The news is listing off a daily COVID-19 death toll. The world has shut down to prevent the spread of SARS-CoV-2. Everyone is frantically learning to adapt to working from home, homeschooling kids, living without cleaners, personal care assistants, and someone else to prepare dinner. People who thought they had their lives planned out are suddenly learning how fickle the world can be.
My fellow travelers are posting #tbt pics while bemoaning being stuck at home and sharing tips on getting refunds for cancelled flights.
But nothing in my life has changed yet.
Coronavirus had already been in the news for months when I got on a flight to Calgary a few weeks ago. People were being encouraged to work from home if they could and told to reconsider going out if they didn’t have to. I already worked remotely and work was keeping me busy, but I did still walk to a friend’s house for dinner. The couple I’d been house sitting for were required to self-quarantine at home for 14 days once they arrived back in Toronto, but the timing of their arrival home and my departure already ensured we wouldn’t cross paths.
A few friends expressed concern about my flying from Toronto to Calgary, but my house sit in Calgary was still on and I didn’t have a place to stay in Toronto, anyway. Even though the first coronavirus case in Ontario dated back to January, there were no warnings about domestic travel. While the airport was quiet, it reminded me of flying in the 90s, before every flight was overbooked.
My phone is full of people in various stages of grief and hysteria, but my life didn’t feel any different. Or it’s different, sure, but it’s always different. Whatever little routine I maintain while traveling full-time is still in place.
I arrived in Calgary on a Friday. The city was quiet, a few places were closed, but nothing seemed unusual. On Saturday the museums I’d planned on going to were all closed and the weather was brutally cold. The university was open, though, with its art gallery, cafes, and library, and my CouchSurfing host gave me a ride. Aside from that, I spent the weekend with my CouchSurfing hosts. We shared meals and sat around the fire, chatting about anything and everything. Maybe I was home with them instead of hitting Calgary’s tourist spots, but we had a good time together. Part of the CouchSurfing experience is about going with the flow, so I’d hardly arrived with an itinerary.
While I enjoyed getting to meet the women I was house sitting for, I’ll admit it was a relief when they headed to the airport. Trudeau had already told tourists to come home immediately and some countries had stopped issuing tourist visas, so I wasn’t sure if my house sit was really going to happen or how long it would last.
Every few weeks I switch from one home to another. I set up an improvised standing desk and settle into a new routine. There’s a new neighborhood, an unfamiliar grocery store, often a new transit system. I usually break my work and personal projects into chunks, based on where I am. Sometimes I flit around a city, visiting friends, conducting interviews, meeting people, and going to events. Sometimes I bask in solitude and the deep focus it encourages, only going out for long walks and the occasional trip into town for supplies. Most of the time it’s somewhere between these two extremes.
So, we’re a month into the era of social distancing and nothing in my routine has changed yet.
Yes, I had quite a few meetings and even future house sits cancelled, but my life is always a constantly evolving game of Tetris. I often plan sits six months or even a year in advance, but there are always last minute changes. I’m staying in people’s homes, so when their plans change my plans do, too.
Because I’ve never seen Calgary pre-pandemic, it’s hard for me to understand how the city is different. If I were in New York or Toronto — or really, any city I’d been to before — I would see how the amount of traffic has changed or find it strange to see things closed. But for me, this version of Calgary feels normal.
Despite the number of nagging messages I’m getting chiding me for not staying home, I feel like I’m doing a better job of following safety guidelines than the vast majority of people.
Quite a few people booked last minute flights home to be with their family of origin once borders started closing, even those who were seemingly settled into a life abroad. I kept finding myself having to explain that no, I was not going back to Toronto, where I would either have to rent an apartment or stay with friends for an indefinite length of time. No, I was not going to fly to New York, the center of the pandemic in North America, to stay with my parents. To repatriate to the US now means forfeiting access to health care, since I have health insurance through Ontario, which would not cover me if I chose to leave the country while the border is closed. It seems confusing that #stayhome is being interpreted to include getting on an airplane and hanging out with anyone in my family tree.
It’s easy to maintain social distance when I work remotely and arrived not knowing anyone in the entire province. It’d be harder to follow recommendations if I was staying with family or friends. Yes, I’m physically all alone, but with the community of CouchSurfers, house sitters, and generally caring people in the world, quite a few locals are calling and texting to check in on me. I hardly feel alone.
I already spent a lot of my free time reading and going on long walks. I’m an evangelist for ebooks and audiobooks — and have a shelf full of books from my host. I’m already used to keeping in touch with friends, family, and my work team from a distance. I’ve been working remotely for a while now. The amount of time I spend debating the right amount of groceries to buy for a sit feels slightly less ridiculous when other people are hoarding, but I’m used to adapting my diet to what’s available in one region or another and there’s plenty of food in Calgary.
At a certain point, all of this solitude will presumably feel less cozy and more confining. But right now it feels like the rest of the world is falling into chaos, while I’m in a bubble of normal life.
I know people are suffering and dying, I’m not here to diminish the situation. But the ways life is deeply tragic while still being beautiful is something I already face every day. I spend my days talking to people about their experiences with the medical industrial complex, exploring social determinants of health, the failures of policy, and building systems of mutual aid.
I find that my ability to predict my future is like our ability to predict the weather. I can pretty well know what the weather will be like tomorrow and I can anticipate the seasons, but when it comes to next week I’m just guessing.