Despite the awkwardness of social distancing, being outdoors is teaching me about healthy connections and boundaries.
by Loré Yessuff
In mid-June, I attended a social bike ride that focused on the Black history of Austin. Around 400+ people gathered on a sweltering Texas Sunday to reflect upon important cultural fragments that are often erased and forgotten. Talib Abdullahi, the ride leader, guided the pack through various historically-rich neighborhoods such as Clarksville and the Huston-Tillotson University campus. In total, we rode 8.46 miles in tribute to George Floyd and other Black individuals who have been murdered by police officers. It felt momentous and delightful to cycle with like-minded folks as we learned about the beautiful, complex beast that is American history.
Besides a BLM protest, this ride was the largest social event I’ve attended since March 13th. And similar to the experience of the first day of high school, reacquainting with a large crowd was immensely overstimulating. The mechanical rhythm of changing gears, the swarm of sweat, the rows and rows of peddling thighs conquering the hot and hilly Austin landscape. Naturally, after months of mostly interacting with groups no bigger than 8ish people (my roommates, neighbors, etc) or, at times, just being completely alone, it was jarring to be in a crowd again. I had kind of forgotten how it felt to be surrounded.
Acquainting with the masked chatter of unfamiliar voices put me in a bit of a daze. Being overwhelmed was expected, but I was surprised by how awkward I felt. Between each tour stop, the other bikers and I attempted to forge a sense of community that the pandemic had stripped away, only to find it was more uncomfortable than usual. Small talk always turns me into the most graceless version of myself, but normally I can flex through my social clumsiness until that thrilling turning point of heart-to-heart connection. That moment of casual intimacy divine. It’s what I’ve missed, what I so wanted.
But each time I tried to talk to someone, it was as if my ability to hold conversation vanished. No one could see the smile behind my mask, or understand what I was saying without intentional projection. After a few embarrassing encounters, I settled for the ease of staying quiet and people watching. The bike clamber and urban sounds eventually distracted me from the disappointment of disjointed social connection.
That casual intimacy divine was nowhere to be found, so I focused my energy on the road ahead, how it showcased Austin’s quirky, enchanting beauty. With more miles and boob sweat, the lack of social fulfillment stopped bothering me. Instead, I was struck by the spectacularity of the outdoors. We rode past the large Victorian-esque houses in Clarksville, the colorful murals on the Eastside, the mostly empty UT campus, besides a few lingering pedestrians and sprawling parties of cacti. There was delight all around, in the streets, in the breeze, even in the southern summertime heat.
the social limitations of quarantine have taught me so much about boundaries — how to create them, how to talk about them, how to honor them, both my own and those of others.
Recently, I saw a tweet about how wild it will be to reunite with crowds of strangers, acquaintances, and lovers once COVID-19 ends. And after that social ride experience, every bone in my body shouts “Amen!”. The first large-scale festivals and parades will be an explosion of the euphoria that is currently nonexistent. And the social interactions at these events will likely feel more heightened. Each day my anticipation grows. I can’t imagine prepping for a mass gathering without fixating on germs and eye contact in the ways that I do now, but perhaps this isn’t a negative thing.
Even with the awkwardness, the social limitations of quarantine have taught me so much about boundaries — how to create them, how to talk about them, how to honor them, both my own and those of others. Before the pandemic, I sometimes felt too shy or self-conscious to express my needs in social settings. But now, spending time with people requires preliminary chats about social expectations. As we plan for a fruit picnic, evening stroll, or smaller scale bike rides, my friends and I discuss the necessary precautions: wearing masks, hanging outside, and maintaining a safe distance. These conversations make the anticipated reunions less stressful. Hopefully, we continue to honor each other this way even when we’re allowed to be carefree again and take our masks off.
When we gather now, our focus lies on the joy of being together outside, on the blended aroma of seasonal hydrangeas, fresh air, and the mild stank of urban parks. Obviously, I’d rather indulge in my friends’ smiling faces than their masked ones, but I’m trying to view these restrictions positively. Boundaries do not hinder connection. They enhance them (unless of course, a boundary is, in fact, enforcing a lack of connection), and allow us to enjoy intimacy in a healthy and respectful manner.
I wish this perspective would’ve dawned on me during that social bike ride. Although the glory of the outdoors compensated for that moment of social emptiness, I wish I would’ve recognized that the potential for connection was still there, despite our physical limitations. Even (and especially) during COVID, the outdoors will always bring about opportunities to encounter new people.
Two months after that ride, I’m living in New York City. It goes without saying that everything here is so different from my past life in Texas. The streets vibrate, the trees giggle. Everything is always roaring. Each time I go outside, I experience that familiar sense of intimidation and social anxiety. I yearn to learn people’s names, but fear the inevitable awkwardness that comes before connection. With time, I’m sure the pressure will simmer down and the casual intimacy divine will unfold again. Until then, I’ll be biking across my new home and learning the cultural language and landscape, embracing the sacredness only the outdoors can give.
Loré Yessuff (@boogieandblues) is a writer who explores topics related to intimacy, identity, and interconnection. She is obsessed with tender clichés like love poems, wild lilac, sweet plantains, and cinnamon-spiced coffee. Her work has been published in the New York Times’ Modern Love, Man Repeller, Dame Products’ Swell, among others.