Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19
In this anthology of short essays, poems and interviews, 91 authors respond to the pandemic with their diverse perspectives, insights, humor, and heartbreak.
We are beginning to see the first titles emerge in what will undoubtedly be a bumper crop of books reflecting on and attempting to find meaning amid the COVID-19 pandemic. As difficult as this time has been (and continues to be), there is some comfort to be had in knowing that others are sharing this experience.
And that’s what Alone Together and its editor, Jennifer Haupt, succeeds in doing so well. Ninety-one authors (91!) respond to the pandemic by offering their diverse perspectives, insights, humor and heartbreak through short essays, poetry, creative nonfiction pieces, and interviews. (Apparently the print version has only 69 and there are another 22 in the e-book and audio editions. My copy was an e-book from the library.) Even better: all proceeds from Alone Together are being donated to the Book Industry Charitable Fund (BINC), a nonprofit organization that coordinates charitable programs to strengthen the bookselling community.
Alone Together is divided into five different sections (What Now?, Grieve, Comfort, Connect, And Do Not Stop) almost akin to revised stages of grief for these (let’s say it all together now) unprecedented times.
I enjoyed this anthology very much and was thrilled to see among this lineup of heavy hitters some of my favorite authors. (Looking at you, Dani Shapiro, Abigail Carter, Pam Houston and Jessica Keener). It introduced me to new (to me) voices and I look forward to seeking out their previous and subsequent work.
Alone Together opens with a foreward by Garth Stein who quotes John Gardner in a January 1973 interview with Charles Johnson:
“I think a certain kind of America is doomed, though something greater may be coming. The novelist and only the novelist thrives on breakdown, because that’s the moment when he can analyze the beauty of the values that are falling and rising … One looks forward to the fall of great civilizations because it gives us great art.”
To which Stein responds:
“And so I say, do not fear the end. Pick up your pen and write. Pick up a book and read. Engage in your world; do not shrink from it. Understand that the fate of our civilization lies entirely in your hands.”
Included in Alone Together are stories of the pandemic’s impact on fraught family relationships (“Sibling Estrangement and Social Distancing” by Caroline Leavitt), our language (“The New Old Vocabulary” by Faith Adiele), our jobs (“Books on Pause” by Kevin Sampsell, a bookseller at the iconic Powell’s) and life’s milestones such as birth (“It’s Going to Get Worse Before It Gets Worse” by Jaclyn Watterson and Michael Shou-Yung Shum), graduations (“Celebrating in the Present Tense” by Meg Waite Clayton), weddings (“Final Act” by Gina Frangello), retirement (“Sit the Hell Down” by Dinty W. Moore) and funerals (“Quarantine” by Susan Henderson).
Scott James writes about baking and delivering homemade banana bread with his husband Jerry to Stanford University students unable to go home (“Ghost Town”) while the couple sheltered-in-place in the historically symbolic and storied Castro neighborhood. In another community, Abigail Carter wonders about an elderly neighbor (“The House with the Mossy Roof”) and Steve Yarbrough recalls the shared music played with his neighbor (“In the Absence of Others”). Poet and essayist Jane Hirshfield saves an ant in “Today, When I Could Do Nothing” and Pam Houston sleeps in a barn on her ranch to save a newborn lamb (“Stamina (Memorial Day Weekend, 2020). Jessica Keener remembers her three months spent in another type of isolation: the sealed hospital room after her bone marrow transplant (“The Flow Room”) and McKenna Princing writes about battling agoraphobia, only to find a promising treatment mere weeks before lockdown (“Choosing to Be a Shut-in”).
In “Disaster Unpreparedness,” Donna Miscolta recalls a childhood preparing for threatened catastrophes — ducking under school desks in the event of nuclear war in the 50s, the Cuban missile crisis in the 60s, more nuclear war possibility in the 80s — and now COVID-19. Anthology editor Jennifer Haupt lists reasons for getting up in the morning (“Why Get Out of Bed”) and Molly Ringle notes “Things Requiring Attention in Spring 2020.” (“Assessing the boundless list of books I’m interested in, deciding which ones I truly want to read before I die and moving those to the top.” Yep, same here, Molly.)
“One thought I’ve been having is that the pandemic is happening to ALL of us. There is no one on the planet who is not being affected by this disaster, which is unlike anything we’ve experienced in our lifetime–maybe ever in history. The meaning comes in the knowledge that we are dependent on our interconnectedness if we are to go back to some kind of normalcy — not as we know it before the pandemic, but some kind of robust living.”
Those who opt for the e-book version may find comfort in Donna Baier Stein‘s “The Possibilities of Faith During Uncertain Times.” She writes:
“Faith requires whatever works. Faith is about moving forward even, or perhaps especially, in times of uncertainty when we can’t see what lies ahead. COVID-19 highlights our not knowing, more than perhaps anything has before. It is showing us how many ways we tried to distract ourselves pre-virus — from the truth of our mortality, from the bigger questions. The virus and its spread show us something larger than ourselves. Uncertainty in the face of this large, mysterious force can bring us to our knees. How do we learn to live in this not-knowing? Do we believe in a higher creative force that is both outside and inside us? Can faith be a verb, an active reaching out and listening to our higher natures?”
The writers in Alone Together give voice to the universal thoughts we’ve all felt during this tumultuous time of plague and social unrest. They cling to the symbolic (the color red), and the tangible (lavender, recipes) the big moments and the seemingly small in what is a solid, exceptionally relatable collection that delivers on its premise of offering love and comfort amidst COVID-19.
Full list of contributors (their bios are here): Faith Adiele, Kelly Russell Agodon, Kwame Alexander, Alistair Bane, Misha Berson, Robin Black, Richard Blanco, Logan Blanton, Jenna Blum, Gayle Brandeis, Sommer Browning, Abigail Carter, Claudia Castro Luna, Ching-in Chen, Serena Chopra, Ewa Chrusciel, Meg Waite Clayton, Andrea King Collier, Greg Colucci, Elizabeth Dimarco, Sarah Domet, Andre Dubus III, teri elam, W. Ralph Eubanks, Amber Flame, Ana Hebra Flaster, Jamie Ford, Gina Frangello, Julie Gardner, Nikki Giovanni, Michelle Goodman, Deborah Green, Lise Haines, Sadia Hassan, Jennifer Haupt, Christine Hemp, Susan Henderson, Patricia Henley, Jane Hirshfield, Pam Houston, Major Jackson, Scott James, Sonora Jha, Margot Kahn, Jessica Keener, Kathleen Kenneth, Stephen Kiernan, Eson Kim, Sally Koslow, Jean Kwok, Devi S. Laskar, Caroline Levitt, Ada Limón, Roberto Lovato, Rebecca Mabanglo-Mayor, Shana Mahaffey, Catherine Matthews, Donna Miscolta, Dinty W. Moore, January Gill-O’Neil, Paulette Perhach, McKenna Princing, Ruben Quesada, Anna Quinn, Peter G. Quinn, Dawn Raffel, Susan Rich, Molly Ringle, Elizabeth Rosner, Jennifer Rosner, Kevin Sampsell, Sandra Sarr, Dani Shapiro, David Sheff, David Shields, N.L. Shompole, Jennie Shortridge, Michael Shou-Yung Shum, Laura Stanfill, Donna Baier Stein, Garth Stein, Melissa Studdard, Grace Talusan, Martha Anne Toll, Lena Khalaf Tuffaha, Luis Alberto Urrea, Jaclyn Watterson, Michelle Wildgen, Steve Yarbrough, Kristen Millares Young, Lidia Yuknavitch.
Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19
edited by Jennifer Haupt
Central Avenue Publishing