I remember the old days when I worried that someone was standing too close to me in an elevator or at the checkout stand. Back then, it had nothing to do with contagion. Instead, I just obsessed with the need for common courtesy. A dirty look or a step forward usually cured the complaint unless the person was a real numb-nut and took a step forward, too. It was a simpler time and the rules were squishy. Ah, those were the days.
In a short ten days, life has become one long, painful Seinfeld episode where the world is teeming with close talkers and germophobes who wander amongst us. On the other hand, we need to be hyper-aware of the Poppy’s who are “a little sloppy,” failing to sing all of Bohemian Rhapsody twice in order to ensure that their hands harbor not a shard of the sloughed-off virus. My own family, living next door, avoids me, claiming that they do not want to infect us old people, just in case. I know better. They are afraid we are carriers as well. In our family, Coronavirus has pit mother against daughter, with an accidental passing touch of hands causing a stampede to the kitchen sink for a good scrubbing.
Nothing is simple. In the day of COVID-19, we search our consciences to decide whether or not leaving the house is an essential act. Walking out the front door requires papal absolution, even if we pledge to not look into another person’s eyes and promise to cross the street whenever a stranger comes into sight. But sometimes, a girl just needs to get outside.
This morning, I took a walk in the woods near our house but before embarking on my trek, I dipsticked the potential for effective social distancing. From my living room window, high above the access road in the forest, without the impediment of leaves on the trees, I saw that the path was clear. Although it was only twenty-nine degrees, I needed air, and it was only 9:15 a.m. I could see that it was going to be a long day of self-imposed exile. Slipping my camera strap over my neck, I set off.
A beautiful walk in nature, undisturbed by humans wielding the Coronavirus, was just what I needed. Meandering up the hill, I searched the bare branches for owls and hawks. I photographed the streaming sunlight through the trees, ducks cutting the surface of a peaceful ebb-free pond, and my white whale, the great blue heron. Peaceful and chilly, I reveled in the calm.
Deeper into the woods, a dog approached. My first thought: if this dog bites me, I can’t go to the Emergency Room or I will certainly get infected. I greeted the dog calmly and realized in seconds that he was a good boy, friendly and calm. I searched the road ahead for the owner. As I spied the man who was oblivious to my presence since he was looking at his phone and smoking a cigarette, I chose to make a U-turn. The path was narrow and my now inbred need to keep my distance kicked in. As lovely as the dog was, I abandoned him to his owner’s questionable attention.
As I turned around, a group of three, well-bundled up, loud, chatty people worked their way up the hill. I assessed my options. About fifteen feet ahead, I saw the small road that would take me out of harm’s way. I hastened my step and took the right turn that would bring me to safety. It wasn’t long before I heard footsteps behind me. One of the group had broken off and approached me, far to close for comfort. I shot the glance I use at the supermarket when my personal space is invaded. She retreated. In a time of powerlessness, I was momentarily powerful.
After my close encounter, I thought about the need for an etiquette book for appropriate behavior in a crisis such as this one. I would call my manual, Coroniquette: Distance Living for the Pandemic. With all of the confusion around the meaning of “social distancing,” people need rules, and maybe even laws, to define limits. Whether they read my handbook or not is another thing. It’s a time when nothing is simple and depending on your fellow humans is touch and go.
In the meantime, my best advice is to stay safe and hold your loved ones six feet away. The life you save might be theirs.