Written on the Body #18: March 22, 2020 – Pandemic!

I hope all of you reading this are well and safe, or if you and/or a loved one is ill, you will recover fully and soon.

Interesting that this post is #18, as 18 in Jewish numerology represents “Chai,” the word for Life. Let us hope this is a good sign today. We have also just passed the Spring Equinox, and COVID-19 or not, spring is coming. And yet the new virus cases also keep coming in.

This is a strange time for the world. And perhaps a sign that we do have to work together, as a global and human community. There is a saying by the Jewish scholar, teacher, and religious leader Hillel the Elder (presumed dates 110 B.C.E. – 10 C.E., though this would make him 120 years old!): If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, what am I? and if not now, when? This is often quoted at Passover (this year beginning April 8), and is certainly relevant now: take care of yourself, to make you better able to take care of your loved ones and community — and now is the time.

I have noticed that in Canada, as well as many other places, people are doing this: looking out for and caring for each other, and finding ways to connect socially while at a physical distance — and also taking care of ourselves.

Personally, I am experiencing a shift from being an ill person (though not critically ill, able to get out and do ordinary things — but still anxious, and cutting back on many activities to conserve energy and protect my immune system) in a world of the healthy and active, to now being only one person in a world absorbed in illness, testing, anxiety, and many forms of isolation. This has added another layer of isolation and worry for me and Roger and our families (I am high-risk for complications of the virus, and Roger and I are both 75, adding more risk) — but it is not a sudden shock.

Also, as a writer, I am used to working at home — as are most writers, visual artists, composers, and musicians some of the time. However, we need and want to get out to readings, exhibits, workshops, rehearsals and performances — all of which are now cancelled, creating more isolation as well as financial problems, some of which are drastic. It is good that the Canadian government is trying to find ways to help people who do not get paid for sick days and not eligible for E.I. to survive in this crisis. This financial help applies not only to artists, but to small business owners and their employees (house-cleaners, hair-dressers, some restaurant owners, and many others).

I am grateful that I have a home to live in, with food and water, a bathroom, a bed, phone and computer operating well so we can be in touch with family, friends, and the outside world, and books, movies, music all available without having to go outside. People who have pets still have them, as a source of comfort and companionship. I am also fortunate to be living with someone I love and can talk with (or be silent with, finding our own spaces in the house when necessary). I worry about people in shelters, in jails and hospitals, in refugee camps and other dangerous places. The Indigenous people in Northern Canada, where many reserves have been on a boil-water alert for years, and live in over-crowded, unsafe housing.

So it bothers me when people tell me they feel “in jail” in their homes. The words we use for our personal narrative are important, and our thoughts and words shape our feelings. “In jail” certainly arouses more anxiety than “safe at home.” A friend mentioned that Dr. Isaac Bogoch, a Toronto doctor, has suggested people use the phrase “physical distancing,” not “social distancing,” and try to stay “socially connected” without physical presence. We are lucky to have these techniques available now — which would have been impossible even 20 years ago. I am, of course, like most Canadians, thankful for our health-care system and all who work in it.

On the other hand, we do have to recognize that this is a dangerous time, and suggesting (as a recent poem does) that it is a “sacred time” does not give the whole picture. I once attended a psychotherapy workshop led by Yvonne Dolan, in which she said that as a child and teenager, she lived with her grandmother near a lake. As a young child, she saw the lake as “beautiful.” As an adolescent, she saw only the oil-spills polluting the water. Eventually, with her grandmother’s help and as she became an adult, she could see both points of view: the beauty and the danger. We need to keep this multi-sided view of our world. And perhaps all the swift action on dealing with the corona virus will help nations and individuals take more action to deal with climate change itself.

On a personal note, my cancer treatments are, so far, continuing as normal: I was at Princess Margaret this week for bloodwork, a doctor’s appointment, and an IV treatment, and all proceeded as usual. I don’t need to go back until April 6, and hope the hospital continues running well (despite, I am sure, some staff who cannot get to work). They check everyone at the door for symptoms and need-to-be-there (staff, patients, visitors), and enforce using hand-sanitzier. I expected long lines, but was able to get in easily, with no waiting time. My son Joe, who lives in B.C., was supposed to come to Ontario for a visit on March 31, for about a week, but has cancelled his trip — a wise decision, which I encouraged though I will miss seeing him.

Stay safe. Stay well. Stay in touch — call that friend or family member. If not now, when?

About Ellen

I am a member of The Writers Union of Canada, the League of Canadian Poets, and CANSCAIP. I have received grants from the Ontario Arts Council for both writing and teaching. I currently work with Learning Through the Arts and Living through the Arts, programmes run by the Royal Conservatory of Music that enable artists to work in schools and community organizations. I have also taught in many other school and community programs, and have been a judge for various writing contests for both young people and adults.
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