Humans are social animals, and social animals need touch – the language of empathy and compassion. But with physical distancing the new norm as we work to curb the spread of coronavirus, many are starting to feel the effects of a lack of human connection.
Connor Wright, of South Burlington, works at Healthy Living. He currently “feels the distance” of being apart from family and friends. A self-described “lifelong gamer,” he usually enjoys getting together with friends to play video games, sitting by the firepit with neighbors and visiting his parents for dinner.
Digital platforms are becoming peoples’ lifelines during the pandemic, and Wright is no stranger to the in-vogue technology: He’s a fan of Discord, a platform that allows users to voice-and-video chat, and to livestream games. He attends poetry night with his neighbors via Zoom, and watches movies with his mother through video chat, each on their own computers – two miles apart.
Wright’s go-to place of calm is audiobooks. Sci-fi, fantasy fiction, anything different from our current reality. He’s also teaching himself French. Though the language is challenging, he says he’s “crushing Duolingo,” a popular app.
These digital activities keep Wright busy during his time off from work, but they’re not a true replacement for human interaction. He said, “I feel the imaginary wall.”
At work, that wall is real – the mask he wears. He appreciates the importance of wearing a mask, though it often makes it difficult for customers to understand what he’s saying. He supplements his voice with pantomimes and pointing, which can be both comical and frustrating.
But he takes a deep breath and says to himself, “I can do this.”
Shelburne’s Pete Daigle is doing it too – with a traumatic brain injury. It has been decades since his injury, but the fallout is lasting.
People with traumatic brain injuries need routine to help keep them focused. For Daigle, he feels fortunate that he still has part-time work sterilizing cars for Burlington Subaru. But coronavirus has upended other routines, mostly the yoga classes he’s used to attending five times a week.
His home is now his studio, the yoga instructor a face on a screen. As a founder of the Brain Injury Association of Vermont, his participation in board meetings means more screen time. For someone with a traumatic brain injury, too much screen time is a brain drain. Daigle prefers in-person connection.
“It’s not the same,” he said of “Zooming” and talking on the phone with his children and aging mother.
Yoga is his salve, even if it means more Zoom. Being a student of meditation has been his saving grace. “Meditation, and yoga, clears a path for me,” he said.
Daigle has trailblazed other paths to keep him connected. He’s in a virtual book club and volunteers every other Saturday at his church, boxing donated food for people in need.
Daigle “trusts that everything will be okay.” In the meantime, he said he is riding out the turbulence with the mindfulness of a Buddha: “All you can do is all you can do.”
Janne and Howard Giles
Janne and Howard Giles have taken heed of the mindfulness approach during the pandemic. Retired educators, who relocated from Brandon to South Burlington last summer to be closer to family, they said they see this time as an opportunity.
“It has forced us to stop and notice things we haven’t noticed before, especially new and unusual flowers,” Janne said.
When they make physical-distancing visits to their grandchildren by the lake, the couple is entertained by watching them discover all kinds of rocks. They recently visited the Freemont Cemetery for the first time, where the Ethan Allen Monument stands 35 feet tall. The monument inspired them to create a cemetery scavenger hunt for their grandchildren.
They are being creative in other ways, too, like enjoying “take out from their kitchen.” They pack up dinner, drive to the waterfront, and watch the sunset from their truck.
Janne, who started sewing when she was 8, has been making masks for anyone who needs them. “It’s something I can do to help,” she said.
While she threads her sewing machine, Howard often puts together a jigsaw puzzle.
Since they started their physical distancing routine on March 8, he has completed 8 puzzles. Eight. Thousand. Pieces.
When they’re not exploring or creating, they are relaxing, they said, dreaming of the day when they’ll be sitting around the dinner table, six-feet closer to their children and grandchildren.
Physical distancing for South Burlington high school junior Ana Magalhaes has been especially difficult. She and her parents moved from their home in Portugal to South Burlington in 2018. Soon after Magalhaes began to develop close friendships, the pandemic hit.
What she misses most are hugs from friends. “A hug is worth more than a thousand words,” she said.
An eager student, Magalhaes does homework over the phone with her friends.
“It’s like being in the library together,” she said.
With Portugal time five hours ahead, studying from home gives Magalhaes the flexibility to call her 5-year-old cousin more often, whom she now feels closer to.
She also feels closer to her parents, saying, “We’re talking more.”
While she sits at one end of the kitchen table studying, her dad joins at the other, making it easy for her to ask questions about her homework. Sometimes she stretches out on her parents’ bed to read, the cat at her side, while her parents work at their desks in the same room.
The three of them also play card games and watch Netflix together, she said. And the pandemic has afforded Magalhaes leverage to feed her natural curiosities. She recently completed an online birding and genetics class, and will be taking college-level mythology and children’s literature this summer.
But there are moments when she feels like she’s missing out. That’s when she said she reminds herself – “We’re all in this together.”