Some friends and I were talking recently and one of them referenced “early COVID,” as if it were a different era. Which it was, in so many ways.
It seems like so long ago that we were just coming to terms with the unimaginable prospect of schools closing their doors for six whole weeks; a different lifetime when our downtowns were ghost towns; a discordant period of both motivation (“Killer garden and Martha Stewart cupboards, here I come!”) and uncertainty (“How bad can this get?”).
I think we’re all having our own “early COVID” moments. On the first cold rainy day this fall, I came downstairs wearing yoga pants and a hooded sweater — a pairing that I wore for days on end during the first few weeks of the social shutdown. “Oh,” one of my daughters said, “I see you’re wearing your COVID uniform.”
I looked down at myself, almost nostalgically. Oh for those early days of optimism! That determination to do our part for the cause! Those weeks of believing that things might be “normal” again by the fall.
In March while some people hoarded toilet paper, I hoarded library books. (Not for the same purpose — gimme a break!) I happened to interview the retiring Winthrop librarian a few days before the library system announced it was closing for the pandemic. As I prepared to leave the library after the interview, the librarian told me, “You might want to check out a lot of books.”
“Like really a lot,” she added me in a tone fraught with meaning, in case I hadn’t quite caught the hint. She didn’t need to add a wink and a nudge; I’m no slouch when it comes to picking up on non-verbal cues. A fellow bookworm, I read between the lines of her carefully worded suggestion, piled my arms high, and felt smug when the library announced its closure the following day.
The books formed two tall stacks beside my bed: a cache intended to last the pandemic. When I returned the books to the library last week, I struggled to reconcile my original assumption that the books would outlast the pandemic with the discouraging reality that they didn’t, not even close.
I recalled the fiction I read in 2001 and prior, and then the fiction I read in 2002 and after. So many times I’d be reading a new novel, I’d turn the page, and seemingly without warning the 9/11 World Trade Center attacks would take place in the book and everything would change. It caught me off guard every time — and it happened quite often. I think we are going to see this happen with COVID, too, if it hasn’t already. Fiction writers will incorporate the pandemic as a seminal event for generations of people, something that simply cannot be ignored in stories set in the modern era.
And how will these authors portray us, we people who are living our lives in a world that seems increasingly surreal at times? That’s up to the writers, of course, but if we’re going to be captured in literary history, it won’t hurt to be acting as our best selves.