A Public Sphere for Poetry, Politics, and Nature
“You’re not wearing a mask,” you said to the salesclerk.
The day was bright and sunny, the sky full of puffy white clouds, and you had felt magnanimous after getting groceries. It was good to be out of the house. You decided to stop at the shop on your way home to offer a bit of support even though you didn’t really want anything. Earrings, you thought. You could use a pair of earrings.
You pulled into the parking lot and donned your mask. You felt a little nervous, even though the parking lot was almost empty. After quickly rifling through a rack of sale items that was outside, you entered the store.
The only other customer was a young woman with two darling girls, and it felt good to be around little kids. You haven’t seen your granddaughters since February, and know you are unlikely to see them anytime soon.
The clerk went to the back room to see if she had a child’s skirt in a smaller size while you continued browsing. She came up next to you and that’s when you noticed — she wasn’t wearing a mask.
“I can’t wear a mask,” the clerk said. “I have asthma. The masks cause a build-up of carbon dioxide, so I can’t get enough oxygen.”
“That’s not true,” you said. “They’ve done all sorts of studies and demonstrations. Masks don’t make people sick.”
“Oh, yes, they do,” said the other customer, although she was wearing a mask.
The two of them kept up the dialogue. You had the skirts in your hand, ready to purchase, but now you felt like bolting out the door. You don’t like confrontation and are certainly not used to it in a public setting like this. You fought the urge to leave, and perhaps you should have. You thought that if you left, you might never go back into that store.
Now you know you will never go back into that store.
You sometimes watch yourself from a distance moving through this life. Your compass is a bit off. Like a lot of people, you’ve been unsettled by the pandemic. The changing nature of it has you rattled: just when you were comfortable staying in, they started talking about opening up.
They have opened up, when things are at their worst, virus-wise. Now you feel the pressure of going out, and you’re not sure how to feel good about it.
Back in the car, you swiped the steering wheel and door with a disinfectant wipe and used sanitizer on your hands. You removed your mask. Before you’d stopped at that store, you had been listening to Classic Vinyl on XM, and when Queen came on, had turned the volume way up. It lifted your good mood. Now you started the car, turned the volume back down and drove home, slightly deflated.
Why did it take so long for you to notice that clerk wasn’t wearing a mask?
Earlier in the week a friend had gone to get her hair done. She returned to the chair with wet hair and noticed another customer who was refusing to wear a mask. The stylist continued to do this woman’s hair, and your friend ended up leaving the salon with a wet head rather than risk exposing herself unnecessarily to possible infection. Later, the salon owner called her and apologized. The shop staff simply did not know how to handle the situation and they were afraid.
People are very skittish about masks. There was an article in the local paper recently about a man who, here in your small community built around a beautiful lake, screamed obscenities and physically assaulted bank employees who asked him to wear a mask. He then fought with police officers and resisted arrest. The irony about having to wear a mask to enter a bank is not lost on you.
That evening, you met some friends at one of your neighborhood places, a private club on the lakefront. It’s an old social club, created back when the Swedes couldn’t get insurance on their own and needed mutual support to work and prosper.
You’d been reluctant to go, even though you knew things would likely be okay, and that if they weren’t, you could turn around and go home. Aside from essential errands, you and your husband have only been out twice since the pandemic began in earnest in March. Both times you ate outdoors at local restaurants. The first time felt okay – it felt wonderful, in fact. A change of scene. A menu! A casual exchange of pleasantries; a meal you wouldn’t make at home. It felt like something close to normal.
The second time was with friends. It didn’t feel horrible, but it didn’t feel okay, either. There was an awkwardness to the evening as you tried to maintain distance and reconnect with your fellow humans – beloved humans! – at the same time. Now you realize you wanted it closer. It was like one of those Zoom calls that makes you sadder after it’s over, the distance somehow more palpable.
At the club, you and your husband wore masks to one of ten or so large, round tables situated on an outside, covered patio. Once you were settled, he went back inside with his mask on to get a pitcher of beer and four glasses. Soon after, your friends arrived. They sat across from you and removed their masks while your husband poured. You visited and ate and enjoyed the lakefront. It felt good to be out of the house, to hear the water lapping the shore, and to see other people, carefully masked inside and more relaxed out-of-doors where you were separated from one another.
You went inside to get more beer, putting your mask on before entering. It was nice to see faces, some familiar, and watch people interacting in what felt like a normal fashion. Most people seemed relaxed and happy. You got the beer and, when you were outside, pulled off your mask as you walked to the table.
A couple sitting by themselves motioned and appeared to be talking to you. You approached their table, while maintaining a good distance from them. They began scolding you for not having your mask on. It took a while for this to register; you are unaccustomed to being spoken to like that by strangers or by anyone else.
You went back to your table, fuming about being called out like that. How dare they? You were embarrassed that it had happened in such a public setting and felt ashamed. What if you hadn’t done things correctly?
There is an entire field of study in psychology devoted to the notion of human beings and personal space called Proxemics. Most studies are about the discomfort people have when their personal space is invaded – when people get too close; when they enter the “flight zone,” as in fight-or-flight. Animals, too, maintain a personal distance. Across cultures, there are zones that are pretty stable – close proximity for intimate people, a bit more distance for friends, larger space for casual gatherings, and lots of space in public settings. When people (or animals) are anxious, they want more space – they move away. We all know what it feels like when someone moves in too closely or touches us without permission even though they might be friendly.
A recent article in the Atlantic provides a good summary of what we know about personal space. The author, Michael Graziano, concludes that we maintain personal space in a way that is akin to an elaborate, instinctive dance that we don’t really notice until our personal space is violated. It’s a pretty informative, readable piece, although it focuses on issues related to “too close” instead of “too far away.”
The irony that this article was written rather shortly before the pandemic because of Donald Trump’s weird handshake that violated French President Emmanuel Macron’s personal space at a United Nations meeting is not lost on you.
Not much has been done regarding space that feels too distant. But we need touch. Like the baby monkeys, we’ll grasp the cloth mother over the wire mesh mother, despite the promise of food. In part, this is what you are struggling with right now. You miss the touch of your granddaughters, but also miss the casual touch of friends. You miss having friends in your house, miss cooking for them, and miss putting your heads together to share a picture on a phone. You laugh, but not with abandon. Everything is restrained. You don’t move right. If you did, you might get too close, or touch someone, even though you’re not overly demonstrative.
After dinner, the four of you got up and moved to some Adirondack chairs that were set up on the lakefront. The chairs were far enough apart to maintain more than enough physical distance. Your visit was bittersweet; your friends have sold their place. You studied their faces as the sun moved behind some trees and began its glorious descent over the water. You wondered if you would see them again. You tried to focus on the beauty of the moment, but your evening felt ruined by the miserable couple who had scolded you. Although the sky was clear, the atmosphere was clouded, not by the virus itself but by all the trappings that surround it.
Just then, a man approached you, quickly. He was masked and his hair stuck out wildly, matching his eyebrows. He got very close to you before you recognized him as your friend’s husband and realized the look in his eyes was playful, not sinister; his hair ungroomed by the times. You started chatting and here’s the thing: you felt a little nervous when he got close, but before long, you wanted to hug him! You noticed when you greeted the man he was with, that man backed away from you.
You were relieved when you got up to go home.
The experience of that day has made you question a lot of things. Or maybe it caused you to revisit the things that you’ve been questioning all along. You’re no longer sure what the rules are for seeing people; not sure how to act. It’s hard to read people when they have masks on, and perhaps it’s even harder to read them when they don’t.
Social cues are eluding you in many ways. It unnerves you to not know what the rules are, and right now we have a lack of consensus about them. We have people who are purposely breaking the rules. It felt awful to be chastised, and to admit that you had chastised someone earlier that very day. It hurt to sense that man backing away from you. Maintaining physical distance is wise, but it doesn’t feel good.
You’ve realized that you’re more afraid of the people than you are the virus. You watch them perhaps too carefully to assess their motivations and behaviors. You watch them unconsciously, to make sure you’re safe. Your calculus for social interactions has gone kablooey. The context of our lives has shifted.
When you went to dinner with your friends, you knew that if it didn’t feel safe you could turn around and leave. It felt safe. And then it didn’t. You realize that half the time you are pretending to be okay. The other half of the time you actually are okay, which seems just as odd. Okay and not okay are beginning to feel like the same thing.
You are oh so tired of talking about it.
So, what now? You’ve resigned yourself to spending the rest of the summer mostly at home, enjoying your husband, your yard, the birds and your own company. You want to stay home where you don’t have to make the wrong decision, or any decisions at all. You’ll miss your family, especially those granddaughters. You’ll continue to yearn for their touch; you’ll ache for it. You’ll read, take a drive, walk the dog. Occasionally, you’ll spend time with a friend or two. You’ll visit at a distance.
Beth Peyton is the author of Clear Skies, Deep Water: A Chautauqua Memoir, published by SUNY Press in 2014. She lives in Western New York with her husband, Jeff Hunter, alongside many of the characters in her book, who are all still speaking to her.
Copyright 2020 Beth Peyton.