Intimacy in the time of Social Distancing: The Chain Letter

Intimacy in the time of Social Distancing: The Chain Letter 
From Alexandra Chang, Interim Associate Director, Price Institute 

Since I was a kid, I never really answered chain letters, but I wanted this one to go through given the sentiment behind it, the friend who sent it, (re)connecting to folks to resend it, and the times we are in...and I'm actually really diggin' the recipes/messages people are sending back...
#socialinthesocialdistancing #dontforgettocare #quarantinerecipes #chainletters

This simple post recently graced what I must admit is the otherwise rather impersonal newstream that is my Facebook page. I remember getting chain letters in grammar school — hand-written in bubbly cursive with hearts dotting the “i”’s. They were a risky burden. First, didn’t we have enough to do without writing out multiple copies of a letter? And second, what if a friend failed that confidence of the favor to continue the chain? Not only would it be a failure of friendship, but a failure to help everyone who came before our chain letter pact. And third, I was imposing all of this onto my friends. No, I distinctly disliked chain letters.

Then thirty years forward, after the coronavirus took hold of our cities across the world this spring and hit the U.S., things changed. The somewhat ambiguous idea of social distancing became the new pact. My son called it “spatial distancing” and my partner agreed: “Yes, we should call it spatial distancing because we should remain social.” Another colleague noted that they thought it meant that we were at a distance, but still social. Whatever the intended meaning or terminologies, we were “all-in” with needing to stay together in agreeing to stay apart. And, then I got the chain letter, twice.

lives not money

During this time the U.S. Federal government came under scrutiny while a run on PPE and ventilators pointed to alleged and very real mismanagement and potential increased loss of life. Living in our remote world, I changed my avatar to “ Lives Not $Money$” and joined with an artist on her balcony protest to amplify the needs of frontline workers. I also started teaching remotely, as did my husband. My son began to share our maxed out domestic WiFi with remote learning, and while others started practicing yoga, learning new skills, and cooking and posting meals online, I wondered at all the time folks seemed to have as I began finding my waking life more filled than ever.

Between the overcast of first and secondary traumas of the coronavirus affecting our family, our friends, colleagues, students, and every step of everyday life — from being both potentially a danger to those around us and those around us being a potential danger to us, to taking hours to find and bring food into our home, washing and drying the coveted produce — we are also experiencing the oppressive atmosphere in the U.S. of the politicizing of the value of our lives. We are pushing for the health and well-being of those taking care of us on the frontlines and those dying alone every day as states and subjects of a federal government that has failed us. California Governor Newsom referenced his state as a “Nation-State” in terms of bypassing the federal government to acquire necessary healthcare equipment to save lives both in California and in other states. A Hawaiian language scholar and Facebook friend noted that the terminology sounded familiar as a malu, and is being used in a way that is less about colonial definitions of political power, but instead is about providing care for community, even to those who are beyond its borders.

The global economy was the headliner for several weeks on major newspapers and online. Money over lives. How the virus affected our lives more intimately through the stories of our families and those we lost or the stories of our personal lives — now suddenly burdened during the pandemic for many with the need for unemployment insurance, food, and healthcare — came only later. But thankfully these stories of lives over money did replace the previous money-graphs as what would have been called “above-the-fold” before digital news.

In response, I have seen several different approaches to our management of our new lives pushing forward through the legacies woven from the detritus of our pasts that has become our time. There are those who are sharing Spam musubi recipes and those asking the internet how to buy groceries from our emptying shelves, those who are organizing teams of makers across the country to create thousands of masks and PPE, and those organizing hundreds of artists to create 3D-printed ventilators on the drop of a dime for hospitals. My initial reaction was to judge, but now I realize that each approach is in fact an act of care that has allowed us to survive together and to combat the failings of care that now surround us and risk our survival — from the lack of PPE to the impacts of climate change that has in part been at the center of the increase in novel coronavirus-type threats.

It is this lack of care that has thrown us into the downward spiral of our extractive economies that allow for the taking of natural resources and land degradation and encroachment that are pushing species into contact with each other and spreading viruses across species. It is our so-called Capitalocene practices that allow for us to put monetary value over that of life itself and our planet. It is this mentality that also allows us to value money over our daily life — our personal time — which people are just finding again during this new time of WFH. It is this system that also allows others to value certain lives over others.  A system that instills, instigates, and carries out violent racialized attacks. One that values the haves and to a lesser to unvalued extent, others.

I’m so grateful  that at Rutgers University-Newark I’m able to engage with colleagues on and teach on the subjects of EcoArt and Eco issues. The basis of these programs is to teach and share the idea of care — care for others, including beyond the human, and care for all that we are enmeshed within in our world — to explore Donna Haraway’s idea of kinship and making oddkin. Through looking to our pasts, presents, and futures, we’re able to teach and share thoughts on how to redefine our relationship and reciprocal responsibilities with living beings, water, and land beyond an Anthropocene framework.

In my FB stream, in terms of care and connection, folks have shared their worries: how to get groceries; have shared their self-care methods: how to make comfort food as Spam musabi; have shared their caring actions: making masks for all including those on the frontlines including postal workers, retail workers, transit workers, ERs, and smaller masks for children; have shared their actions for care: to create 3D-printed splitters to allow for ventilators for all; have shared their solidarity in protests to promote care in a time where care is being thrown aside: the balcony protest. In this mix, my friend involved in instigating the balcony protest shared a chain letter. In this mix, I asked myself how I could ignore this letter. The chain letter became reincarnated as a representative of our current time and a personal and yet social pact. It was asking of us to connect and share a caring action — and I resolved not be the loose link in the chain because I could act with the understanding that asking time from others during this crisis moment should not result in a similar expectation for all.

We as well as several of these other organizers and many more are now a part of a movement of collaborators joined in working toward programs to reach out globally during Earth Day for the March for Science and Future Coalition with Earth Day Live, bringing these ideas of personal connection, care, and caring about our futures for three days on April 22, 23, and 24 to hopefully a web-stream near you. I hope that the world will join us to put ourselves into this social pact in agreeing to care and take steps in caring, where instead of “money over lives” or “lives over other lives,” we choose to “Care for All.”

And I was glad I did pass on the letter, as I received in turn the most generous responses from those who reached out in their acceptance of this small yet powerful social agreement to care if they could. From around the world and close by, from those I knew and those I didn’t, I received simple yet favorite recipes as well as a note, something personal, that allowed for social intimacy in the time of global distancing.



Eggdrop Soup
Egg Drop Soup made by Alexandra Chang, Interim Associate Director, Price Institute 

Egg Drop Soup

  • Boil 1 cup water (optional with 1/2 tsp of veggie bouillon if vegetarian or small piece of ham) 
  • 1 can of corn w/water that is in the can (best if not cream style, but still OK if that is what you have)
  • add 2 tsps sesame oil
  • 1 tsp sugar
  • 1 tsp brown sugar
  • ample black pepper to taste
  • sea salt to taste
  • once boiling, add one egg — drop in and mix around with chopsticks

To make it into a quick meal, you can add tofu and spinach into this and boil noodles on the side and pour this over the noodles for a soup noodle.