I was accosted in the grocery store parking lot…by a friend who ran up to my car window, hugged my neck, kissed my cheek and then promptly stepped back a foot or six and apologized. Though we live in the same small town, I hadn’t seen her in person since early March. A few months ago, this would have been bizarre behavior on two fronts: I would neither have thought twice about a hug-and-kiss, nor would she have felt the need to recoil after realizing her impulsive behavior might offend me.
It is hard to know how to behave right now—that’s what’s got all of us on edge, and some of us at each other’s throats. I’m married to a self-employed introvert who doesn’t mind retreating for a couple of months while the rest of humanity learns about this novel virus through trial-and-error, but I am an incautious extrovert, unhappy with the sacrifice of three-dimensional friends for anything short of the plague (which this is not). As a result, we’ve met somewhere in the middle—doing risk-benefit analysis on everything from grocery shopping procedures to allowing our boys to go to work to going for a walk with a friend outside. I have resorted to asking Jay before I do anything, except for maybe stopping by a friend’s boat in the dinghy, where “social distancing” is the norm based on the size of our dinghy and the height of the deck of a boat.
Because we really don’t know what the risks of this new illness are or how easily it spreads, because there’s so much conflicting information, it takes time to sift through possible responses and come up with a reasonable approach. I have tried to remain humble and non-judgmental—any posturing from either end of the spectrum (“Fear nothing!” Or, “Fear everything!”) looks like arrogance to me. Solomon, in his wisdom, said that the man who fears God avoids the extremes of foolishness and self-righteousness (paraphrase of Ecclesiastes 7:18).
So as we begin the slow process of opening up, coming out of our collective quarantine, returning to work, school, and social lives, our family will continue to govern itself by this middle path: we will neither shut ourselves up indefinitely to “stay safe” waiting for a medical miracle, nor will we behave flippantly during a pandemic—our behavior can and does affect others, and we ought to be governed by compassion.
And we will never, never, never take relationships for granted.
They say you never know what you’ve got until it’s gone. There’s some truth in that—ask anyone who’s ever lost someone they loved. Or ask a New Englander how he feels about summer sunshine during the middle of a hard winter. Or ask a traveler how she feels about home a few months into a long journey. Living on the boat has taught us something about deprivation and appreciation, too. Until we lived without an endless supply of hot water or without air conditioning on a hot, still night, we didn’t properly enjoy a long, hot shower, or a cool night’s sleep.
Gratitude is magnified when we experience abundance after scarcity.
A few things have made this apparent to me. My Bible study group here in the Keys consists of praying women in different stages of life; it has continued to meet at our normal time during quarantine. Every Wednesday morning, we grab our coffee and log into Zoom, our faces popping onto the screen like the intro to The Brady Bunch. Last week, we met at the beach, which had recently re-opened, spreading out in a wide circle, but in person. It was a night-and-day difference. Their love, faith, and encouragement have been wonderful during this strange time—and I’m grateful we have the technology to stay connected, but I didn’t really grasp the metaphysical difference between 2-D and 3-D until I saw them again in living color.
Phone calls/video chats with family, virtual “tea parties” with friends, and keeping tabs on people via Facebook or Instagram are better than nothing, but a poor substitute for the real thing. Going for a walk with a friend, celebrating a birthday (outdoors, just to be on the safe side), and sharing a happy hour wine-and-cheese with neighbors in their cockpit—these simple joys from the last couple of weeks have reminded me how much we need real people in our lives. And, how much they need us.
Last weekend, we helped some friends whose house is finally getting repaired after hurricane Irma damaged it in 2017. They needed some extra muscle to remove the furniture from the second-story living space and to finish a chicken coop to protect their birds while they are away living in a rental house so that the construction crew can demolish and rebuild part of their home. This work couldn’t wait until we have decided it’s “safe” to come out, so we took the risk of offering assistance. We had a literal barn-raising—a true community effort. I had forgotten what a joy it is to be with a group of people, working together, sharing a meal, seeing teenagers chip in cheerfully—lugging couches downstairs, preparing lunch for others, painting the chicken coop. This is what life in a community should look like.
And what is life without community? We need each other; our very survival depends on cooperative behavior. It is essential to our well-being as social creatures. I am reminded of a quote from a favorite animated movie, The Croods, about a family of cavemen who venture out into the dangerous unknown. Commenting on their “safe” life inside the cave, the teenage daughter Eep says, “That wasn’t living! That was just…‘not dying!’”
The message, “stay safe,” that we see on billboards, that flashes across our screens, and that we hear on the intercom at the grocery store, contains an inherent fallacy. Life, love, the pursuit of our dreams—these things were never safe. Everything we do requires a risk of one kind or another. How long can we live inside a cave, simply not dying? Every person will have to do this risk-benefit analysis going forward, and when we reach different conclusions than our loved ones, only compassion and humility will smooth out the wrinkles.
My heart is full of love and longing: for our parents, who we haven’t seen in months and who face a much higher risk of life-threatening infection if they go out in public or visit in person, for my siblings and the close-knit group of friends who have supported us for years in our homeschool journey, for our friends old and new in far-flung places, now that travel has become difficult-to-impossible. I remain hopeful that we will be able to normalize our interactions someday, but until then, I can see already how much more I appreciate these relationships.