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Social distancing did not seem like such a hardship in the beginning. As an introvert, I welcomed having a chance to pause and take a breath, plan, create and dream. My energy for reaching out to potential new consulting clients flagged after my husband, David Beynon Pena, died in 2016 and has never returned to its original levels. Networking has always been an energetically draining, necessary evil for me, a muscle I have to keep flexing to maintain. I had a trick, go to two networking events a month and, at each, commit to meet three people. After that, I would stay if my interactions were fun and potentially profitable OR I was free to leave.

In the eleven months of David’s battle with pancreatic cancer and the side effects of chemo, we both focused on spending his last days with our favorite people, doing activities we loved. We stopped being such people pleasers and began asking more directly for what we wanted. Since he died, I am still unwilling to waste my time, pass up opportunities and be left with regrets. Life is short.

However, this coronavirus pandemic has taken away many ordinary pleasures and essential in-person connections which I had not realized I would miss so much. Wayne and I, from our early dating days, loved to walk 10,000 or more steps, exploring the neighborhoods of our marvelous city, NYC. Masks, social distancing 6-10 feet and hand washing are now the norm, in elevators, laundry rooms, grocery stores and on the street. I want tiny windshield wipers for my glasses to handle the hot fog. We are lucky to walk 1,000 steps most days and, in March and April, we barely left the apartment at all. I swerve away from those who walk too close and glare at the unmasked who don’t give me enough space. It is a strange experience to be afraid of people. I worry that the effect will be unconsciously lasting for many of us.

Music is so important to me that, in my Bumble profile, I said the men I dated “must love music”. I have been going to an open mic called Singers Space Mondays since January 2017, when my friend, Mim, invited me to join her until everything closed down in March. The host and regulars who go there are welcoming and nonjudgmental so it was a place I could go, listen to music, sing and even cry sometimes when I was sad. It’s like a family with less complicated dynamics. Since I had no children or even a cat to touch me, I looked forward to huge hugs from D’Ambrose when I arrived and people happy to see me, saying so. I miss that. It’s air hugs and elbow bumps these days. In the last few weeks, I have begun to see outdoor open mics on Fridays, everyone masked except the singer. I have only touched my boyfriend, Wayne, and my mother-in-law, Joyce, in the last four and a half months. It is a very strange time.

In the meantime, with D’Ambrose’s OK, I began a virtual zoom call for our community on Mondays. It gives us a chance to see each other’s faces, sing a little, laugh together and catch up. My intent is to keep our singing family intact and connected enough that, if someone is struggling, we can reach out to let them know they are loved. I have heard friends try to go it alone saying things like, “I haven’t been doing well but I hope I’ll be better soon,” and, “I haven’t wanted to bother anyone. I apologize for worrying you”. I believe it is the privilege of a friend to look out for family and friends, not a bother, but a joy. Economically, NYC is theatre, music, museums, food and drink. Now, the streets are empty and there are no tourists because there’s nothing to do. Once Bar Thalia opens again, we need to show up full force and support the business or it might not survive. We need open mics to survive. Singing, movement and art are forms of self-expression which move emotions through the body and there are a lot of feelings in the air these days.

I have come up with 3 strategies to expand my coronavirus- and self-imposed barriers to stepping out again to choose life.

  • Test the edges of my fears by taking a bus, the subway, a ferry and walking our streets, even though I am afraid
  • Get out and observe for myself what is real, how respectful people are about masks and social distancing now to see if my fear is bigger than life
  • Give myself something to look forward to, planning to go to an open mic and sing Friday, to visit family as soon as everyone is comfortable with the idea

Going it alone only works for cowboys and it doesn’t really, even for them. We are better, more effective and happier together, ideally in person. As human beings, it is our nature to care about each other. Something feels missing when we can’t do so. If you are struggling and able to do so, reach out. I remember being so exhausted, I could not even ask for help easily when I was in bad shape that first year after David died. I get how hard it can be. If you are in good shape and a member of your community has vanished, reach out, even if just to say “Hi, you matter and I noticed you’ve been gone. Are you OK?” In 2020, between the economy, coronavirus pandemic and social justice protests, the world has turned upside down, and human touch, even at six feet or virtual, matters more than ever.

Don’t go it alone like a cowboy. There is a hole in my world when you take yourself away.

Who will you answer or reach out to today?