Social Rituals in Plague Times

A woman I know who lives in California has a dear friend who lives in Texas and for years the two would send each other occasional texts or emails saying, “When’s our next virtual coffee break?” They would settle on a time and then sit in front of their respective screens – sometimes with coffee, sometimes with wine – and catch up on each other’s lives. One of the bonds between the two was that both are quilters. Jamie Fingal, the quilter who lives in California, made the quilt above, called Soul Sisters, to celebrate this vital friendship ritual.

With so many of us forced to huddle at home to slow the spread of the COVID 19 virus, I was reminded of the potency of something as simple as a virtual coffee break. Now it’s beginning to sink in that we may be hermits for not just weeks but months and I’m here to argue that we’re going to need LOTS of inventive and heartfelt social rituals to keep connected. As the author of four books on family tradition, I’m someone who thinks a lot about the power of personal and community ritual, so I’m using my two decades of research and experience to try to spark a conversation and encourage people to try this for themselves

I feel like many of us have already figured out how to move our work meetings online. I’ve been doing online story “pitch meetings” for Quiltfolk magazine for months: we’ve all been working virtually from the start, with the publisher and staff scattered from coast to coast. Lots of work has been accomplished in this country remotely for some time, and not just by “gig economy” workers like me.

Under the recently imposed limitations on personal contact, other essential spheres of my life have now moved online: I’ve begun experiencing Sunday worship via Facebook Live. Just this week, I took my first workout class virtually, a barre class from the Bar Method franchise here in Princeton, using the Zoom app on my Mac laptop. It felt personal partly because the instructors admired everything from our individual postures to our pets and silly socks, while themselves wearing tutus to match their t-shirts. Sure, I miss coffee hour at church and the extra energy from taking a class with a room full of other women. But I felt like I “got” a worship experience and a workout.

But there is more to life: I need more. Some of us are stuck at home all by ourselves, or maybe we share our dwelling with family members and pets. Whatever our situation, we all desperately need social connections out past our walls. I keep thinking of the poignant videos on social media recently of all the quarantined Italians signing together out their windows and on their balconies. Those incandescent moments of humanity connecting have a vitality like nothing else.

Already this time feels a little like the Groundhog Day movie and I plan to use some of my repetitive plague days working cumulatively on my own skills, like free motion quilting and meditation. But I don’t want to feel isolated from people. Truly, how can we all find meaningful rituals of connection in our indefinite plague state? Here are some ideas I hope will inspire you. It  would also make me immensely happy if you contribute your own experiences and suggestions in the comments. 

Celebrate remotely:  A group of close women friends from my yoga class were supposed to come to my house on Friday night for a long-planned dinner in honor of my birthday. They were making all the food and I was just tasked with setting the table. Of course the celebration was cancelled. But a crazy thing happened at 6:30 pm that night, the time when everyone was supposed to arrive at my house: my cell phone started pinging. One by one by one, each of my guests texted a short video full of love and good humor, with a drink or bottle in her hand. (Here is one, from the ring leader: IMG_2457) It was like a virtual circle hug that made me cry. I quickly poured a glass of wine and texted a video toast right back, my eyes still wet. 

No matter what else is going on in life, we all have milestones to mark (and if we don’t, we need to make some up specific to our new situation. Did you get through a week without murdering anyone in your house? Celebrate that.) Is there someone in your life who should be deluged with orchestrated videos and messages of love and support? The mail still works too: orchestrate a postcard campaign, send flowers, or books. Get creative: if you know an out-of-work musician (i.e. any musician), hire him or her to tape themselves singing or playing a song (cheerful or sardonic, you know your friends), and text or email that video. 

Attend a Virtual Book Group:  I haven’t belonged to a book group in ages but now I’m itching to start a virtual one for the duration of this plague. It’s easy to do and there are multiple ways to work it. One is to create a private Facebook page and then invite your friends. You can just pick random books you’re eager to read or go with a theme. But this is also a great use for online gathering platforms like Zoom or Google Hangout. I know Zoom better and it’s easy to learn and free for a small group: you can see everyone’s face and have a real conversational flow (you may need a leader to stay on topic). Here is a link to a terrific article on how to use Zoom. 

If it sounds like too much work to set one up virtually, here’s the low-tech version: just reach out to another friend who loves the kind of books you do. Decide what book you’re going to read this week and then discuss it on the phone together at the time of your choosing. If you are fine being part of a much bigger crowd, there are some excellent online book groups. Here is a good list of online clubs to get you started (but before you get too excited, the Emma Watson feminist book club is now dormant.)

And finally, we resilient people keep dreaming up new ideas in our time of need: some folks out in San Francisco started something called the Quarantine Book Club, which anyone can join. Authors whose book tours were abruptly canceled are giving scheduled online versions and the full line-up is right HERE. To keep out trolls and bring in a little money, you pay $5 to attend, which is all explained on the site. 

Schedule Watch Parties for the Entertainment of Your Choice:  I don’t know about you, but I’ve gotten to the point where I can’t watch television award shows or political debates without my phone in hand, reading the simultaneous comments and critiques (usually from the NY Times). If you’ve got a TV or computer at home right now, you have a pretty endless buffet of viewing options, an overwhelming amount actually. But why not make that a bonding experience by watching with distant close friends and texting the whole way through. Whether it’s documentaries or romcoms, war movies (that would have been my husband’s choice) or manga classics (my son’s preference), make a plan and put it on your calendar. Again get creative, the Metropolitan Opera is now offering free streaming of great performances straight to your computer at 7:30 pm nightly: dress up, sip champagne. Got tiaras? 

For those who are tech-savvy, there are even some apps you can download so that you can have watch parties of shows on Netflix, Amazon and Hulu and see each other’s faces on your computer screen at the same time. Here is an article from the site TechHive explaining how all that works and which app they recommend.

Cook Together Apart:  In several of my books I wrote about the tight-knit Gines family and some of their traditions designed to help the extended family feel close. On an evening right before Thanksgiving, every household starts baking Grandma Betty’s pie recipe at the exact same time and while they are baking, Grandma Betty calls each grandchild up for a private chat.

What’s your version of that? My friend Beth Nichols recently posted on Facebook that she and her daughter Sami, who lives in Minnesota, often “bake long distance,” making the same recipes and comparing notes. “We chat as we go along,” said Beth. “Like, my dough is sticky now, is yours?” Last week, they were both making shortbread and trying to get it to taste like the butter cookies they had eaten in Scotland (close but no cigar is what I heard).


Play Games Online: There is something about solving a puzzle or playing a game remotely that connects people more deeply than mere conversation. I know this because in the last years of my mother’s life, when she was confined to bed with late-stage emphysema and battling horrors like bedsores, we continued our ritual Sunday phone chats. And one thing that became a regular feature was Mother asking me to help her complete the local newspaper’s crossword puzzle. The fact that it was a cooperative problem-solving moment lifted us out of the medical context and into a give-and-take normalcy that was immensely comforting. 

These days, there are vast internet resources for playing games together while apart for every age and taste, from Bingo to chess. Parade magazine just published an article titled “The 22 Best Online Games to Play With Friends During the Coronavirus Outbreak.” In addition, the awesome Wirecutter website reviewed a ton of board games to find the best ones for grownups, and a recent Wirecutter article said most have online versions. 

One other possible resource I just learned about to help bring the generations together is from a company called Kidvelope. This is pitched especially to grandparents and consists of “mission adventure games” you buy and send in the mail. The kids get a boxed activity kit and then you work online jointly to solve problems. It looks like fun but I haven’t tried it myself. 

Daily Rituals of Connection and Comfort: For the people nearest to your heart, however far distant they may be currently, think of some small daily ritual you might perform virtually, from a shared prayer at bedtime to a daily check-in call. I know families who had a bedtime ritual of “grateful and grumbles,” where the kids and the parents shared both, but had to end with the happier list of gratefuls for that day. Might something similar work for you and a loved one?

Or maybe it’s that virtual coffee break. Or wine break. I have a friend in real life who is currently going live on Facebook every day at 5 pm, when she plays a song she loves and dances in her kitchen, inviting friends to dance along and share photos of themselves doing so. 

Maybe you need to create your own version of a quarantini and start a virtual happy hour for your tribe! (Important health announcement: although there are tons of quarantini recipes online that include vitamin-C supplements, the maker of Emergen C has pointedly said that its product isnt a cocktail mixer. My advice is to make a quarantini that tastes good which definitely wouldn’t include that orange powder. You are welcome.)

I plan to add more examples to this post when I find them. And I can’t wait to hear what new and rejiggered rituals are helping you keep close to those you love.