I should start by saying the term “social distancing,” seems all wrong to me. A friend said the other day on Facebook that we really should call it “physical distancing,” because that’s what it needs to be: the keeping of a safe physical distance between us to avoid catching, or transmitting, the coronavirus.
But we shouldn’t be socially distant – not at all. In fact, we should make greater efforts to be socially close right now: smile at one other, say it’s a lovely day, stop for a friendly chat. You can do all of that at a distance of six, even eight feet – and it’s nourishing to exchange energy with our fellow humans.
We’ve been taking a lot of long walks over the past few weeks. They are familiar walks for us. We are currently staying near our longtime home in Southeast Portland, and we’re likely to be here as long as international borders remain closed due to the coronavirus.
Once again – as we have done so many springs in our lives – we are watching blossoms burst out, and fresh new leaves uncurl, along streets and paths we know very well. All this beauty fills us with contentment, even as we experience the curious blankness of not knowing when this time of physical isolation will end.
As we walk, we meet neighbors. Some are people we’ve known for years, and it’s good to see each other again. We stop at a safe distance, ask after each other’s health and our families’ health. If the weather is good, we step out of the walking path and chat for a while. If it’s cold or rainy, just a quick exchange before moving on.
It’s been more than two weeks since everything started locking down. The only shops still open are those selling essential things such as food, medicines, gasoline. Parks are closing – our beloved Crystal Springs Rhododendron Garden locked its gates last week. Grocery shopping means waiting in line to enter the store, spaced six feet from those in front of us and those behind. Once you’re inside, you try to stay aware and stay six feet from grocery workers and other shoppers. It’s no small feat in the narrow aisles of our neighborhood shops.
I really miss being able to talk with random people while shopping or doing other errands. So anyone who gives me a friendly smile is going to get a cheerful greeting, even if it’s just a remark about the weather, or how cute their dog is. I’m always so gratified when the other person stops to chat, seemingly as grateful as I am for some fresh conversation.
We’ve run into a few neighbors, people we’ve known or seen around the neighborhood for years. Now suddenly we’re actually stopping to talk. There’s one couple we’ve seen around for decades, always with a golden retriever. Yesterday we learned their current dog – an “English cream” retriever, almost white in color – is their fourth. It was the first time we’d had a real conversation with them. I still don’t know their names – maybe next time.
Our walks also show me how people are entertaining themselves in this time of isolation. The other day we saw a young boy down the street from us arranging bright metallic pinwheels out on the sidewalk strip beside his house. I asked him about it, and was startled to hear a deep voice coming from his little-boy face and body. It made me remember when our own son’s voice began to change, and his friends’ voices.
Nearby, in Westmoreland Park, we spied a heart made of fallen camellias. I’ve been seeing these camellia hearts around the neighborhood, little offerings of love and beauty.
Down by the Willamette River, we met a young couple seated on a blanket on the riverbank, painting the scene before them with watercolors. They were having a lovely time, and I supposed they were in the early stages of a romantic relationship.
As we strolled back up the beach, the pair gathered up their paintings and other possessions, and walked along the beach with us, keeping the six-foot buffer, of course. We learned a bit about their work lives, which are on hold right now, as they are for so many people. We told them we’ve been traveling, and that we’re on hiatus until the coronavirus is over, or at least until international borders begin to open again.
It was like many conversations we’ve had with people we’ve met over the past two and a half years – just held at a greater physical distance. And I noticed that a warm smile, an interested question and an engaged manner are just as gratifying at a distance as they are up close.