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Illustration by Mary Kirkpatrick

Before the pandemic, I had never spent so much time alone. I thought that with all this time on my hands and a lack of distraction, I’d write a book, learn a new skill, create. Nada. Instead, I’ve learned a few things about myself. The pandemic is accentuating all my existing neuroses and faults, not creating a new and better me.

My online meetings and cocktail parties unsparingly reveal to me how I look to others: hands waving, long hair wild, while I rant and rave on the subject of just about everything. Did I always look and act this way or has the pandemic unmoored me?

Long before COVID-19, I was borderline hypochondriac. Now the border has shifted, and I’m full-on hypochondriac. As I zigzag along the streets of Toronto, I worry about whether people are five feet rather than six feet away. I stew over joggers huffing and puffing (moistly) down my neck. I take an inventory of everywhere my fingers have been – their contamination history. My hands have become wrinkly like prunes from washing them for 20 seconds in a trance like Lady Macbeth.

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This year will be tough for my class of special-needs students

Now that face masks are recommended and even mandated in some cases, I’m at a huge disadvantage when I venture outside my home. I’m deaf and I lip-read. I cannot understand people behind their masked mouths. Friends with perfectly good hearing complain that they are having trouble hearing muffled speech from behind face masks. It’s even worse if you are deaf or hard of hearing. Although I normally hear quite well with my high tech cochlear implants, face masks have rudely reminded me of my limitations. Staying home is getting more and more attractive.

Friends send recommendations for hundreds of free online courses but I’ve learned that I have zero perseverance. I start and don’t finish courses on Tai Chi, impressionist art, the psychology of happiness and Islamic architecture. I start a big book I’ve always wanted to read: Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past (4,215 pages). I give up, bored to tears after 200 pages. My concentration is that of a fruit fly.

Unable to travel alone as I usually do during the summer, I can only make lists of places to visit after I get a much awaited vaccine shot in my arm. So, I look with longing at pictures of places I’ve visited.

Without places to go, things to do or “bubbles” to join, I get sucked into hours of meandering the internet. And of course the internet feeds my obsessiveness to learn everything I can about the new coronavirus. There is plenty to read but since there are still so many unknowns, and unknown unknowns, my obsessiveness is like a raging fire that is never quenched. Every day, there is some new tidbit, an old factoid overturned, a new interview with an exhausted front-line doctor. I didn’t realize how far down the internet rabbit hole I could tumble, given the time (lots), and the motivation (staying alive).

I also find myself spending hours making up long grocery lists for delivery, then ending up cooking the same few comfort foods over and over again. My fridge and cupboards are stuffed like a survivalist’s underground hoard, yet I have nobody to feed but myself. A friend is experimenting in her kitchen, following Julia Child’s recipes. I’m making rice pudding. And spaghetti. And getting fat.

Another friend has been isolated for months in her country cottage, seeing no one. She found that after three months of self-isolation, she lost her sense of self. She couldn’t locate herself well enough to even answer e-mails. She said she was “gone.” My friend had become, as the Buddhists would call it, “egoless.”

I definitely haven’t been able to attain that humble state. I hoped this time of seclusion and inactivity would encourage me to slow down and become a more fully realized, spiritual human being. Or at least thin. Not a chance.

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Yet, I’m not unhappy. There are many things that have helped to lift me and carry on during this pandemic. I have discovered cloth face masks with clear windows around the mouth. I’m stocking them to distribute to friends (and clinicians) with whom I communicate so I can lip-read. I have installed a speech-to-text app on my phone to translate muffled mumbles into words on my screen; and I never leave home without my phone.

One-on-one video chats with friends and family members have reminded me of how much comfort and support I get from connections with others. Walking outdoors, even while swerving to avoid other people, has reminded me of the solace of nature, of hearing birds in the trees, of seeing flowers valiantly blooming, of seeing that I’m not alone.

I’ve also rediscovered a simple luxury of my teenage years: sleeping in, then lying in bed and letting my mind wander. I’ve learned that I don’t have to fill my days with being busy. I’m not bound by schedules. I’m free.

Thanks to the cornucopia of online – and captioned – plays, movies, operas and art-gallery talks, I am transported into other worlds, comforted and enlarged by the arts. Although I’m home alone during this pandemic, I feel immensely fortunate to be connected to the larger world.

After safe passage through this difficult time, I know I will appreciate the life I had even more. Especially after I go on a diet.

Beverly Biderman lives in Toronto.

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