Unlearning the Language of Social Distancing (by Danielle Douez)

This week’s blog post includes a linked audio file. Just click on the link below if you would like to hear the post read aloud. Scroll down to read the text.

Our guest blogger this week, Danielle Douez, is an MA student in philosophy at Concordia University. Before moving to Montreal, she lived in Atlanta for 10 years and worked in communications and journalism. She loves stories, storytelling, and chocolate chip cookies.

The streets of Montreal are quiet. All I hear is water. Miniature icebergs of an unusually mild winter’s snow and ice are finally birthing small brooks and streams. April showers are joining them down into the drains, merging with the already swollen Saint Lawrence River.

Soaking in the stillness from my living room, I occasionally dip my toe into the rip tide of headlines and social media. It’s gotten increasingly difficult to stay afloat, as everyone and their mom, y las abuelas y tías too, are clamoring on to this virtual Noah’s ark. Other days, I check in by text, and more often than usual by phone, with people I haven’t talked to in ages. I find myself listening for a pulse.

In some circles, that fatal instinct to look away from pain and soldier on is catching. Here, they are hollering from the Tweet decks: “Everything is great!” “It’s business as usual!”

In others, people are playing one of the most intense and creative games of finger-pointing I’ve ever seen. Here, there are no reported shortages of meme-able crooks and villains. The intensity of this game is alluring, but the rules are old and many don’t have time to play.

Distractions, illusions and predators abound, seeking to soothe the fears the COVID-19 pandemic has stoked within each of us. Taking it all in, I’ve been cycling through stages of bewilderment, anxiety, and grief. There’s another feeling though that outrides them all: homesickness.

I am no stranger to homesickness. It’s been just over a decade since I left my first home in the suburbs of Washington D.C. At the end of high school, the 2008 recession made an already stressful family situation completely fall apart. My dad, who worked in construction, left to find work where he could. My mom, who was battling addiction at the time, was downsized from her job, and in effect lost her visa and became undocumented.  We lost our one-story rambler to foreclosure, our car was repossessed, and my mom declared bankruptcy.

It’s in this context that I left home. I said yes to thousands of dollars of student loans to become the first person in my family to graduate from college. I have spent a full decade freefalling in deep and pervasive homesickness, steeped with dread. While a lot has stabilized for me and my family since I left home, grief, debt, and uncertainty prick us all awake every day.

My story is not unique. Today, more stories like mine are being written.

With my new “free time” in quarantine, I’ve been volunteering to answer calls on a hotline for people experiencing a housing emergency. The organization that runs it is based in Atlanta, my home before I moved to Montreal last summer. From the other side of a closed border, I listen to people’s stories of losing their jobs and choosing between food and shelter. I hear familiar fear and pain, and I tell them what I badly needed to hear when my family lost everything: you are not alone.

As the clouds of another recession gather, I am seeking circles in which I can learn and practice a new language:

Solidarity. Mutual Aid. Dignity. Equality. Justice. Collective action. Dare I say, revolution?

This is not my native language. The fabric of my American experience was woven together by a very different vocabulary: service, charity, individual responsibility, grit, merit. This language is dangerous in the way it blinds us to the truth of our precarity and interdependency, which right now has become painfully obvious. I’m only beginning to understand just how far at a distance this language has kept us from one another before the quarantine. Enough of a distance that I can’t hear the pulse of the person standing right next to me. The kind of distance for which this other language already has a few names: alienation, isolation, oppression.

I’m adding one to the list: homesickness.

At times, I feel terribly behind the curve on learning this evolving language. Then, I think about how far behind the curve we all are in finding words that bind us together at a scale that matches the enormous, global challenges that remain: climate change, extreme inequality, violent conflict, and human migration.

I realize we may not always agree, but I’m hopeful this moment is lifting the illusion of certain differences for just long enough that we catch a glimpse of common ground. How is this virus connecting people across different generations, politics, religions, nations? What unexpected places and actions have inspired you during quarantine? What words would you use to describe that connection?

The wave of this pandemic is just one among many. From where I’m sitting – alone on my quarantine couch, feeling infinitely distant from all of you – it appears nothing short of the survival of our species depends on our ability to get creative with the building blocks. Make new rules. Tell radically new stories.

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