A COVID memoir

I wrote this for a science fiction fanzine. But it also works well for this blog.


Two years before the pandemic hit, we started living in a graveyard. Not right in the middle of the graves—there was a low stone wall that separated our house, the cemetery office, and the parking area from the graves. But we lived inside the tall iron fence that separated the cemetery from the residential area surrounding it, and each evening an electric motor would start up, slowly driving the big iron gate along its track, shutting us off from the rest of the world.

It might sound a little creepy, but it was actually a very pleasant place to live. We lived in the old caretaker’s house, which was over a hundred years old. Neighbors walked past our house during the day, taking a walk in the cemetery, because it was only open space in the neighborhood. We could chat with the cemetery supervisor, and we got to know some of the members of the cemetery’s board of directors. At night when the gate closed, we had our own private five acre back yard. And, as we liked to say, the neighbors were quiet.

I’m not the first to notice that life during the pandemic felt like living inside a dystopian sf novel. That we lived in a graveyard made it feel even more like a novel. And it felt especially dystopian at the end of the summer, when the sky turned bloody reddish orange.

It was the middle of August, a month that’s usually cool and pleasant in the San Francisco Bay area. A rare thunderstorm moved through in the middle of the night. Carol and I stood outside the old caretaker’s house watching the awe-inspiring sight of lightning bolt after lightning bolt striking the Santa Cruz Mountains behind the cemetery. The next day, we started smelling smoke. The fires went on burning for 37 days. Smoke filled the air.

The Air Quality Index scale goes from zero to 500. Over 100 is unhealthy. Over 200 is very unhealthy. Our air quality peaked at over 400. The sky turned a dull orange, casting a sickly light over everything. It looked like the end of the world had come. The smoke was so thick, you couldn’t go outside without a face mask. Of course there were no N-95 masks to be had at that point in the pandemic. Carol and I only had the cloth masks I had made for us in the first days of lockdown, but they were not very effective.

Our bedroom stank of smoke. The caretaker’s house was over a hundred years old, and as is typical of older Bay Area houses, it was not built to seal out the outside air. I caulked the holes I could find, but smoke kept coming in. We couldn’t sleep at night. We had to sleep on a futon couch in the front room. That small front room was also my home office—I worked from home five days a week, and spent two days a week at work. The futon bed filled the room, so each morning I had to fold it up and cover it with a bedspread. Then I could get to my desk and start the day’s endless round of videoconference calls.


When the pandemic hit, I was working as the education director at a Unitarian Universalist congregation in Palo Alto, California. As you’d expect, part of my job was supervising and teaching curriculum in religious literacy.But since it was a Unitarian Universalist congregation, we also offered science-based courses like comprehensive sexuality education and environmental education, as well as a variety of arts programming.

Sunday, March 8, was supposed to be an ordinary Sunday. I was scheduled to teach environmental ed. to middle schoolers in the morning, attend a congregational luncheon mid-day, help facilitate the bi-monthly adult song circle in the early afternoon, and teach sexuality education to young adolescents in the early evening. On March 8, the pandemic was already forcing changes to my routine. First, I had to post signs in all the restrooms telling people to wash their hands thoroughly; we still didn’t know how COVID was transmitted, and this seemed critically important. I checked in with the tech-savvy people experimenting with livestreaming the Sunday services, seeing what support they might need. At lunch, I joined my old friend Lewis, a leftist folk singer the congregation brought in once a year, and some other people; all we talked about was the pandemic. That evening, the comprehensive sexuality education class concluded with the R.N. on our teaching staff giving the teens instruction in proper hand-washing technique; it wasn’t part of the curriculum, but it seemed critically important.

March 8 was the last time I saw half of the teens in the sexuality education class. There were other last times in that week, like the last time I sang with the community choir I’d been singing with for most of a decade. Everything was shutting down.

By Friday, March 13, we knew the city of Palo Alto was going to shut down the schools. Then the state shut down everything except essential services. Houses of worship were considered essential services, except we couldn’t hold in-person services. On Sunday, March 15, seven of us assembled in the Main Hall to livestream the Sunday services. Only a handful of people were present: the “talent”—the senior minister and the pianist—and the tech crew. We livestreamed using two platforms, Facebook and Zoom. One member of the tech crew livestreamed to Facebook from her phone. Two of us handled the Zoom meeting—I was the camera operator, another member of the tech crew was the Zoom host. An experienced videographer helped as best he could. Mostly we had no idea what we were doing.

A transitional women’s homeless shelter was being housed in the congregation’s Main Hall from 7 p.m. to 9 a.m. that month. They typically moved their beds out of the Main Hall for Sunday services. By March 22, we told them not to bother. You couldn’t see the beds on camera. Why make them go to all that trouble. The following week, I converted one of the now-unused classrooms into an audio studio by nailing some unused carpeting to the walls and installing a bunch of new mics and other tech gear, and we left the Main Hall to the women’s shelter.

They had been told that the women in the shelter—called in the jargon of homeless shelters “the guests”— could no longer leave the congregation’s campus. They were stuck there all day, every day. The county provided three meals a day. The nonprofit operating the shelter had to come up with volunteers to supervise the guests. The guests walked around looking shell-shocked.

On March 29, our fourth Sunday of livestreaming, it was just the senior minister and me in the new makeshift video studio. We stood twelve feet apart, doors wide open, me behind the camera wearing a mask the whole time. Lines chalked on the rug showed how far each of us could go on our side of the studio. Besides the senior minister, everything else was pre-recorded. We probably should have just pre-recorded everything. Somehow it felt important to have the senior minister still speaking live, responding live to things people wrote in the Zoom chat.


By the time we got to April, the weeks blurred together. I worked seven days a week for the most of the first year of the pandemic. You know how they say that in times of crisis, people are often at their best? Not me. I was not at my best. I was overworked and exhausted. I was too tired to be mean or cranky, so maybe from the outside it might have looked like I was at my best. But I wasn’t at my best.

I’d drive in to work two days a week, cruising down Bay Area freeways that used to be choked with traffic, now eerily empty. Once the wildfires started, I’d sometimes drive home on empty highways under reddish-orange apocalyptic skies. Somewhere in the back of my mind a voice would gibber, “Which dystopian science fiction story have I stumbled into? What the fuck is going on?”

From then on, all that remains of that first year are disjointed memories:—

My spouse and I walking down the hill from the cemetery, down the middle of a broad road that had no cars driving on it. We see these two women walking six feet apart, talking and laughing, both carrying glasses. “It’s cocktail time,” says one of the women. “We each make a cocktail, and then we walk together and have cocktail time.”

Every day at six o’clock, bells ringing on the far side of the cemetery, while people shouted something made unintelligible by distance. We finally figure out it’s some people in one of the houses up the hill. Every day at seven o’clock they go out onto their balcony, ring bells, and shout, “Thank you, all the nurses! Thank you, all the doctors!”

The county finally releases the women from the homeless shelter on the congregation’s campus. Some of them have no option but to live on the street again. I wonder how vulnerable they will be to COVID. One of those women had been collecting petals from the roses that bloomed on campus. After she leaves, I find several paper bags of rose petals, each sorted by color: white, light pink, medium pink, red.

On the weekly Zoom calls, I watch the mental health of some kids slowly deteriorate. (And four years on, we still have an epidemic of mental health problems in children, teens, and their parents.)


The pandemic was not a dystopian novel.

There was no coherent plot, no grand narrative.

There was no larger-than-life hero, no swashbuckling heroine. Nobody suddenly appeared to save the universe.

There was no denouement, no dramatic ending. Nor did it end with a neat and tidy moral. Maybe it hasn’t even ended.

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