It started as an astrology meme, one of those images some of my friends post on social media, and I scroll past. I don’t believe in astrology, but the image seemed like a specific attack. For 2023, my particular sign needed to be more social. Go where the people are, the Clip Art-adorned image urged.
I identify most as an ambivert. I’m often introverted, preferring to be alone — I am a writer, after all — but need and appreciate regular social outings like an extrovert. As a mother, of course, it doesn’t matter; I’m rarely without my child. Family is great and all, but I very much miss the rich social life of pre-pandemic friends too.
It changed what we collectively viewed as healthy, what we thought of as safe. We had to be alone to protect ourselves.
Long before it became a new norm, I did my job remotely, but pre-pandemic, I would work among others in coffeeshops or libraries (on Friday afternoon: at my favorite cidery). I was fortunate to live in a small community with a big heart and tons of creative people. A friend held weekly art nights at his home, where a bunch of us just sat on the floor, sketched and ate homemade scones. In the winter, another friend would host cozy knitting or painting sessions. I couldn’t leave the house without running into someone I knew.
The pandemic changed so much, big and small, including my living circumstances as my family moved across the country to the biggest city I’ve lived in, in decades. I wasn’t the only one to move, prompted by the dire-feeling conditions of the pandemic. It also changed what we collectively viewed as healthy, what we thought of as safe. No matter where we lived, we had to be alone to protect ourselves. It’s beyond year three of COVID. It’s 2023. Another strain of SARS-CoV-2 is taking over the U.S. — something else, also terrible. Despite very real pandemic fatigue, I won’t disregard the protections I established for my family. But this year? I’m giving up loneliness.
COVID set off a chain reaction of other ills that became epidemics: a plague of joblessness, evictions, major setbacks for women and mothers along with children. And for many, the isolation of COVID launched a tidal wave of feeling alone, which has real-world consequences. As 2022 research for the American Psychological Association shows, loneliness “could have implications for people’s long-term mental and physical health, longevity and well-being.” Feeling lonely isn’t just unpleasant. It “constitutes a risk for premature mortality and mental and physical health,” according to the American Psychological Association.
Loneliness is also widespread. In 2021, 36% of respondents to a survey said they felt lonely “‘frequently’ or ‘almost all the time or all the time’ in the prior four weeks.” As the Harvard Gazette reported, a surprising finding of the survey was the relatively young age of those affected: “61% of those aged 18 to 25 reported high levels” of loneliness. Isolation has impacted everyone, even those thick in the normally social years of high school, college and early adulthood.
How do we live in the broken world we have? How do we live in it with others?
It’s harder to make friends as you age and it’s hard to keep them in a world of Zoom, virtual cocktails and plans canceled frequently and abruptly due to increased illness. We’re not back to normal, we can’t be due to rising virus rates (and other severe viruses); there may never be a so-called normal again. So, how do we live in the broken world we have? How do we live in it with others?
I’m used to finding community where I live. The mayor once knocked on my door because he heard me singing and knew I was home; he needed to ask a constituent a question about road paving. Another time a beloved neighbor called through my back screen door, surprising me in the kitchen, but he wanted to know what I was cooking because it smelled good.
It’s different where I live now — and it’s also a different time. Last summer, my neighborhood held its first block party since the pandemic started. My family and I met a bunch of wonderful people. And never saw them again. People don’t come out onto their porches here. A lot of people don’t have them, no one has backyards, especially not unfenced. People are more guarded, worried, and dealing or not dealing with collective trauma.
Nothing brings people together like complaining about how sore we are.
If I go where the people are, I have to leave the neighborhood. Maybe the time for coffeeshop working has come again, or parks. A good friend from home told me sometimes the only people she speaks to in a given day are baristas, but that’s better than nothing; that’s enough right now. I’m also going to try to better keep in touch with friends back home, not solely though screens (which can get pretty fatiguing), but old-fashioned letters and care packages — remember those? I hope that the act of reaching out helps, even if it’s still long-distance.
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Last year, I tried taking an art class after work. We wore masks, and it was a tiny class, in a building with a garage door frequently opened, good for staying well. But not, as it turned out, great for meeting new people, especially as two out of the four class participants were in a couple. This time, my year of pushing aside loneliness as best I can, I’m going to try a ballet class. Slightly larger, also masked, but nothing brings people together like complaining about how sore we are.
A big city might mean less community but it does have more opportunities. I’ve been scanning the arts listings for open mics, something I used to do quite a lot. Maybe avoiding loneliness means getting back to ourselves, even in partial ways, remembering who we were and what we loved. Community now might mean compromise, not when it comes to virus protection but when it comes to hearing amateur music. I’ll take it, if it means leaving the house.