Published by the Students of Johns Hopkins since 1896
August 16, 2022

Like a message in a bottle: searching for meaningful human contact during quarantine

By SOPHIA LOLA | April 18, 2020

COURTESY OF SOPHIA LOLA For her 20th birthday, Lola's parents gifted her a painting they originally found when she was just a few months old.

On my 20th birthday, at the end of March, I had been planning to dress up real cute, round up my closest friends, buy dinner, and then go out and party. It probably goes without saying, but that of course was not what ended up happening. And honestly, I’m fairly sad about it. There’s that surface-level disappointment of having missed an opportunity to look fly and get up to some... shenanigans, but beyond that, it was only while adjusting my birthday plans that it really first hit me just how much I’m missing due to social distancing. 

I miss hugging my friends, eating a meal with them, studying together, going places, just being around them. I miss my hometown New York City’s omnipresent crowdedness and people who don’t give a damn if they bump into you. Nowadays, when I walk around my neighborhood and see someone coming my way, they give me the widest berth possible, even crossing to the other side of the street. Obviously it’s not something to take personally, as if they think I look like a weirdo they should avoid (unless they do... you never know!), but it still feels cold and very un-New York.

I’ve been calling, texting and Zooming my friends, which is nice, but then when I look up from my screen, I’m brought back to the reality that they are indefinitely out of reach, not actually with me. I have some people physically with me, my parents, and I love them, but we inevitably try each other’s patience. Being around only two other people 24/7 for weeks on end starts to feel a bit like being stuck on an island, no matter how much you love them.

Like someone sending a message in a bottle when they’re stranded somewhere deserted, I have this desperate desire to not feel forgotten, abandoned or lonely while I’m stuck on my island and surrounded by an ocean of desolate streets. But I’ve gotten creative about how I keep in contact and socialize, and I’ve also been surprised by the number of serendipitous moments in which I’ve felt a genuine, special connection with others.

It started on my birthday, despite my original plans being kaput. One of my friends lives only a mile away, so I texted her about hanging out. I’d normally take the bus to get to her, but the weather was beautiful, and I was happy to walk instead of taking public transport if it meant getting to see her. We sat an acceptable distance of six feet apart on her porch while catching up from when we last saw each other over winter break. It was refreshing to be around someone who wasn’t my parents and who, if I was still at school, I wouldn’t have reconnected with until the summer.

Later that night, after getting Thai take-out for dinner, my parents gave me a few birthday presents. One was a framed painting of a baby girl by an artist named Bessie Pease Gutmann. Apparently she was known for paintings like this, and a few months after I was born, my parents saw one at a flea market and were taken aback by how beautiful it was and how much the baby looked like me. They wanted to buy it to give to me when I was older, but it was too expensive to justify, so they decided to keep an eye out for a cheaper one. A few months ago, they finally found it, this thing they’d had in the back of their minds for the entire duration of my life. 

Similarly, on Easter, a birthday card and friendship bracelet from my best friend finally arrived in the mail; reading her handwriting almost felt like hearing her voice and having her in front of me. Later, my mom and I looked through an old family photo album, laughing over some newly remembered memories. She also gave me a bracelet absolutely laden with charms that she had acquired over the years. Some of my favorites are a pine cone from Valley Forge, a Winnie the Pooh charm, a pink star and a tiny silver duck she found while she was pregnant with me — this was something she started before I was even born. I never had any idea she was doing it.

The painting, card, album and bracelets touched me so deeply. There was so much time invested in these handcrafted, unique, thoughtful gifts. They’ll forever be beautiful symbols of my friends’ and family’s love, but it feels all the more special and necessary to have some material reminder of them to hang up, to flip through, to wear, during a time when we’re scared, lonely and, in some cases, far apart.

I’ve also been surprised at how some uses of digital platforms have led to experiences that reach beyond a screen. A few nights ago, one of my friends bought a pack of online games from a website called Jackbox, and five of us had a virtual game night. The games took us through a haunted house, had us writing stand-up jokes and made us vote on funny superlatives within the friend group. It felt like we were actually doing something together and having fun, not just talking to each other through a video call and confined to our little Zoom windows. 

My mom also recruited me to put together an extended family “database” so we all have each other’s information. We spent hours compiling everyone’s names and as many emails, phone numbers and addresses as we could find in a Google spreadsheet. My grandfather on her side has six siblings, so there’s a lot of extended family. It’s easy for some to fall out of contact, or for the younger ones, like me, to not even know some of the others exist. It made me happy to think my mom and I did something to make it simpler for people to stay in touch, that maybe even some family members who lost touch a while ago will be inspired to reconnect when they need only a spreadsheet cell to do it.

And then one day, hopefully soon, we’ll get back all the things I’ve been missing: hugging friends, going out and about, the New York hustle (and my Baltimore haunts, too). I plan on my 21st birthday being absolutely wild (I gotta make up for 20), so I want this to be long over by then. But until then, I’ll make do with communication that, even though not ideal, is thankfully better than a literal message in a bottle.

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