19 December, Worcestershire, UK

By Rachel Smyth

I cried tonight for the first time in a long time. My brother travelled back from London with his husband, earlier today, for Christmas. We have hardly seen him this year and the whole family was looking forward to (safely) spending time with him. However just as he arrived, the announcement was made that London was being placed under Tier 4 restrictions. After an hour-long discussion, not even leaving their car, my brother and his husband decided to turn around and return to London. I was oblivious to all of this and found out from a brutally succinct message in our family WhatsApp group: “He’s gone back home”.

Like many others, I had got carried away with the idea that we could have some sort of normality for just a few days. After deliberately keeping my head down and carrying on (very British) for months, following the rules and staying safe, I’d allowed myself to get excited and hope a little. The comedown was hard and unexpected.

As I cried in our lounge, my 3 year old daughter put her arms around my neck and asked what the matter was. I explained that my brother, her uncle, wouldn’t be home for Christmas after all. I said I missed him and felt very sad. “Oh I know. But you’ll see him soon Mummy, when the germs have gone. We can have Christmas then.” And she was right. Sometimes it takes the pragmatic words of a child to re-gain perspective. A hug, from those few who are still allowed to, also works wonders.

15 December, Baltimore, Maryland, USA

By Havaca Ganguly

It is mid-December and the ground has yet to really freeze, though the garden is bare. I am ready for the garden to be bare.  On a warm afternoon last week, I dug out all the okra roots.  I pulled all the lima bean vines from the trellis they were so romantically wrapped around.  I tore out tomato bushes that still carried a few nuclear-colored, sagging tomatoes that had never reached their prime before freezing in the night time.

Under all of those plants, I found a few onion-starts that I must have planted at some point. They were bruised and bullied, but it became my last garden thrill of the year. We used them all at once on the day that they were harvested.  Roasted and tossed in a noodle stir fry. The season is now officially over and we are able to slumber from garden chores for a few months. 

Instead, we busy our hands in the kitchen, making Christmas cookies and roasting nuts to package and gift to neighbors. We huddle under a reading lamp and write letters to our loved ones.  Then, tuck them inside of envelopes and send them to far-flung places like Missouri, Switzerland, Mexico and India.  This year we add a bit of tenderness to our words.  We hug those people in our minds as we send words from our hearts.  This is a grey year.  This is a year of remembering those we love, and truly wishing them the best, wishing them good health, and cherishing memories with them. 

We pick up different needles and we make all kinds of crafts that we hope to gift this year, instead of going shopping and picking out things. We crave so much the closeness to those we love who live in distant places.  We crave so much the idea of celebration. When we sit to pass time together as a family, it means so much that everything tastes a little brighter.  We do our best to make all of these times special and in our hearts imagine our extended family is safe and cozy somewhere.

10 December, Busan, South Korea

By Ahalya Arulnayagam

It’s 9 am in the morning. I’m on my bed, lying still, hands by my side.

 I hear the phone buzzing. It’s my lab manager informing me that she is shutting down the lab for one week until we hear from our supervisor. Since last week, Covid in Busan has hit a peak, so the city has raised its restrictions to the highest possible level. The lab manager mentions all the safety protocols, text by text, and ends the conversation with a Kakao emoticon. I wait for her to finish texting because I know she has to Google translate everything for me while texting.  Then I text back: “Thank you. Stay safe” — of course with another emoticon. I ask myself, so what now?

I don’t feel like working today but I would have to if I was in the lab. Now the idea of working from my dormitory has unleashed the lazy devil inside me.

I get up, plug my phone into the charger and make my own cup of coffee – a black Americano – and sit by my laptop to watch the news. South Korea is crazy these days. People have gone insane; they’re tired of being isolated for more than 10 months. The infection numbers per day are crazy. No wonder my lab is shut down. Working from home (dorm) isn’t that easy for researchers like me. I make a couple of calls to my home in Sri Lanka for a regular check-in. I think about cooking something new and make vegetable biryani, which has been on my wish list for longtime. I always feel good about myself after cooking sessions.

I am sure he’s never going to call me, yet I am peeping at my phone in between my chores. I feel lonely, like a widowed old man who waits all week for the post. I realise there is a subtle pain in not being checked-on constantly, not being asked mundane questions about how your day was.

I walk down by the breakwater intending to streamline my messy thoughts. Face masks have become a crucial body part, though they’re messing with my skin. Yet, I don’t want to be legally punished.  I look around me at the deserted street and feel remorseful about not being able to fly back home during such a crisis.

Suddenly, I am startled by the crescent moon.

I take my phone out of the jacket and start typing words, tons of words; with edits and backspaces. Then I delete all of them and send “I miss you, a lot” with a sad smiley.  A minute later I receive a voice note saying “I miss you too”. I stare at the phone screen and smile. 

28 November, Los Angeles, California, USA

By Ruth McKee

Typically, my neighbors give respect to each holiday, and wait to start decorating for the next one until the last one has passed. But this year, with us all still stuck in our homes, it seems no one could wait for Thanksgiving to pass before decorating for Christmas. Many people started hanging their lights weeks ago. In our house we waited, but this weekend, the minute Thanksgiving was over, we pulled out all the trimmings, including the extra things I bought last year when we hosted my husband’s whole family from Ohio. Lights, trees, stockings, all went up over the course of an afternoon, bedazzling our home in anticipation of the next break from routine.

The days are getting shorter. This evening, when I walk the dog before dinner, it is already pitch black outside. The streets are empty again, the way they were in April, but it’s not entirely clear whether people are starting to heed the new restrictions, or if it’s just the lull of the holiday weekend. This week we’ve seen a series of new measures come down in the city, as the virus surges out of control. First, restaurants were told to close their outdoor dining areas and move to take-out only. Then yesterday, they reduced capacity in retail businesses, and banned all social gatherings of people outside of their own households, starting Monday. But today was a beautiful sunny day and people were still milling about, picking up coffee and shopping with their friends, perhaps getting in one last visit. For my family, the only change will be the social one. No more masked meet-ups with the kids’ friends for hikes and bike rides, at least for the moment. But otherwise it seems we never really left the first lockdown.

I walk the dog up the street that leads to the hill by our house, so I can take in the view of the valley this evening. It’s quiet now, but somewhere out there the virus rages at levels we’ve never seen before. I have little hope that this shutdown will make a difference, we’re all entrenched in our behavior at this point, and people will keep doing what they’re doing until the virus comes to their door. The weeks ahead will be dark. The days are getting shorter. So many more people will die before this year is over.

A few years ago, my family spent a gray December in Indiana and I came to appreciate the necessity of celebrating the winter solstice. As the sun hid from sight a little more each day, I felt deeply the need to hang lights and mark the time until the sun would return, the way as a child we lit candles to mark the weeks of Advent. It’s dark now, getting darker still, but the light will return. In a few weeks, our health care workers will start receiving a vaccine. A few weeks after that, we’ll have a new government. I turn the corner towards my own home and can see from a distance all the lights I’ve hung, glowing in the night.

9 November, London, UK

By Ivana MacKinnon

Everything feels different this time. Our lives are already quite small so this lockdown doesn’t feel it will make an enormous amount of difference. We were already avoiding our elders because the government saying it was safe didn’t mean it was. The kids are at school and in a childcare bubble. We have been inside two restaurants since March. One pub. But the difference is more that this time everyone is visibly experiencing different things at different times and reacting in different ways. I don’t think anyone believes this is only four weeks; I don’t think anyone can quite face the idea of how long it will be; I think everyone will cheat in some way, a small way or a big way, as a result. So the lockdown will be longer. At least the US election has offered some chink of light, and, as my sister says, is playing out like an omnibus edition of Sunset Beach to distract us all. 

At “work” (preparation for when work can happen again) we learn what we can do remotely and what we need to be in a room to do, and have started to understand what gets lost in translation when everyone is a disembodied head and shoulders with a perfectly symmetrical zoom background. Everyone except me: I still have mattresses and kids toys and hastily blu tacked pictures behind me at all times. I haven’t managed the Zoom grammar at all. My company set up means I haven’t had furlough (the UK government scheme to support businesses and workers facing suspension on account of the COVID crisis). This is really starting to bite, and the arts are just fucked, so fucked. Everyone still is taking little steps, one in front of the other, in hope, but how long for? How long before we all have to do the government’s retrain quiz online and decide to become ….. (What?) 

The kids are holding things on their shoulders which come out in strange ways — in tics and hyper-fears of things going wrong — but given everything they still seem to be coping well. Those who can are trying to swaddle the kids, I suppose, to just get through this moment, into whatever happens next, which seems less and less likely to look like what was before. Anyway in the service of child mental health and in order to have an excuse for the chaos of our Zoom backgrounds, we have 100% embraced the middle class cliché and have a new puppy. The week we decided, two other friends did the same; since then another has. By the time we get out of lockdown there will be more dogs than people. 

So now the puppy sleeps on the sofa and pees on the floor and learns little things and then forgets them and eats sticks outside and tries to dig up old fox poo and I chase after it while on the phone to someone I would otherwise have emailed. And that’s all. That’s the whole day, every day. And once a day I go out, into a world that doesn’t look much like it’s in lockdown at all. The walls get more and more filled with pictures and people make half plans for the future but not for Christmas, Christmas has already been written off. And we all hope to find our Norwegian spirit as the weather gets colder. Maybe we will start smoking again, to keep warm.  A couple of times a day, we see our great leaders on the news, and despair.

7 November, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, USA

By Katie Y

The AP called the US presidential election just before noon in Philadelphia. Our Saturday morning had started with a puzzle. After getting dressed, we dumped 100 pieces of cardboard on the living room floor. Then we sat in the fall sunshine and slowly pieced together the outline of a Tyrannosaurus rex. A stuffed Tyrannosaurus sat nearby and pointed out likely looking pieces in a surprisingly squeaky voice.  

When the news came, we were still sitting on the floor by the big windows that face the street. Car horns and jubilant voices sounded in the distance. We grabbed our facemasks and slipped on our shoes. Then we slipped them off again to dash to the kitchen for a whisk and a metal pot lid.

Our garden was shockingly quiet. But when we rounded the corner, we saw our neighbors dancing. Someone waved a full-sized American flag while others banged on pots and pans. We took pictures and moved to the next alleyway, where a group of families with young children cheered everyone walking by. We banged on our lid and whooped in return. 

On the main road, people had gathered on every corner. Wearing facemasks and brandishing cowbells, they hollered at passing cars. The drivers honked their horns, while passengers waved and recorded cellphone videos. A few played music that echoed between the houses. We found an unoccupied corner and joined in, waving at strangers and banging our pot lid until the Tyrannosaurus and her friend asked for lunch. After walking home, we ate bowls of rice in the garden. 

The sky has been bright blue all week. Flowers are blooming. This is not supposed to happen in November in Pennsylvania. I worry that it’s a sign of problems to come. But right now, it feels like spring.

7 November, Kolkata, India

By Puja Bhattacharjee

Durga puja is the worship of Goddess Durga. According to Hindu mythology, in autumn, Ma Durga “comes home” to earth for five days from her Himalayan abode. A Bengali eagerly waits for autumn the entire year. Marquees called pandals are erected in neighborhoods and housing societies to worship her. We shop for the best-looking clothes, decide what to wear on each day of the five days; make plans to meet friends, and go pandal-hopping much in advance. The city takes on a whole new and more chaotic character. 

This year’s Durga Puja – arguably the biggest religious and cultural event in eastern India, was vapid. Under strict orders from the Calcutta High Court, organizers had to cordon off the entrances to the pandals, and sentries posted near them discouraged pandal-hoppers from lingering for too long. I managed to visit a few pandals before the festivities began in earnest. The size of the crowd was laughable compared to other years.

In my housing society, a pandal constructed with bamboo poles and covered in colored fabric and tarpaulin is erected every year. Watching the pandal take shape is also an exciting process as we count down the days leading to the puja. This year, the organizers opted for a metal structure that was erected in a few hours. The marquee was huge but the Durga idol was small and gatherings were sparse. There was no life at the festival. Cultural programs, a norm in the evenings during the festival, were axed. Instead, there were some impromptu performances.

Almost immediately after the end of the festival, my mother tested positive for the Coronavirus. I, along with my parents and younger sister, went into self-isolation. Today is the eleventh day of our quarantine. We will be able to go out again after three days. Honestly, I am apprehensive about how people are going to react to us. Will they avoid us out of fear? Will we be censured? Being able to go out again is exciting, but these nagging thoughts are not.

Kali puja or the worship of goddess Kali is next week. She is my favorite Hindu deity. She has dark skin, wild hair; is naked and very, very angry. To me, she is the perfect antithesis of established societal norms. For now, Kali gives me courage. I think of her to keep my anxiety at bay.

5 November, London, UK

By Leah Kenny

Today is the very first day of the newest lockdown. Yesterday morning, despite the dazzling sun, it felt like winter had crept in and I watched as cold-air-smoke billowed from my mouth. 

Whilst working at my desk this morning for seemingly the 34835798375 day, I think about how we’ve woven in and out of lockdowns with undetermined timelines and ill-defined rules. We’re left feeling guilty and selfish, for the mistakes and delays of our government. Then I refresh the news to watch as another nation chooses their government, so far away, so influential. I live in a (mostly) quiet grove in South London. I picture the rows of houses to my left and right, with everyone sat at their laptop in the same position as me, scrolling and refreshing. Occasionally typing. But really, I still don’t know what my neighbours do, despite months separated only by a thin wall. I think of what I can cook for the commune – my home – this evening. 

By midday, the sun is out (London, this is unlike you!). I am curious about anyone I see pass by the window. Where are they going today when there is nowhere to go? Yesterday, I shared a very un-London conversation on public transport with someone who said he had just arrived in London.  He asked me what the new lockdown rules were. I wasn’t sure I could summarise, I mumbled through my mask. 

By mid-afternoon, there have been too many Zoom calls already and I’ve peered into too many living rooms already. I’ve spoken with one particular colleague nearly every day now for half a year, but haven’t yet been in the same physical place with her. Unless Microsoft Teams is a space? I am not sure anymore. We share a brief conversation after our meeting about mental wellbeing on and offline, and how we might do this better. Apparently, anxiety was the word of the day on BBC news this morning. I make a note to make a note to get back to this. There is so much learning left to do and we’ve resigned ourselves to the fact that we are in this for the long run. But some days we are just so tired from sitting still. Failing internet and an overloaded system mean a significant amount of time is spent on:

‘Can you hear me?’ 

‘Can you hear me?’ 

‘Can you hear me?’ 

By evening (which comes too early these days) I hear the fireworks going off and realise I had forgotten this is Guy Fawkes’ night. It feels out of sync with everything that is going on, and has gone on. I close my laptop; I’ll get back to it again in the morning. 

31 October, Los Angeles, California, USA

By Ruth McKee

In mid-September, the county supervisors announced that trick-or-treating would be banned this year. Within 24 hours, they had reversed course and said it was only “discouraged.” A city populated by so many migrants trained in the arts, I’ve often thought of Halloween as Los Angeles’s most significant holiday. The weeks leading up to the big day are typically filled with carnivals and festivals, parties and parades, giving children and adults the opportunity to dress up and express themselves. On the night itself, our neighbors pull out their projectors and fog machines, theming their houses to Halloween movies.

Within a few days of the county’s announcement and reversal, I started seeing ads for drive-thru Halloween events. I signed up for all of them: the one where you drove past displays of immaculately-carved jack-o-lanterns, the haunted barnyard, and the mall parking lot where they made candy rain down through the sunroof of your car. My neighbors and I also organized a drive-thru event for our kids on Friday night, with ten stops on the map, where neighbors wearing masks passed bags of candy into the windows of each other’s cars.

Halloween in LA has always given structure to a long, hot, season where the weather doesn’t turn to fall. This year it has felt more essential to me than ever, giving me something to focus on other than the election. Time has slowed to a crawl as the nation drags itself towards November 3rd. Virus cases are spiking all over the country, to levels we have never seen before. Since the current regime has given up on any sort of control measures as well as any economic relief, our only hope right now is for regime change.

Halloween itself is quiet. It’s a Saturday, so the kids wake up and play their online games while my husband and I do our morning yoga. The air is clear and we can see the mountains from our bedroom window. I joke with my husband that I will miss this view when we move to Canada next week. It is only sort of a joke. Unlike most of my friends here, I have the extra privilege of a second passport, a way to get my family across a border closed since March. My husband and I float the idea of leaving, back and forth, with each turn of the news cycle. We don’t want to go. We like our lives here, or liked them, anyway. Three more days. We hold on to the hope that we will like them again.

In the afternoon I take my daughter to an art class (in person, with masks), and to a drive-by birthday parade for one of her friends. The new Whole Foods is open, after four years of construction, and we talk about stopping and going inside. As we drive down Ventura Blvd, a caravan of shiny white pick-up trucks, waving flags and honking, encourages us to join the Trump Train. A chilling display, even for Halloween.

We take a walk in the early evening. None of us says it, but we’re all curious whether trick-or-treaters will be out, after all. There are a few families out with small children, a few houses that have set up candy chutes or treat pass-out tables, but it’s nothing like a normal year. We put our leftovers from the drive-thru out for any passers-by, turn off our lights and huddle inside.

Around nine, a party starts up in the rental house next door. Loud-music pumps through the neighborhood, and dozens of young people are dropped off in rideshares, or park their cars along the street. I call the non-emergency police number, to see if anything can be done, but no one is there to take my call. The party rages until two in the morning, when a police helicopter finally comes by, circling overhead and putting a spotlight on the revelers. They cut the music, the helicopter leaves, and for a few minutes it is quiet. Then the music starts again, a little softer, but still consistently beating into the night. I go to sleep and wait for the next stay at home order to come.

28 October, Berkeley, California, USA

The perfect late apple, with some old ash on it, which I’ll wash and eat. The old, long seasons of growth for plants are the best things right now. Our ballots were received by the county and are ready to be counted, but the anger at the Supreme Court appointment yesterday is so strong that it’s a hard day to feel hope.

Outside, even more people wear masks, maybe out of gratitude that it’s not smoky and it’s possible to be on the sidewalks and in the parks. So many small fires were impressively and quickly suppressed over the last two days. — Rachel Shipps