How have the past two years changed you? Dozens of interviews in Anchorage show that we have more in common than we think.


No matter who you are, you’ve been through something major in the past two remarkable years with the pandemic and all it has brought. Loss. Massive disruption. A turbulent and polarizing policy. We all process what happened and how it changed us.

Since January, as writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum in conjunction with the Anchorage Daily News, I listened to how those years have been for my neighbors in Anchorage. I’ve spoken to bartenders and the military, hairdressers and business executives, nurses, business owners, incarcerated people, teachers, restaurant servers, parents, seniors, therapists , politicians and leaders of many religious communities, collecting hours of interviews. I always go there.

What I’ve heard is a near-universal sense that the community has been tested and the divisions run deep, but that we’re heading towards a phase of healing as we enter (fingers crossed) a time that feels like less to an emergency.

When I asked people to best describe the culture of Anchorage, many gave the same example of good neighborliness: if you see someone stuck in the snow, you stop and help yourself. It doesn’t matter who they are. This is the Alaskan way, they said, a nod to how we are at the mercy of the greater wilderness and dependent on each other. But the pandemic has caused such alienation and amplified divisions, many fear we have lost that shared value. Without exception, everyone I spoke to expressed a desire to reconnect – with friends, family and the wider community.

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Our plan over the next few months is to connect through stories, both through my writing and by creating sharing opportunities for community members. One thing I’ve learned from listening to a lot of people is that no matter where we are on the political spectrum, we’ve struggled with similar issues. When we are curious about the experiences of our neighbors, we can see beyond politics.

More than anything, I’ve heard of loss. Relatives and patients have died. Marriages have been annulled. People have lost jobs and business opportunities. Marriages have ended, families have grown strained. Isolation crushes singles and makes seniors sick. The stories often conveyed the same emotions: feelings of incomprehension, guilt, anxiety, suspicion, helplessness, frustration and decision fatigue. People also said the pandemic had made it clear what was most important to them. Some have reinvented themselves. Many, parents and essential workers in particular, say they are still incredibly exhausted.

So many stories have stayed with me.

One woman told me, coldly, that the air was different in the spring of 2020 when she landed in Seattle after returning from vacation at the start of the lockdown there.

“I was like, oh, this is the fear. This is the fear that I feel in the atmosphere. This is crazy,” she said.

What happens when fear is injected into a community and people are isolated from each other? What does it do when our primary window into the lives of others is social media controlled by algorithms capable of amplifying the loudest voices and most blatant divisions?

A woman who chose not to get vaccinated described a colleague’s critical reaction when she found out.

“I would just say I’m the same person I was yesterday when you didn’t know I wasn’t vaccinated,” she said.

But the awkwardness and tension still exist, and somewhere in it all there is a sense of both loss and injustice.

Subtle awkwardness has surfaced in many stories, from interactions between friends with differing feelings about public health measures to people trying to rekindle relationships that have been held back by many months of isolation. . Overcoming this feeling seems essential to reconnect. But easier said than done.

Nurses on a COVID unit told me about holding iPads for dying patients and listening to families say goodbye over FaceTime. It made them feel helpless.

“People die alone. And that’s probably one of the worst feelings you can have for your patient,” one told me.

Outside the hospital, they said, some people acted as if the pandemic was over as hospitalizations increased. They faced hostility and suspicion. It made them feel like no one could see the weight of what it’s like to work in the hospital, where COVID deaths have been nearly constant for the past two years.

I asked everyone what they thought the community needed, and those answers were also similar: empathy, to give people grace, forgiveness, kindness, and leadership that makes compromise a priority .

“I think we need a common denominator of kindness that goes beyond our belief systems,” a woman who works in schools told me. “Remembrance that we are all human, we all do our best in a stressful climate.”

But how do you overcome suspicion and pain? Some of the best responses have come from the religious community. The most important thing, leaders of all faiths said, was to stick to a fundamental commitment to care for others. It reminded me of that much mentioned ideal Anchorage. Either way, if a neighbor needs help, you help them. Because that’s who we are. It’s not easy, the faith leaders said, but right now the work of caring about our neighbors is essential.

“There is a difference between loving someone and loving someone,” a Christian pastor told me. “So if there’s someone that I really have a hard time loving or that I deeply disagree with or that I can’t believe the way they act, then I try to ask God the gift of love for that person in some form or another, and don’t pretend that I’m going to be able to work the emotion of love, it’s just another kind of love.

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A rabbi said many people still experience grief without knowing it and it leads to anger and intensifies fear. If they can name it, he said, that’s the way to go.

“We cry when there is a big change in our lives. And the whole state, the whole country is in mourning,” he said. “Let’s understand that, name it and understand that’s where it came from.”

A Buddhist priest told me that “unconditional love” should never depend on agreement.

“It seems we have to learn to experience goodwill or love for others, whether or not we agree with their point of view,” she said.

In our isolation, interviewees told me, we saw politics instead of humans. If we can see individuals in their complexity, they suggested, we can find our way back to the community we miss. Asking questions and listening to each other is one way to do this.

How have the past two years changed your life? Take the poll below to share your story.

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