The Year in Review
I recall feeling excited heading into the new year, anticipating good things to come. With the double digits and famous expression “hindsight is 2020,” how could the upcoming year not be monumental? Twenty-twenty was to be big not only for me personally but for the world.
I can’t help but think that others, like me, are looking back now and wanting to be positive about the future. We now know that all the positive thinking, plans, and goals for betterment can be locked down, cancelled, or closed at any time. How do we move forward when the emergency brake is on? How do we stop looking back on the past – be here now – when we are secretly wishing we could see the future?
Do I mention the weight gain? The over-eating or “grazing” as one person put it. As well as the lack of exercise or motivation – let’s be honest. Do I share that this year aged me considerably? As with everybody else. Aren’t we all feeling a little “older?” We have been living through a pandemic, a time when we have had to face our own health and mortality together, yet apart with the billions of people on the planet who have been affected, if not infected.
For reasons not worth mentioning, January found me looking for work outside of teaching. I started a casual administrative job for a mental health clinic. Eager to learn a new software program and to be part of an essential service (Ha! Language none of us used nine months ago) I enjoyed leaving the house during the day and making myself useful. It was a decent gig at an easy pace. An international student from Mexico City came to live with me while he studied woodworking. Evenings were busy rehearsing for the Canadian play, Marion Bridge, at Studio Theatre in Perth. I got the role of Theresa, a modern farming nun.
February marked the second anniversary of my mother’s passing and my daughter’s twenty-first birthday. Living with Juan Manuel was fun as he helped me get off book. Working on a play typically brought up things to examine in one’s psyche. Playing a nun reunited with family in a dying mother’s house proved to be a source of great catharsis, as I honed the craft of acting.
Things got exciting in March. We performed the last show on March 8th and wrapped up with the usual cast party. I had planned a trip to Florida six months prior, which I was really looking forward to. I needed a break from the Canadian winter, plus I had some heirlooms to deliver to my cousin. Taking time off was already booked from the admin job as the news of a pandemic started to spread. There was no way I was cancelling the trip. I left as planned on a direct flight with eight other passengers aboard.
Somewhat unsure of the severity of the situation, I wondered if I had made a reckless decision. I was not without conscience. My cousin kept the tv on the news constantly, as we watched the number of cases rise in Florida, while advance voting polls were also being televised. I felt confident that I was safe where I was and low risk, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was that people were asked to stop travel and head home. My cousin and I talked and debated and analyzed and questioned like everybody else. It was clear that the States and governments and people were divided, not really knowing what to do or how to handle the situation. We stayed home, kept our distance, and lounged by the pool in the warmth of the sun. Was it okay to laugh? Was it okay to be comfortable and enjoy oneself when people elsewhere were in a panic, sick, and some were dying? We did not know. We tried to act normal.
I completed the mission and made my way home, although the direct flight was cancelled and then re-routed to Toronto instead of Ottawa. The return flight was jam-packed full. I waited to board at the gate behind a long queue of about twenty-five people in wheelchairs. Snowbirds and seniors were heading back to their homes in Canada where they would be safe, have valid insurance, and free healthcare, should the need arise. God forbid. These were the most vulnerable to contracting the virus.
The woodworking school in Perth had closed its doors and Juan Manuel had already gone back to Mexico when I arrived home.
The intensity with which people policed pandemic precautions during the time I returned became unbearable. In all fairness, they were probably trying to educate me, but it was coming from all sides, every person I interacted with. It was too much. Whether it was from my own guilt and shame, or because frankly, some went overboard, I cut people off social media and isolated for the mandatory 14 days. The administrative job continued remotely as management placed new standards of procedure in place. Teams meetings were held and the surreality of moving to work from home was a big topic of mental health. I was grateful and breathed a sigh of relief.
Mid-April brought an offer to teach online. I accepted the challenge. Juggling two full-time jobs from home, I kept a mindful, disciplined daily routine and managed long hours sitting in front of two computer screens. From the dining room table, outside the windows I watched the snow melt, the trees grew new blossoms, and my mother’s garden awakened from the sleepy winter.
The steady pace continued throughout the month of May when I moved my office outdoors to the screened-in porch which offered some smugness and change of scenery. The Vice Principal returned the report card comments five times to be reviewed, rewritten, and reworded before the final deadline. By the end of June, I was completely screen fatigued.
The teaching and the administrative jobs ended within a week of each other. It was July and I was free. Or was I? The pandemic parameters had slackened somewhat. At least the warm weather was a reason to feel glad. I reached out to friends and family more. I opened up socially. I puttered away in the garden and converted the shed in the backyard into a clean quiet space. My friend called it a she-shed – funny – but for me, it remained an unlabelled project. I sunned and swam at the nearby beach which I had discovered only the previous summer.
As an aside, it amazes me that this little beach where the sand bar has been trucked in is a mere 15-minute drive from the house which until last year, I was not aware of. For thirty-five years, I’ve been coming to Perth to visit my mother and never did she mention a beach. Sometimes it was so hot and humid that I looked for an escape from the heat. My brothers and I went to Silver Lake on Highway 7 a few times, which was a 40-minute drive that we made such a big deal about that it turned into a day trip. Typically when I visited, my mother and I would go shopping around town or take road trips, but never did we relax and swim at the beach. I guess she didn’t know about Rideau Ferry Conservation Area either.
I attempted a few outdoor karate classes in late summer, thinking I would get back into the routine once school started. By the end of August, I had secured a 4-month teaching gig at a school five minutes from the house. It was my first choice. I was put on leave from the admin job until January 2021. What would be the protocol imposed by the school board for the return to schools working face-to-face, wearing PPE (Personal Protective Equipment), and interacting with a hundred students every day? I had learned a lot from working remotely and felt prepared to work the frontline.
I was grateful for a full two weeks to plan, prepare, and get familiar with the protocol prior to the cohort re-entry for students. This buffer was exactly what I needed to get comfortable, gather information, and get psyched for teaching again. Up to this point, my attitude was “this is the last kick at the can.” I was anxious, yet determined to give teaching my best shot. Pandemic notwithstanding. In fact, because we were teaching during a pandemic, the focus was on safety measures and mental health above instruction. However, early into September, the virtual learning school in the Board collapsed and in-school teachers were required to logon virtually from the classroom and to prepare paper packages every two weeks for those students enrolled in distance learning. This process was complicated and kept changing. I did what I could but focussed on the students I met with every day. Karate soon fell to the wayside when we returned to training indoors and the mandatory masks which I wore all day for teaching were required in the dojo. I just needed a break from a covered mouth and to breathe freely.
As an experiment, I asked the students what kind of a teacher they wanted, the loudest response was “a nice teacher that lets us do whatever we want!” Having this information, we negotiated the time outdoors to prevent virus spread according to the school board’s policy with doing French work. I think we found a happy healthy balance and I ended the contract with a few bittersweet tears on the last day.
Worth mentioning were a few anecdotes and interactions with students: I was a bit trepidatious going in knowing that half of each 40-minute block was to be spent outdoors for safety reasons. Other than trying to plan for a 20-minute French class, this posed no major issue until I imagined the snow and brisk chilly winds that blow across the open schoolyard during the months of November and December. The solution was to pick up a pair of puffy snow pants at Giant Tiger one day, I thought, “these will keep me warm enough.” I chuckled to myself for choosing the hunting camouflage pattern with the hot pink suspenders. So Canadian. On the first sub-freezing day, I wore the hunting motif snow pants that raised a few eyebrows and high-pitched voices down the hall or from across the schoolyard. “Madame! I’m going to wear my hunting snow pants tomorrow, okay?” “Madame! Did you wear your hunting snow pants today?” “Madame! My Dad’s taking me hunting this weekend!” “Madame! We have matching snow pants!” The connection with those students warmed my heart. On the last spirit day organized by the school secretary before the winter break, all staff wore red and black plaid pyjama pants, also known as Buffalo Plaid. So Canadian.
Occasionally, there were moments of friction, tension, and a few grumblings when strategies were changed abruptly and communications were somewhat unclear, but overall, the gig went smoothly. Oh, other than the student who was eventually expelled for severe behavioural issues, as I was leaving the classroom, yelled out from the back corner, “Aurevoir, Bitch!” Each day was a new day to start afresh, moving forward with the bottom line: BE KIND. It worked. We were teaching during a pandemic, after all, which sporadically, some people lost sight of for whatever reason. Our main job was to keep the students safe and protected – physically, emotionally, and mentally. But as a staff, we managed to remain even keel and do our job. I left on the final day satisfied that I had done what I could to complete the mission. As I walked away from the school, I pulled off the mask and shield I wore every day and took in a deep cool breath of fresh air. With a sigh of relief, I had to admit I was feeling a bit covid-fatigued, but I would miss those students and that little rural school.
Back in October, I had booked a ticket to Mexico to spend a few months thinking about next steps after the teaching gig was done. I thought I was being clever by flying Ottawa to Calgary, then a direct flight to Manzanillo. That route avoided the USA altogether and reduced the risk of contracting the virus by wearing a mask and shield, of course. Partway into November, the airline cancelled the flight by notifying me via the agency I had booked with, who in turn, offered an alternative route that was triple the cost, a milk run of 40 hours, and three additional stopovers. No, thank you! I spent hours and hours on hold on the phone trying to get through to the agency. Finally, rather than re-book, I resolved to cancel the trip and asked for a refund on my credit card which could take up to 8-12 weeks. When I told the story to a local lawyer, he said that was an example of what would be the post-pandemic way of dealing with travel and online shopping for the future. How discouraging…
Juan Manuel was in touch. I asked him how the pandemic situation was in Mexico. He told me a ranch-hand had covid and as a result, they were monitoring his 81-year old father, who had a cough and some flu-like symptoms. Juan Manuel discouraged me from passing through Mexico City where he said the situation was very bad, people were not wearing masks and the virus was rampant. I reassured him that I had cancelled the trip. When I checked in with him a week later to ask how his padre was doing, he said he had passed away two days before. Oh no. This was the first and closest death due to covid in my circle. Too close for comfort. And so sad.
A husband of a friend on social media lost his mother who lived in a nursing home in Manitoba. She was 89. My cousin spoke of her mother, 84, who passed away last year, and my mother, 85, the year before, and how les grandes soeurs seemingly knew to exit before the age of the pandemic. Who knows?
With the second lockdown announced early and scheduled for 00:01 on Boxing Day, the frenzy that erupted up to Christmas Day was a gong show, and really, made no sense. I witnessed a car accident on the highway, thankfully no one was hurt, where the drivers of the vehicles involved were from Ottawa and Toronto, racing to get to where they were going before the lockdown.
I found resolve that whatever figuring out about my life I had hoped to do in Mexico, I could do from the comfort and safety of my home. My son and his fiancée decided to stay in Montreal as per the lockdown rather than travel to Ottawa and Perth to visit his father and me, respectively. My daughter texted a “Merry Christmas” from Edmonton. My karate Sensei, with all her graciousness and generosity, delivered (wearing a mask and kept social distance while at the door) a turkey dinner with “all the fixin’s” on Christmas Day.
Peace and quiet were fine.
On Boxing Day, I walked 11 kilometres all the way to Glen Tay and back. Arrived at the Tay River where there were a swimming and picnic spot, I sat down wearing my hunting camouflage snow pants for warmth in the -6 degree temps, and snacked on a banana, pear, and pistachios, while overlooking the fast-flowing water. During the trek, I found three dead sparrows on the bridge just outside of town limits. They must have flown headlong into a moving vehicle, I deduced. I picked them up, carried them back in my pack side pocket, and placed their fragile little bodies on the stick pile in the backyard.
It is such a great loss when a creature so vulnerable and miraculous, that has survived coming from an egg up in a tree nest to be hatched then fed to feathered and fly – dies. All that nature at work for what? Fleeting…
Do you think God created us just for a limited time on the planet so that we would be wiped out by a pandemic at some point? Are we ready if it’s true? And what if it’s not true? I don’t lean towards conspiracy theory, hoax, or panic, but the freedom to roam I once took for granted, and even flaunted perhaps, is gone. Or is it? Is staying in my house only temporary? Will life regain normalcy? Will I get to travel the world the way I dreamed someday I might, especially now that my children are grown? Am I permitted to laugh and feel joy knowing people are suffering, people are dying, but then they have always been – it’s just that I was wrapped up in my little bubble, unaware of the bigger picture, the global reality. It took a global pandemic to open our eyes and hearts to reassess what’s important – truly important.
As I wrote the above paragraph, the doorbell rang. It was the delivery man dropping off a parcel. A round cookie tin wrapped in brown paper from my son and his fiancée. My Christmas gift, baked with love.
As this infamous year 2020 wraps up, merely marked by a Gregorian calendar, the season, and societies’ holidays, I have reflected enough. This has become my tradition – to look back on the year, the months, the events that stand out and make my life, a life, one worth living, as there is no one way to live a life, and to write about my musings. There’s more. There always is. I could go deeper, into more detail, reveal the hidden, but this is good for now. In the event that I have offended or omitted anyone, please forgive me.
If this writing inspired you or provoked some thoughts, please feel free to comment below or email me at email@example.com. Let me know how 2020 affected you and your life; what are your plans for the future? I respond to every email I receive.