We’re now approaching the fourth anniversary of the first confirmed US death from COVID-19 (Feb. 29) — four long years of disease, disruption, and division, truly a plague for the internet age. To mark this milestone, the Library of Congress has launched a COVID-19 oral history project, partnering with StoryCorps and the American Folklife Center, to “document history as it happens.” The initiative is part of a congressional mandate to preserve the experiences ordinary Americans had during the pandemic, and the Library is inviting everyone to share.
So I dug out a journal I kept in those surreal months of 2020 to see if I had any small bit to add.
“Small” is the operative word here. History is told on a grand scale, but stories are human-scaled, the stuff of every day, too often ignored in the great sweep of things. In that first frightful April, I listened to a podcast with the author and teacher George Saunders, who read aloud an email he had sent his marooned students at Syracuse University. Pay sharp attention in this moment, he advised them. Keep your sensory apparatus as open as possible, and record the tenor of your days. You’re bearing witness; no observation is too small. “In years to come it may be some totally trivial detail that encapsulates this whole thing,” he wrote.
I can’t pretend to have some revelatory truth buried in my anxious scribblings from those months, but I do have fragments of observations it would be a shame to forget. You have them, too.
- The unnatural clarity of the air when travel abruptly shut down, eliminating jet and car pollution. On a brisk spring walk, some distant building or landmark would appear suddenly as if rising out of a dream, sharp and close. Was it always there? The color yellow in April’s forsythia branches. Was that shade ever so bright, so capable of sparking cheer?
- Fumbling to make masks out of old T-shirts. The triumph of making a tasty dinner entirely out of pantry staples. People with domestic skills — sewing, baking, canning — were royalty.
- Our favorite grocer devised a touchless system of distributing boxes you could preorder online, filled with essentials like milk, vegetables, and pasta, though you couldn’t choose. In every box, workers added a bouquet of flowers and some sweets, because we needed both bread and roses.
- Looking aghast at the lines of revelers outside Southie bars on St. Patrick’s Day and feeling like Cassandra, issuing warnings no one would heed. Sitting warily with a friend on opposite ends of a long park bench and worrying about touching the armrests.
- The consolations of nature, dependable and orderly at a time of crushing uncertainty. The wild roses bloomed in June, as ever.
- The liberations of summer. Even though COVID-19 became the third leading cause of death by August 2020, with US fatalities exceeding 1,000 a day, I could walk on a beach or paddle a kayak without a mask. The transgressive thrill of dinner with six friends (albeit sitting by an open window). With wine.
- The creative contraptions neighbors built to deliver Halloween candy with COVID-safe chutes and clotheslines. Seven months into the pandemic, it was heartening to see people gamely working to find DIY joy in holiday traditions.
- The images get darker. The pandemic exposed the weaknesses in our social supports: the millions of children who depended on school for their meals; the stark differences in income and housing security; the way, as a nation, we kept slipping our deadlines by not testing and tracing, not managing the airports or borders, not enforcing clear guidelines for masking or quarantine. The absurdity of a health insurance system tied to jobs when 26 million people filed for unemployment in the first 5 weeks of the pandemic alone.
- The cruelties of isolation. The heartbreaking photos of terrified elders placing their hands against glass to “touch” their loved ones. But also, the signs in the windows thanking nurses, letter carriers, sanitation workers. Banging pots and pans at 7 each night to honor them.
Why wouldn’t we want to preserve these tales of ingenuity and resilience, to appreciate what we learned? We are all citizen historians, and our small, shared stories build empathy by bringing us, however briefly, into other lives. I hope people will write for the national archives. But I also hope that they will read.
Renée Loth’s column appears regularly in the Globe.