What’s So Social About Distancing?

Remembering the Kindness of Social Beings

Credit: Milt Priggee, Oak Harbor, WA

I have only a few scattered memories of my father. I was five when my parents split, just seven when he died. I remember visiting my dad at a small house in the desert. There was an old Indian man living next door. I don’t remember his name, and I never met him again. My father was born and raised on a farm in Arizona and was no stranger to reservations and native people. I don’t think he was as comfortable with a 6-year-old kid.

My father had the old man watch me while he was out, and I must have been feeling unsure of things. The old man could see, and he was kind. He made a toy for me from two large coat buttons with thread laced through the holes, cradling the buttons like two high wire walkers meeting face-to-face on a sagging tight rope. When the old man pulled on the ends, removing the slack, the buttons would spin in opposite directions, creating a mystical whirling, buzzing, mantra-like sound. The rotation would slow as the string twisted tight from the button’s momentum. Another pull would start the process again. He handed it over to me. Pull, whirl, contract, pull, whirl, repeat. I was enchanted. Some things we remember.

The old man was old 50 years ago. He had to have been born before the turn of the century. While I made the toy sing its mysterious song, he told me a story about going to “the school with the white kids.” The old man said when he arrived at the school, all the kids on the playground ran away from him if he got close or tried to join what they were doing. He was confused. He said the kids kept yelling “cooties.” He didn’t know what it meant, but he knew it was bad, and he withdrew to his solitude.

Soon, a teacher noticed what was happening. But instead of scolding the kids for their obviously bad behavior, she joined in the game. She gathered all the kids and told them, “Cooties is such a fun game, I used to play it with my friends when I was young. For the rest recess”, she proclaimed, “we all have the cooties. Even me”, she added, skittering away from everyone like a scared cartoon Tyrannosaurus Rex, flailing her forearms and wrists, elbows stuck to her sides. “Oooooh, stay away”, she wailed. “Cooties,” she cried, spinning away from anyone who came too close.

The kids all laughed and did the same to keep away from each other. “Even me,” said the old man. “We didn’t have any game like this with my Indian friends,” he said. “It didn’t make sense to me,” he shrugged, “but it was better than being the only one with the cooties.”

The teacher knew that changing the game, to include all the children, would help the Indian boy fit in. The kids probably understood as well. It was a simple act of kindness for them to play along with the rule change. Simple as it was, it was an immense offering of love. I think that’s why the old man told me the story.

At our best, this is what we do as “social beings”; we are kind. That is why this memory is resurfacing for me now. We are all quietly acting as if everyone has the cooties. Well, we might! So we stay safe at home, and when we must go out, we engage in awkward interactions behind our face masks, careful not to touch people or even things others may have touched. This is exactly as it should be (for a time at least), but it is awkward, and I have felt it. I can sense how social distancing is making everyone feel awkward, and causing some to feel confused, uneasy, and wanting to withdraw in solitude.

I wholeheartedly agree with the measures we have undertaken. Drastic, but necessary. However, social distancing was an unfortunate name for the campaign. It’s so anti-social. We should have called it “physical distancing.” We don’t have to stop being social, we just need to prevent physical contact. So, in an act of kindness, as an offering of love, we modify the rules — we act as if we all got the cooties.

Personally, I like wearing my bandana; it makes me feel a bit rakish (think Lawrence of Arabia). So, take a sharpie and put a big Cheshire Cat grin on your face mask, wrap your face in that scarf you never get an opportunity to wear, don your rubber gloves (if you got any), and when we have to be social, we will do so from an appropriate physical distance.

Stay safe, take comfort, and remember — there is no distance between Souls.

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