While living through a pandemic, months of protest and civil unrest, and another tumultuous presidential election, many of us may catch ourselves wondering how the history textbooks, documentaries, and museums will capture such events. Local Corvallisite Chris Riseley has been taking this job into his own hands – documenting the seemingly endless days of social isolation on his typewriter.
Riseley, who is a husband, father to two children, and a faculty member in the English department at Linn-Benton Community College, has now been documenting Oregon’s experience with these recent events for 247 days.
Riseley and his wife pulled their daughter out of middle school before the schools were shut down, “early adopters,” as Riseley puts it, of social distancing. Him, his wife, their daughter, and their 19-year-old son, began staying home.
However, when the schools actually closed around March 13, Riseley said that this was a sort of wake-up call.
“When Kate Brown closed the schools, I thought, well, this is real,” he recalled.
His first initial documentation of events included standard Facebook posts, but on Day 6, he moved to the typewriter, posting photos of the finished products to his page.
“The idea I think was about highlighting how superficial and ephemeral 99% of the material on Facebook was,” he explained. “I thought, if I type these, then I’m kind of underscoring the fact that I’ll have a personal record and Facebook won’t own it. It will live kind of outside of Facebook.”
Riseley felt that using older technology like a typewriter brought more authenticity to his records, and he also wanted to promote sharing original content on the platform.
Through this project, Riseley documented the early days of the pandemic and was able to capture the eerie, apocalyptic essence of that time.
On March 18, he wrote, “…walking with a friend who will keep me at six feet distance as I will them. And we will call that hanging out because that’s what hanging out has become.
“Maybe it is not a weird world. Maybe it is just different.”
Two days later, he called this new practice a sort of “travel journal” through the pandemic and typed, “Very few people have, up until now, had this opportunity to watch the world go so sideways.”
In April, he encapsulated the restlessness, the exhaustion, and the repetition that we were all beginning to experience, by taking a leaf out of Stephen King’s The Shining and writing, “All work and no play makes Jack a dull boy,” dozens of times.
Over the summer, Riseley documented the weeks of Black Lives Matter protests which succeeded the murder of George Floyd.
On May 29, he typed, “I can’t stop thinking of that heavy knee on hollow neck. That look on the officer’s face – it was like he was possessed to murder.”
He even attended a BLM march in Portland with his son on July 19, writing of the experience, “It’s hard to capture the rhythm and the unity but suddenly hundreds of strangers were united.”
More recently, his son took a stab at the diary, typing, “I don’t think my dad would ever have guessed he would be writing ‘Day 50, 100, or 200, or 237.’ I don’t think any of us knew. I make fun of him, but these updates are one of the few things that have given our lives stability.”
Riseley agreed with this sentiment – the clack of the typewriter keys in the evening has become an inevitable constant in their home since the pandemic started, one of the only things that seems to remain unchanged.
“It adds stability to our day. There’s something very grounding about it,” he said. “It’s been a grounding practice.”
On November 11, Riseley’s daughter also wrote an entry and captured how many of us feel while isolated in our houses, “My best friends live in my laptop. I only see them when I watch my shows, Zoom with them, text them, or listen to them sing.”
Last spring, Riseley was on a sabbatical, meant to be traveling, attending conferences, meeting new people. Instead, he has stayed home, documenting the lives of a typical family in an atypical world.
Once he reaches Day 365, he plans to compile his documents into a book. But even after he hits the one-year mark, Riseley will continue recording each day.
Riseley, through his documentation project, has achieved deeper connections with others through the screen, writing out what many of us are feeling but are unable to express.
“We don’t have stability in democracy or health or justice, or, I don’t know, a lot of things, but my dad pumps one of these out every damn day,” his son wrote on November 3, “and maybe people read them and they can go, ‘Welp, there’s ol’ Chris, posting his weird pretentiously typed letters. At least we still have that.’”
By Cara Nixon