A Covid Conversation

During our round-the-world journey, we were largely isolated from family and friends. Telephone calls were prohibitively expensive. Postal mail impossibly slow. I learned to rely on email and the occasional video call to keep in touch. Little did I know that I was practicing for a Covid conversation.

Let’s define a Covid conversation as any form of human contact, live or virtual. Let’s include calls, notes, and chats with the neighbors over the back fence. What distinguishes a Covid conversation from all others is that at least one of the participants is in lockdown.

These past 3 weeks, I’ve had numerous Covid conversations. It feels like the nature of our interaction has mutated. I wonder whether these changes are here to stay. This is what I see.

Good Conversation

These days, my critique group convenes online. Aside from sundry technical difficulties and the associated chatter, the virtual meetings proceed much as a live one would have. We discuss the submission at hand and offer our feedback. It’s between breaths, when we exchange social pleasantries, that something new happens. We cling to each other in this moment of normalcy.

Collins St at 5pm by John Brack
Collins St at 5pm by John Brack (1955), National Gallery of Victoria. Photo credit: Karen Kao

I’ve known some of my critique group members for almost a decade. But I’ve never spent much time with any of them outside the context of a meeting. Now, I find myself engaged in one-on-one conversations that are surprisingly open. We talk about fears, frustrations, and coping strategies. It feels OK now to ask: are you getting enough sleep? A Covid conversation can create intimacy.

It also creates opportunities. In the pre-Covid world, schedules and distances stood in the way of a spontaneous conversation or a heart-to-heart. Time used to require parceling out. Now I can zip out of an online tai chi lesson and into an online meeting of Democrats Abroad without breaking a sweat. Time turns malleable when pried loose from the prison of an agenda.

You’ve Got Mail

Get out your quill and ink because letter-writing is back. Why not use your new-found wealth of time to write a thank you note in long hand? Yes, it requires more thought and care than your average email but that’s a good thing, I think. Once you’ve popped your envelope into the mailbox, you can sit by the window like a true Victorian to count the days until your missive will arrive. And then to do the same in reverse to know when you can hope for a reply.

Women's Suffrage Centenary
Women’s Suffrage Centenary 1893-1993, Auckland. Photo credit: Karen Kao

Emails, SMS, messages on any social media platform you like: these, too, are portals into other lives. To celebrate their 32nd wedding anniversary, our friends Annakatrien and Joep filmed themselves making dinner and then had the result delivered to their guests. We learn new way to connect despite the screen between us.

I must admit, however, that not all conversation ends well. This week, I received an email from a business partner, outraged that I had inquired into payments due in these deeply troubling times. I considered many sorts of responses that cycled from anger to guilt. Was my correspondent or a loved one ill? Could there be financial worries or was it the more amorphous angst we all feel about what’s coming down the pike?

In the end, I backed away from this non-conversation. Many of us already feel the coronavirus in our pocketbooks. But money remains a topic hard to broach.

Future Conversation

Since I am utterly unqualified to predict the future, I feel free to add my 2 cents worth to all the other pundits. Jo Ellison of The Financial Times hopes that a little wink will replace the Cro-Magnon handshake as the greeting of choice. Jamie Lee Curtis is hoping to revive the high 5.

And then there’s Ross Duthot of The New York Times ready to rain on all our parades. His prediction? Between the hysteria of lockdown and the promised land of normalcy lies a long road called semi-normal. In that limbo time, some regions will recover sooner than others. Some of us may be allowed to return to work while the rest remains in some form of lockdown. Who will be chosen and how they will be protected against future waves of infection? That’s anyone’s guess.

My guess is that the Covid conversation will go on. And on and on and on. Perhaps, while we wait, we can learn to tackle the tough conversations. I haven’t had to face death within my own circle of acquaintances. It’s a vocabulary I’d rather not master.

But if the time comes, I hope to be up to the challenge of a true Covid conversation. To create intimacy despite distance and time though it feels pointless. To face my own fears of rejection or scorn to pierce through the non-conversation.