I have started volunteering once a week at a local farm stand. This is for many reasons — not least of which is I get a box of free vegetables in exchange for my time, which I will admit is what drew me to the gig in the first place — but I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t mostly because it’s reminding me how to exist as a person in the world.
Interacting with and being perceived by other people doesn’t seem like the sort of ability a human being should be able to lose track of. It’s not like riding a bike, which, regardless of the famous phrase about it, involves balance and coordination and muscle memory and man-made machines, and so seems, in fact, entirely reasonable to forget. Interacting with other people is more like eating or breathing: doing it is more or less an inevitability of being alive. Sure, there are ways to avoid it, circumstances that can limit our opportunities to do it, reasons we might or might not be able to do it well, but if nothing else, all of us who survive past babyhood do that with the help of another person. Humans aren’t like sea turtles, who are born small but fully mobile, who can and must forge their own path into the ocean without anyone to guide them; we scream our way into life totally helpless, not able to so much as lift our own heads, and even the most independent among us need years of support before we can survive in solitude.
I have, despite this, utterly forgotten how to act with others. I know the knowledge is within me, because it must be, right? Surely I spent decades walking around this planet, exchanging pleasantries and having conversations, without having to puzzle my way through every agonizing step as though attempting it for the first time. This must be true; I remember it, even if that memory is clouded with a haze of unreality, like all my memories of life before time lurched sickeningly out of its track. I was always a little odd, but I know that I once possessed in spades the ability to say things to other people without feeling like ladywithmath.jpeg after every accursed word. It seems wrong on a cosmic scale that I am now reduced to biting back little shrieks of frustrated confusion during every interaction I have, but that’s where I am, and I can see — in their eyes, in the way they carry themselves, in the things that they say — that most of the people I encounter are there, too.
It is hardly the worst of what the pandemic has done to us. The worst, of course, is the millions of deaths, and from there, there is a long and incalculable list of harms and losses which cannot be ordered, a roiling cauldron of grief and despair and anguish and horror. That so many of us have forgotten how to exist amongst each other does not rank on this scale, which is, itself, quite horrible. If I were to go back in time and tell myself at age twenty that someday I and nearly everyone I know would forget the basics of person-to-person interaction, and that, in the scheme of things, this would be a relatively small problem, the twenty-year-old version of myself would have no choice but to conclude that he was hurtling towards the apocalypse. In a way he was; in a way we all were. For all we try to pretend and posture and pontificate about what comes next, the only thing anyone can really say for certain is the world we once lived in is not coming back. It never is, of course — the world is changing every second, and each of us along with it — but it feels particularly stark just now.