A love for solitude is often rooted in a woodsy childhood. In my case, it blossomed in the isolated state of Maine, where trees outnumbered people by what seemed like 1 million to one. Blanketed by a forest of lush branches and surrounded by hundreds of houseless acres, I would spend hours wandering the depths of crisp woods, listening to birds chatter and leaves whisper to the wind. This was home, the quiet honesty of rural life. It offered a sense of space for those who appreciate it, and I was no exception.
But as solitary creatures grow, so often does their longing for adventure.
One day, I moved to Istanbul. Gone were the gentle sighs of tall willows to keep me company. The grass here does not converse with the breezes of passing cars as it does back home with the gusts of tidal gales. The contrasting natures of steel and stalks, it seems, do not speak the same dialect. The stars that in my childhood shone brightly now hang faded in the city’s smoggy ceiling. This setting sapped the peace out of solitude. Miserable isolation leads lonely souls on quests for solace. Contrary to my usual nature, people, the city’s version of Maine’s millions of trees, were the surprising solution.
Then came the coronavirus.
The unstoppable pandemic has slowly brought the city that I and millions of others call home to its knees. In the sudden absence of jovial tourists and bilingual tour guides, only palace ghosts wander Istanbul’s historic grandeur. Once bustling streets are now quiet, and the steps of the few determined masked pedestrians echo off the concrete. Most doors across the city are closed. For those chilled by the temperamental spring, cafes serving hearty coffee or steamy crimson tea in delicate trendy glasses are dark and empty. It’s just as well. Such brews inspire the temptation of companionship and amid a viral attack, congregating can be dangerous. Our loved ones have become both a threat and delicately precious.
Enter the concept of social distancing.
For space-lovers like me, the suggested 1.5-meter anti-infectious zone should be a godsend. But is it? Billions of dollars have been spent on technology and hours have been invested in ranting about our lack of space only to find out, in the current state of things, too much can be unpleasant. Social distancing to counter the virus has left us – habitual hermits included – craving the socialization we claim to have evolved beyond. Granted, electronic communication, buzzing in our pocket, has reduced our need for face-to-face gab sessions. But we have taken for granted the freedom of interaction, our right to embrace a friend or to laugh together over a rainbow sprinkle donut and a cup of tea. We have instead opted for insta-everything. After all, we can always just step out and meet up later. Right? Wrong. This pandemic has disrupted our lives in ways no one thought possible. Every aspect of our lives, in fact. It has offered us the one thing we have claimed to crave and pushed technology to support: solitude. Interestingly enough, many are discovering this may not be what we were searching for after all.
The sudden jolt of physical isolation has thrown society off balance. When normally we would have relished a quiet day at home, having no other choice has stripped the usually special treat of its delight. Binge-watching Netflix has lost its appeal. Cozy home offices that once beckoned as we rushed out the door now feel stuffy. Instinct tells us chosen alone time versus forced isolation, though they lead to the same physical state, are not, in fact, the same. The walls suddenly feel higher and closer than before the virus arrived.
This outbreak has placed what we took for granted on a pedestal, dangling it just out of reach. That rainbow sprinkle donut shop where you wanted to have tea at is now closed. It’s just as well since your donut buddy is also in isolation. If we take anything from this experience, it should be that life is short. Things will change. Appreciate the good days, the normal days, the days that you can smile freely and with warmth. Next time, put down your phone and make eye contact. Say hello, aloud.
However, for now, those moments are on pause. Though the world – we – could use a hug, embracing could lead to disaster. The outbreak requires determined patience for our health and the health of those we cherish, and distance lends some semblance of proactive prevention.
But things will return to normal soon. Those hugs will come. That strong coffee outside your favorite haunt with that sweet black and white kitty looking for a belly rub will soon be ready. Though isolation may feel stifling, it won’t last forever. Breathe. Breathe again. Take heart in knowing your forest is still there, patiently waiting for your safe return. And after this ordeal, you will be ready to wholeheartedly embrace it.
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