Friday, March 13 is the date that many people pinpoint as “the day” that the pandemic started affecting their lives. It was that afternoon that Gov. Tom Wolf announced the first lockdown that would change every aspect of our lives—our jobs, schools, businesses and everyday habits.
Friday, March 13 was also the date that four writers for TheBurg gathered at the Broad Street Market for lunch. “Coronavirus” was the hot topic at lunch that day, but little did they know how far-reaching the pandemic’s impact would be upon the rest of the entire year—impacting their personal lives and professional work as writers.
Little Did We Know
By Karen Hendricks
They say that birds of a feather flock together. As four writers, the main reason we started gathering for an occasional lunch was to combat the otherwise lonely existence that freelance writing can be. Which is pretty ironic, because as we gathered on March 13, 2020, little did we know our idea of “lonely” was about to be redefined.
Leading up to that Friday the 13th, I was the one who sounded the alarm and suggested (gasp) that we cancel. Call me cautious or cynical, I was tuned into the national and international news reports describing the impending “coronavirus” as much more serious than the goofy memes featuring bottles of Corona (remember those?). I feared the worst, but, in true peer pressure fashion, my three fellow writers assured me we’d all be just fine—and I caved.
I remember our conversation alternating between laughs (there are always laughs), congrats (they were genuinely happy for my debut of TheBurg Podcast just the day before), and our doubts and fears about what was to come. The Broad Street Market was like a ghost town compared to the typical friendly Fri-yay atmosphere. Little did we know, it would be the last “normal” day of operations.
I remember how shockingly quiet our communities were, those first few weeks of lockdown. No traffic. It felt eerie—too quiet—even for someone used to working solo, from home, most of the time.
As journalists, we’re trained to ask questions, be curious and observant, and then explain what we’ve gleaned through our writing. I tried to describe the strange times we were living in, through several Burg Blogs, as well as my personal journal. But honestly, I stopped journaling for weeks at a time. The pandemic, layered with politics, then racism and hate, became too overwhelmingly painful. I didn’t want to capture those memories—I wanted to release and forget them.
Journalism became an outlet, and I focused on writing others’ stories—inspiring distillers-turned-hand sanitizer producers, food bank directors, runners and teachers. Amid a pandemic, I couldn’t cover news on the frontline, so phone and Zoom interviews became my lifeline.
Instead of beginning conversations with the usual, “How are you?” I learned from a pandemic-pivoting journalism webinar to add one more empathetic word to that sentence.
“How are you coping?” became my first question, because it acknowledged that we were all dealing with “stuff,” and it set the tone for honest, real conversations.
I tried to capture the spirit I heard in those early voices, as they described innovative, can-do resilience.
One of the joys of being a writer is learning something new every day, but by the summer, I began to resent some of the things I was learning. Because I also had to capture the hurt I heard in those voices. Little did we know how long, how hard, how ugly, how deadly this pandemic would be.
But lately, the tone across the phone lines has shifted. And I love what I’m hearing, because now, in 2021, I’m hearing a lot of hope.
On Dreams Deferred
By M. Diane McCormick
I was the one who suggested we cough when Karen, the COVID-19 scaredy-cat, arrived.
Some joke. Please forgive me. How could we know? We did normal things that day. Karen and I split a pizza. We four laughed over a lingering lunch.
But in my memory, the Broad Street Market already felt hollow. One vendor pointed to the burners on her stove, cold from lack of business.
At home that afternoon, I heard that Gov. Wolf was closing schools for two weeks. But my granddaughter was starring in her school musical! Postponed now, but not for long, I assured her. The show does go on.
Except that it hasn’t. Poor kid is still waiting in the wings. So is my singer-songwriter stepdaughter, verging on a career breakthrough. And my nephew, ready to transform from minor leaguer to Houston Astro.
Dreams put on hold really burn me up, but there was no escaping them. From that day on, every assignment started with, “Diane, can you write a story about the impact of COVID on . . .?” Fill in the blank. Animal rescues, restaurants, the holidays, fall getaways, the arts (two of those).
And that was just for TheBurg. I wrote so many “how we’re dealing with this” stories that I called myself “The COVID Whisperer.”
Then came the gut punch, a story for TheBurg on the pandemic in Harrisburg’s Black community. Learning about the departed greats of our city, I felt a new anger—resentment over talent lost and wisdom wasted. Gerald Welch, the school board member who never let a child fall through the cracks. Lisa Burhannan, the tireless advocate for girls, re-entrants, crime survivors, and anyone else who needed a friend.
They should still be here, transforming lives. I fumed, until I heard hope and gratitude in the voices of grieving friends and family. They rediscovered purpose. They rediscovered the core values somehow lost in the pre-pandemic grind.
That message, I realized, was woven through all my COVID-year writings.
“All those dreams we’ve had locked up,” the Rev. Brenda Alton told me. “It’s time to work on them and release them.”
So, dreams. Get off the “someday” list and take flight. Bring back a life of health and happy gatherings. And make sure that my assignments from here on start with, “Diane, can you write a story about the impact of recovery on . . .?” Fill in the blank. Hit me. I’m ready to be “The Post-COVID Whisperer.”
A Unique Time
By Susan Ryder
Our traditional Friday the 13th gathering felt a bit clandestine. Should we be meeting due to the rising concern of the coronavirus? Karen Hendricks expressed some concern, and I told her I thought we’d be “fine,” and pushed away the thought that we could be taking a chance.
A pall hung over this usually light and happy Broad Street Market lunch. Normally, there would be hugs all around, but social distancing had just arrived in our reality. As typical, we chatted about our stories and what was in the works. I was working that day too, on a piece about how COVID-19 was affecting business there.
This excerpt from my story, published online March 13, summed up market that day:
“Bits of conversation about the coronavirus rose above the banter, as people purchased produce, waited to order fish at Tep’s Fresh Seafood, and greeted friends.”
I talked with a few patrons. One older gentleman, who used the market as his office, told me that he wasn’t going to live in fear. Another woman expressed concern about how this would impact local businesses.
Based on what was happening in Europe, I was quite anxious about how America would weather corona. For a minute, I thought this could be a rallying point for a conflicted country—that we could gather around a common enemy, COVID-19. That pipe dream lasted until Monday afternoon, when we locked down.
Then the vitriol around the virus swirled. People were scared, uncertain and overwhelmed, but instead of uniting, we argued via social media about whether it was real. That crushed me more than the threat of the virus.
However, like many folks, I received comfort and encouragement from my neighborhood! Early in the lockdown, I walked past the bay window of my bi-level home and saw something that made me burst into laughter. My neighbors had placed a paper hangman word game in their front window. For the next few days, we sent letter guesses, written on recycled printer paper, in an attempt to decipher the message—“Flatten the curve.”
Neighbors sewed and distributed masks, shared toilet paper, inquired about needs at the grocery store, delivered baked goods and books. In a small attempt to do my part, I hacked my potted palm tree on Palm Sunday and gave palms to my neighbors.
Journalistically, it’s been a unique time. I covered stories such as how COVID changed how we mourn, a personal story as my father-in-law died in June. And since racism’s ugliness once again let itself be known in a dramatic way, I felt compelled to shine a light on white supremacy, even as the fatigue of COVID weighed down the world.
How does a person sum up a year? With the most vivid memories. What I remember most are the good and kind things that arose from the chaos.
I look forward to the next time this writing quartet meets—enjoying spanikopita at Phyllo, and sharing not only stories but hugs all around.
On Grieving During COVID-19
By Gina Napoli
In my usual “denial style,” the pandemic gravity had not hit me by March 13, 2020. Back then, the CDC proclaimed COVID-19 a “once-and-done” disease. My immediate family felt certain the virus had already ripped through our household in December 2019. We complied with Gov. Wolf’s fluctuating rules to avoid becoming carriers, but like Alfred E. Neuman of MAD Magazine, we weren’t worried.
Then at the end of March, my 29-year-old cousin died. (At the time, it wasn’t deemed COVID-related, but now the CDC hints otherwise.) As I shoehorned my fat rolls into my black funeral dress, I wondered how to get through an Italian funeral for one of our youngest without anyone hugging me. I resolved to knuckle-bump, rub elbows and head-nod across the cemetery.
My resolve lasted 20 minutes. Even with limited attendance of just our big family and no friends, the Napoli’s turned a burial into a potential super-spreader event. What should have been a well-attended, four-part viewing + visitation + burial + face-stuffing event with affection everywhere devolved into a pared-down substitute. I realized then how much solace the familiar string of rituals provided. COVID-19 cheated my cousin out of the farewell party she deserved.
“Flattening the curve” was supposed to end when March did. Except it didn’t. My usual beat of writing theater reviews and offbeat local attractions went pffft. My articles awaiting publication were either postponed or killed, so it didn’t make sense to seek out new ideas. I grieved my personal change—the professional fulfillment I once felt from my freelance writing career.
Throughout 2020, several high school classmates’ parents passed away—moms and dads who had once served as my honorary parents. I would have ordinarily paid my respects in person, but every family either had private funeral arrangements or waived them altogether. Again, cheated by COVID-19.
Then my 95-year-old grandfather died New Year’s Day. In addition to the same crowd from March, several romantic indiscretions by the guest of honor yielded extra half-families around the casket. Not that this happens to me much (but it will probably, thanks to ancestry.com and an uncle who won’t quit swabbing us), but normally, when you meet new, long-lost family, there is an initial awkward moment spent stumbling over the handshake/hug decision. COVID made the decision for us to limit our interactions to a wave—way over there.
Graveside, supply chain issues (or scandal?) affected the availability of Catholic priests, so a Southern Baptist minister showed up instead. I never saw more side-eyes than when we heard his drawl. Then, when my great-aunt died less than a week later, similar protocol omissions followed: fabric chairs, guest-books, prayer cards.
My family already resembles the “Goodfellas” cast, so masks added an extra criminal-like element… symbolically apropos, because COVID-19 has robbed 2020 of normal grieving rituals. This loss is something to mourn all by itself.
From coverage of social justice issues to pivots in theater performances, attempts to interview booked-up mental health professionals and overworked teachers: What interviews, behind-the-scenes stories, facts and observations stand out from these writers’ pandemic assignments? These four writers continue the conversation on TheBurg Podcast’s March episode, available on Friday, March 12.
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