At the beginning of this surreal week, as the chilling news reports piled one upon another, I read an unusually comforting email from Brian and Monila Junkins, the owners of Friends’ Marketplace in Orleans. After listing all the things they were doing to reduce the risk of virus transmission and keep their store stocked and spotless, they offered to shop for people and deliver the groceries to the curbside or to their customers’ homes.
“Our world revolves around the store and this community,” they wrote. “You can count on us to do whatever it takes to get you what you need in the most responsible and safe way possible.”
I thought of Fred Rogers’s famous story about his mother telling him to “look for the helpers” whenever there was a disaster, and how those words always reminded him in scary times of how many caring people there are in the world.
Then I saw that Tom Hanks, who with his wife is infected with the coronavirus, had posted a similar message about Mister Rogers on Instagram, and felt I was in good company.
But “look for the helpers” wasn’t the only advice that Fred Rogers offered children and their caregivers about disaster. He also told parents to turn off the television, maintain their regular routines, and make sure their kids got plenty of physical affection.
And that’s the worst thing about our current predicament. Most of our regular routines have become too dangerous to maintain. In the absence of a physically communal life, we have become even more desperately dependent on our screens and devices, so that our meetings, classes, conversations, and even art shows must now be virtual and mediated by an electronic interface. And the essential solace of physical touch and affection is now tainted with fear as we find ourselves obligated to stay away from loved ones just when they need us most.
We are deprived of the power of physical affection in this crisis, but we still have the power of our words, and that was what struck me about the Junkinses’ message to their community. “We are here for you,” they wrote, and I realized that each one of us can say the same thing if we want to. And so have many of you already, from Chris Hottle at the Provincetown Council on Aging to Trudy Vermehren of the Fox & Crow in Wellfleet to the cafeteria workers of the Nauset Public Schools who are preparing and giving out bagged meals to those who need them.
As the shock and strangeness of this enforced closing down of our physical closeness recedes, we must find new ways to connect with each other, and new ways to be helpers.