It should have been a difficult year.
On January 28, 2020, the British Columbia government announced the first presumptive positive case of COVID-19, when a traveller returning from Wuhan, China tested positive for a virus the world knew little about though rumours swirled of an epidemic flu type illness alarming in its ability to not just spread quickly but to kill.
Two months later, the Health authority in British Columbia, where I live, announced the first community, non-travel case of COVID-19. Three days later, the first of too many deaths occurred in a care home in North Vancouver. BC declared a state of emergency that is ongoing as I write this.
Six months into the virus, September 2020, I embarked on a ten-month writing program at Simon Fraser University. By then, I’d become accustomed to C-19 protocols, not surprised, but disappointed to find out the course would be online. I’d miss the opportunity of face-to-face learning, though I looked forward to filling the long Covid hours pursuing my writing.
On the first day of ‘class’, I felt both excited and nervous. Excited to meet the group of people I’d be sharing the next ten months with and nervous, afraid my unfamiliarity with the tools of COVID-19 might prove daunting. Slack, Zoom, BB Collaborate, online forums, online discussions, an alternative way of learning for me. What if I couldn’t figure out the audio on my computer? What if I actually looked as awful on their video feeds as I did on mine? Instructions about how to look good on zoom contradicted each other. Background is important, put a beautiful painting behind you, advised one website. Background is a distraction, sit in front of a plain wall, advised another. Correct screen height is essential to your appearance, as is lighting. Different experts recommended different techniques. Look up to the camera, look down to the camera, look straight at the camera. Use natural light, or back light, or sidelight, or dimmed light or bright light. Mute when someone else is talking, mute when you chew, mute when you cough, and mute at any hint of bodily function sounds. Triple check that your video is off. Horror stories of people unknowingly leaving their camera on while undressing during zoom calls went viral.
Already challenged by the intensity of the program, I tried not to think about all the things that might go wrong, but I needn’t have worried. Our first meeting, led by our talented scribe, Claudia Cornwall, and assisted by our wise and kind TA, Maryanna Gabriel, set a tone of encouragement and support that would last the duration of the course.
The speed at which our cohort absorbed our new reality astounded me. Humans are adaptable, whether it be normalizing runs on toilet paper or debating the merit of cloth versus disposable masks. In this viral world, new phrases and words entered our vocabulary: Social distancing, airborne spread, Covid bubbles, variants, VOCs, isolation, quarantine, N95s, Long Haulers, mRNA, lockdowns, herd immunity, vaccine passports, virtual happy hours.
In that first year of Covid, many people, cut off from family and friends, became lonely and depressed. Some faced job loss, illness, and hospitalization, as the virus claimed lives indiscriminately, targeting the most vulnerable in society.
None of those things happened to me. Instead, in the first year of COVID-19, something magical occurred. The magic of building new relationships.
With age, making friends becomes more difficult. As the bonds formed in childhood, high-school and university strengthen, forming fresh relationships becomes challenging and living in lockdown, withdrawing into our private bubbles, means the opportunities to meet and foster new friendships are scarce.
There are nine of us in Memoir Writing, bringing our total to eleven. All are women, some younger, some older, from a variety of backgrounds and countries. We meet virtually, two or three or times a week, on Zoom or BB Collaborate to workshop our stories, to provide feedback and encouragement to each other as we mine our memories to bring our past to the page.
Mental time-travel is hard. Some stories bring joy, some tears. Every time I hear someone read, I’m awed by their talent, their survival skills, their sense of humour, their courage in telling their story. Initially, we knew nothing about each other. We still know less than if we’d met in a classroom or a bar or a café. These have been slow-growing relationships, where every week, every reading, every word adds a piece to the puzzle of the whole person.
Through our stories, we’ve come to know each other, to trust each other, sharing intimate chapters of our lives, usually for the first time.
Our Tuesday morning chats, our Saturday mentor readings, and our Tuesday evening workshops have become the highlight of my week.
Writing is often described as a lonely occupation, but because of my cohort, I’ve never felt alone.
As I sit and write, these women sit with me, poised on the edge of my imagination, their fingers flying over the keys, tapping out their hearts in beautifully crafted sentences. I am thinking about them now, as the course nears its end.
There is Engeli, who brings me sunshine and warmth, both in her lyrical words and her tropical travels. There is Jenny, coyote whisperer who has taught me to understand and appreciate the dedication and passion of a field scientist. There is Ellen, whose brilliance shines a dazzling light, softened by the golden glow of her commitment to saving lives. There is multi-talented Leesa, whose extraordinary ability to capture my imagination takes me on the wings of fantasy into her world. There is Kate, the Truth-teller, who stories tug at my heart long after I’ve heard them. There is Kae, whose tales of discord and harmony accompany me on a musical journey into a world of sound. There is Karen whose courage to write and fight for the environment reminds me I can make a difference to the planet. There is Nuia whose courageous story of upheaval and beauty reminds me the importance of kindness and love.
Lately, aware that our time together is waning, we talk of the future. Words like ‘seeing’ each other creep into our vocabulary. The possibility of ideas we once took for granted resurface. “Maybe post Covid, we could all get together.”
We reminisce of the past, when humans sat together, touched, shared meals, and inhaled the same air. We imagine talking to each other, not on a screen, but in person.
That intimacy, once familiar, now seems distant. On Zoom, spontaneity is lost, while our ability to listen mindfully improves. Online we dress from the waist up, run a quick brush through our hair, and if we remember, a bit of mascara, but in real-life we’ll toss our slippers and pajama bottoms, dress again as whole people.
There will be no more props. When I picture the writers in my cohort, each one has a personalized backdrop. Leesa triumphs for pure aesthetic value. Ellen for her well-stocked library, Kate for her house-in-progress, Jenny’s blue walls, and affectionate dog, and Kae’s softly painted office, Karen on a boat or in an Airbnb, Engeli’s sun drenched abode, and Nuia wrapped in a warm housecoat, puppy at her side, Maryanna haloed by yellow light, Claudia, with large, black ears. The background’s we chose is a part of how we now visualize ourselves and each other. Imagine Mona Lisa backdropped by a kitchen, instead of a landscape or The Lady of Shallot backdropped by a high mountain, instead of a green and blue Lake, or the girl in Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergere without the bar?
I long for the time when I can meet my writing cohort, my new friends in person, and I hope they will forgive me, if I forget to say “Hello,” and instead shout, You’re muted. I can’t hear you. Your screen is off.
If so, it will only happen once. After all, we are human and we adapt quickly.