I’m peeling back my layers of need and discovering I have a deep craving for the physical presence of my women friends. We’re far apart in our respective hives doing the right thing for the public good, but our private good is pained by the separation. Of course, isolation is the topic du jour, maybe I’m stating the obvious, we’re all coping. Perhaps what I’m discovering in my own life is a long-haul effect of lockdown. Some emotions aren’t immediately obvious. I have food, shelter, love. I live with my dog and another human and those relationships hold my center. A voice inside says I should be satisfied. I see that I’m fortunate to have these essentials. But I’m missing something. I’m missing other females. My gender. Their physical presence. I’m missing women my own age in the chair across the table from me. Talking. For hours. Storytelling. Affirmation. Presence.
A few days ago, I sat with a woman friend for the first time since December, mask-to-mask, outside at a coffee shop. Afterward, when I thought about it, the fresh memory made me feel like crying. I didn’t know how deeply I longed for that presence until I captured it like a firefly in a jar, just that one tiny light brightened me, and I saw my need for a physical social life. Yes, we are Zooming, FaceTiming, Skyping, and WhatsApping, seeing ourselves device to device in our little zoos, zoos with kitchens, stainless steel appliances and throw pillows. But we are not having the physical experience of presence.
Humans are a gregarious species. Like fireflies our lights shine for others. Without physical contact, parts of us atrophy. We lose our capacity to adapt. Our resilience is diminished. Of course, we need to protect ourselves from virulent infectious disease. But we also need to protect ourselves from the myriad mental and emotional side effects of physical isolation. We are not digital creatures. At least, not at this point in our evolution. We still have a deep need for the company of flesh and bones. Children need hugs. Adults need hugs. It’s not sustainable to protect our physical health by sacrificing our mental health. Our microbiome is not fooled by Instagram. Disembodied voices are not enough. We can’t hug video.
After a year of living with the virus, my bio safety practices have morphed from a temporary self-preservation measure to a lifestyle. I am as careful about the air I breathe and the things I touch as I am about eating rotten food. Safety has become instinctive. Now I’m both less afraid and more conscious of biohazards as I seek a more nurturing balance between the protection of isolation and the empowerment of physical presence, a better balance between serving my physical health and my mental health. When we met mast-to-mask on the sidewalk, my friend and I hugged side arm, shoulder to shoulder, face away from face, and I felt a gush of wellbeing. My immune system spiked to its happy place, a shot of oxytocin bathed my brain, a choir of angels sang, and a tiny firefly escaped her jar.