Coming Together by Being Apart

Moretto da Brescia, Christ in the Wilderness, 1515–20.

I had planned to write a post today with suggestions on what to do to fill the long hours of quarantine. But the fact is that the waves of anxiety that I’m feeling and that, I suspect, a lot of you are also dealing with make it hard to focus. I’m thankful to have an urgent task: fixing up an old shed in the backyard that could potentially function as a spare bedroom. Carpentry projects normally engage me and make the hours just fly by. But in this crisis I find myself stopping many times in the day and just staring into space or, worse, compulsively checking Twitter or the news. In the evening I either have anxious conversations with friends or look at dumb YouTube videos.

Kelly had to go to San Francisco to take care of a relative. So I’m alone in the house with our dog, cats, chickens and bees. How ironic that this nightmarish new reality should arrive in the middle of Lent to force us all out into a period of collective separation.

I’ve been struggling with that separation. In a crisis our moral instinct tells us to come together. Staying apart feels selfish. It’s counter-intuitive that the best expression of community right now is a lack of community. To keep everyone safe we must self-isolate. We must also convince our friends and relatives who are still in denial that they also must stay at home for the good of all. One bit of solace came from listening to a podcast about the 1918 Spanish Flu. All the struggles we’re going through right now were also dealt with in 1918: social distancing, closed institutions, and difficult decisions for doctors and nurses.

One thing we have now that they didn’t have in 1918 is technology that can bring us together while we’re apart. Our neighborhood has a monthly happy hour every third Friday. Instead of meeting in person we’re going to do a Zoom call later tonight. As journalist Corey Pein pointed out on Twitter yesterday we need to do more work to make peer to peer versions of Zoom possible so we don’t have to rely on one company. One such effort is Matrix, an open sourced, decentralized communication project. Or, perhaps better, we could work on a nationalized communications system like the Minitel system in France that operated from 1980 to 2012. Wouldn’t it be nice to have the features of Facebook without the profit motive?

How are you, our dear readers, coping? What are you doing? Leave a comment with where you live and what things are like. And blessings to all of you in this difficult time.

Leave a comment


  1. So true–for all the ills of social media, technology, etc., it is what is getting me through this. Need I remind myself that this is week 1? Hopefully the transition stage will be over soon and I can settle down. Here is Virginia there is a mix–many at home like me, many closings, but the park was full of adults and children last evening, so I worry.
    Here is a fascinating story for when you need a mental health break:

    • Thanks for sharing. Great advice and now I have a phrase for what I do way too much, the “anxious scroll.”

  2. Hank Green did a great vlog about avoiding the anxious scroll:

    My trainer just did a remote session that about 10 of us alums showed up for. Thank goodness it’s springtime here in Oakland, as I’ve been able to get a lot of gardening done. And, like chopping firewood if you’re living on wood heat, food gardening warms the soul at least twice.

  3. Dear Eric,

    I, too, am dealing with anxiety that coats everything I do. It’s hard to concentrate and get motivated. I pry myself away from the news to play solitaire on my phone. The other thing that I’m dealing with is a sense that I should be productive while I’m in isolation. Make every minute count! Learn how to do all the things you wanted to do before but didn’t have the time: origami,underwater basket weaving, and write a bestseller about surviving a pandemic…it’s exhausting.

    After week one, I’m taking stock of what matters to me most. That’s getting some exercise/fresh air, eating good food (as opposed to junk food), and giving myself the space I need to absorb our new way of life. Who knows how long this will last? I, for one, have no intention of ending up a depressed mess hiding under her bed.

    Thanks for being there, Eric, it helps to hear a familiar voice with all the uncertainties we face.

    • Thank you for sharing. There’s no sugar coating it–there’s a lot to be anxious about. I’ve been making an effort to acknowledge that anxiety but also be thankful for the position I’m in. I have food and a roof over my head. I’m surrounded by a community of caring people. I’m trying to allow myself to be okay with not being productive right now.

  4. Here we have Nextdoor Digest and a group of neighbors have banded together to give a hand to anyone who is at risk when going out to the market. This is a way to connect with each other in the neighborhood to keep abreast of what is happening.
    There are so many things I want to do and am doing while stuck at home, but I do find days when all I want to do is sleep. The news stressful and exhausting. And stress weakens our immune system so I’m trying to not listen so much.
    My way of getting around the depression has been to sit in my yard in the sunshine. (Though this morning I had to bundle up.) Being out in nature, even just in my back yard, makes me feel like some things are still the same. Same blue sky, birds, trees, fresh air and sunshine. For this I am thankful.
    As humans we are resilient and I am hoping that our economy can be also.
    Blessings to you and Kelly

    • I did the same thing yesterday. Sat in the backyard and listened to some music. It was a beautiful day and I instantly felt a lot better.

  5. Strangely, I have had more in-depth conversations since this has started than I have had in….I’m embarrassed to say….years. And I have a lot of conversations, but mainly they happen at work. There is suddenly all this TIME and nothing to do but sit and talk to people. From a long ways away. Or on my phone. I had a record-long conversation with my 91 year old Grandma yesterday. There IS a lesson to be learned here….if I have more energy, I have more energy for other people. A lot of my lack of communication with folks is from a genuine lack of energy….once that energy tap opens, I’m genuinely interested in communicating with them. Something to pay attention to over the next few weeks…

    • I’ve been doing the same thing. Checking in with people on the phone. Hopefully will keep up this habit once we all get through this.

  6. I am tuning in to live-streamed church services like Compline and Morning Prayers that are broadcast from monasteries and parish priests. And our church women’s book club is going to meet on Zoom this week, at the time we had previously scheduled our book tea together.

    I’m surprisingly nourished by these virtual gatherings that I can join with, even though part of me is always distracted by “everything else.”

    And I don’t watch TV! It was so sad to talk to my cousin who seemingly could not pull herself away from it except during the time she was with me on the phone. And she had therewith been stirring herself up into an irrational state. 🙁

    • My church is doing the same thing. It’s actually worked out okay. And good for you for not watching TV. I think it’s okay to check in on the news once or twice a day but to have it on all the time is toxic.

  7. The Minitel! That brings back memories of being a summer exchange student in France in 1993…

    Here in Vienna we are keeping our fingers crossed that the curve continues to flatten as it has the past few days. We can go shopping for essentials without printing out a piece of paper like in France or Italy. We are also (still) allowed to go for a walk (alone or with people in your household). There was a big discussion on Thursday as to whether parks would be closed because so many people were going out that they couldn’t maintain the appropriate physical distance in some parks. That might be the next restriction, but for the time being we are still free to stretch our legs. There are more police out patrolling and the fine is 3,000 euros if you don’t keep a distance or gather in groups of more than 5 people.

    Most of my anxiety is concern for family and friends in the States and what might happen. I have written many an email this week and have heard back quicker than ever from everyone, echoing the title of your post. Otherwise, I try to limit time spent reading the news and shift my focus to projects around the house. Qi gong and breathing exercises keep the body fit for whatever virus will come my way.

    I hope that you and Kelly are not apart very long. I would not be in such good spirits if I were all alone. Take care and keep writing!

    • Good to hear from Vienna and get an international perspective. Some people here are not keeping distance and others are which makes going out on the street really awkward. A little more social cohesion and less individualism would be helpful right now.

  8. Melbourne,Australia. We have very few restrictions-mostly for if you want to go and eat out, which is still permitted as is unlimited attendance at shopping centres. Some supermarkets have put green tape down the aisles with big Xs so you can maintain the recommended 1 5m distance.
    Toilet paper, sugar, flour, rice, pasta, canned and frozen vegetables all in short or no supply. I have work for the next 2 weeks in a small call centre. Only 4 of us in whereas there’d normally be around 10-15. Social distance easy enough to maintain in the room, with hand sanitiser, alcohol wipes and disinfectant spray available.
    I have a half acre block that needs to be licked into shape if shutdown occurs here

    • Melbourne, Australia. Monday lunchtime 23/3.
      We have moved to closure of churches, cafes, gyms etc. My local collection of surplus bread and food from the supermarkets has just been shut down. I am thankful I did a fill up shop 3 days ago. Already given some flour and sugar to needy neighbour’s. Claire

  9. I have good days and bad days. The days at home or if we go hiking, are good ones — they are the places which seem exactly the same and that familiarity is comforting. Oddly enough the days we have to go to the supermarket are the hardest. There is a VERY tangible tension between people now, even though everyone is polite. You can just tell there’s a lot of fear there — with all of us. We are putting in our garden this weekend, so that’s always a happy thing though. And after that we can pretty much pull up the drawbridge for several months if needed.

    • It’s a unique kind of hell isn’t it? Having to keep distance from people–for the common good–is awful. Can’t wait to be on the other side of this.

  10. Thank you for the beautiful image. Your website is on my toolbar for daily checking because your researches are so interesting. Also glad you are re-starting the garden! We have 5 laying hens and small but very productive garden on 5 acres in rural N. Florida.

    • Thank you for keeping us on your toolbar! Hope all goes well for you in the coming weeks.

  11. Hi Eric, greetings from Finca en la Cuidad in Napa, Ca, not the worst place to be isolated. The anxiety is real, but it’s a slow-brewing kind, and I admit I am addicted to following the news, however it’s all from internet, as we haven’t had a TV for over 20 years. But the anxiety does bubble up from all the unknowns.
    My wife and I went from being empty-nesters, to a house of five, with my two college age daughters, and an older millennial son hunkered down with us. We don’t get the luxury of us all being together like this even during holidays!
    I have been practicing a “lazy” style of gardening where I let certain plants go to seed every year, so we have lots of healthy greens right now; chard, Arugula, cilantro, Japanese mustard, leeks, and lots of herbs. I also plant garlic, onions, and fava beans in the Fall, so those will be ready soon. We are also fortunate to have walnut trees, so there are lots of those. Used to have chickens, but have taken a break and might get back into that soon. We are fixing up a part of the garage that was built for a music studio, so now it will be my son’s bedroom. We are adjusting as much as we can, and feel pretty fortunate, compared to others.

  12. I work in a hospital and have had to fight panic attacks several times. Like all hospitals, ours is very short on protective gear. Our ER screens cases but I worry that some are missed, get admitted for something and then what? Testing at that point is a challenge, because any staff who had contact with the tested patient have to go home – about 24 hours if the test comes back negative, 2 weeks if it doesn’t. As you can imagine, a single patient might be managed by 20 or so staff, so the potential impact on staffing is huge. So, I know it’s hard to be home but please stay home, everyone. The fewer cases we have the better. All of us would LOVE to be home instead of at work…. Eric and Kelly, blessings to you both! Your blog is a bright spot in my day.

    • Sherry–stay safe–and many thanks to you and everybody else in the medical profession who are on the front lines of this crisis.

  13. My largest stressor was Tommy insisting on going to church. Finally, he heard enough news that he relented. I have not been letting him go into stores. I do that because I am abeliever in all this and wear a mask, gloves, and carry Lysol Wipes and use them. We have food enough for several months without me shopping in a tizzy. I still go into stores for loss leaders, milk, and bananas.

    I was taken by ambulance to UAB hospital here in Birmingham, AL. I asked everyone for a mask and was told there was no virus here in Birmingham. I corrected the doctor and nurses, telling them that it was here, just that the first case had not been tested. The news the next day was that the first case was reported. This county has more cases than any county in the state. I was correct.

    • Hope you are okay and home safe. Tell Tommy that many churches are streaming services–the responsible thing to do in my opinion.

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