A 'Certain Cordial Exhilaration': beyond our core of close friends & family (8/11/21)
Updated: Aug 14, 2021
Ralph Waldo Emerson called them “incidental friends.” Our community of acquaintances – neighbors you don’t know all that well, but wave to in the morning, coworkers in other departments (wherever and however you work), recognizable hikers or swimmers or other sweat-producers – those who surround our daily lives.
Just outside our close circles of friends and family, yet part of our daily lives.
I took them for granted, before the diameter of my world crouched down, to about the size of my yard.
Since March of 2020, these acquaintances have given me a legit air supply, from the boundaries where my corner-lot curb curves around my clover-based, East-coast lawn.
Dogs! For one, and so blessedly many, right up-front and foremost.
Reliable, incidental friends whose dogly names I probably know and remember. They pause for long minutes to nose out the chat rooms of my tree trunks, the utility and stop-sign poles, other, random patches of green-ish grass, even my own flip-flopped feet. Those incidental friends who might flop belly-down on my lawn, even in winter.
(I think of flopping down on the grass like that, myself, dear dog friends, throughout a Zoom workday, from inside the structure there.)
Their human walkers, whose names I probably don’t know – but, incidentally, we still know each other -- they pause in turn, to chat. We ask how the other’s doing. We listen. We lament, or celebrate, the latest relative humidity or degree of rain. We check our current, mutual understanding of viral variants, masking or vaxxing, the status of our worksites, the nature of our worksites, our see-sawing waves of optimism and horror, in our county, our country, our planet.
Invariably, we shake our heads. We still can’t believe this thing is happening.
Still happening! Or may happen still, into already unimaginable futures.
The humans will sometimes point and mention the progress of my backyard vegetables’ lives, confined in raised boxes. I’ll ask, Do you need tomatoes, cucumbers, have a taste for lemongrass, lavender, regular parsley, oh, ever tasted a ‘lemon-cucumber’? Let me check.
Sometimes during a chat, closer and more-known neighbors across the street will call out. Then we’ll all step off our curbs and meet in the middle of our narrow road. Lockdown-born baby Sloan, running almost steadily and now sporting teeth and cunning, delights in our whole crazy 2021 world. She stops the show.
The dogs also want to meet her. (Maybe she smells like candy? Or just smells heaps more interesting than adults?)
Of her few spoken words, her favorite is “flower.” She points and checks our faces. Yes, flower!
Then. On Thursday, oh. I had to drive away from all these meaningful connections, these curbside and blockwise friends who’ve meant so much to me during 17 months of my campus’ closure.
I knew it would be a long day away from them all. I would miss, entirely, all the dogs who stopped by my yard, to chat!
All the humans attached to leashes, whose lives, works and emotional states, might have changed since I last saw them.
I could only hope my (before-times) 3-hour r/t commute would let me fly along at posted speed-limit. People were still at the beach, schools were still summer-dark, some driving workers now forever telecommuted, right? Who knew. Certainly not me.
“Return to campus” for 1st-year med-student orientation. On-site, unlike the previous new class in August 2020, whose entire 1st-year of medical-school happened virtually.
(The 2nd-years finally met each other – and we happy few on-site -- on Monday. I sat with them, talked to a few of them, vaxxed and masked, all. The one I sat down next to? Unlike most students who share crowded houses and walk to class, turns out he’s married and commutes from the same county I live in. His wife is an RN at the hospital where I got double-Moderna-ed. I live for this sh#t!)
Yet, in anticipation of this, last Wednesday evening, I felt something beyond anxiety or uncertainty. More like dread. How would I possibly leave my precious, circumscribed world, after all this time? To go to that alien place, “my office on-campus” where packets of hot-chocolate for my advisees had surely been chewed open by mice? And the stains of brownish-black in my office’s ceiling tiles had surely morphed into some moldy living, crawling being? Back to a campus where even my path from main DC road to garage had been reconfigured amid hospital construction, still underway for years to come?
How in the next morning-world could I transition from my quiet kitchen set-up, my cricket-y singing front lawn, into a hallway swarming with lost students and equally dislocated faculty and staff?
And. Oh I missed them, my workwise incidental and meaningful acquaintances, as well!
Right. Seeing their faces on Zoom, all this time, had not been enough. I still felt disconnected from the ad hoc doorway conversations, as male coworkers passed by my office, en route to the Men’s room down the hall and before the Mortuary door.
I missed my closest and terribly meaningful work friends, even if I Zoomed often with them. Life itself, including my radii of human connections, had felt so strange, since March, 2020.
And still felt strange, as I readied my spirit and molecules to transition, again.
If I’m honest with Muffinly self?
Gotta acknowledge that, whenever I travel for work and stay somewhere strange, it takes … 2, maybe 3 days? before I hear myself think “So this is where I live now.”
THIS is where I live now. In some random, conferency, town.
Already transitioned to a new realm: I know where to buy decent seltzer water. I brought along enough allergy-and-asthma meds. I even know where to get my sweat on. And, to be clear: where there’s a good salad bar.
I know how to commute to ‘work’ -- where I need to be at a certain plenary, breakout, workshop, business dinner thing, or ‘networking’ (sigh) thing.
And, in those whenever-I times … What happens to my curved-curb corner of yard, my visiting dogs, their attached humans, back in my 'former' zip-code?
I don’t know. It’s almost as though they – my familiars, now elsewhere – were a dream, and my new coordinates – unfamiliar until hours earlier but familiar-enough now, seltzer- and other-wise – coordinates have traded places.
Then. Coming home can feel almost like a death.
Is that statement fair? I think that might be fair.
Much like moving around felt, into different regions of my wide country, growing up. (Almost like deaths.) Adjusting to the unfamiliar in short order, until it has (quickly, actually) become the new familiar, even, the more ‘normal’?
Lessons learned, as a kid, maybe. A kind of spatial muscle-memory. Also, possibly, something more intrinsic, characteristic, only coincidental to my kidhood? I’m none the wiser, and your guess is as good as mine. Sometimes I wish for an oracle about intrinsic characteristics v. epigenetic factors. Most times, I would flick away such oracles.
Who wants such mysteries solved?
Anyway. Thursday morning, after 17 months away. There I found myself, negotiating a new ‘roundabout’ toward my anciently accustomed campus garage, after a still-sucky-commute, even though many cars/trucks are still at beaches, and no small humans are yet jumping onto schoolbuses. Help me, goddess, when September comes!
Anyway. Campus garages and stairwells that, reliably, smell the same. I parked where I’d parked for many years now, near a stairwell that would open onto a Ladies’ room after a long commute of thermos-driven caffeine.
“CLOSED – NO ENTRY -- COVID Testing.” What? But, my Ladies’!
And. I really had to pee.
I stepped into a new roundabout, and found the rebuilt and now-even-wow-finally accessible? with a ramp! passage to the back of my building. This was huge, 21st-century huge.
Then into my old, Pre-Clinical building. Sanitizing wipes, face-masks, sanitizer-gel, inside.
GOOD. To see. And soon enough to pee, in the hallway B Ladies’ – door wedge-stopped open, for COVID, I presumed. Down the hall then, and up the ramp to my office (since 2016).
(My former dean had found this new office for me after an unstable former employee had shown up at my old-office door (a Storage Closet on the blueprint) and threatened me, then gone upstairs and repeated his intention to "take care of unfinished business" with me, to senior deans. Which escalated.
And unanimously by some committee, further escalated to main campus. (Grateful – still. Also, surreal – still.) Which escalation was tons of fun! Heavy sigh.
Earned me frequent pop-quiz visits from campus security officers, the mucky-muck Deputy of whom would arrive in my doorway, unannounced, to drill me in defensive, self-protection maneuvers:
“Quick! Find 3 things on your desk to use as a weapon!”
Uh … this pencil?
“Okay what else?”
Um, these scissors?
“GOOD! What else?”
Sheesh. Uhhhh ... this reflex-hammer’s pointy part?
Okay. Note to self, pointy parts, all useful. Defensively. In the event. Sweet Jesuits.
Then he'd say, “What next?”
Mm. Text trouble, through campus security app? Only then TURN OFF MY PHONE, not just the sound (ambient light could be perceived through rectangle window-slot) while I … What?
HIDE IN THE CORNER of my Storage Closet Office.
And if I couldn’t hide, if he breached my locked door?
Use desk-top weaponry. Try to FLEE.
Once, the Deputy brought me a "bacon-flavored" popcorn treat, with a strange, springtime (Easterly?) theme he made a joke about. For my efforts at self-preservation, in an office (Storage Closet) without air-supply … (I saved the baconish popcorn thing for my nephew, Joey),
So. Not a bad thing, for my now-emeritus med-school Dean (miss you!) to find me a whole new place to park my threatened hiney. Plus, I now had an air-supply, and could even shut my door sometimes.
But I digress.
Last Thursday morning! Right. Away from my corner yard. Back on campus, up a ramp to my new(ish) old(ish) office door. Would my key even work?
It would. And.
Whoa. The crushed can of grapefruit-infused seltzer that I’d tossed into my small bin on Friday, March 13, 2020?
STILL THERE, exactly as crushed and landed, on Thursday, August 8, 2021.
The hot-chocolate packets on my little round table had not, not one packet! been breached by a mouse's tooth.
Meanwhile, although vaxxed and masked, the Delta variant fills beds, get smarter, fills more beds. The next and travel-confounding variants? We can only try to buckle up. I wanted to see our clinical-skills center, a few hallways away, so back down the ramp.
Meanwhile, miles away from my corner curb and clover grass ...
There's Amanda! Like me, pandemically assigned a decanal ‘promotion.’ With her beautiful red hair and joyful countenance and energy! In person. Surreal. Zoom, what is Zoom?
Then, as the little Market seemed to be restocked and restaffed .., is that Antonio?!
OH. No way. YES. Way! Antonio, a daily light and delight, in this other zip-code of life.
Then, across a large lecture room, a few other faculty docs, from greater distance. Quick wave. Oh! Hey. Great. (For years now, here is our incidental and evolving acquaintance.) And how grateful I feel.
Comes now down the main hall: NY! OMG.
Our UPS delivery guy, our – yes – friend! How ARE you? Oh my gosh. How ARE you.
"Grateful. Doing well. Happy to see you." Same same same.
The next day, my closest-colleague and eternal, sisterly friend, Wendy, arrived back, after all this time, around Noon.
“Up for a stroll to Jetties?” I texted.
She’d just eaten lunch. But was up for the stroll.
En route to our favorite sandwich (Steps Beach) or salad (take your pick) place, we ran into __, an M1 student from Florida (St Augustine, where my parents had honeymooned), then __ another M1 whose parents lived in Northern Virginia but she’d found a place to start school near campus.
The latter asked, Were we going to the White Coat Ceremony later?
Ach. Social-distancing, limited ticket. Would not, actually, make it this time. But wished all the ceremony and joy of her family, in a matter of hours.
At Jetties, I ordered a new, kale-based salad, amazingly tasty, with chopped green apples among other fresh surprises. The Steps-Beach sandwich – you’ll have to wait.
OKAY then. This picnic table, outside, THIS is where I live now, sitting and talking and chewing next to Wendy.
We ran into NY together, after we got back.
Emerson’s “Incidental Friendships” clearly stretched wider than a lockdown of pandemic proportions. I probably knew this, deeply, from childhood dislocations.
I probably knew this, deeply, as we all locked our campus doors on March 13, 2020.
Yet from my little cottage, I had taken for granted my various work-related dislocations. Incidental friendships. And, their living, breathing, incidental yet profound relationships, over the years.
Not sure why. I could only feel grateful for the nimble diameters of my loving, social and intimate life, that I had inadvertently lived through and would continue, hopefully and consciously, to live forward through, with gratitude. However remote or close their geography.
Everyone I love is always right there. Right? Even if we need airplanes, or days to push miles behind us on the ground. Even if their molecules have turned into cinders in a box.
And everyone I interact with -- wave toward in the morning, stop in the woods to catch up with briefly, ask Whose this? about a newly rescued dog, or confirm Yes, flower! -- holds connection, and meaning.
Commuting for 3 hours r/t in a long workday also means: getting to the woods much later than I'd gotten in 17 months. And running into my old friend from Holland, whose name I don't know but her accent sounds like music, and her latest rescue-pup guy, Oly (sp?). She sprinkles her speech with 'how do you say' and a long pause, and she always finds curiously slanted ways of saying something -- love! We finally parted ways as the sun kept setting, only to see that my friend Richard and his pittie mix Rodeo had been waiting for us to part ways. Rodeeee!! Oh. Richard explained that they'd waited a few yards back because Rodeo adores Oly, but shows his love by trying to bite and jump all over him.
Richard and I, back in late-March of 2020, had gratefully celebrated our opportunities to keep working, remotely. A few months later, seeing him again, my jaw dropped to the dirt to hear his whole department had been shut down. Devastating. Long months would pass when I wouldn't see him and Rodeo, but occasionally, he could update me on his many 2nd-place-job-interview disappointments. For a long unemployed year. He's now at NIH, in a job perfect for him -- and intentionally remote. Celebrating! His husband, Charles, who's been happily "cooking up a storm, so 10 more pounds per variant," is now recertifying as an RN.
If I hadn't left my corner-curb friends to reacquaint with my campus-based friends,
I wouldn't have reacquainted with my late-evening-woods-based friends.
Here's how R.W. Emerson put it:
“How many we see in the street, or sit with in church, whom, though silently, we warmly rejoice to be with! Read the language of these wandering eye-beams. The heart knoweth. The effect of the indulgence of this human affection is a certain cordial exhilaration.”
Thank you so much for reading this cordial exhilaration. Would love to hear from you, if you have a moment to comment.
Thank you again, for every reason, friends,
P.S. (I am so bad at the self-promotional part. But if I am ever to find a literary agent, too-long-ago an MFA graduate (my senior advisor and great mentor has since died)
so I might share these thoughts more widely ... if you know a good one, would love to know such a contact. Please forgive my awkwardness in adding this.)