March: don’t touch anything
We discovered the tiny house because my daughter needs to nap. She is three, and if she doesn’t nap, she is a total disaster, and if she doesn’t go outside, she doesn’t nap. So, outside we go, in all weather. Our expeditions are fortifying for everyone in our little family, and have ended the reign of pandemic isolation mornings spent strewing every piece of every toy around the house. Still new to Toronto, we drive around the city, finding expanses of green spotted on Google Maps, zooming in to find the points of entry.
My daughter and I have our secret spots, and so, it seems, do others. Drive around the roads near any green space in Toronto, and you will see a car or bike tucked next to this or that barely visible path. In the midst of isolation we hide to find openness, squeezing ourselves into the big spaces of the city.
Our particular spot is a small shelter in a big green park. Daughter calls it the tiny house. Tucked into a wooded hill, its moss-covered roof is deteriorating, but inside it is remarkably cozy. Three glassless window sills are good for serving pretend drinks, or snacks made of sticks and leaves. Benches line its walls, each one a room in my daughter’s imagination: beds for the pretend doggies that accompany our visits, her bedroom, the living room, the kitchen. There’s no door but I must knock before I enter; she greets me with a big hello and a thrilled smile.
In the tiny house, my daughter is in charge. She tucks the make-believe doggies in, then wakes them when they’ve napped long enough. She dances. Some days there is pretend coffee for me; other times I am offered only a pretend glass of warm milk and goldfish crackers. Occasionally, she sends me to the pretend store and admonishes me for returning with the wrong pretend snacks. Other days the store is simply closed.
At the tiny house, I allow my daughter to climb on the benches and lean on the window frames. I tell myself that the house is a respite from the sneaky germs, as we call them, the ones that prevent us from climbing on the playgrounds and park benches anymore. I have never seen anyone else in the tiny house, and so I let myself imagine that no one else has touched its surfaces, or if they have, it was weeks ago. This allowance, like everything the house offers, belongs squarely in the realm of make-believe. The tiny house has a force field around it, because it must. So many of us have this tendency at the dawn of the pandemic, as we navigate our fluidly restrictive new reality in which the rules change constantly. In the grown-up world, we admit our make-believe to one another, but barely. This but not that. Here but not there.
The walls and floors of the tiny house do betray a human co-presence: the trash on the floor that I do not allow my daughter to touch, shoving the sunflower seed husks and discarded bags of chips under the benches with my feet. On most of our visits, the trash seems unchanged, confirming my belief that no one else has been here for a long time. When I spot new trash, I count the days backwards in my head to our last visit and assure myself that the interlopers must have arrived just after we left, that the place is all but scrubbed clean now, by the wind or the squirrels.
The graffiti carved into the walls is older still, scrawls of love (since the ’80s), or rebellion: Eat dick! Or a chocolate chip cookie! Until recently, I thought these teenage tendencies would present the greatest dangers in my daughter’s life. I could protect her from them through honesty and openness, couldn’t I? I didn’t imagine the danger of a pandemic, not in the details of masks, and suspicion, and flour shortages, and months without seeing her small friends.
One day, after a short walk away from the tiny house, we see a man with a big dog approach and enter. I watch my daughter crumple. It is her house, after all, and she does not like real doggies. I hold my breath and hope hard that he will not touch a thing, that he will not clear the branch-snacks from the windowsill and break our spell. He is a grown-up and has all the park to roam; he doesn’t need magic like we do. Or maybe he does, but he can’t have ours. Like so many of us, I have an impulse to hoard: I hoard our magic.
The reasons children occupy the world of make-believe is a well-trodden area of psychological study. They do it to make sense of the world, to feel safe, to recharge their batteries. Make-believe helps them build order out of the chaos they have been born into and the capricious demands grown-ups throw at them.
Here in the adult world, we are now enacting neither magic nor make-believe, but science. Yet convincing a child of the rules of this science—of the epidemiological facts rendered small—requires that we take advantage of their tendency toward pretending. How else to explain the spell-casting of constant hand washing before we touch a single thing in the house, even a ball, for fear of contamination? How else to explain staying away from our own grandparents?
So, what are grown-ups to do? I am a great believer in science, but I’m also a social scientist, and I know that the sciences are always socially embedded. Virology, epidemiology, immunology: none of these exist outside of the social world that we have constructed for ourselves. I also know that we need science on the level of public health to inform policy. We need rapid tests for COVID-19, and we need to understand its antibody traces. We need to know which masks work best in what environments.
The reliance on facts falls off a cliff, however, in the tiny, painstaking decisions we have to make in our homes. One friend spends March and April obsessively purchasing different varieties of corn chips, then quarantining them for weeks at a time in a closet. Another tells me in May that her limit is washing cucumbers. She has a lot of limits, but she cannot wash individual cucumbers. N and I do not touch park benches, not even with our bottoms, but we return again and again to the tiny house with the imaginary doggies. We must.
The original quarantine, developed in Venice and other port cities in the 14th century, was a lucky combination of pathology informed by religious magic. When a ship arrived at port, everyone had to stay aboard for 40 days before disembarking. The city fathers chose 40 days for its biblical significance: Noah’s flood, Moses’s sojourn to the mountain top. They were fortunate to discover a blunt instrument: disease ran its course through the ship’s bounded population, killing many, leaving everyone else perhaps traumatized—but immune.
This spring we understood what Noah and Moses did. Forty days (and now many more) is a long time. A long time to be alone, to do unending childcare, to worry about elders without being allowed near them, to be alone with our families, or alone by ourselves, a long time to wonder when the end will come.
August: touch only some things.
More than 150 days into this new life that we were sure we wouldn’t survive for more than three weeks, the shock of those early weeks, with their attendant compulsions, seems almost quaint.
This summer we live in a borderland, less confined by fear that contagion is everywhere, but still a place of vigilance. As things “open up” in different jurisdictions, the guidance for how to operate day-to-day seems more and more muddled. Varieties of pretending emerge now: one, the path taken by many US states, is to pretend this isn’t happening, to—in my daughter’s words—”make it go away.” This kind of thinking can be soothing, as long as no one you know is harmed, but we see the number of cases increasing every day.
Meanwhile, those like my family, who continue to stay home, to avoid the crowds, remain invisible. We are both hard-nosed and embarrassed in the face of everyone else who seems to be out enjoying themselves. Even as we enter into “phase 3” here in Ontario, I continue to turn down invitations to meet friends on a patio for dinner. My partner and I send pleading letters to our representatives in Parliament to keep the bars shut. To keep us all sane, we form a “bubble” with another family whose child is N’s age. We check in regularly about activities—the beach, blueberry picking—trying to negotiate what will keep us all feeling safe.
On a solo evening walk, I see a dad pushing his kid on the swings in the park, the yellow caution tape that has mummified the playground for months flapping near his ankle like a flag of a lost civilization. He likely did not pull down the barrier himself, but he clearly interpreted its fall as an invitation. Who can blame him?
So why does rage bubble under my ribs? Why am I so furious on behalf of my kid, who I cautiously took to the wading pool last week near closing time, when I was sure most others would be headed home for dinner? When another child approached her, asking, “Will you be my friend?” mine responded, “Yes, but we can’t get close to one another.” Different families have different rules, I tell her. Now, I feel my kid’s distress claw at me, even though she is home in bed. I imagine her frustration at seeing this child in the swing, the thing she misses most. In my head I scream: The rules say you cannot go on the swings!
We know now that transmission via surfaces is highly unlikely. The real risk is being indoors with an infected person. Let the swinger swing. Perhaps it is the child’s weightlessness I envy, or the parent’s willingness to calmly play with his child out in the open, not hiding in the woods, as I once did, or the predictable rhythm of his rocking foot to foot—any predictability, really.
But the sneaky germs still sneak, and we still cannot know who is infected. After our daughter’s bedtime each night, my partner and I drink tea and revisit the question of what will happen in the fall when daycare—likely to re-open in some capacity—inevitably shuts down with rising infections, the only predictable event in our future as the pandemic curve swings up, hammock-like to the second wave. October or November, we read. What do we do if one or both of us is sick? Who will look after our daughter? We cannot send a possibly infected child to live with her cousins and infect their families. Each imagined scenario of disaster reinforces the other and, in this fertile ground, my rage towards the swingset dad is planted.
October: Imagining our way forward
A few months ago, an ecologist friend pointed out that all the recycling we do at home amounts to a miniscule percentage of the waste produced in the industrial systems that cause the most harm. Home recycling is in fact a distraction from the real environmental disaster unfolding all around us, but separating the trash into bins makes us feel virtuous, as though we are doing something, or at least, not doing nothing.
Similarly, our personal pandemic rules and practices feel meaningless in the face of an event so big it needs coordinated federal—and international—responses. But we don’t stop recycling, or washing our hands, even as other people never seem to adhere to a good enough standard. We try to feel smart about the virus with language: fomites, the epidemiological curve, spike protein. We have gained a fluency in this new vocabulary of risk; it relieves us of having to make believe all day long, or at least allows us to imagine that our pretending is grounded in facts.
But the make-believe is always with us. I recognize it in my tendency towards soothsaying, prophecy, and the selection of seers to follow. This one tells me a vaccine will be available within a year; that one proclaims our current status the new normal, or the first step before total societal breakdown. Do I trust that society will be rebuilt as it was? Or do I stuff money under the mattress?
The last time we went to the tiny house, the moss was still on the roof, the trash still on the floor. With the before times fading further into the past, I was less concerned now about my daughter touching the wooden window sills, more anxious about the shape of our lives in the next year, or longer. I sat on the middle bench in the “living room” as instructed, lost in a worried reverie, as she set to work tucking in doggies and listing items on a pretend shopping list for the pretend snacks.
My daughter has become interested in new places lately, and I have missed our visits to the tiny house. I’m relieved to be back now, inside its musky walls, with little asked of me other than an occasional drink of water or a pee in the bushes. Yet after spending most waking hours with me and my partner since the lockdown, my daughter has become more sensitive to our moods.
“Mama, what are you thinking about?” she asks, noticing my unfocused gaze.
“Nothing, kiddo,” I reply. “Are the doggies ready for a walk? Maybe there will be ducks on the river today.”
We walk down the wooden stairs built into the hill, and I am able to pretend for a little while longer that nature is primarily made up of pleasant animals like the birds and fish we look for in the water, rather than mysterious and destructive microbes. I can quiet the questions about daycare and international borders and vaccines. Later tonight, N will teach me a dance and a song called “Go away sneaky germs!” and I will hope the incantation might work. For now, she is generous with her make-believe, insistent, in fact, on drawing me into her way of knowing the world. Like a bundle of carnations and mint from plague times, I try to hold the balm of her magic tight.