‘Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19’: Searching for Connection Amidst the Pandemic

Cade Johnson

Alone Together: Love, Grief, and Comfort in the Time of COVID-19 (288 pages; Central Avenue Publishing; edited by Jennifer Haupt) is a collection of essays, interviews, and poems meant to serve as a resource for connection, hope, and grief in our pandemic world. (All proceeds from the book will be donated to The Book Industry Charitable Foundation, a nonprofit that organizes programs to strengthen the bookselling community, which has been hit particularly hard by the economic downturn brought about by COVID-19.) 

In the essay “Books on Pause,” Kevin Sampsell writes about his work at Powell’s Books, the world largest independent bookstore, and its quick transition from temporary closure to having to layoff more than 80 percent of its staff. (On July 28, Powell’s Books closed its outposts at Portland International Airport.) Several authors, such as the Bay Area’s Faith Adiele, write about the years-long work put into manuscripts and how their publishing plans have been disrupted as the pandemic weighs on book sales. With publishing and bookselling organizations already being forced to adapt and downsize in the past two decades, Alone Together urges us not to let COVID-19 be the deciding blow.

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Throughout the book there are personal and moving stories from dozens of prominent writers like Kwame Alexander, Niki Giovanni, and Jean Kwok who capture the mundanity of everyday life in our present circumstances. And in the collection’s “Grieve” section there are stories about loss and the profound and continual process of mourning. Most essays are about six pages or shorter, which seems appropriate when attention spans are shrinking by the day as our ability to fully process this unprecedented time becomes that much more difficult. Meanwhile, the poems in Alone Together offer respite from the structured and methodical analysis of the essays, providing a visceral, striking immediacy. (“I think of you as a radio frequency–/ (sometimes hard to find)/ as I touch this illuminated dial,” writes Susan Rich, evoking the sense of distance between people in the spaciousness of radio waves, while still bringing a sensuality to the text.)

Other contributions, such as Paulette Perhach’s prose piece “Skin,” are odes to a singular sensation: touch. The varying interpretations of parallel motifs gives the anthology its richness and complexity.

Among the standout pieces in the collection are Andrea King Collier’s “Feeding My Heart and Soul”—in which Collier describes her transformation into a “food warrior,” taking daily market trips and shopping to the point of exhaustion—and Sonora Jha’s poignant and spectacular essay “Alon and Awash in Desire”: 

She is hungry. She smells of cake from longing. She screams out song after song. She prays into scented smoke for the best love of her life to come along. Ten weeks and a hundred thousand deaths later, she opens her front door to a virtual stranger and falls into his arms.

On the morning of that day, though, she puts the kettle on. She watches the tea darken the water in her favorite china cup. She tortures her index finger with the steam. She raises the gold rim of the cup to her lips, sniffs the sweet bergamot, and kisses what may be the last thing she can control.

Read straight through, Alone Together can seem a bit overlong, but there is undoubtedly an immense comfort to be had in experiencing the pandemic refracted back to you from multiple perspectives, tracking our feelings and experiences.

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