Community Matters

Relationships amid a pandemic

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in First Person • Illustrated by Eric Lauterbach

My husband, Raja, and I had a thing about Sunday service — we wanted to arrive before the strains of the first song began. Preferably ten minutes before, so that we could settle down and be quiet. So last Sunday at 8:50, I clicked on our church’s link to the 9:00 virtual service on YouTube. It said “Waiting for service to start” on the screen, and on the right, the chat box was empty. I wasn’t sure if I was in the right place. Then just before 9:00, folks started “coming in.” Just like every Sunday in church when there’s an influx between 8:55 and 9:05.  

Hi. Brian here. 

Good morning.  

Hello, church!  

Grateful for internet so that we can meet like this. 

I’ve got my coffee here with me.  

I guess it’s BYO today, huh? 

While waiting for the service to start, the chat moved rapidly, and I had a hard time keeping up with who had “arrived” and the little friendly messages. 

It’s 9:04 AM. Are we in the right place? Hope Fellowship Church is never late! 

We’ve got the wrong link. 

Go to the church’s Facebook account and click on the new link. 

I don’t have Facebook. Can someone tell me how to get to the right place? 

Someone did and we arrived at the correct “venue” eventually. Just as the first song was ending. But there was so much love and community, it didn’t matter that I was late. The screen registered 90 watching but that didn’t include family members, just the number of computers and smart phones that tuned in. 

While I didn’t “stay and chat over coffee,” I found at the beginning that I was reaching more folks than I did Sunday after Sunday in church when I could only speak to one or two persons at a time before I had to run. Whereas here, I could reach out to anyone I wanted, and more than one person at a time. Contacts multiplied, with a bigger reach. And I didn’t have to “run” because I wasn’t going anywhere, so I could stay and “chat.”  

I moved to Boston eight years ago after Raja died, and I live alone. It’s been hard to find a sense of community. There’s no one I can call and say “Hey, wanna go for coffee?” Or lunch. Or see a movie. Everyone’s busy with their families, and friends they made from way back when. As the disease, COVID-19, closes in on us by the minute, I pine for Raja. Two is better than one during a pandemic and a freefall financial market. We could have each other for moral, physical, spiritual, and emotional support. We would both be in the high-risk group, so we could look after each other should one of us fall ill. Hold each other’s hands as we see our retirement fund disappear right before our eyes as the global financial markets implode. But the fact is he’s not here. But others, surprisingly, are. People who would normally not be in touch. 

A week ago, Jessey texted: Hey Grace! How are you doing? Are you well-stocked in case of quarantine? I can pick up groceries for you tomorrow if you need, k! 

Cora keeps in touch every couple of days and we have brief exchanges of how we are doing and promise to pray for each other. 

Yesterday, out of the blue, I got a message from Sarah, a writer friend, whom I hadn’t heard from in a while: Grace, how are you? And we caught up on the previous months. I felt special to hear her say I miss you.  

It’s been almost a month since I’ve been with Ella, my four-year-old granddaughter when she stayed over. Her parents had imposed voluntary isolation early to protect me as each of them took turns to fall ill. But we’ve been in touch over video more than we ever did before. While I miss interacting with them physically, they have been more present in my life. It’s hard for a child of four to stay in the conversation for a while. So I had to figure out how to keep her engaged on Google Hangouts. I started reading her favorite books that we keep here. And we do fun stuff like eat peanut butter from a spoon together. Now we’ve migrated to the wonderful Caribu video-calling app integrating books and activities — a virtual playdate for grandparents and their grandkids. Lots of fun. 

Last week, I signed up for our newly formed church Book Group which will take place on Zoom. Of the three books proposed by the coordinator, the group voted for Gilead by Marilynne Robinson. It’s a book I’ve been trying to read for 14 years since Raja got it as a gift and loved it. I wanted to know why he liked the book so much. So I attempted to read it several times but gave up because it was so slow. Now I get a chance to try it again and hopefully the draw of the community and the accountability will nudge me along when I want to give up on it. If the group were to meet at church on a weeknight, it would have been unlikely for me to attend the meeting much as I wanted to. The trek home would have been tedious late in the night when the bus and train ran less frequently. Virtual meetings have increased my opportunities to meet other people.    

My writing group now meets on Zoom too and we’ve never had everyone show up on any given night before. But we will next Tuesday, judging by the RSVPs. Likewise, for my condo Book Club gone virtual — comprising my neighbor next door who shares my wall, as well as folks in the other blocks within the estate. We had 100% attendance last week, which has never happened before. We missed sharing the wine and snacks but we ‘brought’ our own and got a chance to interact virtually. 

I’ve had more connections with friends these past two weeks than I’ve had since I moved to Boston. The Coronavirus has brought the community to a new level and it has done for me what I couldn’t do these past eight years.  

The points of connection were beyond what I had ever imagined — deeper, richer. It reintroduced me to my family. Last weekend, we ordered take-out from Taipei Gourmet for a virtual dinner where we talked about our projects, work, anxieties, and sharing of good and bad news. It was very pleasant and enjoyable. The virus seemed to have made us all more tolerant of each other’s idiosyncrasies, more magnanimous towards each other.  

I get real-time developments of Ella’s milestones. Yesterday evening, Ben, my son-in-law, was excited to show me Ella’s drawings with evidence of a person.  

Ahmah, here’s the head,. The body. Arms and hands, Ella pointed to parts of the figure on her scratch artboard. And here’s a triangle. And a circle. She promised to mail me some drawings. And we parted with a “hug” and “kiss.” 

We have a WhatsApp support group chat for the block and I’ve made new friends.  

Should I get a mask?  

My cabbage is getting old. Know any interesting way of cooking it? 

Vicky initiated recipe exchange —  something that requires common ingredients and don’t agonize over it. We got Indian, Middle-Eastern, American, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, and Singaporean recipes. 

Some of us who connected on a deeper level took it outside of the chat group. I think — I hope — that after months of sharing our lives on the internet, it’s going to transition into real life when the siege is over.  

For someone who has barely left her apartment, I had an incredibly busy week. I got to go. My Korean neighbor wants to know if I can help her son with his English essay. •

Grace Segran was a journalist and global nomad before settling down in Boston, MA, seven years ago where she discovered creative writing at GrubStreet. Her work has been published in the Columbia Journal, The Common, Pangyrus, Brevity, and elsewhere. She was a finalist in Columbia Journal's 2019 Fall Contest and the winner of the 2019 Keats Literary Contest.

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