Three weeks ago, UVA Today published an article in which University of Virginia history professor Tico Braun recommended people keep a journal or create some kind of record of life during the coronavirus pandemic. His advice struck a chord: Responses to Braun’s heartfelt advice have come from all over the world. He was even asked to talk about it with a high school class in Nicaragua.
The article, “Write It Down,” has been read more than 160,000 times, and even amid all the emergency messaging, remains our most-read piece during the pandemic so far. We asked Braun about his own writing; here is a recent excerpt in which he again addresses his students.
March 30, 4:45 a.m.: At a standstill yesterday and today. When I suggested to my students that they keep a record of their coronavirus times, I wasn’t going to write my own. I should have told them they needed to overcome the thought that others would not want to read their stuff, that we should write for ourselves, that writing is company, therapy. Sure. But not for me.
Then, on one morning, March 20, I put some words on the screen: “As this started we read here that countless and counted millions of Chinese had been contained, isolated, told to remain at home, and this seemed inconceivable to us.” And here we are. Unbelievable.
And then on March 29, Sunday, I stopped. After 7,409 words. Nothing great. Nothing creative. I follow the news. Clip some words. Copy a headline. Write a few reflections. Nothing personal. Nothing intimate. That’s not me.
“March 24: Another day. Leaderless. No direction. Emptiness.”
The news is overwhelming. Masks. Oral Swabs. Ventilators. Story after story. The capitalist system has run amok. Breakdown. The market has not functioned. Our public institutions, the CDC, have been more concerned with defending their failures than in protecting the American people. It’s a disaster. I stay clear of him. He says it is all under control. That it’s all a hoax. I do not watch television. Too intimate. I can hardly recognize his voice. Don’t want to.
I’m in a deep funk. In a rage. Depressed. I can’t tell my students that. I need to encourage them. But I can sense they want to know. In the last class, on the screen, a student asked. I told them that these were the most disruptive events that had ever happened during my lifetime. They seemed reassured, in their own fears. In an interview last week with The Washington Post, I said that, “This is traumatic for them [our students] in ways that are almost unimaginable for us.”
This is the moment for my course, for my Engagements course on how to think about the relationships between the individual and society. My journal, so-called, morphs with my messages to my students. I prefer it that way, writing to others than to myself. What can I write to them? What can I say in these times? I can’t tell them what I also believe, that with this crisis capitalism will never be the same again. Oh, my, what does the future hold for us?
On March 29, I wrote to them:
I will write again, today or tomorrow, Monday, about our class on Tuesday, and also about our times. In this course, as I have told you, I send out weekly, contemporary news and interpretations that connect to the themes of our course, readings for us to consider and perhaps also discuss a bit in class. I have had a particularly difficult time doing so these past few days. There is so much to choose from, and strangely, not much. Much of what is out there is to my mind not sufficiently pedagogical, that is, it does not help us think about the relationships between the individual and society. Some are so critical and so political that I hesitate to send them to you. One thing is for you to read these on your own; another is to receive them from your instructor. This is especially so, I think, in these circumstances where we are all separate from one another, where you are, as it were, on your own.
Today, March 30, finally.
Here are three stories in the news, from our times and for all times.
The first is from fiction, which is an escape and not. It is a review in The Washington Post on Saturday, March 28, of a book written 10 years ago by Tom Perrotta, “The Leftovers.” It’s now also a series on HBO. The title of the article is “If 2 percent of the population dies, 98 percent grieves forever.” This is depressing, but hopefully our future will not take us there. The book tells about how deeply connected we are.
The most memorable words in the review, for me, are: “Likewise, the long period of lamentation after the Civil War [1861-65] gave rise to a surge of spiritualism that ran counter to the country’s quickly evolving knowledge of science and medicine. ‘When there is a big upheaval like this,’ Perrotta says, ‘there will be years of enormous, unpredictable social reaction.’” Let’s think about this.
The second story is about fiction, in The New York Times on March 27, by the writer Jordan Kisner, titled “In This Moment of Solitude, Books Can Be Our Passports.” Some words: “The reason I fell in love with books is that they were a passport to other places and lives. Books mimicked travel. In a book, I could go anywhere and be anyone. I haven’t read with that primary motivation in a long time, but it feels especially attractive again.”
The third story, “What We Can Learn From European Dog Culture,” is about dogs, dogs and us, in The New York Times on March 27, written by the dog trainer, Sassafras Lowery. Cecilia and I wondered about the behavior of dogs in Valencia, Spain, when we were there last fall as part of Global First. Here are some words:
“But dog behavior isn’t all about the dogs. A lot of it has to do with us. As big as the differences might be between the behavior of American dogs and European dogs, there are even bigger differences in how Americans relate to dogs we encounter in public.” Our society affects how we behave without us knowing it.
I feel for all the tiny dogs in the small apartments in Valencia now. They’re stuck. We hear from friends that they don’t want to go out. It’s empty out there.
Some of you have already brought your dogs to our Zoom classes and we have admired them. Bring them, and then give them some space.
Breathe deeply. See you tomorrow.