Arts·Pandemic Diaries

An American in Toronto: Everything changed just as this writer started calling the city home

"This is an anvil dropped in the middle of the life I am trying to create here."

'This is an anvil dropped in the middle of the life I am trying to create here'

Lisa's Leslieville. (Loren Davie)

Pandemic Diaries is a series of personal essays by Canadian writers and artists reflecting on their experiences during COVID-19.

First, it was a thing in China. Then it was on the move. Wash your hands. Use ammonia. Stores sold out of toilet paper, of hand sanitizer, of flour. Especially to an American like me, Canadians are great followers of rules and laws; they are good in a crisis because they do what they are told. The colonial attitude is still ingrained here. The government only has to ask once and everyone abides, so the restaurants are delivery or pickup only, the parks are closed, and most people take the six-foot rule (also called the two-metre rule, but I am never going to learn the metric system) seriously. Call Public Health if you are symptomatic. Social distancing — a phrase that sounds like something advocated by the Frankfurt School — gives us too much free time and is making us think hard about how we live now. Most of us share about it on social media, where Adorno certainly would have had an aneurysm.

We've certainly learned more about the people we live with, whether it's a partner, a roommate, or a spouse. Those of us without children seem to have an advantage, since keeping them entertained and yourself sane and productive appears to require an unholy negotiation. Most of us do all of our work on phones or computers, and we are surprised at how much we can get done in an hour at home if no one distracts us. Don't wear a medical mask unless you are sick or a health care provider. Our homes themselves have become, in Christopher Lasch's resonant phrase, havens in a heartless world. Make sure there is enough to go around — enough hand sanitizer, enough toilet paper, enough of whatever you need. It could be a while.

The sense of the collective good feels much stronger here, which is one of the reasons I am glad to be self-isolating in Toronto thousands of miles from my family and friends in America. Of course, I also have been waking up at 4am, having panic attacks, and indulging in impulsive behaviour I can't talk about — not because it's salacious but because it's self-punishing. Isolation is forcing us to confront our uglier characteristics: maybe you're bossy, or lazy, or require a lot of attention. By now, the people you live with know that and a lot more about you.

Lisa's Leslieville. (Loren Davie)

Since last July, my husband, my dog, and I have been living in the east end of Toronto in a neighbourhood called Leslieville — a designation that realtors dreamed up to describe a cluster of small semi-detached houses with front porches and back gardens broken off from Riverside. We moved here from Brooklyn after nine years together there, but we had both lived in NYC for over 20 years. It is April 2020 now, the false end of a Canadian spring, when a couple of warm days would usually make everyone giddy enough to bust out their shorts and sundresses to drink on a patio, only to have hope struck down by a cold snap featuring Toronto's most frequent weather forecast: mixed precipitation. As a newcomer to Toronto and a weather obsessive (weather is one of the primary triggers of my chronic migraines), I thought about this term a lot, the liminal state it represented; to have snow, ice, and rain all at once seemed like one of the more clever and brutal feats of nature. But that was one of the things I was learning about Toronto: people shrugged in the face of things unpleasant or distasteful, only complaining when they ran out of booze.

Since moving here, I also learned the role of nature in Toronto is substantial. The city is oriented around a lake, one big enough to fool me that it's an ocean if I'm so inclined. This is the first time in my life I haven't lived on a coast. My husband, who grew up here, and my Kansas-bred mother-in-law both say Toronto is really a Midwestern city. Since I have never lived in the Midwest, I have to guess at what that means. I would characterize Toronto as a place where people are generally pleasant but reserved (this is why the alcohol is so crucial). People had told me Torontonians were unfriendly, but I haven't found that to be true. They are not apt to spill their life stories, but they are interested in yours, though this could just be the famous Canadian politeness again.

Toronto has a surfeit of parks — again, now closed — ranging from little half-blocks to the huge expanse of the Don Valley in the middle of the city, the Beaches in the east end, and High Park in the west. Nature asserts itself even in the middle of the city: one night we saw a gang of enormous raccoons on a telephone wire that made me afraid to walk my dog alone at night. My husband has seen one around solo several times; he named him Clyde. There are the coyotes in High Park people swore they saw in other neighbourhoods too, baying into the night. And there are deer, which I haven't seen yet, and black squirrels that our dog Daisy is obsessed with. In a more commonplace example of nature's supremacy over humans, our house has mice we cannot get rid of. I only thought about them now and then before we were in self-isolation; now I think about them all the time. I take a daily census: me, my husband, Daisy, and the mice, all present, some actually accounted for.

Lisa's Leslieville. (Loren Davie)

The question of being accounted for — the question of who counts, and why, and how — is very much on my mind in these plague days, which I suspect we will look back on with both terror and relief. As a Canadian newcomer, this is an anvil dropped in the middle of the life I am trying to create here. For my husband and me, some things did not change. We had both been working from home since we got to Canada, which just continued. My work technically has not changed at all — I'm a writer and I mainly cover books, so every assignment is accompanied by hours of reading. But there is a virus-related problem: I can't concentrate. I have no attention span. The fantasy of the virus has stolen my ability to focus on anything else. I can barely read ten consecutive pages. I had foolishly gone on a pitching spree in January when I started a low-residency MFA program because I thought that was what an MFA student did: she wrote hefty articles for hefty journals. Now I am drowning in unread books and pushing deadlines, though my editors also seem frazzled and tell me it's fine.

Even before self-isolation, I felt very transitional. I was starting to notice the differences between here and America, and figure out how I could reconcile myself to them. I was learning a new city — difficult because of my fabulously lousy sense of direction and persistent anxiety about getting lost, which I did regularly. I was trying to make new friends, which involved converting people from the internet writers' groups I was in and chasing down friends of friends from New York. I'd been feeling good about my success in meeting people in Toronto: I had managed to befriend between three and six, depending on how I counted, which seemed like a promising start. And I had plans with more potential friends I had to cancel when social isolation started. It was a mousetrap for my burgeoning social life.

But I am determined to keep these friends, and it's not like they are out gallivanting while I am in self-isolation. Everyone is bored, scared, restless. So we text, and we Facebook message, and we email, and we WhatsApp, and we Zoom, and we Houseparty, and we Yapp, and we tweet, and we try to keep each other sane under extraordinary circumstances.

It's too soon to say how we're doing.

CBC Arts understands that this is an incredibly difficult time for artists and arts organizations across this country. We will do our best to provide valuable information, share inspiring stories of communities rising up and make us all feel as (virtually) connected as possible as we get through this together. If there's something you think we should be talking about, let us know by emailing us at cbcarts@cbc.ca. See more of our COVID-related coverage here.

About the Author

Lisa Levy is a freelance writer focusing on essays and criticism. She has written for many publications, including The New Republic, the LARB, the Believer, TLS, Crime Reads, and Lit Hub, where she is a contributing editor. She is working toward a nonfiction MFA at Goucher College.

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