A title card for an InsightOut blog post by Emma Hambly

InsightOut: A year of friendship at a distance

Emma Hambly is a communications coordinator at the University of St. Michael’s College. She has a B.A. in English Literature and Classics from McGill University, and an M.A. in Literatures of Modernity from Ryerson University. In her spare time, she sews, makes collages, designs zines, writes comics, and looks for more hobbies.

A year of friendship at a distance

Close focus photograph of six envelopes resting on a pad of paper next to a fountain pen. The envelopes have stamps from Ireland, New Zealand, Singapore, Canada, and USA.

In September 2019, my best friend travelled almost 14,000 kilometres to New Zealand on a work/study visa. We kept in touch the best we could, video chatting each other at those rare moments when the 18-hour time difference worked for both of us. Once she called while she was halfway through a mountain hike and had to yell over the high winds.

In March 2020, she caught one of the last flights back to Canada before New Zealand went into full lockdown, so that she could be with her family as everyone sheltered out the surging pandemic. I never imagined that I’d be video calling her just as much when she lived only 20 minutes from me as I did when she was half a world away.

Somehow, suddenly, we’ve marked a full year since everything changed. A year since the World Health Organization classified COVID-19 as a pandemic. A little less than a year since we all realized the whole staying-at-home-thing wasn’t going to blow over in two weeks.

One of the many, many things that we’ve had to adapt to during this time is friendship at a distance. Figuring out how to stay in touch with anyone outside our quarantine bubbles has taken resourcefulness, perseverance, and so, so much patience. Thank goodness I have friends who are always willing to put in the effort.

It started with trivia. A month into the pandemic and tired already of group Zoom calls with nothing real to update one another on, my friends and I started creating and hosting trivia nights. They’re silly and fun and a great distraction, but also a surprising lens into my friends’ personalities. Our American expat got us all into Texan history, and who knew that her husband had an encyclopedic knowledge of world flags? My best friend asks questions about cooking and wonderfully evocative Yiddish words. A usually laid-back friend puts on a blazer and gives his best cheesy game show host impression whenever it’s his turn.

We keep coming up with creative ways to spend time with each other and push through the quarantine fatigue. Playing video games and board games online, synchronizing our watches or counting down so that we can watch movies at the same time, celebrating the strange creature that is the pandemic birthday.

A year of quarantine feels like a concrete signpost in what has otherwise been a shapeless span of time. I don’t need to tell you how much everyone has lost. And I know how lucky and privileged I am that my loved ones are still safe and healthy and employed.

But I hope it’s fair to say that I’m missing the little things, like going to the movies, making tea for my friends, staying up too late dancing, even being able to sit in companionable silence without having to say no, my screen isn’t frozen.

This feeling of wistfulness has made me want to focus on what I could make of quarantine, rather than on what I was lacking. It ended up leading to the best thing to come out of my personal experience with this year: pen pals.

I love writing and have always thought exchanging letters with someone, sounded wonderful. Why not try it now, with all this time at home? It turns out many people had the same idea.

I posted on a “seeking pen pals” message board and described myself and interests a little—hoping to find one or two people to connect with. Long story short, I received way more responses than I expected, and I now have more than 20 pen pals. I had to make a spreadsheet to keep track of them all.

So, for the past few months, I’ve been sending letters to places all over the world: a spread across Canada, six different American states, three cities in the UK, even two spots in New Zealand.

Alongside letters, I’ve received stationery, stickers, Polaroid photos, tea bags, and a hand-drawn comic. I get to see all the care and creativity people put into their letters, and there’s something heartwarming and personal about seeing someone else’s handwriting.

I’ve been learning what life is like for people in different countries—almost like travelling without travelling. A primary school teacher from Dublin sent me a list of Gaelic phrases and a handmade St. Brigid’s cross—a traditional Irish symbol of protection. A grad student in Singapore sent me a nengajou (Lunar New Year card)she painted herself, and wrote about eating mandarin oranges and pineapple tarts during the holiday.

Despite how far flung we are, there’s so much we have in common. I’ve connected with my pen pals over our shared love of reading, making art, playing Dungeons and Dragons, and watching bad movies. I get to learn how other people have been coping with the pandemic, and share in their joy when vaccine supplies get announced.

One day, when it’s safe to fly again, I’ll have friends in other countries I can meet for the first time.

It’s been a hard year. Something that keeps bringing me comfort is people proving, again and again, that they want to stay connected. That they want to keep friendships going, no matter the odd shapes they take these days.

As we look forward, tentatively, to warmer days and vaccines, I hope we can take pride in our bonds with other people, knowing how much harder we had to work for them.

Read other InsightOut posts.