Close quarters

Telluride Daily Planet, Friday, April 3, 2020

 

After my dad retired from the U.S. Army in the mid 1960s, he went to work for Boeing in Seattle, which was not an easy transition for an officer and a man like him. Less order, less control, more ambiguous freedom. I remember him coming home and having a cocktail every night, something he’d never done before, and I had a weird feeling that something was different between him and my mother. For me, he was like a whole different guy, someone who wore suits and didn’t get saluted, even if he did announce himself at our favorite Chinese restaurant as “Colonel Curry.”

When he got laid off in 1970 (one of 50,000 Boeing employees to be terminated in 1970 and 1971), he made a decision simply not to return, even if they offered to rehire him. All of a sudden, he was home all the time, and my mother, who was home as well, except for her other life as a volunteer, was shaken to her bones. She’d never had a husband at home all day long before. She’d never had to share her 5,000 square feet,which she spent much of her time cleaning.

Of the four kids, I was the only one at home at this point, and so I got a lot more of my father, as well, who was an authoritarian personality of some amplitude. So in my world, unexpectedly, there was a lot more order, a lot more control and a lot less freedom.

In our new life of “close” quartering, we used the intercom system the house had been built with, and the laundry chute, which spanned three floors, to communicate across empty rooms. Dad would spend hours researching vitamins (his obsession), and perusing NASA patents he could buy and manufacture (not kidding), and would tinker in his workroom. Mom would clean, garden and cook. During the summers, especially when I was at home all the time, I could feel how this worked, this social distancing they did, which was required in the new and strange arrangement of increased togetherness.

What a simple and simplistic view, I am thinking now, as I fast forward to this new scenario, these strange and surreal times that present us with a whole range of social distancing and close quartering challenges based on two opposing forces: the intensity of being around our partners, roommates or families more than ever before; and our sense of isolation from those we care about but cannot be with.

We might feel lonely now, if we’re single and living alone, or we might feel that nothing at all had changed, if we’re introverts or creative types and prone to isolating ourselves. We might feel surprisingly happy in cozy oneness with our families for a dreamy spell, or we might feel that we’re suffocating, overwhelmed or ready to crack. We might feel safe only inside our cocoons of shelter, or safe only outside in the woods. We might feel that we’d been granted enforced “meaningful isolation,” as one friend put it, or we might feel devastated without the physical contact and social proximity necessary for our equilibrium. We might sink deep into the living room of parenthood or wonder why we’d had kids at all. We might feel trapped no matter who or how many are with us because the world is trapped.

Perhaps most difficult of all, we might realize we don’t like our own company, whether alone or with another, and that, if we’re to live well and responsibly, we may have to reevaluate why.

I think about the relative indulgence of our big house and our trying to cope with my dad home all the time, none of us sick, none of us at home in quarantine. I think of the test of just trying to maneuver a family into somewhat successful coexistence.

And now, on a different stage, I am simply in awe of the best of humanity — who conform to a new day, who work tirelessly for solutions, who listen and follow instructions, who adapt, who reach out and find humor and connect, who find silver linings, who are compassionate, who care, who share their stories, who pray for others, who send out thousands of suggestions for coping, for entertainment, for finding calm, for surviving when things go horribly or inevitably wrong.

I see just how privileged I am. I reassess, in close quarters, how I am doing with myself and with my roommate who is my husband. And whenever possible, I stop for showstoppers: geese honking raucously across the sky, the new green shoots of spring, a softer warmer light as the sun makes its way — just as it always does — over the mountains.

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