Under a handwritten banner offering “love” and “hope,” a musical group of Phinney Ridge neighbors played a porch concert last Sunday to celebrate community and solidarity during the coronavirus outbreak. The musicians — two drummers, a harmonica player and a keyboardist — played from separate porches, each at a safe distance from the others. It was this group of neighbors’ third Sunday gathering since the outbreak, each incorporating more stringent social distancing measures than the last.

The first time, they held long paper chains and sang in a circle. The second, the day before Gov. Jay Inslee instituted his stay-at-home order, the group met around a firepit in the Phinney Neighborhood Association parking lot, in more of a constellation of families than a circle or crescent moon.

Paul Finley and his wife, Mary Holscher, organized the neighbors’ event after being inspired by a video showing quarantined Italian neighbors singing from their balconies.

People read poems and wishes, sometimes offering them to the fire. Then, the Phinney Ridge neighbors sang the hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” modified by Finley, a musician.

We’ve been told to keep our distance

Not to spread the danger on

But when our voices rise together

We gain strength with every song

This is what community looks like in the coronavirus quarantine era.

With Inslee’s stay-at-home order now in place, the Phinney neighbors group is among a growing number of community groups experimenting with ways to stay emotionally “connected” as everyone adapts to Washington’s new ‘normal,’ where social gatherings are banned and social distancing rules apply at all times.

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After survival, community may be humanity’s most primal need — even for introverts or fans of the Seattle Freeze. If there was ever a time that could thaw the Freeze, this might just be it.

A group of Phinney Ridge neighbors gathered before Washington’s stay-at-home order was imposed and sang modified lyrics to the classic hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on March 22 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)
A group of Phinney Ridge neighbors gathered before Washington’s stay-at-home order was imposed and sang modified lyrics to the classic hymn “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” on March 22 in Seattle. (Ken Lambert / The Seattle Times)

“It’s a moment where people are focusing on what matters, frankly. Connection,” says Priya Parker, a conflict-resolution expert and the author of “The Art of Gathering,” a book that explores the importance of connection and the ways to make gatherings more meaningful.

“At the very simplest level, we gather because we need each other. We need each other to mark moments, to grieve, to solve problems, to coordinate and do things we couldn’t do on our own,” Parker said.

When connection is broken, our identities are shaken and our health suffers. “‘Who I am?’ can’t be answered in a vacuum; it’s inherently relational,” said Parker.

Apart, but “together”

We are finding ways to signal solidarity from a distance. Window scavenger hunts have been popping up – people put an item, like a teddy bear, in their windows and others walk the neighborhood (following distancing guidelines) to find them.

Even before Inslee’s stay-at-home order took effect, Michal Lahav, a scientific researcher and dancer, gathered people on two Sundays for an hour of silent dance, with the “score” or improvisational cue being that everyone stayed at least 6 feet apart at all times.

Dancer Michal Lahav organized a dance “gathering” in Discovery Park to help Seattleites feel connected while still social distancing. (Michal Lahav)
Dancer Michal Lahav organized a dance “gathering” in Discovery Park to help Seattleites feel connected while still social distancing. (Michal Lahav)

The most important takeaway for her? “The sense that we’re all in the same boat. Feeling that tether even through the distance of space was really important for us to be creative and thrive in this time of restriction,” Lahav said.

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She says one participant who works at a hospital emailed her later to say that in this “terrifically stressful” time, the dance was the first time he’d felt peaceful, with a sense of “restorative anchoring.”

West Seattle photographer Cat Cassidy is documenting our distant togetherness in a project called “From Out to In,” taking portraits of people in windows. “We meet through the window, communicate through the phone. … The more families I’ve met through the glass, the more in love I am with my community,” she said.

Lucas Gramer, 6, and his brother Brett, 8, hold up artwork to their window. They’re part of a project called “From Out to In” that West Seattle photographer Cat Cassidy is working on to document our distant togetherness via shots of neighbors smiling through their windows. (Cat Cassidy)
Lucas Gramer, 6, and his brother Brett, 8, hold up artwork to their window. They’re part of a project called “From Out to In” that West Seattle photographer Cat Cassidy is working on to document our distant togetherness via shots of neighbors smiling through their windows. (Cat Cassidy)

In Sarah Lemmon’s Green Lake neighborhood, neighbors have been singing in unison from their porches, windows and balconies at 8:30 p.m. nightly, following a song schedule from the 300-member-strong Seattle Sing-along Social Distancing Facebook group.

A neighbor texted Lemmon with the idea. That night, “I heard them singing through the windows, the neighborhood just lights up with ‘every little thing’s gonna be all right’ [Bob Marley’s “Three Little Birds”], and I started crying. I got goose bumps,” Lemmon said. “There’s so much negativity in the world right now, it’s really sweet our corner of the world is trying to make things a little better.”

Everyone’s embraced new ways to celebrate their loved ones in these trying times. Last Sunday, before Lemmon’s brother, Navy sailor Scott Loehndorf, left for his deployment, Lemmon and her family did a surprise drive-by parade.

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And on March 26, at 8 p.m., people all over the Seattle area yawped, howled, clapped or played instruments from their homes to “Make a Joyful Noise,” an initiative promoted by the city’s Office of Arts & Culture to cheer on medical workers. 

Community in a virtual space

Most people continue to “meet” remotely, finding increasingly creative ways to feed their connections — from streaming classes, online games and movie nights to “quarantini” happy hours and grandparents reading to grandkids.

Netflix added a Google Chrome extension called Netflix Party to allow subscribers to watch simultaneously. Kids are creating Minecraft servers for custom gaming groups; one Japanese elementary class even created a Minecraft graduation because theirs was canceled. Nextdoor, the neighborhood forum, has created a “Help Map” to identify neighbors who can help buy groceries.

The Quarantine Group on Facebook, with members throughout Seattle and Tacoma, offers activities such as themed cosplay dress-up days (Emerald City Comic Con was postponed, after all) and a Bob Ross paint-along party.

Louisa Peck, a writing coach, has transitioned all her professional and personal activities to the virtual realm: her coaching sessions, yoga class and morning meditation. “I just can’t underscore enough the global connections I feel,” she said.

“Even my parents, who are almost 70, are doing this happy hour and dinner with their wine club on FaceTime from West Seattle,” said Lemmon.

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At the other end of the age spectrum, Kelly Bowman of Rainier Beach is offering the community’s preschoolers and their caregivers free themed circle time and yoga online, Mondays through Fridays. Incorporating songs and emotional coping strategies, it includes students from her Creative Beginnings Preschool, which continues to serve essential workers and children.

Deborah Bacharach, poet and college tutor, got her husband John Palmieri and her 17-year-old daughter Rose to join in her now-online swing class through Swing It Seattle; a giant stuffed bear stood in for a partner. There were at least 40 groups participating.

If you’re looking for ways to organize your own virtual events, keep these pointers in mind. In this fraught time, Parker says, people should remember that creating meaningful, memorable connections requires three elements: A clear purpose considering the group’s needs, specificity around directions and structure.

For example, an evening of toasts around a theme, or sharing memories of overcoming challenging moments, will be more powerful than chatting about your day.

Parker suggests asking for people’s stories, not their opinions. Other ways to create meaning are banding together to help others, like quarantined or at-risk neighbors, or supporting medical and essential workers on the front lines.

If there is a silver lining in this pandemic, perhaps it’s that we’ll find stronger, deeper bonds within our communities.

“We’re going to get [the virus] through each other, stop it through each other and we can also face it and recover through each other,” Parker said.

 

Correction: Due to a reporter’s error, John Palmieri was misidentified in a previous version of this story.