July 3, 2020 by Jean
Almost four months into our new pandemic reality, I feel as though I’m finding a rhythm as I try to stay socially engaged while safeguarding my health. I thrive on solitude, so spending a lot of time alone has not been a big change for me. What has changed is how I manage to connect with others to ensure that solitude does not turn into social isolation.
Four months ago, I had barely heard of Zoom; now it has become an important part of my life. My most satisfying Zoom experiences have been courses that I’ve taken at the local Senior College. These classes work because they are kept small (at most a dozen students, and often smaller), because they last for two hours with a 5-minute break in the middle, and because they provide opportunities for students to interact with one another and with the instructor. Most of these courses also last for several weeks, which creates an opportunity for people to get to know one another. In my “Genealogy for Beginners” class, which lasted for six weeks, students all became familiar with one another’s interests and projects. I connected so well with one member of the class that, although I have never met her in person, we had quite a number of friendly email exchanges outside of class. If I were to find myself in a class with her again, I would greet her as a friend.
Because I’ve had good experiences with Zoom in the Senior College classes, I’ve also used it for some informal social visits with friends and family. I’ve had one-on-one conversations with several friends via Zoom, and one Saturday afternoon, two old friends and I had a nice long, chatty visit. One weekend I hosted an online “open house” where friends were invited to drop in (and about half a dozen did); another weekend, I hosted a similar gathering for family members. These social visits have been fun, and I’ve left them feeling as though I really did have a chance to get together and interact with others. I like the fact that you can have a multi-way conversation and that you can see people’s facial expressions and body language as well as hear their voices.
I don’t think virtual social engagement is enough, though, especially for those of us who live alone and don’t have opportunities for in-person interaction with others in the course of our daily lives at home. The year I retired, knowing that my love of solitude put me at risk for social isolation, I made a rule for myself that I had to arrange at least one extended in-person form of social engagement per week. Over the years, as my various activities (Senior College, Master Gardener Volunteering, classes at the Coastal Maine Botanical Gardens, my choral singing group, my retirees book group, my solo seniors support group) provided lots of in-person social engagement, that rule became superfluous. As all those in-person forms of social engagement disappeared with the pandemic, however, I realized I needed to reinstate the rule.
In early spring, my in-person interactions mostly took the form of outdoor walks with friends on wide trails where we could have a conversation while keeping six feet from one another and from others using the trail. As the weather got nicer, I started to have more visits with friends in driveways and on decks and porches – always with six feet or more between us and with both of us wearing masks. In May, my four-person book group began to meet again for social visits, usually on a deck where we could arrange our chairs at least six feet apart and with everyone wearing masks. In June, we met to discuss a book for the first time since February. All of these in-person interactions have been very satisfying and good for my mental health.
This week, I’ve added one more form of social interaction. Summer is usually the time of year when I entertain by having others over for lunch or brunch or afternoon tea on my screened porch, and I’ve decided that it’s safe to do that, one person at a time. If I have a friend sit at the table, and I set myself up with a tray table at the diagonally opposite corner of the porch, we can be 7’ apart, which is at least as far apart as strangers are at outdoor dining venues. It’s strawberry season in Maine, so I’m reinstituting outdoor entertaining with strawberry shortcake. I bought a quart of ripe strawberries from a local farmer, bought some heavy cream for whipping, and made some shortcake biscuits. Yesterday, I shared half of this delectable seasonal treat with a friend; this afternoon, I shared the other half with a different friend. It’s wonderful to share food with another person for the first time since my book group had lunch together in March. I may buy another quart of strawberries at the farmers’ market this weekend and do it again with two more friends next week.