KITCHENER, ONTARIO — I was a week into social isolation when I received a call from a friend asking if, as an introvert, I was coping with isolation better than everyone else. I did not have an answer to this. Hours after the conversation I found myself grappling with the question, without answer or understanding still. What I did find, in place of certainty, were questions. Questions about how my friends were coping. Each friend I had ever loved came into focus before me like an apparition: the living and the deceased, the near and the far, the loud and the quiet, and each came with a location that meant something to me. Hua and I, eating ramen noodles in Montreal, her smile a warming to my heart anywhere. A busload of loud and free black bodies in Uganda chasing after lions. Yara burying her face in my jacket laughing at a joke at my expense. Charles laughing about anything, everything, anywhere. I missed them deeply, and I realized that while it was true that we shared bonds that could not be broken by distance, community was essential to the way I understood our friendships. And I sat alone, at the end of place, and a smile died on my lips.
I suddenly discovered that I was losing bits and pieces of myself that I only had with my friends.
Call me sentimental. I am not doing well in isolation. I suspect no one is. Community is essential to how we conceive of ourselves and the world around us, and the world is currently comprised of humans in solitary confinement, that most insidious form of torture. Being confined in limited space, no matter how luxurious, robs us of the various ways the world reflects who we are back to us, from the askance looks you get when you pick your nostrils in public to the way a particular shade of blue on a car calls up a childhood memory. Confinement breeds anger, but what makes this particular episode so frustrating is that isolation is the right thing to do. And by God it’s hard to live alone and tell yourself that. In that moment, sitting alone, I suddenly discovered that I was losing bits and pieces of myself that I only had with my friends. Jokes I had been told died on my lips because I could not get the delivery right. The weekly experience of laughing at the man farting in the gym, which I realized I looked forward to. The little reminders of my life before this virus, this madness.
So I called them. I called them all: the ones I spoke to a week ago, a month ago, years ago. I called Hua. and we talked about food and how we both had changed over the years and how her boyfriend was stuck in Wuhan, even though we had this conversation three weeks before. Nnamdi and I talked about the Bible and navigating adulthood. With Janet I was a gossip once more, asking about who she had a crush on and what she thought of this or that person. With Yara I was transported to a free place where everything was said. I had been too worried about myself to see that I hadn’t been any of the people I was with each of my friends, and each person made me whole in their own way. And we made promises to each other that when this was all over, we would hug and party and laugh at having survived, at having walked through the fire.
It may well be a fool’s dream to think things will ever go back to the way they were. Who knows if we will no longer hug each other for fear of transmitting something wicked, or if at the end of this tunnel some other insanity awaits us, or if it all feels like a bad dream a few years from today? What happens when all you have are memories of those who didn’t live through this, and your world is a little dimmer? I can’t be with those that matter to me in person, but I’m grateful I live in a world where it is possible to talk to them at the touch of a button. And while I still believe that online community cannot replace presence, maybe the more important thing in these times is to keep in touch, no matter how you do it. It is perhaps the surest way to stay sane.
PS. Its CMYK equivalent: 5/3/5/11