All Write, Columns

Framing your story

Meme makers had lots of fun with 2020.

To be clear, there is nothing funny about a global pandemic, murder hornets and horrific wildfires, but honestly, it seemed the year was one disaster after another. The great thing about humans is our ability to use humor to diffuse our angst.

Take this meme for example: “2020 is a unique Leap Year. It has 29 days in February, 300 days in March and five years in April.”

Or this one: “If 2020 was a math problem: If you’re going down a river at two m.p.h. and your canoe loses a wheel, how much pancake mix would you need to re-shingle your roof?”

Everyone is hoping 2021 will be better (I refuse to ask how it could be worse), and signs are promising. The vaccine is rolling out. The election is over. And most of us never saw a single murder hornet.

Someday, we’ll be on the other side of COVID-19, and I wonder what stories we will tell our children and grandchildren about our experience.

Maybe something like this:

“Once upon a time, in 2020, a horrible plague swept over the world. Many people died. Many more got sick. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t hug people, and everyone wore masks. Stores ran out of toilet paper and flour. Schools closed, and most of us learned to work from home.”

It’s a grim narrative, fit for a grim disease, but it’s not the whole story. In 2020, babies were born, businesses launched, books written, bread baked and outdoor treks enjoyed.

For me, one of the best things about the year has been writing the Pandemic Project series for this newspaper.

The idea started simply. A reader wrote, sending pictures of a quilt she’d finally had time to refurbish and she asked, “I wonder what projects others are tackling during this time?”

My editor forwarded me the note.

“Do you think this could be a series?” she asked.

So, I wrote a call out for stories, and the responses flooded my inbox. People eagerly shared how they’ve been using their unexpected down time.

From small needlework projects, to elegant patios and decks. From quilts, to chicken coops. From flower gardens, to greenhouses, to cookbooks, people proved that staying home didn’t stifle creativity. In fact, it unleashed it.

I think the reason these stories struck such a chord is that they stand in stark contrast against the daily roster of things we can’t do.

We can’t go to concerts.

We can’t go to movies.

We can’t visit our parents in retirement homes.

The ever-changing rules and information often results in fear, an unexpected side effect of the virus. Fear isn’t a bad thing. It’s hardwired into humans and warns us of impending danger. It can keep us safe, but it can also cripple us.

I’ve seen fear-induced rants turn to rage on social media. For example: anger at those who balk at the mask mandate, and anger at those who comply with it. The flip side of the same coin.

It reminds me of what I told my sons about anger when they were small.

“It’s OK to feel mad. Everyone gets mad sometimes. It’s what you do with your angry feelings that matters.”

The same thing applies to fear.

That’s why I enjoy writing the Pandemic Project series so much. Every week I get to talk with people who’ve channeled their worry, their fear, their sadness, into creating something new, or trying something they didn’t have time to pursue until a pandemic slowed their pace.

Perhaps one day I’ll tell my grandchildren this:

“Once upon a time, in 2020, a horrible plague swept over the world. Many people died. Many more got sick. We couldn’t go anywhere. We couldn’t hug people, and everyone wore masks.

But every week we had family dinner, and I fed your uncles the meals they loved when they were little. We watched movies, played cards and made memories.

I couldn’t visit great-grandma Shirley, but we waved at each other from windows while we talked on the phone.

Papa went to work every day, so people could buy the tools they needed to build and fix things, and I wrote stories about the wonderful things people did with their time at home.

It was scary, but in the quiet and slowness of a careful world, we finally had time to appreciate the small things – things that in the busy, noisy times, seemed to slip through our fingers.”

So much of a story is in how it’s framed. Beautiful things shine all the brighter against the darkest backgrounds. Every breath offers an opportunity to add to our story. What will you add to yours?

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