Two years ago, the Upper Valley, and much of the world, began what at the time was described as a two-week lockdown.
As weeks turned into months and then years of COVID-19 restrictions, people began to reckon with how they’d spent their time before the COVID-19 pandemic started and what they’d like to do differently once “normal” came back around.
Now, two years after lockdowns began in the Twin States, as “normal” seems within reach, I wanted to ask people what they’d learned from this collective experience and whether they’d developed any habits they wanted to carry forward after COVID.
“People will speak up in ways I haven’t noticed them speaking up in the past and being really clear about what their limits are,” said Judy Russell, director of Lyme’s Converse Free Library.
At the start of the pandemic, Russell and librarians throughout the Upper Valley mobilized to get materials and services to patrons. Zoom became the primary way of delivering programs.
“It has increased our ability to collaborate with other libraries and draw a bigger audience,” Russell said of Zoom. “So many people kind of had to learn new computer skills so the numbers of people who are able to participate have increased.”
Fewer people are coming into the library, Russell said, but more materials were being circulated. More patrons embraced ebooks and audiobooks, though physical books still reign. January 2022 was a record-breaking month for the library, which stunned Russell.
“I think people, really, they were seeking entertainment,” she said.
What people were reading also changed. Russell heard from numerous patrons who had trouble focusing on longer books.
“So many people would say, ‘No violence. I don’t want anything heavy,’ ” Russell said. While she is still purchasing serious books for the library, Russell has been sure to include a sturdy number of books that serve as comfort food.
“I have noticed in myself and others that our attention has shrunk even more,” Russell said. “We’ve had so much information coming at us.”
That was the case a few days for Kaitie Eddington, program manager at the Upper Valley Trails Alliance. What she personally accomplished each day largely depended on what was happening in the news.
“If it was a quiet day when there wasn’t really anything that was going on, I was doing things around the house or experimenting with hobbies,” Eddington said. “I found that I had no desire to do anything. I really feel hopeless at times on those days.”
On good days, Eddington would experiment with gluten-free baking recipes — “I failed a lot of the time, but it was still fun to experiment with,” she said.
Bad days had her turning to Netflix, listening to an audiobook or turning to a creative endeavor.
“I would try to draw or color or write,” Eddington said. “That kind of relaxed me.”
At the start of the pandemic, the Norwich-based UVTA was nearing the end of its annual Passport for Winter Fun program, which encourages kids to get outside during the winter. Participants finished the program strongly, foreshadowing what was to come.
“2020 was really a year that our organization exploded,” Eddington said. “Everyone, I think, just realized that being outside and being on the trails is a necessity that we take for granted. Having to be indoors and having to isolate, I think, really brought that to the forefront.”
That was how it was for Dave Celone, director of development and community relations at West Central Behavioral Health.
“Walking outdoors has become almost religious during the pandemic because the four walls of isolation close in very quickly and getting outside to move my body and appreciate nature really… helps my frame of mind,” he said.
While Celone had walked before the pandemic, he didn’t play a central role in his life. Early on, a friend repeated to Celone the oft-quoted phrase “sitting is the new smoking,” and he took it to heart.
“I’ve tried to sit less whenever I can, just get up and move my body,” Celone said. Four or five days a week for around 45 minutes — longer on weekends — Celone gets outside.
Some people started to view the work they do in a new light. Staff at the Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, including Sherlock Terry, director of exhibits and facilities, started to see the role the museum play in the greater community as a gathering spot for families, in addition to providing science education.
“That’s been a real lesson and I think we better understood our role in the community,” Terry said. The museum closed to the public in March and reopened outside in July before opening inside in September. “We felt that people did have a greater appreciation for the outdoors.”
In his personal life, Terry, who has three children ages 11 to 16, said his family has become more aware of how they spend their time and how busy they become. He’s continued to focus on activities that take longer like baking bread, gardening and making preserves out of what he’s grown — “doing things the slow way rather than the quick way,” he said, and “really appreciating the time things take.”
That consciousness about time was echoed by Russell, the Lyme library director.
“Maybe it’s about recognizing the value of rest and it’s OK to rest, we’re sort of giving ourselves permission a little more,” Russell said. “Maybe we’re a little bit more mindful about our choices.”
Liz Sauchelli can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 603-727-3221.