As a storyteller, I’m constantly telling myself stories about the things I see and hear around me. I’m always eavesdropping, always wondering what that person across the street is thinking or who lives in that strange house on the corner, always storing up sensations because who knows when I’ll need to describe that later in a novel.
Multiple friends have commented to me how surreal the pandemic responses to the coronavirus have felt these past few days. In Michigan, we’ve canceled all public schools for weeks, we’ve closed all bars and restaurants for dine-in, the CDC has recommended no meetings of ten or more people, and I just heard California is on lockdown for everything but food and medication. A coworker who is probably in her fifties was leaving work at the same time as me this evening, and she told me, “I don’t ever remember anything like this.” We’re all on high alert, all paying a little more attention that we usually do.
I’ve even written an alternate history novel about a pandemic zombie bacteria that breaks out in the last days of World War II, so I’ve tried to put myself in similar shoes before, imagining how it must feel to wonder if everyone around you is carrying a dangerous disease, if basic social spaces like restaurants and hospitals no longer worked the way they have my whole life.
So it’s not surprising that I’ve been hoarding up reactions and feelings and stray remarks during this outbreak. How strangely mundane my workdays have felt even while I’m checking the interactive COVID map from Johns Hopkins multiple times every day to see how many people have recovered and how many have died. How I feel like something as everyday as eating dinner with my family should feel more significant or momentous than it is. How I feel like I’ve stepped into a dystopian movie when I’m at the antique mall and several times in an hour the radio is interrupted by a public service announcement about social distancing and handwashing.
I’ve also been curious about how our cultural narratives about crisis and pandemic have affected our real responses to a health crisis of this proportion. When people first started buying out milk and toilet paper from grocery stores in Michigan, my mind immediately went to fictional scenarios like The Walking Dead or Arrival. My assumption that of course I’m still going to see my significant other and my family even during this time of social distancing reminds me of movies like Perfect Sense. It’s become a psychological commonplace that the films and shows we watch affect our “scripts” about how relationships should work, and I wonder how much our concept of what to do in a pandemic has been informed by what we’ve read and seen.
Who knows if all our fictional imagining about disaster and panic has positively or negatively prepared us to weather out a real pandemic. I suppose time will tell. In the meanwhile, I have all of these plot-seeds for short stories about old friends meeting in evacuated restaurants and bored high schoolers walking through abandoned grocery stores percolating in my brain.