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first person

Illustration by April Dela Noche Milne

I am a talker. Someone who likes to linger at the school playground to chat with other parents. Someone who likes to bump into neighbours and strike casual conversations with semi-close acquaintances. I have a handful of close friends whom I love to see regularly.

In the months of isolation imposed during the pandemic lockdowns, all of these small acts of sociability came to a grinding halt. You might remember memes asking to “check on your extrovert friends.” That was me.

I have a warm home in Ottawa and a loving family. I have good friends, and a tight-knit extended family. I am in touch with my sisters almost daily. But the mess of the pandemic’s expansive blob of time made it very hard to maintain friendships with other women. I was overwhelmed by the indistinguishable days, the challenges of squeezing in a few hours of work while literally bumping into my husband and two kids all day long, the endless loop of making breakfasts, lunch, dinner and snacks. (So many snacks. Why were the kids always so hungry?), and the sadness of it all.

A text here and there would only go as far as sharing notes of quick exasperation, or messages of encouragement – Hang in there! Let’s have a glass of wine over Zoom some time! Facebook was the place where many of us maintained our kinship, and some of those wine-over-Zoom sessions did happen, but it still felt a bit impersonal.

Then I discovered the humble audio memo, which proved to be a true lifeline. The WhatsApp voice memo suddenly became the most convenient, flexible, intimate and solid friendship aide I had ever encountered. It started with a few exchanges with a friend who lives nearby in Chelsea, Que. We’d try arranging a physically distanced coffee date, but it was impossible at the time with the Ontario-Quebec border closed. So, instead of phone calls, lest we interrupt each other in the middle of those weird, difficult days, when we would burst into tears for no apparent reason, we began recording audio messages for each other.

This was not a friend I knew much about. We had been friendly before, having bonded over similar life circumstances – both Latin American immigrants, both aspiring scholars, both struggling to navigate the world of academia while raising small children at home. We had seen each other a few times and would probably have described each other as friends, but close we were not. Suddenly, or maybe slowly (see “blob” of pandemic time above), we were exchanging heartfelt audio messages about our lives. They became entire episodes, tales of our most prosaic achievements (I finally planted my tomatoes today!), rants about the frustrations of writing philosophy while home-schooling our kids in our pyjamas, confessions about our parenting fears and mistakes, sharing notes about political unrest or concerns over the well-being of our families abroad. Our memos grew longer and more elaborate. My longest, I think, hit the 20-minute mark. Hers would often go beyond, or else I would get a flurry of shorter voice memos if her toddler was in direct competition for attention. We called our exchanges episodes of “radio amiga.”

Over those months, I read a lot about how the pandemic was affecting women. I followed female activists on social media who were fighting to reopen schools in Ontario, and worried about the rise of cases of domestic abuse. I read cultural essays and academic studies about how the well-being of women, mothers and specifically mothers in academia were all becoming clear casualties of the pandemic. The kind of work that usually falls on women including child care, caring for ailing relatives and domestic chores, increased. Coupled with home-schooling and lending emotional support to household members, this became a clear disadvantage for female scholars. Careers were put on hold. Funding ran out. Academic journals saw a drop in submissions by female authors. Structural barriers that were always there suddenly became glaringly obvious, no longer easy for everyone to ignore. Meanwhile, the social supports usually available to women – a crucial one being friendships with other women – had suddenly been cut off. We now know more of just how important those relationships, and even those casual social encounters, can be. I felt, more than ever, that I needed to find and offer support to women who were going through a similar experience as me.

In the months I spent huddling with my family, when I yearned for some time alone, I cherished the moments when I could plug in my earphones while tending to some chore, usually down in the dim-lit basement folding the laundry, and get immersed in my friend’s world for a few minutes. I made mental notes while I listened so as not to forget to respond to this or that comment, to empathize with something she said and tell her about something she probably didn’t know about me. Our messages could be intimate, funny, trivial or a combination of all three. They were rarely urgent, often recorded while taking care of a domestic obligation (I know the sound that her kitchen knives make) but they were always important. I couldn’t wait to find the next small chunk of time (perhaps I could take a quick walk around the block after the kids went to bed?), to record my own reply.

The lockdowns are slowly starting to fade in our memories and I’ve seen my friend in person a couple of times now. We shared a beer at a patio the other day. While enjoying her company face to face, I started thinking of what I would tell her in my next audio memo.

Gabriela Perdomo Paez lives in Ottawa.