Three years ago this month we stood in line outside Trader Joe’s. Then we washed the food we bought.
We hunted for toilet paper.
But mostly, we hunkered down at home.
Mary-Lou Weisman remembers those days. A journalist for publications like the New York Times and The Atlantic, and author of 5 books, the longtime Westporter was teaching an advanced memoir writing class at the Westport Library when her 10 students’ lives changed dramatically.
Sharing their writing had drawn the group tightly together. Suddenly, those bonds were threatened.
Weisman suggested they stay in touch, by email. For 7 months they wrote, hit “send,” responded, and wrote some more.
At first their topics were tame: following arrows in stores, their favorite walks, whether to keep coloring their hair.
Gradually, they ventured into more serious stuff: getting along (or not) with partners. The “invasion” of kids back from New York. The changing perceptions of time. Politics.
Here’s one example:
I like alone time. I used to call these days my “snow days” as I revert to those in the classroom.
Am I enjoying them this week? Yup, but the promise of a month or more, or even more, makes me think: not so much.
Spending this unforeseen amount of time with my husband, (who doesn’t always put in his hearing aids), the ubiquitous Fox News, our dog who is hanging onto life with a silver thread, and a blank calendar make me determined not to complain, go out for a walk every day, do custodial things like cleaning out my file cabinet, and finish up writing assignments that I’ve procrastinated and probably won’t get published anyway due to everything closing or, in my case, the newspapers where I’m published going under for lack of advertisers.
Yesterday I thought that that the only stores necessary to sustain life as I know it are grocery stores, bookstores, and wine stores. An owner of a bookstore I’m writing about thinks that Trump will close down ALL retail by the end of the week. Then what?
Two group members were hospitalized with COVID. They kept writing.
I’ve been admitted to the hospital. The latest is that I’ve developed violent vertigo that leaves me under the impression I’ve slithered to the floor of one of those horrible spinning teacup carnival rides. The puking starts instantaneously and sometimes lasts hours. It’s about the most miserable feeling I’ve ever experienced—and laws knows, having spent 20 years with the Mingler, I’ve seen some misery.
I either spend the days sleeping or puking and praying for sleep.
My Covid test came back negative, which surprised me. I suspect a false negative. However, if I don’t actually have it, I’m ideally situated to pick it up.
Today I needed a walker AND a babysitter just to take a fricking pee. I’m shaking my fist at some unnamed god.
I don’t know when I’ll be well enough to participate. Even writing this email required Herculean effort. I miss everyone.
Grumble, grumble, grumble. Stay alive through this shit show please.
A classmate wrote back:
Dear God, I’m so very, very, very sorry to read this news. You’re in the right place to get the help you need, in spite of corona crowding. My thoughts and hope are with you.
I think I may have gotten IT, also, as I woke up this morning with some of the symptoms. And here my family is so worried about my husband. I’m thinking, read “hoping,” I have a mild case. Stay tuned.
The tone of most pieces was conversational. Occasionally, there were confrontations.
“It was the whole arc of human feeling and activity,” Weisman says.
Seven months in, the class began meeting via Zoom. Weisman looked at the 700 pages they’d amassed, and realized: This is a document about what Westporters have experienced during the pandemic. It could be a book.
Gina Ryan, a student who is “technologically adept,” said she’d help. Weisman sent Library director Bill Harmer a sampling of the writing. He loved it. The Library signed on, to help produce it.
Ryan and Weisman edited the 700 pages. Alison McBain created the cover, and prepared the book for publication.
“The COVID Chronicles” went to the printer last week. On May 15 (7 p.m.), it will launch at the Library.
All 10 writers will read an entry. Then there’s food and drinks for everyone.
Just like a little over three years ago, in pre-pandemic days.
(Copies of “The COVID Chronicles” will be available at the May 15 event. Click here to order the color edition on Amazon. Click here for the black-and-white version. Click here for the Kindle one.)
(The book includes writing by Weisman, Ryan, G. Kenneth Bernhard, Bernadette Hutchings Birney, Lynn Goldman, Judith Hamer, Deborah Howland Murray, Morgaine Pauker, Donna Skolnick, Polly Tafrate and Maria Rossello Zobel.)
(“06880” covered COVID closely. We’re here for Westport, through good times and bad. Please click here to support this blog. Thank you!)
EXTRA CHAPTER: Here is one more excerpt from the book:
My husband came down with a 102-degree fever and a cough on Friday. The minute that thermometer left his mouth, I left the room and haven’t been back since. He has been quarantined for five days, and I’ve moved to a different floor of the house. Aside from a few business trips that kept us apart, this is the longest we’ve gone without touching each other since we met.
Now that we can’t be in the same room, I am so aware of how physical we are; how much that makes us feel loved.
My husband always likes to intertwine our hands, but his fingers are so bony it hurts, so I curl my fist inside his palm—our bizarre way of holding hands. We give each other friendly shoves to see who can get in the house first. We sit on the couch: our thighs touching, or his feet on my lap, or his arm around me, or my head on his shoulder. He hooks a finger in my belt loop when I try to stand up and pulls me back down to kiss me.
I drape myself around him while he pays the bills on his laptop. He comes up behind me when I’m in the kitchen (always at the worst times!) when I’m stir-frying or taking a tray out of the oven, and he bites my ear or snuffles my neck, while I squirm out of his grasp, half-annoyed and half-turned on, saying, “Hot stove! Hot stove!” Even in the car, we touch each other: he grabs my hand and puts it on the nape of his neck. Or he says, “Nobody’s checking me,” which means, “Take your hand and fluff the hair on the back of my head.”
When we sleep, we find each other: back-to-back, toes to leg, an arm curled over a chest. He reaches out his hand to me in the morning when his alarm goes off at 5:30, a little squeeze on my shoulder before he leaves. But now there’s none of that.
I miss him, but I am also supremely irritated by him now. I have become Beck-and-Call-Nurse-Waitress and I’m sick of it. I go up and down the stairs with water, popsicles, Tylenol, rice, pasta, salad, a hot water bottle, a fruit cup, tea, a thermos, more tea. I knock and run away. He leaves the dishes in the hall, and I put them in the dishwasher and scrub my hands like a surgeon. He asks for charging cables, books, a folding chair, a TV tray. I go up and down the stairs some more.
When his fever was very high, he was kind and grateful and said, “Thank you, thank you, you’re so nice,” every time he heard me outside his door. But his fever broke on Sunday and now that he’s feeling better, he has turned sarcastic and demanding. When I ask how he’s feeling, he coughs and says, “How do you think I’m feeling?” as if I’m an idiot. He’s mad that we’re out of bananas and accused me of “poor planning.” He’s tired of being cooped up in one room. He’s tired of talking through the door and me saying, “WHAT?! WHAT?! Okay, Mumbles!” because I can’t make out what he’s saying. He’s tired of texting me, and me not responding because I left my phone in the other room and didn’t hear it ping. We are tired of each other. And the longer we don’t touch each other, the more we both stop caring.
Through a closed door, I cannot see how cute he is; how his silly expressions always soften my anger and make me laugh, even when I don’t want to laugh. I can’t kiss the side of his neck or stroke his bristly sideburns. I can’t smell his smell, which always reminds me of pencil shavings and hotel soap. I can’t put my head on his chest and cry.
So many of our arguments, our temper tantrums, our fears and stress are resolved by our bodies. That “oh, come on,” nudge, raised eyebrows and sweet smile; that “you know you want a piece of this!” swagger that makes us giggle. We touch each other and it’s all okay. We are okay.
Nine… more… days.
Such a great way to reflect and view one’s life and relationships in times of adversity. All people can be interesting even in the smallest ways. Awesome, as younger folks say!
Awesome Mary Lou! Thank you!