“Oh, my god. How long has it been?”
I keep saying it over and over. Such a cliché, the voice in my head prods. But what else am I supposed to say to a friend I haven’t seen since the Before Times, who is now in my arms, or who is awkwardly laying a hot potluck dish on the counter so she can give me a hug? Also, I don’t know how I expect people to answer my question, because none of us can remember how long it’s been. Does that gap not bother them? I wonder. It bothers me.
I have so wanted this party to be a success, and now I am hiding my anxiety behind hostliness. My let-me-refill-those-crackers and can-I-pour-you-some wine-while-I’m-at-it energy obscures how concerned I am that these encounters will feel stilted. I am a passionate friend but almost always in the context of one-on-one connections or small-group settings. I have clusters of friends: old friends I’ve known for decades, writing friends, podcasting friends and hiking friends. Most I haven’t seen in four years or longer. When I pictured all these friends in a room, I never factored in the gaping backstories and the time we’d need to fill them all in. The years of the pandemic represent a lot of catching up to do.
That’s a big reason why I chose to throw this party not at my own apartment but on a houseboat, borrowed from my vacationing parents, in Sausalito, California. I’ve been hoping that the spectacular setting might distract my guests from the potential awkwardness of bridging that gap.
But we just don’t have that much to catch up on. Asking someone “How was your pandemic?” feels absurd and useless. It’s obvious people’s lives have changed; they show me pictures of toddlers I’ve never met and reveal they’ve switched jobs or bought a home. But overall, people are vague about their lives from 2020 onwards. They also appear to prefer talking about the present or what’s coming next.
No one asks me what I made of my pandemic, but here’s the answer: I made do. I learned celery can regrow if you replant the stalk in water. There was nothing to do but watch its progress and wait until I could taste my experiment. I started an avocado using the same method; the pit slowly grew into a seedling I named Artie. I also joined the ranks of amateur bread bakers and learned how to make a few simple loaves. I met my parents for picnics where we sat more than 6 feet apart and passed items back and forth with tongs. We all eventually got COVID-19, but we were fortunate and recovered.
If this all sounds vague to you, it’s because my pandemic memories are pitted and discontinuous. Many people I know feel the same way. One friend has a standout COVID memory of shopping each Saturday morning with his wife, wearing masks and speaking to no one, and then the two of them with their three teenagers wiping down each box, can, carton, bottle and package with spray cleaner and cloth rags. “If you ask me what I recall about that time, that ritual is the most vivid. Everything else seems to have washed out,” he says.
Another friend still can’t quite place when we are now, let alone where she was back then. “I just remember going for walks outside and how raw and pure my connection was with every animal I saw,” she says. But the rest of it? “It’s this long, never-ending expanse of nothingness. It all has such a weird, stretched quality.”
I couldn’t agree more. I can remember the feelings I associate with those years, especially the early months — fear, uncertainty, boredom, outrage, despair. But when I try to extract a narrative of events, I feel like I’m searching for the sun in a sky full of stratus clouds. It’s all flat, hazy, low-hanging.
COVID lasted a third of a decade, but we don’t have a third of a decade’s worth of memories. We’ve changed, but we don’t have the usual ways to explain how.
What has happened to us? And how should I feel about this emptiness in place of a narrative? Does it mean I wasted all that time? Or am I the victim here? Have I been cheated of memories that could make me feel whole?
No. What really happened is that we experienced a different, and completely novel, kind of time.
At first, I thought my lost memories might be a normal reaction to getting swept up in a major historical event — something bigger than me. But consider World War II, which continues to yield a torrent of narratives: small, private stories and sweeping accounts of how people survived. How they rebuilt. How the war changed their lives and the trajectory of their families’ lives forever.
We also have the universal stories our societies derived from the collective trauma of that war. Social psychologists have traced how an existential threat — living through the Holocaust, for instance — creates the need for a new group narrative of events, one that can be passed down as collective memory and be received by future generations. What arises are newly constructed stories, robust enough to prevent future existential threats.
COVID was different in nearly every way. We had no narrative to insert ourselves into. We had nothing to fight for other than survival. We had no heroic stands to take, save for those heroes who honored their obligation to go into work every day in dangerous settings. Before the vaccine came along, we had no tangible way to rally together to defeat a common foe. And even after the vaccines shipped, we still had little sense of the enemy, because it was invisible, it was everywhere, and it was constantly mutating.
The linear relationship between time and memory became deeply confused. On the one hand, the pandemic yielded an odd species of memory, one that accumulated during an event we all experienced but that happened while we were apart. On the other, COVID was the first global pandemic where people shared suffering in real time. We could track rising infections and mortalities online. We saw photos of refrigerated trailers for bodies and of cars lined up at food banks. But we weren’t all involved in those specific, recorded events. We simply became part of each other’s distance-enforced memories.
Not coincidentally, those memories now hold little between the gaps.
What about meaning? What is the universal story to derive from these events — and maybe use to spackle in those gaps? In the aftermath, as thoroughly as lawmakers investigated medical supply-chain collapses and nursing-home failures, our collective trauma did not bring about a collective search for meaning. Instead, that task fell to individuals.
Something really bad happened to all of us, but more precisely, it happened to each of us: “My pandemic.” “Your pandemic.” Meaning-making from those years has become a personal rather than communal task, with only scattershot, episodic memories to deploy in constructing it.
Finally, the pandemic made many of us feel like bystanders in our own lives. It’s hard to generate a sense of meaning from that. And the feeling of standing by, of not making things happen fast enough, does not jibe with our self-image. Perhaps it’s better to forget.
“What is time?” a friend at my houseboat party responds, eye-rollingly, when I ask for a précis of what her life has looked like since 2020. It’s a refrain I myself have repeated since the pandemic, using the same sarcastic tone. It says: How can I be bothered to account for something so absurd?
Intellectually, I understand this reaction. But at the party, it is resulting in the awkwardness I was afraid of. I’ve put out a notebook for my friends to record their pandemic memories, but the pages remain mostly blank.
Thankfully, I find a cure. I reach for a friend, take her by the arm, and say: “Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
The pandemic led me to experience a different kind of time. But I also experienced a different kind of friend.
Thirty miles away, on the opposite side of the bay, my daily reality — and during lockdown, my only reality — transpired inside a 122-unit condominium building. When the pandemic hit, the transition to isolation was easier than I expected for a building with one laundry room and two elevators. Residents simply shifted from mostly steering clear of each other out of politeness to steering clear entirely out of fear.
One of the features of a building defined by a dorm-like setting is the circumspection it requires. I felt comfortable maintaining a certain distance from my neighbors. I knew the names of about half the people on my floor and was on nodding terms with the rest. When you’re surrounded in three dimensions by people living their lives a wall away, ignorance is bliss.
But something in me changed after Joel.
In April 2020, my next-door neighbor Joel was discovered dead in his apartment. Police were called in to perform a welfare check, and they found him on the floor. No one knew whether Joel, who was in his 70s, had died from COVID-19 or a potential heart attack. Because of the pandemic, his body lay where it fell for 15 days without any of us suspecting.
Joel didn’t have any friends in the building. He was aloof and could be unkind to his neighbors. Even Judy, the neighbor across the hallway who had a key to his apartment, hadn’t used it in decades. She actually forgot she had it until a police officer asked if there was a way to avoid breaking down the door.
So when we didn’t see Joel for some weeks, no one thought to ask about him. When his newspapers and packages began stacking up in the mail room, I think we all assumed he was sequestering out of town — it was lockdown, after all. So, we didn’t knock. Eventually an out-of-town relative grew concerned.
I think about Joel’s body lying on the other side of my wall for more than two weeks. What was I doing at the time? Baking bread? Feeling sad about my dwindling employment? The disconnect feels acute, and I am still ashamed I didn’t knock. In my journal, I wrote about hearing the coroner’s gurney being wheeled by my door onward to the elevators, and the snap-snap of it being folded into the truck parked in the driveway out front. I drew the blinds so I wouldn’t see the truck.
Suddenly, a studied ignorance no longer seemed blissful or even useful. Despite being wildly different people reflecting the great diversity of Oakland, my neighbors and I realized we had a lot in common. We were all facing the same predicament with the same amount of elbowroom. (Most of the units are near-identical 720-square foot spaces.)
So even as we gave each other a wide berth — waiting for a turn in the mail room and boarding elevators with masks and visible trepidation — the friction also created more conversational openings. After Joel’s death, I grew close to Judy, the neighbor across the hall, who I discovered was a pianist for silent films who practiced on her baby grand piano. I met Kim, a Malaysian grandmother recovering from knee surgery with help from her neighbors; Ernesto, my refined upstairs neighbor who shared some of his excellent homemade flan; Colleen, a tough-as-nails forensic laboratory criminalist; and Katie, the pediatric resident who spent her days treating frightened children at the hospital.
Our interactions went from shouting down from our balconies into the courtyard when we saw someone we knew, to standing around the rooftop of our building at a respectful social distance. Then we started bringing wine.
Rooftop happy hours started just before sunset. It was the only time of day most of us went outside during lockdown; it was also a chance to see each other’s faces without masks.
As we look back at an event that shattered our expectations of reality, we have less ‘helpful’ data to file away in the brain’s shiny front office and more to shove into the spillover files kept in that dank crawlspace under the stairs.
My building is perched on top of a hill. Its 11th-floor roof towers over the 100-year-old redwood trees that surround it. Looking to the west over glasses of just-OK chardonnay, we could view cars lined up to cross the Bay Bridge and feel smug and warm as we watched a chill fog envelop San Francisco’s stalagmitic skyline. To the north, the hills of Marin appeared untouched by human habitation as the sun slid behind the Golden Gate into the ocean. Twilight transformed the East Bay into a newly illumined set piece.
It’s not a nice roof. Piles of fine gravel have accumulated in corners. You have to step around skylights and smoke vents. If you want to make small talk, you have to shout a bit over the thrum of electrical enclosures and the whirs of elevator-switching, fan motors and exhaust. There’s nowhere to sit; we weren’t supposed to be up there. Without any tables, we balanced our wine bottles upon a flat metal post and retreated to give space to whoever went in for a pour.
Over months, our ties deepened. We considered the relative attributes of Pfizer versus Moderna shots in tones usually reserved for dinner-party chatter about pinots and merlots, and then transitioned to personal backstories and real talk about loneliness and depression. I realized I needed this as much as anyone.
I did my bit to strengthen those ties when I decided to make an audio documentary about some of my neighbors living under lockdown, and how we were all making do. I put a notice up in the mailroom introducing myself to the building, and I invited anyone to participate. What followed were weeks of knocking on doors, petting surprised dogs and cats, and asking people about the lives they had led before the world fell off a cliff. And I told those stories — ostensibly to public radio listeners in the Bay Area, but also to my neighbors.
Time — the “what is time” kind of time — passed. The scariest part of the pandemic ended. The cherry tomato vines on my deck and the celery and green onion experiments in my kitchen gave way to house plants. My ferocious bread output trickled down to a sometime thing. And Artie the avocado plant grew so tall that he touched the ceiling, and I had to give him away. He now lives in the backyard of friends I didn’t know before the pandemic.
As I write this now, it seems odd that a period so eventful in these myriad small ways adds up to so little in terms of concrete memories to hold. But there could be an explanation for this second sense of time — the one with just a handful of clearly-defined recollections, like leaves trapped in whorls along a hazy stream. The answer lies in what our pandemic brains were trained to forget.
We’ve known for some time that the human brain has limited capacity for our short- and long-term memories. Some ping around various parts of the brain where they are easier to call to mind. Others drop into cold storage in the hippocampus. These take serious effort to recall.
Where and how things get sorted depends on a lot of factors, some practical and some emotional. If the memory is newer and fits into an existing pattern, or helps us form a generalized picture of how to function in the day-to-day, it probably won’t be suppressed. If it hurts to remember or feels unreliable, our brains are cued to relegate it.
Based on all of this, cognitive psychologists suspect we only remember what helps us make sense of the world. But what if the world itself stops making sense? And what if the predictable patterns we rely on to situate ourselves are disrupted — say by a global plague?
Not only did we live through a cascade of extreme outlier events that didn’t fit any earlier pattern, but the tools and customs we were obliged to adopt to keep us all alive in 2020 don’t much inform our post-pandemic lives.
As we look back at an event that shattered our expectations of reality, we have less “helpful” data to file away in the brain’s shiny front office and more to shove into the spillover files kept in that dank crawlspace under the stairs.
Cognitive psychologists have a term for this process: “active forgetting.” It’s a nod to the selectively willful ways we direct our own sensemaking, whether or not we realize we’re doing it. But the person who’s come closest to describing what it felt like to live through the pandemic for me is, of all people, the 19th-century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. He coined the term “active forgetfulness” to describe how one might escape a present trauma or the heaviness of everyday life.
To Nietzsche, faced with difficult times of his own, we instinctively adopt a temporary state where we can forget. It’s a palliative that he compares with the experience we can all remember from childhood of being wholly occupied and living in the moment — in “a blissful blindness between the hedges of past and future.”
In reading this, I remembered our rooftop happy hour. And all that baking.
Elsewhere, Nietzsche describes a strange reaction to watching cattle grazing in a field, “neither melancholy nor bored”: that of envy. “This is a hard sight for man to see,” he writes, “for, though he thinks himself better than the animals because he is human, he cannot help envying them their happiness.”
Biographers aren’t sure whether Nietzsche was speaking literally or allegorically here. It seemed like one of the weirder ideas I came across until I remembered the sharp, clear pangs of envy I had for neighborhood dogs when I saw them outside with their owners during the pandemic. More than once I watched them smell trees in the cul-de-sac next to my building and thought: “They have no idea what’s happening. Their lives are perfect.”
Somewhere in that flow of days, I think the hazy stream carried away most of the memories that would have helped me track my pandemic self, to account for my time. And I suspect I wanted it that way.
I reach for a friend, take her by the arm, and say: “Come over here. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
I may have lost memories from my lived experience of the pandemic, but I decided to keep the best part: my new neighbor-friends.
After the pandemic, I made several copies of my apartment key and asked multiple neighbors to hold on to them. If I were missing in action, I know those people would come by and knock. Our rooftop happy hours eventually got shut down by building management, but they evolved into a sprawling group text that now functions as a de facto mutual aid posse.
Before COVID, I’d had the mistaken impression that all we shared was an address — an accident of commonality. But what we actually had in common was a desire to find commonality. That is to say, to create community.
The name I gave my houseboat party was Friend Meet Friend. The idea came to me early in 2023, at the end of the public health emergency. In a world with a clearly defined Before Time, that declaration seemed like as much of a terminus as we’d get. For me, the pandemic felt like a discontinuity, an anomalous break from the narrative of my life. My Friend Meet Friend party had a secret agenda: to link my discontinuities. The past and the present, linked. Friends from different worlds I inhabit, linked.
I conceived Friend Meet Friend as an experiment in highly intentional self-initiation, the opposite of pandemic lockdown in multiple ways. And now, on this Saturday, my friends are here, and they are strangers to each other. They’ve left kids at home, driven across at least one bridge and brought a potluck dish to share with people whom they have committed to getting to know before sunset. It’s a reunion for me, and a meet-cute for everyone else. Seagulls included.
Or, almost everyone. To my great surprise, a few guests already know each other even though they come from different “groups” in my life. When I go to introduce them, they jump into each other’s arms.
Soon enough, some claim kayaks and paddle out to explore Richardson Bay. One risks a swim in the cold waters. They share the food they’ve brought and ask for each other’s recipes. They exchange stories and relax together in the sunshine.
If the story had ended here, it would have been perfect. After all, they didn’t need to get along. But they are getting along, and as I witness this, I feel myself start to heal the breaks in my personal narrative. The time gap is being knitted over by friends who knew me then, and also then, and who know each other now.
And I realize the true goal of friendship is to play a role in someone else’s personal narrative. After years of being forced to experience something terrible in our separate worlds, here at last is a time for making common memories.
As the afternoon slides toward evening, and my guests relax on the floating dock to watch the tide flow out towards the Golden Gate, there are many beautiful sights to behold. Pelicans flap soundlessly overhead and American coots dive for leaves and snails. The sight of an occasional harbor seal drives a frisson through the group. But to me, the most beautiful thing is the sight of a pre-pandemic friend and a pandemic friend sitting next to each other and laughing. Then putting down their plates to exchange contact information.
Julia Scott is a writer and radio producer whose work has appeared in The New York Times Magazine and The Best American Science Writing and on the BBC World Service.