I suppose the word “zoom” has always been a verb (and imitates a sound). I remember the word trailing a racing car when I read to my young son. Before I remembered, I was going to begin this piece with this question: do you remember when “zoom” became a verb? A verb as in the sentence, “Do you want to zoom or meet in person?” Just to be clear.
Early in the pandemic, we met together, worshiped together, and I even joined my yoga class via Zoom from the comfort of my own bedroom. A pet or child might make a brief appearance and shift the conversation or at least my attention. I noticed couches and wall art and bookshelves. Books seemed to be a popular backdrop; some people even turned certain books forward so I could read the title. I occasionally admired peoples’ kitchens and rested in their messy corners.
Now, I’m taking a continuing education course at the local University, “Writing your sacred story.” We are in our fourth week and the group is small; fifteen of us zoom into class every Saturday. While several of us live here in Victoria, our teacher is leading from Pender Island and some are attending from the other side of the country, from Toronto and Ottawa. One participant joined from Costa Rica when we met together for the first time. Yes, online expands our access and I wonder how this reach shapes how we welcome one another.
Before that first class, I checked my camera and sound to make sure they worked. I also determined if the light was right in the corner I chose to sit and tilted my computer at just the right angle so that my whole face was visible, not just the top of my head. I must admit I took note that my ‘background’ was a bare corner; no one would see my own messy bookshelves but I decided that was okay.
A few people in the class layered a beautiful background scene behind them. I figured out one participant must live near me since she introduced herself by referencing her background photograph of the very bay I’d walked by earlier that morning. Another person took care to blur the room and only their face was in focus. During class writing time, we were invited to turn off our cameras for 20 minutes or so, I suppose as a way to focus on our task.
So, here is the real story.
For 30 seconds, each person is “seen” up close as they introduce themselves or share an insight. During the class discussion some, of course, talk more than others. I might take note of my impression of them or look at the room where they were sitting, or some detail about their bookshelf or wall decor or messy corner. However, a few days later when I was sharing my own experience in the first class with a friend, I had no recollection of several of the class members, even though I’d written down all of their names. I knew there was a man named Jim or another woman who had her childhood journals but I couldn’t recall their faces.
During the second class, we each shared how our in-class writing exercise went. Lucy, one whom I hadn’t quite remembered, shared that “zoom life,” as she called it, allowed her to really look at people. She said she stared at each of our faces and really looked at us. She laughed that she really couldn’t do that if we were all sitting together in the same room. During the freewriting exercise, Lucy had unexpectedly created a character out of one of those faces she had been intently watching.
I was amazed at her sincerity—no, that’s not quite the word. She wasn’t looking at what kind of room I was in, what picture I chose to hang on my wall, or wondering about those things I’d chosen not to show or replace with a beautiful landscape. She wasn’t wondering if that office I seemed to be in was my work or my home. She was looking at me.
Lucy captured a way to focus on the face of the person she wanted to hear, the face of the person she wanted to know without the surround we planned, to look unashamedly at me with my self-consciousness in full view.
In the introduction to Listening to your life, Frederick Buechner wonders about the felicitously chosen compilation of excerpts. This kind of book that we keep by our favourite chair and dip in and out of is a good one when the words sound like a friend talking. I wonder if that is what Lucy wants to see something that familiar on each face.
As Buechner explains,
…not so much that tell me something new that will keep me awake, puzzling over it, as the ones that will help me see something as familiar as my own face in a new way, with a new sense of its depth and preciousness and mystery.
I believe Lucy is one who sees something in my own not-so-familiar face in a new way. To see, even me, as someone familiar and see me with a new sense of my depth and preciousness and mystery.