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How to Find Connection When You Can't Be Together

How to Find Connection When You Can't Be Together
Photo Courtesy of Ziqian Liu @ziqianqian on Instagram

This week I’ve been thinking a lot about how I’ll describe this year later in my life. It was cold, maybe. It was cold and odd and grey the whole time, though I know that isn’t true. But still, something about the air feels that way: the fog that blanketed Minneapolis today, the tense quiet of empty streets, the sensation that we are living in a pause, that we are on stranger tides.

Like many people who are self-isolating right now, I’ve been working my way through a neglected stack of books on my nightstand, like my own set of Scheherezade stories. This morning, I started an anthology of essays edited by Lorrie Moore, See What Can Be Done: a title taken from notes Moore received from Robert Silvers, editor of The New York Review of Books, during her tenure as a reviewer.

“He would propose I consider writing about something—he usually just FedExed a book to my door—and then he would offer a polite inquiry as to my interest: perhaps I’d like to take a look at such and such. ‘See what can be done,’ he would invariably close. ‘My best, Bob.’

It was a magical request, and it suggested that one might like to surprise oneself. Perhaps a door would open and you would step through it, though he would be the one to have put it there in the first place.”

They were much-needed words, a comforting reminder that amidst all the uncertainty and the grey, I could describe these strange days in much the same way: “It was hard, but every day we surprised ourselves, always trying to see what could be done.”

One of my best friends, Jenna, and I met on our freshman floor in college, when we realized we were both from the suburban sprawl of the same Wisconsin city, that we loved the Midwest with the same gratitude, the same joy, the same fierce clarity.

Since she moved to the Twin Cities a couple of years ago, to a house just a mile away from mine, we haven’t gone longer than three days without seeing each other: for a movie, happy hour, a walk with her black lab, Gladys (see also: Glad, Glady, Glady-girl, Princess Gladys, Gladsie, Glady-wadsy, girly girl, stinker, buddy-boop). We make dinner together every Wednesday, a tradition that’s had its rotating cast of recurring characters but always involves the two of us: checking in, gossiping about reality TV, making that Alison Roman recipe, mostly just sharing our homes. 

Wherever we are in the world, we’ve started learning what it looks like to make a home for each other virtually. Dinner parties and long walks have given way to group FaceTime calls, shared-screen yoga classes, long text chains, and Marco Polo threads.

A little over a week ago, we were spread out on my living room floor with our friend Artemis to cut collages out of old New Yorkers. We watched Bridesmaids and set chicken stock to burble on the stove, a project we’d been inspired to take on by Bon Appétit’s Christina Chaey (a gentle blessing to my feed in these chaotic times). I took a video of us dancing around the kitchen, a ten-second whir of laughter and celery, and rewatched it a day later as Minnesota announced its first cases of community spread and the city as I knew it began to go quiet.

Many of the people that I love have lost their jobs. Some are on the road, headed home to take care of their families. I am lucky enough to be able to work from home; and as someone who is immunocompromised, I don’t know the next time I’ll really leave. Yet still, wherever we are in the world, we’ve started learning what it looks like to make a home for each other virtually. Dinner parties and long walks have given way to group FaceTime calls, shared-screen yoga classes, long text chains, and Marco Polo threads.

As a substitute for our Wednesday dinners, Jenna and I started an Instagram account to use as a visual diary of all the anxiety-fueled cooking we were doing as we isolated (including, but not limited to, the stoop-side drop-off of a sourdough starter named Llewyn). As it grew, our friends and family began to share photos of their meals in our DMs: chocolate chip shortbread in buttery Chicago light, pizza night in southeast Minnesota, golden-edged buttermilk pancakes from a friend just a few streets away in Minneapolis.

What had started as something for just the two of us became a way to stay connected with our larger communities, to share a recipe, a meal, a table. Kitchen dispatches for these anxious times; healing, in a way I didn’t know social media could be.

What had started as the two of us became a way to stay connected with our larger communities, to share a recipe, a meal, a table. Kitchen dispatches for these anxious times; healing, in a way I didn’t know social media could be.

Almost all of my family lives in China, spread across the central coast. In the late days of December, as COVID-19 had begun to spread—first through Wuhan, then Hubei, then across the country—I spent weeks with my mind half a world away and woke up every day with my heart in my throat. As the year turned, the fear spread. So too did the virus.

In February, as Wisconsin reported its first case and schools shut down on the West Coast, I started thinking about canceling a March flight home to see my parents. I texted Jenna for advice, and she responded with a long string of texts: I kept a screenshot of the last. “I think we are all just trying our best.” 

I canceled the flight; it would have been today. And in the weeks since, that text has become a mantra, a way to keep helplessness at bay: Take what you need, leave what you don’t. Do, give, and forgive what you can. We are all just trying our best.

I still don’t know how I’ll describe this year, later in my life. Maybe I won’t talk about it at all, this odd and anxious time of global uncertainty, of real human cost and real human sacrifice. But I hope I do, because I am also reminded every day of all the ways in which I am lucky, of every joy I still get to have and hold and share, of all the people catching each other as we fall and pulling each other up as we reach.

I am reminded every day of all the ways in which I am lucky, of every joy I still get to have and hold and share, of all the people catching each other as we fall and pulling each other up as we reach.

Tides come in. Tides go out. We try our best to make room for the things that need watering; to see what can be done.

My best,

Julie

A few small ways to bridge the distance during this time:

  • Have a movie night! Get a group of friends on a conference call and start the same movie at the same time, à la Meg Ryan and Billy Crystal in When Harry Met Sally.
  • Craft, collage, write letters and “just because” cards to friends and family: even the ones who live close to you!
  • Pull together a care package for (contact-free) drop-off on a friend’s stoop.
  • Take a Google Hangout or Zoom yoga class with friends: host a call, pull up an online yoga class and share your screen, or look into virtually hosted yoga classes from local studios you love.
  • Organize a virtual book club.
  • Find games to play via web or app: Words with Friends, online chess, collaborative crosswords, etc.
  • Start a food group chat: things to make with canned goods, pictures of friends’ pantries, recipe ideas, and lists of places to donate money or extra non-perishables, paper products, and cleaning supplies.
  • If you’re headed to the store, ask immunocompromised or high-risk neighbors and friends for a grocery list and drop off a bag or two on their doorstep.
  • Check in with your favorite restaurants and small businesses and find ways to engage if you have the capacity for it: whether that’s donating to a GoFundMe, buying a gift card or merch, offering support to displaced staff, or contacting your representatives to advocate for relief for the hospitality industry.

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