Sharon Lowen | Friendship in the time of Covid

From the time of our first lockdown, I felt no urge for long phone conversations with friends who were coping in familiar ways

So much has shifted in our interactions with others, both in person and virtually, since BC (before Covid). How we relate to friends, friendly acquaintances, and relatives who are also friends, is as varied as can be with all our individual differences, yet it has also been revealing about how we are positioned amongst them. I know some people who feel friendships require constant contact and availability. Others, like me, trust that reconnecting after long gaps will bring us instantly into the joy of trust and sharing ups and downs.

From the time of our first lockdown, I felt no urge for long phone conversations with friends who were coping in familiar ways. I wasn’t afraid of disappearing from collective or individual consciousnesses; no FOMO (fear of missing out). But now I wish I had reached out more, as I will never again have the opportunity to connect with those who passed away from Covid or other causes during isolation.

While snugly cocooned at home, “Zooming” around the world to teach or speak on panels, my daughter and son-in-law made me an offer I couldn’t refuse. To relieve their anxiety during our May 2021 lockdown, they entreated me to get out of Delhi till health services could cope via air tickets from them to wherever seemed safer.

Travelling around the world just to visit friends had not been on my radar so this was an amazing unanticipated journey that was a fairly deep dive into multiple universes of people I cared about and who welcomed me with trust into their individual worlds. One Chicago cousin said, “we all have friends and we all have relatives, but sometimes they are both”. I entered their world of Hyde Park dog walkers and community barbeques, long walks and coping with the gunfire deaths of at-risk students of the Last Chance High school to which they dedicated their lives though admin, computer skills and teaching Shakespeare.

Around the other side of Lake Michigan, I was the first to break the home isolation dining out in a restaurant reminiscing about master puppeteers from our yesteryears. I joined them in their three minute timed rotation of exercise apparatus strategically spaced around the living room, kayaking, riding bicycles and experiencing The Lion King from onstage in a virtual reality headset. As I crossed America I shared the routines of friends who did and didn’t drink coffee or tea, did or did not eat breakfasts, or dined on fabulous vegetarian salads or mustard fish. More significantly, we shared the trials and tribulations of life, children, family, health, creativity, aging and more. What greater gifts could friendship offer?

My visits to multiple cities on the east and west coasts of America, a few in-between and three Hawaiian Islands all evolved with the intention that my stays would be mutually nourishing and not as my grandfather used to say (“after three days, fish and houseguests start to stink”). Luckily, each choice turned out meaningful and a pleasure.

A chance Tik-Tok email asking how I was doing in Delhi led to my visiting a hitherto unknown part of America — Asheville, North Carolina. Friendly acquaintances from the Delhi expat community became multidimensional friends forever as I walked the private trail they’d created on their property with a sunset viewing deck occasionally visited by bears! We explored the warehouses and streets of artist and artisan studios, the historic sites of the Black Mountain College that was a prime mover in the American avant-garde in visual and performing arts from 1933 to 1957. I inhaled Southern charm amidst high-functioning free spirits.

My main friendship base was my “sister” in northern Virginia, daughter of my first Manipuri dance teacher from 1969 at university in Ann Arbor. She and her husband were the kind you can land up on and be welcomed with open arms for as long as you can stay. Our story would be a book so I’ll just say that there was much to share.

Around 40 years ago I’d facilitated the adoption from India of my San Diego girlfriend’s two children. Now grown, it was amazing to connect with them and smile as adult children and mother shared their worries about the other! An unexpected deep dive into the Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islanders, Japanese and European/American ethos of Hawaii, Oahu (Honolulu) and Maui, materialised after my daughter suggested, “Why not visit our cousin in Hawaii?” In this universe atop lava rocks with roaming feral goats, I entered a slowed down time of self-sufficiency where the details of living could get full mindful focus.

I valued the peaceful energy of a retired Foreign Service Buddhist friend who swims a daily mile at Waikiki and cooked soup and meals for his building shut-ins and other grateful friends. I struggled not to vibrate with the sympathetic electric energy, like a low grade fever, of friends who live with constant anxieties.

An earlier regret in being out of the US was never having met a close cousin’s three children. This was marvellously remedied by visiting over the Jewish High Holidays, which gave me an opportunity to meet my cousin’s extended in-law family. The prominent Calcutta Baghdadi Jewish family in their lineage was only part of the many-textured fabric of connections we wove over our days together.

Discovering the world of children’s ice hockey, hearing of a dramatic recovery from an accident, having a spectator view of preparing a home for staging and sale, understanding a few of the challenges of television production in the time of Covid and even the delight of realising that only we two knew certain family histories shared by my mother/his aunt — none of this could ever have been communicated via Facetime or Zoom.

The Bay Area was for me a cornucopia of friends from school, college, India over the past 50 years, diverse artistes and Indophiles, a cousin and meeting my cosmologist online Odissi student.

My travelogue of connecting with friends had many wonderful experiences, but the main takeaway was the privilege of being welcomed into their personal universes.

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