Navigating Closeness in the Midst of Distance
Writing by Cleo Nelson
Photography by Felix Whalley Smith
The Coronavirus pandemic both is and isn’t a shared global experience. Class divides have become even more pronounced, making a given person’s pandemic experience differ greatly between the richest and poorest in society. In light of how differing peoples’ experiences are, this article was written with the one common denominator that I can think of in mind, the restrictions on social contact and how important communication has become in a world where physical touch is a public health risk.
When I think of social interaction now, it is coloured by what is missing; just a few centimetres between bodies, clinking glasses in a bar, obligatory greeting hugs that feel clumsy, rare lingering hugs which say words that can’t be articulated, prolonged eye contact, the shaky feeling of public speaking, nudging arms while laughing. Other forms of communication can’t replace the nuances of face to face encounters, but I think they are able, through their own idiosyncratic circumstances, to create unique manifestations of intimacy. I read something about how people are getting to know each other better due to limited options of activities to carry out while speaking to each other on Facetime or Skype etc. which results in hours spent talking instead. One activity that has been made possible while video calling is watching something together on Netflix, creating a temporary bubble where you can experience something private with someone outside of your own household. Perhaps this isn’t anything like the real thing, but in being faced directly with another person's reactions to a film or show rather than them sitting next to you, there comes an extra dimension of closeness in which you may end up laughing at each other's distinct facial expressions. There’s something maybe even more intimate about video calls in a way, seeing someone in their own environment, maybe even showing a more candid version of themselves in pajamas or without makeup. Whether it’s with someone you’re getting to know, or a close friend, I’ve noticed that sometimes it can feel like a window into what they’re like when nobody is watching.
About once a week I have been walking two minutes down the road to the care home where my Nana lives and is looked after. Me and my mum stand right outside her window waving and talking to her through the window that opens just enough to hear her talk about what she had for dinner or how her plant is doing. This makes me sad for many reasons, but mostly because I feel guilty of not putting more effort in with her before the lockdown started. It’s a kind of a happy sad I feel when we walk away from her window though, because it is one of the fortunate care homes that has had no cases of Covid-19 and is much nicer than the last place she lived. This type of distance is different to virtual communication as it offers a more stark contrast to before lockdown; virtual forms of communication existed before but this strange close but far type of distance is completely new. My sister is in London which is no different to usual but we’ve been sending her more parcels than usual which I think is nice. I know people are sending each other letters and small gifts, something that felt like a rare and dying form of intimacy before the pandemic and subsequent lockdown but is reemerging somewhat. While there is an underlying melancholy and longing to all of these new or re-surfacing forms of regular communication, it is hard to not be impressed by how adaptive people have become to all of it.
Now that the lockdown has eased, it’s time to navigate how to see loved ones without being able to express physical affection, which may be even more alien than being restricted to just video calling. I’m almost convinced that being so bodily isolated aside from my household has manifested as a physical feeling somewhere in my chest, kind of like when people say you can actually feel loneliness. This situation also brings to light how body language, physical touches and eye contact can say so much; being left without these things becomes another barrier to closeness, making it feel like something we will have to re-learn. Despite the irony that the loneliness of distance can only be remedied by closeness- the one thing we universally can’t afford right now, it might be nice if these new forms of intimacy contribute to a greater sense of closeness once there is no longer a need for physical distance.