words and images by: Sarah Cotton

Yesterday, March 16th, I chased my best friend around a parking lot, begging for a hug. She ran circles around her car, avoiding contact with me. It was a live version of one of those jokes somebody makes that’s clouded by a subtle hint of utter seriousness. The numbers of people infected with COVID-19 had grown exponentially, but we did not yet have formal living restrictions in place. Most people were working from home, and we knew we shouldn’t be cross-contaminating germs, but we were still willing to walk a trail together, side by side. We bumped elbows once, and made note of it – jokingly, nervously. 

I live in the Bay Area – today, we are one of the first areas in the US, in this crisis, to announce a formal “shelter in place” protocol, effective for the next few weeks at least. After reading the news and panicking aloud with my roommate for a bit, I leave my house for a run, energized by the anxiety of knowing I might soon be told not to. The streets are quiet but still buzzing with uneasiness. People step off the sidewalk and into the street as they see me running towards them, careful not to let our six-foot wide invisible bubbles overlap. I start to do the same as I run towards others, as to not inconvenience those who are out for a more leisurely stroll. Some people offer me nervous smiles, and others avoid eye-contact, as if noticing one another might open the gates for germ exchange. I wonder if I were to fall and hurt myself, how hesitant people might be to enter my bubble.

I have never felt so disconnected from people, yet simultaneously so close. We are all impacted by this crisis, and nobody can buy or privilege their way out of it. Trump even agreed (was coerced?) to get tested. We’re all nervous, and we’re all grappling with what is happening – reaching for some kind of stability or reason. Running has always been my way of grappling with things, which is why (I’ve deduced) I lean on it so heavily. Sometimes, though, things simply feel unreasonable and there is no explaining or making-sense-of to be done. There is just reality, and we must be here for it, together.

I soon hit a trail – a popular Oakland hill climb that is eerily quiet today. As I crest the top, where there is a conveniently perfect view of Oakland and San Francisco, I stand and watch the city from above, for longer than I had previously ever cared to. There is something about uncertainty and change that provokes a desire to reflect. 

In these increasingly confusing years of my early-mid twenties, my relationship with running has evolved into more of a meditative practice, and less of a way to control my life and body or to feed a competitive drive. It creates space in an otherwise occupied mind and life, and in this moment, it feels particularly crucial. 

I reflect on the conversation I had just had with my roommate. She asked me what I was most nervous about after hearing about the Bay Area lockdown protocol. I quickly regurgitated the first two things that came to mind: not being “allowed to run,” and not being able, for whatever reason, to get groceries. I think about how interesting it is that one of my two deepest fears in this moment is literally the ability to stay alive (feed myself), and that the other is to find space to truly think and feel.

I think about how lucky I am that my greatest concerns in a time like this are vertical bookends of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. I stand and recognize the privilege of that. I reflect on the strangeness of being forced to hold distance between myself and others, and how this makes me want to be close to people more than ever. As I watch more cars driving through the streets than I might see for the next several weeks combined, the importance of contributing to my community, to keep its heart beating, feels more essential than ever.

I have a desire to hear the voices of my friends and family, to express gratitude for those in my life. Reaching out to loved ones, taking care of those around me, giving the small bit of money I do have to somebody in need, or to a struggling business. Staying positive. Spreading that positivity. Things that should feel more obvious during normal, non-dystopian times. Global pandemonium is of course enigmatic, but I find a bit of solace in the togetherness of it all. 

It’s easy, in a time like this, for everything to feel heavy and dismal. What takes more effort is to find those silver linings, to notice the sun coming through the clouds. To reflect on what is good, and what small positive change we can contribute to. For the healthy to respect the safety of the more vulnerable. For those with something to give, to contribute. For the state to buy hotels to house the homeless. For the government to help workers and businesses in need. In times of crisis, we dig deep to care for one another – we tap into resources that we otherwise hoard for ourselves. That generosity and love is always present, however. Let’s not forget that feeling when we regain homeostasis.