Sedentary in Southern California, I shut off my Zoom camera for a moment to stare at the ceiling and wish that, just one more time, I could lean in toward a Stanford English roundtable, side-eyeing my friends’ annotations while their faces light up as they unpack something in the reading I hadn’t noticed before. These days, their boxed-in visages flash fleeting, neon borders instead. I think back to early March, when I saw them last in the flesh, my final visions of them blurred by the way I slammed my accelerator down the 101 toward San Diego, leaving behind a dorm room with espresso stains on the dresser and the desk lamp still plugged in, trying to make good time.
Only when I open my Moleskine can I trace, with clarity, the evolution from mid-winter to the present. Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, I think everyone should document their daily experiences. Not because spring quarter has retained any sentimental value (it hasn’t), or even because creative expression can prove therapeutic through stressful times (though it can). Because the historical record needs us to.
As the pandemic tests our economy, our interconnectedness and our resilience, and as we vacillate between tumultuous anxiety and quarantined mundanity, we can stand to learn a lot about ourselves, as individuals and as community members. The richness of daily reflection can allow us to tap into this enhanced understanding.
Let me explain.
Our world is turning over faster than we can register in real time. Less than two weeks after the University announced it was “strongly encouraging” people to postpone events with 150 or more people, returning to campus became a violation of the Fundamental Standard. Just three months after the Chinese government announced that it was treating a few dozen cases of an unknown, pneumonia-like illness, half of the planet fell under some form of a lockdown order. I didn’t stop by my friend Ellie’s dorm room to hug her on my way home; unsure how the situation would evolve, I remained convinced that my departure wasn’t actually goodbye.
Ubiquitous closure and cancellation — restaurants, sports, arts, conferences — defined mid-March. But America is also enduring, and in some ways embracing, a political sea change.
Presidential candidates nixed their campaign rallies, and the pandemic’s chaos trumped attention paid to a once all-consuming Democratic primary. Coronavirus is likely to affirm the younger generation’s proclivity toward government-run programs like universal health care, according to experts. Universal basic income, until recently a proposal on the margins of policy debates, and associated most strongly with Andrew Yang, has begun to generate bipartisan support, including from Senator Mitt Romney and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin.
We must document the details of our crescendo toward an unrecognizable world, or we risk forgetting the anxious suspense of this crisis’ evolution. It’s why journalism, especially local journalism, remains vital to our democracy and to our humanity. And as COVID-19 so singularly permeates our lives, it’s why all of us — not just the professionals tasked with drafting our history — need to write down our raw experiences, before they get lost in hazy hindsight and before we’re able to contextualize them with narrative clarity in the pandemic’s aftermath.
Individual stories matter. This global pandemic reveals that the personal and the collective are entangled — indeed, indivisible. But this isn’t to say that the COVID-19 crisis affects us all in the same way:
The virus has killed twice as many Black and Latinx people in New York City compared to white people, threatened free school lunch programs for underserved children and prompted ventilator triage policies that leave the disabled and the elderly especially vulnerable. Without wages, Indian migrant laborers under a hasty nationwide lockdown have had to mass-migrate back to their rural villages, exposing themselves to dense crowds and expanding the virus’ reach in the country, especially for its poorest members. It has exacerbated existing inequities in access to sustenance, education, healthcare and more. Some Stanford students are privileged enough to return to a home environment largely shielded from the pandemic’s biggest threats. Others must wrestle with housing or food insecurity, compromised internet access, vulnerable family members or the prospect of graduating into a shriveled economy.
We must document the myriad ways that COVID-19 has upended daily life across this circumstantial spectrum, from the shifting etiquette of greeting our neighbors on the sidewalk, to the anguish of a single mom who depended on tips at her waitressing job as she navigates financial volatility in the aftermath of her layoff, to our newfound ways to grieve the deceased while we must remain apart, to the twenty-something who dials her former boyfriend’s number after weeks of quarantining alone, her thumb hovering over the call button.
Just as much as we must document what happens, we also have to keep track of our interior lives as this global crisis presses on. To build an archive of our days in real time, and then to view them in retrospect when this pandemic concludes, is to study how our longings, anxieties, ambitions and obsessions shift in accordance with circumstance.
If you’re not a journaler, try visual or performance art, audio-messaging, videos, photo streams or screenshotting salient texts you’ve sent. Some people process their worlds best in private. For others, it may feel isolating to create alone; if this sounds like you, I can relate. As a former college newspaper editor, and as a certified extravert, I sometimes struggle to write without an intended audience in mind. Challenge a trustworthy partner to daily reflections in any form — share writings, art, or expressions in other media with each other.
There are also options for more public communions. A new group I’m a part of has just created a new journal collective that encourages Stanford community members to share in art, reflection and creative exchange during the pandemic. We’re allowing those who submit material to do so anonymously, or to share select pieces of their identity, like their gender, location, or department, or, for students, their class year. Feel free to participate.
What do we stand to gain from the meticulous documenting of our experiences through the COVID-19 crisis? Precision of memory, sure, but something more is at stake here. “The past is set in daylight,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her 2016 work “Hope in the Dark,” “and it can become a torch we can carry into the night that is the future.” This sudden subversion of our reality stands to teach us a lot about our own capabilities: how we negotiate the difference between solitude and loneliness; how we treat the most vulnerable people in our communities; how we move forward from irreplaceable losses; how we unite when we can’t come together.
One day, hopefully soon, when the world can begin to mend, when we decide it is time to try to jolt our economy back to life, we will have to decide what kind of “normal” is worth returning to. A community that is focused, open-minded and self-aware — qualities most often the product of long-term, expressed thoughtfulness — is a community best poised to begin again.
Courtney Douglas ’20 is the editor-at-large on The Stanford Daily Publishing Corporation Board of Directors, and she served as editor-in-chief of The Daily’s 254th volume.
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