Perspectives on the Pandemic
The Field Memorial Library, Conway, Massachusetts
LTC2 Grant Summary
The Perspectives on the Pandemic grant at the Field Memorial Library focused on the experience of the Conway community the library serves during the March 2020 to November 2021 phase of the Covid-19 pandemic. The purpose was to encourage healing from its effects through community engagement in adding perspective to our experience. This premise evolved from a Franklin County wide community reading of the novel Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel, the story of a fictional pandemic. In reading Station Eleven as part of our Libraries in the Woods (LITW) Collaborative’s community read project, I was surprised by the paradoxical effect it had on me. Comparing the fictional and real-world pandemics left me feeling grateful for the perspective I gained in reflecting on the two, which, despite the massive impact Covid-19 was having on my life, was so much better than the fictional one. Conversations with the LITW group, our library’s Friends group, and with family and friends made clear many were not eager to read about pandemics beyond the news, but all were supportive of finding means to encourage coping and healing from the impact of Covid-19.
The goal was to create perspective on our pandemic through encouraging patrons to read Station Eleven. We then provided two zoom conversations to discuss the book and invite comparisons to our lived experience with Covid-19. One in May and one in September 2021. Community engagement with the project was furthered through sponsoring an outdoor concert where accomplished local musicians created a carefully constructed playlist that allowed the audience to enjoy the music, facilitate sharing, and thus ease the grief and disruptions that the real-world pandemic had created.
Gaining perspective can provide the means to change the meaning of a circumstance. A new perspective changes the meaning of the event, which can change the feelings you have in response, which can change the actions you take. This would counteract the lack of perspective, where, as Margaret Atwood put it, without perspective “you live with your face smashed up against a wall, everything a huge foreground of details.” Without perspective one has no sense of how their experience compares to anything else. Expanding perspective was reinforced by reading accounts of other pandemics, both fictional and non-fictional. Accounts of the Black Death in Europe in the 1350s, the Plague in England in the 1660s, the Smallpox epidemic of the 1770’s, and the Spanish Flu of 1918-20 made stand out how much we have available to us to fight this pandemic; resources that never before existed in human history.
The additional readings added perspective and created opportunities to highlight the many resources we can be grateful for in this time. These resources include our health care system; science and engineering creating vaccines; front-line workers; Zoom; Internet and television communication and entertainment available to ease the stress of confinement; curbside pickups and delivery of foods and goods through UPS, Fed-Ex, USPS, and others. Discussions of gratitude were managed so that they did not diminish the loss and heartache that many suffered.
Personal discussions and research suggested key topics as the framework for our Zoom conversation on September 14, 2021. These included
time at home, fear, disruptions to life’s routines, comparisons to other pandemics, losses & heartache, screen time, gratitude and silver linings.
Ten people participated in our conversation. We talked for 90 minutes, working through the topics, each one naturally winding down and leading to the next. On every topic except the comparisons to other pandemics, all agreed that these subjects addressed many of the major disruptions brought on by Covid-19 and shared their experiences of them. Our conversation led to a sense of added perspective on our Covid experience, simply by sharing our own experiences.
The library’s concert featured old-time country, bluegrass, and original songs outdoors in front of the library. Chairs were set up to allow social distancing and people were invited to bring their own. Because the music was in good hands and voices, our biggest worry was the weather as Covid forced us to hold it outside. Luckily, we had a lovely, warm fall day to promote healing from the pandemic. The music set a welcoming tone while acknowledging with some reflective tunes the Covid disruptions. At intermission, attendees were game to join a hand raising activity to participate in a survey of how the pandemic has affected them.
The video of the Q and A session included 49 participants, with many others outside the camera’s frame. Of these, 88% agreed that the pandemic had increased their time at home and 60% responded that they were glad or grateful to have the extra time at home. 63% agreed that the pandemic had disrupted their life routines and 39% said they had created new routines as a result. 47% agreed that the pandemic had caused an increase in the time they spend, and have spent, on screens, with no consensus on whether this was a harm or a benefit. Lastly, 47% agreed that they had experienced loss in their lives due to Covid-19 and 53% agreed that they had experienced “silver linings” during the pandemic. One example of the gratitude many felt was expressed by Conway artist Debra Hoyle.
“During the past year of the pandemic with all its disruptions, I found that I had more time to spend in the studio. My bodywork practice was closed and the chance to have more time for art presented an opportunity. Living in these Hilltowns teaches a person to be resourceful in making a life. Before the pandemic time, my practice had been quite busy and time for creativity was sporadic. It’s been exciting to have had the time to delve deeper into concepts and techniques, despite Covid being a tragic source of that time. Exploring the interface between representation and abstraction has been a major source of artistic expression I have been able to explore during this time.” (Debra Hoyle, 2021).
Time at Home. This project consistently showed that the various lockdowns and fear of exposure forced a major increase in the time people spent at home, although for many health care workers, the effect was the opposite. Fearing infecting their families, many lived in hotels. Among the project’s participants, however, discussion of time at home was accessible and rewarding in expanding perspectives on the pandemic. Moreover, the extent to which people reported being grateful for their extra time at home was remarkable.
Fear. Fear was a major topic of discussion in our Zoom-based conversation. Fear of getting exposed to the virus, fear of spreading the virus unknowingly, fear of getting sick, fear of dying, even the fear of going outside were expressed about the far-reaching presence of fear during Covid. Fear was something we all had in common.
Disruptions to Routines of Life. Conversation attendees and concert respondents reported that their life routines were disrupted by Covid. People spoke freely of important routines that were lost or compromised but also spoke of how losing some routines was a benefit. One noted that she had become so accustomed to a two-hour commute that when she was forced to work from home, she realized how she had not thought about those two hours spent driving every workday, and how grateful she was to have that time at home. “I hope I never have to go back to the office” she concluded. Disruptions in the routines of life caused by Covid was pervasive with both positive and negative effects.
Comparisons to other Pandemics. The comparison to the portrayal in Station Eleven led easily to the discussion of many things for which people are grateful. Nearly all conversation participants had read it and comparisons to Covid were readily accessible. Acknowledging the benefits we have in comparison to the more drastic circumstance in the novel led to a solidarity among participants, despite the losses all had faced.
Screen Time. Many participants reported an increase in screen time during the pandemic, but participants did not report having a strong sense of either harm or benefit from this screen time. Discussing screen time and the sharing of resources and recommendations available through screens led to a sense of community, a sense that we’re all in this together.
Losses & Heartache – It was harder to talk about losses and heartache caused by Covid on Zoom. Daily painful stories in the news and horror at the daily death tolls and sicknesses were pervasive but the Zoom-based conversation did not lend itself to drawing out these aspects. Perhaps an in-person gathering would be better.
Gratitude and Silver-Linings. Gratitude and silver-linings was a consistent element of our perspectives on the pandemic conversations and an obvious benefit at the concert. Despite the disruptions and heartache, many were resourceful in adapting to the changes and found themselves rewarded for the shifts in time and the resources available to them.
A line from Katie Clarke’s song “Slenderest Thread,” performed at the concert, brings us another perspective.
“I feel the weight of this cold world in every step I tread
Joy will come on back in her own good time it’s said
Sometimes we hang on to the slenderest thread.”
The library’s Perspectives on the Pandemic community engagement project was funded by the American Library Association (ALA) through its “Libraries Transforming Communities: Focus on Small & Rural Libraries” national program.
Library staff and friends are grateful to the community and the ALA for supporting the perspectives project. Thank you!
Director, Field Memorial Library
This version of Perspectives on the Pandemic article includes minor edits from the one published in Conway Currents, Vol. 2., No. 12, December 2021