The Letters Page, Vol 5, #6: Be Kind, Be Calm, and Be Safe

Thank you to everyone who has sent us letters from their own versions of lockdown. We have been heartened to hear from you. Do continue writing to us; our post-room is currently locked, so we’ll welcome your letters in the form of an email. Simply reply to this email with ‘submission’ in the subject line, and feel free to include a picture of where you are right now. Each letter we publish will be rewarded with a gift subscription to one of our favourite small presses or literary journals.

Today’s letter comes from Aislinn Hunter, in Vancouver, Canada. A novelist and poet, Aislinn has published seven books, including ‘The World Before Us’ (winner of the Ethel Wilson fiction prize), and ‘Stay’, which was adapted for film. Her forthcoming novel, ‘The Certainties’, is in the opinion of this editor extremely good indeed. She’ll be receiving a year’s supply of journals from the excellent A Public Space. The photographs below are the author’s own.)

Hey You,

How goes your self-isolation? Is it bad where you are?

Sometimes now, when I walk on the trails near my home and meet another hiker, one or the other of us will back into a trough of fern to awkwardly pretend social distancing is normal, and I’ll ask ‘So how’s your pandemic going?’ It’s been good, this – like letting the air out of a balloon, how most of the time the stranger deflates into a kind of honesty: their kids are driving them crazy, or they’re worried about a loved one in a care home where there’s a case of Covid-19. More often than not, though, they tend to offer a guilty nod up to the forest’s sun-split canopy, as if to say, ‘How can we complain when we live here?’

North Vancouver was one of the early sites of the outbreak in Canada, in the form of a handful of cases at a care centre a mile away from me. We’re a ‘city’ but the feel on the ground is that of a close community – a green space nestled between the bridges that lead south to downtown Vancouver and the hems of the nearby mountains. When I moved here a decade ago I thought it had a slick suburbs-meets-the-Daintree kind of feel: a main street dotted with Starbucks and Persian food markets, sushi and halal restaurants, mountain bike shops and nail salons – all cropping up in the shadow of forests so lush and tree-haggard you’d be forgiven for thinking the landscape could swallow you whole.

Around the time the care home cases were growing, a neighbour on the street behind me – a woman who worked as a caregiver – was taken away by ambulance attendants in hazmat suits. The next day when I mentioned the cluster of reporters outside the care centre to the woman bagging my groceries at the local shop, she said someone had died there. Then she said that another employee’s mom was a resident, and I remembered how that employee had bagged my groceries only two days before. My first thought was to wonder when he’d last visited his mother. In the ensuing weeks I had to will myself not to start shopping in a more distant community – which is to say that this pandemic has felt (and still feels) surreally close but also remarkably distant. Every morning over coffee I read the CBC news, the Guardian and parts of the New York Times. I look at the numbers of the dead in places I am familiar with: Bergamo, Madrid, and New York and try to think of somewhere I’ve been – a concert hall, a theatre – that held 500 people, and then I try to image those 500 people disappearing in one day. I watch the cases growing in Montréal and Toronto and I watch the disease inch toward Indigenous communities where there are few resources – sometimes not even one respirator, no local doctor. I read about the distribution of cardboard coffins in Ecuador, the spread of the disease in refugee camps and prisons, the strain experienced by so many cities’ and countries’ first responders and medical personnel, and I am beyond grateful that no one I know has caught Covid or died from it even as the six degrees of separation between me and the virus has become five, then four, then three, then two. They say self-isolating is working here. That we got on it early, that we have been diligent. I don’t feel smug about this. I’m grateful for a strong health care system, an articulate provincial health officer who has experience with SARS and Ebola outbreaks, a strong and compassionate Minister of Health; a Prime Minister whose messaging has been clear and focused. I’m grateful for my neighbours standing on their porches and banging their pots at 7pm in support of health care workers.

Still, I worry. I worry about the usual things: my students, the economy, this awful and unsettling loneliness, the future. But I also worry about the potential for a gulf in understanding to take hold on the far side of this pandemic. It seems almost impossible to imagine what it’s like to wake up to the news that another, and then another, of your neighbours has died, to lose elder after elder in a community, to lose a family member who worked the front lines because that’s what they were trained to do. And I am a writer who spends significant amounts of time in the imagination… I’m someone who recently lost a husband of twenty-five years, though he died in my arms and it was only our world falling apart at the time, not everyone’s.

There’s a feeling you get sometimes walking through a city marked by tragedy – it’s a feeling I had standing in the cathedral in Coventry, in some of the German cities I travelled through last October, in Portbou in Northern Spain where my husband and I spent time after he’d gone though radiation and chemotherapy for his cancer. I worry those who have lost loved ones to Covid – who weren’t able to say good-bye, who live in villages and cities where relations and friends and neighbours were taken in large numbers – will end up standing on the other side of a veil from those who come out of this with a greater remove from the situation. I worry that we won’t be able to meet through language across the two sides of this divide. This is why I think stories and new forms of remembrance will become so important. To witness one event is no small matter but to witness something that sweeps over all of us in an uneven storm will require new forms of empathy; active listening.

Here in BC our provincial health officer, Dr Bonnie Henry, has been ending her briefings with the same phrase: ‘be kind, be calm, and be safe.’ These words have shown up in pink chalk on the sidewalk on the street behind mine, and in crayon on Bristol board in another neighbour’s window. To be ‘kind’ (as you know) is to be receptive… with intimations of consideration, sympathy, and benevolence. But ‘kind’ is a sly word: tucked into its etymology is also the notion of affiliation – to be intimate to, to be close. I think closeness in these hours and days is about looking and seeing, about not looking away. We can’t take in all of this pandemic, it’s too much, but we can be willing to receive whatever it is our friends, family and neighbours have to offer – their stories and the stories the journalists are covering, those first-hand accounts that say this is what it’s like for me.

I should go. The dogs are agitating for their morning walk and I’ve been alone for days and it would be nice to stop a few metres away from a stranger on the trail for some form of conversation.

I’m sorry I’ve gone on so long! Write me when you can, tell me how it is for you.

– Aislinn Hunter