When we were quarantined

Authors Tayari Jones, Jervey Tervalon, Ivy Pochoda, Rick Bragg, Steph Cha, and Stephanie Danler
From top left, clockwise, are authors Tayari Jones, Jervey Tervalon, Ivy Pochoda, Rick Bragg, Steph Cha and Stephanie Danler.
(Photos from of the authors)

Three months into the COVID-19 way of life, even as a national crisis of conscience rises up alongside a still surging pandemic, writers are doing what they are compelled to do: create new narratives. Often those take the shape of essays, flash poetry or novels still in gestation. But with enough time now gone by, we can also discern a rising meta-narrative from daily accounts like those collected here — a series of quarantine diaries The Times began to commission a week into California’s shutdown.

The stages of our self-isolation have been fluid, hard to pinpoint chronologically; they can fluctuate within minutes from mourning to joy, professional frustration to escapism, productive immersion to public defiance.

From today’s perspective, these selected entries reflect at least one (ruminative, varied, relatively privileged but often financially insecure) subset of America grappling with the greatest changes in at least half a century. They also culminate in scenes from a mass movement that brought us out of isolation and into the streets, no longer waiting for change to come from above.

It’s well worth listening to these voices, because whatever future we can imagine ourselves into next might depend on them.

Advertisement
Advertisement

Boris Kachka

Kierkegaard to “The Babysitters Club”; “Lawrence of Arabia” to “Crocodile Dundee”; “Gunsmoke” to “Wrestlemania”; Gregorian chants to Alabama Shakes.

1. New Routines

Odd, that in this time of real death, surrounded by so much struggle, there is, here in the foothills of Alabama, so much time to kill. Tight spaces, crowds, physical contact, are all so dangerous now, so I do as I am told. I sit on the porch in the middle of 40 acres and watch the dog, an Australian shepherd, harangue a snooty cat for the better part of a quarter mile. Through the screen door, I can hear my 83-year-old mother singing about gathering at the river. Space is not a problem here. But space, and time, will make you crazy. — Rick Bragg, 4/6

My alarm clock pings at 6:30. Part of me can’t believe I’m doing this to myself, but I’ve got two kids, freelance work, and a novel that will launch in a month, and it will be a struggle to write with sustained focus later. I write until 8, when I transition into helping my son make a schedule for his day. My husband helps our older daughter with hers, and then away we go. — Anna Solomon, 4/7

Anna Solomon reads Helen Phillips' novel "The Need" in quarantine in Massachusetts.
(Mike Burger)

It’s startling how much the same our life is right now: I’m working very full, tense days, Julian is wrecking the house, Matt takes care of the groceries, we all take a walk around 5 p.m. How does this square with the reality of quarantine? There’s a glut of self-care-centric lifestyle pieces, and then there’s the news, so full of suffering, disasters and loss. I feel stranded in the middle of this, full of frustrations both petty (When am I going to have time for banana bread?) and more serious (How am I going to release a book? Take care of my family?), but I can’t pretend that being trapped at home with Matt and Julian isn’t a staggering comfort. — Stephanie Danler, 4/9

Advertisement

We left our apartment in New York City almost a month ago for Cape Ann, Mass., where I grew up — a fraught choice but one that’s given us more space and brought us closer to my family. Our plan today is to build a raft. — Solomon, 4/7

Our daughter suggested we do a cardio workout together. I really hate cardio, but a week of self-isolation can convince anyone to try new things. So for 30 minutes we kicked and punched and lunged with Jillian Michaels. Bonus: I forgot about the pandemic for 30 minutes. — Laila Lalami, 3/21

I gave an interview, via Zoom, to “CBS Sunday Morning” about how I have started doing this weird thing every day in which I dress up and share the photos with social media. The second I did it, I was hooked. I perform this little ritual every day. — Laura Lippman, 4/9

When the current crisis started, my predominant emotion was sadness, but now I feel I have passed through that stage. I have started to fill my days with things that in recent years I have been too busy to attend to. I remember how I often thought that it would be good to slow down the world. Well, now it has slowed itself down — with a vengeance. — Alexander McCall Smith, 4/2

You know the drill — poetry workshop for my daughter, Studio Ghibli, and the Laura Ingalls Wilder. The repetition is sublime and comforting. I’ve discovered that small disruptions to the pattern can really throw me off. A virtual book event, a Zoom cocktail, which are highlights of my week, also disturb my equilibrium. — Ivy Pochoda, 5/21

I live on a mountain in Tennessee with my wife and two sons. We are surrounded by woods. There is a pond in our backyard. We are used to isolation. But there’s a difference between the boundaries that you make for yourself and what’s happening now. What can we do but retreat into ourselves, get weirder, create distractions. On Friday, my wife went into our mudroom and found the box of our wedding china, which we have never opened. She unwrapped each plate and the boys set the table. We put on suits and dresses. My younger son, Patch, is obsessed with the masked rapper BennY RevivaL, and so we have 30 or 40 masks in the house, and we each put on a luchador mask for dinner. — Kevin Wilson, 4/5

Kevin Wilson with his sons Patch and Griff.
Kevin Wilson with his sons Patch, left, and Griff.
(Leigh Anne Couch)

The trick, we are told, is to differentiate the days by introducing novel elements. So Saturdays, I have decided, will be days for poetry. Today was Auden — my major literary enthusiasm — and a few of Shakespeare’s sonnets. — McCall Smith, 4/4

More and more, I catch myself talking to the dog. He is a fine dog and a smart dog, but he is not a magic dog. “Who’s a good boy?” I ask. Nothing. “Who’s the best boy?” Silence. He gets cocktail weenies, now, for a snack. I give him two, and because that makes him happy I give him six more. He has put on 6 pounds in the end times. — Bragg, 4/6

In January, we adopted a cat who lived behind the Blue Chair Cafe & Tavern in downtown Sewanee, Tenn. Her name is Dolly, and she is the most affectionate cat we’ve ever met. She lies between us on the sofa, and she purrs so loudly, twisting her body into the strangest shapes. We know that the days are going to stretch out in front of us, one after the other. It’s OK. We’re OK. — Wilson, 4/6

Advertisement

For a moment it occurs to me that we’re finding a rhythm in the quarantine. Then I remember that these signposts of adjustment are not so much hopeful as neutral, factual, for the simple reason that, even leaving aside the relentless acceleration of heartbreaking news, we still don’t yet know the most important fact: where the road they’re marking goes. — Charles Finch, 3/25

Authors like Lionel Shriver, Alexander McCall Smith, Laura Lippman and Steph Cha are under coronavirus quarantine too. Here’s what they’re reading.

2. Working (or trying)

I get up early to write: I am due to deliver the manuscript for the 21st volume in the “No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency” series by the end of May. I find it comforting to be in the fictional world where normal human association is permitted, and there is talk of things other than the virus. — McCall Smith, 4/4

I am eight months pregnant. I’d planned to start writing a new novel so I could get wrist-deep before the baby comes, but I can’t really concentrate, and part of me wonders if it even makes sense to put in the effort. I write contemporary novels about Los Angeles, and I suspect the city will have changed dramatically by the end of all this, in unpredictable and possibly permanent ways. — Steph Cha, 3/22

I open Microsoft Word. I take a sip of coffee. I close Microsoft Word. — Charles Yu, 4/2

The first few weeks of isolation went by quickly. I was finishing a collection of essays and it was heartening to work toward the future. I knew I would be adrift once the deadline was met, so I took my time. It took me a week to write the acknowledgments. It was two paragraphs … but beautifully crafted. — Bragg, 4/6

Some of my writer friends are amazed I’m working, but for what it’s worth, the manuscript is late and I’m having trouble meeting my daily quota of 1,000 words. Today I wrote 953 words, but it was a complete chapter. — Lippman, 4/9

Laura Lippman with a homemade mask.
(From Laura Lippman)

I talk with a friend who also has a book scheduled. Her publisher might push hers back by a couple months and we talk about the pros and cons. Maybe bookstores will be open by then? But what if all the books are pushed to summer? Will we ever again fly to a book festival? Are we allowed to care about any of this right now? — Solomon, 4/7

After breakfast, I emailed with my publicist to discuss canceled book events. There’s a lot of uncertainty about the future, so we resolved to wait and see before rebooking anything. After lunch, I tried to do some writing. The first half hour was hard, but eventually habit kicked in and by the time I looked up again, three hours had passed and I had two pages. Not bad. — Lalami, 3/20

Advertisement

I have back-to-back interviews for my new book most of the day, so I unfortunately have to brush my hair and put on clothes. — Danler, 4/9

I get a pop-up alert for meetings I was supposed to have in L.A. this week, all canceled. I think about deleting all the events I had coming up this year — I was supposed to travel to Seattle, Minneapolis, Paris — but I can’t do it. I want a record of my 2020 That Never Was. — Yu, 4/5

An exhausting day of troubleshooting at work. Online teaching hit a few snags, and as the MFA director at Rutgers-Newark I have to come up with answers on the spot. In between distress calls, I pick up the book sitting on my desk, “Minor Feelings,” by my colleague Cathy Park Hong. She had given me a signed copy with the trepidation that the book’s future was now compromised. I assured her that her book had a better chance than those by debut authors. Uttering that statement filled me with dread: Under these circumstances nothing is knowable. — Rigoberto González, 3/23

An eight-city tour was in the works. I know my loss is minuscule in the scheme of losses right now. Still, my novel took years to write. I take a deep breath and email with my publicist about which bookstores are open to doing something virtual. — Solomon, 4/7

On this day, I realize, I was supposed to be in Baltimore at a literature festival for my book “In the Country of Women.” As the sun sets, I go to Rite Aid and buy the things my mother asked me for today. — Susan Straight, 3/23

Author Susan Straight on her porch.
(From Susan Straight)

My writing time is fitful. I make some exciting discoveries, but I’m also thinking about how the current epidemic will change the trajectory of the book. It’s set 10 years in the future. I talk with my agent. I’m obsessing over minutiae. An eight-city tour was in the works. My novel took years to write. She helps me refocus on the big picture: the extraordinary creative energy of my publishing team; superhuman efforts by booksellers; people’s everlasting need for stories. — Solomon, 4/9

As soon as I try to do real writing, I start texting. — Danler, 4/8

After breakfast, I listened to my teenage daughter play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony on the violin. She was supposed to travel to Germany and the Netherlands this spring with her school’s orchestra. — Lalami, 3/22

I wake up and finish Ivy Pochoda’s “These Women.” It’s a stunner, and I hope that we’re in a better place by the time it comes out in mid-May. We all want this, of course, for more reasons than there are people on this Earth. I want Ivy’s book to sell, and I want people to stop dying; I want the economy to bounce back, and I want my friends to meet my newborn baby in the flesh. — Cha, 3/22

Advertisement

Pochoda walks through the setting for her new noir, “These Women,” and talks about centering the victims and past collaborations with Kobe Bryant.

3. Parenting (or trying)

I wake up before my 16-month-old son, which rarely happens, and lie in the semi-dark to finish a galley of Melissa Febos’ “Girlhood” on my phone. I’m left thinking about how I can be a better mother. I’m 24 weeks’ pregnant. — Danler, 4/8

Self-isolation has not changed my daily routine, other than the fact that my kids now go to school in our kitchen. They’re 12 and 10, but I live in constant fear of waking up one morning to find that they grew up overnight. Having this time with them feels like a bonus, a parent’s secret wish fulfilled. Except, in the perverse logic of a “Twilight Zone” episode, my wish came true under the worst imaginable circumstances. — Yu, 4/2

Charles Yu in quarantine, with the books inspiring his writing.
(From Charles Yu)

This week I was supposed to be heading on a book tour, but I’m home with my husband and 5-year-old, which I can’t complain about, at least not for very long. Loretta’s class is beginning a unit on how to become “avid poetry readers.” Since she can’t actually read, this will involve listening to poetry read by her mother. — Pochoda, 5/19

Before quarantine, Julian had never seen a screen. Now we beg him to sit still for 10 minutes in front of the TV. — Danler, 4/8

Patch and I are working our way through “The Baby-Sitters Club” graphic novels. He loves Claudia and Kristy, and I love Mary Ann. There’s a panel where Mary Ann holds up a slice of pizza and yells out, “Pizza toast,” and we both decide that when things return to normal, I’ll get a tattoo of that image. — Wilson, 4/5

Julian starts banging on the door. He’s figured out that I don’t go to the office anymore. I take a break and Julian watches Carson Ellis read from her book “Home,” one of his favorites, on Instagram live. I am not sure how I feel about Instagram live. But he’s interested and quiet for about five minutes, which is great! — Danler, 4/8

My wife ordered some resistance bands so we could work out at home. Whenever I’m feeling down about everything, exercise changes my mood dramatically. We go outside and play and a fun game called KanJam. Later, my son and I play some indoor basketball in his room. — Yu, 4/4

Charles Yu exercising with his wife, Michelle, and their dog.
(Charles Yu.)
Advertisement

At 9, I’m with my son as he signs into this morning’s Zoom with his second-grade class. I check the day’s first emails while listening to his teacher. He has his “end-of-day” Zoom at 2:45, by which point our schedule has dissolved, and my son needs nothing more than to wrestle with another kid. — Solomon, 4/7

I ordered the WWE Network for Patch so we could watch old WrestleMania. Patch has made up his own character, Black Dragon, and we wrestle on the bed. I’m Zeke Brokenwood, from the swamps of Louisiana. This evening, Griff and Patch break the frame of Patch’s bed while executing a body slam, and I spend 30 minutes with a drill. It feels good to restore something. — Wilson, 4/6

The automotive protest was characteristic of Pasadena/Altadena, where it’s not unusual to see a black-and-Asian family like ours do our civic duty. The problem was waiting to start our engines. A 4-year-old trapped in a car for a long time is a recipe for frayed nerves; a restroom break for Colette was inevitable. Finally, we received the signal, but we snaked along at a walking pace. To Colette’s credit, she held on for an hour, but then we had to give up the ghost to find a restroom. — Jervey Tervalon, 6/5

The author of “We Need to Talk About Kevin” lives that perfect, self-improving quarantine life (or maybe gets drunk and watches British reality TV).

4. Escapism (or not)

Every day we receive new instructions from the federal government, the state governor, the city mayor — even from the manager of the building I live in. By the weekend I’m so overwhelmed that I have to escape but without leaving the apartment. Thank goodness for murder mysteries. – Gonzalez, 3/22

Over lunch, we read. I’m in the middle of “The Need” by Helen Phillips, which I find so wonderfully weird and terrifying I forget my real fears for a while. My husband reads the news. – Solomon, 4/7

After dinner, it’s family movie time. My turn in the rotation. Last time I chose “Edge of Tomorrow,” in which Tom Cruise and Emily Blunt have to live out the same day over and over again until they figure out how to beat the aliens. Tonight my choice is “Independence Day” ... another movie about humanity uniting to defeat an enemy life form. My subconscious is not exactly subtle. – Yu, 4/2

After dinner, we watch “Iron Man 2 — we’re cutting “Six Feet Under” with the Avengers movies, figuring we could use some pure escapist entertainment. I’m disappointed in the movie, which is genuinely less engaging than the introduction to “The Power Broker,” Robert Caro’s 66-hour audiobook. – Cha, 3/22

Rigoberto González, quarantined in his home in Newark, N.J.
(From Rigoberto González)

At 8 p.m., the curfew goes into effect. A crew of squad cars roars down one of Newark’s main drags each evening to affirm a police presence. Their nightly ritual is not comforting, it’s unsettling. I look to my anchor: the book of poems in my hand. – González, 3/24

Advertisement

If the end is nigh, I don’t want to waste the time I have left. So I read some Hemingway, some Dickens and the words of an old cowboy called Sam the Lion, from Larry McMurtry’s “The Last Picture Show.” I know there will be an end to this, someday. Till then, I will duck into the past, into the black and white, where the good in us, played by Lionel Barrymore, stares up at the leering gangster, Edward G. Robinson, unafraid. – Bragg, 4/8

These days I am gulping down beloved books, and it’s probably only a matter of time before my all-stars show up in the rotation: “Mildred Pierce,” “Marjorie Morningstar,” “When She Was Good,” “Valley of the Dolls,” the Betsy-Tacy books by Maud Hart Lovelace. But my perennial reread is a YA series about a Denver teenager named Beany Malone. – Lippman, 4/8

Last month I reread “Station Eleven,” which, given its subject matter (a worldwide pandemic destroys civilization as we know it), might seem like not the best for right now but turned out to be exactly what I needed. – Yu, 4/3

Horror is traditionally a place where we work out our greatest fears. I’m pretty sure Danny Boyle was trying to warn us in “28 Days Later” that the virus that turns people into zombies isn’t nearly as dangerous as greedy, immoral humans. – Lalami, 3/20

I kicked off quarantine by rereading Cormac McCarthy’s “Blood Meridian because something in its apocalyptic vision seemed to reflect the moment. I was amused to discover how much comfort I derived from this odyssey of violence. No matter what’s going on outside it’s got nothing on what the Glanton Gang wrought. – Pochoda, 5/21

Matt asks me what I want to watch. I say that I want to read. He suggests “Never Look Away,” a German film by a director he loves. Hmmm. Sounds heavy. After we waste 30 minutes on this conversation, I tell the truth. I want to watch “The Office.” I want to start with the pilot, and I do not want to share my carton of ice cream, and I want to keep going and going until I feel better. Four episodes later, I can attest: It’s excellent. – Danler, 4/9

It seems as if a lot of people are handling isolation by reading long novels, but I spend my regular life reading long novels. Instead I’ve been listening to music and staring into space. I listen to unending amounts of Led Zeppelin, especially “Physical Graffiti” — an album I’ve never liked by a band I haven’t cared about in a long time. At around 6 o’clock I go into our tiny yard. Very carefully — the pleasure of doing a small task well — I roll a joint, then inhale from it once, albeit deeply. The sun softens into pink and gold diffusions of empathetic color over the palm trees, the rooftops, and, trying to think of something clever but failing, I text my friends long day living in Reseda, eh? – Finch, 3/20

Charles Finch playing guitar in quarantine.
(Emily Popp)

After the kids turn in, my wife and I finish the last episode of “Hillary” on Hulu. There’s one shot, of Hillary Clinton in the Oval Office with President Obama, and I think about an alternative universe in which our president was handling things very differently. – Yu, 4/4

Godard’s “Pierrot le Fou is a marriage coming apart (Godard and Anna Karina) and maybe the most emotional film ever made by that chilly guy. It’s on the Criterion channel, the Gideon Bible of this survivalist season. – Thomson, 4/1

Advertisement

I’m listening to Norah Jones today, which seems like a sign that things are getting dark. I think of Norah Jones as the best music available in the worst category of music: songwriting that’s unrepentantly affirming, even when its mood is “sad.” But in actuality the most significant development in my personal sense of aesthetics is probably that I’ve become a “candle guy.” It’s a humiliating turn of events. – Finch, 3/21

I can’t shake how badly I’m missing watching sports. On Sunday I finished “The Last Dance,” which I’m not in the unique position of loving. Watching this doc dovetailed with turning in the final draft of my next and probably last middle grade collaboration with Kobe Bryant, so the sense of loss when it was over was profound. – Pochoda, 3/20

Steph Cha shares a meal and some notes on performing identity with the “Interior Chinatown” author.

5. Grief

I woke a little later than usual and immediately reached for my phone to catch up on the news. That morning, Sen. Rand Paul had tested positive for COVID-19. Angela Merkel was self-isolating. This got me wondering about clustered spreads affecting specific fields, which was such a dystopian thought that I pushed it out of my mind. – Lalami, 3/22

As the Sports section dwindles, the Obituaries spread. We’re nowhere near the Great War scheme where London papers printed columns of names, the losses. Still, today, there is a friend in the New York Times, Dr. John Murray, 92, an expert on pulmonary distress who died of the very condition he had helped define for other doctors. He was a grand guy, tall, handsome, humorous, usually in a bow tie. The obituary includes the observation that just before he went into his last coma John was asking the doctors in Paris about his blood oxygen levels. Grace under pressure. – David Thomson, 4/3

David Thomson, working and watching his way through quarantine.
(Lucy Gray )

Terrence McNally has died of complications from coronavirus. He was 81. – Finch, 3/25

I check the news and see that John Prine has died. I put on “Angel from Montgomery” and let myself sit for a bit, listening. Tears rise in my throat and I realize they’ve been with me all day. My daughter walks in and asks for a snack. – Solomon, 4/7

My husband comes out and puts on John Prine, who passed away last night. There is a subtle music war going on in my home, but I don’t engage this morning. I love John Prine. – Danler, 4/8

On the pretty afternoons, I drove the county roads in my pickup, alone. I listened to everything from big band to rockabilly, but even lost on a lonely country road, the sadness drifted in. I heard that the great songwriter John Prine had died. Prine was the antidote for all the bad music in the world, all the empty words. I heard Bill Withers died. He showed me how to groove before I knew what a groove was. It occurred to me, somewhere along those thin ribbons of asphalt, that just about every singer I really liked was dead, including about 3/16th of Lynyrd Skynyrd, and this made me sad all over again. – Bragg, 4/8

Advertisement

It’s really shocking how many great performers are in “Shattered Glass.” Mark Blum, the actor who died of COVID-19 on March 26, was in “Shattered Glass.” After his death, we watched “Desperately Seeking Susan” and “Crocodile Dundee” back to back. – Lippman, 4/10

We watched “Seinfeld,” the one where Kramer gets addicted to the chicken at Kenny Rogers Roasters, and I mentioned that Kenny Rogers had recently passed away. Griff and Patch asked if it was from the virus, and I said that I didn’t remember. — Wilson, 4/5

Today was the day I kind of broke down. It was a minor thing wrapped in a major thing. I stepped on a scale and discovered I’d lost 2 pounds in the last week, which is disconcerting when you’re eight months’ pregnant during an unprecedented pandemic and have just canceled your various medical appointments. – Cha, 3/20

An awful day, edgy and wrong. The stock market takes on a new interest for me since I’m apparently being asked to murder people based on how it’s doing. I spend most of the afternoon teaching myself the solo from “Peg” by Steely Dan on guitar. Really I just want to GO SOMEWHERE. I’d pay an amount of money I’m hesitant to admit to sit at a crowded coffee shop and work for an hour. ($50.) – Finch, 3/24

A number of friends forward me emails from Amazon letting them know that my book may be delayed because they’re prioritizing necessary supplies. I thank them and try to pretend I don’t know this. I get on a quick phone call with a member of my marketing team, then I check in with my sister, who has gone back to work at her non-COVID hospital in Chicago. I pull down “Madame Bovary.” Then I make the mistake of checking the news and grow so angry I feel feverish. – Solomon, 4/8

Laila Lalami finds "The Bell Jar" soothing these days.
(From Laila Lalami)

Like millions of other people, I’m having trouble falling asleep. The uncertainty about everything creates a constant low-level anxiety. I talked to a very knowledgeable friend who gave me some advice. You have to decide to wind down. Assert control. A sleep app like Headspace may help. There’s a terrific English actor who narrates “Rainday Antiques.” His voice his deep, warm and soporific. — Joe Ide, 5/10

The pandemic has worsened my insomnia, adding anxiety about health to the list of things my mind occupies itself with at three in the morning … Before bed, I had a cup of rooibos tea, which is caffeine-free and rich in antioxidants; it’s one of my trusted home remedies for insomnia. Then I read a little more of “The Bell Jar” and went to sleep. I dreamt that I was a decorative-art historian in Bahia, Brazil, and that I was showing museum visitors an antique Moroccan teapot. It was the most restful dream I had all week. Then I woke up and remembered. – Lalami, 3/20

Albert Camus’ “The Plague,” read in quarantine for the first time, warns us to reset our own priorities

6. The World Outside

Seeing Dr. Fauci speak can momentarily elicit in me a hope that this will shake us back into some basic collective reliance on reality and expertise. But the true lesson of 2016 onward, in fiction and politics alike, is that none of us know anything about what any of us will do. — Finch, 3/22

Advertisement

This is the second week of no school in Riverside. On my long, narrow block, there are about 35 kids. Many of them are on the sidewalks, riding bikes and scooters, walking their parents, who are nervous. At night I watch two hours of “Gunsmoke,” then an hour of “Gentefied.” The isolation and sadness on those dirt roads and those L.A. sidewalks send me out back onto my porch, in the dark, to listen to the eerie silence without what I usually hear: the tubas and accordions of ranchera music, the booming bass of Tupac and laughter from the streets. — Straight, 3/25

After dark, we walk down to the cove to look at the supermoon. It’s so big and bright we can see individual pebbles on the road. We watch currents of water pass each other, sparkling. — Solomon, 4/7

Joe Ide
(From Joe Ide)

The light, the space. With our son Zachary we drive to Point Reyes. It’s the three of us (everyday companions) in the car, our spare room. There is some traffic still; it is California. The day is nearly summer in its warmth, with a wind whipping the sea into white crests. We just drive around studying the herds of black cattle and poppies, pale yellow at their tips, darkening into egg-yolk at their center. Neither the poppies nor the cattle know what’s going on in the Trump press conferences. Their good fortune. But the cattle are lining up, expecting to be milked. — Thomson, 4/2

We drive over to Marsh Park (closed at the moment) on the L.A. River and walk along the river path. We’ve had strong rain this week and the river is full, with rapids, and there are gray herons, egrets, ducks. I feel desperate to get out and be in nature. Like everyone quarantined, I suppose. — Danler, 4/8

On our hike, Griff picks two dandelion puffs and then asks me to make a video of him. I get out my phone and record. He yells, “I’m an artist,” and then he delicately places each dandelion in his mouth, one and then the other. He blows out a little cloud of fluff, and they hover around his face. It’s beautiful. Later, I’ll be glad that no one was around to see it, the worry it might have caused, to spit into the open air, all those germs. But now we hike into the woods, searching for frogs and lizards, for all the living things moving around us, unseen unless you try to find them. — Wilson, 4/7

I’ve lived in this old farmhouse for 32 years. Mine is a neighborhood of barter, where we trade oranges and avocados, fresh eggs and just-caught fish, clothes and tools. For these past two weeks, we’ve been trading groceries and tamales, and I give away books. I leave a bag on the fence slats, so we maintain distance. A mother and her teenage daughter stop at the fence, looking disconsolate. The daughter will graduate from our local high school with no ceremony, not sure the college she’s been admitted to will even open in fall. On the porch, I find for her “Pearl Buck in China: Journey to the Good Earth.” — Straight, 4/24

Today is better than yesterday — the sun is out, and I get to socialize. A Zoom chat with high school friends, a Google Hangout with law school friends and a social distancing happy hour in front of our neighbors’ house, where we all stand well over 6 feet apart and catch up with our outside voices. One of the children, 8 or 9 years old, declares: “This is a story I’ll tell my kids — except I’m not going to have any.” — Cha, 3/20

After bedtime, we join a friend’s Zoom Seder and there are people all over the United States on it. I miss people, I miss drinking, but this Zoom socializing is a miracle. — Danler, 4/8

Alexander McCall Smith, multitasking in quarantine as he revises his next "No. 1 Ladies' Detective Agency" novel.
(From Alexander McCall Smith)
Advertisement

I’ve been Zooming with my three brothers. Whenever we talk or see each other, we are immediately transformed into adolescents and assume the status we had back then. In terms of my stature in the family, I was underneath the totem pole. I realize I could break out of my role and be more assertive, but the result would be chaos. I’m more or less an adult all the time and seriously, it’s a drag. Adults are capricious, whereas my relationship with my brothers is stable and predictable. — Ide, 5/10

Before delivering the groceries, I removed them from the plastic grocery store bags and toweled everything down with precious Clorox wipes. When I arrived at my parents’ home, I unfolded my camp chair, but it started to rain. My mother’s face fell. She had been looking forward to a yard visit with me all week. Daddy entered the garage carrying three cans of Coke in his large hands. “Oh, no,” he said as the rain came down in sheets. — Tayari Jones, 6/5

Proust said that steamships insulted the dignity of distance. And yet, and yet … From city to city, from country to country, people reach out to one another, amid all the noise and suffering and loneliness, they smile and share stories and impressions and recommendations — all the things that bind us the one to the other, in spite of everything. Last night, at precisely 8 o’clock, the clapping started, just as it had the previous Thursday. People stood on their doorsteps, leaned out of their windows, came out onto the street to applaud the health service. Throughout the United Kingdom, the whole nation clapped. In our street, a piper struck up, the bagpipes providing a spine-tingling background to the moving sound of people expressing their gratitude. — McCall Smith, 4/3

Walter Mosley, Luis Rodriguez, the coiner of #BlackLivesMatter and others sketch a hopeful future for L.A. and the U.S. after George Floyd protests.

7. Restlessness and Change

My son was born two months ago, a few weeks ahead of schedule, so my life is pretty different from what it was when I wrote my quarantine diary. I haven’t had much time to read (I’m still slowly making it through “Anna Karenina,” though I have been able to get through “The Power Broker”). I spent most of the last five years writing about Los Angeles and police brutality and the legacy of 1992. Under different circumstances, I would be out in my city, protesting with my neighbors. Instead, I’m watching news coverage with a sleeping baby on my chest. Blissful and sad and surreal. — Cha, 6/5

The Fence Library has grown to four tables, two bookshelves and lots of donations. One neighbor built an arbor and sign — he’s a carpenter who’s been laid off. About 50 to 75 books a week are taken. On Monday, when protesters walked down my sidewalk headed to downtown Riverside, some actually stopped and got books — on politics, Latino and African American culture, but also children’s books, which remain the most popular. Helicopters overhead, they put books in their backpacks. — Straight, 6/1

It was election day in Georgia. Gov. Brian Kemp installed new voting machines just in time for this election. Word on the curb is that no one knows quite how to work them. And have I mentioned there is widespread civil unrest? Here in Atlanta, police officers have been fired for brutalizing protesters. In addition, there is the matter of a global pandemic. And from what I have read and observed, being Black is a significant co-morbidity. — Jones, 6/5

Mack and Barbara Jones, parents of Tayari.
(Tayari Jones)

It is hard enough to shelter in place, but how do you do that when you’re a black man and your 19-year-old daughter is leading a Black Lives Matter protest in front of hundreds of people? What choice is there but to put a mask on and go see Elise do what needed to be done. I worried she might freeze up, but she had no problem giving her five-minute speech. She insisted that Black lives matter, and the crowd roared back that Black lives do matter, and I was moved to tears. — Tervalon, 6/5

Here in Georgia, folks talk to one another. The problem is that face coverings make it hard to talk. Raised eyebrows and a shrug meant, “Isn’t this ridiculous?” Narrowed eyes and a shake of the head communicated, “This is voter suppression.” Narrowed eyes, lowered brows and a tight jaw said, “Stacey Abrams should be governor.” — Jones, 6/9

Advertisement

Our president seems to have an amazing ability to make people from diverse backgrounds feel such unified passion for relentless, nonviolent resistance against him that even fear of COVID-19 couldn’t stop it. — Tervalon, 6/5

I hoped I was voting for the right people, and then it was over. As I trekked to my car, the clouds spit and sputtered. I offered my plastic poncho to a man still blocks away from the polls. “How long did you wait?” he asked. “Almost four hours,” I said. He sighed. “I’ve been here that long already.” — Jones, 6/9

I walk to the rally downtown, just five minutes from my apartment, but after 72 days in quarantine, I become nervous about blending into a crowd. But when the marchers chant the names of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other recent victims of police negligence and brutality I’m reminded of why, for many, it’s worth leaving home when it’s still not safe. I am reminded that, for many, it has never been safe to leave home. — González, 5/30