Note: This commentary is part two of a three-part series by islander and man-about-town Jeff Hoyt, about a return to a new normal, post-COVID.
I don’t remember which November windstorm it was, but I know our kids were at the perfect age for a power outage.
When the transformer down the road blew (as we knew it would), Natalie went on candle-wrangling detail and Eli excitedly helped me load up the woodstove. We were rocking the Renaissance look within minutes. For the next two days, we cooked on the grill and played board games in front of the fire. The conversation was free-flowing, loud and hilarious.
Then the power returned, and we burst apart as quickly as we had come together, each retreating to our isolated computers, phones, iPads and video games.
In the middle of frenzied responses to overdue work emails, I suddenly missed what we’d captured. I even thought of sneaking out to the breaker box and flipping the house back into darkness in order to prolong that clustered energy a little bit longer.
Sometimes I think of this pandemic as one long power outage. We’ve all been forced to adapt by creating new ways of getting the companionship, stimulation, and connection we crave. We’ve built new routines we know are worth preserving even after the vaccines turn the power back on. But will we?
I’m thinking of the many evenings around our backyard fire pit over the past months. During the “Before Times,” it got used maybe once or twice a year, mostly in summer. COVID transformed it into our living room, a safe space for our “pandemic pod” to gather. I’ve grown to love the ritual of stacking kindling and pre-staging the logs that will keep all of us warm. Tiki torches are filled, chairs and side tables carefully placed at the prescribed intervals, and lights in the trees plugged in to illuminate the path—all in anticipation of conversation with good friends. My wife Cindy and I have found these evenings deeply therapeutic, enhanced by a soundtrack of hooting owls and yipping coyotes from the deep woods.
But it’s been a long winter. Colder weather can chill our bones despite the roaring fire, and when the wind picks up we have to play musical chairs with the smoke. Once we’re able to safely gather indoors again, will we relegate the fire pit to its pre-pandemic state? I hope not.
For many of us, Zooming has brought people together in ways no one could have expected. I know of extended families who’ve never had this level of contact, gathering for Happy Hours every week. Right now, they can’t imagine life without it. But will those connections hold once our days grow busier? I hope so.
For me, the absolute best thing to come out of the pandemic is “Wednesday Night Facetime Cooking with Natalie.” Our daughter lives north of Seattle, and every Sunday she and I select a recipe and shop for the ingredients in our separate neighborhoods. Come the Big Night, we prop our phones on the counter and work through the recipe together, step-by-step. During simmering or baking times we hit the couch and catch up with each other over a glass of wine. When dinner is ready we hardly notice that our dining tables are forty miles apart.
Then it’s time to retire to the family room(s) for a synchronized viewing of whatever we happen to be watching together. We just finished “The Crown,” with Cindy and I sharing earbuds and all of us getting our Mystery Science Theater on, riffing on the royal family’s frustrating relationships. (“Say you’re sorry, Charles! Dude! Say it!” “You know he never does. He’s just like his mother!” “So once again, upper lips remain stiff to the detriment of an entire nation.”)
Endless COVID precautions, warnings, and prohibitions have forced people to find workarounds for connecting with family and friends. Every moment that resembles anything close to “normal” is the fuel that sustains us until the power comes back on.
But when it does—clogging our calendars and our lives with urgent commitments once again—will we carry forward the creative adaptations that gave us so many tiny victories over an unseen adversary? Let’s not just hope we do. Let’s just…do.
Jeff Hoyt is a writer, audiobook narrator and the long-time program director of Voice of Vashon.