Phases of Pandemic Life: The Stratigraphy of Identity
The guest room in our home has become what my husband and I jokingly call the “Doomsday Room.” It was once a pretty little book-lined room welcoming overnight guests who travelled across the Salish Sea to visit us here on Vancouver Island. During the first wave of the COVID-19 lockdown, we transformed it into a pantry-cum-storage space, filled with bulging bags of flour, rice, and lentils, case lots of tomatoes and beans, paper goods and bleach. We weren’t exactly hoarding, but we had definitely stocked up.
Three months into sheltering at home, I decided to reorganize the guest room, clear off the bed and tidy up. As I unearthed the layers, the stratigraphy revealed the phases of our pandemic life. A substratum composed primarily of foodstuffs was overlaid by piles of books, pens, notebooks and reinstated magazine subscriptions, followed by exotic cooking tools including bannetons and lames. Next came jigsaw puzzles and board games, topped with a surface layer of fabric, yarns, and all manner of art, craft and sewing supplies.
At the very bottom of the pile, neatly laid out on top of the bed: my new blue suit. Matching jacket and slacks, and a black silk blouse with little white hearts—all purchased in February, never worn. Undergarments, jewelry, and a pair of snappy black and white spectator loafers sat smartly alongside. The outfit arranged exactly as it had been three months earlier. It was like a perfectly preserved artefact that might have been found at the site of Pompeii after the eruption. Viewing this display, a prickle of sadness.
"Tuesday, March 10, 2020: I am invited to a reception at Simon Fraser University. I am finally one of SFU’s “authors.” Yes. It's official. My name is in the program. The university is honouring its authors and I am to catch an early morning ferry in order to make the drive from the dock at Horseshoe Bay across the North Shore mountains into Burnaby. Following the reception, a two-day series of personal visits and client meetings on the mainland before I head back. My clothes are laid out on the guest room bed. My suitcase and laptop are packed."
That trip, and many subsequent ones, would be cancelled. My overnight bag once had pride of place in my home. Today, the suitcase is stowed on a high closet shelf. The blue suit, salvaged from the guest room dig, hangs in a remote corner of the same closet along with other garments with the tags still attached, costumes for a previous self. The sewing machine has taken over pride of place, first on the dining room table, and now more tellingly on my home office desk.
The Doomsday Room excavation revealed the changing layers of identity—the progress of personal and professional change that occurred during the pandemic. For me, the evolution from an ambitious schedule-driven writer-author-coach-consultant to a patient maker-of-things (including bread, blankets, books, and poems) continues. The narrative is told through the artefacts in my home.
The objects we surround ourselves with express identity or meaning, revealing what matters to us. The things we collect, gather, curate and display speak to us, and also for us. Writer Aislinn Hunter, in her book, “A Peepshow with Views of the Interior,” (Hunter, 2009) offers this quote from the collection of human history at the Museum of Newfoundland, “When you are looking at an artefact you are looking at a person’s thoughts.” Hunter goes on to say “… the things that we surround ourselves with, the things that we notice, love, or even discard all speak to who we are now…even more dynamically—by bridging who we are now, to who we were then.”
Observing the transition of objects in my home, it feels as though an old and familiar character has departed and the treasured relics of her trade have been put aside. A new character has come along whom I don’t yet know very well. This emerging identity may be an unexpected resurrection, an aspect of self from the past, left behind and now reappearing. She may even be an aspect marginalized in hot pursuit of a generally accepted standard of success or external validation. Still, I experience a sense of loss, mourning the absence of my former certainty. It is hard to know whether this loss is permanent or temporary. Reverberations of my previous life echo into this one—being recognized nationally for my non-fiction writing, launching two books, winning a fiction writing prize, all during the pandemic. The primary writer identity remains intact yet the glimmer of a future, less driven self has appeared.
In conversation with a therapist friend recently, she described the birth of a keen interest in making art during these pandemic times. She traced the thread back to her student days when she impulsively purchased a thick and expensive volume on Art History while studying the sciences. Her inner artist, then and now clamouring for breathing space—the desire expressed through the solid heft of a book. We are in the liminal white space of possibility. The abundance of time and the absence of fixed deadlines placing us on the threshold of change, an invitation into the space of becoming.
As the pandemic progresses business, industry, government, and education are changing in radical ways. As individuals we are changing, too. People may feel secure, challenged, or vulnerable as new aspects of identity emerge. Associate Professor Terry Bowles, of the University of Melbourne, points out in his article, “Our Changing Identities Under Covid 19,” that there is change within our control and that which is outside of it. He says, “Generating a new identity, like a work identity, takes imagination and creatively testing new options.
Being still, and learning to be comfortable with a new self, especially a smaller self with fewer immediate prospects, isn’t something many Westerners are socialised to accept, but acceptance of those things we don’t control is critical at this time.”
My approach is to get curious and invite these new aspects to reveal themselves more fully. Of course, curiosity is a luxury afforded by the relatively privileged lifestyle I enjoy in the industrialized world. Identity change in pandemic times will look very different for those without food on the table or a safe place to sleep. Being fortunate enough to have personal security, I am open to this unfolding, finding home to be a sanctuary, a place of comfort and retreat, and the crucible in which to both grieve the loss of the known and welcome the unknown.
For an interesting look at what YouTube trends reveal about human needs during COVID-19, visit: https://www.youtube.com/trends/articles/covid-impact/