Could there be a timelier gift to quarantined readers than Jennifer Haupt’s “Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19”? I doubt it. Author/editor Haupt’s new anthology delivers on its title with an outpouring of responses to our shared ordeal by a diverse group of (90!) writers.
When the contract for her second novel was canceled “because of the (virus-blighted) plummeting economy,” Haupt did not sit long in her misery. She thought of all the small bookstores she loved being hit hard: What could she do?
Haupt chose to recruit a “community of writers” to contribute “an essay or poem about their COVID-19 experiences to a fundraising anthology.” Proceeds from its sales will benefit the Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a group founded to help struggling indie booksellers.
In the anthology’s foreword, Garth Stein (“The Art of Racing in the Rain”) admits that “perhaps this America is doomed” and that art might “remain submerged for so long, we will not be able to revive it.” But the contributors to this collection, Stein vows, mean to brighten our dark days with “little fires … burning everywhere.”
Thank heaven these short accounts do comfort. They’re compulsively readable, too, even when painful – first because they do what good writing always does, giving us the sharp relief of recognition. But they also inform with dramatic power. Several manage some humor. All help us feel less lonely as we negotiate each new (Groundhog) day.
NPR’s poet-in-residence, Kwame Alexander, with an 11-year-old daughter at home, surely speaks for an enormous population of worried parents. Alexander declares that he is elated to be doing “some of the things … we used to do growing up and my kid is enjoying it!” The Newbery Medal-winning author also is convinced that “words and books show us that we’re all one” and that “we can be united by something bigger than all of our differences.” Thus, Alexander urges parents “to help children imagine a better world” by “helping them tell their stories of the past, the present, and the future.”
Intense emotion, unsurprisingly, suffuses these writings, as does longing for our prior, unthinking ease of connection and closeness. Susan Henderson, coping with her father’s death during the pandemic, writes, “I cry easily these days,” a declaration I’ve heard people make repeatedly. And yet, blasting the music of Earth, Wind and Fire while she showers, she discovers that she “can still feel joy.” Henderson writes, “All I desire anymore are simple things: to be out in the world without a mask … to sit close enough to the people I love to hear them breathe.”
Organized into five sections (“What Now?,” “Grieve,” “Comfort,” Connect” “And Do Not Stop”), these voices feel linked – often by a sudden, refocused perspective on cycles of life and loss. Grace Talusan, who lost a close friend to the virus, comes to realize that “there are reasons humans have death rituals and because we could not have them, it’s hard to believe she’s really gone.” Talusan is forced to consider – like so many of us – the strangely altered relationship to time and so-called productivity that the lockdown has enforced. “I think my dead are appearing to me now,” she writes, “because finally I have the time to grieve them.”
It’s bracing to see ourselves dig deeper, facing the worst, to devise, invent, reach out. Jane Hirshfield reports from isolation, “Today, when I could do nothing,/I saved an ant.” Stephen P. Kiernan reads poetry on the phone to a stressed Jenna Blum while she stews in the bathtub. Jean Kwok finds grace in “compassion toward others and myself.” Jennifer Rosner makes “a daily cooking call” to her mother and discusses recipes. Roberto Lovato finds comfort in the scent of lavender. In “Pandemic Date Night,” Sommer Browning and David Shields, separated and hungry for each other, text: “S: … I can’t wait until you get here. … D: What will we do first? (Rhetorical question?)”
No one’s mincing words. Devi Laskar, formerly a reporter, “still (seeks) the truth … but sometimes … can’t bear it.” Kristen Millares Young struggles to “keep my children safe” as “the news brings fresh and hellish revelations by the minute.” Hope and determination persist, if erratically. Richard Blanco wants “to sing again,” and Luis Alberto Urrea warns, “Despair is the most powerful weapon of the dominant.”
Something’s here, in short, for each of us. In the raw surge of brave voices, “Alone Together” will, indeed, give some love, some light, some “help for pain” (subverting Matthew Arnold). Who can’t use a little of those right now?
Joan Frank’s recent books are “Where You’re All Going: Four Novellas” and “Try to Get Lost: Essays on Travel and Place.” Her new novel, “The Outlook for Earthlings,” will be published on Oct. 2.
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