By Catherine Hervey
A few years ago, I got this idea for a book. It involved a domestic terrorism incident at a university during a writing conference, and one poor intern at a literary journal who had to read hundreds of submissions for months afterward: all mediocre accounts of this same traumatic event. I was going to call it Slush.
At the time, it seemed like a farfetched contrivance I would have to handle with great panache if I really wanted to pull it off; but how else to get a bunch of unrelated aspiring authors to write about the same thing at the same time?
Now, of course, I have been under a shelter-in-place order from my governor for a month, and the entire globe is battling a deadly pandemic in a plotline so extreme only the most talented writer could make it work, were it fiction. But it isn’t, and now all of us really are writing about the same thing at the same time.
Life has become a paradox of unprecedented isolation amidst the heightened connectedness of shared experience. I have never known anything quite like it--if I pass a stranger six feet away on a walk and we share a glance, I know without asking that we are thinking of some aspect of the same thing: Everything is different. Must wash hands once home. We are alone together.
When this is over, I will not miss the “alone” part, just like I will not miss worrying about the older people I love, or the medical professionals I know, or everyone who is suddenly unemployed. But I will miss this new feeling that we are all somehow together, writing and thinking about the same thing.
The isolation, though exaggerated, feels much more familiar to me. My culture has a global reputation for loneliness. I used to work for a company in India, and part of my job was developing cross-cultural communication courses. When I showed a few slides from my latest presentation to the HR director in Chandigarh, slides that detailed the American Way of moving out of one’s parents’ home as a baseline for achieving adulthood, of not worrying so much about harmony among people and worrying a lot more about getting things done, her brow furrowed.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I’m sorry but this…” she pointed at my screen. “This seems very cold to me.”
“It is,” I said. Because I thought I understood. I knew our families were smaller, that many more of us lived alone. That there were trade-offs involved if you valued independence above all else. But during that conversation I was pregnant, and when that baby was seven months old, I would decide to leave my job and try to be “A Writer,” and a few months after that, I would find myself bundling that baby into a hat and coat because taking her for a walk in the stroller that very moment seemed necessary to stave off madness, and then I would look at my phone and see that it was below zero outside and I could not take the baby for a walk, and I would slide down the wall of my dining room, crying. In those months, months of northern winter when my husband took the car to work and I existed alone with a baby in the American suburbs, the sheer brutality of our way of life rained down on me and showed me that I had not, before, understood.
That dining room wall was in a two-bedroom condo, and when we had another baby we moved into a house, unlocking the next level in the American game. I hadn’t known many of the people in our condo building, but I’d heard them talking, walking, heard the click of their dogs’ nails across their living room floor. In this new neighborhood, just a few minutes away, each house was a discrete fortress. Sebastian Junger points out in his book Tribe that no matter how unhappy isolation makes us as a social species, we always seem to use any affluence we gain to purchase more of it. Rooms that are only ours. Swaths of trees and grass we do not have to share, that we may be alone both indoors and out. We take every opportunity to increase our social distance, that we may assure ourselves closeness with others will come only when we actively seek it.
On this new block we live by unspoken rules I only really came to comprehend when I broke them. I have one friend on my street, and we have talked many times about our discomfort at not really knowing anyone else in the neighborhood, so she suggested we host a wine night. We decided to knock on doors and deliver verbal invitations together because neither of us wanted to go alone.
What followed was moderately successful but excruciating as we repeatedly violated all standards of pre-pandemic social distancing. We started with my next-door neighbor, whom up to that moment I had quite literally, in four years, never seen. She and everyone else were perfectly polite, but the signals were clear the moment they opened the door. I’m not even sure what they all did, exactly--a lift of the brows, a tight set to the mouth--and most likely none of them did any of it consciously. I imagine I do it, too, when I open my front door to someone I don’t know. The same wariness on my face, the same negative energy radiating the same message--You have transgressed. This is not what we do. This is not how this works.
When several of us did get together for wine it was decently fun, but I couldn’t stop thinking of how hard-won that decent fun had been. How much teeth-gritted marching up yet another driveway it had cost us, how my friend and I had needed each other because storming someone else’s front door was too intimidating a prospect alone.
We said that night that we would host a second one, but now we will have to wait until this newer version of social distancing has been lifted, and, like everyone else, I wonder what the world will be like at that point. I wonder if the second walk up someone else’s driveway is easier than the first. By that point we will probably all be writing about different things again. We won’t all be out for walks in the middle of the day, and when we are, we will probably once again inhabit our own distinct internal worlds. The slush piles won’t share a common topic; our feeling of shared experience will fade. I wonder if it will leave behind a hunger, an awareness that we could be more together than we are. If more of us, in search of something like it, risk the loss of control inherent in an open door.
Catherine Hervey has an MFA from the Sewanee School of Letters. She has written for Books and Culture and The Curator.
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