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  • Shelly Sanders

How Virtual Connections Improved My Focus



As the idea of quarantine became a reality, I decided there was no choice but to embrace it. Make the most of my enforced time at home. So I did what I do every morning— make a list. But this wasn’t my typical to-do list, it was a list of goals I wanted to accomplish during Covid-19. And, as a Type-A over-achiever, it was impossibly ambitious. Finish my manuscript. Draw a portrait a day. Pursue my search for lost ancestors. Learn Russian. Paint landscapes. Take an on-line course. Read books that aren’t on my two book club lists. Organize my home office.

Two weeks in, my sole achievement was Netflix binging; I’d gone through a couple of series, watched numerous documentaries, and a handful of movies. The only progress I’d made, in terms of my list, was on my manuscript, and even that was slower than usual. I was worried about my parents, my husband (deemed an essential worker), my kids, and the thousands of people battling Covid-19. I was immobilised by fear of the unknown.

At the same time, I was discovering something about myself: I needed connections I took for granted, to be motivated. I needed the buzz of conversations in coffee shops to write, yoga classes to unwind, family dinners to feel rooted, and my synagogue’s Shaarei-Beth El community, to learn and grow spiritually. But all of these connections had been severed with the pandemic, leaving me with an overwhelming sense of vulnerability.

Zoom, the online meeting room, was quickly replacing face-to-face contact. As a writer who spends hours in front of the computer, I wasn’t thrilled. But there were no other options. Either I accepted Zoom or learned to live with a daily angst that felt like tar melting in my core. I started my Zoom experience with the Rabbi’s Torah study. The hour flew by as we shared interpretations of the passages. I enjoyed the stimulation, listening to other viewpoints, being with like-minded people, escaping my home virtually for a short time.

That experience was like opening a dam. The Passover Seder was momentous. Then, with my rabbi, I hosted a Zoom book club meeting and, at times, forgot I wasn’t in the same room with everyone else as we talked about the well-drawn characters and nuanced plot of The Guest Book. Even though there were the usual glitches, frozen screens and sound problems, this new, virtual way of connecting revived my spirits and made me feel less alone, not as helpless. And it was an invaluable outlet, offering the chance for all of us to express our worries about the pandemic’s toll and share stories about our quarantine experiences. Best of all, the normalcy of conversations imbued my creativity. I was finally making headway with my manuscript, I was drawing an ink portrait of an ancestor every day, finished Masterclasses with Neil Gaiman and Joyce Carol Oates, and started Russian with Rosetta Stone.

But I was still struck by bouts of inertia as the number of deaths climbed globally. I had good and bad days. My stomach knotted up frustration. Then, I received an email about the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. Usually, I see two films a year because it’s an hour’s drive each way to the theater. This year, it would be a virtual event, with lower prices and films available on home computer screens. I bought tickets for nine films for $110.00. Thanks to quarantine, I was able to see almost five times my normal number of films. The week of the festival, I sprawled on my sofa with coffee, tea, a snack, and a new film, sometimes two, every night. I learned about the challenges of rehabilitating and integrating the Windermere children, Holocaust orphans, into British society. I saw a Jewish stand-up comedian in the collapsing Soviet regime, challenge censorship. And watched an Israeli politician, determined to increase human rights for all Israelis, fight to keep his seat.

There was a gaping hole in my evenings when the festival ended, which I quickly filled with free films on J-Flix.com. Then, my aunt in California sent me information about a webinar discussing Jewish genealogy. We both signed up and even though it took place in San Francisco, I felt truly connected to my aunt as we watched and chatted online. This webinar led to another, about a topic I’d been researching for my book, intergenerational trauma, focusing on Holocaust survivors.

When the pandemic curve finally began to flatten, I signed up for the school.Sktchy.com

, which provides a portraiture drawing lesson every day for 30 days. One afternoon, as I was drawing my great-grandmother, I noticed the cameo brooch she was wearing. Though I’d seen this photo a hundred times, it wasn’t until I looked closely at the details, to draw her, that I saw the brooch, the same one I had in my jewellery box. I thought it was my grandmother’s but, at that moment, realised it was actually my great-grandmother’s. This was a goose bump revelation I wouldn’t have experienced without quarantine.

Another such moment came when I was drawing an unidentified relative who stood beside my grandmother in several photos. As I focused on the close-set eyes, the high brow, and large comma-shaped lines at the corners of his mouth, I realised it was the younger image of my great-grandfather’s brother. Prior to drawing this face, I’d only seen older images of my great-uncle, murdered in Riga’s Rumbula forest during the Holocaust. Now, because I paid attention to his features, in order to draw his image, I realised he’d been important to my great-grandparents and my grandmother. Quarantine gave me the chance to look closely at family photos, allowing me to add another piece to the puzzle of my ancestry.

I finished a draft of my manuscript last week. To keep my mind off the readers now editing my words, I watched, A Cantor’s Head, a film put on by the Toronto Jewish Film Festival. It’s a documentary about a Conservative congregation cantor in New York, Jack Mendelson, forced to retire after 48 years. He felt redundant, with younger cantors coming up behind him, replacing cantorial davening with a modern rock sound, in an attempt to keep and attract members. Jack had to reinvent himself and, like all of us today, has no idea what tomorrow will bring. But one thing is for certain; his son, also a cantor, will carry on the family tradition. As they chant together at their Passover Seder, it is a powerful symbol of inheritance and hope for the future.

As he prepares for his final High Holidays as a Cantor, Jack laments that congregations today want to sing along, not be sung to. “People have forgotten how to listen in an active way,” he says. For me, on the cusp of Yom Kippur, as I look inwards, seeking Teshuva (repentence), Jack’s insight resonates. I understand how my definition of success is flawed, continuously putting me on the path to perceived failure. Success is not defined by goals crossed off an idealistic list, but rather, paying attention to little things. Details in a portrait. Words in a prayer. The sound of the lake splashing against rocks.

Finding virtual ways to connect amidst the pandemic’s chaos has helped me see with more clarity, to face the unknown head first, and to pay attention, because there is so much to learn from others, as long as I listen closely. This year, instead of regretting the goals I’ve missed, I will be grateful for what I have, and for what I gain daily—increments of awareness, large and small.

G’mar Chatima Tova, May you be sealed for good (in the Book of Life).

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