Article Category Archives: Creative Nonfiction

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.

When Everyone Is Panicking

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I am afraid of everything: spiders, public speaking, my furnace exploding, living on the first floor of an apartment building, being late, sleeping, needles, walking home alone at night, job interviews, first dates, fifth dates, relationships, choking, asking other people for help, using a gas stove, driving, flying, breaking a bone.

I have struggled with fear and anxiety all my life. Two feelings that often go hand in hand and are persistent and continual, the way a mosquito zings around your bedroom in the dark, always there, but never able to be caught and released out your window or smacked down with an unsuspecting piece of mail. I would feel anxious about work, so began to fear what would happen when I stepped through the doors of my office. Or worse, what could happen on my way there, before I’d even set foot in the building. Then suddenly my chest would be constricted, my heart would be in my throat and I’d be googling symptoms of panic attacks or heart attacks or some kind of attack that would explain the feelings I was experiencing. Or, I’d be afraid of the mouse I saw peeking out from behind my bookshelf, so I’d become anxious about how I wouldn’t be able to sleep knowing it was still in my apartment. Then I wouldn’t turn the lights off at ten or eleven or two a.m. and suddenly it was five months later and I’d still never flicked off that switch.

And yet, I am not afraid right now. Canada is facing one of the biggest health crises in its history. The World Health Organization has declared a global pandemic. Entire countries are in lockdown or quarantine or shutting borders—ones that have rarely been shut in peacetime. I, along with many of my friends and family members, am likely to be unemployed for the foreseeable future. Absolutely everything is uncertain.

Two weeks ago, I made a split-second decision to purchase a flight back to Canada, not even one month into what was meant to be a one year stay in Austria after spending the previous two and a half in Scotland. But the Austrian borders were closing, the region I had chosen to call my home was under lockdown, all accommodation providers shut to guests and all non-citizens urged to leave. Moments after I clicked Confirm on the Air Canada website, I called my Mom on the barely-there middle-of-the-mountains Wi-Fi. The line rang and rang and the tinny WhatsApp dial tone echoed emphatically in my ear. It was just past midnight Vancouver time, so when she didn’t pick up, I instead sent through a screenshot of my flight itinerary. I’d be home—a word that will always remain complicated for me—in less than 24 hours.

Half a day later, after I had safely crossed the border to Germany on my way to Frankfurt International Airport, my Mom text back: Are you okay? This can’t be good for your anxiety. I responded immediately with I don’t have time to be anxious. And that was the truth. As soon as I’d come to terms with a decision, news update or piece of government advice, new information surfaced and I was forced to reassess once again. There was no time for those usual fears, dark thoughts or making myself feel ill with worry.

So, two weeks ago I got on a flight to Calgary and then another one to Vancouver without having a panic attack in the airport washroom, when only the day prior I was planning to go skiing for the weekend. I had been anxious about getting back up on the slopes for the first time in a while, about navigating rental shops in a language I didn’t yet speak, and about the price of the lift ticket. All utterly privileged worries that pale in comparison to what’s going on in the world right now and, to be truthful, to what’s going on in the world every day.

So, while everyone else is panic-buying toilet paper and pasta and canned soup, endlessly scrolling through social media, or sitting perched on couches to stream Trudeau’s briefing or watch the case numbers creep higher on CBC’s live updates, I feel an eerie sense of calm. I have food from a grocery store that remains open. I have family and friends whose faces I can see with the touch of a button on my phone screen. I have savings I can access. I have a place to stay that is warm and comfortable. I have my health—both physical and mental. I am luckier than most and so, for perhaps the first time in my life, I do not feel anxious or fearful.

Letting go of these feelings has been both empowering and liberating. My ex-therapist might say that I am numbing my feelings, but it certainly doesn’t feel that way. Instead, it feels as if I finally have some clarity: I am calm. I am grateful. I am exactly where I need to be. I’ve learned more about myself during these past few weeks than I ever did in my months of GP-mandated counselling sessions. I’ve had no choice but to take deep breaths and trust people—some of whom I’d only just met. I’ve learned to be positive and open-minded and to have hope. I’ve realized how much responsibility and professionalism and heart our health professionals exude and how lucky I am to live in a developed country with proper medical resources. I’m astounded that I’ve never appreciated this before.

So, while I recognize that you might be anxious or worried or scared right now and you might not have access to each of the things I’ve listed above, if you can, if you are lucky to have even one of these things, hold onto that. Appreciate that. It’s more than most.

(Original link with readers’ comments is here.)

Covid-19 Painting Project

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Born of my anxiety from the Covid-19 pandemic, I have been spending copious amounts of time during this isolation period creating abstract acrylic paintings.

After hearing from friends living in Italy who are still suffering from an extended period of intense fear, sadness, and extreme cabin fever, the many works of art that I’ve produced lately reflect my attempts at keeping my own dark thoughts, worries, and ruminations at bay.

I initially turned to painting when I first embarked on a career as a remote, freelance writer. Writing primarily for medical organizations, my work-related writing often involves issues surrounding deadly illnesses. Inevitably, this work can become depressing at times. When that happens, I look to painting as a means of escapism. Creating my own diversionary “change of scenery,” I often end up painting abstracts that unconsciously depict my environmental concerns. (Escaping all of my worries, has obviously proven to be impossible!)

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