Black Belt Mind — Notes from the Front Lines of COVID-19

26 April

I commit to taking meaningful time off karate so I can heal my hip. When I tell my Sensei and colleagues that I’m taking a six-month sabbatical, they’re encouraging. This is the best time to do it, they tell me. But it’s not, I think. Never have I needed to train so badly.

1 May

The days run into each other. It’s hard to keep my energy up, especially because I’m not able to exercise as much as I’m used to. My hip injury isn’t getting worse; neither is it improving.

I mix up my preschooler’s schedule. Instead of craft, outdoor time, a Curious George episode, and lunch, I reverse the order. This rejigging makes me feel slightly more awake.

Like us, my kids go from sunny to weepy back to weepy, several times a day. DH and I talk to them about micro-joys. We list them and encourage them to do the same. Pasta. Poetry. Neapolitan pizza. A glass of wine (adults). Trilliums in bloom.

To cheer up the kids, I bring them to their friends’ houses, where they can talk to each other while standing on the sidewalk. After some persuading, DD takes a socially-distant walk with a friend, and leaves recharged and happy.

I commit to working half an hour a day on my novel. The best time for me to write is in the morning, so I write between 11:30 a.m. and 12 p.m., when I can place Mouche in front of a show without feeling too guilty about it, since by then we’ve played, crafted, participated in online school, and gone outside. Those half an hour sessions, during which I get so lost in my novel that I forget about the pandemic, are full of joy.

6 May

There are rumours of businesses reopening, social isolation rules relaxing. We grow hopeful. My mother-in-law sends me a list, purportedly from the provincial government, of specific guidelines for reopening. I get very excited and start planning with DH. Ten minutes into our conversation about when to invite our kids’ babysitter to return to work, my mother-in-law texts me to apologize: “Sorry, it’s not true.” I’m disproportionately disappointed. DD seems peeved as well, and thinks we should have known better than to believe that life was getting back to normal.

I finish reading Beowulf. Beowulf defeats a dragon, but is killed in the process:


His soul fled from his breast

to its destined place among the steadfast ones.

It was hard then on the young hero,

having to watch the one he held so dear

there on the ground, going through

his death agony. The dragon from underearth

his nightmarish destroyer, lay destroyed as well,

utterly without life. No longer would his snakefolds

ply themselves to safeguard hidden gold. (v. 2819-2827)


I love the vividness and exactness of “snakefolds”. I’m awestruck by Heaney’s poetic skill. I’m also inordinately satisfied with having met a reading goal. I debate reading all of Shakespeare’s Sonnets. Or Dante’s Divine Comedy, of which I’ve only read The Inferno.

I tear my way through several books, ranging from the literary pleasures to the guilty. I favour darkness over light. I read Ariel Levy’s memoir, The Rules Do Not Apply. I re-read the first chapter of Don Delillo’s The Body Artist to better understand how to write domestic discontent. I reread Zoë Heller’s The Believers to study how she focalizes the narrative through various characters. I borrow a Ruth Rendell whodunit from my parents so I can fall asleep in the evenings.

I ask members of my Toronto Women’s Salon for pandemic poetry recommendations.

Hagit Grossman’s On Friendship stands out. I send the poem to several people, first to my girlfriend in NYC. A psychologist working in a psychiatric hospital, she’s considered an essential worker, so she’s placed her kids in childcare and gone back to work. She’s also Israeli, so I know she’ll doubly appreciate the poem, which is translated from the Hebrew. “It’s beautiful,” she texts me, from work. Later, she will confess to me that she’s been fighting with her employers to get the proper protective equipment to practice her work safely.

15 May

DH starts to feel safer at work. So far, no-one at his work places has become sick. Now that he has well-established safety practices, I begin to sleep better. This is due, partly, to the fact that I’m exhausted. I’m also compartmentalizing. But I also feel that I have no choice. If I’m to run the household for an indefinite number of months, I’m going to have to safeguard my energy.

DH and I have daily debates about what’s safe. Can we bring a babysitter in twice a week? She could help us with laundry and with childcare. I start dreaming of spending a day in bed. We discuss bringing her in June, twice a week. My plan is to drive her to and from our house. She’s been self-isolating at home, so I know the move would be fairly risk-free. On the other hand, her husband is still working, which means that we will be at one remove from every one of his co-workers.

A friends talks about going out to restaurants when they reopen. We can’t even consider it: too risky. If DH or any members of our family becomes sick, he’ll be forced to stop working, and will require two negative tests before he can work again. This could take weeks: a patient is known to have remained positive for COVID for seven weeks. Since DH is only paid when he works, seven weeks off work would mean that we would suffer a severe financial hit. There is no recourse: no government funds, no insurance. Long-term disability insurance won’t cover it, since 7 weeks don’t qualify. In other words, if anyone in this family gets sick, we’re in trouble. “No,” I tell my friend. “We won’t be going to restaurants.” Unless there’s a patio, I think. And if the waiters wear masks. No – I correct myself –if all staff wear masks.

I begin to wish for a authoritarian government, one that would force all of its citizens to wear masks in indoor public spaces. I long for officials to go door to door, testing the healthy and sick, alike. At times, I experience a dangerous shift in my left-wing politics. Civil liberties be damned, I think, not entirely unserious.

19 May

A friend of mine sends me a journal’s call for papers: creative works on front-line health care workers’ experiences. I ask myself whether my experience as a front-line worker’s spouse counts. “I’d love to submit something,” I write back. “But I’m too darned tired.” Immediately she replies that I should submit this answer to the journal’s editors. “Tell them you’d love to write something,” she says. “But that you’re too tired.”