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.”



Black-Belt Mind – Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

April 16th

Every aspect of DH’s work environment has changed. He and his colleagues can no longer rely on their work habits, which might kill them and their patients. Their work, on some level always about problem-solving, has become increasingly so. They spend hours discussing new issues and how to deal with them, then implement solutions during their shifts.

I wash dishes and eavesdrop on their online meetings. The meetings are always on-point, and occasionally colourful. Tonight’s discussion is about testing, and whether previously ill patients should be re-tested after recovery. Most agree that re-testing in an unnecessary waste of resources.

“What if they insist on being tested?” one doctor asks.

“Most people who’ve had the swab don’t want it again. It’s unpleasant,” DH says.

“Yeah,” I overhear a male voice saying. “I’ve had it done. It’s like performing an autopsy on your eyeball.”

April 17th

When I call her to complain that I’m not getting any work done, my New York girlfriend, also overwhelmed by childcare and work, insists that I rise at 6 a.m. to do some work. She gives me strict instructions to kick out all children by 9 p.m. the night before, so that I can get enough sleep. Like everyone else, I have trouble falling asleep at night, and then struggle to focus during the day. “If the older kids want to spend time with you,” she tells me, “they can see you between 4-9 p.m.”

The plan works, and I get a fair amount of work done before Mouche gets up. I even manage to fit some journaling and yoga. I make a promise to myself to make it a habit to rise early.

After that, I spend my day grocery-shopping (always a two-hour odyssey), dropping off groceries, and ensuring that everyone gets some fresh air. I notice that there are new signs up in the ravine behind my parents’ house. The signs urge people to “stop only briefly.” Mouche and I stop on a bridge, where I allow him to throw a single pinecone to the rushing waters below before urging him to keep moving.

My sister is in a group home, and her roommate has died. My mother reassures me that the roommate died of long-standing health complications unrelated to COVID-19. I urge my mother to ensure that no-one is moving into my sister’s group home during the pandemic and, if they do, that they are tested prior to moving in. She promises me to follow up.

The emergency departments DH works in have spearheaded a new mission. For weeks now, DH has agonized over COVID-19 running rampant through group housing, especially group homes. “We’ve let these people down,” he’s told me several times. Today, he and his colleagues visit three housing complexes – a retirement home, a group home, and a refugee centre. In a single afternoon, they test hundreds of patients.

April 18th

I’m behind on my contract deadlines, so I consider staying home and working, but my fourteen-year-old persuades me to accompany her and the rest of the family on our weekly hike. “You’ll feel better if you come, and you’ll work better,” she tells me. She’s repeating my own words back to me, and I momentarily feel as though I’m doing an adequate job at parenting.

We hike in the Durham region, which has become our new, favourite hiking grounds. The first trail doesn’t work out: the parking lot and adjoining street are both closed. Clearly, nobody wants us there. We return to a trail we walked two weeks ago. It’s less muddy today, and we know the route. Last time, we made an accidental detour through the woods; today, we manage to stick to the trail, and finish the loop in less than 2.5 hours.

On the way home, DH tells me that he is cautiously optimistic about the state of the pandemic, at least in Ontario. He’s been watching the death rate (which can’t lie), as well as the ICU admissions’ rate. Both are still rising, but more slowly than expected.

My mother, who has followed up on my sister’s group home, reassures me that there are no plan to move a new roommate into her apartment. She tells me that a supervisor has been exposed to COVID-19 and is now in isolation. We talk about whether the supervisor, who was moving between various apartments, has endangered my sister and other individuals who live in the home. “I’ve decided that there’s nothing I can do,” my mother says. “So I’m not going to worry about it.”

April 19th

Having paused karate, and without access to a gym, I’m losing my upper body musculature. I consider buying weights, but don’t know where I’ll store them, for a third of my house is still under construction. As it is, we’re constantly stumbling over boxes and toys (I haven’t had access to many of my books for a year now, a situation that is a constant source of frustration). I make a plan with DH to track down our resistance bands and learn how to use them.

I spend most of my days cooking, cleaning, and nurturing children. Whenever he’s not working a shift or attending a meeting, DH does the same. My high-powered lawyer friend puts it well: “We’ve all become our mothers.” I’m struggling to find time to write. I reflect on the fact that, during a crisis, art is one of the first kinds of work to disappear, even as we need it the most.

In the interest of continuing to support local bookstores, as well as my own reading habit and that of my children, I buy additional books from Type Bookstore. I pick up Seamus Heaney’s translation of Beowulf, which I’ve been wanting for several years, and then wonder why I put off this purchase for so long. I read it voraciously after Mouche’s bedtime. I find the epic, with its tale of heroics and bloody battles, strangely comforting. Plus, Heaney brings his fine poetic sensibility to his translation:

He realized

that the demon was going to descend on the hall,

that he had plotted all day, from dawn-light

until darkness gathered again over the world

and stealthy night-shapes came stealing forth

under the cloud-murk. (v. 646-651)

April 20th

I rise early to write poetry. I meet a contract deadline and spend the rest of the day celebrating by cooking and cleaning. I clean the bathroom, which hasn’t been cleaned in a week and is starting to smell, courtesy of Mouche who was dubious aim. DH, who doesn’t have to work until 7 p.m., makes homemade yoghurt and sourdough bread.

In the afternoon, our entire family visits my mother for her birthday. We stand in her driveway and sing the monkey rendition of the Happy Birthday song, which Mouche has chosen. My mother tells us she has enjoyed her birthday lunch, including the gelato that I picked up for her a few days before.

On the way home, I call my friend to figure out our future grocery-buying tactics. She’s extremely organized and has managed to place orders for delivery several weeks in advance. But the local service is changing their rules, and she will no longer be able to buy her groceries this way. DH and I decide that we’ll continue shopping in person, despite the long lineups.

April 21st

I rise early to write and read.

Beowulf defeats the first monster, Grendel:

The monster’s whole

body was in pain, a tremendous wound

appeared on his shoulder. Sinews split

and the bone-lappings burst. Beowulf was granted

the glory of winning; Grendel was driven

under the fen-banks, fatally hurt,

to his desolate lair. (Heaney v. 814-820)

Black Belt Mind – Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

April 6th 

DH’s brother, an ear, nose and throat surgeon, sends him an email warning of a possible shortage of certain types of blades. He recommends sterilizing and re-using them. Reading this, I’m uneasy about hospitals running out of brand-new and therefore indisputably sterile equipment. I’m also reminded that hospitals produce enormous amounts of waste, and wonder whether sterilizing equipment could become a viable and more environmentally-sound future practice.

The press continues to emphasize hospitals’ lack of protective equipment. I ask DH for an update. He tells me that his workplaces have managed their supplies in such a way to prevent them from running out. They’re expecting new shipments of masks. They’re also sterilizing protective equipment for re-use. I’m relieved that DH will be equipped to deal with the coming numbers, even while being guiltily aware that others won’t be as lucky as he.

April 8th

Wake up feeling under the weather with a stomach bug. I don’t understand where it came from since I haven’t been near anyone in weeks. It’s possible that DH passed something on to me. But he feels perfectly fine. This mysterious illness worries us.

I read a piece by Sandeep Jauhar in the New York times entitled “In a Pandemic, do Doctors Still Have a Duty to Treat?”.

I consider Jauhar’s question on a daily basis. Doctors are being asked to make the near-impossible choice of practicing medicine under unsafe conditions or not practicing at all.

I’m surprised to read that doctors have been in this predicament throughout history. Jauhar writes “During the Antonine Plague of A.D. 165 to 180, none other than the venerable Galen, one of history’s most famous physicians, fled Rome. Such behavior [sic] was so common that in 1382, Venice passed a law forbidding doctors from taking flight in times of plague.”

He writes that in 1986, the American College of Physicians and the Infectious Diseases Society of America issued a joint declaration that health care workers must provide care to their patients, “even at the risk of contracting a patient’s disease.”

Jauhar concludes that although doctors have an ethical responsibility to treat their patients, that responsibility is not unconditional. Society also has a responsibility toward its doctors. Citizens have an obligation to practice social distancing, for example. They also need to provide doctors with masks.

Jauhar writes: “Social order relies on reciprocity. Imposing outsize burdens on one group without sacrifice from others is unfair. Doctors and nurses and other health care workers may be heroes in this pandemic, but we will not be martyrs.”

When I bring up Jauhar’s article to DH, he frames the issue more darkly: “What good does it do to society to have a bunch of dead doctors?”

My inbox is filled with promotions. I’ve noticed that the crisis has narrowed my material desires. I no longer want to shop for clothes, for example. Under normal circumstances, I love clothes – a preoccupation that’s a constant source of guilt. I once read a passage in Virginia Woolf’s diary where she admitted to a passion for clothes; I felt duly relieved.

Lately, my wants have been narrowed down to food, affection from my loved ones, and the written word.

April 9th

I’ve recovered from my slight illness. DD now has my stomach bug. I continue to stay away from DH, wash my hands religiously, and tell DD to do the same.

Still trying to work out how to get work done. I’ve taken on two writing and editing contracts. Under normal circumstances this development would be fantastic. But now I don’t know how I’ll manage.

Contemplate getting up at 5 a.m., along with DH. Instead I get up at 6 a.m. and do physiotherapy and yoga. I’m determined to heal my hip by the end of the pandemic, at which point I’ll be able to return to karate full-time.

I have a hard time getting to work. I haven’t been sleeping well. I wake up regularly at 3 a.m. and use that time – quite productively – to worry about a number of issues: the world, DH, my children.

After yoga, I manage to do a little work, and put Mouche in front of the television, accomplishing a little more.

April 11th

Struggling with a lack of motivation, I consider cancelling our weekly hike. Our nerves are frayed. We could use some time apart. The other day, DS swore, loudly. When I admonished him, he protested: “you swear all the time!” I had to admit that he was right – although a little exaggerated. “It’s the pandemic,” I said. I promised him I would try to do better.

Today we’re hiking in the Durham region. Although the parking lot is closed, a sign informs us that the trail is open. I’m relieved: I’d been afraid of having to make the potentially unethical decision – not to mention an unlawful one – to hike on a closed trail.

The air is cold – we’ve taken our winter coats back out of storage – but it’s sunny. The trail is windy and hilly. Mouche asks me why it’s harder to go up than down, so I give him a lesson in the law of gravity. He flies down each hill, yelling, full of joy.

On our way home we listen to the All Songs Considered podcast’s episode on John Prine, who died this week of COVID-19. Angel From Montgomery is one of my favourite songs of all time. Grateful for the beauty of Prine’s melodies and the genius of his storytelling, I cry through most of the episode.

We return home, refreshed. The kids pick up their screens. We persuade Mouche to watch Curious George. DH and I resume our weekly habit of re-watching Battlestar Galactica, a show we consumed as graduate students years ago, before we had children.

Black Belt Mind – Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 27th

I grocery shop for a friend in quarantine and for my parents, whom I’ve ordered not to go into stores. DH insists I wear a mask, instructing me patiently on how to use it. Because I’m not performing high-risk medical procedures, I can re-wear the mask several times, as long as I take precautions. “I feel ridiculous,” I tell him.

“Get over it,” he says.

I stand in line at our local grocery store, careful to keep my distance from other shoppers, resentful when a man behind me stands too close for my taste. For the first time, I experience anxiety. I call my friend in NYC, and she reassures me. “You got through SARS,” she says. “You can get through this.”

But SARS was another world. DH was quarantined then, after having been exposed to a sick patient. We didn’t take the situation seriously. We were living together, but he didn’t always wear his mask – we may have stopped kissing for a few days. Once, I used his quarantine as an excuse to return a videotape (!) late. I don’t even remember which movie we watched. Now, we have kids, we have aging parents whom we want to protect.

After a long wait, I enter the store. My heart beats rapidly the entire time I shop. The expedition takes me twice as long as usual because I’m shopping for three families. It’s also not my usual grocery store – I’ve chosen it because of its strict hygiene policy and effective crowd control – and I waste a lot of time locating groceries at opposite ends of the store. Then, joy at finding a coveted item: disinfecting wipes!

DH begins a daily routine of working with colleagues at three hospitals crafting policy around safely treating COVID-19 patients. He reads widely, attends simulations, leads SIMS for nurses and respiratory therapists. Negative pressure rooms (hospital air comes in, contaminated air goes out through ceiling vents), usually used for patients who have respiratory illnesses are being used for COVID-19 patients. Staff entrances and exits are choreographed carefully to prevent contaminated air from escaping through the front door. If they need equipment, they have to plan ahead. Each person is assigned equipment they will bring into the room, usually at the same time as patients are brought in. Properly using protective gear properly is equally complicated: staff need to know when and how to use it, how to safely remove and dispose of it. (DH hasn’t brought his scrubs home in weeks, instead throwing them into the department’s laundry bin.) Getting dressed for DH’s job now needs to be systematic and meticulous. In this new world, the price for sloppiness is high.

March 28th

As per our new family rule, we leave on our weekly hiking expedition. It’s raining, which is perfect because the trail is deserted. We only meet one other family. Like us, they’re fully equipped, with full rain gear, including rain pants. Not for the first time, I feel that our family habits (crafting, cooking, hiking) are highly adaptable to our new situation.

In the mild spring air, we walk through mud. Rain drips from maples and pines. A wild turkey bursts through the bushes a few feet in front of us. The kids gesture excitedly. We return to the city refreshed, ready for another period of isolation.

In the late afternoon, DH takes Mouche to an empty parking lot, where for the first time he rides a pedal bike. DH sends me a video. From then on, we go on twice daily practice runs, during which Mouche perfects his balance. Until one day, the parking lot is closed, sealed off like many of the open spaces in Toronto. I will always associate his first bike rides with the COVID-19 pandemic.

March 28th continued

We’ve started family conversations about supporting local businesses. The kids want to support our local pizzeria, Napoli Centrale, so we vow to buy pizza from them on a weekly basis. We also want to support small independent bookstores, some of which have moved to a delivery and/or curb side pickup model. I’m going to plug them here – after all, they’ve done a superb job of adapting to their new reality:

Blue Heron Books

Book City

Type Books

Queen Books

My collection of short stories, This One Because of the Dead, can be purchased for delivery from any of the above bookstores.

March 29th

More rain, this time thunder showers, so impossible to go out. DH takes Mouche for a couple of hours so I can work on my novel. DH does the morning craft with him and sends me a photo of the two of them, which I, the consummate procrastinator, see when I sneak a look at my email.

A local library has a 3-D printer, and DH begins discussions with the CEO about the possibility of printing protective masks. The CEO is willing, but the logistics are daunting. Because the government has ordered the library’s closure, there’s some question as to whether staff will be allowed back into the library to use the printers. In addition, only a few people have keys. DH asks him to try out three prototypes – even if he succeeds in printing one, the CEO isn’t sure how to distribute them. He suggests leaving the finished product in the entryway of the library for doctors to pick up.

March 30th

DH leaves to attend a SIM at another hospital.

My middle son’s school has set up a limited online school for its incoming kindergarten students, and Mouche has an online class! I’m amazed and grateful to the school for setting it up – both my older kids are in school, providing them with much-needed structure. Despite our numerous technical difficulties, we catch most of the lesson. Mouche enthusiastically puts his hand up several times, even when he doesn’t know the answer to the teacher’s question.

At midday, I put Mouche in front of a show so that I can attend a virtual meeting for a potential work opportunity. My laptop’s video camera doesn’t work, and I wrestle with it for half an hour before giving up and getting onto DH’s device. While I get to know a potential employer, Mouche peers over my shoulder, grinning into the camera.

DH returns for lunch and a midday walk with us. He also bakes bread, timing his walk between baking steps. In the afternoon, he goes back to work at the hospital. I need to run an urgent errand, so I leave DD with a recipe for waffles (comfort food). When I return she’s made the batter: she’s even tracked down the oversized package of baking soda, the only one I could find on my epic grocery run. She makes all the waffles – they’re delicious.

I don’t write a word – by the time evening arrives I just want to lie down. I call my best friend in NYC. A field hospital has opened in Central Park, and the reserves have arrived. “New York is a ghost town,” she says.

March 31st

DH leaves at 5:30 a.m., long before we’re awake.

Due to a planned power outage in our house, we have to move out for the day. We’ve rented an apartment so the kids will have somewhere to do their online schooling – besides, with museums and libraries closed, we have nowhere else to go.

The Hydro worker arrives forty minutes before schedule. I open the door in my housecoat. When he asks if he can turn off the power early (he has another planned disconnection and wants to get ours done quickly), I look at him as if he’s out of his mind. “I have 3 kids to get out of the house,” I tell him. “And I’m on my own.”

“Never mind,” he says.

As we leave the house, I notice that someone has dumped a bag of garbage in front of our house. The animals have torn into it, and McDonalds’ paper bags and cannabis containers are strewn in front of our house. I march the kids to our rental space, leave Mouche watching Super Why on my laptop, and return to our house. Furious and gloveless (our local hardware store is closed), I spend a half-an-hour cleaning up the mess and despairing over human nature.

Human nature is salvaged later that morning, when my friend calls to tell me she’s placed an order with a gourmet grocery store, and that my groceries will be delivered Friday. Touched by her kindness, and relieved that I won’t have to make another trip to the grocery store – at least not for the next week or two – I thank her over and over.

In the evening I read aloud to my middle son. We’re reading the second book in Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin chronicles. Not for the first time, I’m struck by how even-keeled the Austin parents are (they are fictional, after all) and feel flawed in comparison.

April 1st

For the first time since the crisis began, I watch a news story. In a Madrid hospital, there are no beds, and patients lie head-to-toe on hallway floors. Health workers are clad in protective gear they have made themselves out of garbage bags. Most of them fall ill; many die. I find myself wishing I hadn’t watched.

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

Will post more later today. To give you an idea of what I’ve been up to, here’s a sign that I created to hang outside my house:

TO THE PEOPLE WHO HAVE BEEN DUMPING GARBAGE IN FRONT OF OUR HOUSE AND IN OUR BIN: An emergency doctor lives here. When you dump garbage here, and the animals make a mess of it, we spend our time cleaning it up. For your sake and that of your relatives and friends who may end up in the hospital, please refrain from dumping and allow us to do our real work! Thank you.

I suppose I should have added “an author and mother of three lives here, and she’s currently holding down the fort….!” Perhaps on the next sign.

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

March 19th continued

Notifications ping on DH’s phone. Staff are upset that technicians are using the N95 masks when they’re not in direct contact with patients. A frenzy of texting ensues. Everyone is afraid of running out of equipment. DH gets it. “They’re scared,” he says.

March 20th

I’ve made big plans to bake regularly. I make challah dough with Mouche. Last time I baked challah, I ended up with what my kids refer to fondly as a “challah brick.” We re-start the yeast mixture twice. On our third try, I peer closely at the yeast pond, searching for bubbles. “Is it shimmering?” I ask DD. “I think so,” she answers.

The dough doesn’t rise. When DH comes home, I rage about my failed challah. Exhausted, he snaps at me. “Perspective,” he says. We put the challah in a warm oven. Several hours later, it rises slightly. DH braids and bakes it. It fills the house with a sweet, soothing smell.

Mouche has branched out from his current favourite, Curious George, and is watching Super Why! Now he’s obsessed with it. When we take walks, he asks me if I can find some “super letters.”

March 21rst

Impossible to get online grocery delivery. I grocery shop for a friend who’s been quarantined with her family. She opens her window to talk to me. We exchange news. I tell her DH and I have been arguing. “It’s the same for everyone,” she says. Shouting from the sidewalk, I feel as though I’m sharing my life with the entire street.

DH has a day off. It’s cold but sunny, so we go on a three-hour hike outside Toronto. It’s much snowier here than in the city. Toward the end of the hike, we hit an icy cliff. DH and I start passing Mouche back and forth to each other as we cling to the trees for support. At one point, DH, who’s got Mouche in a football hold, starts sliding down the slope. DS starts to cry and DD squeals. DH thrusts his foot out, hitting a tree and stopping his slide. Mouche giggles the rest of the way down.

Near the bottom of the cliff, a stranger offers me his hand. I’m so terrified of slipping that I take it, only to regret it moments later, since I’ll have to wash my glove. Once we’re all safely down the cliff, DH smiles. “Now didn’t that just put COVID-19 out of your mind for a few minutes?”

At DH’s work, more discussions about masks. Many physicians believe that the N95 masks should be used only for high-risk procedures; others disagree. “What will you do if you run out of masks?” I ask him. “I won’t do the procedure,” he says. “And the patient will die.”

March 23rd

In Italy, 14 doctors have died. I ask DH: “Did they take safety measures?” “I have no idea,” he says. Not for the first time, I quiz DH on his own practices. He doesn’t want to be a hero, and he won’t work if he doesn’t feel safe. I don’t know whether I want him to be a hero or not. It doesn’t seem fair to ask health care workers to make these kinds of choices.

For the first time, someone we know  – the father-in-law of another emergency doctor – dies of COVID-19. Both his son-in-law and his daughter are physicians, so he was well-connected. He died anyway.

March 26th

Upon reading one of my husband’s charts, a colleague stumbles on what she mistakes for DH’s positive COVID-19 results. She burst into tears, then realizes that the chart isn’t my husband’s, but rather belongs to a patient who has been seen by him.

One of my colleagues at the Toronto Academy of Karate runs an online class. I decide that my injured hip has had enough rest. After dinner, I don my Gi (karate uniform). Immediately I’m bathed in what feels like an elemental joy. Run on Zoom, the class is short – only 30 minutes – but I train enthusiastically, and by the end I feel better than I have in days.

March 27

Unable to sell his wares to shuttered restaurants, a food distributor brings 200 shucked oysters to DH’s emergency room and distributes them to the entire staff. The staff struggle to find the time and the means to eat them. Prohibited from eating (and drinking) in the emergency department, they are forced to go to their small staff room, where they must practice social distancing. A food enthusiast, DH manages to go to the staff room and eat a dozen oysters – he finds them delicious.

An email is sent around to DH and his colleagues: A legal firm is offering free wills for front line health care workers. The letterhead is attached to the email. Its subject line actually reads: “Free wills for front line health care workers.” DH shows me the email and we both start laughing maniacally, for an offer that is as macabre as it is generous.


Black Belt Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19


March 17th

I sleep poorly. At 6:30, I give myself a talking-to. I can’t train due to my injury, but I can train my mind. I decide to create some structure for myself and my kids. I draw up a list of rules that include daily exercise, schoolwork (my son has started online school,) outdoor time, piano practice, and chores. Evenings will be filled with board games and movies. In an effort to create opportunity (I still have the drive to think about opportunity, and I wonder how long this state will last). Borrowing a friend’s idea, I vow to screen classic films for my older kids.

I try to do yoga with my four-year-old, but he sits on my head when I get into downward dog. I allow him to watch a show so that I can practice alone. Thinking of expanding his horizons, I try to persuade him to watch something other than Curious George, his current favourite. No dice. When I try to turn on a new show, he screams.

I choose pseudonyms for all my children. My daughter will be DD, my son DS. My littlest one will go by his nickname, Mouche, the French word for fly. The name comes from a song we used to sing him when he was a baby: Mouche Mouchelette. When I was a kid, my favourite version was sung by Anne Sylvestre.

Yesterday two stores in my neighbourhood ran out of bread. I wanted to bake some but I’d left the yeast at home (as our house is under renovation, we’re living in a rented apartment). I texted a friend who replied: “we’re all going to become homesteaders during this pandemic.” At 8 a.m. the following morning, I ask my middle son to watch Mouche for the first time while I leave the house to shop. I walk into an empty Cobbs, which fills after a few minutes. We scatter about the store, trying to keep a metre between us in the tight space. I buy a loaf, leave, then retrace my steps and buy another for a friend.

I come home, only to have DH text me that Ford has declared a state of emergency. “If you can get groceries now, that would be great.” I leave Mouche with his brother again, shop, return with enough groceries for one week.

In the afternoon DD plays with Mouche so that I can write. I take my journal outside, hoping to find some quiet. People walk about. Most move out of the way as I approach them. Cafés are still open, although the barista at my local café tells me that they will soon close indefinitely. I find a secluded spot near a technical school and settle myself on a bench with my notebook. On a wide slab of pavement at my feet, small children circle on scooters. I try to focus. After a while, it starts to rain, large drops smudging my ink. It’s close to 0 degrees and my hands feel frozen. I give up and walk home.

We Facetime DH. He appears on the screen in his a mask and plastic visor. “Why are you wearing a mask?” asks Mouche. “So I don’t get sick.” I ask him how things are at work. “The calm before the storm,” he replies.

March 18th

I take Mouche to the playground. We wash our hands regularly so at this point I figure it’s okay (a few days later I will change my mind about the safety of playgrounds, but for now I still think playgrounds are safe, especially if they’re not busy.) I sit and watch him scoot around the park. Mouche wants to socialize, and he sidles up to two older boys taking turns pushing each other on a tricycle. A boy puts a hand on Mouche’s scooter, and I spring up from my seat. “I’m sorry, boys, but we can’t share with our friends today.” They shuffle their feet and stare at me. “Because of the virus,” I say. Feeling like a terribly mean person, I pull out some alcohol wipes and wipe down the handles.

DH comes home from work and makes dinner, then leaves for a second shift at another hospital. I kiss him goodbye. We haven’t had any intimate moments for days – usually we’re so exhausted we can barely speak to each other.

March 19th

DH comes home sometime in the middle of the night, then leaves again at 6:30 a.m. At breakfast Mouche and I Facetime him: this time DH has removed his mask, and it looks as though he’s speaking to us from a large closet, though it’s probably just a small staffroom.

I make pancakes. I figure if we’re going to be stuck at home, we might as well eat well. I’m grateful that both DH and I are decent cooks, and that we can rustle up a dish from practically any ingredients: the near-empty shelves at the supermarket don’t bother us – at least not yet. Last night I made Poulet Basquaise – a cheap dish of chicken legs, peppers, and a single tomato. When I explained to Mouche that the dish comes from the Basque region of France, he petulantly said: “but I don’t want to go to Poulet Basquaise.”

March 19th

No more playground.

Black Belt Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

March 10th

On what seems to be, in retrospect, my last normal evening, I meet a friend at a restaurant. Under dim lights, we eat noodles and drink white wine. My friend has a cold, and I’m surprised that she’s out. My husband (I’m going to borrow from maternity chat groups of yesteryear and call him DH, or Dear Husband) has already told me that COVID-19 can be asymptomatic – but most people don’t know it yet.

We discuss whether she should cancel her teenage son’s March break trip to the U.S. I want to tell her to cancel it, but I balk. For the first time – but not the last – I weigh the pros and cons of giving someone advice against the need to preserve someone’s right to autonomous decision-making. For two weeks after this moment, I will constantly revisit the ethics of speaking up versus remaining silent. As time passes, I speak up more frequently, even knowing that I’m alienating relatives and friends.

At the end of the evening, we jokingly refrain from hugging each other, blowing each other kisses instead. I take the subway for what will end up being the last time in several weeks – possibly several months.

March 12th

Another friend emails me to say that she’s starting to get anxious. In the days that follow, people reach out to ask DH his opinion on social isolation. People also commend him for his work. I feel a sense of pride, even while being anxious for his safety.

My daughter has a bad cold and we tell her she can’t see her friends until she’s symptom-free. She cries.

Schools close. Even before we get the official word, we parents at my son’s middle school start to make plans. Social isolation is still a foreign concept and we don’t know what’s permitted. How large can groups be? Is contact even allowed? I volunteer to host small groups of my son’s friends a couple times a week so that other parents can work. Friends create a roster of parents who have volunteered to provide childcare.

March 13th

Several weeks ago, I booked a shiatsu massage for a hip injury. As an athlete, I consider massage a regular and necessary part of my routine. I also adore massages. Now I send my shiatsu therapist a text confirming my appointment. “With kids off school, I’ll really need it,” I write, and add a smiley face. ☺

March 14th

My daughter has planned to visit one of her best friends who lives outside Toronto who’s celebrating her birthday. After much discussion around the meaning of social isolation, my husband and I decide that she can’t attend the party. I text the friend’s parent, letting them know that if the party remains small, we’ll allow my daughter to attend. There will be 10 girls; our daughter is not allowed to go.

DH and I are out driving, and by the time we return, our daughter’s friend has called her and given her the bad news. Devastated, she cries.

I think I can imagine the other parent’s perspective: the party is to be a bulwark in the face of what has been, for that family, a very difficult year. I feel terrible for them and for my daughter and keep trying to come up with solutions. I start a plot to call the other parents to ensure that everyone is healthy, in which case I could allow my daughter to attend – knowing that this plan is a dead end. For the sake of my daughter, I start to hope that the party will be cancelled.

March 15th

We’ve concluded that we can’t meet or see anyone at all. Responding to several inquiries from other parents, DH sends an email explaining what he thinks is the science behind the concept of social isolation. We can no longer share childcare with other parents. One by one, parents (including myself) take their names off the volunteer roster. My friend, a writer who, like me, has three children, texts “Fuuuuuuck. Can we day drink.”

For the rest of the day, we struggle to explain the concept to our children. “What about meeting outside, in the ravine?” we ask.

I turn to DH. “Is that okay?”

“With one metre apart, maybe.”

But by the end of the week we’ve already abandoned the idea, only to take up new ones, which we take to be creative solutions to an untenable situation. These solutions are eventually discarded, too. I start to understand that we’re going through the early stages of grief. The denial goes on and on.

March 16th

I call my littlest son’s caregiver and tell her to take two (paid) weeks off – I’m still thinking our current situation might blow over. She’s been with us since my son’s birth and we consider her to be part of our family, but we feel it unethical to ask her to take the TTC to and from our house, especially since we’ve decided to stop taking public transit ourselves.

A few hours later, I text her to see if she would feel comfortable being picked up for work, as my in-laws have offered me their car. She tells me that she wants to take a leave of absence. We dance around her reason for staying away for a few seconds and then I ask her, “do you want to stay away from children?” After all, children are, as my DH calls them, “germ factories.”

“Yes,” she says.

As soon as I let her go I feel my world closing in. I don’t want to lose my childcare. At heart I know this situation is not going to change anytime soon, and I’m afraid. I love my children; as an introvert, I also love my solitude. Childcare has permitted me to write; now I’ll have to slot my writing into minuscule pockets of time. I remind myself that Carol Shields wrote while raising four children. Then I remember that she wrote while her kids were in school, between “picking up their socks” [sic] and preparing her kids’ lunches. School is done for the month, and possibly for the year.

I cancel my family members’ appointments, including my daughter’s orthodontic appointment. She was supposed to get her braces fitted, which I’d already delayed by two years. I cancel and hope that a long delay won’t result in crooked teeth.

I abandon my treasured shiatsu massage. My therapist has a private practice but also works at Body Blitz. Once I get the news that the spa is shutting down, I text her to ask if they’re paying her. A few hours later, she confirms that they are. “They’re good people,” she texts. I begin to think that the pandemic will compel us to categorize people as either “good” or “bad.”

The river cruise company my parents booked change their mind about accommodating their customers who want to cancel. Until now they have stuck to their usual cancellation policies. Hoping that the virus will have run its course by September, my parents decide not get a full refund, but rather to postpone the cruise until autumn. I tell them what DH told me, which is that these types of viruses usually peak twice – he expects a summer lull, followed by a resurgence. My mother is reluctant to cancel it completely, and wants to play it by ear.

My daughter’s friend cancels her party. I text “Great news” to the parent and immediately feel like a jerk. I backpedal: “But not great of course.” I write that she’s made the right decision “from my perspective.” She doesn’t answer, so in the evening, I reach out again: “I know it was a difficult decision and I’m sorry you had to make it.” She doesn’t reply.

Black Belt of the Mind or Notes From The Front Line of COVID-19

Sunday February 23rd

My husband, an emergency doctor whose work place is preparing for COVID-19, tells me that we may want to stock up on essential supplies. “I’m not afraid of the virus,” he says. “I’m afraid of people panicking.”

In the end he’s the one who does the shopping, as I’m tied up with our three kids. He texts me that the grocery stores are packed. He returns with enough legumes, rice, eggs, and milk to last us two to three weeks. He orders a normal (for a family of five) supply of toilet paper from Amazon. We don’t want to over shop – we just want to have a buffer.

I text my best friend, telling her to stock up. She’s a psychologist who lives in New York with her two children; her physician husband, an infectious disease specialist, works long hours. His hours are about to get longer, and I don’t want her to get stuck. I send her a list that my husband and I have created. “But he forgot to include tampons,” I text.

I call my parents and leave a message, telling them to let me know if they want us to buy them groceries. My father, who was a child living in Normandy during the Second World War, remembers long weeks of privation. “There was never enough soap,” he says, “nor enough food.” Once, the neighbours dug up a recently deceased horse and cooked it. When I was a child, my father always stocked the pantry with dozens of bars of soap. I’m not surprised when my mother calls me back and reports that they already have enough supplies to last them several weeks.

Wednesday February 26th

My husband advises me to cancel a long-awaited girls’ weekend in Washington with my best friend. “You don’t want to stuck with a bunch of people in a confined space right now,” he says. This trip took weeks of planning, especially on the part of my friend, who works in an American psychiatric hospital and only gets one day off a week and who, because she has just started to work in this hospital, has no extended time off. Reluctantly, I cancel my trip and inform my friend. She texts me that it makes sense, particularly because, she writes “your husband isn’t an alarmist.”

My parents are scheduled to fly to France mid-April to visit my grandmother, who has just moved into a retirement home, and plan to combine the visit with a French river cruise. A few weeks before, my father, who’s eighty years old, flew to France to be with my grandmother, who had taken ill. Around the world, borders were starting to close. For days I worried about him getting home. Then I worried about him being cooped up in a plane. Finally, after several weeks, he made it home, healthy. “Nobody was wearing a mask on the plane,” he tells me. “Not the flight attendants, nor the passengers.”

Now my parents are planning to leave again. I call my mom to ask her to cancel their trip. “It’s a cruise,” I tell her. “That’s the worst possible scenario. Have you been following the news?”

My mom is in a chronic state of exhaustion caring for my sister, who has special needs. Although my sister lives in a group home, she needs constant input and care-taking from my mom. My mom refuses to cancel the cruise. She adds that she still has time to change her mind. “I really need this,” she says.

Tuesday March 10th

We’ve been aware of COVID-19 for a while now, but we’re not yet taking it seriously. I go about my day. My daughter is on March break, so we take the opportunity to shop for her grade eight graduation dress. My husband is on a day shift at one of the three hospitals where he works, so I text him photos of our daughter, whom I barely recognize in her slick, semi-formal dresses.

“She looks happier in option 1,” he texts. “But looks great in both.”

When I ask my husband what time he’ll be finished work, he texts me that he’ll be late. “Lab here is broken.”

Turns out that someone pulled a fire alarm and the sprinklers went off. Lab work is delayed.

“Argh,” I reply, and send him a grinning smiley face. “Kind of funny though.”

My husband send another text: “That + COVID = very bad.”

Black Belt of the Mind or Notes From the Front Lines of COVID-19

Having been confined to my home with my three children, and being married to an emergency physician, I’ve decided to shift my focus from writing only about karate to the situation at hand.

On the other hand, being a karate-ka means practicing mental strength. A few days ago, after the reality of the pandemic and what it meant for us as individuals and as a family sunk in, I realized I had to begin practicing mental resilience. I needed to develop a “black belt of the mind.”

My shift from practicing karate to working on mental strength started earlier this year, due to a persistent hip injury. In early March, my injury unresolved, I decided to take a month off karate. Telling my students that I’d be back in April, I arranged for my colleagues to take over my class and prepared myself for an enforced rest.

Now, with many of us stuck inside, barred from gyms and exercise classes, I figure we’re all in the same boat. Time to share our stories.

The situation will probably get worse before it gets better. If you follow the news, or if you know a health care worker (or, in my case, are married to one and suffer an onslaught of regular health care updates), it’s clear that our 2-week isolation period is likely to be extended to several weeks and possibly several months. At some point, like the Italians, we might be confined to our living spaces (if we’re lucky to have a living space – many are not.)

For the next few weeks, I’ll post my COVID-19 diary, taken largely from my personal journal.