I had tea the other day with my English neighbor, who I’ll call Jane. This being COVID Time, we sat outside on her open porch wrapped in quilts, wearing coats and hats and mittens, with lots of distance and a space heater between us. It was blustery and clouds scudded across the weak winter sun, but we didn’t mind. We each wanted to see another face without a mask on and drink some tea and talk.
Jane and I have figured out how much we need this. Her husband, a friendly introvert, is teaching his seminars online now; beyond that, to a large degree, life doesn’t look that different to him on a daily basis. He doesn’t miss crowds at the local street fairs, or stopping for coffee and a croissant at the end of his solitary bike ride. Jane and I are introverts by some measures, but we’re also the sort of people who draw life and happiness from what we’ve termed microbursts of human contact. We’re the sort who’ve never met a stranger, who in the Before Times chatted with people in line and made friendly overtures to folks around us, in the market or walking down the street or otherwise going about their day. I’ve had more than one boss joke with me that if they needed to know anything about anyone’s lives or current situations, I probably had that information.
Among the things we miss, Jane and I miss those daily micro-interactions, the one-on-one, transitory kind that happen constantly if you’re in a city (or crowded suburb) if you choose to initiate them. We not only miss those contacts, but we find the constant calculus behind each interaction now – Is This Person Safe? – utterly foreign to our nature. Everyone’s a stranger behind a mask, and I don’t approach folks to chat any more than I want them approaching me at the moment. We get our errands done, largely in silence, and get out and home as quickly and safely as we can.
As Jane and I sat outside, I realized I could smell my beautiful winter honeysuckle bush I’ve written about on here many times. It blooms faithfully next to my house from about mid-December to February, its blossoms puny in appearance but revelatory in fragrance, the green sweetness of honeysuckle with a twist of lemon. We were probably sitting thirty feet from that bush and I could still smell it over the scent of my chai. It was another small pleasure, along with a hint of sun and taking time for a chat, that made me feel like I can soldier on another day. Later I cut some branches and left them for her on her doorstep, where the still-closed buds can open one by one and perfume her house with their smell. Then I brought some in for myself. Winter honeysuckle is not invasive and is quite cold-tolerant; I have one new small plant growing under my much older bush (a cutting from the bush I grew up with, now long gone) and I’m going to give it to Jane to plant in her lovely garden this spring.
I miss the big things I used to be able to do, and I also miss the little things, like eating an apple at the farmer’s market or drinking a coffee in our local bakery, or browsing at the library. As I type this we’re poised to cross the line to 400,000 dead of COVID here in the US, and that makes me unbearably sad, even though those deaths have (so far) not been anyone near and dear to me. I took so much for granted – all the little things – and from where I sit it’s hard to imagine what life will look like at some point in the future when we’re all not hiding from each other any more. I have made a promise to myself that when that time comes, I will try not to take it for granted again.