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Finding focus during the pandemic

Local residents turned to new hobbies – or expanded on old ones – over the past year


Inspired by her own children’s swimming lessons, Jill Chestnut-Collins returned to the pool during the pandemic, even joining am adult masters swim class. (Photo by Jamie Giambrone/08108)

It’s been nearly a year into life with COVID, and phrases like “the new normal” and “unprecedented” anything are maddeningly common now. It’s easy to rail against losing a year to living in claustrophobic bubbles and at arms-length from loved ones.

But as everyone keeps adjusting and adapting, some have found new, healthy outlets since COVID reshaped their worlds. Quarantine life, as difficult as it’s been, came with a silver lining: a chance to immerse themselves in something new.

With more time to fill — and distractions being gratefully welcome — Collingswood residents and neighbors were among those revisiting nature, the arts, sports, family activities and more as they dusted off long-forgotten skills or decided to take the plunge and commit to a new hobby. 

Jill Chestnut-Collins, an Oaklyn resident, discovered swimming a few years ago. The former collegiate runner describes her family as an athletic one, and watching her kids thrive in their swimming lessons made her want to develop her own skills, too, which brought her to Collingswood’s Roberts Pool. 

“I just decided to get into the pool one day and haven’t stopped since — but it kind of got stale, going to the pool without goals,” she says. When her pool announced the return of its adult masters team along with its September reopening, she saw her opportunity to go for something she had “been dying to do since March.” 

Initially hesitant to put herself out there — “I started to pay for the swim team in November but didn’t start showing up until January,” she admits — Chestnut-Collins scrounged up the courage to get started. The community that greeted her, even as pool closures were followed by the pandemic-limited occupancies, soon proved to be a huge part of the appeal. Her fellow adult swimmers not only understand her struggles and milestones but also always know the kind of encouragement and shared experience she needs.

“I’ve been a runner my entire life so as a runner I’m confident, I know what I’m doing, but as a swimmer, I need someone to tell me what to do with my arms and legs, and I like that challenge,” she said. “It’s great to have people who suggest ‘Hey, why don’t you try it like this?’ It reminds me of being part of a team when I was a teenager, and I’ve missed that.” 

Aaron Zegas is a new father who saw early pandemic life as an opportunity to improve his self-described “meddling guitarist” skills: As a Camden County librarian suddenly working from home, he faced an abundance of free time as his employer figured out a new operational model. With some focus and determination, Zegas filled those hours with making progress as a rhythm guitarist.   

Guitars hang at Collingswood Music downtown. Resident Aaron Zegas took the extra time during the pandemic to hone his guitar skills. (Photo by Jamie Giambrone/08108)

“I actually practiced by playing songs and learning chords I didn’t know. I gradually got better: Practicing helps, who knew!?” he remarked, though he still feels more confident in his vocal abilities than his instrumental ones.

Zegas first learned guitar basics during the summer of 1995, when he was not quite 16 and attended the Fairfax County Institute for the Arts summer camp. He let the skill languish for a while, then casually revisited it for about 10 years before the pandemic prompted him to get more serious. 

“For me, at least, it was a way to both relieve the boredom and distract myself from the parade of horribles going on in the world,” he said.

Tate and Margaret Perazelli check out a bird book while watching the feathered friends through their window. The couple were casual bird watchers prior to the pandemic, becoming more invested in the hobby over the past year. (Photo by Jamie Giambrone/08108)

Tate Perazelli is a self-professed lifelong “bird nerd” who shares his passion with family members. They’ve spent decades visiting locally accessible and nationally renowned birding spots like Cape May, a migratory hotspot attracting “ginormous” sky-swallowing swaths of flying birds. But with COVID curtailing travel, a squirrel-proof bird feeder and a handcrafted bird bath soon led to the Perazellis’ yard becoming a haven for all kinds of feathered friends. 

“I kind of did it as an homage to my mom, because it reminds me of her and how much she loved birds and, really, all living creatures,” he says. 

From their dining room, Tate and his wife Margaret can see the flocks of birds visiting their yard, giving them an up-close look at natural phenomena like the goldfinch molting its warm-weather yellows and turning gray. The New Jersey state bird is shedding its drab winter colors now, and the finches’ patchwork yellows have been a visual reminder to slow down and find something to appreciate in the present.

Tate Perazelli refills his bird feeder at his Collingswood home. (Photo by Jamie Giambrone/08108)

“Things are really hard for a lot of people right now, but you still have to find ways to live life — cautiously, of course — because it’s just too short,” Tate says. “The birds are still living their lives, and watching them is so calming. The goldfinches molt over time: It’s a slow process, but it’s incredible to watch. It’s helped us learn to take it a day at a time and not be in such a hurry.”

Finding everything from a few moments of peace to emotional satisfaction make the payoff of a dedicated hobby one of its biggest appeals. 

The Perazellis have developed a new tradition of weekly trips determined by what nearby location they draw from a jar, while the birds in their backyard give them some perspective, too.

“Nature doesn’t care that there’s a pandemic: Nature is still there, the earth is still there, it’s all still just as beautiful as ever and it’s still there for us to enjoy,” Margaret says. “We can look down and see our own misery or we can look up and see the joy around us.”

For Zegas, he’s also been learning how to sling some finely honed classic cocktails. Preparing for not only jam sessions with friends but also serving drinks to a home full of guests are glimmers of hope for a return to social activity.

“Due to the pandemic, I’ve not seen much of my family in person, just my fiance and my newborn child,” he explains. “But, I’m sure that when we start having gatherings again, I’d be happy to break out some nice cocktails.”

Chestnut-Collins says that no matter what kind of daily stresses she’s been carrying before she gets to the pool, they all melt away as soon as she dips into the water. The pool, she said, is where her focus is reduced to the swimmer she was yesterday and the swimmer she’s working to become tomorrow.

Jill Chestnut-Collins plays in the water with her 5-year-old son Adrian Collins. (Photo by Jamie Giambrone/08108)

“All of us adults are coming to the pool with some kind of baggage, like a stressful day at work or thinking about calling this doctor or prioritizing all the things you have to do,” she says. “When I get in the pool, I cannot focus on anything but swimming. To me, that’s the biggest benefit.”

Tate found that tending to his tiny flying neighbors reinforces the importance of respecting all creatures great and small, just like his mother did — which comes with a mutual benefit.

“Caring for these birds, even something like cleaning their feeders, is so therapeutic to me,” he says. 

Of course, as Zegas points out, “not everyone is going to have the time or emotional or mental bandwidth to take up new hobbies” after a year that has offered some truly harrowing trials and tragedies. But for those who benefit from refocusing their energy on something creative or informative, diving into a hobby can be a productive way to find something positive in a difficult 12 months.

“It taught me something at age 40-41 that I hadn’t really picked up as a teenager: That if you actually practice at something every day, you’ll get, if not good, at least good enough to have fun with guitar,” Zegas said, finding merit in learning itself. “I’m not going to be the next Hendrix, but when the pandemic is over, it’ll be fun to jam with friends and keep up with better musicians and hold my own.”

Chestnut-Collins believes there’s no time like the present to try something new, and she credits swimming for being her constant in uncertain times. 

“I can’t emphasize enough how swimming has gotten me through the year,” she says. 

Tate and Margaret are keenly aware of how bad the pandemic is for many. But taking in the good things — like, as Tate says, realizing that “there’s no one else I’d rather live through a pandemic with than my wife” — is important, too. 

“We have hot water, we have food, we aren’t in a war zone,” Tate says. “It isn’t the fact that the glass is half empty or the glass is half full: It’s the fact that you even have a glass.”


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