Friendship in the Time of Corona

Like many other self-pitying Americans reaching for comfort in a time of uncertainty, I recently started rewatching Schitt’s Creek. There’s a lot to love about the show, but what stands out to me this go-around are the gatherings: impromptu parties in Mutt’s barn, Roland and Jocelyn’s backyard Hawaiian-themed hog roast, Jazzagals choir rehearsals, game nights with friends, friends in general… you can probably see where I’m going with this. I miss people, and it feels equal parts heartbreaking and scandalous to watch characters on-screen congregating with reckless abandon while I’m on my (checks watch) ninth month of social distancing. To be fair, I have a handful of friends I’ve seen a handful of times—outside, masked, distanced—but it’s hard without the hugs. It’s hard not to invite anyone into my home, which I work so hard to make the kind of place other people want to be.

Some years ago, a friend and I realized we shared a common aspiration of wanting to be known and remembered as good hosts—our homes havens where all feel warmed and welcomed. This has been true of me for as long as I can remember, but at the time I’d just started living by myself, so it felt like the perfect opportunity to flex my hospitality muscles. Lucky for me, I had a lot of wonderful friends and neighbors around me who made it easy. My apartment, though small, became a gathering place for “rogue Sunday School” discussion group meetings, movie nights, Oscars award show parties, and even a historically-tiny-for-my-family Thanksgiving dinner with just me and my little brother. Within the first few months living there, I had many out-of-town visitors crash with me because I lived in a convenient downtown location. I loved opening my home up to others. It was one of my favorite things about my life—and myself.

As with many things, COVID has exacerbated already-existing tears in our social fabric. For several years now, I have been puzzling over what made that season of my life, and previous ones, so socially rich. Since moving and starting my grad program about five years ago, I have found adult friendships to be much more elusive, and I often think about what role they play in society, including within Mormonism, and why it’s gotten so much harder to create and sustain them. I can’t just chalk it up to a personal issue, either; consider one of my favorite memes (which, I didn’t realize until locating it for this post, was popularized by a Mormon on Twitter):

There are a few theories: it turns out your 30s are much different than your 20s, so maybe just add “social woes” to the list of reasons no one likes aging. Being in a demanding profession (including study programs) can leave people with little time, energy, or perceived “permission” for socializing. As you get older, more and more of your friends pair off—and especially in Mormon culture, couples who tie the knot are infamous for never being seen fraternizing outside the family unit ever again. (Just kidding. Sort of.) To that point, American society, and Mormonism in particular, places high value on the nuclear family unit, often at the expense of extrafamilial relationships and broader community-mindedness. Having kids is a lot of work; parents are understandably tired. It seems like each passing generation is getting more and more anxious, which can certainly take a toll on the kind of energy and spontaneity many friendships require.

These are all obstacles to take seriously, of course. But if we want to address this ongoing crisis of social cohesion, the first order of business is to (re-)assert the importance of adult friendships in our culture. If we don’t hold and protect this as a shared value, we’ll continue to have structures in place that make it difficult for adults to socialize outside of the internet or their immediate household. Ironic, of course, that I write this at a time when the internet and one’s immediate household are currently our safest bet for any human interaction during a public health crisis that has made concepts like “shelter-in-place” and “quarantine” strangely commonplace. Yet I reiterate my earlier point that the pandemic is only accelerating trends already in motion. What we do from here is up to us, though.

I’m inspired by Meg Conley’s recent newsletter “Hospitality in the Time of Covid,” in which she lists some great ideas of how to extend the boundaries of hearth and home during the pandemic. In a similar spirit, I’d like to offer a few practical ideas of how we can cultivate and maintain adult friendships in this, the year of our corona.

  • Do some old-fashioned letter-writing! If you’re like me and have squirrelled away stationery for years, this is an opportunity to finally put it to good use. Otherwise, use whatever is at your disposal or treat yourself to some new letter-writing materials from your local shop (curbside pickup) or an independent seller on Etsy. In the end, it doesn’t matter what you’re writing on, just that you can brighten a friend’s day by having something other than a political flyer or a bill showing up in their mailbox. And who knows? Maybe they’ll be inspired to write back.

    Bonus: If you live in the States, this is a great way to support the US Postal Service! Get inspired to write a whole batch of letters by ordering a sheet of stamps online in a design you like.
     
  • Use porch drop-offs as an opportunity to connect with friends who live nearby. You can swing by and deliver treats, a book to borrow, or a small care package. If they’re home, you can wave from the sidewalk or driveway and have a short in-person chat (masked, distanced). (As someone who did a successful round of reverse trick-or-treating for Halloween and lived on the social high for days, I highly recommend this.)

  • If you want to help a friend but live far away or can’t do a porch drop-off yourself, offer to order their groceries, surprise them by having a restaurant meal delivered (or a baked good! or a fancy seasonal drink from a cafe!), or send a small gift from a local business you want to support. We’re in the golden age of delivery—the sky’s the limit.

  • Take the guesswork out of your virtual hangouts by picking a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly day and time you’ll gather for game nights, Netflix parties, or book clubs. Try to use a different video platform than you use at work (seriously, no more Zoom). I’ve found for myself that Google Hangouts and Facebook video chat effectively signal to my brain that I’m having fun, not logging in to another work meeting. Maybe you like Discord or FaceTime or WhatsApp. Whatever it is, go with something that has positive associations for you and your friends.

  • Check in with your friends regularly. I know many of us are weirdly busy even as our lives are at a standstill and it feels loaded to ask, “How are you?” Ask anyway. Find a way to ask that shows you care and are willing to be a listening ear.

  • Keep inviting people to stuff. One of the depressing things about this time is just feeling like your social calendar is an endless vacuum. But there are still ways to spend time together. Plan a bike ride or caravan to drive through the neighborhood that always puts up a big holiday light display. (You can record a short video for your faraway people.) See if a couple friends want to walk around the park and do some birdwatching or play Pokemon Go. Do a little living-room concert or short cooking demonstration on Facebook or Instagram Live. Keep it safe, keep it outdoors or virtual, but make the invitation. Most people will appreciate it and feel thought-of even if they can’t come along.

  • Pay attention. Be intentional. Show thought and care. These are the ingredients to successful relationship-building of every kind. For a longer list steeped in these basic principles, check out BuzzFeed’s “A More or Less Definitive Guide to Showing Up for Friends.”

As I write this, I understand that it may be hard to implement new behaviors and rituals during this time when everything feels (and is) so upended and even basic tasks like exercising, making meals, or getting our regular work done can feel behemoth. One of the reasons I felt moved to write this post, though, is precisely because I see people getting burned out on pandemic life and letting our collective social life collapse—and this could have ramifications long after we’re fully “reopened.” Example: I’m a member of my department’s social committee. Normally, the graduate students meet at least once a week for happy hour, in addition to brown-bag lunch discussions, film screenings, and holiday parties. This semester, despite our best intentions, we haven’t gotten a single activity off the ground. Not a one. No one wants to schedule another video call. Everyone is burned out on virtual game nights. Our efforts to translate our regular social lives into digital spaces have fallen flat because we’re all starting to feel just how weak a replacement our Zoom hellscape is for “real life.” I’m right there, too, but I also worry that dropping the ball now means we go into the next nine months of social distancing feeling very, well, distant.

I’m also not trying to suggest that there aren’t things we’ve learned to live without that we’ll be just as happy to leave behind forever (makeup, pants with zippers, long commutes, meetings-that-could-have-been-emails). Maybe for you that includes certain social obligations like throwing elaborate themed birthday parties for your two-year-old or going to your boss’s barbecue; if you’re better off without these, more power to you. But no matter how much of an introvert you are or how much you might be reveling in the sweatpants lifestyle, we all need friends and we owe it to ourselves and one another to take care of each other. It’s especially vital that we do so in a society without a strong social safety net, where adults living outside of supportive family structures are often left to fend for themselves. They deserve a community of genuine friends. You deserve a community of genuine friends. And, in case we’ve forgotten, friendship isn’t just another empty obligation of modern life: even though it can take work, it’s also fun, rewarding, and life-giving. 

This Friendsgiving, let’s stay home so we can gather later. Let’s reach out to someone who could really, really use a friendly voice. And as we look to our post-COVID future, let’s make sure the “new normal” includes a reinvigorated commitment to that glorious “sociality which exists among us here.”

Cover photo by Jon Eric Marababol on Unsplash

Comments

  1. Even without pandemic lockdowns I don’t have friends. Lockdown hasn’t changed that.
    And as for the joke about Jesus having friends while in his thirties, it’s not a miracle that he had friends in his thirties; it’s a miracle that his friends weren’t technically just the husbands of his wives friends.

  2. I miss my precious friends so much, but I’m not sure if I will become relentlessly social or a complete recluse at the end of this. I’m actually quite unmoored by it all. And I also wonder who I now am to everyone else, church or otherwise, as I hear from no-one. I have felt passionately about community and conviviality in the past, so love what you’ve said, but I’m lost to myself right now…I guess we’ve maybe run out of things to say, and what we had in common were our various interests and enterprises…

  3. richellejolene says:

    @jader3rd Your point is for sure one of the reasons I felt inspired to write this. There are a lot of adults who are or feel friendless, and that’s just wrong to my mind, especially in the Mormon community. Sorry if the post seemed to make assumptions about existing friendship networks, since I know so many of those were thin even pre-pandemic.

    @wayfarer You’ve beautifully articulated something I missed in the post, which is the general ways in which we feel lost to ourselves right now. Who are we without the things we do? What’s to bond over when there’s no soccer, choir, knitting group, etc? Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I hope we can find our grounding soon.

  4. Excellent reflections and advice all the way through, Richelle. Especially in regards to letter-writing–I really feel that one. And the scheduling of regular virtual hang-outs, such as had been done here on BCC before are also a wonderful way to connect.

  5. Great post; thank you!

  6. Not a Cougar says:

    Richelle, I agree that feeling friendless is wrong, but especially for men in the Mormon community (and specifically those who are active), it’s sort of a feature, not a bug. The unwritten rule has largely been that friendship is what occurs while you’re doing Church activities in class proximity to other men. There’s no Mormon equivalent to going and getting a beer with your buddies and significant hobbies pursued with male friends (without the family present) are viewed suspiciously as a selfish endeavor that takes away time better spent with the family.

  7. richellejolene says:

    @Not a Cougar, you bring up a very interesting point. The social life of Mormons is built around the premise that men need to be corralled into taking family life seriously. It’s a bit different for women, where their devotion to family is taken for granted (or made apparent through being the primary caregiver), so it is more acceptable and sometimes even encouraged to pursue friendships with other women (emphasis on women). Yet even these friendships seem to be more about supporting the woman in “mom life” than something she does totally for herself. You’re totally right: friendship is often cast as “selfish” for Mormons, especially those who are parents. I’d really like to use this forum to challenge that idea, though.

    I’d already considered making this a miniseries, and your comment persuades me anew that there’s much, much more to discuss. Thanks for reading and weighing in!

  8. Men get beat over the head regularly in the church that work is an acceptable use of time that doesn’t involve your children – but not too much, that time spent in callings is an acceptable use of time that doesn’t involve your children – but not too much, and that if you do anything else but focus on spending time with your children you will be found wanting at Judgement Day.

  9. Not a Cougar says:

    Thanks Richelle, and I hope I didn’t hack the discussion. The number of friends I keep in touch with is pretty slim. I have only one friend from high school that I (barely) keep up with and zero from college. My best friend I haven’t seen in person in years since we live several states away from each other, and I’ve stopped even trying to make plans to see him. We don’t live close to either my side or my wife’s side of the family so my time off is already hard to to divide and adding a friend trip to the agenda (even before COVID) just was never in the cards. Thanks for the post.

  10. richellejolene says:

    You definitely didn’t hack the discussion, Not a Cougar. Happy to see a comment thread like this one!

  11. This is a great topic and I love the idea of a series. As an introvert I was trying to make an effort to expand or build friendship just before the pandemic. I realized outside of my parents and husband I don’t have a support system. I assumed part of that was my introverted nature but I have also questioned the community I live in. I have wondered, like in your post, how much family fills in the social side of Mormon life. And, if like my husband and myself, you have a small extended family how do you get that social connection? I figured there had to be others like me so I was trying to find ways to connect more but then the pandemic hit.

    I feel a lot like Wayfarer mentioned, wondering what does friendship mean and look like after the pandemic and election. I have seen some sides of people that make me question my community and how to trust people going forward. There is a longer road ahead to understanding myself and how to relate to myself and others going forward. If you do a series of posts I look forward to reading them. I enjoy hearing the thoughts of others and seeing different ways to look at a situation.

  12. Richelle, this is a great conversation and I have to agree that male LDS friendships are viewed suspiciously in our culture. The message my entire adult life has been that I should either be at work supporting my family, at church serving my God or at home being with my family.

    But I have to push back on your effort to make this dynamic into something that crosses gender lines. Every RS in every ward I’ve lived in has functioned primarily as a way to foster female friendship. There are sisterly retreats, there are sisterly activities, there are sisterly parties, all of them being exclusive to only adult women. I’ve never experienced any kind of exclusively adult male activities in the church. Every EQ/HP activity I’ve ever experienced was created for the men and their spouses or the men and their families and not for just the men. And I know if we were to try and organize exclusively adult male activities/retreats/parties that mimicked what the RS does for women we would get a smackdown from just about everyone for being selfish and ignoring our families and responsibilities.

  13. richellejolene says:

    @KLC Thanks for your comment! I’m not sure I understand the pushback, though. Is it that my argument seems to be gender-neutral and you’re saying it’s harder for men (at least in the Church)? Or something else? Just wanting to clarify because you make a good point about RS versus EQ in terms of social activities. Would you want to see more social activities for men in the Church? What would be fun? (And I ask this because, as much effort as I know goes into RS, some of the activities are more like another church meeting than something I find relaxing or enjoyable.)

    Several of the comments here remind me that I ended up choosing to write about friendship broadly in our culture, and it’s clearly tinged by my situation: woman, in a relationship but not married, 30s, etc. But there’s so much to say about this topic with a specific eye to Church culture. I’d love to use these comments as a jumping-off point to discuss further.

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