As we settle in, my posts become further apart and fragmented. Painting and drawing and playdough and making stuffed animals dance and little walks and muddy puddles and possibly too much macaroni. (A few days ago during lunch, the toddler climbed on my lap, took my hands and wrapped them around her waist, and said, ‘Mommy cuddles. I eat ‘roni.” And then ate her macaroni lunch while being snuggled).
We went to the beach and found the half-burned notebook of a graffiti artist. The toddler selected some perfect sticks for herself, then gave some to my husband and I. “This is for you,” she said, seriously, as if giving us a wand or sword. We advanced towards the beach fully armed and ready for whatever the day threw at us. After the beach, we went through the McDonald’s drive-through for lunch.
It’s cherry blossom season and we threw the blossoms up in the air and pretended it was snowing, and all day the toddler’s curls smelled sweet. People stopped to take photos of her, and one even asked me to get out of the shot.
I have hit a wall when it comes to working. My semester is over, and I’m so proud of the wonderful work my students did. Their Coronavirus archives are far superior to my own. But now it’s time to prepare for the summer semester, and my brain has become curdled and sludgy. If I could just get a full day’s work in, I could get everything together. But I’m working in fits and starts: while she’s napping, while she’s sleeping. I hide in the bedroom but then I can hear her. (“Mommy? Mommy coming? Hi Mommy!” and my husband saying, “Mommy’s playing on her computer right now and doesn’t have time to play right now” — which — oof).
Right now, I’ve had 45 minutes to work, but instead I’ve just stared straight ahead: rudderless. I feel as if I spent the first few weeks of the pandemic busy in a million directions, trying to get students through, and now that I have a pedagogical empty nest, I’ve been forced to look up and realize what’s happening all around me. And all I see is an empty expanse: this pandemic stretching on and on.
Today we painted, and Dot was on edge. She painted her hands, then slapped them on the paper, stippling it with her handprints. The metal surface of our table rang out like a drum as she worked out her feelings.
I laid the paintings out to dry, then after her nap I cut them into hearts. I’m not good at crafts at the best of times, and it’s even harder when a toddler is holding on to the paper saying, “I hold the scissors. I try the scissors. I cut the paper.”
Then, we taped them to the window. We live near a hospital, and people have been decorating their windows with rainbows and hearts to cheer up the healthcare workers and thank them. Dot passed me the hearts, and I taped them on. She was very adamant that she didn’t want to tape them herself. Also, she had a precise location in mind for each one. And she insisted that a single triangle be included, because she likes triangles very much.
“Pass me a heart,” I would say, and she’d climb off the couch and choose the perfect one.
“This one is a good idea,” she said. “It’s a good plan.”
“Pass me another one,” I’d say.
“Oh, it’s a good idea,” she’d say, handing me a red heart.
It felt good to channel our feelings into paint, and then into imperfect hearts. It felt good to offer our imperfect hearts to everyone on the street, knowing that they’re too far away to see our ragged edges.
One of the things I admire about my students’ Coronavirus archives are how positive they are. Some are funny, some are filled with gratitude, some are focused on what they’ll do when they’re able to have some semblance of normalcy. But I’m old and grumpy, and am having a harder time being positive.
For a few weeks, things were difficult. Then, I hit my stride. I made a lot of bread and muffins. And now, I’ve reached a point where things feel so far off that I don’t want anything. Last night, I was craving a wedge salad with lots of blue cheese and bacon and it just seemed impossible that I would sit in a restaurant and cut through the crisp layers of lettuce with a fork, and hold up a glass of wine. I tried to imagine myself at The Keg and I just couldn’t do it. And it’s only been 6 weeks. I’m going to need a little more imagination to fuel me through this crisis.
Although, who knows what restaurants will survive this, or if the idea of going to restaurants will survive. When will people get comfortable with the idea of being around other people? When and if the restaurants open, will people find them too loud? Will they flinch when the wait staff bends over their table to refill a water glass? Will we go out for dinner with another couple and find ourselves with nothing to say?
I especially worry about my toddler. Yesterday was sunny, and everywhere was packed. I tried one park: too busy. Tried another: too busy. I thought I’d found one that was not very busy, but we were soon joined by a four-year-old, who ran up to my daughter and tried to give her a handful of grass.
My daughter stared at her.
“Make tea?” she said finally.
“Okay,” said the girl. “Let’s make tea.”
Normally, I would swoop in immediately and enforce the distance, or the other parent would, but for a second I watched them bending down together to stir their grass into ‘tea.’ And then I had to break it up. “Let’s move a little over here,” I said. “You guys can play tea, but just a little further apart.” A little further apart. A little bit more distance.
Either option ends in guilt. Don’t break up their playtime soon enough, and I’ve exposed my daughter to the virus. Flash forward 4 weeks and I could be in hospital — or worse! She could be in hospital! — thinking about that moment when the virus passed between them, calculating how much my weakness had cost. But break up too soon, and my daughter will grow wary of children and see them as a threat.
She was so overjoyed to see another child. “Hi kid!” she kept saying. She followed her around the entire time we were at the park, as I hovered, the ultimate helicopter mom, trying to keep the space between them.
I’d just watched Dr. Bonnie Henry talking on TV about holding the line, keeping the firewall strong, but it’s hard to keep up your energy to fight an invisible threat. It’s so easy to think: well, what’s the harm? They’re kids. Let them make teas and poultices out of grass and mud.
Then, we went into a community garden, and a little boy came over and crouched beside my daughter to explain that she was looking at rhubarb. “You can touch the leaves,” he said, “They’re soft.” And she did so, gently stroking the plant. Then, she touched his hair, as if she wasn’t quite sure he was real, and I worked to keep them apart.
“I’m trying,” said the dad. “It’s just –.” He was chasing after the boy’s sibling.
When I started this blog, I would write everyday. But it’s the end of the semester, and I’ve been distracted by grading for this semester and plans for the next one. Plan the course. Make a course map. Make a welcome video. Prepare the course presentation. Write all the assignment prompts. Set up the Moodle sites. Grade papers. Respond to emails. I feel that I’m being stretched between the two semesters: doing both poorly.
And, between it all, I play with Playdough and go walking with my toddler, who loves the painted rocks that people have been making and wants to give the rocks bottles and put them to bed and say, “Sweet dreams. I love you, rock.” (Social distancing probably means not kissing rocks, but she is very enamoured with this particular rock). The weather has been nice, so we’ve been walking through the neighbourhood, noticing things. A mural with an octopus. Some trees fat with white flowers. Pine needles on the ground. She loves cedar and pine. Burying her hands in pine needles or wood chips is her favourite thing.
And then I come home and get reminded for the fifth time that I haven’t read the book for book club, and I remember that the grocery shopping needs to be done, and I haven’t written the assignment prompts, and my bedside table is a disgrace, and should clean the bathroom and this and that.
So, the days ebb and flow. I enjoy the sunshine with my toddler, and try to tamp down the misplaced anger I feel towards people having picnics in the park or parties in the school playground. (I never thought that the sound of an icecream truck could spark such fury. Apparently ice cream trucks are essential services??) I feel content with checking small tasks off my to-do list, as if this weren’t a pandemic, but my brain is still buzzing with nervous energy. I’m constantly checking the daily charts that the CBC puts out. I watch the 3 pm broadcasts with Bonnie Henry, and pitch my mood to the numbers of cases, the numbers of deaths, the hospitalizations, as if I’m reading a weather forecast.
But the numbers are good, so far. And the weather is nice, for now. And things are progressing in their own way. And these days are tense and boring.
The past few days have featured long conference calls, but honestly it’s good to fill the air with other voices. And it’s good, for a little while, to have a problem that everyone can work on solving together, and which can come together in a few hours.
I feel the same way about this journal. Most days, I feel like I am bad at everything. And especially now, I am constantly being reminded that I didn’t buy the right things during the grocery shop, that I haven’t started the book club book for Tuesday, that my courses for Summer aren’t planned, that my closet is a disaster, that my toddler wasn’t interested in my crafts, and on and on.
But, I can write a few sentences: mostly to myself. I can watch the words appear on the page, and not care if they’re good words or the best words. It’s soothing to end the day having made something small, even if no one else will see it.
I’ve been trying to care less about productivity. Historically, I’ve been someone who’s brain has to be constantly distracted by work. For ages, my entire self esteem rested on the idea that I was someone who works hard and cares a lot. But then you end up with a pandemic: something you can’t work your way out of. You can be the Very Best Little Pandemic Champion and you will still be in a pandemic.
Today brought the good news that in a few weeks, we might be easing up on social distancing restrictions. Our curve is flattening. We’re such a long way from the end, but there’s a little scrap of daylight to hold on to. And so I’m beginning to think about what I might want to take with me from this time. Definitely, I want to make soda bread while listening to folk music. And I want to keep going on walks with my toddler: noticing the small things she notices. And I want to keep writing, in a small way, even though I know that work cannot save me.
For the first few weeks of this crisis, it seemed like everyone was running on adrenaline. Especially with the switch to online teaching, I was too busy to really do much thinking. And during those first weeks, I felt more connected to people. Between the video chats with various friend groups and the video chats with the wonderful team of educators I’ve been working with, I was socializing more than usual. (This is more a reflection of my social life pre-pandemic).
But now, I feel people contracting: drawing inwards. We’re shifting gears from the adrenaline-fueled sprint of the early days, to a long, slow slog. No one wants to se each other’s faces in little boxes on screen. It’s dawning on people that we’re doing this for…months? Years? And some of that goodwill that a crisis brings out has grown frayed, as people’s conflicting ideas about staying safe butt up against one another.
Case in point. Today, Dot and I went for a long walk. We didn’t mean for it to be a long walk. But the park that we usually go to was packed, and then the next park was packed, and then at the next park there was a freaking ice cream truck and people sunning themselves on picnic blankets and playing soccer. Once again, I tried to focus on what I can control. I can’t control people’s actions. You’re allowed to go in the park (though soccer isn’t allowed). It’s a beautiful day and everyone wants some outside time.
But the numbers are creeping up again, and it’s hard not to try to assign blame. What will the numbers look like next week, when those who got infected during the Easter Long Weekend start showing symptoms? And the week after that? Will the actions of a few people fritter away everyone else’s sacrifices? Or do I only feel that because there’s so little of my life I can control right now? Maybe it feels better to blame the Instagram/TikTok beautiful people with guitars sipping coolers in the park, than to admit that while social distancing measures work, so much is also luck and chance.
I constantly have to fight the urge to turn this moment into a story: to give it meaning. Stories are comforting. They have a beginning, middle and end. A protagonist fights an antagonist (Man vs. Man! Man vs. Self! Man vs. Nature! All three at once!) This isn’t a story, but a moment we’re living through. It’s a virus, not a life lesson.
Today was grocery shopping day. In a past life, Dot used to careen through the aisles pushing her mini shopping cart, putting Peppa Pig books in while I wasn’t looking. We’d take our time selecting what fruit to buy. But now, grocery shopping is A Whole Thing. There are 3 steps.
Step 1: The Preparation.
You review the list the night before, making sure the items are arranged into aisles. You’re going to Safeway, because you’ve heard it’s more orderly than SaveOn, but your list is configured to SaveOn’s store layout. You try to remember what this Safeway is like. You write out the list by hand, hoping it helps you remember. You don’t have time to constantly check it.
You are goddamn Pandemic Santa: making a list, checking it twice. In the morning, you psych yourself up. You’re just going to go in and out. You have money in your bank account and a car: you are doing this pandemic on easy mode. Quick and easy. Easy does it. It’s not like you’re robbing a bank. (It feels a little like robbing a bank. Or like you’re in Guy’s Grocery Games, but instead of spinning a wheel to find out the protein in your dish, you’re trying not to breathe on anyone).
Step 2: The Big Shop
Safeway is far more prepared than SaveOn. (SaveOn was some Lord of the Flies shit. I got shoulder checked the last time I was there!) People line up outside, appropriately spaced. You’ve put on your mask, and you’re aware of your breath. When it’s your turn, you’re given a freshly sanitized cart. The aisles are wide. You start at the produce aisle, kicking yourself because you should have gone right to check for Lysol wipes. Now your tomatoes are going to get smushed.
It’s surreal to do such a basic task with such urgency. You want to get in and get out. Avoid touching too much stuff, but make sure you get good produce, the brands you’ve been asked to buy. Everyone’s quiet, aware of each other’s movements. No one makes eye contact, except for two old men who are angry at everyone and making their frustration known. The packages of meat are too big, one complains. Not appropriate for seniors. A woman is taking forever comparing types of yogurt, and you have to remind yourself to take a breath, let her pick her yogurt. Some people wear masks and some don’t. Some are following social distancing, some don’t seem to care. Your mask slips up and you try your best to tug it down without touching your face.
You can’t find hashbrowns. The aisles are one-way now, and so you need to circle back and take another look: still none. It’s not worth a third look. You’re not going to bother the busy grocery store staff with this request. You’ll survive without hashbrowns.
Still, you delight in finding Lysol, and paper towels, and black beans: things that have been sold out for weeks. And you even find Girl Guide cookies. And there’s a Starbucks in this Safeway, so you reward yourself with the ultimate score: a big iced coffee.
You pay, load up your car, and take off your mask: breathing in the cool air. You won’t have to do this for another week.
Step 3: The Inevitable Let-Down
It takes 3 trips in the elevator to get all your groceries into your apartment — trying to balance the bags while pressing the elevator button with your elbow — and now it’s time for the last, worst step of grocery shopping: the post-shop criticism. Your partner will inevitably look in a bag, roll his eyes and say, “Ummm okayyyyy,” drawing out the last syllable.
“Ummm okkaayyyyy, I asked you to get nacho Doritos.” He holds up a bag of Doritos as you point out that they say ‘nacho’ on them. It’s not the right kind of nacho Doritos. The box of cat litter is too small. And the last 4 tortillas in this package are broken — what is this? — what happened to these? And ummm okkaayyyy this pork shoulder is 1.7 kg, which is not the 4 pounds that he asked for, but whatever. Whatever. I guess we’ll just have less meat.
And then you really messed up and forgot the hamburger buns for the pulled pork. A total self-own. You thought you’d checked the list, but you forgot something. I’m sorry, you say. I’ll figure something out. Maybe you could make hamburger buns.
The plastic bags spill out of the cupboard. You never use plastic. You usually shop several times a week, and just put your groceries in the basket of the stroller. You want to say that you didn’t have time to properly evaluate the nacho-ness of the nacho Doritos because you were too busy trying to follow the social distancing rules, and an old man was yelling the store manager, and someone was coming up behind you, getting too close, and the mask was slipping up into your eyes, and they only had the tiny carts so you tried to Jenga all of your purchases and some were falling out, so you were balancing the cat litter on the handle and holding on to the milk. I went on a goddamn quest for those nacho-but-not-the-right-nacho Doritos, you want to say. I conquered Mt. Safeway.
Instead, you stand there, wiping down your phone with Lysol, marinating in someone else’s disappointment. All that pent-up energy that’s been sustaining you through the whole shop dissipates, replaced with a jangly caffeination from the iced coffee. You’ve done the last two shops because you can drive. And you get it — it sucks to not be able to pop to the store for some Doritos, to have to trust that someone else will get you what you want. It sucks. All of this sucks.
You take a shower ostensibly to wash away any last Coronavirus, but really to be alone for a few minutes. The hot water hits your stiff back. And when you change into clean sweatpants, you finally feel calm. You’re lucky. So much luckier than most. Your fridge is full. Your pantry is stocked. Tonight, you’ll make slow cooker chicken with soda bread. You’ll knead the dough while listening to the Pogues. You’ll fill your house with the scent of warm bread and rosemary and sage. You’ll eat a Girl Guide cookie. And though your best is not quite enough, you’ll get by.
Today, the saddest thing is how well my toddler follow quarantine. As I put on her shoes to take her outside, she says, “Slide broken. Swings broken. Outside broken. It’s okay.” When people come near, she hides behind me. “It’s okay,” she whispers. “It’s okay.” She doesn’t ask to go on the swings. She admires the dogs from afar. “Sit,” she tells them. “That’s a good boy.” When we go inside, she counts to 20 as we wash her hands. “Keep safe,” she says.
It’s Easter Sunday and I woke up in a fury over all of the people who went away to their cabins over the long weekend, who are refusing to cancel Easter parties, who are gathering on picnic blankets on the lawn out front of the hospital near us, beers in hand, yukking it up as I cross the street to keep Dot and I six feet away. I know that I can only focus on myself and my actions, but it’s so easy to think, “I’m cloistering my kid in our little apartment, she hasn’t seen her grandparents in over a month, all so that you can keep up with your busy beer pong schedule? So you can go to your SECOND home when so many people are struggling to afford their rent, and spread disease to communities without medical facilities?” I’m scared for what the next few weeks hold.
But it’s Easter, and I found this handmade smocked Easter dress that my mom kept from when I was Dot’s age, and my mom dropped off some Easter treats yesterday, so we had a little egg hunt. Dot ate a chocolate bunny and some “gummy’s bears” and then I made pancakes. Mostly, she was confused about the whole thing. But we did what we could. We tried, in a small way, to make it special for her.
Holidays are hard, I think, because I can’t imagine what next Easter will look like. I can’t picture our whole family gathered around a table again. Right now, despite the partiers outside my window who are “wooooo”ing and playing loud music, my life feels as if it will be un-peopled forever.
Tonight, I found a photo of me when I was Dot’s age, wearing the same dress. When she was a baby, we looked a lot alike. People on the street would often stop us to say things like, “Well, there’s no mistaking that she’s your daughter, eh?” But it was lovely to hold the two photos side-by-side and see that Dot is no longer a carbon copy of me, but her own person. She is growing into herself so wonderfully. She is becoming exactly who she is.
I love working out. I’m an anxious person, and the only way my brain settles is if I exhaust it by one of two methods: overthinking my entire life, or exercise.
Unfortunately, for the past 3 years, working out has been painful. Actually, walking, sitting, bending forward, driving…most things are painful. It used to be that I could push myself to the limits and just lay on the couch for the rest of the day, but now I have a toddler, and toddlers are hard on the old back. Before I had Dot, I thought that the most physically painful part of parenting would be the baby stage, because I would have to pick her up so often. I was wrong. I spend my day bending to keep her from darting out into traffic, to wipe her face or help her put her shoes, to grab a marker out of her hand when she’s trying to draw a rainbow on the wall. I sit on the floor to play cars; I let her ride on my back; I still babywear her when she’s very sad. Parenting is physical work, and my body is basically held together by duct tape.
But today my husband took her out to run in the sunshine, and I decided to try a quiet cardio routine. Some days you just got to get your endorphins however you can. So, I put on Hole’s “Celebrity Skin” and flailed away to a workout video I streamed from Youtube. Celebrity Skin was one of the defining albums of my teenage years. One day you’re 18 and you’re moodily using “a storm in the form of a girl” as your bio for your Myspace page — note to teenage Arley: you were not a storm in the form of a girl; you just have executive functioning issues — and the next day you’re 37 and huffing along to the song as a cheery blonde woman tells you to do one more lunge, that’s it, just one more, you can do it.
But it felt glorious: my heartrate up, the sun streaming in through the window, Courtney Love giving voice to my angst, those exercise endorphins flowing. But then, 20 minutes in, I tweaked my back.
I am a “push through the pain” kind of person. I’m also a “get injured because you pushed through the pain” kind of person. But today, I did myself proud. I stopped. Instead of finishing the video, I did 10 minutes of stretching. Then, I took a series of post-workout selfies, which only confirmed that my lazy eye has gotten lazier during this quarantine.
I’ve noticed that everyone seems crankier this week. People are tense with one another. Dot hasn’t been sleeping, so I haven’t been sleeping. The adrenaline is wearing off and all we’re left with is this miasma of uncertainty and worry. Has the curve flattened? Will all the jerks who disregarded orders to stay home and not go to small communities for the Easter long weekend spread COVID-19? Will this be the new norm? What will be the new norm? How many more months of this? When will my toddler get to hug her Nana again?
We’re past the panic of the early days and settling into the uncertainty of the long haul, which is its own kind of terrifying. It’s a marathon, not a sprint. And it’s better to do a 20 minute workout and conserve your strength, than to push too hard and not be able to pick up your toddler. Best to do a little workout, then put on your sweatpants and sit on your couch with your toddler, holding hands.