Alone Together: From Solitude to Isolation by
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My partner sat on the bed palming a news article on her iPhone. “Wow,” she said. “This Covid thing could get serious.” Her observation, altho casual, would soon crank up our self-defensive resistance while the Trump disaster evoked laughter, moans of injustice, screams of rage, paralyzing helplessness, and furious phone calls to Congress.

Where did our community go?

We felt the same confusion, terror, and rage as anyone else on the planet. What was this contagion? Where did it begin? How far would it spread? Once the World Health Organization declared Covid as a pandemic, we subscribed to the same fearful confusion as others with enough sanity to feel mortal in the face of a run-amuck virus that had no antidote.

Science and speculation thrashed the media into a froth of charts, maps, studies, anecdotes, rumors, opinions, and screeds. By the time we were washing vegetables from the grocery store, the virus had become politicized. Mis- and disinformation raced across the Internet, reflecting the divisive rage and ruthless manipulation that characterized the Trump convulsion. But I was cool.

As my partner and I closed shop for the newly imposed quarantine, we noticed a disconcerting peace. The skies cleared of jets and helicopters. The whoosh of distant freeway traffic dwindled to a whisper. I had stopped teaching at the end of the fall, 2019 semester. My partner’s job as a documentarian at a feminist organization had dried up, the production of her latest play had closed months earlier, we had enough income to keep the fires burning, and, most important, we had each other.

Alone together, we sat at opposite ends of our comfortable old apartment, writing fiction. We could write in peace, surrounded by an eerie, enforced, but useful solitude. While thousands died daily, we felt as if the world had graciously conspired to grant each of us a room of one’s own. All hail Virginia Woolf.

The world raged around us in concentric circles, excited by the virus’s spread, the horror of skyscraping body counts, corpses in refrigerator trucks, the whole mess scummy with lies and contortions propagated by the twisted government’s public evasions.

Close in, friends became ill, others, frightened by contagion, doubled efforts to escape the affliction. Offices, factories, and shops shuttered. Supply chains broke. People lost their jobs. Children lost the center of their expanding universes as schools closed; they became a burden to parents, newly unemployed.

Still closer yet, advance reading copies of my partner’s new novel crashed and burned on the closed doors of newspapers, magazines, and reviewers. My son shouldered the burden of treating patients who clogged the emergency room of his hospital; daily, he risked his life to save people who died believing Covid was a conspiratorial ruse of the Deep State.

We learned to live with the plague; we learned of its power and its weakness. The first vaccine came on the scene, and we ventured forth, grateful to receive our first inoculations at hastily organized public facilities. I finished my novel and began the tasks of production with my publisher. We learned to Zoom from exercise to publicity meetings. Still sheltered in our solitude, my partner began a second novel. We stopped making travel plans. We ordered in from Amazon, Grub Hub, and Instacart.

I noticed for the first time that I had not left the house for an entire day. Then two days, three days. I stopped calling people and noticed that when I saw a neighbor approach on our quiet, short street, I would turn away, strangely unwilling to hail, approach, or chat with familiar folks on the block.

Friends sold their houses and moved out of town. The theater where we had worked for years went on the market and was sold. Stunned, confused, its owners, our friends, began traveling compulsively in a camper truck, unable to sit still long enough to comprehend the complete disruption of their life’s work and our shared community.

Still, my partner and I had each other. We read each other’s work. We continued to share the daily tasks involved in running a household. We endured the news as a violent minority of de-educated, disinformed pot-bellied pawns threw themselves futilely onto the battlements of our democracy.

*

Now, we are unsure how to greet the dawn. Is there a new world out there, waiting to take shape? Alone together, we are curious but strangely cautious. We’re not comfortable in crowds. We don’t go to parties because, for our demographic at least, there are few parties to attend. We continue to work at home. We stare up at empty office buildings and speculate about what purpose these dry, empty beehives will serve in the future.

All the while, possibly because we had each other, maybe because our socialized work had fallen by the wayside, perhaps because writing is a solitary practice, we slid smoothly into isolation. Where did our community go? How will new communities reappear? As I write this, I don’t know for sure, despite my polling, where everybody has gone, if they will ever return, and how, if ever, we will all meet again.

 

 

Profile photo of Charles Degelman Charles Degelman
Writer, editor, and educator based in Los Angeles. He's also played a lot of music. Degelman teaches writing at California State University, Los Angeles. 

Degelman lives in the hills of Hollywood with his companion on the road of life, four cats, assorted dogs, and a coterie of communard brothers and sisters.

Visit Author's Website



Characterizations: been there, moving, well written

Comments

  1. Thanx Chas for your powerful story and a reminder of those months of disorientation, of washing our groceries, witnessing a new travesty from the POTUS daily, and actually fearing for our lives..

    Some of our experiences were the same during that fearful time, others different, but none of us have come thru unscathed.

  2. Chas:
    A great memoir that provides through you eyes a full and sympathetic picture of the isolating consequences of covid. You entwined so many reactions which gave a sense of wholeness while still revealing the unresolved territory to come.

    My own experience has not been so gentle. When covid began, our springer spaniel puppy node a yo-yo seem in slow motion. Despite the first two years of chaos (including constant barking, unrestrained chasing of our cats, I fortunately refrained from sending her to an obedience camp. Later, I learned that these kennels for service dogs and watch dogs produced animals that did not cuddle. We wanted another child, not a sentry.

    In addition to the frightening threat of Covid is the consequence of long Covid which has haunted us for months.

    I enjoyed your narrative. It gave me a better perspective.

    • I’m glad the piece gave you a better perspective. I have certainly been searching for clarity myself in the “aftermath” (even an ending is in doubt) of our 21st-century plague. It’s odd. I set out thinking I would explore the difference between precious solitude and dreaded (lonely) isolation. I’m not sure I explored that as completely as I did my recollection (in Retrospect?) of those (these?) troubled times.

  3. pattyv says:

    Sometimes I get confused and think COVID created Trump. I mix up the timing of that plague with the birth of poisonous republicans who married the maggots and produced the bogus MAGA squad. Now there’s a disease that needs a vaccination. Anyway, reading this bought the fright and flight back in stark realization. The COVID blew away all our foundations, wiped clean our societal norms, and made us look hard at ourselves in the mirror. I think you and your partner, both prolific writers, were so lucky to have each other during this bizarre exile. I agree with you. We lost so much we’ll never find again. But perhaps we’ll discover something greater? Maybe?

    • An interesting confusion, Patty. Plague begets plague. Yes, you got what I was fumbling for, the confusion created when even the most fundamental assumptions (social and political) are simultaneously wiped out. And it seems difficult to determine who acknowledges the changes that have crept, slammed, and oozed into society. As a friend said, “everybody feels the aftermath, even if they don’t know it.” Your final few lines speak directly to my questions: Will we find what we lost? or something new? better? I don’t know, but, as I am with the upcoming election, I am optimistic.

  4. Dave Ventre says:

    An evocative aide-mémoire of those surreal days of 2020-21! Gina and I both had C19 very early on, thanks to my University position working in a building where researchers, students etc from China are the largest demographic (for me it began 12/26.2019; she started a few days later. We both had longish-Covid, and I suspect that my sense of smell has never recovered 100%).

    One thing that Gina and I got from the experience was, like you, a confirmation that we actually enjoy each other’s company. Either that or she decided to stay with me because I had a knack for finding toilet paper.

  5. Laurie Levy says:

    What a perfect description of living through the pandemic. Like you, I was blessed to be with someone I loved and we learned (and are still learning) to share experiences and also give each other space. But the world to which we are emerging has definitely changed. We are still feeling our way.

    • Thanks, Laurie. Sometimes I look around my world and feel that everyone but me is just bopping along, biz as usual. But the whole nation and planet 🌍 is going through a profound change. Everyone feels it, even those who don’t know it.

  6. Betsy Pfau says:

    You write with the heartbreak and knowledge of the first-hand account like Edward R. Murrow – “you are there”. Your life turned upside down, yet, as for you and your partner, as writers, your work could continue in a solitary way, even as your neighbors and those around you moved away or closed down and your son witnessed the devastating effects of the pandemic first-hand.

    I always went to the grocery store and learned that “senior hours” were a crowded time; 11am was the best time to get in and out (always masked). We’d order take-out, but drive up and have it delivered to the car. We never washed the veggies. But we did both manage to get vaccinated during the first week it was available to us here in MA (and I sent you a photo from inside Fenway Park)! I literally cried as I checked in that day, I was SO grateful for SCIENCE! But I, too, heard on NPR about those poor stupid MAGA believers who were in the hospital, dying from COVID, but didn’t believe it, because Orange Asshole said it wasn’t real. And now, despite everything, look where we are? How can people possibly still believe that corrupt con artist? We live in a frightening world where people believe in conspiracy theories and cults. I don’t know how we come back from that.

    I have gone back out into the world (I was at a screening of a Liv Ullman documentary last night, with the actress in attendance for a Q&A after; the movie theatre was almost full, few masks in sight). Ive had my second bivalent vaccination. I will continue to get them as soon as new ones are approved.

    But you are right, everything has changed, whether we know it or not, as there are no longer an agreed upon set of facts and lies can spread on social media faster than a blink of an eye. Scary, indeed.

    • Thanks for your thoughtful and passionate reply, Betsy. And yes, we share many common experiences during Covid, but now that it has dissipated, I find the biggest problem is not mis- or disinformation, but that people don’t seem to know how to discuss the ongoing consequences. Granted, I live an isolated life, but I just don’t know how people are responding to the present and future. Things have changed. Drastically. But there are few attempts to define the changes. So, I’m trying to conduct my own research.

  7. I join with others who have hailed this piece as a wonderfully accurate description of what so many went through; the particulars of your own situation easily take on a universality even if the details don’t match all of our situations. Your ending reminds me not to feel so glib about “moving on” and acting as though the pandemic is finished. Some of its handiwork, as you suggest, has clearly set out many ongoing reverberations.

  8. Thanks for your comments, Dale. I set out to discuss the differences between isolation (forced) and solitude (sought after) and ended up writing a chronicle of the pandemic. Go figure. But I am urgently curious about how people are responding to the scope and scale of change that the pandemic has brought with it. And it’s difficult to study because it’s so intermingled with the chaos of local and world politics and climate change. Truly, we live in strange times!!

  9. Jim Willis says:

    So many things resonate in your account of the role Covid played in cutting you off from your normal life, Charlie. Yet in that isolation, you found new meanings and perspectives, as many of us learned to do. This is an extremely moving and well written piece.

    • Thanks, Jim. I had set out to write a more philosophical (and probably more tedious) exploration of isolation (forced) and solitude (pursued and nurtured). Instead my heart and mind drove my fingers to this dark tale. At least I tried to add a hopeful twist to the end. I do appreciate it when I’m able to move readers, even if it’s into a labyrinth!

  10. Khati Hendry says:

    You really tackled a big topic–and brought the experience of the pandemic back to life with the details and emotions all so vivid. LIke you, timing with work and age conspired to make retreat from the world pretty easy for me, all things considered. It seems people around here have now decided it’s “over”–but the climate crisis is about to upend all that. And so we carry on into the future as best we can.

    • Yeah, Khati, I’m curious to peer out thru the isolation and get a sense of people’s awReness. Some may think it’s over but I get the impression everyone knows the world has turned on its axis but not everyone is aware that they know. Creates an eerie tension.

      And then comes the accelerating awareness of what we’ve done to the planet, including breaking ecosystems that allow viruses to flourish where none has flourished before. And communities? Whassup with them?

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