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Sonoma writer releases anthology with women’s essays on pandemic experiences

Virtual “(Her)oics” readings this spring

Regal House Publishing has lined up a series of special Zoom events this spring with a thematic approach to the essays collected in “(Her)oics: Women’ Lived Experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” edited by Joanell Serra. and Amy Roost.

“Pandemic Tales from Around the Table,” with author readings and recipes to take home, will be held at 3 p.m. March 26.

“Motherhood in Pandemic,” featuring readings, will be held at 4 p.m. April 1.

“Tales of Medical Healers and Heroines,” with readings and a short Q&A, will be held at 4 p.m. April 8.

“Meditation, Music, Reading and a Little Magic,” featuring readings and tales of wellness, will be held at 1 p.m. April 11.

“(Her)-oics Tales from the Epicenter,” with readings by authors from New York and New Jersey, will be held at 1 p.m. April 18.For more information, go to regalhousepublishing.com/heroics

Therapist and writer Joanell Serra of Sonoma was flying home from New York in early March 2020 when she became part of the first wave of the pandemic. Most people were still in denial, she recalled, and she was the only one wearing a mask.

She had flown east a week earlier to see a short play she wrote that was being performed at a local theater festival in New York City, which would soon become the epicenter of the coronavirus in the U.S. The play was directed by her son, living in East Harlem with his girlfriend.

“My mask was no match for six hours of recycled air with 400 other travelers,“ Serra recalled. “My cough and fever started four days later.”

It was so early in the pandemic that even her doctors didn’t recognize her strange combination of symptoms as related to COVID-19. Protocols to stop the virus from spreading were still a work in progress, and tests were difficult to obtain.

“It was hard to breathe, hard to swallow, hard to sleep because of the cough. It was hard to keep food down, and I had no appetite,” she said. “I told the doctors I can’t taste or smell anything. Could that be related? They said no.”

As an asthma sufferer, she was not surprised when her oxygen levels dipped dangerously low. At Marin General, she waited in the ER for a chest X-ray; her cot was draped with caution tape to keep people away. But she she still could not get tested for the virus.

It was there, alone under those fluorescent lights, that she decided she needed to do something positive in the face of the growing terror over the worldwide health crisis.

“I found that getting care, let alone a COVID-19 test, was exhausting and surreal,” she said. “I was so sick. ... I came through it, and I wanted to do something against this terrible virus.”

Taking action

During her convalescence, Serra had been devouring an anthology coedited by Amy Roost called “Fury: Women’s Lived Experiences During the Trump Era,” published by Regal House Publishing.

So when Serra got an email from Roost asking if she’d like to write a book proposal for an anthology about women’s experiences during COVID-19, the answer was a resounding yes.

The idea gained traction, as Serra and Roost whipped out a book proposal in just a week. After it was accepted, they hit the ground running.

“We had one month to get submissions, and only a few months to edit them,” Serra said. “Out of hundreds of submissions, we selected 51.”

The result of all that fast and furious work is “(Her)oics: Women’s Lived Experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic” (Regal House Publishing, 2021), a softcover book released on Thursday.

The anthology features a wide range of women’s voices, from Hawaii to New York City, that give deeply personal perspectives on the pandemic.

The essays are written by nurses and doctors on the front lines, along with mothers caring for young children and adolescents. There are essays by grown children who have returned to their parents’ homes and are adjusting to life in their childhood bedrooms. Lonely seniors write about only seeing their grandchildren’s faces over Zoom. There are women grateful for having time to heal from deaths in their families, and others grateful for having time to bond with their newborns.

“I was determined to get different slices of what was happening,” Serra said. “We had to make charts of everybody — what perspective are they bringing? Someone with cancer, someone who recently immigrated. Writing with humor versus a heavier, darker tone.”

To include women who would normally not submit pieces, Serra held a workshop on Zoom to give potential writers an idea of what the editors were looking for. Then she rolled up her sleeves and got to work helping many of those writers polish their prose.

“Having all these diverse stories brought a new level of work as we tried to incorporate other languages like Spanish and Tagalog,” she said. “It was extremely intense to do it in that amount of time.”

Santa Rosa therapist writes on healing

Another local therapist and writer, Alissa Hirshfeld of Santa Rosa, wrote an essay for the book.

In “Learning to be Alone in Social Isolation,” Hirshfeld wrote that she had to adapt to being single again after 22 years of marriage (her husband has recently left her) while her daughter was about to leave the nest for college.

Her essay begins at the end of January 2020, when she was traveling home from a Doctors Without Borders project in Cambodia. Although she’ll never know, she still worries she may have brought COVID-19 home with her.

“After I came home, my daughter ended up getting sick. ... Part of me wonders if I had a strain that was asymptomatic.”

Virtual “(Her)oics” readings this spring

Regal House Publishing has lined up a series of special Zoom events this spring with a thematic approach to the essays collected in “(Her)oics: Women’ Lived Experiences during the Coronavirus Pandemic,” edited by Joanell Serra. and Amy Roost.

“Pandemic Tales from Around the Table,” with author readings and recipes to take home, will be held at 3 p.m. March 26.

“Motherhood in Pandemic,” featuring readings, will be held at 4 p.m. April 1.

“Tales of Medical Healers and Heroines,” with readings and a short Q&A, will be held at 4 p.m. April 8.

“Meditation, Music, Reading and a Little Magic,” featuring readings and tales of wellness, will be held at 1 p.m. April 11.

“(Her)-oics Tales from the Epicenter,” with readings by authors from New York and New Jersey, will be held at 1 p.m. April 18.For more information, go to regalhousepublishing.com/heroics

In her piece, Hirshfeld shared the vulnerability she felt at the beginning of the pandemic, when she was trying to date but ultimately gave up because it was too difficult to maintain intimacy while social distancing. Instead, she pivoted to healing herself through journaling, crying, meditating, yoga, music and reaching out to friends.

“I can’t help but be the therapist who wants to give people tools,” she said. “My hope is always that in sharing my story that readers will relate to it in some way that is helpful.”

Hirshfeld, who got her second shot of the vaccine earlier this month, the same day her copy of the anthology arrived, said she’s been enjoying reading the other women’s essays. The honesty, humanity and vulnerability of the writing has impressed her, along with the ease she discovered in entering each author’s world.

“It’s a multifaceted diamond, with all these perspectives,” she said. “The essays pack a powerful punch in just a few pages.”

One of her favorites is “Tomorrow or Today,” written by Dawn Marlin, a literature professor at the University of Oregon. Marlin wrote about her worries related to her tenuous position at the university, her own mortality and missing her East Coast family as she shelters in place with her husband and two grown children.

“Her writing inspires me to write,” Hirshfeld said. “I really felt her experience.”

In “Crying at the Post Office, or Help! I Can’t Find My Eyebrows,” Nina Gaby wrote about turning 70 in the age of coronavirus and her enduring friendship with a fellow nursing student over the decades. They developed a few rituals to stay in touch despite living far from each other.

“She writes in a way where you laugh and cry at the same time,” Hirshfeld said. “Each writer is distilling something really powerful for them that they’ve lived through this year.”

Some of Serra’s favorite essays were written by women like her, who have dealt intimately with the pandemic, from essential workers to women still suffering long-term effects of the virus.

Pia Woods, an attorney who had a severe case of COVID-19, wrote about coming home from the hospital and learning how to feed herself again in “Breathe Easy.”

“She was so determined that people understand it (the virus) that she made a video about it,” Serra said. “She is what is called a long-hauler. All these people who are discharged from the hospital have months of work to do to recover.”

Writer Melba Nickerson Sullivan, a Black woman who lives in Brooklyn, had expressed her frustration on Facebook at not being able to get tested after she returned from a week in Paris at the end of February 2020.

“Eventually, she was diagnosed,“ Serra said. ”What was interesting was that this piece was written in real time. She would send me updates.”

Medical intern Isobel Rosenthal was found after TV and online journalist Katie Couric posted Rosenthal’s writing on her own blog. In “My COVID-19 Gratitude List,” Rosenthal wrote about how she was able to combat the stress of working as a primary provider for COVID-19 patients in New York City by searching for some humor or good news every day.

“Most of all, I feel gratitude for the kindness of my colleagues — bringing chocolate bars for each other and talking others through their tears after a patient codes, unable to reach out and hold them,” she wrote. “As I wake up, push my finger into a small machine to test my oxygen saturation and stick a thermometer down my throat, hoping that I am healthy, I try to think of these moments and focus momentarily on gratitude, so that I can get back in there and do my job.”

On her own author blog (joanellserraauthor.com), Serra has started posting interviews with the authors. She plans to interview all of the women writers eventually.

“I’m blasting these blogs to capture people’s attention and to put out a little bit of follow-up on their stories,” she said. “There’s a photo of Pia after she’s doing better, with her grandbaby.”

The book is available at Copperfield’s Books, Book Passage in Corte Madera, Readers’ Books in Sonoma and at regalhousepublishing.com/heroics

Staff Writer Diane Peterson can be reached at 707-521-5287 or diane.peterson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @dianepete56

Diane Peterson

Features, The Press Democrat

I’m interested in the home kitchen, from sheet-pan suppers to the latest food trends. Food encompasses the world, its many cultures, languages and history. It is both essential and sensual. I also have my fingers on the pulse of classical music in Sonoma County, from student mariachi bands to jazz crossover and symphonic sounds. It’s all a rich gumbo, redolent of the many cultures that make up our country and the world.

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