There Is No Small Talk in Quarantine
The Education of an Introvert
by Dana Bowman | July 15, 2020
Initially it was kind of funny. There were all the memes on Facebook about staying home, no sports, no gatherings, no people-ing in large groups. It made my introvert brain sigh and wrap up in a cozy blanket of alone. But yesterday the mail carrier dropped off a package, and I lobbed questions at her like a clueless meteorologist: “No rain yet, huh? But chilly, right? Do you think we’ll see the sun? Is it all right if I walk six feet behind you for a bit?”
She didn’t blink an eye. Her job has expanded from mail delivery to interpersonal micro-dosing. She deserves a raise.
When I got sober six years ago, I emptied myself, right along with all those bottles. Empty can be rather terrifying, but it also frees a soul to search for just the right branch on which to land. As I worked on my sobriety, I found out that hiding behind my gregarious nature and my endless talking and my loud humor was exhaustion. As new sobriety left me desperate and a bit unhinged, I stuck a very large flag in the ground with “Leave me alone” emblazoned all over it.
I got sober, and I got introverted.
But I was friendly about it. Perhaps my flag really said, “Uh, I’ll just be at home reading,” or something like that.
The introversion discovery made sense. All those years of teaching high school, putting on seven performances a day, led me to collapse in a pile
as soon as I got home. In recovery, I learned about boundaries (needed!) and telling the truth (groundbreaking!) and matching my insides with my outsides (not nearly as weird as it sounds). So I learned to actually tell others about my introversion without feeling guilty and weird.
“I need to not people for a bit,” I would tell my husband after church. “I gotta decompress and just stare into space,” and I would head upstairs for my Sunday nap.
But now, the entire nation is decompressing. We’re all staring into the future, and it has been forcibly de-peopled. This is no peaceful Sunday nap time—it’s decidedly uncozy and unwanted.
And as for me? I’m taking down my flag of alone. I long for people.
Plot twist: I’ve got people here. Little people, about four feet tall, both with mischievous grins and penchants for getting up super early to start talking. My family is here, all holed up in our house, and I’m faced with a frustrating catch-22—introverts find people exhausting, and people includes our children too.
I have learned that small talk isn’t small at all.
It’s just checking in—standing in front of someone, standing close,
and caring for someone in a short period of time,
with some words thrown in.
So I long for people, but maybe they could be taller ones with better manners?
Also, you can’t just say to your child, “Go away.” It’s not nice. I know this because I’ve tried.
Yes, the large gatherings are canceled, and I no longer have to try to wedge myself into small talk, but I’m still never alone, not even when I finally crawl into bed at night. “Can I read with you?” my oldest asks as he enters the bedroom and plunks himself down beside me. He’s in his fluffy robe and he blinks at me, all large brown eyes and cuteness. My brain has that itchy buzz from talking all day long and I am longing for solitude. At large gatherings with all the chitchat, I can at least excuse myself to go to the bathroom. At home, they simply follow me in there.
There is constant maneuvering and interpreting and other-ing. There are so many questions, and negotiations, and explaining. And then there’s bedtime.
I stare at my son and then nod helplessly because he has already wedged himself into the bed (along with a husband, one cat, and two large dogs because we are fools when it comes to pets) and I lie there, my head sparking out with fatigue. He asks me how to pronounce Hermione and who is my favorite Harry Potter bad guy and don’t I think Dobby the house elf is a bit like our dog and do I like Dumbledore or Snape better. I know the answers are all very important. I know the last question is crucial and a test of my moral code. I know this bedtime business is vital for our family, rich with conversation and connection and growth. I know all of this.
But then the younger one comes in, crawls up on top of me and asks, “Mom, which time zone is the best?”
And my brain flops over and with a groan and fires its last synapse.
Fortunately, the children don’t really notice this, and they keep lobbing questions at me with military aim and plucky enthusiasm. They’re like little Winston Churchills, vowing to never give up on getting Mom to take a side on housing at Hogwarts.
I take cover under a pillow and my flag clearly reads “Surrender.”
I am also learning that taking your hand and placing it gently over your son’s entire face, while whispering gently, “No, sweetie. No, my love. Don’t speak. Don’t speak,” does not deter that child in any way from talking. He just licks your hand and keeps right on going.
The pandemic has not become a survival issue with our family at this point. We are healthy. My husband and I are still employed. We are stocked with rice, beans, and canned tuna, which my husband cheerfully insists are the big three foods of bachelordom and/or doomsday preparations. We are not so good on the toilet paper supply, but I find the “Will we run out today?” question adds suspense to the routine.
Survival aside, I’m learning things. No, not how to crochet, or reupholster the living room furniture, or how to write a third book (which would be nice). I have learned that small talk isn’t small at all. It’s just checking in—standing in front of someone, standing close, and caring for someone in a short period of time, with some words thrown in.
I have learned that my extroverted friends have suffered sharply during this time and we need to check on them. We need to answer their calls. We need to talk about the weather whenever they want.
I have learned that my husband’s love of tuna and rice does not match my own.
I have learned that I do not hate the phone. And I long for church. I have learned to pray about things I never thought I’d pray for, and to try to do so without fear. And I have learned that any display of patience on my part is not from me. God is ever-present.
I have learned that my children are indefatigable, delightful, funny, and endless. They tell good jokes and they sometimes allow for my naps and they still like to ask a lot of questions after 9 p.m., because for some reason that’s when their brains get really weird and kinda wonky, and they want to talk about it all.
I have also learned that they have forgiven me for the “Don’t speak” incident. We don’t speak of it anymore. Of course.