Artifacts

Today’s era is destined to become our great-grandchildren’s “old days.” And make no mistake – just as the Depression and World War II define “The Greatest Generation” and Woodstock defines the hippies, so will COVID-19 define today.

While first-person stories are by far the richest reminders of day-to-day human experience, the artifacts left by these life experiences are no less powerful storytellers. From my wife’s fourth generation pie safe sitting in our kitchen to my great-grandfather’s fedora hanging in my closet, artifacts help tell stories when the people best able to tell them cannot.

Yet in the midst of an era-defining pandemic, it’s hard to intentionally stop and preserve the simple things that today are “normal” but won’t be in 5, 10 or 50 years. We are human, and humans normalize our experiences – no matter how bizarre – to quiet the dissonance that would otherwise tear our minds apart.

In the annals of modern human experience (at least since 1918), 2020’s stories are anything but normal. But just like our great-grandparents, who told stories of breadlines as “just the way things were,” we too will soon forget how relatively bizarre our lives are today. And without great intentionality we will lose the artifacts that can help tell our stories.

That’s where this post comes in. While museums worldwide have already begun curating formal COVID collections (see the Smithsonian as just one example), none of my personal “Year of COVID” artifacts will ever wind up in one. So I’m tucking them away myself, not only to serve as reminders of the deep strangeness of life in COVID-19 but to be able show my great-grandkids that “yep, I was there… and it was just as nuts as the holographic Alexa says it was.”

Here are my first three:

  1. A Truly Homemade Mask

As COVID’s grip tightened on America in early March, it became increasingly clear that 2020 would be a boom year for not only for Zoom, Charmin, and Clorox, but for anyone who could make a mask. With the healthcare supply chain burnt to a crisp, it wasn’t clear how or where we would get the masks we needed for either patient care or day-to-day life.

So one weekend – before the internet exploded with mask patterns and companies like Hanes flooded stores with masks made from repurposed underwear factories – my 11 year-old busted out the family sewing machine and made me this. It was my go-to mask for weeks. With the stitching now frayed from too many laundry runs and cloth masks available at every gas station, I finally retired the mask this month (after one more wash).

  1. Letter of Safe Passage

In early 2020 my family lived in Asheville but I worked in Raleigh. Before COVID I would drive home to the mountains on weekends, but as the COVID Command Center spun up to full intensity I couldn’t get home for quite awhile. I finally planned to hustle back on Friday, March 27th for a quick visit, but that week cities and counties across North Carolina began enacting a patchwork of Stay at Home orders.

Since the Governor’s statewide Stay at Home order wouldn’t standardize these local orders until 5pm on Monday, March 30th, my 520 mile round-trip on Interstate 40 would bring me twice through a piecemeal collection of different orders with different enforcers.

Enter the “Letter of Safe Passage.” I kept this formal letter in a folder in my car for the next two months until the Governor relaxed North Carolina’s Stay at Home. While I never had to use it, the letter remains as a reminder of the emptiest roads I will ever see.

  1. Irrationally Large Supplies of Toilet Paper

It is not uncommon for people cleaning out the homes of family members who lived through the Depression to find stashes of valuables hiding in walls. This makes sense – if I lived through a time when banks went broke, paper money lost all value, and owning more than $100 in gold was punishable by 10 years in prison and a $200,000 fine, I’d hide stuff in my walls too.

While I don’t think millennials will start hiding gold in walls anytime soon, I wouldn’t be surprised if my great-grandchildren walk into my basement one day with equal wonder when they see closets dedicated solely to storing Dial, Clorox, Lysol wipes, and toilet paper.

The answer, as we know today but will someday forget, is that in April we had a global run on bathroom products. It’s a run that still hasn’t fully corrected… probably because, after staring down weeks of empty shelves and the prospect of wiping with sandpaper, people like me now have the nonsensical (though temporally quite rational) need to maintain a six-month supply in our basements. And will forever.

Closing Thoughts

I’ll keep adding to this post over time, but it strikes me that I may not be alone in tucking away little things that – while not Smithsonian worthy – will someday remind us of just how much crazy we adapted to consider “normal” during this least normal of years.

If so, I’d love to hear in the comment thread what you’re preserving from the Year of COVID for your own personal posterity!

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