Guest columnist Janine Roberts: Gathering

  • The Leverett Library. STAFF FILE PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

Published: 2/23/2021 10:17:24 PM

I recently presented a Zoom workshop and “saw” colleagues, former students, community people. Afterwards I felt nostalgic and bereft. A face in a small square on a screen is not an in-person gaze into another’s eyes, or a touch on the arm; the warmth, in a hug, of another’s body.

We all miss gatherings of family, friends, neighbors, strangers — rituals of eating together, giving toasts, opening presents and other hoopla. We’re mourning and celebrating in small pods or alone, without fluid access to the web of connections that hold and sustain us.

And what about the mini-gatherings, often spontaneous, that have also disappeared? I used to meander down my road to my box at the post office five-six times a week. As I took out my mail I’d catch up with the postmistress re the latest sightings of snapping turtles trekking up from Leverett Pond to lay their eggs. Or a neighbor posting a letter would share highlights about their trip to a fiddle festival or an upcoming concert. No more. I dash in and out once a week, masked, mostly when the service window is closed and there are no people in the small space.

At the Leverett Library I watched kids building elaborate Lego spaceships while chatting with their parents. Lingered over the posts of favorite reads. Now that I head to Stop and Shop at 6:30 a.m. once a month, I no longer run into poet and Professor Ron Welburn in aisle 9 or 23 and hear about his latest writings.

I have found myself, like perhaps some of you, improvising other types of tiny gatherings. I order two-three curbside pickup books that are about a similar time period, or topic, and read them back-to-back. The latest two were “A Woman of No Importance: The Untold Story of the American Spy Who Helped Win World War II” by Sonia Purnell, and “The Language of Thieves: My Family’s Obsession with a Secret Code the Nazis Tried to Eliminate” by Martin Puchner. In my head. I converse with the authors and the people they write about.

I scour the woods for animal signs — happy when I find a posse of coyote tracks, matted ferns of deer beds, or the two pairs of eyes in an old pine staccatoed out by a pileated woodpecker. I place heart-shaped rocks for others to find in niches of tree branches or on top of snowy moss on boulders.

How have you created your own mini-gatherings or how might you begin to? Recently, a friend turning 65, asked anyone who stopped by outside to make a snow angel in her yard. Their imprinted wings reach out to her.

I also appreciate more than ever community acts of connection like the tree in my neighbor’s yard and another on their deck that they still light up each night. Or the BID-sponsored ice sculptures on the Amherst common of a dolphin, cougar, and dinosaurs. Or Deerfield’s luminaries throughout town on Valentine’s night. Check out, until Feb. 28, the exhibit of fancifully painted and uniquely designed fishing shanties on the ice in Brattleboro at the Retreat Farm.

Last spring, Portia Weiskel organized 8 pm Sunday night howlings and yippings in our neighborhood to thank and acknowledge essential workers. It continues and connects us. Dogs join in, and we’ve heard coyotes and foxes?

On a multitude of listservs people have generously offered toys, skates, books, skis. I pack up frozen blackberries from my summer patch to give in return for things like Jerusalem artichoke roots, a booklet for my granddaughter to write about her life and hollyhock seeds which promise hot pink blossoms. As I drive to deliver the berries, I remember with gratitude conversations at the patch as I picked, and passersby stopped to talk. There was the 11-year-old who showed me his glimmery bass and said proudly, “I caught it for my grandmother,” and the boater who ran up from the pond exclaiming, “Look for the wood ducks flying out from their nests in the trees down there!”

These last 12 months have reshaped us and all our interactions. Together, drawing upon our creativity and resilience, we can shape-shift and still gather.

Vaccinations are happening, albeit slowly. Soon we’ll spy maple syrup buckets and snowdrops.

Janine Roberts is a family therapist and professor emerita, UMass Amherst. She lives in Leverett.

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