Earlier this year, before the world shifted its axis, I traveled to New York City for a long-anticipated writing retreat. I had yearned to be away from home and family, with all its disruptions. I didn’t tell hardly anyone of my trip. I wanted to be alone. To revise a new novel. Alone, alone alone! I couldn’t wait to be alone.
I need a lot of quiet, as a rule. I have sensory processing challenges, and daily life often feels like a cacophonous brain-assault, so silent retreats are essential for me. They help me to hear myself think.
Not long after my arrival in February, however, the pandemic started revving up. And then, back in those very early days, I got sick. I hadn’t been going out of the apartment much to begin with—now I stopped altogether. I stopped answering my phone. It was hard to even answer emails. Along with illness, a sort of fog had rolled into my brain, and my calm, quiet little solitary space darkened. I had put up walls.
My doctor thought it very unlikely I had Covid19, and physically I improved quickly, so that was lucky. I thanked my very stars. And I embraced the ensuing self-quarantine. I was optimistic about it. A perfect, silent stretch in which to write, right? Maybe not. As I stayed in, the news of the crisis intensified around me, and something shifted in my hyper-embrace of solitude. It wasn't calming, anymore. In fact, my anxiety was worsening. By the time I was well, and cleared to leave my apartment... I couldn’t.
All I had wanted was to be alone. But now I couldn’t check my mail or take out my trash. I jumped like a frightened rabbit at the sight of another person in the hall. It was a spiraling social anxiety -- my social skills were regressing, due to lack of use. The pandemic had compounded my social struggles, tenfold.
Alone, in the silence, I asked myself: Should I stay put? How long would this last?
How long would I last?
Did I dare fly home? How long would there even be flights?
My husband finally took action. He booked me on the next plane home, and tough-love-ordered me to leave. I had to overcome shaking and sweats to open the apartment door, to step into the hall, to enter the elevator. The doorman’s kind, brave face made me cry as we wished each other well from ten feet apart in the lobby. I hadn't seen him in weeks, and now it felt like a parting of comrades on the brink of war.
I had craved alone-time. But my solitude had infected me with a different kind of sickness.
Home now, I’m baking ridiculous recipes with my son and reorganizing closets and contributing money to food banks and charities and keeping an eye out for our neighbors and connecting with dear friends and just getting through, just like all of us are doing. Balancing solitude and connection. Which is all our jobs, these days.
Stories, as always, are soul-remedy. I’m particular right now to children’s stories of crushing struggles that end well. I love all of Leslie Connor’s books, and all of Susin Nielsen’s. I love The Hired Girl by Laura Amy Schlitz, Dickens’s Oliver Twist, Avi’s Crispin, and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, Karen Cushman’s The Midwife’s Apprentice . I love stories of children stranded in terrible straits who somehow make it through to that treasured prize of family and community.
Film-wise I’ve immersed myself in Call the Midwife – a series about 1960s East End London, where kind midwives and nuns minister to the tragedies and joys of a struggling, impoverished community. I am bonkers for this show. I suppose its good-fellow-feeling and intertwined lives are balm to my wounded sense of solitude.
Family is the well from which our stories spring.
The hearth around which we tell those stories.
The air that fills our lungs and forms us.
The roots, shallow or deep, that ground us.
The love that spins our worlds.
I think the trick is not only to cherish our families wherever and however we can, but also to simply embrace everyone as family. To take down all the walls and connect ourselves to others however we can. I think that’s how we get through things with hearts intact.
In any case, wherever and however you are sheltering right now, whether you are alone, or together with others -- or alone but hopefully connected to others as much as possible -- know that my heart is with you. In love and courage and support.
We need to enforce solitude right now, and proper distance-keeping. Of course. This goes without saying. It is the only responsible thing to do.
But we will only pull through this, by not cutting ourselves off from each other in the ways that matter.
We will only get through this if we can stay connected.
Sally J. Pla is the co-founder of A Novel Mind and the author of The Someday Birds, Stanley Will Probably Be Fine, and Benji, The Bad Day, and Me. Her books are Junior Library Guild selections that have appeared on numerous state reading lists and best-books roundups. She's an autism/mental health advocate and #ownvoices writer. Visit her on twitter or facebook, or at sallyjpla.com.