Earlier today, I was in the middle of a phone conversation with a young writer when she confessed to being surprised by a particular longing.
“I miss seeing my friends,” she said. “We text, and now we sometimes even call each other. It helps to hear their voices, but I miss sitting with them and watching their faces. I miss — “ She paused.
“Yes,” she said. “The moments that only happen when you’re together.”
She sighed. I waited.
“We got too used to everything that gets in the way of that,” she finally said. “I never thought much about how texting is not the same thing as talking, really talking. Now all I want to do is be with them, in person.”
We belong to different generations, our lives decades apart, but in that moment, the yearnings of this young woman’s heart echoed mine. This is isn’t the first such conversation I’ve had with younger adults. I teach students in their 20s, and a number of them have been reaching out just to check in. Many admit to a similar loneliness, and some vow to be different when we’re allowed to gather in groups again without fear of hurting ourselves or harming others.
“I’m always going to use my phone,” one former male student told me. “But I’m never going to take face-to-face time for granted again.”
Never is a long time, and seldom works as a plan for life. But something is changing, it seems, and these conversations are the most hopeful I’ve felt in weeks about this pandemic.
The negative repercussions of this time in our country are easy to predict. But maybe it’s true that we will be different in good ways, too, when this pandemic comes to an end. I say “we” because, like most of us, I have had plenty of time to do a personal inventory of my internal life, where the best and worst of me do a daily battle. The good in me prevails most days, I hope, but it needs more coaxing.
Recently, I’ve started stacking notecards and sheets of stamps in vintage toast racks and placing them around the house where I tend to sit or work. The moment I think of someone I’ve wanted to write, I pull out one of the cards. It takes so little time and effort to let someone know I am thinking of them. Why did I wait until now to return to a habit I once loved? And why did I ever abandon it? One’s conscious is not always a welcome guest.
I’ve never wanted to be that person scolding about smartphones and social media. I rely on both to communicate and to build community. FaceTime is the only way I can see my young grandchildren. We have seven, and I haven’t been with six of them since December. When you’re only 2 years old, as the youngest are, six months is a lifetime. How would they remember me if not for seeing my face in that small screen as I silently vow no tears, not ever, no matter how much I miss them?
Still, I’ve been that annoying professor. I’ve squeezed onto the campus elevator crowded with students and bemoaned that I will never understand future journalists blocking out the world with earbuds. “We’re professional eavesdroppers,” I tell my captive audience as they exchange glances and pull the buds from their ears. “We’re always listening for the next story.”
So annoying, but I can’t help but smile when students new to my classroom make clear we’ve already met. “On the elevator?” they typically say, pointing to their budless ears. Little victories are mine.
I haven’t stood in an elevator of students since mid-March. I haven’t been on any elevator since then.
All those little things I took for granted.
Chatting with clerks and customers at the meat counter. Hugging friends as we nearly collide at a restaurant’s entrance for dinner. Boarding a plane, shaking a hand, kissing the tips of little noses.
All of it gone, for now, and none of it seems so little anymore.