This week, JSA contributor Carole Leskin shared her thoughts about the how the wearing of masks, necessitated by the current pandemic, exacerbates the isolation and loneliness so many are experiencing during these strangest of times. “What My Mask Hides” provides insight into how people connect with one another and addresses a new level of pain that results when a smile, which serves as an open door to new connection, is taken away. I’m grateful to Carole for sharing her words, which prompted my own in response.
Dear New Friend I Haven’t Met Yet,
Your words spoke to me because your thoughts on loneliness ring so true, and because you did what so many of us fail to do — you opened your heart and let a stranger in.
Like you, I’ve been struggling with the way our masks obscure our personal interactions. I’ve found myself smiling and then realizing nobody can see me. I’ve noticed I look hard around people’s eyes above their masks, trying to discern a direct gaze or perhaps a few laugh lines at the corners. Is that person smiling at me? Are they even noticing I’m here?
Of greatest concern, I’ve recently started looking away, turning my face just enough to avoid what has increasingly felt like an awkward or even inappropriate interaction — a search for a human connection gone bad.
I don’t like it when I catch myself turning away.
And yet during these days, we are doing so much of that. We turn away from masked strangers, from service providers, from delivery folks and even from those we know and love. We do it out of fear. We do it out of concern for exposure. We isolate ourselves physically, just at a time when we most need connection, just as our own loneliness feels like it may overtake us. The esoteric questions of our lives become amplified in this space. Why are we here? What is our purpose? How is our own truth reflected back at us if we cannot see our face in another person’s face? When we turn away from others, do we also turn away from ourselves?
You ask a most poignant question: In these times of masking and distancing, how can we make a new friend? If a smile is the vehicle to friendship and there are no smiles, how can we connect? And what will happen to the world if there are no smiles? Who will be lost? What will be lost?
I offer you another way, another opportunity to create the human moments we desire. Let’s write to one another! Let’s return to the epistolary time—let’s create a shared and sacred space for one another within the construct of letters, essays, books, posts. Technology is on our side and conversations can take place in the quickest of moments. We can speak, we can listen, we can learn and respond to one another. In this way, we will remember that we are not alone.
Is writing the same as a smile? No, of course not. Can such exchanges substitute for a hug or a kiss, the touch of a hand on the arm of a friend who needs a gentle reminder that another human being stands beside them?
But desperate times call for desperate measures, and these, my new friend, are indeed desperate times. The invitation of a smile may not be available to us right now, but the reaching out, the asking “Will you be my friend?” is still there.
The beauty of that phrase, “will you be my friend,” is the tenderness of the vulnerability it expresses. I am willing to risk rejection, it says. I am taking a chance. You may turn away. You may not like me. You may not want to be my friend.
But I am willing to take that risk to share myself with you. Nothing brings us closer than the opening of our hearts and the intertwining of our voices. This is how we connect. This is where God resides. This is why we are here—to find the spark that exists between us, among us.
Hello, my new friend. It’s lovely to know you.
Stefanie Levine Cohen is a writer and community leader who focuses on building connections through the sharing of story. Her fiction and essays explore the intersection between the psychological and the spiritual, and address life transitions and the human condition. Her work has been published in numerous literary magazines and digital publications including The MacGuffin, The Montreal Review, Green Hills Literary Lantern, Storyscape, Grown & Flown and JewishSacredAging.com. These pieces and others can be found at www.stefanielevinecohen.com. Stefanie is currently working on a book about motherhood, identity, art and the meaning of truth.
Stefanie’s community engagement includes leadership roles at a variety of spiritually based, educational, and service-driven organizations. She is a co-founder and board member of the non-profit Meditation4Leadership, which seeks to enhance both performance and wellness among business, nonprofit and community leaders. She is a former trustee on the board of Moorestown Friends School and a current board member of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service of Southern New Jersey. She also serves as a Leadership Council member for Impact100 South Jersey, a women’s philanthropic giving collective, and is a Past President of Congregation M’kor Shalom in Cherry Hill, NJ. For many years, she volunteered as a friendly visitor and end-of-life vigil team member for patients at Samaritan Hospice and Health Care. This experience significantly impacted her writing and teaching.
Always a student first, Stefanie has been a member of the Rittenhouse Writers Group, the longest-running fiction writers group in the country, for over 15 years. She has studied with teachers such as Sylvia Boorstein, Deepak Chopra, and John Perkins, and has attended numerous writing and spirituality retreats and conferences. These experiences fueled the development of her signature memoir writing workshop, “Telling Your Story, Writing From the Heart,” which she has facilitated for new and returning students.
Stefanie holds BA and MA degrees in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania and a JD from New York University School of Law. Before turning her attention to writing, teaching and volunteering, Stefanie enjoyed a successful career in marketing and strategic planning for law firms, establishing the first Philadelphia branch of the National Association of Law Firm Marketing Professionals and serving as a Chief Marketing Officer for a large Philadelphia-based law firm. Stefanie resides in Moorestown, NJ with her husband Steven. They are the parents of three adult children.