By Emily Erickson
During the past year, the idea of “being social” has meant many different things. From the first weeks of quarantine — wherein the confines of my small house and backyard were as far as I’d venture — connection was achieved through computer screens, phone calls, and far-away waves from car windows or porch stoops. Technology-enabled conversations, concerts and events served as a proxy for the interactions that were so recently a part of everyday life.
As weeks faded into months, and the hard lines of my quarantine confinement softened around the edges, virtual socialization was supplemented by well-distanced get-togethers and partially accessible community, albeit, behind a mask. Small circles of family and friends became pods, in which risk and subtle-but-lingering anxiety were traded for the social interactions we were grappling to reconstruct and reclaim.
After getting vaccinated, the boundaries of my quarantine were lifted, but the ingrained social distancing clung to my interactions — the remnants of radical behavior change making me clunky and awkward in a new version of “normal.” Pangs of misplaced guilt, fear and self-consciousness colored conversations and settings that were once natural and easy.
But, this past weekend, with more than a year passed since the onset of quarantine, I had a breakthrough: I attended a proper gathering.
It was a backyard barbeque on a sunny Saturday afternoon, with rows of lawn-parked cars marking the entrance to something I can only describe as nostalgic. Clusters of people gathered in friendly conversation, carrying home-baked dishes and coolers full of libations. Swarms of kids and dogs wove excitedly across the yard, and I was transported to all the times in my life I’d been in that exact sort of place, doing just that sort of thing — well before “The Pandemic”
Suddenly, I was surrounded, not only by people in my pod or in my immediate circle, but also by tertiary friends, familiar faces, distant acquaintances and, even, complete strangers. And it felt normal.
I was struck with the same sort of feeling as the first sunny day after a long stretch of rain — how you can’t quite recognize how much you missed something until you’re inside of it again. I remembered with clarity, that so much of gathering and participating in community is having the opportunity to reignite the parts of yourself that grow dim in isolation.
In watching the swarming groups of kids crouch conspiratorially behind bushes, sprint barefoot across spring-soft grass and grabbing grubby handfuls of potato chips — joined seamlessly together in the joy and freedom of childhood — I, too, was 8 years old again. The part of me that loves to be wrapped in the spirit of play was revived.
In striking up a conversation with a familiar face, I was reminded of what it feels like to be energized by the endeavors of others. As he shared the details of a long-anticipated project nearing fruition — of the imagination, effort and rewards of building something inspired — I was reaffirmed in the idea that hard times can be invaluable sparks for creativity.
By connecting with a stranger about our shared Wisconsin upbringings, I remembered that it takes the smallest of threads to tie people together. In sharing the details of our circuitous routes to North Idaho, and all the pit stops and left turns that lead us to where we are, the part of me that believes people share more common ground than have differences was reawakened.
Through the simple act of gathering for a few hours, in a way that felt so safely familiar, I reconnected with the part of myself that loves being in a community. In joining together to celebrate new houses, new babies and all the life that happens in the confines of our own worlds, we reclaimed the act of being social — no distance necessary.
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