OPINION: The pandemic bulldozed relationships in Anchorage. Four years on, we’re in a season of repair.

Two years ago, I noticed a striking woman ahead of me in line for coffee. She wore a camel-colored coat and vintage crystal earrings, her face partly obscured by a mask. I recognized her eyes. They belonged to my friend Kelly.

“Hi friend,” I said. “You look lovely today. I like your earrings.”

And so began the kind of conversation we started having then with people whom we hadn’t seen much in person since The Before Times. That phase of the post-pandemic has been spooling out since, a long season of repair, kind of like what happens in a community after a tornado comes through, except our disaster-bulldozed relationships instead of infrastructure. For me, the feeling of being out in public then — and sometimes now — ranges from unexpected joy to subtle awkwardness to exhaustion.

I made my re-entry into the world of strangers and distant friends at Black Cup throughout 2022, writing short pieces and stories for the Anchorage Daily News as part of a collaboration with the Anchorage Museum called the Neighbors Project. After a while, finally out of my bedroom office, the smell of breakfast burritos and the scrape of old wood chairs against the floor began to feel like home. Josh, the barista, learned my order. Terry, an ethics professor I knew from the University of Alaska Anchorage, kept my same coffee shop hours. The shop got more crowded as the months passed. One day I had nowhere to sit, so he invited me to share a table. After that, we often sat together, joking that our table was our “office.”

That year, I wrote stories focused on the ways the pandemic changed us, both in the ADN and in public writing workshops at the museum. The project grew out of my experience working as a news editor when the pandemic hit. I thought I knew Anchorage pretty well. I grew up here. But the level of vitriol that overtook us in the early part of the pandemic felt like a beloved family member having a psychotic break. The fabric of families and relationships frayed. Fear, disruption, misinformation, and meanness ruled, while hospital beds filled with patients and obituaries piled up. Some of those fractures persist.

As I reported, I listened to more than 100 people tell me about what the pandemic was like for them. I soon noticed all their stories centered on a few essential human impulses: fear, longing for connection, and grief over disconnection. There was the woman who said goodbye to her husband via Facetime as he died of COVID-19 but was comforted by a stream of gifts delivered to her doorstep by Twitter friends. One woman took on her brothers’ children while his wife fought cancer. An isolated teenager found hope by passing along kind messages as he worked a drive-thru. In our town, thousands of us experienced similar longings and losses, but we’d never been farther apart.

Days after I ran into Kelly at the coffee shop, a hand-addressed envelope showed up in my mailbox. On the front was a quote from the French philosopher Simone Weil that read, “Attention is the rarest and purest form of generosity.” Inside, she’d written a note, thanking me for making her feel noticed. I tucked the card in the frame of my mirror.


I thought about how years of semi-isolation refracted the way we thought about ourselves. Who do we become when we’re not reflected in the eyes of our neighbors? What happens without the essential warmth that comes with seeing familiar faces — even just the mail carrier coming up the walk or the old friend who notices your earrings? Sometimes, as with Kelly, the pandemic years made me feel like a ghost. It’s been just about four years now since the world went into lockdown. I’m back to many of my old routines but I don’t know that anything — friendships, institutions, the safety of a democratic society — feels like it did.

The card sat in my mirror for months before I googled Simone Weil. She was a post-World War I religious mystic focused on the power of human connection. The act of giving attention to another person, empathizing and simply accepting them is similar to prayer, she wrote.

“People can love their neighbors by emptying themselves, becoming ready to receive their neighbor in all his or her naked truth, asking their neighbor: ‘What are you going through?’” Weil wrote.

At the coffee shop, I mentioned my Weil reading to Terry. He lit up right away, listing off various ethicists’ theories on connection, filling my head with questions. Despite the ugliness of public conversations right now, is it good for democracy that people across the spectrum are protesting and organizing in support of the version of America they want? Would it be worse if people were indifferent? What happens to our ability to make a consensus when we go for years without seeing each other’s faces in person? Can empathy transform a society?

I finished my coffee and headed out on an errand to buy bread at Fire Island Bakery, driving through the early spring grit of Midtown, ravens swooping over gray berms. Every building along my path, the old Blockbuster, Taco King, and even Queens Dry Cleaners, held a trove of tiny memories — passing exchanges that built a sense of Anchorage for me.

What’s the influence of a life’s worth of small interactions with strangers and acquaintances in a place? How important is the conversation with a parent in the hall at your kid’s school, the neighbor who pulls over in the alley to let you pass, or the cashier who knows your face and asks, “How are you, mama?” Can we repair the damage done to our relationships and our town in small kindnesses, in attention, both given and received?

The bakery was crowded when I got there. As I stood in a line, I saw Janis, whose family runs the business. Once, a decade earlier, when I came in shortly after having my son, she gave me a chocolate cake out of the blue because, she said, a woman who has given birth deserves a present. I hadn’t seen her much for years. She noticed me in line and offered a warm challah roll across the counter. “Tear off a piece,’” she said. I did. As I tasted its soft sweetness, it was both no big deal and everything.

Julia O’Malley and other writers will read pandemic year micro-essays and at a public reading and launch of Issue 6 of Chatter Marks, the museum journal, which collects the news stories from the Neighbors project. The reading will be at 6:30 pm. March 1 at Seedlab, 111 W. Sixth Ave.

The views expressed here are the writer’s and are not necessarily endorsed by the Anchorage Daily News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)adn.com. Send submissions shorter than 200 words to letters@adn.com or click here to submit via any web browser. Read our full guidelines for letters and commentaries here.

Julia O'Malley

Anchorage-based Julia O'Malley is a former ADN reporter, columnist and editor. She received a James Beard national food writing award in 2018, and a collection of her work, "The Whale and the Cupcake: Stories of Subsistence, Longing, and Community in Alaska," was published in 2019. She's currently writer in residence at the Anchorage Museum.