How do you tell one of the most gregarious, social people on the planet to pull together, but apart?

By Rick Bragg
March 23, 2020
Marie LaFauci/Getty Images

The first time I heard that phrase “social distancing,” I thought, Well, that’s going to be hard to do, down here.

How in the world do you tell a Southerner, in a time of crisis, to be “physically distant?” How do you tell one of the most gregarious, social people on the planet to pull together, but apart?

When a tornado a mile and a half wide tore through Alabama in 2011, neighbors I barely knew appeared with chainsaws and casseroles. The entire youth ministry of a nearby Church of Christ showed up in yards, uninvited, to clear away trees. Strangers showered each other in sandwiches. I shook 1,000 hands.

Churches filled, even on weekdays. A local high school went ahead with its production of The Wizard of Oz, to a full house. To gather like this, people said, was how you heal.

I saw people come together in that same way after Oklahoma City, and in the fear after 9-11, after hurricanes, school shootings, floods and more, the worst—I once believed—nature and people could do.

I guess it was a universal thing, but it just seemed so much a part of us here. My mother called it, this communal reaction to a tragedy, a laying on of hands.

But we had never seen anything like this, a true worldwide pandemic, which could only be survived, endured, by hunkering down, sheltering in place, avoiding people, and so defeating or at least delaying its spread.

Love thy neighbor, yes, but in crowds no larger than 10, or behind a closed door.

Traditions did not cease to matter for us; we simply could not afford them. The closer we were, the larger and tighter our gatherings, the wider the coronavirus would spread.

This was a thing without a zip code or a language. Some, at first, doubted its threat and even laughed at the doctors who warned us. The young and healthy, wrongly believing themselves impervious, partied on the beach, and so helped the disease spread even more.

And the more we learned the more frightening it seemed, and the less able we felt, as a society, prepared to combat it. And as supplies for testing and treatment ran low and ran out, the only real weapon seemed to be in isolation.

Our region, of course, was not spared, and as the more the threat bloomed and bloomed, the less the South seemed to resemble the South.

I drove, to take my mind off it, to ease my cabin fever. I passed dark schools and empty restaurants and shut-down businesses. Traffic was always light.

The grocery stores, and the Wal-Mart, stayed busy, but their shelves had big gaps in them. One day, coming out of the Johnson’s Giant Foods, I saw an old friend. We used to burn up the basketball court a long, long time ago. I reached out to shake hands and he did, too, and then we realized—almost in the same instant—that was a taboo. So we drew back, sheepish, and walked on.

But it occurred to me, as I drove through the thin traffic of my hometown, that we are just doing what we have to do, from common sense, and that someday, maybe soon, we will gather again to finish the healing that started with brave doctors and nurses and scientists who risked so much for us. And there will be, as my mother says, a great laying on of hands.

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