Streets were once a whirl of sound and movement. Now the Upper West Side seems like a slow summer Saturday with so many skipping town, finding pleasure somewhere else. Cheery optimism is not present now. My neighborhood looks like an empty stage set. Owners post signs on their restaurant doors, bright as beach balls. Some signs say closed, with takeout orders only. A few flyers post long messages with support for their neighbors and the community we all love.
Others read like prayers. I look up at the sky seeing birds that once circled in unity are flying in all different directions. The sky still seems blue and the day is beautiful. This cheerful view is an illusion. These days are the time of the coronavirus. The world seems split open.
I discover hope in an unusual place. For over five years, I conducted telephone classes for the elderly. No, we don’t Skype or Zoom. The process is simple. We meet by conference call to create a safety net, warm as a winter quilt. The program is called University Without Walls, one of the programs of Dorot, a nonprofit organization. Topics include art, music and health advocacy. For this spring, I developed seven one-hour phone sessions. One title was "Resiliency: Bouncing Back After Hard Times." I researched the theme, produced a booklet for group members, and encouraged discussion.
Intimacy develops. We are aware of sadness or joy in a simple "Hello." We are scattered over this country in different settings, time zones and histories. Group members live in San Francisco, Miami, Staten Island and the Bronx. Most participants do not have computers.
At least two in my group are homebound. Their entire world may be a very small space. Usually, we explore the class’s topic. Now, we assess their lives. The participants do not focus on political strategies or new medical advances. Their solutions are simple. Discover knitting. Plan a schedule. Reach out to friends and family. Listen to music. Light a candle. Write letters.
One bed-bound woman told the class how she loved crocheting booties and filled them with jelly beans. I suggest journaling to keep a record of these dark times. One member states she lived in Israel through “the war years. I can get through anything.” Another mentions the power of those who survived the Holocaust. Unity develops between these unknown, invisible strangers. Our phones, our thoughts become a chord of connection. In this time of the coronavirus, this bleak unknown, the music of our voices lights the way.
Constance H. Gemson creates and conducts workshops on resiliency, creativity and other topics. Her play "A Cigarette Girl in The South Bronx" was recently produced by the Working Theater.