. Instead, I’m eating pizza with abandon, I’ve fallen in love with candy and pop, and I’ve rediscovered my affinity for freezies. I live in T-shirts and Gap shorts and running shoes because they’re comfortable, and – despite the despair of living in These Unprecedented Times – I look forward to my simple nights of books and reality TV. Otherwise, I nap, I worry, and I wish I had that 3-D puzzle I was working on back in 1998.
I also keep a very small clique. The majority of us do. Our worlds have shrunk, and our social circles have been whittled down to who we happen to be living with, with digital cameos from the handful of people we can summon the energy to Zoom now and then. But while most of us don’t have much choice on who populates our bubble, as public health officials have named them, Canadians might all get to add exclusive physical contact with one other household (charmingly, “double bubbles”), should the number of COVID-19 cases begin to shrink and stay that way. That’s already happening in New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Newfoundland and Labrador; in B.C., you get to gather with your six favourite people. While the thought of things getting that far still seems abstract for the rest of us (especially since time no longer exists, and days of the week don’t matter), I’m already considering, in this tweenish way: Who will make my cut?
It’s a stressful decision. Of all our loved ones and liked ones and persons we tolerate but happen to live very close to, how do we choose who we bubble up with? How do we determine a hierarchy of humans without being catty, or justify assigning titles like first-, second- or third-best friend? We may have slid back into younger versions of ourselves, but to revert to cafeteria-table dynamics and apply them to a world event feels like a bridge too far. I might be wearing carpenter jeans like it’s 1996, but I don’t actually want to tell a friend she can’t sit with us.
There’s joy to be found in youth-centric nostalgia, but to be young also means learning lessons the hard way – often at the expense of someone else. Now, some feelings might get hurt, and while adults should know better, the tween instinct would be to put up our guard.
That’s a lesson I learned in the crucible of middle school: the only person you can really trust is yourself. And while isolation has kept us safe, it has also undermined our faith in other people. It’s simpler to assume that while we’ve made our own safety a priority, everybody else is ignoring the rules. It’s safer to assume we’re the only ones “doing it right” than to believe anybody else has our backs.
Yet, we’ve seen people working their hardest daily to keep both their loved ones and strangers safe. We see people make space for each other to safely pass on the sidewalk, people wearing masks or putting up signs cheering on our frontline workers. Our reverted-tween selves are being asked to learn that it isn’t weak or square to give other people credit, because not everybody is about to start mean-spirited rumours or spill our secrets to the rest of the class. We may have regressed into who we once were, but we can take our grown-up revelations with us. We’re allowed to play video games again, while acting – and treating other people – like adults.
Which means that when the time comes, we have to trust that we won’t ruffle feathers when expanding our social bubbles – that prioritizing parents or cousins or a best friend who’s been hanging at her apartment alone for two months shouldn’t cause a social flare-up or end a friendship. As hard as it is to shed a layer of our protective armour, we have to assume those we’re closest to will understand the logic of geographical proximity or that hanging out in someone’s big yard makes barbecues less stressful. We have to assume they’ll accept a simple explanation or won’t pry about your decision at all. Choosing to absorb one household into one’s bubble doesn’t mean the rejection of everyone else. Instead, it’s just one more step of about a million others we’ll take before this long international nightmare is over. (Fun!)
In the meantime, we can continue our quarantween. We can sift through the traits and passions we left behind, and bring them into our adult lives, while reminding ourselves we needn’t return to the metaphorical lunch table. That’s the difference between middle school and adulthood, anyway: we whittle our social lives down and interact more simply. Who has the physical bandwidth to hang out with everyone all the time anyway? Not me – not when there’s a 3-D puzzle to make.
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