Making difficult decisions about our safety

I was taking a walk amidst falling golden leaves with a friend I’ll call Lisa. Since we were outside and there was a nice breeze, we weren’t wearing masks. But we were trying to keep 6 feet between us, which meant each time we neared each other as we talked, one of us cautiously moved away. I’d brought a mask, thinking Lisa might want us to wear them, but she’d brushed the idea aside. Still, she had hung a mask around her neck to put on if we encountered someone on the road. So I folded mine and put it in the pocket of my down vest.

Lisa was distressed about an old friend from Long Island, a coronavirus hot spot, who had asked to visit. Her immune system is compromised, which her friend knows, so she was surprised when the man arrived without a mask. Although they were sitting on the porch, she asked him nicely to put one on, even offering him a disposable mask she had handy. But he was obviously angry as he rejected her offer. “You can cower in fear during the pandemic,” he snapped at her. “But I’m going to live my life.” He went without a mask throughout the visit, with the result that she had decided not to see him again during the coronavirus pandemic. 

She stopped, turning to me, and asked: “Why, when everyone is making their own rules about what feels safe, does it make people angry when someone is being more careful than they are?” 

“We also get angry when someone is less careful than we are,” I said.  “You and I believe that science is on our side, and you probably hid your anger, but you were clearly annoyed that he didn’t take the virus seriously.” 

I thought the man was absolutely wrong not to wear a mask, especially since she’d specifically asked. But I suspected that his anger was defensive. I’ve experienced irritation when someone shows much more fear of the virus than I do, probably because their caution makes me wonder whether I’m being reckless with my health, or the health of my husband, who was seriously ill earlier this year. Since I’m not someone who succumbs readily to fear, almost out of my awareness, my fear can easily turn into irritation, even anger. Probably not very different than Lisa’s friend.

The CDC and Dr. Fauci have made two rules clear for staying safe during the pandemic: wearing a mask and social distancing. Still, Lisa was right: a lot of situations remain unclear. We have to make our own difficult decisions, and no two people decide in exactly the same way.

Since my immune system seems resilient, I enjoy regular trips to the grocery store, post office and bank. Despite recent increases in the coronavirus, including in the Northwest Corner, I attended a small indoor party a few weeks ago, where the hostess had a HEPA filter going, the women stayed at least 6 feet from each other, and, except to put delicious bites of cake into our mouths, we all wore masks. Missing shopping, I’ve even wandered into a shoe shop and a clothing store — activities that would horrify some of my friends. 

Still, Thanksgiving, which is likely to be too cold to eat outside, presented a problem for me. As I worried about six people sitting together over a long indoor meal, my Egyptian friend with whom I have shared many Thanksgivings repeated a Swedish adage: there is no such thing as bad weather, only the wrong clothes. And so, with some amusement, we decided to eat a hot turkey soup on my terrace; to come inside for a well-spaced conversation with our masks on; and to go back outside for pecan and pumpkin pie. I doubt whether our solution will have mass appeal, but I offer it with the hope that, as the day draws near, each of us can combine what we have read and heard, along with how hardy we feel, to make decisions that will feel comfortable, even if they are unique and idiosyncratic.

And yet—and yet, shouldn’t choices that can result in life or death also give us moments of aloneness and uncertainty?  


Carol Ascher, who lives in Sharon, has published seven books of fiction and nonfiction, as well as many essays and stories.  She is trained as a spiritual director.

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