Since April, I’ve been telling my students that their generation will be the ultimate storytellers of this pandemic, as COVID-19’s legacy will surely endure for decades. This semester, I’ve taken it a step further and required them to keep pandemic diaries.
Their weekly 500-word entries will help me gauge their writing progress and give me glimpses into how they are doing in this challenging time. Just as importantly, they will create a written record of who they were — in their lives and in this time in history.
The seeds for this idea sprouted during my reading of Erik Larson’s outstanding new book, “The Splendid and the Vile: A Saga of Churchill, Family, and Defiance During the Blitz.”
Early in Larson’s book, he mentions the Mass-Observation, “an organization launched in Britain two years before the war that recruited hundreds of volunteers to keep daily diaries with the goal of helping sociologists better understand ordinary British life.” Once World War II broke out, the diaries created a treasure trove of historical accounts in the country’s darkest hours.
Eager to learn more about these diaries, I hunted down Simon Garfield’s 2005 book, “We Are at War: The Remarkable Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times.” The book begins in 1939 and ends a year later with the Battle of Britain and the start of the Blitz. It is an “invaluable record of quiet lives transformed by events far beyond their control,” Garfield writes.
“The reason why I am keen on Mass-Observation,” one 28-year-old man wrote, “is because it wants to know and inform, tell all classes about the emotion, acts, thoughts and struggles of the ordinary ‘average’ man and woman. Too many articles and books are on high-flown subjects, there are none about the prosaic things of everyday.”
A 41-year-old woman wrote, “We all feel, under pressure of work, that our language is becoming stronger and our manners less polite.”
Another woman, age 37: “Absent-mindedness and poor memory seem rife … Mr Mitchell and I both find the same thing, that the strained atmosphere has upset our sense of time.
An hour seems like a day, and a day like a week. The month of August seems to have lasted for decades.”
The longer this pandemic drags on, the more I see the value in writing about the daily mess of life, regardless of our age. Writing helps us sort out how we are changing, but it also allows us to see what parts of us remain.
Life in its minutiae is what distinguishes our experience from everyone else’s. The public historical record will help us remember the day schools closed, for example, or when our governor ordered all residents to wear masks. But how did we feel the day the death toll hit 1,000? 10,000? 180,000? Who were we on day 60? Day 90? When did we first become afraid? How did we find our courage?
If you’d like to keep a pandemic journal and wonder where to start, how about here, with this question: Who am I today, in the final days of summer? Or, my students’ first diary prompt: How is my life different now?
As the diaries of British citizens make clear, one keeps on living. We grow vegetable gardens and try new recipes. We return to long-dormant hobbies or finally make time to learn new ones. Zoom and FaceTime are now lifelines to those we love. My daughter often smiles and shakes her head at me as I silently watch her young children do what little kids do: They draw and color giant pictures, make glorious messes of their faces as they eat, and talk in imaginary voices as they play with the dollhouse.
“As long as you’re willing to hold up your phone,” I tell her, “I’m going to watch them.” I study them for signs of growth, every little change that is happening without me.
Later, I write it all down in my pandemic diary. Because I want them to know I was still watching and that hundreds of miles are no distance at all for a loving heart.
And if I write it all down, maybe one day I will feel the warmth of my grandson’s hand on mine as we share a memory of life during the pandemic.
“Your kite?” I’ll say. “Of course I remember your kite. You were 4. It was a hot, sunny day, but you wore your Batman boots as you ran so fast, round and round the giant tree. I thought that kite might lift you up into the sky.”
I remember, I will tell him. I was there.