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ANNA SMITH: Back to basics

It’s not quite over yet, but 2020 is coming to a close. I can almost hear our collective sigh of relief. So much of this year has felt foreign and forlorn. I find comfort speculating that just these 12 months have been cursed. Maybe in the future, 2020 will be considered an anomaly, a terrible anomaly.

This year, although it has felt so completely unnatural, we’ve taught ourselves to stand farther away, to mask our faces and emotions, to resist handshakes and hugs, to truly live at a distance. And we are trying to fill the void of connecting with people in person through digital forms like Zoom meetups, social media updates and TikTok. But they often seem so cold, so distant, so robotic.

What I think we all need a bit more of are the tried-and-true things that existed long before this crazy year. We need to go back to basics.

I feel a longing to seek more authentic modes of connection: snail mail, old fashioned phone calls, front stoop hangs with neighbors and friends as children play in the yard.

Cue the scene of Frank Navasky and his typewriters in "You’ve Got Mail." There’s something so comforting about nostalgic ways of communicating. As Navasky notes, wistfully, about his “new” Olympia Report deluxe: “The gentle and soothing lullaby of a piece of machinery so perfect … .”

It’s comforting to feel the clunky nature of a typed or hand-written note. The lick-and-stick stamp, its journey through a sorter and into a mail carrier’s bag, the slow pace of delivering that letter.

The tactile journey of it all feels much more satisfying.

When neighbors ring the bell to drop off warm loaves of bread, coloring books for my son or a plate of cookies, I practically fall over myself to get there fast enough just to yell across the yard and catch a glimpse of their smile as they head out the front gate.

I am grateful to live in a city and in a neighborhood that values these authentic modes of connection. I cherish notes from neighbors like the one I received just a few days ago that the twins across the street on her cul-de-sac were selling hot cocoa, if anyone wanted to come by.

We have been able to continue birthday celebrations on front lawns (even under pop-up tents on rain-soaked days). I see neighbors out on the streets passing as our dogs tangle themselves on leashes and children wave from strollers and wagons.

Mayberry does not exist, but this is as close as one gets (even amid a pandemic).

Similarly, letter-writing has helped people meaningfully connect during this period of isolation, grief and unrest. There are so many stories of pen pals striking up across oceans, family members reconnecting through the mail and letter-writing campaigns helping folks who previously felt unheard or powerless to enact social change.

We still receive a hard-copy newspaper every day, and it feels even more than before like a necessary link to the outside world. I love unfurling the pages and leafing through the stories by hand. My husband often clips articles and leaves them out for me with handwritten notes.

I find myself longing to connect in a more tactile way as an antidote to all of the screen time. And I’m not the only one who may need a digital detox. According to Mary Holland for the BBC, as the health crisis began earlier this year, views on Instagram Live doubled in one week, Facebook reported a 70-percent increase in Messenger group video calls and WhatsApp has seen a 40-percent increase in usage.

Especially for children attending school remotely, many of us are on digital overload. We need a mental break from all of the hours staring at computers and smartphones.

Earlier this month, in a “gratitude project,” readers of The New York Times shared what they are thankful for in six words. (This is a form of writing, the six-word memoir, popularized by the author Larry Smith.) Many of the 10,000-plus responses centered on simple pleasures and everyday heroes, like homemade pasta, quality time with a teenage son, family members who live down the street, sunny mornings in windowed kitchens, bicycle rides, health-care workers and volunteers who take experimental vaccines. One of my favorite responses: “Postcards crossing the country — real mail.”

Thankfully, we live in a place that encourages us to embrace in-person community in all its forms. I think we’ll look back to find that this year has taught us meaningful lessons about cherishing our loved ones and our health, as we realize how quickly these circumstances can change.

Over a much smaller gathering for traditional turkey dinner, I found myself channeling Mark Vanhoenacker’s words in “Thanksgiving in a Strange Land” as he wrote, “And if at times I’m still sad, I’ll return to the traveler’s prospect in which I’ve found comfort: Let’s say that this year it’s as if each of us has gone abroad, to a strange country. Let’s be thankful for all manner of connection, and for every kind of family. Let’s promise that next year we’ll be home.”

Anna Smith writes a weekly column about Bakersfield. She can be reached at anna@sagebakersfield.com. The views expressed here are her own.