The soon to be 8-year-old held her handmade poster up to the camera proudly, its colorful bold letters proclaiming her fondest wish. The setting wasn’t a protest march, though that may be where she got the idea. It was my family-on-zoom birthday party arranged by my husband. The poster was the biggest birthday card ever, delivering its “Happy Birthday” message across three time zones.

There’s a lot we’ve been missing these last four months since social distancing became necessary due to the pandemic. But mostly our losses can be summed up in our longing for social and physical connection. We have memories of such times, and in case that fails, our Facebook accounts ding us frequently with photographic reminders of past family trips and celebrated community occasions. I sometimes sign my emails, “hugs from afar,” but none of this completely feeds my social soul.

I’ve appreciated having more time to myself for creative projects and less energy going to social obligations, but to be with those we love and to participate in community events we enjoy–these are losses we will continue to grieve until we find safe alternatives. This past week I’ve been fortunate to experiment with a couple of possibilities. I’d tried family gatherings on Zoom before with mixed success, but this time, giving everyone a chance to gather at a time convenient to them, check in on what’s up in their lives, and to share a favorite memory became a delightful way to connect and celebrate my birthday. Given the convenience–length of time (one hour), no travel, no clean up after the gathering –I can imagine this becoming a form we might continue to practice no matter what the new normal after the pandemic looks like.

The second experiment was one of social community connection that happened as an in-person gathering in the open air at Philips Park in Carrick, a Pittsburgh community. I felt excitement and some trepidation as my husband and I accepted the invitation of a courageous and creative African American young woman. We were to facilitate a community conversation sponsored by her community council. Everyone wore a mask and sat in their lawn chairs six feet apart from people not in their family group. We had microphones, drums, and music as people gathered to answer the question-“ In light of the larger scale conversations and events happening around the world–race, Black Lives Matter, and the inequities unmasked by the pandemic, how do we want to reimagine our community as we move into the future?

In gratitude for the gift of cool breezes after a couple of swelteringly hot weeks, and the shelter of the park’s mature shade trees, the events of the early evening were full of grace and ease. As an intergenerational and interracial group, we played with simple words and themes that celebrated what we have in common. We explored our reactions to the words and themes of recent events in our country. And while reminding one another, or learning together, some of Carrack’s historical facts, we shared our re-imaginings and wishes for the Carrick community of the future. As facilitators we found it a challenging and satisfying experience. One worth stepping out of our comfort zone to experience. As stated by one participant, “courage over comfort –it’s a worthwhile community practice.”