One night in the middle of November, warm for the season but cold enough to shiver, I stood on the narrow flank of Lake Winnipeg, boots crunching through the lacework of ice between rocks, looking south to where the city cast an orange glow on the clouds. A city sleeping, a city anxious, a city of nearly 800,000 people paused.
And the wind breathed over the lake, and the stars put on their show, and for a moment, watching from this earthly mezzanine between the celestial stage and the fire deep below, one could almost forget the battles being waged in hospitals, in long-term care, in the slowly creeping walls of countless lonely homes.
The last safe place in the world is the whole of it, but only where it finds you alone.
That day, 11 Manitobans died of COVID-19, what was then the highest one-day total of the pandemic. I scrolled past the news on my phone. Soon, the province would implement more restrictions on social gatherings. I piled logs on the fire and poured another glass of wine. Happy birthday to me; everything is perfect but nothing is fine.
It’s OK to cry over this. It’s OK to grieve over this. It’s OK, in these long nights of confined silence, to hold in your mind a portrait of life as you knew it, so familiar and yet now, just eight months later, so distant that you can only with trouble recognize its features. We are buying time for science and health care to save us, and this is the cost.
Some people afford it better, this coming apart. Others much worse. In between those extremes there are the many, nerves frayed but holding it together, trying to find ways to connect or just to pass time. Watch Netflix, go for a walk. Read a book, knit a sweater. The same as we did before, to be honest, but it’s different when it’s all you’ve got.
And we show faces on screens, and we ask things like: "what is the first thing you’ll do when this is over?"
In response, we pray a litany of answers: Throw a dinner party. Have a wedding. Go to a concert, or a dance party, or a crowded lounge, this time savouring the jostling shoulders of strangers. Hug a friend. Sing karaoke. Board a plane bound for somewhere. Linger in a crowd and listen to the buzz of conversation. Kiss a granddaughter.
If there is an ache in any or all of these things, it is not in just the closing off of an action, but in the loss of potential. Of all the pandemic’s casualties, physical and social, one of the greatest is pontaneity: in lockdown, life holds few surprise twists. There’s work, groceries and home. The people you live with, if not alone. That’s it.
The potential of anything is soil fertile enough to sprout hope. It’s frozen over, for now. Harder to grow your own.
In this, it still feels wrong to hurt, to long, to complain. Most of us — not all, but most — still have our basic needs met. We can eat, we can acquire the things we need, we can sleep with a roof over our heads. We have access to a gushing pipeline of entertainment engineered to soothe us into a life-saving inertia, and yet. And yet. And yet.
Life become small, desires still wide. A world vast but by invisible barriers confined. It’s OK to hurt over this.
Researchers have studied and theorized isolation’s effect on the minds of our social species. We are finding out now how far those minds can bend, and for how long. In the last two months, the tension in our remaining social spaces — online, mostly — has grown more palpable, the anger quicker to flash, the grief more nakedly shown.
I wrote something similar to this, not long ago. A man wrote me to say I was fearmongering, that of course we would hug our loved ones again. On this, I agree: nobody thinks this is permanent. But time, as we are learning, has a way of stranding us in a space between "now" and "forever," one without distinction between what is and what ends.
This too shall pass, one way or another. Every wave crests and recedes. Yet as this one still carries us forward into restricted and atomized lives, it is OK to grieve. Some have lost much to the pandemic, things that will never come back and cannot be replaced. But everyone has lost something, and to each that carries weight.
So as Manitoba’s cases sit swollen — if somewhat more stable — and we take in the daily beat of system stress and human death on our TVs and phones, let there be space to be gentle with each other. The truth is, most people are doing their best to get by, neither protesting or holding the front lines, just locked in a struggle of our own.
The refrain since the start, but slowly petering out, has been that we’ll get through this together. It feels good to think of it as a collective adventure, the foe simple and unsympathetic, the battle lines known. That’s only the part we fight on the surface, though. The practical effort. The big picture. The part we as a group must control.
Truth is, it was always going to come down to this: the inner battles of this war, we have to get through alone.
Later that night, at the cabin, the lights on the water blink out as the clouds smother the stars. In the dark, the lake spans out a void so vast it consumes imagination, leaving only a nothing taking up most of my vision, unconcerned that it matches the growing hole in my heart. I fall asleep on the couch, and wake to the grey of the sun.
On the shore, two foxes dart through the grasses, carrying something scavenged in their mouths. Eyes bright, ears alert. They pause for a moment, choosing which way to go, and then scurry off into the bushes, knowing by a scent their direction. I turn back to the city but leave my thoughts running with them, far from the tight grip of home.
Melissa Martin reports and opines for the Winnipeg Free Press.