Social distancing and mind games


In locked-down Italy, one activity that’s permitted is dog walking, so every morning I venture out as usual to give Aria time to play with her friends, chase her Frisbee, and munch on fresh spring grasses. It’s an odd scene, we dog owners standing 10 feet apart while the dogs romp, or walking single file—again maintaining our distance—through a wooded park. Today Aria and I went to our usual meeting place, but no one was there. After some Frisbee play and a check-in with my absent friends to make sure everything was ok, I headed up the hill toward Corso Vannucci, the heart of the historic center.


I hadn’t been there in about a week, having limited my outings even before the government mandate. I chose that route to give Aria and myself a change of pace, but I had mixed feelings about it, as if the air in those narrow streets might be, somehow, more compacted, more capable than open spaces and tree-studded paths of harboring a virus. As I walked, I tried to squelch the irrational thoughts that ticker-taped through my brain, making me realize that survival in a pandemic world requires more than attention to physical health. There are plenty of things to worry about and isolation heightens our fears and anxieties, creating, at various times and to various degrees, paranoia, depression, obsession. I walked and I thought, observing my own strange behaviors—things that seemed to be instinctive even if they didn’t make a whole lot of sense.


It makes sense to swing wide around corners, to avoid inadvertently coming too close to someone approaching from the opposite direction. It doesn’t make sense to avoid eye contact, as if the tractor beam from someone else's eyes to mine could serve as a thoroughfare for a virus. It doesn’t make sense to hold your breath when the nearest person is 20 feet away. But I did these things. And as I walked, panicky thoughts about possible fever rose along with my body temperature. Relax, I told myself, unzipping my wool coat to let in fog-cooled air, your body’s temperature-regulating system has been wonky ever since you hit menopause, a gazillion years ago.


Centro was an eerie ghost town, its streets lined with gated storefronts bearing explanatory signs about compliance with the government shutdown. Signs of life: a police car cruising down the Corso, lights on in the grocery and a few other places offering essential services, trash collectors and street cleaners, fellow dog walkers, and someone standing 12 feet away from a pharmacy door, waiting his turn to enter. I walked long enough to take the edge off Aria’s need for movement, but even she sensed that something had changed. She walked beside me, ears back, her cold nose nudging my hand every now and then. Was she asking for reassurance or offering it? I suppose a bit of both.


It’s astonishing how quickly we can adapt to what might have seemed unimaginable. Before the shutdown I was stressed about my pending house purchase and move, anxious to keep things moving along, hoping that everything would go as planned. Yesterday, on day 2, I accepted that nothing is moving or going as planned, and with that came a certain relief. It’s easier to face the inevitable than to ricochet between hope and doubt and worry, especially when what’s at stake isn’t really very important at a time like this. Now I worry about one thing only, the safety of my family and friends.


On my way home I walked past daffodils, pale yellow and delicate; rosemary in fragrant bloom; plum trees exploding in white; fig trees tipped with moist green buds. Spring is on its way, and most of us won’t see much of it this year. But it’s coming anyway, this resilient cycle of renewal, and if we humans can face reality, give up our pride, our selfishness, and our penchant for self-destruction, we’ll be here for the next one.

© 2018 by Cheryl A. Ossola