The Sunday Magazine·Personal Essay

Pondering invisible prisons while living under lockdown

Day after day in lockdown can feel suffocating — or make a person feel like climbing the walls. But our COVID-19 incarceration inspired Vancouverite Tara McGuire to think about the abundant freedoms she’s taken for granted that others have never enjoyed. Here's her essay, On Living in Captivity.

‘Now that my own freedom has been stripped away … I see these imposed structures much more clearly’

The forest where Tara McGuire walks, near her home in Vancouver. (Tara McGuire)

Tara McGuire, special to CBC Radio

McGuire is a writer, voice-over actor and former broadcaster who lives in Vancouver. (Submitted by Tara McGuire)

There was a day last week when I noticed many of our meals were purple. Purple wonton soup, purple rigatoni, purple scrambled eggs. Other than a handful of drooping spinach, the cabbage in the vegetable drawer was pretty much the only vegetable we had left. We could've gone out to get food with other pigments if we really wanted to, but we'd been told not to. And the grocery store has become a two-hour ordeal of masks, arrows taped to the floor, hand sanitizer and paranoia.

Six, seven, eight weeks inside now and our attitude toward staying home has gone from "is it really necessary?" to "it's the right thing to do," to "whatever." I spend a lot of time standing in one spot wondering what I came into the room for.

My husband goes to work when it's available. Everyone on the job site has a tape measure so they know exactly what two metres looks like. Our 16-year-old daughter is doing her best with the homeschooling thing, but honestly she mostly lies on the floor staring into one device or another, groaning. The other day I bribed her with takeout sushi just to come for a drive with me. Even our two dogs don't expect a walk first thing in the morning any more.

Recently I burst into tears when my friend's face appeared on my laptop screen. "I'm sorry," I said, "that's not the reaction I was expecting."

Ever since the lockdown, even McGuire's two dogs don't expect a walk first thing in the morning anymore. (Submitted by Tara McGuire)

But she was crying too. "What the hell is going on with us?" she said, her hand clamped to her mouth. This is a woman who has taken cases to the Supreme Court of Canada; she's tough. "I just miss people," she said. The novelty of Zoom-anything has worn off. I have never looked so closely, so often, at the lines on my own face and as my daughter would say, I'm over it.

What about the big chunks of 3 a.m. insomnia and the weird dreams? In one, my daughter and I accidentally went to France — we were terrified when we noticed the croissants on the table. What will we do? How will we get home? We badly, very badly, wanted to be home. We wanted to be safe.

In another hot-flash dream, our baby tiger grew so fast that when we woke up it was licking the ceiling. The tiger gave birth to a slimy, white reptile then ripped it to shreds on the living room carpet. I interpreted the dream as a deep-seated fear of what living in captivity could lead moral human beings to do. Or maybe it was because I binged on Tiger King while eating an entire container of pralines-and-cream Häagen-Dazs. The Tiger King is in a cage now too. After what he did to those majestic cats, his kind of captivity makes sense.

I'm a grad student, so I already spend most days alone in a small room looking out the window. Being antisocial by choice is one thing; being told I'm not allowed to be social by someone in government is a limitation that scrapes at my idea of civil liberty and personal responsibility. Another problem is the waiting. Patience, a skill I know little about, comes from the family of words around pathos, which means to suffer.

Aside from being so financially dented, we'll likely take years to recover. In privileged North Vancouver we are mostly… annoyed. It's embarrassing. Snipes about the thermostat, the sound of chewing and "that's how you load the dishwasher?" I've been thinking about how unfamiliar we are with hardship, and because of that, how vulnerable.

McGuire and her husband Cam Mollard FaceTiming with her father, Dan McGuire, who lives in an extended care home. (Tara McGuire)

But mainly, as I walk the pristine forest trails near our home, any time I want, I've been thinking about prisoners. I watch the death toll rise, numbed by the infinite scroll of stats and opinions, and I think about different kinds of lockdown. About my dad, alone in his room at the extended care home with no visitors. He was already stuck inside his dementia. Now he doesn't understand why he's been abandoned. About my closest friend, captive in a brain ambushing her with early onset cognitive impairment. About women and children who were already trapped in abusive relationships and unsafe homes.

I've been thinking of the imprisonments of addiction, disability and unemployment; of being limited in one way or another by gender, race, or poverty. I've been thinking of Indigenous people, born into a cultural confinement by virtue of a colonial system they didn't ask for. I've been thinking of all the jails I could never see before because they weren't pushing up against my own easy-street life. Now that my own freedom has been stripped away, replaced by time to think about it, to feel it, I see these imposed structures much more clearly. Now that I'm being inconvenienced by a lack of Lysol wipes and a shrinking RRSP.

I've been forced to look at myself — at how many freedoms I've always enjoyed but never really noticed, and certainly didn't cherish. Invisible freedoms of affluence and education, food security and choice.

Slowly, the restraints are coming off. This weekend I met a few friends at a park and we yelled at each other across two metres of grass. Soon, I hope, I'm going to hug those friends, visit my dad and swim in a public pool. I'm going to go to my local coffee shop and shake people's hands for much longer than necessary. More than that, I'm going to remember. I want to remember what it feels like to be told, "No. No you can't. You just can't."

And I hope this infrared vision remains with me long after the masks are put away, the streets are filled with cars and our veggie drawer is once again a rainbow. I hope I don't get too preoccupied with the details of my own economic survival to see the walls, still standing, where they have always been, the invisible barriers that already, before COVID-19, imprisoned so many. I hope I remember that what was temporarily taken away from me, so many others never had to begin with.

Tara McGuire is a writer, voice-over actor and former broadcaster who lives in Vancouver.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full essay.

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