Dalia lost their sense of taste while away from Oberlin. Well, most of it. It’s a lingering side effect of our dear COVID-19 from which they have now recovered. In quarantine, Anna learned to knit and took up watercolors. She and her boyfriend Michael decided to spice things up with the addition of a tried and true Austin Powers box set in lockdown—soberly, mind you—and there is never not a related inside joke just within earshot. The first thing I thought when I saw Henley sitting in Wilder Bowl was Jesus, did we have the same idea with this dark red box dye job? But, within the first week back, former brunettes unveiled their unsure vermillion transformations all over campus along with the newly christened mullets, buzzcuts, bleachings, and bathroom lobs. It’s debatable whether we should even discuss the new array of stick-and-pokes and DIY puncture wounds—I mean piercings—peeking earnestly from every inch of skin not covered by Tiny-Shirt-Big-Pants in this particular swath of Northeast Ohio. Even for a crunchy, upper-middle-class-anarchist liberal arts college, this must be a new record.
Yes, we’re all on skateboards now. We recite TikTok jokes, passing each other from a distance like dead-eyed cowboys in DeCafé to grab our boxes of Mediterranean Concept. We all sort of understand the science behind sourdough starters and there is a new militia of emotional support animals eager to cheer up even the most downtrodden. It is now standard to hear angelic vocal arrangements while throwing back a Monster Energy in front of Mudd. And, now that there’s a marching band of reusable dining hall coffee cups guarding the door, there is no longer social currency in my cozy Tank single. But, lest we ever forget, we’re the lucky ones. Ducking between distanced classrooms and nose swabs in our quaint little bubble is a strange gift (it’s the thought that counts!). Our problems are small but not insignificant. A social shift such as this should not be dismissed.
It’s almost as if, like every thinkpiece written in the past six months has proclaimed, this whole isolation thing has really done a number on us. When else have so many of us spent not only time with our families and pets, but time by ourselves? The influence of quarantine has not just been a greater emphasis on hobbies and internet trends, but an expanse of time to be alone with our personalities. It’s as though we’ve all grown to be concentrated versions of ourselves and, in that, have changed.
Me? Nocturnal in South Texas, I threw myself at a stack of canvases, forged a quarantine LDR in mighty lesbian fashion, developed a habit of talking to myself that is, so far, difficult to kick, and, now that you mention it, I’ve been really craving a lip ring for a solid few months. I’m more grotesquely myself than I’ve ever been, and because of that, I’ve returned to Oberlin…transformed, you could say, by just being alone with myself. And this experience seems to be a common one. I mean, look at us: habitually adjusting our Zoom angles and forming crushes on people whose face we’ve only ever seen halfway—well, except for within the curated safety of an Instagram crop or haggard within a Zoom square. We’re a new breed. It is not just that the campus has been scrubbed and measured and Beyond Burger-ed that makes everything just a little bit surreal. We’re new. Hell, a whole fourth of us isn’t even here! (And those First-Years…are they ok?) We’ve been colored by our new relationship with aloneness, togetherness, and our respective senses of self.
I know I keep talking about aloneness, but when I say togetherness, I also really mean it. We’ve found new ways to be with one another. It’s one of the few things we’ve let remain intact: our connection. Our feeds have grown strong and colorful with our friends’ art accounts and acoustic covers. Our favorite small musicians, too, have not let us down. We can sit in our bed as they play us a set. It’s miraculous. We’ve all agreed to lend each other an ear and a set of eyes. We understand, in our aloneness, that we are nothing without each other.
Indeed, like every other socially awkward child of the Gen-Z internet explosion, I’ve always had friends online. If the internet has done anything revolutionary, it’s allowed one to seek belonging where it once didn’t exist. For, if the other fifth graders don’t understand your predicament, maybe someone on this internet forum will. If your intensely intelligent hippie mother in a Republican suburb can’t find a best friend, maybe she can on Facebook. Its novelty is something we take for granted but it doesn’t mean it’s not immensely impactful.
As I’ve grown older, the kinship I sought so avidly online has died down. I have friends in real life that I can talk about that band or book with! Friendship doesn’t need to be searched for or clicked on, I wish I could go back a decade and let myself know, and so on and so forth. Yada yada yada.
However, in quarantine, I found myself feeling a bit of that virtual kinship once more. One forgets that sometimes being remembered and befriended online can be just as sweet and personal as the old-fashioned way. Soon, I had gone full Woolfian and would sit at my desk writing letters to people I have never met and may never meet. Pen pals are a great invention. Pen pals, when in isolation, are a recipient of much of the witness ordinarly beared by so many others when in person. I found myself smiling in surprise when, logged off for a day or week, I’d have messages wondering how I’d been from people I’ve never met. On social media, through text message, landline, or snail mail, we care for each other. We just can’t help ourselves. The more dismal things feel, the more we reach out for each other in any way we can. We’re all alone together.
Now, attempting some sort of normalcy here on campus, the impact on this new era of social care is residual. Sometimes, with our masks on, we have a hard time making eye contact or recognizing the precision of a facial expression. But at the same time, my DMs have grown sweeter. Our care, our glimpses of social time, do not go unnoticed or unappreciated. Despite the bleakness, we’ve begun to hone a new skill: never being alone in our aloneness.