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We Are All at Home

I can hide from the plague, but my kids know where to find me. Notes on a new reality.

Erin Ashenhurst 18 Apr 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Erin Ashenhurst teaches history and popular culture at the Wilson School of Design at Kwantlen Polytechnic University. Her writing has appeared in Slate, Vice Canada, and the Globe and Mail. She lives with her exuberant family and despondent houseplants in East Vancouver.

I scroll through the offerings of the streaming service trying to suppress the irrational urgency I feel performing the most mundane tasks. The kids pick something long and absurd. I hit play without comment even though it’s Monday and they are still in pajamas. Before the show starts, there is a public service announcement featuring Baby Shark, who sings about the importance of washing your hands to avoid getting sick. The kids watch transfixed, never mind that a shark doesn’t have hands, and even if it did, it is pictured fully immersed in an ocean where washing would be a challenge.

For a moment, I slip back to before, mid-semester when the plague had yet to launch itself to world domination. I showed my class a film from 1951. In the cartoon aimed at school children, Bert, a dopey-looking turtle, tells the audience to ‘duck and cover’ in the event of a nuclear explosion. How ridiculous, the class laughed.

In the kitchen, I wake up my laptop from where it passed out beside the red footprint of the wine glass. The "emergency" box of cabernet is already empty. The screen brightens to show a browser window open to a page tracking the rates of COVID-19 infection across the country. I refresh it absently. Across the border, New York City has been consumed.

By 11 a.m. the kids run through the house like wild dogs. I take them for a walk around the neighbourhood. A month ago, I complained our area was dull. Now it is just quiet. Someone has left a washing machine in the alley. The children wonder why. We see a man in his 60s jogging down the middle of the street like an action star. A woman with a dog is talking to herself. Three people coming out of the train station are too close together, wearing costumes, drunk and jovial. I hurry the kids onward.

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Wholesome Easter painting. Mine is bottom left. I’m fine. Everything’s fine. Photo submitted.

We see three worms. Two have been partially squished, but only one was our fault. There are daisies, dandelions and crows. There is a broken mirror outside a house with a big development sign in the yard. Fragments of glass in the tall grass reflect the sky. There is a tangle of power cables, chargers of various sizes spread on the edge of the path in the park. “Who brought these?” asks the boy. “What are they all for?” I am supposed to be keeping up with his education while school is closed, but all my answers are the same. “I don’t know,” I say. “Don’t touch anything.”

The gym around the corner still has a handwritten sign in the window announcing that all classes are cancelled for a date weeks past. It already feels like we are walking through the ghost town of the future, noting traces of the final days before all was abandoned and our craft projects turned to making battle fashions for the Thunderdome.

What are we doing in the park if we can’t play on the playground, the children ask. I tell them we are shopping for sticks. We want only the best ones. We will need to compare all the sticks in the neighbourhood. They believe me. I warn them it's a big project and it could take all summer. They are unfazed.

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Finding things to hit with sticks (like each other). Photo submitted.

In the evenings I watch Tiger King and tear through another box of wine. I browse social media blank-faced, studying the artful projects, sourdough loafs and productive homeschooling schedules people are posting. I reconsider my friendships. Ads pop up for loungewear, online workouts and home hair dye kits. The internet thinks it knows me.

The two-year-old wakes up before midnight, crying. I hold him as he sobs and struggles away from the residue of his nightmare. I dance in slow circles in the dark, and whisper that he’s safe, that it wasn’t real. He relaxes, rests his head on my shoulder. I wonder what he dreamed about. Can he sense my anxiety, the sharpness in my tone? Or did he dream he lost this tiny toy cow, a predicament already proven tear-worthy during waking hours? He will be too young to remember any of this.

It is Tuesday and raining hard but we are going camping. The campsite is in the living room. I hang our bedding from a hook already in the ceiling and drape it on a bookshelf to make a tent. The five-year-old puts on his headlamp and the toddler carries the lantern. We are all wearing shorts. We play with their barbecue set until we are bored and then sit eating crackers, listening to a soundtrack of "the forest at night" on Spotify. We watch the rain pelting the daffodils in the garden. The forecast warns of snow on Wednesday, but that seems impossible. It all seems impossible.

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Camping with the laundry. Photo submitted.

At 7 p.m. we will take pot lids and wooden spoons onto the balcony and cheer for the health-care workers. Across the courtyard, the neighbours’ kids are wearing princess dresses. They hold tambourines and wind chimes. In the townhouse beside them, a man has manoeuvred a stand-up bass through the sliding door of his kitchen. Yesterday it was an accordion. We are delighted. The children stomp and howl into the budding branches above us. There is a meme going around of the orchestra playing on the Titanic.

One day, it is the weekend. I am over-caffeinated and hungover. I murmur responses to the boy’s questions about shipwrecks while absorbed in the screen of my phone checking the local COVID numbers. His father has been reading him Tintin — something about sunken treasure. He asks why the sailors don’t just swim away when their ship sinks. I explain that there might be a storm, that oceans can be very cold, and the ship creates a vacuum, pulling anything from the surface down with it. Though the boy refuses to put his own head underwater in the most pleasant of swimming pools, he is not convinced. He says he would grab the treasure chest and swim to shore. He says he wouldn’t wait until it sank.

I snap. I tell him that sometimes there just isn’t anywhere to go, and you don’t know what’s happening until it’s too late, and all you can do is try your best and not make people crazy. The boy sulks. He drives his toy car across the counter making engine noises. It crashes off the edge like it always does. I click away from the news to Instagram and contemplate the validity of a friend’s photo of her children engaged in heartwarming crafts.

I turn to the boy. I am sorry. I tell him I have a question and he looks up warily, the toy car in his fist.

“Do you think we have the best sticks? Like are those really the best we can get?” He glances towards the front landing where half a dozen sticks are wedged into the planter.

“Not yet,” he says solemnly.

I nod in agreement. We put on our shoes. I slip the hand sanitizer into my pocket. Give it a few weeks and we’ll have enough sticks for a raft, I think to myself.  [Tyee]

Read more: Health, Coronavirus

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