I've been thinking a lot about what togetherness means in these lonely times. The rare times I'm with people feel illicit; a stolen moment of connection even as we try to mitigate the risk of spreading COVID-19 and do our best we can to help. I feel lonely, and I know in that I'm not alone.
Our actions, to protect ourselves and to protect each other, become symbolic. We wear our masks to protect others, for they do far more to prevent the wearer from spreading the disease than to protect the wearer, and the mask becomes a symbol of caring. We wash our hands and know that millions of other people are doing the same, us all counting and singing to ourselves as we lather the soap. We stay home as much as we can, lonely together.
There are a lot of reasons for pessimism now. I don't want to write about them now; I'm already spending far too much time thinking about them. Looking for the helpers, per Fred Roger's famous advice, is active: it requires you to think to do it. Symbols are passive: once internalized, a symbol is something we feel without having to think about it.
When we look, we find helpers everywhere: spontaneously organized mutual aid groups getting supplies to people who cannot risk or afford a trip to the store, groups like Food Not Bombs that have adapted to keep doing what they can to feed people nationwide, the sewists across the world who have made and donated hundreds of thousands of masks to medical professionals and communities in need.
We can't look all the time. But everywhere I go, I see people in masks. People who care, people who are trying, people who are taking on a small inconvenience to help. I see masks hanging from rear-view windows in cars as I walk to get the mail. I see parents helping their children put on masks outside the grocery store. And when I see a mask, I don't have to look. Their mask serves the same purposes as the mask I wear any time I go out: both to protect each other, and as a symbol of that protection.
We wear our masks together
and wash our hands as one
We stay apart in all but heart
Apart but not undone
We feel alone together
as we move out each o'ers way
A gesture of us caring,
our silent words do say
Stay home if you can. Help others if you can. Wear a mask, wash your hands. We'll get through this – alone, but together. I'd like to end this with one last note: Fred's advice to look for the helpers was for children. His advice for adults was to be the helpers.