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March 19, 2020

What does friendship look like when we reopen? A Case for the American Moai

Do you ever have those moments when you read something, and think to yourself,

“Remember this. In the future, it will matter.”


I had one of those when I read about the Moais of Okinawa four years ago.


The article was in a National Geographic magazine I’d purchased on the secrets of blue zones- areas in the world where people lived long lives with most frequency. I’m a dietitian who doesn’t completely buy into the rhetoric of “perfect diet for perfect life,” so as such I’m always interested in analyzing patters from real-world people who are living long, healthy lives.

Well, one of the places mentioned in this magazine was Okinawa, Japan. In Okinawa, women live on average 8 years longer than American women. One of the reasons they think this may be is due to the strong social support network of the Okinawan women. When they are young, Okinawan women commit themselves to a Moai- an intimate group of women who promise themselves to each other in lifelong friendship- offering emotional, labor, and even financial support when needed members of the group. At the time that I read this, I was struck at how obvious this was- female friendship is a true carnal need- yet how foreign the concept of a “formal bond,” similar in strength to marriage, was when applied to the institute of friendship.


I filed this information away in the mental folder of “Remember this. It feels like it matters.”


Well- the “when” came today:

April 20, 2020.


At this point we’ve been under a stay-at-home order for about a month, with news that restrictions will gradually start easing. This news is fabulous. This news is anxiety provoking.

At least with a governor mandate, we are told exactly what to do and how to do it. If we fail, and the virus still spreads exponentially, it’s “their” fault. As long as I do as I’m told, I can’t possibly be responsible for missteps. Illness. Death.

In the today’s gubanatorial briefing, it has been announced that in Colorado, the economy will reopen in stages. Stage 1- retail and non essential work places. Stage 2- restaurants and bars. It was announced that even during this time, people we need to continue to decrease our socialisation by 50-60%. This sounds reasonable. We can leave the home, but we need to do so mindfully. However, immediately following, I have so many questions.

Can I meet up with one friend, instead of two? Or if our normal wine club consists of 10 people, will a smaller group of 5 do? Will I be meeting the rules then? Or will I still be spreading illness? What line is too far?

Yes, the obvious pass times are options. Don’t get me wrong- I’m a massive introvert, and whole-heartedly support. Read, write, garden, walk, jog, cook dinner, take a bathe, have sex, spend time with your kids, and utilize Facetime. But here’s the thing- this is not going to sustain us in any sort of healthy fashion in the long run. As people, we need connection. This is a short-term survival strategy- three months tops. But if this thing lasts any longer, we are going to need a Plan B.


I was pondering this today when a bubble surfaced in the swirling water that is my brain:

Oh, yeah. Moai. That is it.

That’s why I was supposed to remember.

So, here is my thought, and it’s not from the CDC or WHO so full disclosure on those accounts. But- it is from my heart, and my intuition, which isn’t worth a nonquestioning belief but is worth maybe something in these dark days:

What if, now in America, we employ the concept of Moai to continue social relationships in a safe way that protects ourselves and our communities:

What if we commit ourselves to a small number of physical presence friendships- our Moai? These groups, since meeting together, would definitely consist of less than ten individuals per the presidential recommendations. We can then formally agree within these small groups that we will practice social distancing with all of the outside world when it comes to physical contact (no need to cut out phone calls and Facetimes with your larger network).

But- and this is I’m sure controversial yet somehow still seems right- what if we choose those who are in our Moai to be together, to support each other- financially, and yes even phsycially- agreeing within the group to take each others’ COVID bugs should they come. This type of group would require a strong formal agreement- in the same way that the friendship is agreeing to physical presence, well- those same members need to commit to practicing social distancing outside of the Moai, or else the entire concept will crumble.

This idea of course makes me nervous because right now the message is “stay home and distance yourself,” and I whole heartedly agree. But then- I also can’t shake the feeling of knowing that this is going to be longer than fifteen days. And people need friendship. And presence. And human contact.

If your household consists of just you, or you and a partner, consider the concept of a formal Moai- 3 to 5 individuals- to ride the waves of the next year, should this be an ongoing recommendation of social distancing. Of course- one unanswered question I have – if a Moai involves formal invitation and acceptance, how to avoid a culture of exclusion?

I am open to evolving this concept, and don’t have the answer in my last question. Maybe you do. Please offer your comments on this, and please consider the idea of formal small friendship groups- American Moais- to provide social connection and support- security-  yet practice social distancing and minimize contagion during these times.

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