Texas opened its restaurants back up on May 1st. How odd to see small groups and couples sitting at tables strategically placed at least six feet apart from each other on the patio of Mandola’s Italian family restaurant in Austin last night. This is our new world. When I saw the signs on the door that said dine in and to go I figured these were vestiges of the past. Surely no one was actually going to eat inside of a restaurant at this stage of the development of the novel coronavirus. As I picked up my to go order I glanced at the interlopers who were in fact sitting at tables and ordering food from masked and gloved waitstaff. I wanted to study the customers closely, but felt like a voyeur at a zoo who suddenly realizes that they are staring at actual sentient beings. Yet could they be? I mean, how could they be when they were so boldly acting as though the world is back to normal? I guess they really needed their fettuccine hot and fresh and served to them. I get it, normal life sounds like a good plan to preserve mental sanity. Since we cannot control this behavior in others all that’s left is to wait and see if it was worth the risks.
I was surprised to be accosted by this scene last night, somehow expecting a very private long walk after being the only customer at Mandola’s takeout counter per the new normal I’d gotten used to. I was not thinking I’d be one of the masses vying for space just like the old days back in March of 2020. I wonder if this return to normalcy means my days sojourning in various parks and fields while on endless walkabouts are coming to an end. I am not ready to say goodbye to the solitude that became necessary as a responsible citizen, and I worry that going back to normal too soon will mean unnecessary devastation.
Today during a FaceTime video call a dear friend and mentor mused “when people ask how others are doing these days they take the question more seriously. It’s no longer a social convention. There are now levels to the question. How are you doing physically, as in are you safe from the virus? How are you doing with all of the isolation and solitary confinement? How are you doing spiritually?”
Another said “I am having a really hard time with the isolation, but truly enjoying the songs of the magpies. I know they are not popular with other birds but I just love them. I can finally hear all of the birds around me.” As we Skyped (he’s old school) between his home in England and mine in Texas the sun suddenly popped out and lit him up through his window. “See? You brought the sunshine.” I asked him to take photos of the sunset over the sea and he agreed, “I’m always nipping over the road to catch the sunset.” I’ve had more face to face time with this kind friend and I’ve gotten to hear his melodic voice more often since the COVID scare began, even more than I did when we were both living in Austin. The conversations feel increasingly more authentic and caring.
Zoom work dates are also proving to be quite nice. Last week a friend and I hung out on Zoom while we each worked independently. Two and a half hours later all of my paperwork was done and she’d put a big dent in organizing her tax records. Today two new friends from my neighborhood and I had another work date and we each got about ninety minutes of work done. Prior to the session one of these neighbors dropped off a small gift bag of inspirational trinkets to further pave the way to a closer bond. As a Houston doctor suggested, we should have called our measures “physical distancing” rather than “social distancing” and sorted out ways to promote connection in safe ways since the beginning. Many folks I know did not reach out nearly enough and they are now at a point of irritability and exhaustion. One said “I am so tired of my own company.”
Some friends have also experienced devastating crises in the past few weeks—a divorce, a separation, more than one family mental health crisis, forced time within already unhappy relationships, even some domestic violence, and financial uncertainty. I went through deep fear when I lost most of my income abruptly in mid-March and then found out that I also have to move, but thankfully I was able to achieve a state of acceptance and hope with the help of a strict formula of self care. This included miles of traversing local streets towards increased serenity, daily meditation, and strong support from friends, family, strangers, teachers and mentors. I have found power in vulnerability and humility and by sharing my stories I now know that I am loved and supported unconditionally. The real problems of the world will still be there but thanks to the fact that neighbors and friends have had to show up for each other and have noticed others’ pain has also meant that there is a stronger sense of caring between us.
Perhaps what’s brought me the most serenity is the deep bond with nature I have been achieving. I’ve watched magnolia flowers unfold and bloom, noticed the deep and vibrant purples of irises and even certain leaves as they shimmer in the sunshine. I've heard the calls of doves, bluejays, hawks, owls and birds whose calls I know but names I do not. There has been the loud rustling of the wind in the trees and wind chimes singing throughout the days and nights. I’ve heard the laughter of children all around me and songs playing through blue tooth speakers attached to cyclists (including me). I’ve been visited by inchworms and caterpillars and discovered a glob of slime under a picnic table and then realized there was a snail arching an eyeball in my direction. I’ve felt the breath in my nostrils and bare feet on cool grass. I’ve sobbed and I’ve felt deep peace. I’ve put myself back to sleep with soothing sounds and meditations when the night fears creep in. The solitude and imminent need to self soothe has created, for me, a much deeper sense of my own wisdom and connection to an inner voice of intuition. I can hear myself think and I can put my thoughts to rest.
Neighbors have brought me eggs from their backyard chickens, others have regaled me with gift cards from local restaurants and cases of Topo Chico. One young man I met in a local health leadership training program last year has really reached out, and said that he wants to help take care of me and assuage my fears of financial and housing insecurity because “we need you.” This has enabled me to take care of psychotherapy clients as they confront their own existential questions and practical problems. It has also given me the strength and fortitude to reach out and be present with those I know or suspect may be suffering. We are all on this lifeboat together.
While fishing for a comment from a favorite friend and expecting something about wisdom she has gleaned from her forced isolation I got this: “I’m deeply content, to be honest.” She is a person who seems to navigate this world with a calm grace, this is true. “The only thing that pisses me off is heteropatriarchal racist imperialist capitalism.” Let’s unpack this later. For now, go in peace.