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  • Writer's pictureErika Nichols-Frazer

Finding Community While Social Distancing

Friends since kindergarten or before

On Saturday, on my way to a local brewery to pick up beer curbside, I saw six teenagers hanging out next to the covered bridge in town where teenagers hang out. Four of them were snuggled on a bench and the other two standing right next to each other. I saw two of them drink from the same water bottle then pass it to another. As I waited at the stop sign just feet from them, I fumed, in disbelief. What was wrong with these kids? Where were their parents?

As I drove on, I thought about our desperate need for community and how it's what we turn to in difficult times. This disaster is unusual in that we can't physically come together right now, when we need it most, we can't celebrate or go to events, or dance together. Video chats, while helpful in so many ways and getting a lot of us through this, just aren't the same as human interaction. I thought of these teenagers' need for life to return to normal, the desire to just hang out with their friends as usual stronger than fear or, perhaps, reason.

Over the weekend, my husband Dylan and I had a Zoom "party" with a bunch of old friends. We had pizza (well, Dylan and I had already eaten, but during the party we had a Dutch Baby for dessert, his new favorite thing). We all did shots together and sipped beer or cider or wine and talked for hours. Usually, this happens at our house and someone stays over in one of our guest bedrooms and we have pancakes and coffee in the morning. The next day, Dylan said, "I feel like we had people over last night." Some of those friends we hadn't seen or talked to in months. It took a pandemic for us to all come together again.

I've been reaching out to and hearing from friends I haven't talked to in a long time. Something about being alone makes me think of them, need them more. I think it's an instinct, to gather the people you love in times of crisis. So what do we do when we can't be together?

Last Monday, my oldest friends and I put on dresses and make-up for our weekly Zoom happy hour. It was my friend Chelsea's birthday and we were celebrating from our homes in Stowe, Waterbury, and Waitsfield, VT, Michigan, and the Virgin Islands. These weekly chats keep me going. Ironically, they're the first time I've seen or talked to my friend Ellen in a couple of years. The last time we were all together was Chelsea and Mattie's wedding three years ago. Chelsea, Ali, along with their partners, and Dylan and I have a monthly potluck, though that hasn't happened since February (and our plans for night skiing in March were cancelled). At least we can check in via video chat, hear about Ali and Ben's wedding plans, see Chelsea and Mattie's home renovations, share recipes and everybody's quarantine stories and strategies. Last week, I lamented having to edit bad sex scenes and Kelsey pronounced "pierogis" in a way that cracked us all up (it involved a lot of rrr rolling). Looking forward to this hang-out is a great way to start my week.

Dylan and I recently Zoomed with his extended family to celebrate his grandmother's birthday. We hadn't talked to his uncle and cousins since Christmas. It's rare to get everybody all together, limited to birthdays and holidays, but from our corners of Brooklyn, New Haven, Upstate New York, Colorado, and Vermont, we celebrated together.

Along with my need for community, this time has made me crave art even more. Calming music, well-written stories, and, of course, lots of TV and movies. As I revise my memoir and submit stories to lit journals, I find myself needing interaction with my writing communities even more than usual.

A few weeks ago, one of my writing groups met on Zoom and discussed essays and stories we'd been working on. My writing groups always make me feel better about life, less alone, like I might actually be talented. They lift me up, give me purpose. This week, a group of my grad school friends and I will host an online reading, where we each share our work (I miss hearing these people read!). We're scattered all across the country, but, of course, we could have done something like this anytime; we just haven't taken the initiative. This crisis has inspired many to create virtual communities, to reach out to the people they haven't seen or talked to in months or years. For me, it's bringing my communities together again. In our MFA program, we read our work to each other every residency. Plus, there were student readings, and, in our last term, our graduate readings. I've watched these people's writing develop over the years and I'm so excited to have the chance to reconnect and hear some great writing again. Writers I know from a retreat in West Virginia that I've attended a few summers will also be meeting this week over Zoom to discuss an Annie Dillard essay and a W.H. Auden poem. We're going to have craft cocktails/craft talk just like we did every evening at the Lost River retreat. While I don't know if the retreat will happen again this year, I can still be a part of this community, connect to writers I haven't seen in a few years.

Living in rural Vermont, I don't get a lot of opportunities these days to attend literary events. I find myself needing that human connection and inspiration that comes from good art. Ironically, it's in these times where we can't come together that I've reconnected with many facets of my writing communities.

Last week, I "attended" a reading at Vermont College of Fine Arts, though I abandoned it to make veggie tempura once a reader burst into tears at something that seemingly was neither personal or traumatic (but, of course, who knows), and I couldn't take it anymore. So not all virtual hang-outs are great and they certainly come with their challenges - loading and freezing and talking over each other, bad audio - but, at a time when we need community more than ever, they're the best that we can do.

I also miss my soccer and hockey friends, beers after games, camaraderie, teamwork, not to mention the joy the physical exertion playing gives me. Sports are one thing that require human interaction and can't be done virtually. This past weekend would have been the biggest annual women's hockey tournament in Vermont, which I've played in for the past nine years, sometimes on more than one team. Every year, a group of women from about an hour and a half to two hours away come up for the weekend and I get to play with them. We call ourselves the Growlers (I came up with that name and I'm pretty proud of it - we're sponsored by Harpoon Brewery, which always gives us free beer). I love these women, though I typically only see them once a year. We've also played in tournaments in my hometown, Stowe, and they've stayed at my parents' house and had potlucks there. After handily beating everyone the last time we played that tournament, though, I think we were uninvited. We've won tournaments and not done so well in others. Regardless, these women have been some of my important friendships over the last decade and I'm sorry that we can't come together in the same way this year.

Amidst a crisis that's keeping us all apart, staying connected to our communities is more important than ever. You won't find me sharing water bottles by the bridge, but you will find me on Zoom, reading and listening and laughing, redefining what community means to me.

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