“This has essay written all over it,” a friend texted, attaching a link to Quarantine Chat. Oh, my gosh, of course it did. What stranger would they match me with? What would we discover about each other? Would we have that chemical reaction Jung talked about, inevitable in the meeting of any two personalities? What would be sparked, a friendship or a political feud? Maybe we would count only two degrees of separation; maybe we would know people in common, or even have graduated from the same university. (The Brits used to say that you did not need to be formally introduced to anyone who had been at the same institution. I do not think they meant mental.) In short, the possibilities were, as they are with any human encounter, infinite.
I never signed up.
I toyed with that link for three days, adding “sign up” to my to-do list each morning, keeping the tab open on my browser. But something odd was happening to me—okay, not as odd as a global pandemic, but quirky-subjective odd. For the first time in three decades, I did not feel overwhelmed. Sheltered cozily at home with nobody asking me to meet, do lunch, punch a clock, run a zillion errands, or scour the shelves for some not so necessary object, I was finding life truly manageable. I was made for social distancing.
This concerns me. I mean, I knew I was an introvert, had to talk myself into cocktail parties, loved spending Sunday in a bathrobe with a stack of books and magazines. But I also genuinely like people. I miss seeing my friends, colleagues, and neighbors. The street is eerily quiet, and no one is even popping out to garden.
The house is quiet, too. My husband is gone today, taking his life in his hands to help a friend with a disability. My deadline has been met; the house is clean. Surely I should be lonely enough now to sign up for Quarantine Chat? Instead, I am savoring the quiet, which is an emotional quiet as well as a literal one. We are living in a terrifying time, the threat insidious and the suffering as intense as the casualties of war. But the exigencies of this new life are shattering daily obligations, letting me connect at my own pace and treasure every moment of conversation because there is finally enough time, and I do not feel pulled in a million different directions.
I used to blame my job for my frantic state, which at the time was plausible, because being the editor-in-chief of a tightly-budgeted, short-staffed city magazine meant a lot of tugs on the sleeve. Switching to full-time writing made a huge difference, as did moving an hour’s drive from the city. But now I realize that the real culprit is me. Worried about responding to everybody, reading everything, keeping up house and work and relationships, I wind up always breathless, juggling, batting things away, saying polite no after no and hating myself for it. I am as dazed and resentful as a hermit plunked down in London at the height of the social season.
Had I not married a man who also craves solitude, I would be—well, divorced. My favorite definition is Rilke’s: “Love consists in this: that two solitudes protect and touch and greet each other.” In the rhythm of our days, Andrew and I have instinctively followed Kahlil Gibran’s advice: “Let there be spaces in your togetherness,/And let the winds of the heavens dance between you.” This … breeziness … always appalled my mother, who craved as much closeness as possible. “You two don’t even know each other’s schedule,” she would tsk, after asking where Andrew was and hearing me murmur, “He had some kind of meeting I think.” She knew the daily schedule, joys, needs, wants, deadlines, plans, and hopes of everyone she loved and could not fathom an affection that let any of that go untracked.
Is that why I work so hard to protect my space—because I could not protect it from her loving eyes? My father died when I was a baby, and my mom and I could only afford a one-bedroom apartment. I hid my introverted self behind a book whenever possible, but I could not hurt her feelings by pushing her away. I learned early that any overture needed to be answered with warmth and enthusiasm; anyone else’s need was an obligation. I grew up craving solitude far more than I crave the constantly connected, fast-paced, distracted and overbusy culture around me.
I google “solitude,” and Wikipedia pops up in large font size: “Solitude is a state of seclusion or isolation, i.e., lack of contact with people. It may stem from bad relationships, loss of loved ones, deliberate choice, infectious disease, mental disorders, neurological disorders or circumstances of employment or situation.” But it sure does not sound enviable.
Under “People also ask” are the questions “What does solitude do to a person?” (note the verb) and “Why is solitude dangerous?” I sigh. Then I brighten, noticing an article from The Atlantic titled “The Virtues of Isolation.” Then I sigh again: One of the first lines is about “Freud, who linked solitude with anxiety.” There is also mention of a researcher whose eleven studies found that “participants typically did not enjoy spending six to fifteen minutes in a room by themselves with nothing to do but think, that they enjoyed doing mundane external activities much more, and that many preferred to administer electric shocks to themselves instead of being left alone with their thoughts.”
Though it was written two years before coronavirus, the Atlantic article notes that in turbulent times, “The instinct is often for people to reach outside of themselves for support.” We connect, no matter what. By late March, quarantine memoirs are a genre. I am doing my own version of quarantine chat right now, alone at home, because solitude is not what makes me anxious. Obligation makes me anxious. The deep stillness outside my window, broken only with birdsong—that makes it easier to think.
It is possible right now, in the austerity of isolation, to strip down to what is essential: in our pantry (for me, bread, soup, beer, and chocolate); in our daily routine (sleep, fun, reassurance, meaning); in our work, our relationships, our souls. I am focusing the bit of extra free time on chatting with the friends I never had enough time or ease to fully enjoy. Those who would rather administer an electric shock to themselves than be alone should be the ones signing up for quarantine chat, because they will make it fun and engaging, and they will answer the phone readily, with relief and delight, and no hint of strain in their voices.