What can isolation teach?
Most of us are asking this question right now. Even those of us who from economic or professional necessity must move daily into our dangerous world are living lives mostly devoid of community. For the more lucky among us, who can shelter at home without risk of losing that home, days upon days might pass before the blessing of conversation or human touch might be visited upon us.
There is no room, now, for habit or comfort. Slow wandering might kill you, or kill someone else. We have had to turn inside out, overnight, our treatment of the needy and vulnerable among us: the elderly are now to be kept apart instead of tended by family, and children are asked to blossom alone in sunless rooms.
Even those of us who have chosen the route of refusal, denial, and ignorance live in isolation: the rest of the country rightly judges them for their selfishness, making their loud unmasked gatherings a tragic, conscious “statement” that only places them at further distance from an authentic, unified community.
This country’s addiction to a nativist, ingrained need to hold the notion of “the Individual” ascendent above all other values has created a perfect host for Covid-19. Other nations in Europe, in Asia, recognize the simple fact that the very concept of the Individual is dependent upon and defined by culture and community. Because of this understanding, these countries will absorb the economic and social devastation of this virus with far greater alacrity than will the United States. It is a deserved irony, I suppose, that in this country’s insatiable need to be first, to reward the rich man while blaming the poor, we will in this battle come in pretty damn close to last.
Thus adds another layer of isolation. We are isolated from the rest of the world in our lack of responsiveness to Covid-19, our selfishness, our truly bizarre decision, as a nation, to turn a piece of cloth meant to protect the vulnerable into a political statement. And again, because this virus has managed to take our world and turn it into a shaken snow-globe, many of those who used to insist on having a say on the health care of others are now utilizing the refrain of their sworn enemies: “keep your hands off my body.” In our country, it is OK to reach into a woman’s uterus to prevent her from autonomy, but the face? Far too much government intrusion.
So we retreat. Home is a lucky refuge as more and more of us lose any chance of having one; it can also frankly feel like a holding cell for a particular madness caused by so much information, most of it conflicting, so much news, none of it good, so much loss, about which we can do precisely nothing.
After some time, even the increasingly brilliant gallows humor of Twitter feeds an internal, inorganic solitude that more and more appears as a long, perhaps permanent shadow on one’s life.
One by one, the doors close. The distractions quiet, or a numbness to them sets in, and, finally, there isn’t anything to take the seat of isolation except the essence of the notion itself.
What is that essence?
We approach such an unwanted guest first with fear, even resentment. After some grudging acceptance of its presence, most of us go about making it part of the scenery. And, after all, it’s temporary, right? A spring guest. Oh, now a summer interloper, ruining our plans.
Slowly, as we cancel school and lose jobs and watch savings dribble away, we realize that what we thought was a transient tragedy has become a horizonless reality. Most days, I now feel I live in a house taken over by solitude, and now it is I who appears as the guest at a lonely gathering to which I never asked to be invited.
Control is our most beautiful illusion. It is the one to which we grant the most attention, revere as the guiding force of our lives, right up to the end. That is gone now too: the virus is like a myth, or a fable, stealing away all our habits, our vanities, our busy distractions until only a raw ruin remains.
In my home, filled with three healthy children and their less healthy mother, a nervous restlessness overlays our days, disrupts the nights. On occasion, I find myself startled by an ephemeral sense of stillness. It is not the stillness that feels to me like the essence of this isolation. It is, rather, the unpredictable, mysterious, and restive wind that brings a momentary peace, and then just as quickly slips away.
This year, I will be mother, protector, and teacher to my children. Oddly, it is now to the nature of isolation I look, with its infinite, patient emptiness and forever-midnight terrors, to serve as my own protector and teacher. Isolation is a harsh mentor, but often in sitting among the ruins one discovers an attenuated, delicate beauty, waiting to be seen.