Gathering in Ann Arbor: What the New Normal Looks Like

Last night, in the dark, frigid cold, my “Saturday Night Live” group of friends gathered for our weekly pandemic meet up. We arranged our chairs in a large circle, making sure that we were at least 6 feet apart, wearing masks until we were safely settled in our 12’ circle of safety. Our host of the evening made a pot of steaming hot, delicious soup that he served us on his driveway. Another friend contributed two giant buckets of popcorn from the Michigan Theater, we had cupcakes and samosas, and I brought freshly baked cornbread. We sat there for three hours, in camp chairs that have seen more use than any of us could have imagined. No one quite wanted to return to their homes where they would once again face the walls they had been staring at since March. 

We have been meeting every Saturday evening without a break since April. The consistency would have been unthinkable pre-pandemic for this group with normally hectic lives. We would struggle to find a date when we were all free, burdened by work obligations, travel, family, and tasks of life filling our calendars. We used to meet every couple of months, a subset finding time for happy hour, and even then, someone would often have to back out or leave early due to competing social engagements.

For the past eight months, it has been a highlight of my week, a comforting fixture on my calendar. Every Saturday, someone has stepped up and offered to host. Occasionally, it would take a few email exchanges to secure a place and a plan. We have rotated from yard to deck to driveway, from downtown to neighborhoods to the countryside, either surrounded by city lights or a bucolic field with deer in the distance, watching the sun set earlier and earlier as this pandemic persisted.

For our summer gatherings, we wore shorts, tee shirts, and sandals, drank chilled wine and ate cold salads. We basked in the lingering sun, surrounded by blooming flowers and green, leafy trees. This fall was kind, with especially mild temperatures. But soon enough, the air turned brisk, leaves began to drop and as the days grew shorter, we donned pants and sweaters. We still sat for hours, sipping red wine, maybe ordering a pizza and munching on the weekly supply of popcorn. I started bringing an extra fleece and hat to protect against the evening chill.

As the temperatures cooled, we became increasingly anxious. How would we possibly tolerate the evenings as the temperatures plunged? It did not sound especially appealing. We experimented with pre-meal hikes to get our blood moving. We watched movies, projected on a sheet hung from the front porch to distract ourselves while we shivered. On Halloween, we viewed episodes of “The Munsters” and ate leftover candy to keep our bellies occupied since so few children were trick or treating. We tried dancing to music played from a computer speaker, but it was difficult to move gracefully in our bulky coats. And we brainstormed ways to make these gatherings comfortable and sustainable.

A couple of fire pits have come out of storage, helping to mitigate the deep chill that seeps into our bones from sitting for hours without moving. Extension cords power electric blankets, we wear long underwear, wrap ourselves in sleeping bags, and sip from thermoses of hot tea and toddies. I found a heating pad in the basement, hardly used, that will become a staple. Last night, it sat on my lap, snuggled under my long down coat along with a wool blanket, sleeping bag, fleece hat, neck gaiter, ear muffs, and gloves. I waited until one of my friends ventured to the food table so I could request delivery of a cupcake as I loathed the prospect of unwrapping from my cocoon.

Our gatherings ranged from BYO everything; chair, drinks, snacks, and snack table, to potlucks featuring elaborate gourmet sandwiches grilled over a fire pit and elegant cocktails. Each week has brought laughter and frustration, discussions about the pandemic, the election, the prospect of a vaccine, the health of our pets, the safest place to buy groceries, our favorite Netflix series, and current book choices, hobbies, recipes, and news of family. We compared ways to stay warm, wearing gear in creative ways to protect us from the cold.

Periodically, our conversation turns to the future, pondering what practices from this pandemic will persist into the future. Will people continue to work from home, attempt to grow vegetables, bake sourdough bread, spend time exercising outside, and connecting with friends over Zoom? Our Saturday evenings will undoubtedly fill with activities and it will again be challenging to coordinate calendars. I hope though, that some version of our “Saturday Night Live” meetups persist, to retain the community that we built, and to sit closer than 6 feet apart.

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