The Practice of Agoraphobia: Social Distancing’s Older Sister

Agoraphobia Congress

I have bought several books lately, as a homage to our summer non-vacation life-style.   Yes, we could take a vacation, but is it socially responsible?  Fling off your mask in the living room and read a good book instead. Here is what we need:  a dose of agoraphobia to help us stay home.  Is agoraphobia the older sister of social distancing?

And that brings me, not completely off-topic, to  an agoraphobic friend who died in her forties.  (One reason Google sucks:  when you look up your friends, you have the misfortune to discover they have died. The obituary  said, “She was survived by her cat, Natasha.”)

Oh no, no, no, no. That is so sad. She wanted a husband (or live-in lover, which we thought more romantic) and a family.  Well, I’m a cat lady too, with an indulgent husband.

What do you do when a friend disappears?  We were still in school when she moved away.  We wrote letters for a few years, then lost touch.  She wrote amusing, witty missives, but went off on tangents about how she had lost a lot of weight and been voted Homecoming Queen.

I knew the latter was a fantasy, so I ignored it. She was overweight, but everyone liked her, and no one cared about her weight.  And yet her fantasy reminded me of a very sad short story by Jean Stafford, “The Echo and the Nemesis.”  It dwells on a fat young woman’s fantasies and self-hatred.

At Heidelberg University, a highly intelligent, obese young woman, Ramona Dunn, globs onto a slender fellow American student, diffident Sue Ledbetter. Ramona invites Sue to her room for huge servings of cake and cookies.  While eating, Ramona talks constantly about the accomplishments of her family, especially her slim, charming, talented twin sister, Martha. And then at the end of the story, Sue realizes that there is no twin sister–that the girl in the photo of Martha is Ramona when she was slim.  Ironcially, as we get older and fatter, people turn this premise upside down and think the slim woman in our old photos IS our twin sister!

When my friend visited, she was still fat, not the Homecoming queen–so much better than that kind of person!–and still the same warm, witty friend. But there was something new: she was unable to leave the house. She would not even step out into the back yard.  She refused to visit old friends.  She refused to receive old friends.  She refused to attend a class I was taking from a friend of her mother.

I have known some incredibly intelligent people who have snapped or had some kind of breakdown.  If they’re lucky, they get over it. The conditions can often be controlled.  But my friend seemed different. She was not the impulsive girl at the rock concert who took LSD and had to go to the medical tent for help.  She had common sense. She took no drugs.  She was normal–but she couldn’t go outside.

And I must have disappointed her–going out the door as if it were the easiest thing in the world.

Now that I’m older, I view agoraphobia as a possible survival skill.  Will agoraphobics survive while more active people become infected with the virus during the pandemic?  Perhaps every human quality is for something.  Or have I read Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City too many times?

Peace, hope, and stay well!

Coronavirus Spit

Elinor and Marianne on a walk in “Sense and Sensibility”

In the spring of 2020, the world changed. Travel was discouraged, sometimes forbidden. It was eerily quiet.  We stayed home more than anyone in the world outside the novels of Jane Austen. (The Bronte and Eliot heroines are more mobile.) 

We stayed home to make the world a safer place.  Some of us embroidered, some read books, some watched TV, still others turned it off, others did puzzles, others played games, still others coughed, still others died. 

When the states reopened, politicans were fully informed of the dangers.  (There have been a few investigations of possibly fudged numbers at test sites.)  Dr. Anthony Fauci repeatedly explained the danger of reopening until the states met federal guidelines. “There is a real risk that you will trigger an outbreak that you might not be able to control.”

Epidemiologists and public health officials continue to warn against gathering in crowds.  Churches,  parks, and beaches are teeming with people.  But pent-up energy has become so explosive that people believe what they want to believe, and many ignore the warnings.  And yet the globs of coronavirus spit travel a long way when people talk, chant, and sing.  

And now there are the protests.  A group that was doubtless clinically insane recently stood on the State Capitol steps and protested AGAINST VACCINES.  One misinformed, evil man  announced that no one had died of Covid-19.  And there is the national wave of protesters against racist police brutality and the unjust killing of George Floyd.  However good the cause, it is unwise to protest in a crowd during a pandemic.  Would Floyd, who  tested positive for Covid-19, have wanted protesters to infect or be infected?  With the utmost sincerity, I believe it is time to listen to Obama, who reminds us in an essay at The Medium, How to Make this Moment the Turning Point for Real Change,” of lessons  we can learn from Civil Rights history about the importance of negotiatinv with state and local leaders.  

Obama writes.

…I’ve heard some suggest that the recurrent problem of racial bias in our criminal justice system proves that only protests and direct action can bring about change, and that voting and participation in electoral politics is a waste of time. I couldn’t disagree more. The point of protest is to raise public awareness, to put a spotlight on injustice, and to make the powers that be uncomfortable; in fact, throughout American history, it’s often only been in response to protests and civil disobediencethat the political system has even paid attention to marginalized communities. But eventually, aspirations have to be translated into specific laws and institutional practices — and in a democracy, that only happens when we elect government officials who are responsive to our demands.

“When we think about politics, a lot of us focus only on the presidency and the federal government … But the elected officials who matter most in reforming police departments and the criminal justice system work at the state and local levels.”

All Dressed up and Nowhere to Go? Read Proust!

 Kristin Stewart reading Proust

It is your mission. You decide to finish Proust.  “It’s all downhill after Swann’s Way,” a friend confided. And since it has been five years since you read the last volume, you don’t even remember who the characters are.   So Swann’s Way again?

Funny, you’d rather read catalogues. One thing new this spring: all the models are suddenly LGBT.  Yes, the women are all holding hands…on a beach…and wearing plenty of things you’d like to buy:  embroidered jeans, summery tunics, and slip-on sandals that doubtless would slip off.  

If you bought these lovely clothes, you’d be all dressed up with nowhere to go. These days, you mow the lawn for fun. Or go to the grocery store! 

The state has “reopened”–it  proudly is a hotspot– and it is a bit too much.  And so many people are staying home.  Restaurant dining rooms are empty.  The parking lot at Perkins is empty (perhaps it’s closed altogether).  Penney’s is out of business.  Supposedly drive-in theaters are open, but I’d like to know where the heck these drive-ins are.

The drive-through at Starbucks is very popular:  I’ve seen the lines!

Really, it’s enough to inspire you to stay home and keep reading Proust.  I’m going to go eenie-meenie-mo and pick a volume.

Living in Doris Lessing’s World: A Pandemic Unforeseen

I get it.  I don’t want to, but I do.  Men think they’re invincible. How wonderful that must be.

There is still a crazed notion here that COVID-19 is just the flu.  Everything I’ve read contradicts this; everything you’ve read contradicts this. Since the outbreak here can be traced to a small group of vacationers returning from a cruise, people assume it is contained. They are not reading enough newspapers, whereas I’m at the point where I can make charts with colored pins and sticky notes, like  Martha Quest and  Mark in Doris Lessing’s The Four-Gated City.  But unlike the narrator of her apocalyptic novel, Memoirs of a Survivor, I cannot gather information from people on the street.

It’s actually unclear to me whether it is safe to take walks. There are so many gaps in these articles.   When we went out yesterday for a walk, I broke all rules of etiquette and crossed the street if I saw a person coming.  Mind you, hardly anybody was out.  My husband is so stubborn that he mocked a person who was walking in the street.  Frankly, that was the smartest person I saw all day.

Infectious disease experts are saying, “Work at home,” but not all employers have approved this homework situation (yet).  We’re a little behind here, just beginning to take it seriously.  The universities, schools, movie theaters, and libraries are closed.  The mayor declared  a city emergency and squelched the chutzpah of a belligerent group who had refused to cancel the St. Patrick’s Day parade. 

Mind you, I’m not panicking. We are all in a state of derealization. That’s a joke, but it’s also true you can’t take it all in.  I pay close attention to the details in the op/ed pieces by experts, but am more critical of journalists’ accounts of what’s unfolding.  Sometimes there is a note of hysteria, for which I cannot blame them. 

But why, oh why, didn’t the Senate meet this weekend to approve the relief bill drafted by the House?   Isn’t this a National Emergency? 

But two things we know for sure:  keep on washing your hands and avoid the crowd.