Some people learned to bake. Others to play a musical instrument, or to build a pickleball set.
Then there were seven retired women — longtime friends and aspiring writers — who started recording and sharing their own reflections of the last year, and bound them together in a book.
“We had no idea what we were doing,” Beth Weir said of “Writing While Masked: Observations on 2020,” a self-published collection that is being sold at Third Place Books.
“We were rank amateurs at this and bumbled along.”
And yet, everyone was an amateur when the pandemic started, navigating things as simple as grocery shopping and as complex as being together, with loved ones, all day and night.
The essays seek to capture the life the pandemic has created, and dismantled.
“It’s been such a trying year, so outside of everybody’s experience,” said Weir, a native of New Zealand and retired college professor of education, “and I think the book is one way we were coping with this tsunami of events: the pandemic, the Black Lives Matter movement, the election.
“It just kept coming and coming.”
The group has been meeting for about a decade, and came together in various ways. Some took classes together, some lived in the same neighborhood.
“We were all looking for a post-retirement something,” Weir said, “and we would meet in our homes and have coffee and snacks and bring what we had written.”
One member who had taken a writing class was told to write down her experiences as the lockdown intensified. The others followed her lead.
All had what Weir called “profound personal issues.”
She lost a friend every single month — and not just from the coronavirus.
“Where do you put yourself when you’re trying to deal with all of that?” she asked. “So the writing expresses how we dealt with it. With not being able to see grandkids or go to events that were precious in our thoughts.”
One of Weir’s essays — “Would our divide narrow if we just talked — and listened” — was published in The Seattle Times.
“My personal experience as a naturalized American has been immensely fulfilling, but I’ve become uncomfortable over the time I have lived in the U.S. about the growing number, native born and otherwise, who are not finding a place in society.”
Member Wanda Herndon, a former Starbucks executive, was moved by the police killing of George Floyd to write a poem called “I Cry,” which was also published in The Seattle Times.
“I cry for an American dream lost
Replaced by a Black person’s nightmare then and now
Only we understand.”
In a piece called “How Do I Talk To My Sister?” Tyson Greer wrote of her struggles in speaking with her sibling, who lives in North Carolina, about the killings of Black people by police.
“We share blonde hair, blue eyes, a love of gardening and cooking, and we are sometimes a continent apart in our views.”
In “More Cases of COVID,” Mary Ann Gonzales wrote of being struck by “human touch” when she went to get a haircut. Laura Celise Lippman wrote a poem called “Psilocybe Love Story”:
“Intrepid totems of hope and strength, I look to them for sustenance during difficult days ahead.”
In “Calculated Risk Is the New Now,” Jane Spalding chronicled the frustration and joy of finding a place to escape, but safely: ” … Nature offers constancy, in spite of the backdrop of human folly.”
And in “Kindness in Crisis,” Suzanne Tedesko captured the gestures of joy she saw sprout during the early days of the lockdown: “Fairy gardens have sprung up in several yards to delight children, while one home features a front yard ‘I Spy’ treasure hunt with a dozen objects camouflaged but within sight to identify from the sidewalk.”
Things would darken soon after.
The pieces are divided by a list of events that occurred during each month of the year. July 2020, for example, included Europe opening its borders to 15 “safe countries” after months of lockdown; the U.S. reaching more than 50,000 new coronavirus cases in one day for the first time; the U.S. withdrawal from the World Health Organization; and former President Barack Obama giving the eulogy at the funeral of Congressman John Lewis.
Weir was struck that the generation of women in the group “never really experienced anything but rising prosperity.
“We didn’t have the Depression, the war,” she said. “Not even the polio epidemic. We didn’t have anything that was really, truly a global happening.
“So how do we measure up as a generation? How do we show ourselves as having some fiber? That was the compelling question for me.”
She hopes that is answered in the essays, which came together “without any notable tension, which I am very proud of,” considering the number of people involved and the anxiety of the time.
“If you’re writing a book, you have to trust people,” she said. “And we trust each other fully.”
Proceeds from the book will go to Literacy Source, a nonprofit that helps low-income people gain reading and writing skills to navigate the path to goals such as citizenship and GEDs.
“The book was our way of flipping our energy so we weren’t in despair,” Weir said, “and we had somewhere safe to go and vent. You can only have so many conversations about the same thing with your husband.”