Every year, the California Writers Club invites its members to submit to the Lit Review, an anthology of its members writing. There’s usually some steep competition to get in, and I’m honored that most of the years I’ve submitted, I’ve been accepted.
This year, I was not.
I’m not bitter, though. I chose to send in something different than anything I usually write, mostly because I ran across this personal essay around the same time submissions were due.
Here’s the back story to this piece. It’s about the early days of the pandemic, written in fragmented stories. Each paragraph story is connected but also disconnected – kind of like all of us were in those early days. I titled it OUTSIDE, kind of a play on the word. Mostly it was commentary on those who freaked out about people unmasked outside. But it was also about feeling outside of an experience, or wishing to be outside rather than cooped up in quarantine…
Obviously, that’s not easy to convey, and at least one of the judges pointed out the confusion around the title. So my little experiment was rejected for this year’s anthology.
But lucky for you, I’m not rejecting it from my blog! Here’s my personal essay. And just for kicks, I’ll include the judge’s commentary (which I think is so awesome that they do that!) at the end.
In the first week of the pandemic, a woman posted in ALL CAPS to our online neighborhood forum about the audacity of a family who dared to leave their home without masks. “They rode their bikes together less than six feet apart,” she screamed through her font, and then went on to describe all the other people she saw outside on the same path, enjoying the fresh air without any kind of covering and poisoning the air she was breathing. “It’s the law!” she continued, ignoring any responses that said otherwise. “Don’t they know how serious this is?”
I was tempted to weigh in and offer my own opinion, correct what she was getting wrong, and maybe even share a link to the truth. But a scroll through the comments showed many had already tried and failed, along with those who agreed with her argument. An all-out war went on in the comments section, and I could just imagine the blast of notifications I’d receive if I offered my two cents. And so, I stayed quiet.
I also stayed quiet when I saw another online post from a woman whose only mode of transportation was her bike. In the pandemic’s early days, biking was right up there with consorting with the devil because you’re outside unprotected. On her way to catch the train, a group of people blocked her path and wouldn’t let her through because it was reserved for pedestrians. “I told them I was going to miss my train,” she wrote, but the group wouldn’t budge. In her post, this woman shared how she’d been yelled at, swerved around, even spat at for her audacity to be on her bike. As if she had a choice. As if she were just taking a lovely stroll on a busy highway, trying to get from point A to point B. As if riding a bike was worse than spitting on someone as we all worried about catching a virus.
In the pandemic’s early days, we were ordered to shelter in place. My ocean-loving husband lasted a week before breaking free from the house for a drive to the coast. He kept his distance and enjoyed a walk on the beach in complete solitude. The sand was washed clean of footprints, and dozens of different kinds of birds were having a mostly human-free party. When he posted photos of his outside adventure to social media, two of his friends messaged him about the inappropriateness of such a post. He was setting a bad example, they said. Of course, they were right. But what it told us is that if you’re going to enjoy outside, keep it to yourself.
My daughter escaped outside all the time. She limited her socializing to a couple friends, promising me they were socially distanced in every other way. A friend of hers would sit on our back porch while they talked six feet apart. Or they would drive to a parking lot and talk through their open car windows. My daughter even broke into Armstrong Woods when sheltering rules had closed the parks, all for a few moments of outside breathing among the redwoods.
My husband was mad. I was jealous. We kept it to ourselves.
My stepson didn’t go outside at all in the first year of the pandemic. Our house was small, and he whistled all. the. time. Or he talked to strangers through his gaming headset. He talked to me in grunts or silence. If my husband was there, he talked in complete sentences.
My youngest son only went outside when I took him to the store.
One month into the pandemic, I sat in the car while my son borrowed my mask to get something at the store. I scrolled my phone mindlessly but jerked back to reality when something hit the front of my car. A Jaguar pulled away from my front bumper, and my first thought was how much worse any damage would be for a car like that.
I stepped outside my humble Hyundai at the same time as the driver exited his own – a large man, and then his much larger friend, their eyebrows furrowed, gaze hardened, both reeking of pot. None of us masked. I buried my unease and joked about my fancy car, but they were in slow motion.
The driver inspected my bumper to check the damage, asked if I was okay, if there was anyone else in the car. His eyes were blurry, and I could almost see his thoughts and emotions trying to connect and make sense. Maybe I was scary to him. I assured him I was fine, that there was no damage to worry about.
And then, relief. The driver smiled, shook my hand, and we had this moment of connection as two people in totally different worlds, where the opportunity to be at war was there and neither one of us was pulling the trigger. In the moment, in the middle of this pandemic crisis, we were cool.
But when I went back to my car, I realized what I’d done. I shook his hand. I held my diseased palm away from my body until my son came back to the car, fought the urge to touch my face as he drove us home, and then booked it for the sink so I could scrub the virus from my hands. Scrub the person from my hands.
That same week, two people walked outside on the same path I was on. There was no room to move over. None of us wore masks, but mine was in my pocket. They remained side-by-side as they walked three feet from me, not even bothering to make room. They smiled as they passed, and I smiled back, but inside I was fuming.
Did they know how serious this was?
Judge 1: This personal essay is a series of 8 anecdotes focused on peoples’ reactions to the early days of the pandemic. It’s an interesting look at the various scenarios. It’s a time capsule of the period and well written. I think it could be better if the writer gave us a bit more of their opinion and feelings about what was going on – we get that the writer opted to stay quiet and not offer their opinion, but we are not sure why in a personal essay we don’t get much about how the writer was feeling in those early days.
Judge 2: Well written, good imagery. Good account of what we’ve all been through
Judge 3: Suggest you back up a bit and decide your point (essays need one). A personal essay is just like an ordinary essay in that a point is advanced and supported. In the personal variety, it’s supported with personal experience (as opposed to expert knowledge in the other.) You’ve cited experience but you’re missing a point. Make your point, support with experience, wrap up with your point now supported or refuted. I’m also puzzled by the title—who or what is outside? The title should give us a clue.