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A couple up the street taped a red heart with a “Thank You!” onto the front of their mailbox a couple of weeks ago, the same week my next-door neighbor gave birth to a baby boy. That was also the week my son Daniel successfully cracked an egg for the first time while helping me make chocolate chip cookies.
I want to remember these things after the coronavirus crisis has passed.
I want to remember the seemingly ordinary details of a day because these are what will matter most, after the shelter-in-place order and the distance learning and the social distancing are through. After we’ve retired the #stayathome and #quarantinestories hashtags. When COVID-19 fades into a moment in history.
Here’s a suggestion for writing during coronavirus: go small.
Details will breathe life into this memory and remind me that it wasn’t all bad and enormous and overwhelming. Even a pandemic is comprised of small moment upon small moment.
The tulip stems (Lilies? Irises?) I uncovered while cleaning up a side yard that’s long been neglected, poking up after the leaves and the choking vines were cut and cleared, reaching for the sun beside a low stone wall that’s been hidden from view.
The big things are easy, and our brains latch onto them effortlessly: the anxiety and fear, the stress headaches and insomnia. The simmering worry about vulnerable family and friends. The simmering anger toward those who put them at risk. The headlines and the numbers.
Those things are important to note but they’re also hazy and unmanageable. And they can overwhelm us when we think about writing. It’s nearly impossible to capture the enormity of a pandemic … but you don’t need to. Your story lies within the daily details. What can you say about those?
The specifics — a heart on the mailbox, a cracked egg milestone — will flesh out the narrative and wrestle it out of the fog of vague generalizations.
The man in the bright yellow jacket and red knit cap who walks by our house almost every day now. We’ve never seen this neighbor before and my dog barks her fool head off at him. I assure Lillie he is friendly.
Details: Emotion + Accuracy
Details can elicit emotion, can insert a measure of accuracy into our unreliable memory bank, and we are often surprised at how important they are to us later. Consider: what did my great-grandparents eat for breakfast at the turn of the 20th century? Where was that blackberry bush I vaguely remember from my childhood visits to their Pennsylvania home … back yard or side yard? Was it even blackberry? What color was great-grandma’s rocking chair?
The Zoom call involving four separate households to wish my out-of-state grandmother a happy 90th birthday and sing her a lousy rendition of Happy Birthday. And the way Grammy successfully got online but couldn’t adjust the camera, so we sang and talked to her forehead and the tops of her glasses.
We don’t have to journal until our hands cramp; a couple of minutes will do. Author Gretchen Rubin has a brilliant idea called a One-Sentence Journal, in which she writes just one sentence a day. It’s an easy habit to adopt and maintain, and it’s amazing how revealing those sentences are when they add up.
The two Adirondack chairs in front of a boulder on an overlook, discovered while exploring a lesser-known trail to avoid crowds.
Playing Bingo with my parents and sister via Zoom.
Consider jotting down some small details of this journey as you go, in addition to your big thoughts. They can be things you perceive as positive or negative (or both/neither). Whatever comes up for you. Then see how flavorful those details appear a year from now, even a month from now.
My ordinary moments
Here are some of my details thus far; please share some of yours!
* Daniel and I made a cardboard castle.
* In Week 1, I started packing Daniel’s lunch like I do when he goes to school. He complained at first and then started insisting I continue, even on weekends. I include a note, per usual.
* Easter morning on Zoom, live-streaming Daniel’s egg hunt to his grandparents and aunt.
* Netflix watch party, which allows simultaneous viewing from different devices, and weekly movie nights with my sister and a friend.
* Teddy bears and hearts in neighbors’ windows.
* Hide-and-seek in the local (empty) state campground, sending the dog after the kid who’s hiding behind a tree.
* My hands look and feel like crepe paper from washing them so often.
* I started a morning “I love you,” an afternoon “I love you,” and a nighttime “I love you.” And although he acts exacerbated, Daniel will remind me if I’ve missed one.
* The dog has learned how to throw her Kong, bouncing it across the room and at my feet, making an unholy racket until I fill it with peanut butter.
* Yard work is meditative when it doesn’t feel rushed.
* I have four cans of black beans, six cans of tomato paste, three cans of diced tomatoes, and a can of kidney beans. I have no recipe in mind, but I buy some every time I go to the grocery store (which is to say, once a week). I’m starting to better understand the mindset of my Depression-era grandmother.
* The moment I deleted my weekly visits to Daniel’s classroom from my Google calendar, conceding that this is likely over for the year.
Need help with your story, whether business or personal? Consider a story coach session for personalized feedback on your content and help drafting or revising it.
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