Stepping back

Were you a reader growing up? Did you ever read The Diary of Anne Frank or A Child’s Life in Sarajevo or (if, like me, Russian Studies was your thing) the terrifying Blockade Diary of Tanya Savicheva ? Maybe you read fictional accounts of this sort of thing, the historical fiction “diaries” that are written to help 10- and 11-year-olds understand historical events through the eyes of someone their own age. Or maybe dystopian fiction is more your thing — The Handmaid’s Tale, anyone? The Testaments? Suite française (based on actual events)?

One thing all these books share is that stomach-dropping “oh shit” moment, maybe a quarter of the way through?, shifts from “Nina and I went out for ice cream.” to “Nina’s sister has been shot.” From “our literature teacher is so annoying” to “our literature teacher has disappeared.”

We are living that moment right now.

Last Tuesday, I worked in a coffee shop for a large part of the day before going to meet some friends for a dance class. Afterward, we went to a microbrewery for one drink, which turned into a late dinner, which turned into a second round of drinks, before we carpooled home.

Wednesday — this time last week– I worked on a story about college basketball for most of the afternoon before taking the Metro to a Midwives Save Lives cocktail party.

Thursday, I finished the story — and another one about domestic violence prevention– and then got on a train to Toronto. I went to the Midwives Save Lives closing event at U of T — where the elbow bump had become the “salutation d’usage” — and went back to my hostel to sort through the photos, go through edits to a story on food co-ops,  and do a bit of paperwork. I wanted to grab a drink and a snack at the downstairs bar, but by the time I was finished, the bar was closed. It was just as well (thought I) because the next morning I had to get on a train to Oshawa to meet some trade unionists for another story. Great meeting with the trade unionists, drive around the vast, spooky, almost-closed GM plant, train back to Toronto, bacon sandwich and a beer at St. Lawrence Market with a Quebec City friend who lives near there now. We elbow bump goodbye. On the train back to Toronto, no one is talking about anything except this new virus, which celebrities have it, what is closing, and why people are panic-buying toilet paper. Theatres and concert halls have been closed down by the government, although not very many people seemed bothered by that as such, because who goes to the theatre more than a few times a year anyway? The schools were all extending their spring breaks, but only by a few weeks.

Let me pause here and explain what’s going  on, just in case you’ve been living under a rock, filming a reality show or recently held hostage, or you’re reading this 20 years in the future and you’re too young to remember the godforsaken spring of 2020. The spring of 2020 was the spring of the first coronavirus outbreak. Coronavirus is, well, a virus, that attacks the lungs. Many if not most people who get it have no symptoms at all, or cold symptoms. But in a minority of people, it causes a really scary, hard-to-treat viral pneumonia that is sometimes fatal. It has, as of this writing, a death rate of about 4 to 5 per cent, which doesn’t sound like that much, but look at your Facebook friends list or your address book app and imagine one of every twenty people dying horribly, and you suddenly realize that it’s actually a pretty high number. The great majority of people who died have either been over 60 or immunosuppressed. Most of the young, healthy people who have died have, sadly, been health care workers who were constantly exposed to it. But younger, apparently healthier people have dropped dead of it too. I might not be at massive personal risk, but I’m still at risk, as are my parents, and (because I have a wonderful multigenerational friend group) several of my close friends.

I’ll pick my chronology back up. By Saturday, events were getting cancelled left, right and centre. I went on a great outdoor guided tour given by my friend Donovan (not cancelled) and then to a music event at a bar (where, at the end, a vote was taken and a hiatus declared.

The event I was supposed to go to in the Lanaudière with my friend Guillaume was cancelled as well, but I didn’t think much of that. I woke up early the next morning, worked a bit and went for coffee with my friend Vlad, a Haitian poet who I hadn’t seen since before Africa, who was, as usual, bubbling over with ideas for everything from kids’ books to stage plays to manga.  We hugged as I got off the metro at Peel to go buy gym clothes at Winners — I’d been hoping to start going to the gym again but then I realized that my gym clothes had gotten lost during one of my moves. So I went to buy gym clothes, and vegetables, and went to lunch at my friend Claudio’s place. Suddenly, just as we were finishing, the premier’s voice came on the radio. There were new day care centres being opened for the children of essential workers, OK, great. Then he announced that gyms, bars and libraries were being ordered to close.

That stopped me short. Gyms, bars and libraries…the places where people went to escape from the mess of the everyday. The bar where Claudio and Guillaume and Alain and I saw our friends every Monday — shuttered. Restaurants and cafés were not initially closed, but were restricted such that some of them just switched to providing takeout-only service.

We were also being told to practice social distancing — to stay at least six feet apart from any human we might meet. In that moment, Claudio and I couldn’t social distance — we just held each other. “Normal” was gone, and who knew when it would return? Then he drove me home, even though I perfectly well could have taken the metro — although I’m glad he did drive me, because that meant we both spent 15 more minutes in the company of another human before it became taboo. Then we both started our self-isolation…which will probably last months.

I’d always been bewildered in the past when I’d heard about AIDS patients in Africa continuing to have high-risk sex, or families of people who had died of Ebola touching the bodies even though they’d been told that they were likely to give themselves the disease that way. “Why don’t these people just stop?” I wondered. Years later, I took a class on communication in humanitarian contexts, where I was told that “culture always wins” when adopting a new habit is a question of respecting a culture versus keeping safe physically. “Why?!” I still thought.

Now I think I get it. Hugging is part of our culture. Coming together in bars to listen to music, or in coffeeshops to talk and talk and talk, is part of our culture. It just is. And it has been cut off from us, for our safety. And I feel like I’m wasting away without it, especially without the hugging. Goodness knows how we’re all going to get through this.








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