When I was 14, I had to write an essay about man's ability to live outside of society - an introduction to philosophy of some sort. And though I’d always had fantasies of a Robinson Crusoe life, I remember ending it with the famous ‘no man is an island’ concluding that we always, always, will need to interact with others eventually, no matter how misanthropic we and rotten our souls may be.
I think about that essay today as I find myself confined, like millions of people all over the world. And the thing I was not expecting is that I find myself going back to ancient memories of being in very close quarters with my family as we tried to survive daily bombings while maintaining some kind of normalcy in 1980’s Beirut. And I find myself missing them. My parents, my brother and sister, puzzles, drawings, wax art made out of the many dying candles we used as the only available source of light at the time.
My dad has gone back to solving jigsaw puzzles, my brother to reading, my sister to giving free reign to her wondrous imagination and me… well, I go back to observing my surroundings and people’s behaviour around me, trying to make sense of the contradiction between our primitive instincts and behaviour which are, sadly, still very much present in our day-to-day, only amplified by this absurd new reality we have to live with.
My daily interactions are with a very restricted circle and always, inevitably, through a phone or laptop screen. I find myself missing human presence in the same room, the invisible energy that emanates from people at arms length, exchanging advice on work related procedures or banters and inside jokes and seeing their eyes laughing wider than their teeth sometimes…
Among these scattered video interactions, I find comfort in my Face time calls with a fellow colleague from my day job. A colleague I sort of fell in love with from the first day I met her at the office. Maybe it was her hair color that struck me. It reminds me of my mom’s gorgeous deep copper locks. Maybe it’s the fact that she's originally Persian, or that her name is such a common first name I hear back home, or the fact she lives by the beach in sunny Badalona. Maybe it’s a combination of all these details.
She regularly sends me videos of her progress on a choreography she’s been working on with her teenage daughter. It still needs work, but the smiles and happiness don’t. They’re so in-your-face bleeding with joy and beautiful fun energy, not to mention their gorgeous labrador’s guest appearances in those home made movies of life. Just pure life. Because that’s what our day-to-day is made up now. Stripped bare to the bones. What matters today? When we’re rid of our superficial consumerist urges, when there are no distractions to run to from this reality we so desperately want to run away from. What are we running from really? Quality time with loved ones? Admitting we don’t mind living at a slower pace and watching one too many episodes of a soap opera-like series on Netflix? Being in awe at WHY we’re still watching this objectively bad tv show still? Do we feel guilty at being made aware of the fact that our happiness isn’t proportionate to the number of high heeled pumps or perfume bottles or pairs of jeans we own? Or the fact there’s so much more joy in cooking our own meals than ordering out? That most of our social interactions are actually futile and void of any substance?
And that's all it takes really: a 40-second home video of a genuine mother-daughter moment full of truth, simple truth staring you in the face. All we want and need in this world is the company of people whom we can totally unapologetically be ourselves with. Naked. No make up, no trying to impress with wit and smarts, having fun in the process of being imperfect together, and staying focused on the point of this entire choreography (or whatever joint activity you decide to share together): it’s not about the dance or the moves. It never was and never should be. It’s about those moments of shared clumsy honest-to-the-bone, wholehearted silliness and laughs that are drawn out from the core of your soul and the trust you share with this loved one.
I find myself missing the smallest simplest things I usually share with family. It’s Easter time, which can only mean one thing in Lebanon: the all-hands-on-deck kitchen with everyone involved in the chain process of making maamoul - the traditional Lebanese pastry we eat at Easter time. To this day, the smell of maamoul remains my favourite food smell. We joke about mom sending us a batch via DHL to Spain, Dubai, Paris and Ottawa, with everyone ‘making their order’ of their favourite variety: pistachio, dates, almonds… knowing very well we won’t be tasting mom’s maamoul this season. Neither will we have a huge family Easter lunch at a typical Lebanese mountain-perched restaurant perfectly located in time and space to enjoy Lebanon’s spring budding in the countryside, still one of my favourite seasons in Lebanon.
I bake myself a chocolate cake, out of pure boredom. Who needs an entire cake when they live alone? So I share half of it with my neighbour. I throw it to him from one balcony to another after sanitizing my hands and carefully packing it in never-before-used aluminium paper and plastic wrap. I’ve learned his dog’s name, but not his. Human interaction with strangers still doesn’t come naturally to me. But it’s starting to. I crave genuine smiles and ‘how are you’s’ and ‘how can I be of help?’. Unspoken words and smiles I only exchange with the staff at the supermarket I go to once a week nowadays. I find myself asking a staff member if they have any wholewheat flour. I find warmth in the eye contact, in hearing my own spoken voice in a language I’ve come to love and master a little better every day. His face is covered with a mask, of course. So I can only rely on his eyes to say more than my words could ever convey of this desperate innate need to feel seen, heard, understood. I see it in his eyes as well. That little split of a second where all he can do is be fully invested in his duties, having to come to work in times of confinement and exposing himself and his loved ones at home (maybe) to contamination. Being at work all these hours every day, you can only hope it’s worth the risk. So you do your job of being there for the customers in a more mindful way now. You are truly and fully THERE in the present moment and space, physically and spiritually fulfilling both the duties of providing the most basic necessities - food - and the other less obvious, terrifying necessity: making others feel seen, heard, not invalidating their query for the most random ingredients they may not have ever considered buying a mere month ago.
I sit on the balcony - a rare commodity in times of confinement, and one of the things I’m most grateful for, I can tall you. My 80-something year old neighbours are unknowingly putting me to shame: every morning, they do their calisthenics exercises on their balcony around 11am when the sun hits their terrace but it's still fresh enough to break a little healthy sweat. They play the same Elvis Presley record I used to listen to on cassette tape when I was 14, yet again.
I've never been much of a gregarious community-driven person. Safety in numbers was never something I went by as a child of war. Back then, huddled in the bunker and listening to the news on the radio, looking at everyone around me, the little crowd made up of our neighbours and us, I'd think about how many deaths we'd have should a bomb land on our building. Vulnerability in numbers I used to think.
I hum that Elvis tune again ‘We're caught in a trap/ I can’t walk out / Because I love you too much baby…’ and imagine what kinds of gigs and performances we musicians are going to make a living out of in the next few months or - realistically - the next couple years. Is this what it's all going to come down to? Home studio and balcony performances? For free? Or with meagre virtual tipping initiatives which we all know hardly amount to anything? And I look at the plethora of online concerts and Instagram live concerts and I just don't see it. I don't understand the artist's motivation behind it. Why are you giving it all away? And I read another artist’s perspective on it, saying he’ll share his music for free until the day he dies - COVID context aside. My artist identity is lost somewhere in all this. I’m in survival mode, not in creation mode as so many out there seem to be. And I wonder if there’s something wrong with me. Why I’m not feeling inspired to write something I’ll be performing in the distant future. And then I realise maybe I am already performing.
This person I am right now. This isn’t me. It’s not the person who exposes her soul to the crowd when on stage. I’m exposing another part of myself to the world through silence. A compliant and resigned silence, finding peace and pride in the ability to keep a cool head amidst all this unbearable uncertainty. And for the first time in a long time, my anxiety has been keeping a healthy distance. Now that the world outside has stopped teasing me and pretending it had all the answers, I suddenly feel lighter.
Now that the world has gone insane, I feel ‘normal’. And I don’t know what to make of that yet.