‘Traveling Diary’ from Montclair collecting pandemic stories around the world
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
In April 2020, the global pandemic had set in. New Jersey was weeks into its lockdown, and people were forced onto social media and Zoom meetings to connect.
But Kyra Peralte longed for a more tactile approach to connect to “her tribe.” She chose a black-and-white marble composition book, a pencil, the United States Postal Service’s snail mail and strangers to “pour her heart out,” and hoped others would as well.
She wanted to go beyond her Montclair neighbors. She wanted to connect with strangers from around the world, to know she wasn’t alone in her feelings, fears and hopes, to know how others were coping.
Adjusting to the lockdown and the new world wasn’t easy for Peralte. She left her job as an app creator to focus on life at home with her kids, 6 and 3 years old, and husband, who was working from home. It was a change, and she knew she wasn’t alone.
“A year ago, I was stressed and tasked with rearranging my life to help accommodate my family at home. I didn’t realize the toll all the pressure had on my body until I had symptoms of stress kick in and decided to check in with women all over the world via nontraditional means,” Peralte says.
That’s when she picked up the old marble notebook and wrote about her life in the midst of the pandemic. But she wanted to go further.
“Storytelling is key to our survival as human beings. And it is what has helped us further the human race,” Peralte says. “I wondered what other women were experiencing, but I didn’t want to read it on social media or listen to it on a podcast. I wanted an uncurated account as if I was a fly on the wall in the homes of women across the globe who were alive.”
Peralte found a “stranger” from North Carolina at a Zoom entrepreneurs meeting and mailed her the notebook — with just Peralte’s own story in it, at that point — to collect that woman’s own story. After three days, the North Carolina woman sent it to another “stranger” from the Zoom meeting. The Traveling Diary Tour was born.
“I wanted to do it in that way because women, when you look at us, we’re tribal, we’re a community, and we’re so good at creating community — just always have been. And I thought that it just would have been such a good time to use these stories as a way to thread us all together, because it just feels like for the first time, at least in my lifetime, that all over the world we’re going through the exact same thing,” Peralte says.
She says with everyone being exposed to the pandemic together, to the same event, “it just feels like barriers are broken down and our humanness is coming forth to where we can relate to one another.” And even if people can’t relate, she says, “we can do something that is very, very important to every human — and I think that is to be heard.”
After Peralte published an article on Medium about the project, The Traveling Diary Tour took off, with women all over the globe wanting to be a part of the project. There are now six books in circulation throughout the world — the first one, with Peralte’s first entry, is now filled with others’ stories and back in Montclair. Two more books are expected to be complete by the end of May. The pages have been filled by 111 women so far, with 60 still waiting to receive a marble composition book. Peralte had to create an Excel spreadsheet on where and to whom the books would travel.
There have been challenges to using the mail service during the pandemic, with some women waiting up to three months to receive their books. Three were lost in Australia for a while, one in South Africa, and a few in the U.S., only to resurface and be placed into the hands of the intended recipients.
The women have rituals upon receiving the book, Peralte says. Some wait until their children are in bed and the house is quiet to rip open the package. Others have to be in their favorite chair, with a special cup of tea. One woman said she had to smell the book that had been to three other countries and been written in by so many women.
The women first read what others before them have written, feeling a deep connection that they are not alone in their experiences and thoughts. Then they sit down and have the task of writing their own stories. Some of those stories are pages long, others are only a page and a half, but each in the writer’s unique handwriting.
Some illustrate their stories or add objects such as feathers. Three days later, the book is placed into the mail at the woman’s expense, on its way to the next “stranger,” whose address she has been given. The women feel a great responsibility for holding the book, which Peralte calls a “vessel,” and getting it to the next woman on the list.
“That’s what I envision for the traveling diary — to invite people into an experience where they get to perform an act of kindness towards one another, where they are really pouring out their hopes, dreams, ideas during this period that the whole world is in right now,” she says.
“And then, they are making sure that they’re also protecting what’s put in there from the woman that wrote in it before it got to them.”
Some choose to be anonymous, while others sign their names and hometowns.
Stories range from seeking work and being alone in foreign countries during the pandemic to being front-line workers to worrying about the writer’s children’s future.
“The whole damn world needed, NO, required this change,” one woman wrote.
“Today was a struggle,” another woman writes.
One writer recalls being at a hockey game and a conference with 100 people just before New York went into lockdown — “something she would never think of doing today.” She writes about New Yorkers grabbing pots and pans to bang at exactly 7 p.m., coming out of their windows and balconies in unison to cheer on front-line workers.
Others created fictional stories with mythical creatures that illustrated the times.
As the year went into summer, some wrote about the civil unrest and protests after the death of George Floyd, a Black man killed by a Minneapolis police officer. They wrote about “things that can no longer be ignored,” like Black Lives Matter.
“I want you to know that you have been human, you’ve endured, adapted, and that’s more than enough,” wrote one woman from the United Kingdom.
Some shared their pandemic stories of joy — babies born and engagements begun.
When the first book was complete and back in Montclair, Peralte invited those women to a “campfire” gathering ritual, unfortunately having to resort to Zoom. But the women met for the first time, and shared their stories. They’d each read some of the stories when the book was in their hands; others were written after the book passed on. In June, Peralte expects to have another gathering when two other books are complete and back home.
“They get to see the faces of women whose stories they have read, hear the stories of the women who wrote after them, connecting us even further,” Peralte says.
The women also share where they are today, which for many is a very different place than in March 2020. Peralte pivoted into creating video games inspired by her son’s love of gaming. She has created a game in which players help mermaids get safely home, dodging sharks.