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first person

First Person is a daily personal piece submitted by readers. Have a story to tell? See our guidelines at tgam.ca/essayguide.

Illustration by Drew Shannon

When I look back on the pandemic, I see only impressions. Like many of us, I’ve created no real memories in the past year and half; I have no vacation photos to paste in a book, no happy thoughts of two-hour teas in the bakery down the street. But my pandemic memory is also dulled by a gruelling work schedule: while COVID-19 ravaged the Earth, I worked 10 hours a day, designing and teaching online courses at university. Every morning of those long 18 months was flooded with the inevitable battle of what to do first. Should I mark papers? Respond to e-mails? Prepare a class? What and who would win? While others anxiously watched local virus counts, I watched weather systems for summer storms that might potentially knock out the internet and disrupt my classes. I interacted only with a computer screen, pixelated faces of my students and my immediate family. Unlike others, I didn’t have to confront the quiet and dangerous world outside my window. I had a refuge.

A few months ago, it all came to a sudden end. Enrolment was lower than expected at university. Contractual professors hanging onto the last rung of the seniority ladder found themselves slipping into unemployment. I slipped off the ladder with them and had nowhere to land. Three university degrees hung on the office wall, redundant.

Unemployment is a mysterious and disorienting place to live. Every day has its own constantly changing recipe of confusion, ennui, angst, relief and Netflix. I imagine what all these feelings would look like in a cauldron; it wouldn’t be pretty. Mornings are the most disorienting: I wake, ready to leap out of bed and suddenly realize I have nowhere to go. There’s nowhere I need to be. No one is waiting for me on Zoom to discuss the fundamental principles of grammar. I am needed to make school lunches and to vacuum, but otherwise, my obligations are next to none.

Somewhere around Day 20 of my new life, I learn that unemployment erodes distinctions: there is no longer a need to differentiate between certain ideas and things. I begin to wear the same clothes to bed as I wear in the day. The lines between reality and the last show I binge-watched become blurred. I perceive night as day and day as night, and not just because the oncoming winter is stealing sunlight. I sleep in the morning and I’m awake in the night, thinking the most insipid thoughts one could even imagine, amplifying, catastrophizing, plotting: was the shadow on the bedroom ceiling black mould? Should I clean out the plastic toy bin while my son is at school so he won’t protest? Why were the chocolate pastries I bought stale, and how could the bakery do that to me? I fall back asleep and dream of the accusatory conversation I know I will never have with the baker.

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After a month, I learn that sound transforms in the realm of unemployment. When we work, we are bullied by noises of cellphones, of demands, of judgment, of voices. L’enfer, c’est les autres. Unemployment creates a thick silence that envelops my every move and instead of being liberating, it becomes louder and more anxiety-producing with each passing day. The sound of a turning page in my book surprises me. The wheels of a rolling blue bin against the pavement make me lift my head. Day after day, I find myself listening to silence and almost willing it to yell back at me. I am here, I tell my empty house, unconvinced. I am here. I watch Netflix, therefore I exist.

I decide to look back on my education in literature for wisdom, pulling books off the shelves and reading a few random pages. The 17th century leaves me uninspired. On to the next. Voltaire tells us we must cultivate our gardens, which raises even more questions I don’t want to confront: who are we really, if we are not cultivating? What is our purpose? I begin to rethink the old conundrum, if a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? For me: if a teacher has no students to hear her, is she still a teacher? Is she even alive? I am dubious.

Somewhere around Day 45, I begin to deteriorate. I become testy, impatient and emotional. Though I know I won’t starve thanks to my husband, my dwindling bank account prompts daily hysteria. I sob when the Leafs score a goal (“Are you crying?” my son asks, giggling and incredulous). My husband says I look like I’m homeless. I avoid mirrors at all costs. I take long walks with former colleagues who complain about university in the hopes that I will remember all its flaws and bickering and politics. It doesn’t help. I miss my students and I miss hearing them think. I miss hearing them learn.

After 60 days, the silence is overwhelming. I complain to my mother, a visual artist, who has always hated listening to me complain. I can almost hear her trying to come up with solutions to end the call. Finally, she sighs loudly and says, “I haven’t been employed for 40 years, you know. Not really. I go to the studio. I paint. I cook. Mostly, I feel satisfied.” She waits for me to respond, but I don’t. “You’re a writer,” she tells me. “So write.” Then she senses room for escape and hangs up, citing an imaginary raw chicken that needs to go in the oven.

I think about it a little bit. Then, I write.

And for the first time in 65 days, I don’t notice the silence.

Anna Rosner lives in Toronto.

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