"Only Connect!" If I were the kind of person who could commit to literary-inspired tattoos, this epigraph from E.M. Forster’s 1910 novel Howard’s End might be my choice. As someone who spent a great deal of time pre-pandemic thinking and talking about the importance of real-life connection – The Oyster began as a sort of in-person social survival network for young adults looking for things to do in the off-season –the prolonged periods of quarantine we’ve all had to endure in the name of public safety has felt not just personally devastating but also professionally confusing. How can I encourage social and personal connection as a strategy for emotional well-being from six feet apart? How do we reconcile caring both for our community and our own mental health? And how many days in a row can I possibly work from home wearing pajama pants without officially becoming what one friend calls a “pajama pants person?”

Tim Johnson

These are the questions that keep me up at night. And since we’re (still, STILL) surviving a pandemic, I recently did what any self-respecting person with a smart phone would do, and I asked Instagram for advice. I wondered– in the form of several stories and some targeted emails and DMs –in the absence of our regular off-season survival tactics (potlucks, movie nights, raucous nights downtown) what are people doing to stay connected, engaged and reasonably happy, during this, the second full winter of our collective discontent?

What follows are some of your best suggestions, mixed in with a few of my own sanity-saving tricks:

Buy Something

Yes, I know, money doesn’t buy happiness. But it does buy things, and sometimes, let’s be honest, things make us feel better. Many of you look forward to annual winter sales from Island shops and artists – Trust, a boutique in Vineyard Haven, and jeweler Ivry Russillo both recently hosted Instagram flash sales that each sold out, well, in a flash.

But any day can be a good day for some in-person retail therapy. I like to make a habit of picking up little treats “just because,” like a pair of cozy socks. You heard it here first: cozy socks make off-season life worth living!

Beanies from Conrado

Plus, by shopping local I get the added bonus of knowing that my purchase supports a local lovely person and her local lovely staff. Angela Sison, owner of Conrado in Vineyard Haven, makes it a point to carry a selection of small items that encourage a healthy off-season lifestyle, including warm beanies for winter hikes, kitchen gear for cooking projects, and extra-moisturizing skin and hair products to combat the dry-season drearies. “I added a little apothecary section at my shop because I know that taking care of my body with products that are handmade with organic ingredients by people who really care has made a difference in the way my body feels,” Angela says. “And in the wintertime there is more time for me to add to my skincare routine.”

A sub-category of “buying things” might be “ordering things,” and no, I am not suggesting you pad a single Bezos pocket, but I can’t deny the special thrill of those yellow slips at the post office. Meg Athearn of Morning Glory Farm says, “I find ordering strange products like this Willie Nelson CBD electrolyte powder makes me feel like I have something fun coming in the mail.”

Make It a Big Deal

In this seemingly never-ending series of Groundhog Days, where weeks and weekends feel indistinguishable one from the next, a bunch of you are finding ways to celebrate little victories, creating new daily or weekly rituals that serve as anchors of normalcy and calm. Oyster follower Brett Otis started a practice he calls mindful breakfast: “eating a sit-down breakfast, no screens/devices, just enjoying the food.” Others report that just the daily act of preparing a warm beverage each morning to one’s exact specifications – be it a pour over coffee, golden “mylk” or hot tea to go – can feel like a mini-meditation, setting a peaceful tone for the rest of the day.

Plug In

Despite a number of you mentioning the importance of “screen breaks,” and a preference for wholesome activities like hiking, biking and holding actual books in your actual adorable hands, let’s get real here: screens are essential. I love screens! I happen to have small children, and I have been sufficiently indoctrinated in the “screen time is the devil” philosophy of modern parenting, so much so that it felt like something of a revelation during lockdown to realize that technology is actually…delightful?

I’m not talking about a Zoom meeting; nature abhors a Zoom meeting. But FaceTiming with family and friends? Fun! Music Director at MVY Radio Jess Phaneuf says that while staying connected to friends has been a challenge, “I do see some of my relationships being strengthened with the help of technology. I now don’t go a single day without FaceTiming my dad and I’ve connected more frequently to certain friends from afar thanks to the ease and prevalence of FaceTime and Zoom.”

Drawing by Olivia Rabbitt

Hate FaceTime? Turn that camera off and pretend your smart phone is something truly revolutionary: a less-smart phone! Chappaquiddick resident and flower farmer Olivia Rabbit of Piecemeal Farm (@piecemeal_farm) has a sweet nightly routine, combining time in nature, connecting with friends and space for creative brainstorming. “During the off-season I spend evenings walking around Chappy with my dog, Moa, (and a headlamp!) while talking with loved ones on the phone. So many of us who work a full Island season can’t manage to make time for all the relationships we wish to cultivate during the summer, and devoting hours of deep conversation once it’s over rejuvenates the connection.” On her walks Olivia is also able to visualize plant matches for the growing season; once she gets home, feeling connected and re-energized for the future, she draws up colorful garden plans (see above).

Beyond chats with friends, screens give us access to classes, lessons and tutorials. YouTube can be a terrifying lawless garbage pail of conspiracy theories and unboxing videos…OR you could learn to change a tire! Speak French! Draw a squirrel! Mend a cozy sock!

Mastering new skills, walks-and-talks with friends, a visit to your favorite local shop…it’s not rocket science, but maybe that’s the point. When so much of our brain power is now reserved for understanding the latest arcane quarantine guidelines, maybe it’s best for our self-care to be as user-friendly as possible.

In other words: Keep calm, and only connect.

P.S. Be sure to read our latest Pro Tips for staying sane.

Alexandra Bullen Coutts is a writer living in West Tisbury.