Wings

Two years ago, on January 5, 2020, I celebrated the day before my birthday by going to the Cambridge Zen Center, sitting one meditation session, then walking from Central to Harvard Square, where I sipped hot chocolate and wrote in my journal at Burdick’s Cafe.

We all have spent countless hours ruminating on the Before Times: the simple pleasures we took for granted before the pandemic changed our lives in profound and unpredictable ways. There are many things I miss from the Before Times, but this one will probably surprise you: I miss a certain kind of solitude.

Over the past two years, most of us have gotten more than our fill of remote, socially distanced, work-from-home solitude: the kind of isolation that comes from not going out, not seeing friends and family, not hanging around the office water cooler. But I miss the quiet anonymity of sitting alone in a crowded cafe, strangers buzzing amiably around me.

For the past two years, we’ve spent a lot of time alone together in the separate squares of Zoom screens, communicating with friends, family, and coworkers across our individual isolations. What I miss, though, is time spent together alone: time, that is, spent in the presence of strangers without any need to interact.

For the past almost-two years, I’ve gotten good at what I call duck-in interactions. Tonight, for instance, J and I wanted to try takeout from a new restaurant, so I followed the now-familiar drill: order and pay online, show up at the restaurant, scope out the register from outside to make sure there isn’t a line, then duck inside to pick up my order. Even allowing for brief, masked pleasantries, this kind of interaction lasts no more than a minute: duck in, grab food, duck out.

I miss the casual leisure of sitting in a cafe sharing space with strangers without worrying about shared air and exposure times. I miss the days when sitting alongside strangers was a welcome form of communion, not a potential source of contagion.