What I had in mind was a piece on the potential positive outcomes of the pandemic: modernization of the education system, increased recognition of the essential contributions of people we have tended to ignore, disparage, or take for granted, the clear illustration of our mutual interdependence that transcends borders, the increased awareness of how the internet can serve to bring us together (as opposed to giving anonymous troublemakers the platform of their dreams), the exposure of the Achilles heel of an economic system based entirely on growth, how the ubiquitous and often invisible structure of privilege allows some of us to cope with this crisis much more easily than others, and so on. I wasn’t very far into the process before I realized how completely unqualified I am to write that kind of thing. I decided instead to focus on the 113 square feet that a six foot radius of social distancing provides. 

Before COVID-19, my personal space was about a foot and a half, which works out to a shade over seven sq. ft., and which I disregarded anytime I stood in line, went to a restaurant or a movie, attended a concert, went to church, or any number of other things. Only when there was plenty of room available and another person got too close to me did I become uncomfortable or suspicious. In my few trips out of the house since the pandemic hit, I am acutely aware not only of the distance between myself and others, but also of the distance other people maintain with those around them (and whether they are wearing masks). I now have a new criterion by which I judge people. Might they put my health at risk by stepping inside my 113 square feet of space? 

As I mentioned in a previous post, I find myself thinking about Thoreau these days and his decision to live deliberately. I wasn’t aware of the fact that most of the things I did as I moved through the day I did without too much thought. I’m certainly more conscious of my decisions now, and in my current frame of mind, my deliberations always include whether or not I can maintain my 113 sq. ft. distancing.

For quite a while I’ve believed that what governments do in many areas of our lives is set the lowest bar for the behavior of citizens. The debate goes on, as it has for many years, about whether the group currently in power is setting the bar too low or not low enough. Watching the back-and-forth about the pandemic related restrictions, I am reminded that I can set a higher bar for myself in my personal life than the government sets for me as a matter of official policy. Just because the regulations allow me to go out to eat doesn’t mean I’ll be jumping into the car anytime soon.

Then there is hugging, one of those situations when we welcome or even ask for a disregard of our personal space. We hug a lot at my church and I’m not sure when we’re going to open the doors again and how we’ll address the issue of human contact. I believe strongly that touch is a powerful way to connect with others, and right now it’s one of the things I miss about not being able to attend church. Also there is the fact that the weekly gathering in the fellowship hall before and after service involves coffee. Coffee at TVUUC is close to being a sacrament, and the communal urn is now looking like something to approach with suspicion. 

So many things that used to be done without thought, things I never thought of as dangerous, are now looking like high-risk activities. Eating out, meeting friends downtown, going to the farmers’ market, doing volunteer work, going to church, visiting my parents, having friends over — everything looks different seen through the lens of the 113 square feet that I now feel like I need to protect, both for my own health and safety and also that of others. I wonder how long it will take for this feeling to fade. A while, I’m guessing.

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A career working with teenagers on the fringes of society has made me both sensitive to and appreciative of the complexities of character and the struggles, inner and outer, that we all wrestle with in one form or another. My writing emphasizes character development over action, and, as a lifelong Southerner, the rhythms and cadence of the Southeastern United States influence both my spoken and written voice.

One thought on “113

  1. Well put, Jim. Exactly what I’m thinking, feeling, experiencing. Don’t know when I’ll feel safe enough to venture out in public, let alone into public gatherings. I won’t be dining out unless it’s at a solitary picnic table in a nearly empty park with maybe one other person at the table…on the opposite site and at the opposite end. And hugs? I sorely miss those, too.


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