Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

Falling in a Pandemic

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Yesterday, I saw a woman fall and everything changed.

I decided to go for a drive with my dog, Bella. Roll the windows down so she could take in the scents of another neighbourhood. I just wanted to drive. No music, no inspirational podcasts, just silence and the cool air, the bright sun and us, just driving.

I set off east on Queen street. No decided direction. What rare moment in a day is this? To do something without aim or task to check off the list. To meander in a kind of illusion of freedom. Reminds me of being a kid when the days seemed so long and we could hang out in trees or wander through the woods aimlessly, spontaneously, joy-fully. Inventing each moment as it arrived. I miss that kind of presence that seemed to flow in us so effortlessly. Now, we have to make time for it. Set a schedule so you can “fit in” the meditation, the journaling, the exercise…reading.

Maybe I set out in the car looking for that sort of presence within myself but also, around me. To trust in the accuracy of each moment drawing my attention; each red light, each stop sign, a cardinal that flew by, a little girl walking her dog, all those CLOSED signs in the window, my own breath.

And then I saw her fall as she tried to run to catch her bus.
Full frontal whole body fall down.
I gasped. Hit the brakes.

I rolled my window, calling to her.
“Are you okay?”
She pushed herself up onto her knees. She seemed a bit stunned.
I called again, “Are you okay?”
She looked (sort of) in my direction. Nodded.
I guessed she was in her 70s.

She stayed there, kneeling in the middle of the street.
A forced genuflection. To whom? To what?

The car behind me pulled out and drove around me. Same with the next car.
“Are you sure you’re okay?” I called again.

She shook her head “no” looking at her hand, still kneeling on the cement.
She started to crawl. On her knees.
Holding her wrist, crawling to try and get off the street.

“Okay hold on, hold on, don’t move,” I called out as I quickly scanned the traffic around me and oncoming, pulled off Queen street and pulled onto a side street.

I scanned my car for what? Gloves? There were none. A mask? Nothing.
What the fuck has happened to me that I would even THINK to look for these things?
The palpability of everything about the world (these days) had penetrated and I loathed that these thoughts were in me at all.

“Fuck this,” I remember thinking as I pulled the parking brake into place, turned off the car and hit the hazards.

She was still there. On her knees. Looking at her hand. Still stunned.

As I approached her, I said, “You’re okay. I’m going to help you. We won’t take each other’s hands but I will take your arm and help you stand, okay?”

She looked up at me, “Oh, right…that…Okay. My hand….” She lifted it toward me to show me the gravel coated cut and bit of blood.
“Yes, that.” I thought to myself. That.

We looked each other in the eyes and oh, my heart. My heart. Her eyes were aged. Red ringed and so utterly tired. I must have looked the same to her for I felt in my body what I saw in her.

“You’re okay, I got you,” I said and as put my left arm under her right arm, bracing my legs to support my back (as they teach—and we somehow never forget—in those How To Lift Properly lessons), I wrapped my left hand around her forearm and cupped my right hand onto her elbow and….it seemed like time stopped moving.

My small hand
a gentle firm grasp around the thin bone of her right arm through her navy winter coat.
My mind notes what seems fragile.
And so thin.
My bicep muscle pressed into the bone of her upper arm. Careful, Jenn.
Bone and muscle.
Fabric and grey gravel cement.
Hands not touching.
Arms linked. Bracing. Cupping. Holding.
Knees bruised and pebble pressed, no doubt a bit of blood under her black pants.
A glimpse down at her catfish-grey-coloured rainboots.
I blame the boots. Who can run in those?
Faces close, sharing breath.

I got you. You’re okay. Here we go and…

Up she goes. We stand.
She’s still stunned. Still looking at her hands.
A leather glove drops. I didn’t know she had gloves. How did I miss that detail?

I pick up the glove…I pick up the glove.

I hand it to her as I see the bus driver crossing the street towards us.

“I don’t know what happened,” she said. Still stunned.

“We’re all a bit dazed these days, it’s okay. Were you trying to get this bus?”

She nods. She’s wants to cry but she won’t let it happen. Oh, I know this place, lady.

As the bus driver approaches, I say, “She’s trying to get to your bus.” He nods, he takes her arm.
He takes her arm.
And off they go.

“Thank you,” she says to me.

I can’t even remember what I said then. If I said anything.
I know I smiled at them. I think I did.

As I stood there, watching her go, watching her walk, I choked my own tears back as I realized this was the first human touch I’d experienced in…I don’t know how long.

I hoped that was not the case for her.

(Original link with readers’ comments here.)

An Unexpected Delivery

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A package arrived yesterday afternoon via UPS, just as John was taking Rudi, our little dachsie, out for a pee. Well, bedlam ensued. Rudi and I were squeezed in the storm porch between open doors. My husband John was on the front steps trying to shut the door. The delivery guy was trying to give the parcel to John. John was trying not to take the parcel. The dog was barking—a lot and loudly.

I started running around trying to find a plastic bag for the package that John was now holding on my return to the door. John called for scissors to open to package because he didn’t want to bring it inside.

I ran back to the kitchen and yelled that I was getting a bag from under the sink and to leave it all outside…. Good grief.

It was like someone had just delivered a bomb. God.

We have to “cam down,” as they say around here. My friend said that her father, who was a fisherman, used to say about the sea some days: “It’s a flat-ass sea.” So we must be.

The package is now in isolation for a week.

Things I Never Thought I’d Say

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1. “Don’t touch my face, don’t touch my face.” Repeating the mantra when the wind blows my hair in my eyes.

2. When I hear the front door open, “Strip, take off your clothes. Wash your hands.”

3. “OMG, I’d hate to be on that cruise!” On hearing about the Grand Princess passengers.

4. “Ah, this is so sweet of you. You brought me a gift that’s better than flowers,” I say, handling the 60-roll toilet paper package.

5. “Social distancing, social distancing,” I say, erecting a pillow wall in our king sized bed.

6. “Do you know they’re selling t-shirts with the face of the Chief Medical Officer?”

7. “Forget the bananas!” Reinforcing the “stay-at-home” directive to my ninety-year-old mother.

8. “What? My laptop doesn’t have a camera? I need a webcam, like yesterday.”

9. “My light switches have never been this clean.”

10. “I’m going back to my roots,” I announce upon hearing hair salons have closed.

(Original link with readers’ comments here.)

From One to Many

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Since February 2019, when I was diagnosed with a strange cancer, visible on CT, PET, and all the other alphabetized scans—but not making me outwardly ill—I have become used to staying at home, more and more. I go out for treatments at the hospital, which leave me fatigued and with a suppressed immune system, so I spend time at home, napping and having hot baths. When I have enough energy, I go out to meet friends, see a show at a museum, attend a play, read a few poems at a reading, have dinner at a restaurant with my partner. Even routine things like shopping, going to the bank, the library, the hardware store are restorative—for a while, I can feel normal in a normal, functioning world. Then fatigue, or fear, overtakes me. Sometimes, I wonder how the world can continue normally while I am ill, straying closer to the brink of death.

And then everything changes. The virus spreads like wildfire over the world: China to other parts of Asia, Europe, the US, Canada, South America, Africa. People are dying. More people are dying. Everything is cancelled, one event after another. The old “domino theory,” in a new guise. No sports, no readings, no theatre, no museums, no schools (except for online teaching). No businesses open except essentials.

Both my partner and I are in self-isolation because of the high risk from my illness  and because of our age (we both turned 75 in mid March). Already used to enjoying time at home with each other, we now sink into this new rhythm of only going out for essentials. We cuddle closer, cook meals, watch old movies. I find time to write, to clear a junk-drawer, to look through old photographs. I do my relaxation and yoga classes on Zoom, and find this actually works. Our neighbours are helpful, and we help them. My cancer treatments continue, though the hospital has greatly increased safety precautions. We call our children, our siblings, our other relatives and friends, many in the now hard-hit US. So far, everyone we call or email is well, but the anxiety is there, in ever-widening circles: our friends here who are out of work; people in shelters; people in refugee camps with tents crowded close together, no clean water or soap to wash hands. I am washing many times a day, feeling like the title character in a 1990 book on obsessive-compulsive disorder, The Boy Who Couldn’t Stop Washing by Judith L. Rapoport. But this is not a disorder; the danger is real. We listen to Justin Trudeau telling us to “Go home and stay home” and “We’ll get through this together.” Far different from being told (south of the border) that it will all be over by Easter, and get back to work.

Easter is coming, and so is Passover. Last winter, in pottery class, I made a Seder plate, not sure I would even be alive in April to use it. We did use it last year, and will again this year, as families gather at virtual Seder tables and Easter services, trying to find our way through this worldwide wilderness.

South of the Border

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My car sits idle in the driveway of my parents’ house, spring pollen coating it undisturbed. I have not left for more than a bike ride since March ground to a halt, and I’m one of the lucky ones. Lucky that I’m not required to risk my life at work. Lucky that losing my part-time job doesn’t land me on the streets, since my parents can support me temporarily. Strangely, lucky that an injury ended my short career as a touring performer months ago, so that I’d already retreated home to regroup before this crisis began. Lucky that no one I know personally has yet caught the virus.

I am desperate to spread my bubble of safety, to help those less lucky than myself, but remain paralyzed by the awareness that I could be carrying COVID19. My mom is a healthcare worker, so everyday the coronavirus has a pathway into our house. Instead of assistance, I could be spreading infection. Without a way to be certain, I stay home, clinging to my guilt-ridden safety, aware that the tiniest twinge in the universe could endanger my mom and put my family in a different position entirely.

Outside my window, the world’s timeline has fractured. All bridges over the swirling chaos of the pandemic began several weeks ago, their hazy structures now barely discernible above us. America has always been the more bombastic sibling, discarding all pretense of equality in the election of Donald Trump. While Canada’s struggles with COVID19 are very real, threatening vulnerable populations, major cities, and my closest friends, America has amplified every aspect of the crisis. The reverberations ripple the air even in my parents’ placid suburban neighbourhood.

Until recently, I lived in Toronto, and I meant to stay there forever. Now my fate seems oddly tied to that of the birth country I thought I had left behind. Almost all of my friends still live in Canada, and in some ways we’re closer now that at any point since I moved away: sharing the mundane struggles of social distancing, inhabiting Zoom as if it were our living room. But increasingly, the numbers show that we are living in two different realities, the borders firmly shut between the country weathering a terrible storm and an empire in what might be its death throes.

Though I’ve never been one to harbour any illusions about the greatness of a country built through slavery on stolen Indigenous land, I fear for America. I lie awake at night thinking about the sheer number of people who will die as our infrastructure fails us, the chaos and danger that might ensue if the government collapses, and the inequities that will sharply worsen as austerity measures follow the huge bailouts. A feel our collective post-Cold War hubris giving way to a chill of panic, our already-precarious hegemony slipping away. The system was always broken, but now it lies shattered on the floor.

Coronavirus is a turning point, a massive boulder colliding with the arc of history and forever altering its path. It cannot change for the better: there is no way to be better off from a pandemic which is causing hundreds of thousands of deaths. However, we have a collective responsibility to do what we can while the future is malleable. Before the dust settles, we must have plans in place to protect each other and the planet and prevent the spread of authoritarianism. If we don’t seize the moment, we can’t be sure who will.

On both sides of the 49th parallel and around the world, this is the crucial time to come together, even as we must physically stay apart. I am thirsty for stories of community strength. Today, Amazon and Instacart workers are striking. People are checking in on their neighbours. Some jurisdictions have enacted rent freezes and other measures to protect the vulnerable. Tiny seeds of progressive change are taking root in the social cracks widened by the pandemic. Together, we can change the current of this pandemic, forcing our way from the whirlpool of destruction into a more compassionate future.