When I started this plague journal, I did not realize I was starting a journal (despite the title I chose for the first post). I just wanted to document the first unsettling week of the pandemic, when the walls began closing in or slamming down or otherwise shifting around into a new constellation that would change the flow of our lives in ways I couldn’t yet imagine. It felt like something big was happening, but it also felt like it might be over in the space of a few weeks, and I wanted to capture the moment before it was gone forever and we all went back to our regular lives.
That never happened, of course. Instead, the virus kept coming, and I kept writing, and here we are 12 months later with a journal not of the plague week, but of the plague year.
It seems strange to have come back around, for it to be March again, the cusp of spring, when brighter days are ahead and you can talk yourself into believing they’re already here even though you’re actually still in the cold and the dark. The days in 2020 sometimes felt like they circled back on themselves, each day a replica of the one before, with slight modifications for waxing or waning fear/anger/acceptance/hope. But time on a larger scale still marched forward, however slowly. The days and weeks may have felt roughly the same, but at least the months were different and the seasons changed. And now it’s another March, and it’s clear that the whole thing has been a giant circle all along. We haven’t been moving forward, we’ve just been moving around, and we’re back at the starting point getting ready for another go.
I know this isn’t really true. This March is not like that March, and next March will be different again (I assume…?). But for the past year, whenever I’ve written “a year ago we were doing X,” X was invariably something more interesting and exciting, something that had happened in a pre-pandemic world. And now if I write “a year ago we were doing X,” the X of then will look very much like the X of now. A year ago we were in lockdown, and I wrote that “the sun is shining, neighbors are gardening, our cupboards are full.” I could write the very same thing today (well, I don’t see any neighbors gardening on this quiet morning, but the rest holds true). A year ago, we weren’t traveling. A year ago, we weren’t hanging out with friends. A year ago, we weren’t playing music in pubs. A year ago, I wasn’t watching ballet in a theater. A year ago I was here, at my computer, writing about life in the pandemic, because the pandemic had stolen every opportunity to do anything else.
Even with, ostensibly, all the time in the world, it hasn’t been easy to keep this journal going for a year. I used to be a much more prolific (and, frankly, carefree) writer than I am now. In the early years of this blog (20 years ago!), I would post multiple times a month, every single month. Looking at my archive, 2010 seems to have been the turning point, for whatever reason. 2010 is when we moved into this flat. 2010 was our 10th wedding anniversary and also our 10th anniversary in Brighton (I never imagined we’d be here for another 10 years after that). In 2010, I was on the brink of a career shift. I was burned out on freelance translation, but I was about to start translating books, which changed everything. 2010 was a big year in many ways, and somehow it got harder from that point on to sit down and write “for fun.” I do enjoy writing—in the way that you enjoy doing something that also kind of makes you miserable because it’s hard, but it’s also fulfilling and you’re always happy to have done it even if you’re not necessarily happy in the moment of doing it. But it’s easier not to write than to write, and sometimes I take the path of least resistance unless I have some external motivation to do otherwise.
There was no specific point at which this plague journal became a thing—as in, a thing that I knew I would keep going for a full year. It was kind of like the pandemic itself in that way. One minute you think your situation is odd but temporary, and then you turn around and 12 months have passed. My life over this past year has been utterly unremarkable, and yet I set myself up for having to remark on it every single week. Alltagsgeschichte is all well and good, but I couldn’t really spend a year writing nothing more than “I got up, had breakfast, worked, had lunch, worked, had dinner, watched TV, and went to bed,” though that has actually been the shape of my weekdays since last March.
What’s astounding, though, is the detail you can find in seemingly identical days, and the places you can get to when you scrabble around for something interesting to say. I imagine this is what having a regular newspaper column must feel like. Even if your mind is blank as the deadline looms, you have to write something, and sometimes in your panic you come up with an unexpected piece of work that you’re really proud of. I’m proud simply to have written something every single week over the past year, and I’m also really proud of some of the individual posts. Perhaps the one I’m most proud of is one that has nothing to do with the lockdown or coronavirus or any of the rest of it—it’s the one about the teacups and the thoughts that have been rattling around in my brain for two years, which I may never have committed to writing had I not found myself staring at the street at the start of February, waiting for inspiration, until the very act of staring at the street became the inspiration. If I hadn’t been on week 46 of the journal, I may never have bothered trying to find the inspiration in the first place.
We’ve now reached week 52, and my Journal of the Plague Week is officially coming to a close. I don’t intend to stop writing regularly, not least because we’re still very much in the throes of a plague year—it just happens to be a whole new year. But this seems like a good time to end this particular chapter. I started the journal for myself and only gradually realized over the course of the year that other people were reading it and getting something out of it. That’s very gratifying to know. It’s motivated me to keep writing even when I didn’t always feel like it, and it’s helped lessen the isolation and stress of these past 12 months. I wrote early on that “I suspect that when I look back on this time in 5 or 10 or 20 years, I’ll appreciate having recorded what I’m doing and feeling, as banal as it is.” Actually, I already appreciate it just one year on, when everything is kind of still the same (lockdown, uncertainty) but also quite different (vaccines, hope). And “as banal as it is,” it’s also a record of life itself, which is by its nature sometimes boring and sometimes frightening and always uncertain, but also often pleasantly surprising and full of insights and small joys you don’t notice unless you take the time and force yourself to look for them. And I’m glad I’ve done that in this journal.