I belong to the Canadian Federation of University Women, where I was giving a talk about my latest novel Last Night of the World. The date was March 5. Helen, a charming member, also a neighbour, graciously drove me to and from the event. Unlike myself, she was undeterred by the COVID-19 virus. “You have to try to go on with your life,” she said, as I’m confident the majority of this lovely, intelligent group of women would agree —even as the virus makes its way around the globe.
Throughout the last month, I often think about Helen’s strong words. They help me to see that although we have little control over this global crisis, we can find the equilibrium to adjust to sheltering at home and to continuing on with our lives, as best as possible.
A few days after my talk, the situation in Canada began to worsen. It took another week before I started to stay home, and by the following week, my husband was laid off from work. During that intervening week, I’d begun to buy Lysol wipes, one bottle of hand sanitizer and 2 boxes of protective gloves. At the local Canadian Tire where I found these little treasures, the other shoppers looked skeptically at me, as I wheeled my buggy through the cash. Other than hand sanitizer, people weren’t stocking up on supplies — just yet.
And then they were — until the shelves were bare. As is the case in most crises, it all happened with lightning speed. Reports of Coronavirus invaded the news, and next our Prime Minister’s wife, Sophie, was diagnosed with the virus and the Trudeau family was quarantined at Rideau Hall cottage. Patty Hajdu, the federal Minister of Health, suggested that families stock up on enough food and medicine for two weeks. Trudeau launched his daily announcements standing before the front porch of the cottage. Canadians took full notice, and within a day, everything changed. Our lives transformed in ways that none of us has ever experienced. Sequestered at home, or facing essential work in public, nothing was the same, or was it?
What I’m discovering about myself, and others, during this pandemic is that certain things do remain the same. The life we built before the virus resembles the life we are leading during this global crisis unless, of course, you are working on the frontlines or fall ill.
1. Those less fortunate are experiencing a much worse time of it than the well off. Although the virus doesn’t distinguish between the rich and the poor, crowded conditions make it impossible to stick to the six-foot rule. Those most affected are the homeless. You can’t stay home if you don’t have one. In Toronto, it took until the final days of March for the city to commandeer six hotels to shelter the homeless.
2. Good family relations prevail during self-isolation or quarantine. I must admit to savouring the time my husband and I are spending together. We like being together, sharing long, lengthy dinner conversations, taking walks outside in the fresh air, or just watching a movie. My daughter and her partner are sequestered in their apartment in downtown Toronto. I miss them both although we do chat every day on the phone. My daughter’s voice lifts me up and helps to keep my spirits high. Yet, I worry about her, sheltering in their apartment without much light in a densely populated neighbourhood.
3. Talking on the telephone makes a huge difference while revealing much about my state of mind. I find myself calling old friends, girlfriends from my childhood in Windsor, or friends from university days in Ottawa. These long-time attachments mean more to me than I imagined. As we talk, I’ve come to realize that I know these people and they know me in such elemental ways that when bad times hit, theirs are the voices I rely upon most completely. Their spoken words connect me with my past and I derive strength from feeling in tune with them. Seven years ago, my closest friend from work moved to B.C., and when she called, healthy and active, caring for her grandson, I felt relieved. For those far out of reach, friends caught on cruise ships or one buddy who chose to shelter in Ecuador, I worry.
4. Keeping busy makes all the difference. I suppose I’m lucky that I work from home. Writing is a solitary profession, so I’ve grown accustomed to spending my days alone at my desk. In that respect, not much has changed during self-isolation. I work five days a week, maintaining the same schedule I would in normal times and that keeps me focused on subjects other than the virus while earning some income. If you’re out of work or a gig employee, the Federal government’s assistance programs, such as the Canada Emergency Response Benefit, are coming down the pipe to help you withstand financial hardships. Still, my heart goes out to how stressful these times can be for those without resources to cover the bills and for businesses that must shut their doors.
5. Having a comfortable home that is cozy and safe and entirely familiar is just about the best situation anyone can ask for right now. It’s the place to stay healthy, to cook, to clean and to keep up the daily chores, which add balance and continuity to our lives. I don’t believe I’ve ever appreciated my home as much as I do now, or took to heart how fortunate we are to live in Canada where homeownership is highly valued.
All in all, keeping it together, takes a combination of good fortune and some hard work, mixed with fortitude and resilience. Margaret Atwood, now in her eighties, recently posted her response to a follower’s fear of her catching the virus. On Twitter she says it all:
“That is very sweet! Thank you! But I am tough like old pickled ox and have the immune system of a meercat, plus I stuff my nose with rose petals and hit too-close strangers with ski poles, so I should be ok unless I fall down in the bathtub. >:>}”