It started as a whim. On the first day of the pandemic lockdown, I noticed my dog and cat lying in a sunbeam, snapped a picture, and posted it to my seldom-used Instagram account. On the second day of lockdown, I posted a picture of a giant chocolate chip cookie I’d made in a skillet. When I realized I’d posted two days in a row, I went back and gave each one a number: “Corona Day 1.” “Corona Day 2.” I figured I’d use Instagram to count the next two weeks, which seemed the outer horizon for this strange new state of existence.
We all know what happened next. Two weeks became four, four became eight, eight became 30. Our lives were hemmed in by the weather, the data, the state of the surge. Moods alternated between terror, frustration, and ennui. And I was still counting, one post at a time, tallying the days like a desert island castaway; at this writing, I’m edging up to Corona Day 365. Now, just as it’s unclear when the “COVID era” will end and we’ll be able to venture fully into the hugging, breathing, laughing, singing world, I’m not sure when this daily ritual should stop.
Confession: I spend more time than I should looking back on my feed, the way you might marvel at a photo album from years ago. Its entries are a record of good fortune — food, employment, family, friends — but also recalibration. It marks the first time I ventured out to a store (Day 29), the first night I had friends on the backyard patio (Day 62), the first day the dog got a much-needed lockdown haircut (Day 82). It commemorates holiday meals eaten far from extended family and a funeral conducted over video screens. It records the intersection of personal history and actual history: standouts for racial justice (Days 78 and 81), new rituals for voting (Day 216, when I photographed a glue stick, in honor of the seal on my early voting envelope). It registers long car rides with a teenager who, for a brief time, had no one better to hang out with than her mom. It chronicles a group of tween boys who were unleashed on the neighborhood, 1980s-style, in the absence of summer camp (Days 117, 141) — and the rough adjustment to remote schooling that followed (Days 184, 189, 199).
And it records how much ordinary life still managed to occur as the world went into partial standstill. A girl got her learner’s permit (Day 143) and her driver’s license (Day 342). A boy graduated from elementary school (Day 94) and pitched his first Little League game (Day 132). We’ve taken road trips to the beach, gone hiking in the woods, started and finished home improvement projects. I’ve spent a lot of time staring at my cat (Days 16, 43, 104, 114, 138, 262, 341).
In his book The Rural Life, essayist Verlyn Klinkenborg — one of my writing teachers from college — ruminates on the act of writing diaries. “The purpose of a journal,” he writes, “is not to record, day by day, just a fragment of thought or observation but to herd all one’s days, like so many sheep, into a single pasture and prevent them from escaping.” He is skeptical of the form, and so am I: The act of writing every night, analyzing every day, always seemed self-indulgent. Instagram is a different animal, though. Each post is a sheep, to be counted and commemorated. Each image is a self-contained story. Each day, I have to choose how to distill the prevailing mood (is it an amaryllis that suddenly bloomed, or a dog with a mask in his mouth?) or capture an activity worth remembering. The feed must be fed.
Once, in desperation, I posted a picture of my favorite mustard (Day 192). But in my most self-aggrandizing moments — and you tend to get puffed up on yourself when you’re stuck at home all day — I wonder if my modest little feed will help tell the story of history. Someday, we’ll be looking back on this year as either a strange blip in human history or the start of a shift. Either way, it seems useful to document how we lived.
But my feed’s bigger value has been in the here and now. A diary is a private forum, a conspiratorial whisper to yourself, but social media is meant to be shared. There aren’t a lot of people reading my little chronicle — my Instagram settings are on “private” — but the friends and relatives who engage with it the most have become my pandemic companions. My feed has nurtured that new form of human relationship: social media friends, seldom together in real life, but soul mates nonetheless. One former colleague I barely knew, but always admired, now checks in daily, sometimes posting a witty observation, sometimes just marking his presence. I find myself waiting every day for his “like.”
He notes, from time to time, that I’m one of the only people in his circle who has actually been counting. And it’s that act, I think, that has propelled me most. There is a strange power in seeing those numbers rise, in codifying time when time feels so ill-defined. The days really do bleed together, so that there’s barely a difference between Tuesday and Saturday and three Wednesdays from now, but there is still a Day 50 and a Day 200 and a Day 365. (Of course, at one point I realized I’d repeated a day and had to frantically renumber half the entries.)
Now, the biggest challenge is figuring out when to stop. How do you end a pandemic diary when a pandemic doesn’t have an endpoint? Quit at precisely a year? Call it finished at the second dose of a vaccine? Wait for some unspecified day when everything suddenly feels normal again? How will any of us know we’re ready to move on?
My teenager, when she catches me scrambling to post at the end of a day, rolls her eyes and reminds me that I can stop at any time. Her Instagram account is all quick shots of fleeting joy; she wants to be free of this pandemic altogether, and propel herself into all the adventures she’s had to delay. But my feed is different: A collection of memories, some rough, but many surprisingly good.
And as much as I’m ready to stop, I’m also reluctant to lose the specialness of it all: the odd adjustments, the unlikely moments, the way a year that would have whizzed right by became a slowed-down, stepped-up time out of time. The forced departure from regular life has been a lesson — every day has meaning, and most days are worth sharing.
Joanna Weiss is editor of Experience magazine. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.