A college-aged woman dancing on the floor of her bedroom.
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April 12, 2020

What does a pandemic look like? 

For me, it’s a monotony of days peppered with bouts of depression in the apartment my grandparents pay for and waves of overwhelming guilt and helplessness. Neither are productive emotions in a pandemic. There are also good days, where the sun is out and my coffee tastes just right, and I remember that this is only temporary. I live alone, though a friend lives upstairs. I never thought I’d be grateful to be an introvert. The sadness of the world sometimes feels far away, accessible only through Twitter headlines or the New York Times articles my mother sends me … hourly. Other times it feels like it’s moved into my apartment, stitched into my clothes and seated across the table. It feels as if we’re under- and overreacting at the same time. A pandemic smells like solitude, an endless supply of lavender candles lingering in the corners of my apartment. It tastes like too much whiskey, consumed alone. 

In warmer times, a pandemic can sound like the crack of dice hitting the plywood tables punctuating Ann Arbor’s yards — the fraternity house across the street has been playing for what seems like weeks. Last night, my friend called a noise complaint on them. Sometimes life feels normal. I remember a March afternoon my freshman year of college, when I left my dorm for class and froze outside the building door. What words are adequate to describe feeling fresh sunshine on your skin after weeks of studying and existing under fluorescent lighting and the smothering dullness of the world? Sunshine meant frat boys outside in their yards, shirtless (always) and Weezer spilling through the speakers. On an island in the sun, we’ll be playing and having fun, and it makes me feel so fine, the speakers say. 

In my early quarantine days, I siphoned as much sun as I could from my front yard. I pulled a plastic yellow chair into the yard to do my homework and yelled over, “Hey, can you turn the music up?” I pointed upward in the air with my thumb. A barefoot guy in blue shorts and abs I can count from across the street yelled “Oh, you want it up? You got it!” Maybe it’s the 2020 “college” version of the orchestra that played as the Titanic went down, and I’ll take what I can get. 

A pandemic also sounds like the Spotify playlist I’ve been building called “quarantine, baby!” I only put songs on it that make me happy or want to dance or smile. That’s what we all need more of, anyway. Every couple hours I turn up the music and dance around my apartment, because in a pandemic you need endorphins. I’m grateful no one is around to see this abomination. Then again, this is because no one is around. My homework and unwatched lectures linger on my chipped, paint-covered brown desk, watching me twirl around the room. Right as I trip into the coffee table, my inbox dings with another email from my astronomy professor. As usual, he’s massacred it with his caps-lock addiction, and I forward the message on a one-way trip to the trash.

I call my mom several times a day — imagine that, 16-year-old Annie! Pandemics make you see how much you need other people. I make a quarantine playlist for her too. I listen to it as I walk the streets around my house, filled with empty porches and the beginnings of spring flowers. “Annie!” I hear someone’s voice, but I can’t see them. “Annie!” It’s my friend Hannah — we spent six weeks in the New Hampshire woods together last spring, sharing poems, hammocks and secrets. She’s standing at the top of the stairs to her porch, I’m 10 feet back on the sidewalk. It’s awkward.

“Am I allowed to hug you?” I ask. 

“I mean, I’m fine with it,” she laughs. It’s a clumsy hug, our arms bumping as we find our footing together. In retrospect, I probably should have stayed on the sidewalk, but it’s human nature to crave connection. 

Sometimes a pandemic is more work. My dad stayed near his job in Chicago throughout March, organizing huge orders of equipment for field hospitals in McCormick Place from the Army Corps of Engineers. He forwards us the plans: “AWARDED ACF CONTRACTS,” the email attachment reads. Eight projects, equaling 9,693 beds, to be completed in 27 days, at most. He writes in the email, “Kind of surreal, let’s hope they build them and are not needed.” My dad spends his Saturdays at the delivery dock so his shipping guys can stay home. Luckily, I’m at the age where I can appreciate his empathy for his employees instead of complaining that he’s not at home. 

But a month into the pandemic, it became clear how different it looked for those on opposite ends of the financial security spectrum. A pandemic looks a billion different ways, and most of them are not as privileged as mine. New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo called COVID-19 “the great equalizer,” but this evidently could not be farther from the truth. Maybe in just plain human terms, it’s accurate. We’re all dealing with something, and it will only go away if we all do our part. But our losses are by no means equal. I think about this a lot. 

More than 16 million Americans have applied for unemployment. I was laid off. My co-workers have houses, kids and bills to pay. People are displaced, losing income, losing benefits, losing family members and friends. The Guardian declared that minority and at-risk groups are, of course, disproportionately affected: “It’s a racial justice issue,” their headlines read. Celebrities on Twitter are learning what it means to be an actual parent, without the help of nannies, while single mothers watch incredulously. Small businesses rely on GoFundMes to survive. A Navy captain pleaded with his superiors for more resources for his ship in order to combat COVID-19. After his firing, he tested positive for the virus. What about people without running water to wash their hands? People with pre-existing conditions? Those who have lost health insurance? Those with insufficient health care? Single parents? People experiencing homelessness? The list goes on. 

I once wrote a letter to my future children for a nonfiction writing class. At the time, Australia was on fire. “It’s 2020, and right now it feels like the world is much more bad than good, I wrote. I hope you are more confident about your world than I am with mine.” But now it just seems like the world is burning everywhere. If only I’d know what was ahead. A national election, a pandemic, climate change, riots at the Capitol. The list goes on.  

In the letter I’d also written that “politics has become morality and I don’t know how to navigate that.” My old housemate, Julia, and I had a late night conversation from our respective sides of Lake Michigan. 

“I think a lot of my sadness is coming from seeing the way the U.S. is handling this and realizing the state of our country,” I told Julia. “Like, I lost a lot of faith and pride in my country when Trump was elected but seeing doctors and nurses beg for supplies is just another level that I wasn’t prepared for.” It’s silent on the other end. Who has an answer to that? 

Finally, she said, “I’m doing what is perceived as normal, and inside I’m kind of screaming.” Maybe in a pandemic, that’s all you can do. 

February 18, 2021

What does a pandemic look like? 

It looks like six half-full orange bottles, compounding in a cupboard as my psychiatrist tinkers with the chemicals my brain thinks it can do without. 

It looks like falling in love — a few nervous phone calls and our first date on the porch with the windows open. We’re both stubborn and eager and dive hungrily into learning each other. 

It looks like my mom with her drawer full of KN95s, a stack of writing portfolios to grade, a cafe au lait, a glass of wine, her running shoes and a round of greetings as her students enter the Zoom. 

It looks like a wedding in my grandma’s backyard, tables of pizza and salads spaced out by tiki torches and apprehension. My cousin and her husband say “I do” on my aunt’s porch, framed by July sunflowers from a friend’s garden. Two families mingle together next to Lake Michigan as the sun sets.

There are some better days — even a few nights spent in tents. Nov. 9, when Joe Biden officially won the election. People cascaded into Chicago’s streets, dancing and singing, befriending strangers, feeling an unfamiliar warmth in the air. The day my friends and I cooked shakshuka next to Lake Superior. Moving into a new apartment, a two-bedroom this time, with a small army of plants, my best friend and her dog. The day my mom got vaccinated. All the dinners, walks, games, naps and breaks taken outside. 

Young people are entrenched in a mental health crisis (no need to read the article, a scroll through Twitter or TikTok will give a good indication), GoFundMe has ballooned into America’s insurance policy and climate change and government oversight joined forces to trample Texas. 

I’ve always wanted to believe that those with means will help those without, and in the past year I’ve watched both brilliant displays of empathy and soul-crushing acts of hatred and selfishness. “It’s 2021, and right now it feels like the world is much more bad than good.”

Today, Ann Arbor is quiet, except for the brawling snow plows and the salt crunching under my boots. I force myself to walk down to the Huron River a few times a week; I lay on the ice and watch clouds skid across the sky. The handful of people milling around the river nod slightly to each other. We’re all looking to be seen.

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