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Essays about life during COVID-19

The Boston Book Festival's community writing project comes to a close, with these short narratives by Mayor Marty Walsh and other Massachusetts residents describing what they've faced during this time and what they've learned

(Boston, MA 6/4/20) Mayor Martin Walsh and other city officials and employees take part in an eight minute and 46 second “moment of silence” in memory of George Floyd outside Boston City Hall. (Mayor’s Office Photo by John Wilcox)Mayor’s Office Photo by John Wilcox



The last few months have been some of the most trying for our city. The lockdown tested all our systems and community strength — and we are being tested now again.

In the days following George Floyd’s murder, I sought out Black colleagues to ask how they were feeling and how they thought we should respond. Some are cabinet members and some are entry-level workers. Many have been participating in the protests and helping to support the movement for justice.

What I heard was heartbreaking. As a white person, you can and you should oppose racism. You can learn how it shapes our society. But when you make space for people you know to truly open up, and when you really hear what a daily experience racism is for them, it deepens your perspective and strengthens your resolve to be an ally and push for change.

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When I got into recovery, I learned that it’s not just about stopping drinking, it’s about changing the human being. Many days, the Serenity Prayer kept me sober. God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.

Injustice is something we can and we must change.

So I ask everyone who is white to listen, truly listen, to Black neighbors, friends, and colleagues. Listen, learn, and resolve to be part of the solution. Now is a moment to make a bold step forward in our nation’s progress. We must have the wisdom to embrace it.

Marty Walsh is Mayor of Boston


Jabari AsimJennymae Kho

Last fall, I was walking home when a 30-ish white woman hastily crossed to my side of the street. Matching me stride for stride, she behaved as if she knew me, as if we were together. I had seen and experienced many things in my 50-plus years as a black man, but this was a first. I soon understood that she had moved to avoid the approach of three Black teenagers. I got a good look at these instantly familiar schoolboys as they juggled backpacks and bike helmets. They were gangly, garrulous, beautiful. Happily immersed in chatter, they seemed to have noticed the woman not at all. I’m reminded of such encounters on days when my wife and I venture outside for a bit of sun, masks firmly in place. When we see folks coming, we step off the curb as swiftly as our ancestors did, Mississippians who skillfully ducked the predations of Jim Crow. The big difference, of course, is the sight of our white neighbors hurrying to do the same. Sometimes we end up in each other’s path, zigging when we should have zagged. We slip into a parody of Alphonse and Gaston, or square dancers who’ve forgotten their steps.

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Jabari Asim is associate professor of writing, literature, and publishing at Emerson College and author of “We Can’t Breathe: On Black Lives, White Lies, and the Art of Survival”


In the before times, I got my hair cut once a year. I don’t miss it. The polyester smock, the small talk, the stylist’s response when I tell her my mother is Japanese. “I can tell from your hair.”

“We demand haircuts” reads the sign in a now viral photo. The entitlement. A deep contrast to those who demand justice, whose signs read “I can’t breathe.”

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This pandemic, this uprising, have pared down my circle of friends. Rifts that were forming in the before times deepen, as it becomes clearer who continues to confront their anti-Blackness, and who can barely acknowledge “everything going on right now.” Now is also then, for this nation built on stolen land by enslaved hands. It is why Christian and Amy Cooper share a last name.

I, too, have been Amy: diminishing truths shared with me, harming through silence. Unlearning is forever work, with no final destination.

I put my growing hair up to protest. It’s hot, the ponytail practical. I take up less space, my role is to follow. I repeat the leaders’ chants, knowing they shift meaning uttered from my light-skinned lips. The mask makes it harder, but I can still breathe.

Anri Wheeler is a multiracial writer, anti-racist educator, and mother of three daughters


Jodi Burrel and her mother socialize through a glass window during the pandemic.handout

These days, I talk to my mother through her glass door. When a neighbor’s lawn mower starts or the wind kicks up, I have to press my ear to the glass to hear her. I don’t dare go into her house. She’s 76 — her age and mild heart condition place her at risk for COVID.

My mother and I live alone, apart, and she’s my best friend. So every week I sit in a plastic chair on her back deck while she sits inside at her café table. I study her through the double-paned glass. I see her face with trees reflected in it. I marvel at the way she sits in her chair, knees up, holding onto her bare feet, like babies do. We watch the family of groundhogs that lives under her gazebo.

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“This is a long game,” she says to me.

I refuse to enter my mother’s house even to use her bathroom. So I bought a camping porta potty online and turned her shed into an outhouse. Now I can visit her all day. I know I’m lucky. Not everyone gets to visit their mom. I can visit mine as often as I like. Weather permitting.

Jodi Burrel is an educator at a college in Boston


“Just draw what you see,” he says. “When we’re told to draw a door, most of us have a preconceived idea of what a door looks like, and we draw what we see in our mind. But that’s not the door that’s in front of us.”

It’s my first Beginning Drawing class on Zoom. I’ve never been good at drawing, but I feel that familiar pressure to excel, just as I have felt at school, work, writing, athletics. Now, daily life itself. But my instructor is unfazed, telling us to draw with whatever we have lying around and encouraging us when our drawing isn’t perfect: “Sometimes it’s more interesting that way.”

Slowly, the pressure dissipates, and drawing random objects with a beat-up mechanical pencil becomes relaxing. Each time, I hear him saying, “Just draw what you see.” The lesson is there — about line and shading and contour and composition. But also about taking life as it comes, not as you build it up in your mind before it happens.

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So, I put my pencil to the page and make my mark. I draw the door I see. Then I take a deep breath and walk through it.

Rachel Coppola works as a writer at a local health plan


Sherell Barbeehandout

Out of nine housemates, I’m one of the only people who is still working 9-to-5 hours. I savor my mornings alone: eating breakfast in silence, working to the lone sound of my keyboard taps, and embracing emptiness before the others wake. My bedroom is in the basement, directly below the kitchen. Around noon, I hear the first refrigerator slap of the day followed by the whisks of an egg scramble, then someone turns on a record. My housemates’ rhythmic and offbeat toe taps rumble above me, along to their punk, soul, or strange avant-garde music.

We’ve learned to move our bodies around the house like a game of Tetris: bumping elbows in the kitchen when trying to perfect recipes, jumping over limbs in the living room to water plants, and swiveling past each other for bathroom turns. We say “sorry” more, apologizing for how much our bodies are in each others’ ways now.

When I finish work for the day, sometimes I curl myself into my room, avoiding chats I’m not in the mood to have. Other times, I linger in the kitchen. Hoping to taste sweet human interaction. Hoping for a reminder of life before the pandemic.

Sherell Barbee is a writer from St. Louis now living in Boston


As the country went into lockdown, I bought several hundred dollars worth of groceries, ventured out of the house to walk on nearby trails, and bemoaned that my usual gatherings had to convene in Zoom rooms. My pen pal, an inmate, reported a different sort of lockdown. All visits were suspended, he anticipated a PB&J diet, and, immuno-compromised, he feared that COVID-19 would kill him. He reported watching TV news, incredulous at how blasé many Americans seemed to be about the threat. They were idiots and they were free.

A liberal in a leafy suburb, I believe in the inherent worth of every person. These days I’m uncomfortable seeing how communities are interconnected, that many people are taking risks to keep my lifestyle afloat. And I’m even more uncomfortable with the unseen, the incarcerated whose lives are valued only as profit centers. My heart clenches when the prison informs me that my “loved one” will receive a 25 cent e-mail stamp weekly, enabling him to reach out.

And yet, my pen pal and I both inquire whether the other is staying safe and well. To borrow a phrase, we are in the same storm, but in very different boats.

N.L. Cameron is a writer in Wellesley


Lakpa Sange Sherpahandout

I came from Nepal, arriving three years ago. With Americans, I am also terrified by COVID-19, which has taken away so many American lives. Like others, I was overwhelmed by anxiety, hopelessness, and fears for my life and family.

Amazon was hiring workers, so I applied and got hired. I was required to travel by public transportation despite the “stay home” order; I barely saw people on the T and felt alienated from others. I saw wild animals walking on the street.

I could have applied for unemployment benefits and SNAP, but I didn’t do that. I wanted to help our community get through this pandemic. At the Amazon warehouse, my responsibility was packing customers’ orders. I was thrilled when customers thanked us through reviews; our enthusiasm was climbing up to top of the mountain. That made us empowered to do our job. I was so grateful when they called us essential workers, “heroes of this critical time” with other front-line workers.

Lakpa Sange Sherpa is working to be self-dependent


“US Nears 100,000 Deaths” — The New York Times front page full of names was all over my social media feed. A Canadian friend wondered where was our outrage? What would it take to make Americans mad?

The question stuck with me. That number — 100,000 deaths — was bigger than the population of Somerville. Yet I felt nothing.

Over the course of quarantine, my emotional baseline got stuck somewhere between blah and neutral. I couldn’t even get annoyed when my husband left out the vacuum after he cleaned the kitchen. My household trudged along. My husband worked remotely. My daughter logged into her Google classroom. I signed up to pack food for people in need — so much food — but I stayed numb.

Then came George Floyd’s public murder. This fatality triggered the outrage tsunami. People were mad all over Greater Boston.

I went to a local vigil. I wore a mask and kept my distance, thanks to dots drawn in chalk at 6-foot intervals on the pavement. The vigil ended with eight minutes and forty-five seconds of silence. Another number, but this one made me feel something.

Emily Lacika is a writer, mother, and former expat


The ride home from the hospital was brutal. I winced every time we hit a bump in the road. My meds were wearing off, and so was my tolerance. I inverted my lips and pressed down, hoping to brace the pain. It reminded me of the roller coaster at Canobie Lake Park: the one that we all wanted to get on, then regretted once we did. I glanced over at my sleeping newborn, both in awe and terror. “I have a newborn, I have a child,” I repeated in my mind. This new world that she was introduced to was changing every day because of COVID-19.

What’s the new normal for her? I looked back at the hospital. The world was so muted. The slate-colored buildings seemed to accent the same hues in the misty sky. The inactivity on the streets gave an eerie sense of an abandoned city. I looked at my baby, innocent to how scary the world can be, and my heart broke. Will this “new normal” be the childhood I wish for her?

We pulled up to the house; her little body covered and cozy. Today our new story begins.

Kim E. Marshall is trying to figure out motherhood and the “new normal”


Carol R. Steinberghandout

In the late afternoon on any of these quarantined days that is lit by low sun, I put on my wireless headphones and mask and transfer from manual to power wheelchair. I ride the bumpy sidewalk down Weld Hill, turn right onto the grit of Hyde Park Ave, zip up the ramp at the Forest Hills station, and breathe deeply as I am released to the Arboretum. On the streets on the way there, I listen to the troubling news on the radio but once among the trees, I turn to Mozart’s concertos. During these three months, I have toured forsythias, cherry blossoms, lilacs, rhododendrons, and roses with strings, flutes, and piano as the perfect soundtrack. The match-up between the music and lightly illuminated flora is a source of bliss during this devastation.

At my home, adjacent to the Forest Hills cemetery, where the number of burials has tripled, I hear the hum of backhoe loaders digging graves — a soundtrack I never experienced before. I live for those times I can escape to be escorted by Mozart through the beauty that still remains.

Carol R. Steinberg is an attorney, writer, and disability activist

To read more essays gathered as part of the At Home community writing project, visit bostonbookfest.org.