When we would have snow days, when the world would shut down because there was too much snow on the ground to safely travel anywhere, we knew that, eventually, and even quickly, the snow would melt. Or at least that it would be cleared enough so that life could return to normal. And, as we waited, we went outside to shovel, to make snow creatures, to have snowball fights. Swimmers would put on their suits, caps, and goggles and go (shudder) snow swimming. Students with no classes to attend but still on campus, would find a hill and some cardboard boxes and go sliding. Professors would email the students and say, do the reading, the test is postponed, we’ll figure it out when we can all get back to campus.
Even as larger natural disasters hit cities and impacted campus life, they were large enough that school necessarily became unimportant, that in the face of these events, everything understandably must stop, and that we would figure it all out later. Most of the work, any kind of worked, stopped because it had to – there was no power, there was no water, there was too much water, too much fire and smoke, there were no houses, no shelter. We strove to return to normalcy as soon as possible, but life necessarily stopped and refocused.
This is not like those times. I keep trying to find some parallel, some analogy, to try and explain why this feels so much different. Everything outside looks exactly the same; from my kitchen window, the sun is streaming in and the trees are starting to bud. Spring is arriving, and I have no time, no bandwidth to appreciate it. There is no one day, one event – when the storm hit, when the fires started, when the ground shook – to point to and say, this is when it started, but also no time or place or milestone that will indicate that all of this is over. We literally don’t know when this will end.
And because everything else is normal but isn’t normal, it’s business as usual. Keep teaching, keep learning, but stay in your house and don’t see anyone in person. There has been no stop point to just watch as the world shifts and changes, no moment of landfall, no watching the snow fall, not even hiding in the basement. No, we kept going and going and going and going. I have worked non-stop for over a month, every day, even weekends. I am not the only one. There has been no time to stop. And we are still not stopping.
The closest parallel I can come up with was the 1998 Ice Storm that brought most of Montreal and Ottawa to a complete standstill. People living in the suburbs south of Montreal, living in what became known as “le triangle d’enfer”, were without power for months as the ice was piled on so thickly and so heavily that it literally toppled the infrastructure. There is a scene I’ll never forget, a viral video before those even existed, of a reporter out in a vast, open field, reporting about the endless freezing rain and suddenly there was a loud groaning noise, and the transmission towers all around them started to crumple, live on TV.
It started off as nothing, just freezing rain, and in that part of the country, in that part of the world, that’s just February. But then the rain never stopped. And it never got warm enough to melt it, never got cold enough to turn it into snow. And what was just freezing rain because The Ice Storm of 1998. Schools on the South Shore were shut down indefinitely, turned into shelters, equipped with generators, because no one had power or, more importantly, heat. I was on my first work term, working for the government in Ottawa. Were I was staying, we didn’t lose power but we lost telephones (yes, children, back when we all still used something called landlines), and so a friend of mine and I decided to take the dangerous drive back to Montreal, as we watched the news unfold, unable to check in on our loved-ones.
As we drove, slowly, so slowly, we saw the devestation. Trees bent almost to the ground, weighed down by inches of ice coating every surface. Downed powerlines everywhere, but also workers from the Maritimes and New England who drove in with their cherry picker trucks to help try to fix the damage, to get power restored. When I got home, I found that our house, with its trusty wood-burning stove, had turned into a way station for people. Power flickered off and on, and as soon as it was on, we cooked as much food as we could as fast as we could, to try and salvage what we had before it went to waste, to be reheated later over the fire.
But it’s not the same as right now, what we are experiencing. Just the scale alone, with the whole world shutting down, but also not shutting down at all. There is no milestone, no end that we can look to and say, when this happens, it will all be over. We have power. We have the internet. What we don’t have is that moment where we know it will all be over. We also don’t have that moment where we all come together to help one another. We are all sheltering in place, or at least supposed to be. In every disaster, there are moments where we come together, physically, as a community to help one another. What does that look like when no one is supposed to leave their houses?
And there has been no moment to stop.
Eventually, in 1998, the ice got too thick and too heavy and even we had to admit that we couldn’t keep going, at least not as we usually did. When will this get too thick and too heavy and we will have to admit that we can’t keep going on as usual? Last night I looked at my calendar and counted the time. A month. I have been working non-stop for a month. I lay in bed last night and cried after I taught. I understand, I am not a first responder, I do not work in health care, I am not in a precarious job where this loss impacts my ability to pay rent. But it is to say, we are not equipped for this. This is unprecedented, and we collectively and individually, don’t know how to handle this, what we are supposed to do. I know I cannot sustain what I have been doing the last month for the rest of the semester. Collectively, the stock market is tanking, millions of people are losing their jobs, and we have no idea when this will end.
It’s hard to be scared when everything around you looks normal, even ideal. I haven’t managed to scale that cognitive dissonance. Many people haven’t, which is why you see them going to the beach and the bars and the clubs and the restaurants. There isn’t too much water or no power or too much smoke or too much snow and ice. There is nothing but spring and a warning to not leave the house. It’s hard to be scared when everything around you looks normal, even ideal.
But I’m scared anyway. And I don’t know what to do with that.