When I was at my sickest, when I was worried for my life and the lives of my loved ones, there was the little girl with the light.
She lived across the plaza from me in the Dreta de ‘Eixample (“Right of the Extension”) district of Barcelona. In the plaza, there was a garden with a water tower, built in 1862 to ensure safe drinking water to the area. Now it was decommissioned and the base had been converted into a small kiddie pool for parents to take their babies to as an alternative to the tourist-packed beach. I’d lived there for 3 years now and I was used to Spring and Summer being synonymous with the sounds of laughing, screaming, crying children.
Under lockdown, the gardens were eerily silent.
Which was fine, because I was sleeping all day and all night. My COVID-ravaged body had sunk deep, deep into my mattress sometime in early March and it barely moved for the first few weeks of the virus. Then I would feel completely better for about a week… Then the virus would knock me right back into bed. Over and over and over.
While my dad was cooking, cleaning, administering medicine and supplements, grocery shopping, painstakingly wiping down the groceries with alcohol wipes, etc. my grandma was recovering from a stroke, most likely caused by the virus, in one room. In another room, my mom was hacking up a COVID lung. In another room, my brain was trying to escape my skull and I was beating myself up for not getting any writing done.
Every shift in someone’s symptoms felt like a potential emergency. We were dealing with a complete unknown, trying to care for one another while staying physically away from each other, trying not to freak out while simultaneously gearing up for unfathomable loss.
One day, weeks into being sick, my mom lost all feeling in her arm. A mini-stroke. When she got the feeling back, she decided to write letters to all of her kids to be read upon her death. “Not because I’m worried,” she’d said with what I’m sure she assumed was a reassuring smile. “Just in case.”
The uncertainty of it all was exhausting. The somehow simultaneous daily monotony was exhausting. The virus itself was exhausting. All I wanted to do was sleep.
…Except for those five minutes out of every day when it was time to dance.
Every evening, at 7:58pm, my cell phone alarm would go off with the message- “The girl with the light 👧🏻 💡”. I’d blink myself awake in the dark, drag myself out of bed, and shuffle through the apartment to the three large windows in the living room which looked out over the plaza. I didn’t have a balcony like she did.
She was 10 or 11 years old and would already be standing on her tip-toes, holding her cell phone flashlight high above her head like she was signaling an airplane. She was signaling me. And that was clear every time I opened the window and she jumped up and down excitedly, waving her light in one hand and flapping her hand in greeting with the other.
The original plan, in Barcelona, was for everyone to meet out on their balconies at 10 pm to send a city-wide round of applause out to the medical workers, as if that made up for a scary lack of PPE and conspiracy theorists spitting in their faces. It wasn’t enough, but it was comforting. After a day or so, everyone realized the late hour excluded the children, so they moved the clapping up to 8 pm.
That’s when she showed up, waving her flashlight around and waiting for a response from anyone. Clapping seemed the more polite thing to do, obviously, but I couldn’t leave a little girl hanging. At least… I was pretty sure she was a little girl. She was just a light in the darkness at first. Daylight savings shed some light on the situation soon enough.
While the rest of the neighborhood clapped, I’d turn my own flashlight on and hold it up to mirror her. For a few seconds, we’d wait to see who was going to lead. On special days, she’d go for it and my heart would swell with pride, but she seemed to prefer waiting for me.
Having given her enough time to refuse, I’d move my light to the right. She’d follow. To the left. She’d follow. In a circle. In a wave. I’d run to the other window. She’d follow to the end of her balcony. I’d run back, spin around, do the monkey, punch the air, kick my leg as high up into the air as I could and shine the light underneath. She’d follow, follow, follow, follow. She was too far away for me to hear her giggling, but I knew she was.
Right before the clapping ended, we’d start flashing our lights on and off to each other. This meant, “Goodbye. Thanks. See you tomorrow.” And then her grandmother or her mom (they both appeared to live there with her) would wave their thanks as well and guide her back inside through the beaded veil hanging in their doorway.
Like some sort of portal to a parallel universe.
Sometimes, I’d immediately go collapse back into bed, especially if my dancing itself had been particularly low-energy that day, which I always felt bad about. More often, though? Dancing with the little girl, and eventually with our respective moms and grandmas, would give me a burst of energy. I’d suddenly be awake enough to eat some dinner, check in on my family, practice some Spanish (with her in mind), and do some writing before crawling back into bed.
I only missed one day in what must have been around two months. I just couldn’t bring myself to get out of bed that day, let alone dance. I felt awful in more ways than one as I switched off the alarm and buried myself in my covers to drown out the clapping. The guilt gnawed at me all night and I never let myself do that again.
She missed a day too, a few weeks later. I stood at my window with a lit phone, staring at the beaded doorway in the distance as the clapping went on and on. I found myself worrying about her family. Or maybe she’d just decided she wasn’t into this anymore? I was more heartbroken than I thought I’d be at the thought.
But the next day, she showed up again, as if nothing ever happened, as excited as ever to shine our lights. We were having so much fun that, eventually, the whole plaza started joining in on our dancing. Every day was a neighborhood lockdown block party. That’s when I started playing music too. Usually Queen.
🎶I want to break free!🎶
As the months wore on, the clapping period got shorter and shorter. One day, our next-door neighbor leaned over the balcony to let us know our elderly neighbor had died. None of us had known her name. Five minutes of clapping turned to three. I tried not to watch the infection rates go up as my home country, the U.S., finally went into lockdown. Three minutes turned to one. The city of Barcelona was considering letting kids out during the day. Thirty seconds. Members of the Conservative party held a massive protest on the street below my bedroom, demanding for businesses to be reopened and masks to be optional. Twenty seconds…
One day, nobody showed up to clap. It was just me and the little girl. We flashed our lights at each other and waved. “Goodbye. All my love. We’re the same.” The next day, she didn’t show up. I never saw her again.
I guess I had this idea in my head that, when the pandemic was over, the whole neighborhood would meet down in the garden at the base of the water tower and celebrate the fact that we’d made it. We’d be a real community now — something I don’t think I realized how much I craved as a foreigner.
But the pandemic never ended, only our solidarity did.
A year into this pandemic, it feels like so many of us have lost our guiding lights.
There’s been so much sickness. The Dreta de l’Eixample neighborhood alone, which is around 10 blocks by 10 blocks, has had 2,596 confirmed Covid cases since last March. That number doesn’t include me and my family, since we got sick too early for testing. I’m sure many more were left out of the stats.
What’s been throwing me for a loop is the fact that, despite infection rates being higher than they ever were and vaccine rollouts going at a snail’s pace (here in Spain), everyone just went right back to their normal lives. They went back to work, sure, they couldn’t control that, but they also went back to their social lives.
People are meeting up for maskless lunch and dinner at restaurants right across the street. They’re smoking in each others’ faces, having lindy hop days in the park and board game nights in bars.
Part of me is jealous. Isolation robs us of the magic of synchronicity and the perspective needed to make sense of our world. It robs us of the sense that someone out there has anything to say to us, that we have a direction to point ourselves in or a reason to get out of bed. It’s not that I don’t understand. I mean, I live with my family, so I can’t imagine what it must be like to be completely devoid of human contact, but I still get it. The loneliness.
At the same time, though…
The pandemic isn’t over yet.
Can’t we just bring back the social distanced dancing? That was working for me.
For the sake of my grandmother’s health, we took the time between “non-mandatory” lockdowns to move to a neighborhood that’s even smaller than the Dreta de l’Eixample, around half the size, and closer to her hospital. Then we promptly locked ourselves down again and watched the numbers spike throughout the fall and winter.
This new neighborhood, El Camp de l’Arpa del Clot (“The Field in the Valley of the Harp”) had 371 infections in two weeks. My new neighbors keep having loud parties with singing. Singing in a confined space. It’s enough to make a person feel crazy. Am I insane for keeping myself under lockdown? Or is everyone else insane for not taking this more seriously? I feel like the kid in the horror movie who really doesn’t want to go into the spooky house, but everybody else is making fun of me and insisting it’s fiiiine and I’m such a dweeb.
I feel like I’ve reached a point in my Covid isolation (and, ironically, I don’t think I’m alone in this) in which my little corner of the world feels like it’s hovering in some pocket outside of time and space. Somewhere where “messages from the universe” can’t be received.
Or was I just not looking hard enough?
My best childhood friend has been reaching out to me a lot since the start of the pandemic. I don’t think I realized how special that is until now. We met when we were maybe 10, 11 years old.
We lost touch for a long time but he was always kind of my muse. We used to write songs together. Lately, he’s been helping me to sort out my thoughts on pieces I’m working on. He’s always happy to look up and share obscure facts about ancient religions, occult rituals, mixed martial arts, life on other planets, etc. Normal stuff.
Knowing he wouldn’t question me, I told him I was struggling to write about the spiders I’d been seeing around my apartment lately.
I felt there was something to the idea that when you’re stuck in the darkness, you make friends with the other creatures who live there. I’d been a house-bound travel writer for about a year now, looking for any break in the monotony whatsoever, and my poor, lonely brain had become fixated on these spiders to the point where I was dreaming about them.
I’ve always had an affinity for spiders. I’m not entirely unafraid of them, just like I’m not entirely unafraid of the act of weaving a vulnerable part of me into a delicate little story and putting it out there for anyone to respond to however they will. And in my current isolation… spiders just made sense. They’re solitary creatures, misunderstood. They’re survivors. They’re more afraid of you than you are of them. They live to create. (They’re conveniently around to write about.)
But I needed more.
“Have you read about the spiders they sent up to space?” said my friend. He sent me a story about how NASA once sent spiders up to the International Space Station to see if they could weave webs in zero gravity, and I thought, Yes. I don’t know what it means, but this is relevant.
In 2011, scientists got curious whether a spider could orient itself without any idea which way was up or down. Would their webs take on a completely different shape? Would they give up weaving entirely? Would they get horribly depressed and start ripping their own legs off?
What they discovered is, when spiders can’t make heads or tails of their world… they follow the light.
There was a small light source above the spiders that would turn on for 12 hours at a time to simulate daylight. It was meant for the astronauts themselves, to keep them sane, but it ended up being the saving grace for the spiders as well. Light meant up, and the spiders built accordingly.
When I watched the video of that little spider, all 8 legs flailing in zero gravity, grasping onto the thinnest of strands for dear life, somehow managing to build her web anyway? Because someone shined a light?
I got emotional.
I hadn’t thought about the girl with the light in a while. It had been around 10 months since I’d seen her. I realized I’d made friends with her in very much the same way I’d made friends with these spiders. Symbols help us to read ourselves, they’re not really the universe reading us. All the universe ever does is expand, which may be why it feels so counter-intuitive to be sitting so still these days.
All of a sudden, I realized that my friend had been shining a light into my world all year by reaching out to exchange weird facts and talk about our creative processes.
My family had been shining a light all year by caring for each other in a way I think we all take for granted at this point.
Another friend had shined a light by trusting me to write her memoir this year. One had asked me for a list of books I recommend and then actually read one of them (my love language). One had been seeking out my advice on some family issues. One had reached out to let me know that there’s a long-haul COVID support group here in Barcelona that has over 800 members so far. Even my ex-boyfriend had been checking up on me all year and recently donated to my website as a symbol of his undying support.
I was never alone and I was never totally in the dark. Though it makes sense that I would have felt that way after the magical little girl with the flashlight went away.
The world might not make sense to me right now. It may be terrifying. The webs I’m weaving may not be as beautiful as they would be in optimal conditions. But I’m living the kind of life where little girls and space spiders are teaching me lessons about what’s worth focusing on. Even in isolation, I have the ability to shine my own light on these small acts of connection. We all do.
“Goodbye. We’re the same. See you tomorrow.”