It’s been roughly five months of living in relative isolation and I have finally mustered up the courage to write about it. There have been plenty of essays, columns and thought pieces on what this global pandemic has wrought on us personally, professionally, as communities, countries, societies and as the human race.
What could possibly be gained by one more essay about this invisible enemy that has upended everyone’s existence? Nothing really. I’m doing this for me. I consider it my artefact; a piece of my history that I can look back on when the details get washed away in the busy-ness of life that will surely return. Because it will be important to remember the minutiae that so easily disappears with the passage of time.
The cornerstone of this pandemic began when the majority of the North American continent was shuttered. Shelter-in-place orders, quarantines and self-isolation were all variants of the same thing. Office towers sat empty, restaurants, malls, and streets were deserted, public transit ran on schedule with the odd passenger cloaked in a mask and gloves catching a ride to who-knows-where, and parks and playgrounds were eerily devoid of all signs of life. The sound of airplanes passing overhead was more noticeable because they were so few and far between given the shutdown of the Canada-US border, not to mention international travel as a whole.
Self-isolation began around mid-March for Canadians and Americans, but it began on January 3, 2018 for me.
I moved from Toronto to San Jose with my husband and kids that day. We moved to a place where I knew not a soul. I began sheltering in place the day I arrived, only leaving the house for essentials like groceries or to drive my kids to and from school and hockey. True, I had the ability to go wherever I wanted, whenever I wanted, but I had nowhere to go. Man, was it lonely. And it still is. To deal with the loneliness I started writing letters to friends and family back home with no expectation that I’d get return mail. The act of writing my thoughts down on paper was a balm.
I also started baking in earnest and posted pictures of what I’d baked and where I’d ventured on social media as a means of staying connected to those I had left behind in Toronto.
We often used Hangouts (Google’s neglected instant messaging and video conferencing app) to contact and visit family virtually. What may seem novel to most people who are stuck at home these days–holding family dinners and celebrations over video conferencing–became our norm very quickly. We realized it was the only way to keep in touch with family and friends who were five thousand kilometers and three time zones away from us.
I felt sorry for myself. There are days that I still do feel sorry for myself. Why did I move so far away from the people I love if it meant all the effort to keep in touch fell to me? Part of me wants to yell at everyone stuck in their homes with no contact with the outside world, “now you know how it feels!” Only, I don’t like how it feels, so why would I wish for anyone else to feel that way? The ache that comes with feeling isolated and alone is awful. My throat is aching and my eyes are welling up with tears just thinking about it because that feeling is so visceral.
One of the best parts of the five of us being under one roof for weeks on end with no place to go are family meals. We used to be running off in all directions. Actually that’s not true–it was just one direction: the hockey rink. I’d be running the kids back and forth between home and the rink, every day, often spooning pasta into a plastic container with an accompanying fork for whoever had practice at 6 p.m.
My husband would usually get home after the rest of us ate dinner because normally the traffic in the Bay Area is so horrendous, it takes an age to commute between home and the office, especially at peak rush hour.
These days, we all sit down at the dining room table for dinner. Better still, I sometimes get help preparing the meal. We now have the time for conversations even if they are lacking in original content (we have no news to report since we have been hanging around each other all day). In those moments my heart feels full and I am grateful for this time that I know is fleeting. My boys are getting older and it is only a matter of time before the number of people gathering at our dining room table will dwindle as they grow up and leave for university or whatever adventure awaits. So I cherish this time and cling to it like a rare and precious gem that is on loan to me.
Technology has been a great enabler from so many perspectives, but it has also divided us. Most evenings there are five devices putting the WiFi through its paces in this house. Five separate devices streaming five separate shows on Netflix, Hulu, Disney+, Amazon Prime….but lately, we’ve been gathering around the television together, watching old movies that my husband and I consider required viewing for our kids.
This simple act makes me feel like we have achieved some degree of family cohesion; a feeling of togetherness that is wholly elusive when we all disappear to our separate corners of the house.
Speaking of the house, I am incredibly grateful for the house we are living in. We moved to a new neighbourhood several months ago. You know that walkability score you see beside real estate listings? I’m a sucker who totally falls for that shit. We got lucky and landed in a neighbourhood that I consider “walkable.” I can walk along tree-lined streets with my dog, drop off a letter in the mailbox, pick up a bunch of bananas at the grocery store three short blocks away, go browse at the local bookstore or meet a friend for lunch at a nearby restaurant. All. On. Foot. I am aware that we all come from different places that hold different values for each of us. This is what matters to me and I am grateful for it.
Distance learning has been a bust. My kids lost motivation–wait, they never had any motivation because their teachers didn’t actually do any live instruction online with them and there was no incentive to learn alone. I am already preparing myself for the strong possibility that the kids will not be going back to the same kind of school experience that they left on March 13th. I just hope with every fibre of my being that educators find a way to engage kids so that they are still excited to learn, even if they can’t be in the classroom as much as they had been. I am not a teacher, nor do I aspire to be one. That’s why I send my kids to school. Homeschooling: not for me. Never.
My days are up and down and I realize I don’t hold a monopoly on that. My husband and three kids have their good days and bad days too. One day I’m irritable and impatient, the next I feel so accomplished getting chores done around the house and spending quality time with my kids and the day after that I am sad and all I want to do is stay in my pyjamas and will myself back to sleep so that my conscious self will stop ruminating and focusing on the things that are beyond my control.
We all get on each other’s nerves and get stir crazy at least once a day.
I feel very fortunate that we can get out of the house for walks, bike rides, hikes and even road trips to the mountains and the coast when we need a real change of scenery. It isn’t that easy to do, or even possible for everyone, so I don’t take it for granted.
As we all come out of our self-imposed (or State-imposed) cocoons and resume some of our activities, there are only a few things I am most looking forward to doing; number one: hugging my mom, brother, sister, family and friends back in Toronto when I get to see them; number two (which should come before number one): flying back to Toronto and seeing my home town. It’s simple, really.
Fast forward to Summer 2020: I am “home.” Back in Canada–a flight fraught with anxiety and worry about the virus. We made it safely and quarantined for two weeks at our cottage in the woods. I gave my mom that hug I so desperately wanted. Right now I am listening to the distant sounds of my three boys jumping into the lake while my husband talks with colleagues on his latest video call. I’ve lost count of how many meetings he has in a day. I listen to the wind passing through the oaks and maples and pines surrounding our small cottage punctuated by the calls of birdsong. I tell myself multiple times a day how grateful I am for this. For all of this. I feel a bit sheepish, guilty about sharing my experience here knowing full well that others who wanted to come back to Canada were not able to.
I feel like the world is on fire and all I can do is watch from afar with morbid fascination. A car crash in slow motion.
I feel safe where I am but hiding out at the cottage can’t last. Before long we will head back to our other home in California–another journey that will be fraught with worry, but we will make it.
I am beginning to ruminate again about the forthcoming school year. Only a month away and still no known plan about whether or not the kids will be sitting in front of a teacher with classmates by their side. I already know what will happen but I don’t want to acknowledge it. They will be learning from home, safe from the virus as it rages on. But being safe comes with trade offs, like no interstitial time with friends playing video games or sports, no dinner parties, birthday parties or anything parties.
We will return to some semblance of daily routine, learning in front of a computer screen, working in front of a monitor. We will look for activities and projects to fill the empty space that is usually occupied by our busy-ness. We will persevere because we have no choice. We are nothing if not resilient.