The Forms of Isolation

As we hunker down wherever we are, we are collectively having radically differing experiences of isolation.

Humanity, on any given day, is experiencing reality in very different ways. As a writer writing about the world around me and about things that have happened in the past, I spend a lot of time imagining what it’s like to be someone else. There are key moments in my own life that caused this innate tendency to become more obsessive later. Chief among those moments are those times when I lost close friends to an early death, and when close friends went off to prison, for carrying out politically-motivated actions of the sort that I only sing about. Almost every day since I first lost a friend to an early death, almost three decades ago now, I have felt privileged to be alive. And every day since I first had friends who one way or another ended up being sentenced to decades of confinement in a small box, I have very consciously cherished each morning I wake up once again in the free world.

As much as I, like other writers of whatever sort, spend much of my time trying to get into the heads of other people, or trying to imagine what it was like to live through a certain historical period, or to be a certain person at a certain time or place, I find the prospect of trying to do that now much more overwhelming than usual. Because as vastly different as life was for different people in different situations around the world last month, this month it’s a whole other story.

Without even thinking about trying to do anything about the situation, just imagining it is so challenging. Picture being a passionate lover of life, nature and humanity who finds yourself living in a box with a lock on it that you don’t have any control over, 23 hours a day, with one hour a day to spend on a small patch of monocropped grass, surrounded by a tall fence with barbed wire on top of it. Now imagine being in that same situation, while waiting for a pandemic to infect most of the population of the prison, knowing that there’s also a severe shortage of ventilators and other necessary equipment to keep patients alive and medical practitioners safe.

At least in that situation, you’ll be fed something three times a day, even if it’s barely palatable. For so many people in India right now, not allowed to leave the crowded one-room shacks so many people live in with their extended families, people are going hungry. So many people who don’t eat enough on a normal day, earning money for food from day to day, who have no capacity to prepare for an eventuality like a lockdown — and no ability to conduct themselves according to the strictures of social isolation, which only works if you have somewhere to isolate yourself, and you’re not sharing a compost toilet with a hundred other people, or just squatting in the street, as so many still do, from New Delhi to Los Angeles.

As the quarantine continues for so much of the world, including in almost all of the countries I’ve ever traveled to or where I know anyone, most people in my social circles would fall into the category of people who live within an industrialized country with some kind of functioning state, who have been to one degree or another financially impacted by the locking down of their societies, but who, with some assistance from those functioning states and other resources, will probably pull through OK when the pandemic is over, at least if they don’t die of COVID-19, or from the lack of ventilators or face masks. To the surprise of many, there’s even bipartisan consensus within the US government that gig economy workers like myself should qualify for unemployment compensation, something I’ve never qualified for in my life. They’re even going to send us all checks, separate from that prospect. Universal Basic Income, suddenly instituted in the least likely of countries, for a month or two, anyway. It’s not nearly enough, but it seems they’re intent on keeping us from starving, or rebelling. They’ve even banned evictions for a few months in some states, such as Oregon.

All else aside, though, even if you’re not fearing imminent eviction, even if you have money for stockpiling groceries, even if you live somewhere with hot running water, electricity, and all the sorts of things in life that so many of us tend to take for granted to one degree or another, the social isolation measures that most of society seem to have undertaken — certainly here in the Southeast collection of neighborhoods of Portland, Oregon — are very difficult for a lot of people, as well as radically different for different people.

For many people, quarantining themselves means being alone. It’s temporary and more or less self-imposed, but it is a form of solitary confinement. People are naturally spending inordinate amounts of time online, or otherwise engaged with distracting themselves through screen-related activities, which may often involve some form of interaction with other real people through the internet. As anyone knows who has been in this kind of isolation for one reason or another for an extended period, or even for a couple days, all the plans you might have had to accomplish great things during your extended time alone are often subsumed by the depression that sets in from the lack of the kind of social interaction that feels real, and fulfilling, like touching other people — what the Japanese call “skinship.” I personally have long realized that after four hours of solitude for activities like writing or reading, I want human contact for at least a little while before the next round of solitude, or I might not even be able to do anything constructive with it. I need to be recharged by human contact. That currently feels like a very distant memory, as in recent weeks solitude is probably what I miss the most.

Through the din of my new reality, I hear the distant voices of these truly isolated people out there, and it makes me also want to spend hours a day exploring the potential of the internet, to have meaningful interaction with the quarantined masses, maybe host a live-streamed open mic using Streamyard, the way I used to host open mics in cafes with physical people. But for me and my family, that kind of isolation is not how it is. Isolation from society, yes — but being alone in a room or an apartment, no.

The experience of society shutting down like it has has reminded me of a certain Star Trek episode, when the doctor finds herself alone on the ship, after everybody else on the ship disappears, one by one. Of all my family members, I think it’s probably hardest for my wife, Reiko. I have an active social life when I’m on tour, and my spring tour plans all appear to have been canceled, so I’m spending much more time at home than I normally would in a typical spring. But I’m also fairly accustomed to a certain form of social isolation. During the seven or so months of a typical year that I’m home, I rarely have substantial interaction with people other than my wife and kids, except in emails or on social media or the very occasional phone call. Though I do generally have blocks of time free for reading, writing, and playing music — what I generally refer to as “working” for the purposes of household operations — this time actually exists because of the social engagement of everybody else in the family. Even the baby.

But that’s all gone, or on hold. It began in weird fits and starts. At first it seemed it would only really be relevant for pop stars and politicians. “No gatherings of more than a thousand people” was being thrown around as a virus-limiting concept. OK, so I won’t be singing for any protests, then, but the tour can go on. Then it was no gatherings of more than fifty, suddenly. Most of my gigs are still safe, theoretically, but would anyone come to them, me and so many other touring musicians wondered simultaneously. Then it was twenty — tour canceled. Then they closed the schools. Then they closed everything else, and told us all to stay home.

As the world began closing, and society began physically distancing, and mostly just disappearing from sight — people here evidently believe in community and solidarity and are taking this thing extremely seriously — Reiko’s instinct was, as always, a community-driven one. It’s not rational, perhaps, under the circumstances, but it’s very human — and so touching for me to experience, from my vantage point. Society is closing — then what are people doing? I could hear her silently wondering.

The parks are closed, we can’t go to the playgrounds. The play equipment might have the virus on it, so it’s better to do things like run on the sidewalk or the grass, staying away from other people while you do it, if the adults and the kids need exercise. The schools are closed, but people were gathering, socially distanced, on the high school sports field nearby. Now this is what people are doing, so we’ll join in, I could almost hear Reiko thinking — ever the community-builder, raised in community as she was, with the neighborhood Nishigaoka Community Center just down the road from the house she was raised in in Japan, where she and the other children from the neighborhood went most every morning of every summer to exercise together, and greet each day.

Intellectually, I, of course, didn’t need to explain the concept of social isolation to her. She’s highly intelligent, and reads the news, too. She could see that her community instincts, or the aspect of them that desires a sense of community, were not in keeping with what was being asked of us, and of so many people around the world — to isolate. Reiko would suggest we take the kids to the sports field, and I then propose that perhaps it’s best if we just go play on the field near our apartment complex, where there are currently no people. My heart burns a little each time I see the pain of the recognition on her face that this is probably the more community-spirited thing to do, that would keep us more isolated.

When she heard through another local parent of small children that the local elementary school was giving away food for kids, although we had no need for such handouts, Reiko was curious what they were giving away, and who was going to be there. I was, too, but not enough to bother actually going to find out. But she was going, so I went with her, and witnessed the sad, empty scene, with a handful of spaced-apart people giving out big bags of processed food. The giving out of food was going to end from that day, too, they told us. They gave us extra bags for us to share with our neighbors, they had too many bags, and too few people taking them.

The bubble fully enclosed, this was the last time we attempted any kind of semi-social activity, beyond trips to the supermarket, where you can see the abundant quantities of fresh vegetables, the complete lack of toilet paper, and the intensely stressed, harried faces of the underpaid, overexposed workers there, who are now supposed to be feeling lucky that they’re employed, according to some among their customers.

Reiko does engage in various sorts of solitary endeavors — reading books, writing different sorts of things — but much of her life involves society, pretty directly. For me, being a parent involves a certain amount of social interaction with other kids and other parents, at school and elsewhere. For Reiko, there is the vast added dimension that the school our toddler goes to is also a center of life for the local Japanese-speaking community, which Reiko is actively involved with in many ways. Then there’s tennis, which Reiko normally plays almost daily, usually with other people, usually in community centers owned by Parks & Rec. Then there are two weekly Japanese-language play groups that also involve Reiko, our toddler, and our baby. Our teenager, Leila, if she weren’t in school, would usually be climbing the walls of the rock gym.

I never fully realized how much time I used to spend alone in this apartment when I was home from touring. Now, to have any time alone to write or to think, I get up at 5:30 in the morning. The rest of the day will be fully occupied with keeping a toddler and a baby happy and well cared for, physically and emotionally. In our small apartment, there is no rec room in which to set up a TV studio, like at Joe Biden’s place. And if there were one, how would you keep the toddler from coming in? Lock him out?

The reason, I assume, why all the websites have warnings on them that everything is taking longer than usual, is not just that more people are on the web than ever before, but also because working from home while your kids are not at school and you have no one to take care of them just doesn’t work. In our case, the combination of a three-year-old and a one-year-old, a toddler and a baby, is basically just plain dangerous. If you don’t have a well-planned structure for a day of isolation with a toddler and a baby, you’re going to have a very unhappy family. Toddlers with babies are just like canaries and coal mines — if there’s tension in the air, that toddler is going to knock that baby to the ground again, you can be sure. You prevent that scenario not by strapping the toddler down to a chair and drugging him, but by making his life fulfilling and interesting and interactive. If he has no other children to interact with, guess what? It’s all on you, and there is no division of labor in a two-bedroom apartment with three children — it’s all for one and one for all, and if you want any time alone, your options are very early in the morning, or very late at night.

As hard as it might be to try to imagine what it’s like for adults in different situations to experience the quarantine scene, it’s really hard to imagine what my toddler is going through. Suddenly there is no school, no playmates. Suddenly, other kids and parents never come to visit anymore, and he never visits them. Suddenly, when we go outside, there’s almost no one else around. We do live in a pretty sleepy residential neighborhood, but usually there are other people within view when you go outside, especially when it’s not raining. And when on the rare occasion we do see people he knows, who would normally give him a high-five or a hug — both of which he usually enjoys, depending on the person — now they stand awkwardly distant, self-consciously trying not to accidentally spit as they talk. Just as he’s opening up to the world and becoming very social in the way that three-year-olds often do, everything shifts like this.

I may continue to fantasize about being one of the lonely ones for a while longer. And I’ll certainly keep imagining what it’s like for different people in different circumstances at this incredibly trying time for so many around the world. But as far as daily life goes for the foreseeable future, I’ll be here, fully inundated in a quarantined form of parenthood that I never imagined existing, until now. And I’ll be looking forward to the re-emergence of society, with all its flaws, because I miss it like I never knew I could.

David Rovics is a singer-songwriter who tours regularly throughout North America, Europe, and occasionally elsewhere. Read other articles by David, or visit David's website.