The Unquieted Quarantine Mind and Body

When I thought ahead to this moment, at 36 weeks pregnant with twins, I imagined joking about the fast-approaching twindemic (after all, about 50 per cent of twins are born this week). And while I am constantly thinking about their safe arrival, it’s the global pandemic that takes centre stage (as it should).

I started maternity leave (from my non-profit career) a month ago, anticipating I’d need time to transition to my new twin-mom-with-toddler reality. I also wanted to focus on writing and painting projects, while preparing for the twins’ arrival. I had an opportunity to speak with Andrea Bennett for Maisonneuve magazine for her “Conversations in Quarantine” series at the beginning of May. My interview is part of a “series of conversations with Canadian authors about how they’re coping with the pandemic, how they’re writing—or not writing—and what life is like for them now.” Andrea and I talked about my writing, but we also talked about my latest solo landscape art show (which had just opened when the pandemic began here) and what it’s like to be expecting twins during the pandemic.

In a word, life is different. A period I thought would be marked by the world still busily turning around me, while I slowed down, stepped off the treadmill, and took refuge at home, hopeful and waiting, now looks like most people’s realities. We all wait now. We’re all in this together, we say, in an effort to lift collective spirits. But there are periods of loneliness, mundaneness, pessimism and frustration. Those feelings become debilitating some days.

Keeping to our bubbles is what we must do. It’s the safer alternative to many people’s realities, especially those on the frontlines. I don’t just mean the doctors and nurses, but the grocery clerks, the postal workers, the factory workers and others. I also think about the parents juggling work and children at home. I think about those without a fixed address, even more vulnerable. And I think about those in care facilitates not receiving the care and support from family and loved ones to which they are accustomed and dependent. The list of these stark realities goes on.

As I consider these realities, I find myself downplaying my own. I’m grateful my family is healthy and housed. My partner and I have job security. While I know my birthing experience will be different than I anticipated, I won’t be alone like many others in healthcare. Bottom line: I know my privilege. But I too feel weary at times. And I feel guilty about that weariness. I often don’t allow myself to think about it, let alone give into it. But here we are, entering our third month of isolation, with a promise of entering a fourth month (Ontario just announced it will extend its state of emergency until June 2). We don’t yet know when we’re coming out on the other side of this or what to expect on the other side – either of ourselves or the world around us.

My two-year-old has moments of desperation too, which is especially heartbreaking. She wonders when she can play with her friends, borrow a book from the library, enjoy the swing at the park or visit her favourite museums. She asks to go for drives and makes comments along the way like, “Playground is too closed, Mommy.” While it’s always been true that “some is not a number, soon is not a time,” it’s especially true when speaking to a small child.

Meanwhile, independent of the pandemic, I knew I’d be asking myself what’s on the other side and how my life will change in relation to my growing family. I also knew I’d become a social distancing expert (as other twin parents have advised me). But this. This is a lot of change packed into uncertainty coming fast and slow and all at once.

I do the work – the writing, the art and more – because it helps me to cope by granting me tangible things within my control. It reminds me of the world beyond my closed door and it keeps me connected to that world. It also forces me to struggle with how I’m feeling. As I said in my interview with Maisonneuve, the pandemic (and other events like the Nova Scotia shooting) repeatedly makes me question: “is what I’m writing important? Does it even matter?” I go on to answer my own question saying, “Until someone picks up their pen and helps make an important topic interesting and a pleasure to read, that subject matter can go forever unnoticed. I believe in the journalistic principle of raising the profile of what matters; and I believe in solutions journalism, too. We don’t have to be held to the way we’ve always done things.” And frankly, we can’t be held to that historical standard any longer.

I’ve surprised myself with what’s possible during this time. And the world has returned the surprises. In terms of writing, I’ve written a few pieces for The Independent (NL) and I have forthcoming pieces in Atlantic Books Today, Atlantic Business Magazine, Downhome, [EDIT] and the Literary Review of Canada. I am honoured to share my writing was recognized as a silver finalist for Best Profile Article at this year’s Atlantic Journalism Awards (for a piece I wrote for Newfoundland Quarterly about my late father, Donald Thornhill). The same awards recognized my landscape art as Best Cover (Gold category) for the fall issue of Atlantic Books Today.

I mentioned I had launched a new solo art show (“For the Love of SEAnery”) in March. The venue was forced to close its doors, so I shared with Maisonneuve my disappointment at a hanging exhibit no one would see. But within days, the show became available on the resto-gallery’s Crowdfunder Canada site thanks to a J.W. McConnell Foundation grant offered to the Wellington West Business Improvement Area. I’m sharing proceeds with Minwaashin Lodge in Ottawa, which provides a range of programs and services to First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and children (regardless of status) who are survivors of domestic and other forms of violence, and who may also be suffering the effects of the residential school system.

Meanwhile, I took the downtime to launch a small meeting group of writers (from eastern Ontario, Newfoundland and Labrador and Boston) who connect monthly to share our nonfiction book ideas and aspirations. We’re called, Bookish Writing Support Group, and we’ve had two virtual meetings so far. I also joined the Writers Union of Canada, applied for the Public Lending Right Program and affiliation with Access Copyright and created author profiles on places like Goodreads and Amazon. These are things I ought to have considered sooner, but there never seemed to be the time..

Of course, there are things that have been postponed – I’m three chapters away from a finished audiobook version of Cod Collapse; and I was to appear with one of my favourite authors, Linden MacIntyre, at the spring session of the Ottawa Writersfest. The audiobook will continue and the session with Linden is to be rescheduled, so I hold out hope.

I’ve also managed to stay in touch with some of my non-profit work, for example, last week helping to develop a Personal Protective Equipment video for family caregivers with The Ottawa Hospital’s Simulation Centre and the Canadian Foundation for Healthcare Improvement. Just this week, results from a McMaster Health Forum roundtable on scaling up shared decision-making in home and community care was released (I participated in the forum in the fall). The Forum’s findings are even more relevant now, for example, the reports cites “a lack of culture of patient engagement in general [in home and community care], and particularly in the case of older adults. As one participant said: ‘We don’t have a culture of older adults expecting to be engaged in decisions about them. We often turn to the family even if the older adult is sitting there.’ A second participant went further: ‘Our system is about mitigating all risk. How do we get out of our societal value of over protecting our elderly [and thus not allowing them to make choices]’).” I find this discussion particularly haunting now as we consider families are often not present with loved ones (e.g., in Long-Term Care and palliative care) and decisions may be made in their absence, as well as without full patient input. And yet, my volunteer work as a community rep on the Bruyère Board of Directors reminds me that our clinicians are doing everything they can (and more), during an unprecedented time.

Now, I continue to wait, doing my best to focus on what matters and trying to give into the emotions, as they come, while preparing for an uncertain but hopeful future.

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