Chronicling the Days: Dispatches from a Pandemic. Guernica Editions and
Early in March 2020, I was at the Northeast Modern Language Association’s annual conference in Boston, the last pre-pandemic event I attended. On the way home, there were eerie warning signs of what was to come: the Boston universities had placed a ban on all travel, a local friend told me; the airport was empty for the flight returning to Toronto. When we returned home, the university put us in fourteen-day quarantine, and my partner, a family physician, was asked to manage the healthcare at a retirement home operating as a satellite location for a local hospital. By the time we emerged from quarantine, gas prices had plummeted, toilet paper was a scarce resource, and we were in the first of many lockdowns to “flatten the curve.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has become the most significant disruption to our daily rhythms in recent history. And in late March 2020, the Quebec Writers’ Federation sought to document what that disruption looks like through an online column where writers could document a day in their life under COVID restrictions. More than one hundred writers responded to the call, and the result is Guernica Editions’ new edited collection, Chronicling the Days: Dispatches from a Pandemic.
Although it would be easy to assume that reading more than a hundred short entries about the early days of the pandemic would be overwhelmingly negative and filled with worry, the experience of reading this collection is oddly the opposite. In documenting the new rhythms of daily life under COVID restrictions, there are a number of repetitive themes, the most noticeable of which is the reoccurring language of gratitude. Writers feel “grateful,” “fortunate,” “lucky,” “blessed,” “thankful,” or determined to “make the most of it” in a number of different entries in the collection. And this gratitude is found amidst loss, loneliness, and a new form of paranoia, what Surehka Surendran writes in their entry as the “paranoia of a silent killer” (51). Reading a collective sense of gratitude for good health, housing, and employment in the early days of a devastating pandemic is, in a way, comforting. It serves as a reminder of what is truly essential for our day-to-day lives, even as “essential” is under a constant state of redefinition, changing based on the whims of politicians and the new restrictions put in place.
Nisha Coleman, in their entry “Penning the Pandemic: We Can All Be Writers,” summarizes the reading experience of this collection well. Rather than positing that we’re all in the same boat, a cliché often heard since the pandemic began, they recognize that
[a]s we experience this global phenomenon, we are forced to do so separately, as individuals. Instead of the same big boat, I picture individual rafts. We’re all sailing, but at different speeds and on different bodies of water. Our rafts have slightly different designs; sometimes we get stuck, or find we’ve been going backward. We are alone on our raft, all paddling together. (97)
There is something recognizable for everyone in this collection; all of my early experiences were found in the various entries in the collection. There is even an entry detailing the partner of a healthcare worker driving their partner to work each day to avoid the possibility of spreading the virus on public transit, an experience I’ve had ever since my partner began managing the healthcare of a retirement home. Writers explain their daily walks, noticing more of the natural world around them; they obsess over Tiger King, worry about loved ones who are isolated, spend time checking in on their friends. They bake, they read, they homeschool young children, or manage Zoom classes, either as teachers, or as parents of children learning on Zoom. But most of all, they show what Anita Anand describes as a “collective consciousness of love” (104). The concern for others in this book seeps through the many entries, and so the paddling that we’re all doing, to use Nisha Coleman’s language, is a form of care—care for ourselves, in finding a new structure to our days (or, as many self-described introverted writers note, the same structure, with only minor disruptions due to lockdowns, but now with the isolation of working from home enforced), and care for those around us.
It is this overwhelming sense of care that makes this book a must-read. It will inevitably become a historical resource as a collective chronicle of the early days of the pandemic. But until that time, it can provide a healthy reminder that not everyone is ignoring the restrictions out of self-interest and that many people care deeply for those around them, restructuring the rhythm of their days to turn worry for their loved ones and neighbours into care. What that care looks like can take many forms; we are all on different rafts, paddling at different rates, after all.
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