Thank You, Social Distancing, for Helping Me Get Closer to My Far-Flung Loved Ones

Photo: Getty Images/Westend61
Remember how we were all too busy?

A month ago, what with work and life and everything those two dueling entities entailed, there was never enough time to catch up with all the people I needed to catch up with. And I wanted to, I really did. I was finally going to have drinks with that editor. I promised I would meet up with the friend I hadn’t seen in seven months, since my wedding—we just had to settle on a date, it would happen! I sent countless “I miss you/when can we hang?” messages to people in my social circle (hoping, perhaps, that sending the message stood in for actually hanging). My college friends, a group of us who had spent a spring semester together in Italy 20 years ago, were definitely going to get together for dinner. It was not a question of would, but when. It had been so long!

Sometimes, in those “before times,” these people and I would get very close to hanging out. Sometimes we actually would hang out, and it would be great, and we’d immediately “have to do it again”—which meant the cycle of attempted plans would begin anew. And sometimes, one of us would cancel at the last moment. When this happened, I'd inevitably feel a wave of pleasure thinking about my newly acquired patch of free time.

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to see people. I did! But there was so much else to do. It felt like I could never keep up, never give the people I cared about enough time while also being able to save some of it for myself. We were all so damn busy.

It felt like I could never keep up, never give the people I cared about enough time while also being able to save some of it for myself.

A look back at my February calendar reveals the irrepressible naivety of “before.” There was a quick trip to Florida to see my parents (my dad had just had heart surgery and we flew down to visit). There were meetings, lunches, Pilates (in a studio! With people!), drinks, a dog-grooming appointment, a birthday dinner—all in-person events, casually scheduled without the knowledge or understanding that our lives were about to drastically change.

In March, my calendar goes dark after a visit to the periodontist. A state of emergency was declared for New York—all things must stop.

Then something funny happens. My calendar picks back up again, peppered with things to do—all of them virtual. And maybe it was because the incessant busy-ness had ceased or maybe I really just needed to talk to someone who wasn’t my husband, stepson, or dogs, but I didn’t cancel on anyone, and no one canceled on me.

To be totally honest, the first online happy hour was awkward. There were a handful of us who didn’t know each other that well, but we all raised our glasses, full of whatever liquid courage we needed for this surreal moment, and we smiled through our stilted conversation. We got better at it, though. Talking in front of our devices from our own homes became more normal, if not natural. And as invites started filling my inbox, I'd respond almost eagerly (Yes! I'm free! Yes, I can talk!). FaceTime calls would pop up, unannounced, and I would actually answer them, something I’d never done before.

My calendar got full. I suddenly had a standing video chat every Wednesday with the college friends from my study-abroad program. Two different online writers groups agreed to meet on a recurring, monthly basis. There was an every-Saturday-evening Zoom with my best high school friends; we commiserated about isolation and exhaustion and online workouts as some of our kids popped by to wave at the cameras. My parents, social distancing in Florida, and I started sending each other texts every evening, photographing what we cooked for dinner as inspiration and a way to share a meal despite the 1,200 miles between us.

Part of this, of course, was a way to check in with the regular participants in my life, to make sure they were hanging in there, to see if anybody needed help or a meal dropped off or just someone to talk to. But it went beyond that. Throughout my adult life, I’d never been in such constant contact with my parents—suddenly we were texting each other multiple times a day, and not just about COVID-19. In fact, once we hashed out what we should be doing with regard to the virus, we moved quickly on to other things: the stuff that made us feel together, not apart; the stories, the meals, the potential future plans (fingers crossed). With my study-abroad friends, women I hadn’t sat down with in person for months, and rarely spoke to on the phone, it was the same. With no one going anywhere, we finally had time to catch up. We went through hours of video chats and glasses of wine, talking about all the stuff we’d skipped over the past few years.

This pandemic has brought some brutal realizations, among them that nothing was ever guaranteed to be the same as it always was.

Astrologers say that Mercury retrograde is a time to slow down, to remember what’s important, and to cut out those things in life that aren’t working for you so that you can focus on those that are. We rarely do this on our own, so the universe does it for us, or that’s the idea. The way I see it, the coronavirus is kind of like that—times infinitum. A pandemic has a way of reminding you what matters. I keep asking myself, in this time, what might it behoove me to let go of? (Feeling constantly stressed about work, going out to dinner four times a week, all those Pilates classes?) But also, what do I really need? What’s worth working harder to maintain?

When you’ve been friends with someone for a very long time but don’t see them every day or every week or even month, it’s easy to neglect them. You carry on with your life, assuming that when you do check back in, they will be there, just the same as you left them. This pandemic has brought some brutal realizations, among them that nothing was ever guaranteed to be the same as it always was; maybe we made ourselves believe that for a while, but it was never true at all. People are not always there forever, waiting for you to come back to them, waiting for you to finally “have time” so you can “catch up.” (If they are, you got lucky.)

And what were we so busy with, anyway? Those connections we’ve made throughout our lives, the people we keep wanting to see and talk to, they are what matters. As I work to revitalize the relationships I've taken for granted and continue to maintain others, it feels like I’ve gotten another chance: Let me clear out what’s not working, and focus on what is.

Admittedly, some of this incessant virtual togetherness can be a lot, so much that at one point I got busted complaining about how many Zoom calls I had by someone on a Zoom call. (Luckily they were old friends and laughed; see, those are the connections that matter!) But I’ve seen similar sentiments online. It is hard to be a semi-introvert in these times in which we thirst more than ever for human connection and are trying so hard to replace forced absence with digital presence. It is hard to balance the desire for time with friends and family with the desire for a second of quiet, a minute to hear your own thoughts. There are so many new challenges. It’s not even that we suddenly have so much more time—the days go fast and slow, full of nothing and everything in a moment (to those of you with small children, you are superheroes)—but maybe we can start to consider the time we do have a little bit differently.

It’s just that we’ve been so busy. Anyone up for a quick video chat?

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