Reading page 23 of Erik Larson’s The Splendid and the Vile, I picked up my pen and underlined a phrase.
Lately, I had questioned the rudimentary documenting of my day in words, when others were confronting the coronavirus in their practice or in person.
On that page, the words civilian diarist jumped out at me. Like Lucy screaming at Linus in a Peanuts cartoon, I heard myself say, “That’s it.”
That’s what I am.
Erik Larson was a masterful storyteller and journalist who wove in countless facts, quotes and footnotes to produce an evenly-paced narrative about the events, conversations and outtakes that surrounded Churchill and his days of leading Great Britain into World War II.
Only two years prior to entering the war, the country had begun a unique undertaking called Mass-Observation that eventually helped the author in his quest to write this book.
The organization was formed to encourage ordinary citizens to become civilian diarists by documenting whatever happened around them and yes — whatever happened inside their heads, for sociologists to study later.
Ordinary people being asked what they thought. Oftentimes, submissions to Mass-Observation formed the basis for actions taken or not by the government. The diarists were revealing, to themselves and the country, what they thought, and those words were taken into consideration by governments willing to listen (instead of just posting a Twitter poll).
In times of peace, the volunteers were instructed to get “out into the countryside,” and in times of raids “[you] will not be expected to stand about.” Often, writers went out in teams to respond to bombings and were instructed to “seek shelter” preferably with a “lot of other people,” in order to observe. One woman reacting to Churchill’s famous We shall fight in the hills speech wrote in, “[it] hasn’t raised my spirits yet.”
Mass-Observation participants practiced their examination skills on everyday objects (a dog, a rosebud). On the website, there was a podcast devoted to Mantelpieces, one of the first objects they were encouraged to depict “in order of left to right what was on their mantelpiece.” One civilian diarist later wrote about the effects of a bombing, and “a little plastic milk jug” that spilled, milk dripping into a “thick layer of dust below.” The dust later signified one of the most arresting attributes of London, after the siege.
Civilian diarist. In those words, I saw myself.
Writers were first and foremost civilian diarists, more so than anything else we offered up to the world. We wrote of our daily lives and through that, mankind . The isolating silence as of late that caused a pounding in my ears when I rose before the sun yawned. The breathless anticipation of St. Francis Seraph’s bells ringing at one minute off of the seven o’clock hour. My outrage as I watched motorcyclists plow through now barren streets. The marsh marigolds and fan-shaped leaves that appeared in our courtyard for the first time in eight years, leaving me to wonder, why now?
Participants in my workshops often asked, what is the purpose of a daily writing practice of minutiae, other than to take up space? Should I publish my memoirs, when there is proliferation of memoirs, and most publishers will only put forth those of the wealthy, influential or infamous?
The answer was all around me.
In a fireproof box, I kept letters my mother wrote to me in college alongside the log from her road trip to California. During our sojourn to Italy, she recorded our activities but never wrote how she felt about her four daughters seated beside her at the Trevi Fountain. Later, in her dementia, I desired to know more about her than I could piece together through estimates of gas prices as she drove Route 66.
On the other hand, after my mother’s dementia settled in, I received a piece of mail with my father’s hastily-scribbled handwriting containing a card with a photo of a pouting Cavalier King Charles spaniel, looking like our Enzo. Inside, Dad wrote, “I thought you would get a kick out of this card.” I felt the weight of his loneliness and his need to connect in his two words, I thought.
The Mass-Observation project still exists, and while there is no emphasis on good grammar, the project values the “subjective experience.” I thought. After one raid, Phyllis Warner wrote, “Finding we can take it is a great relief to most of us,” and another wrote of a wave of happiness and triumph. “Me, I’ve been bombed.” A few Mass-Observation diarists went on to write books after the war.
Since that time, the project has evolved. Within a given year, a participant receives three themed directives on which they are to write their opinions or personal essays. In 2019, they returned to the mantelpiece as a prompt. On the website, visitors will learn they are still collecting during this “extraordinary time.”
Right now, writers are scribbling furiously, not necessarily all building new worlds of fantasy or writing YA fiction. My handwritten entry from March 16: Long enough, I have put off planting the funny-faced pansies. No one will walk by them, I think, as I shove my hands into the dirt. Until an older man walks past, pulling a roller suitcase, telling me how the home (and neighborhood) looks so much better than when everything was vacant. I remind myself planting the flowers is for him. For beauty to live on.
This one dated March 29: The sun was just beginning to dither on its way down behind Music Hall. The sky was swept up in a Hopper like painting. Everything felt ordinary that night — until it didn’t.
At times, my handwriting resembled my father’s, in his tiny journals from 1960 while he rode on a rickety train through Italy with his father. “It is dark now and we can see only the lights of the towns near train stations”— he always was a night owl. In other passages, he wrote down uncles’ names (Zio Angelo?) I couldn’t decipher and was frustrated by, because I wanted to find those Italian relations, now more than ever.
In a recent press conference, Ohio’s Department of Health Director, Dr. Amy Acton, spoke of developing an app for average citizens to enter information about their experiences with the coronavirus, to add to the body of epidemiology studies. An update to the original intent of Mass-Observation giving civilians the platform to share their insights.
The details written today, whether they are mine or that of another writer, will find their way into an app, on a website or woven into the history of our time. On the fierce breath of an early spring, the words will carry with them a certain energy, and our descendants will know we were not passive, in the face of an invisible, yet no less active, foe.