Distance as a Verb

It’s probably not surprising to know that when I was a child, I wasn’t really a social butterfly. I was a big reader. I loved to stay in my room, daydreaming, thinking up other worlds to inhabit. On the occasion I did leave the house, it was often to wander around the woods, walk down to the river, or climb up into my favorite tree where I could not be bothered. I liked being left alone—or, more specifically, I liked to be away from other people.

That never really stopped. One of my friends and I were having lunch at the edge of a forest several months ago, just trying to get out of the office during that magical period of time after the leaves have changed but before the deep cold. I half-jokingly remarked that even though I love my community more than myself and everything I do is for My People, I also like trees more than humans sometimes. “Well so do I,” he said. “Why do you think we do this kind of work?”

Over the last decade or so, I have met a lot of people who have felt like I do. A lot of folks think of themselves as misanthropes, cynics, and introverts who feel much more comfortable with a piece of music than they do with the company of another person. There are others who just think of themselves as fiercely independent—the bootstrappers and lone wolves relying on no one but themselves. And sure, some of these folks get by just fine on their own. But I wonder how many of them, like me, are beginning to feel a little different about people now that the world is under quarantine.

As someone who takes responsibility to the elders very seriously, I self-isolated as soon as it seemed advisable to do so. I worked things out with my boss so that I could be held accountable for the time, bought just what I needed to supplement what I had at home plus a little extra for my mother and a donation box, and holed up in my quiet second-floor apartment ready to stay put until this whole COVID mess had blown over. At first, I was pretty excited. I didn’t like the idea of working from home or distance-learning classes, but I was excited to have more excuses to just stay home. I have a lot of fun stuff in my apartment—video games, musical instruments, three shelves of books, including at least one full of books that I still need to read. I could work on some writing projects, learn some new songs, work out more, learn to bake bread. I was sad about having to cancel my travel and worried about my family, but the solitude of my apartment seemed as comfortable a place as any to do my civic duty to help #flattenthecurve. On one sunny day, I hopped in the car and drove up to my favorite spot in the woods, thrilled that social isolation didn’t keep me from sitting by the water, as long as I was the only one there.

It’s hard to say when that all changed. I found myself calling home more to make sure my family was alright. I talk to my mother three to four times a day now, where usually it might have only been once. Conference calls with my co-workers are as much about catching up as the work at hand—I don’t think any of us realized what a role we all played in each other’s sense of the everyday. I have a running daily dialogue with my closest friends over text messages and Instagram. I go for drives and sing the songs I love out loud in my car and think about the people who used to sing them with me. I miss my classmates, my instructors, and the many wonderful staff members who make my school the place that it is. I even miss the people I don’t really get along with. I miss the people I haven’t even met but recognize from passing each other by in the hall and the parking lot. I talk to the ancestors and they sit there with me, but it’s not the same as someone sitting across the table from me eating dinner. I spent a good part of my life looking for solitude. Now that I literally can’t be around other people in any meaningful way, being with them is all I want to do.

Whenever this crisis lets up, I think it’s clear that a lot will have changed. My hope is that that change lasts longer than things usually do in this day and age. I hope we’ll start to appreciate each other more—see community as a living relationship, one that must be cultivated and fortified, a privilege so much more than a right. While the wild world is beautiful, it can also be terrifying, and the only way that our species could ever have survived it is by sticking together. We need to remember that now more than ever, when “sticking together” means being apart.

Jasmine Neosh is a student at College of Menominee Nation.

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