Arts·Pandemic Diaries

In the midst of lockdown, I met someone — but it was no match for the overwhelming pandemic solitude

Poet Marn Norwich on finding, then losing, her pandemic boyfriend.

Poet Marn Norwich on finding, then losing, her pandemic boyfriend

"Pastoral dating. The astonishing beauty of Vancouver's Queen Elizabeth Park, pandemic dating venue." (Marn Norwich)

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

I am a sometimes-single, childless poet who lives alone in an attic.

With the possible exception of being single, I am all this by choice. No one made me do it.

Despite my free will in the matter, you are not far off when you imagine that my artistic existence can get lonely. Writing is by its nature a one-woman act; add the remaining ingredients and you have a life spent largely in solitude.

That said, I am far from a hermit, and when I leave my attic, I have an array of friends I spend time with. They are artists from every decade, and they keep me sane — a benefit I was compelled to surrender with the onslaught of the global pandemic.

At the start of the pandemic, while friends hunkered down with their mates and families, I hunkered down with my manuscripts. As friends grew deeper in love with their significant others — have you noticed that couples seem more "couple-y" when they appear in public mid-pandemic? — I grew to understand the many textures of "alone."

Waking alone grows a new meaning when you will not interact significantly with any 3D human during the day, as does cooking, eating, walking, sleeping and, of course, writing. Alone alone alone!

"I am getting a bit tired of Marn Marn Marn!" I told any friend who would listen. I think they may have been starting to get tired of her, too.

I get chronic bronchitis, so even when my new idol, Dr. Bonnie Henry, started encouraging us to share bubbles, I held back, COVID-wary. Then an unusual thing happened.

After years of online dating — and creating significant content based on my extensive and non-generative experiences — deep in the midst of the solitude of lockdown, I met someone.

"With favourite tree in favourite writing park." (Paula Owen)

Well, "met" in the pandemic sense of the word. We messaged through an online dating system. We emailed. We evolved to phone conversations. We had physically-distant park dates where he visited my city; we sat on the grass, and I romantically insisted on an 8-to-10-foot divide. He told me he noticed that every time he edged forward by an inch, I moved an inch away. I smiled.

The photos we took of each other on our first "date" are telling. There are no photos with the two of us together. And in the photos I took of him — almost grainy with the rolling divide — you can see his large, blue latex gloves on the grass to his side, while his face mask is pulled under his chin. He thoughtfully geared up in PPE for the occasion, though I was mollified by the shot put-length barrier between us.

I facilitate women's writing workshops — you guessed it — online. While I used to enjoy the welcomed, social experience of hosting 25 women a week in my attic, I now teach, like everyone else, through Zoom. In a check-in at the start of class, I told my participants about my guy and called him my "pandemic boyfriend" (P.B.). They cheered for me, and I could tell they hoped it would work out.

I also told my youngest sister, who lives in Boston, a city hard hit by the pandemic.

"How's it going with your COVID-19 boyfriend?" she asked me casually one day by phone. I don't think she noticed what she'd said. Had the stress of the ongoing crisis made her blasé toward the pandemic? I was appalled.

"A pandemic boyfriend is way different than a COVID boyfriend!" I said. The COVID descriptor sounded more contagious than cute, and I did not want to jinx our nascent love.

I told my pandemic boyfriend, "Pandemic dating would challenge some couples, but we are so up for this!" He seemed to share my optimism, and over time we edged closer together on our outdoor dates. Eventually, we decided to do the romantic thing and gingerly join bubbles.

"When not in her garret, the poet wanders grassy knolls, both actual and metaphorical. Another stunning view from Queen Elizabeth Park." (Marn Norwich)

Having touched neither man nor beast since mid-March, it was a relief to feel the warmth of another animal. I was still alone 97% of the time, but our park dates helped ease my panic. I was well aware of the myriad ongoing global crises. But at a very personal level, the pandemic was showing a small bright spot for me — or so it seemed.

Spider Robinson wrote that god is an iron because of his indulgence in irony.

Is it ironic when your pandemic boyfriend turns out to be a labourer for reduced rent, who is not supposed to leave the grounds of his landlord's estate other than to go to work? Who lives in a different city, inaccessible without vehicle or the health risks inherent in taking public transit during a plague? Whose full-time shift ends just after you begin your insomnia-dictated, writerly workday? And — this may seem petty, but really! — who does not use text due to a resistance to cell phones and a bargain-basement monthly limit?

As if the lockdown and global virus weren't creating enough barriers, dating my pandemic boyfriend was like trying to make love with a stack of condoms on. No, a full box of condoms. Wait, a full box of condoms still inside the box.

The commonly used relational designation, "unavailable," falls short here.

Excerpt from All the crazy boys, from Marn Norwich's Wildflowers at my doorstep: "All the crazy boys know my name. They seek me out in crowds, at subway stations. They leave bouquets of wildflowers at my doorstep. I don't know why, I guess they have a radar on for girls like me." (Marn Norwich)

In addition, it turned out he was no match for my authorial email-in-lieu-of-text correspondence. One of my editors once told me that a guy had tried to woo her with emails that contained only subject lines, no content; she rolled her eyes at me in recollection. My P.B. was not guilty of any such breach of date-a-writer conduct, but patchy communication and a severe word-usage mishap on top of no free time, lockdown, distance and schedules that practically put us in different time zones proved to be killers.

Not to mention — for those of you versed in and thus hampered by astrology — that the planets of love and communication were travelling backward during the majority of our short-lived affair. I kept saying that if we made it to July 12, when both planets would be direct, we'd be together forever.

Wistful words, dear reader, and words I would have to eat myself, as it was I who initiated our breakup in the early afternoon of July 12. Via email. Nor did my P.B. battle me on my suggestion, though I offered a discussion-based recourse. Indeed, he readily agreed — and, studying the time stamp, likely within moments of receipt of my missive.

In my many experiences of them, I've noticed that breakups are special in the way that they can lead a person to utter existential despair with the efficiency of an injection. Thus they make mere loneliness seem like a fluffy and desirable mood. Add in the soul of a poet, stir, and you have a very intense pandemic sauce indeed! Absolutely delicious. Too bad I have no one to share it with in my lofty bubble beneath the eaves.

Some details have been changed to protect privacy.

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

Marn Norwich is a Vancouver-based poet (Wildflowers at my doorstep, Karma Press), journalist and energy work therapist. She's also a writing workshop facilitator and writing coach with her business, Vancouver Women's Writing Courses. Marn welcomes women to join her ongoing online Women's Writing as Healing Workshop series: vancouverwritingcourses.com

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