April 20, 2020

I Miss People

Jennell Paris author photoBy Jenell Paris

Professor of Anthropology, Messiah College

Editor’s note: Many of us are going through a similar transition as the author describes below. What can we learn about the importance of social interaction through this experience? Is it similar to or different from yours? How might situations like the one we are experiencing now create more family conflict? How might social isolation impact older adults and those who live alone differently?

“Stay Home.” I am, and I will. I thought I knew what I was in for -- kids off school for a good while and my college classes shifted online. What I didn’t anticipate was how much I’d miss people, including the ones I don’t like, and the ones I don’t even know. This became clear as soon as I started spending day after day with my cats.

It’s been just a few days so far. The first began at 5 am, with Moe meowing to be fed. Then he walked on my head, so I swatted him away. Thirty seconds later, he rested his teeth, upper and lower, on my forearm. Bitten awake, I fed him. Then he and the other cat, Lenny, fought with each other, slept for eleven hours, and demanded food again.

Second day? Same as the first; a little bit longer and a little bit worse. When I tried to pet Moe, he cringed and bolted, as if I were coming for his freedom. I turned to Lenny, and he pretended he didn’t notice me, even though we both knew he did.

Their message is clear: You don’t matter, neither your thoughts nor your feelings. You are invisible, except when we are hungry, or when we want to go out. Or come in. Or go out.

I live in a household with a partner and children, but my partner blithely suggests I “get some boundaries.” The kids? If it really came down to it, and they were forced to choose between me and the cats, we all know who they’d pick. I understand, I really do -- I’m not that soft. Seriously, they make me refer to Lenny as “Your Majesty”, and I do. Staying home means I have to give obeisance to an unfriendly cat, on the orders of children.

Social distancing is making me treasure something I hadn’t even realized I took for granted: people, all of them. Friends, associates, strangers – the whole public. People are nice for lots of reasons, but my well-being specifically hinges on a delicate equilibrium between human contact and feline coolness. People very often treat me as if I am visible. Sometimes there is an exchange -- a smile or a handshake -- that goes both ways. And they hardly ever bite me.

Staying home disrupts that careful balance. I see images of people on screens, and hear their voices on phones, but virtual presence pales in comparison to these cats that are always here, sitting just out of reach and responding to my presence as if they wouldn’t have piss to spare if I were on fire.

I’m going through this crisis trusting that it will end, and that people will return to parks, sidewalks, and stores. I won’t see my students again until the first day of fall semester, but I trust that day will, indeed, come. Should, however, my students come back to class and find me absent, it will be because I stayed home with these cats and Moe eventually ate me, forearm first.


Thanks so much for the information you shared in this article! I am sure many will find many such useful things on this site as well.

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