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A Love Story in the Time of the Pandemic

Joy and a sweet surprise revealed in a writers’ group brightens the season

By Jill Smolowe

"The virus is in the second wave with a vengeance. We're in for a rough few months here, both as a state —"

I interrupt today's announcement from New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy to share some happy news. Why? Because, frankly, this unfestive holiday season could use a bit of joy.

love story, next avenue, champagne being poured into glasses
Credit: Adobe Stock

This particular joy was born of a roomful of strangers who gathered for the first time in January 2020 for a nine-week memoir-writing workshop that I led. Times, of course, were easier back then. As the nine students straggled into the rented church space, claimed a chair at the large seminar table and shrugged off their winter coats, no one worried about accidentally brushing shoulders.

No one wore a mask. No one wondered if the person one seat over might be the carrier of a deadly virus.

Even so, the mood was tense. Whether a beginner or a seasoned pro, the decision to expose one's private writings to others requires both guts and a leap of faith that your efforts will be met with encouragement and support.

The round robin of self-introductions did little to ease my own jitters. Some people had workshopped their work before and were deep into drafts of their memoirs; others had never taken a writing class and had little work to show.

This group clicked from the get-go.

Ages ranged from the mid-30s to the mid-70s. Three people were dealing with cancer; others were confronting mental health challenges, financial stresses, family issues.

Given the wide range of writing experience and life challenges, would I be able to maintain an atmosphere that felt welcoming and encouraging to everybody?

I needn't have worried. This group clicked from the get-go. All were serious about their writing and all were instinctively generous and encouraging when they offered feedback.

As the weeks passed and people learned more through their shared writings about one another's lives, both past and present, the feelings of mutual support and respect deepened. 

So did the work, which continued without interruption even after our governor announced a lockdown in late March. Seamlessly, we transitioned to Zoom for our final two classes.

A Supportive and Encouraging Atmosphere

Despite the Zoom limitations, everyone re-upped for the spring workshop, which also attracted two new people. The returnees absorbed the newcomers graciously, and onward we plowed. Several participants began to write essays inspired by their COVID-19 experiences. Given the timeliness of the topic, others encouraged them to seek a wider readership.

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Soon, members were landing their pieces in newspapers and on websites. Each time someone got published, they'd send out the link, which would be followed by congratulatory emails.

Unlike MFA [Master of Fine Arts] workshops, where competitiveness often quashes goodwill, the shared excitement showed no trace of envy or resentment. Instead, each success seemed to encourage others to send out their own work, leading to more congratulatory emails.

When the group faced a month-long hiatus between the spring and summer sessions, Beth, 62, suggested that we meet informally in a local park. That way, everyone could continue to share their work.

When I showed up for one of the park gatherings, Nick, 70, gallantly offered me a spare folding chair and a pastry. Though voices had to be raised to be heard across the circle of socially-distanced lawn chairs, the vibe was intimate, as if we were sitting in someone's living room.

Through the months of sharing their stories, they'd forged bonds that extended beyond the workshop.

Everyone returned for an abbreviated summer session of six classes. Come the fall, three new people joined, and two regulars stepped away for personal reasons, but pledged to return. Those who remained made sure the absentees knew they weren't forgotten, staying in touch by phone and email.

By now, the regulars were deeply versed in each other's stories — which is to say, they were deeply versed in the most painful challenges and chapters of each other's lives. Through the months of sharing their stories, they'd forged bonds that extended beyond the workshop. 

Generosity flowed. Beth sewed masks for people who needed face coverings. When Janine, the mother of three young children, voiced frustration that her writing time had been erased by COVID -19-related school closures, Nick painted a watercolor of her "happy place" to cheer her up. Some members checked in on Lenny, 74, to see how his chemo treatments were going; others extended support to members who were dealing with mental health or financial issues.

"This is a very special group," I told them more than once.

An Unexpected Connection

Even so, I wasn't quite prepared (indeed, I don't think anyone was) for what came next.

The night before the seventh meeting of our fall session, Nick circulated an essay that described a marriage proposal involving a woman he called "R." By now, we all knew that Nick had been twice married and twice divorced. It was unclear from the piece if he was describing a past proposal or a recent one.

My pulse began to race. Was it possible ...?

The next day, after Nick read his piece aloud, I said, "Does this mean you're engaged?"

Nick dropped his head and blushed. "Yes."

As excited cries filled our Zoom room, I studied Nick's expression and saw that he intended to safeguard R's identity (as I have my students', by changing their names). Biting back the question I really wanted to ask, I redirected everyone's attention to what was on the page.

Quietly, almost inaudibly, she said, "I'm the one he's talking about."

Observing that Nick's piece was about joy, I suggested that he consider losing the detail about his two past marriages and instead explore current reasons that some people might, as he'd speculated in his piece, find his decision "rash." Perhaps mention COVID-19? His chronic cancer condition? His age?

"I remarried at sixty-nine," Lenny offered. "It was the best decision I ever made."

"I feel like I want to know more about R," said Dana, one of the newer members. "Like, can you tell us how you met her?"

Again, Nick's head dropped. "I'm just amazed it happened," he deflected.

That sealed it for me. "I think I know who it is!" I blurted, then sank back in my chair, horrified by my indiscreet outburst.

After more discussion, silence settled. That's when Beth, the one person who hadn't yet spoken, leaned toward her computer camera. Quietly, almost inaudibly, she said, "I'm the one he's talking about."

"I knew it!" I shrieked, no longer able to contain my joy.

As others consulted each other across the Brady Bunch squares, trying to catch up with the news that Beth was Nick's "R," I babbled, "Oh, my God! Congratulations! This is so wonderful!"

A Chosen Family

Wondrous, too. In the middle of a killer pandemic, Nick and Beth, two divorced people whose lives have been filled with enough struggle to, well, fill the books each of them is writing, have found each other. In a writing workshop. Through the magical power of their own stories.

Does it get any more delicious than that?

Actually, it does. Hours later, I slipped a bottle of champagne into the mailbox at the end of Beth's driveway, with an ecstatic note addressed to her and Nick. Her responding text concluded, "We are so happy that our news has brought so much happiness to you and the group … our family."

At the moment, that is, indeed, what this group feels like: a family. Not a blood family of the dysfunctional variety chronicled so often in our workshop. Rather, a chosen family, born of courageous disclosure, then nurtured with encouragement, support and generosity.

Okay, enough with the joy (though me, I'm still smiling). Back to Gov. Murphy's announcement.

"— and as a country. It's going to get worse before it gets better."

Photograph of Jill Smolowe
Jill Smolowe is the author of Four Funerals and a Wedding: Resilience in a Time of Grief. To learn more about her book and her grief and divorce coaching, visit www.jillsmolowe.com. Read More
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