Lifting the weight from the back of my neck

Scotland, United Kingdom

On this final day of 2021, I am drawn to reflect on all that has happened these past two years, both to myself and the world. I am grateful for so many things. I am grateful for all the ways I have grown and learned. I am grateful for all I have fought to achieve in my health, work and studies. I am grateful for loving hard and being loved.

I feel anger, sadness and disappointment, many things are wrong in this world. I hold and acknowledge these feelings. The world feels very overwhelming some days. Some days the clouds of anxiety barely let me draw breath. There is much of beauty in this world but right now there is an abundance of fear.

There is a lot to fear: climate change, covid, other pandemics, war, oppression, resource scarcity, injustice, genocides, risks from Artificial Intelligence, discrimination and more. The covid pandemic will come to define my generation I am sure. The apocryphal saying “May you live in interesting times”, commonly attributed as a Chinese curse, rings in my ears. I would be glad to swap these times for peace. Give up our place in the history books in favour of happy mundanity.

Sometimes dealing with the collective trauma that we are living with is so hard. At times I feel a weight pressing into the back of my neck. It lingers there, pushing me further into my bed in the mornings. Resisting my efforts to bounce up bright-eyed and bushy tailed à la Instagram lifestyle influencer. I shift positions, rub my fingers into muscles, twist my head from side to side. Still, it remains. Deep down I know this sensation is far more than physical. My body is reacting to over 650 days of stress and anxiety in a very visceral way. This weight is physical and emotional, all my personal troubles mixed with the grief, rage and sadness that so many of us feel.

I am glad I am not anaesthetised to all the wrong and harm done in the world. I’m glad I have the capacity to care so deeply, to want to try to do anything in any small way to help. I will hold space for all the personal and collective loss and suffering. But I must allow myself to lift this weight from my neck, stretch my muscles and care for myself. I invite all of you who share this feeling to do the same. There is much of beauty and love in this world. The way we care for each other; deeply, meaningfully and selflessly. The way we can laugh through the hardest of times and cry into the necks of our loved ones. I am lucky to have those in my life who care for me and I am glad I can care for others so deeply. This is what I want to celebrate.

I don’t normally make new year resolutions but this time I felt the urge to do so. Here they are:

  • To care for myself deeply, radically and transformatively.
  • To extend empathy, compassion and care to those around me. To the extent of my capacity, with respect for my boundaries.
  • To accept the care that others give me, without guilt.

We have a long way to go. Things are hard, the times are interesting. I pray that I have the strength to be the best version of myself and go some way towards finding my peace.


Art in a time of Corona

Beirut, Lebanon

I’m an artist from Britain, and have lived in Beirut, Lebanon for the past ten years. My home is in Gemmayzeh, a neighbourhood near ‘The Ring’ bridge at Tabaris and Martyrs Square, the central square of Beirut. Just three months ago, these locations were the epicenter of the Lebanese protest movement which began on 17th October 2019: a people’s uprising aimed at overthrowing the old corrupt sectarian political elites who have been running (and ruining) the country since the civil war ended in 1990.

The streets around my apartment were full with thousands of people, mostly joyful gatherings of men, women and children on a mission to join together and transcend religious and political boundaries to form a better, more just Lebanon.

Yet now, despite a few small demonstrations, the streets are empty. The occasional taxi or delivery moped whizzes past. Red lights have lost their meaning. CCTV cameras look down on eerily quiet road junctions. Some say this period of isolation and increased dependency on the internet for social communication is hastening the demise of personal freedom, as we are all being watched.

Whilst aspects of this are undoubtedly sinister, there are many benefits to the present time of silence. We have a moment to pause, to reflect and devote more time to improving our internal lives.

And it is blissfully quiet. Beirut is usually a very noisy city. The constant banging of construction sites has halted. The beeping horns have disappeared. The once polluted air is now clean. On sunny days, I can clearly see the distant snow capped peak of Mount Sannine from my terrace. I’ve never heard birds singing in Beirut as much as this. Warm spring air carries the sweet scent of jasmine. Mother Nature is thriving.

As an artist, such a situation doesn’t change my working life a great deal. I continue painting as usual. My work is off grid. In fact, the quiet and stillness gives me more opportunity to reflect, and let ideas gather in my mind. At night I observe the changing phases of the moon: I notice the neighbors going about their domestic business, intimate glimpses of urban melancholy: people isolated in their homes, as if from a scene from Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window or an Edward Hopper painting. I’m reminded of an Oscar Wilde’s quote: ‘We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.’

Every night, I see the same distant figures looking out, hoping for better news. Occasionally the city rings with the sound of banging pots and pans to honor heroic doctors and medical workers on the front line: Amazingly, only 21 people are reported to have died from the virus so far in Lebanon. A few months ago, the same sound used to ring out over Beirut: the sound of protest demanding political change and basic human rights. 

I look from my terrace over the urban rooftops to Martyrs Square, still lit up by flickering advertising screens that no one can see anymore, selling products that less people can buy. Huge cranes lie dormant whilst the city holds its breath. When shall we be free again?

Tom Young
Beirut, April 2020

A country I could call home

Galway, Ireland

On the 4th of August, in Beirut, something horribly horrific happened.
My heart didn’t break on this fatidic day.
It crushed and pulverized in a million pieces.

My heart was already breaking for over a decade; the fist tear happened when I was born, in the mid 80s, from the ashes of the civil war. 

Growing up, I never felt any belonging, I never fit, partly because we don’t know nor learn our own history but also because I pushed everything down. 

During my twenties, my focus was on trying to leave the country, desperate to have the career and life I could only dream about. And while that didn’t work, amazingly, I started slowly fitting in, I started feeling a sort of belonging. But I was still unhappy. I believe this feeling came from something rooted deep down in me, a feeling of insecurity. 

As a film editor, I lived through the screen for a long time. I discovered the history  of my country through the screen and now… the worst happened and I’m not there. And I find myself still taped to the screen. 

I’m a filmmaker and a filmmaker is connected to the identity of his/her own country.
How can I make films if I have no identity, don’t belong anywhere, don’t fit in my own country?

I finally landed in Ireland – a country deeply rooted in their identity. I love it here. As much as I love the feeling, it’s still not my identity.

As I walk in the streets of Galway, I feel how surreal it is. Although, it should be the opposite. What happened in Beirut should be the fiction.

Galway, Ireland

Guilt pervades everything. Guilty of not being there when it happened, guilty of not being there to help, guilty to take a good night of sleep, or have a good meal, for having the chance to take days just to process, cope and deal with the whole cacophony of emotions, guilty to have the privilege of distancing myself. Finally, guilty of breathing clean air and not hearing the sound of shattered glass every second of every day.

I feel guilty if I worry or complain about something when I have a roof over my head. 

Of course, I want to be there to feel this massive fear just like any Lebanese who survived…   

My city has been destroyed, my people dead or broken, my memories shattered. The dream of going back to Lebanon is becoming more and more impossible every day. 

Beirut, Tabaris

I’m crying because it means that I might really need to move on and not be in-between two cities or countries.

I’m crying because every ounce of my body is screaming at me to go back now but my head is trying to keep me grounded. My mind wants me to stay safe, convincing me that my friends and family are safe, that there are hundreds of people helping on the ground and that donations are coming. But my heart… what’s my heart is saying? 

The thing is, I also feel guilty because I am still resentful. I wanted to be happy in Lebanon, I wanted to have a big career there, I wanted to help my country, I wanted to build a future there, feel safe and settle in the country where I was born and where my memories are. But I couldn’t. 

Yes, I escaped this disaster, but have I truly?  I am still traumatized. I have a lot of memories of places I lost forever. This is the place where my family still lives, this is the place where I found my friends, and this is the place where I decided and learned how to be a filmmaker. 

Beirut has given me as much as it has taken from me. I want to believe that I’ve lived as much as I’ve survived there. 

I’m an artist, a dreamer, an idealistic person, who wants her country safe, a country she could call home again with love and pride.

The morning after

Beirut, Lebanon

It is the morning after.

What we hoped to be a nightmare, turned out not to be. I mean it is, but it happened for real.
People are still missing. The search continues. The capital is in rubbles.
It’s OK to feel vulnerable and weak, but we must not panic. We did that yesterday. Today is a day of action. We need to keep it together.

This one is on us.

We are at the very early stages to assess the exact needs. For now, it’s basic emergency needs. That means medical help, food, water & shelter.

Wear a mask & gloves. Head to Gemmayzeh or Mar Mikhael or Martyrs’ Square. Help those who need to gather their stuff from underneath the mess. Have your phone at full charge & bring a power bank. Have someone know where you are.

Please follow instructions of whoever is in charge on the spot. Do not do your own thing. Be kind to strangers.

Organize yourself on a neighborhood basis. Check up on your neighbors. Establish neighborhood watches for safety if you’ve lost your doors or parts of your building. Take turns. Do not overburden yourself. Self-care is important.

Less than 24 hours later, Armenia street was busy again.

Hundreds of volunteers took the streets to help clean homes, shops, sidewalks & make room for cars to pass.
A community of volunteers who organically came down to help. No one asked us to go down.
It was a no brainer that we needed to be there. None of us had slept the night before, but it was the least we could do.

My starting point was where Armenia street begins in Dawra. Passed through Bourj Hammoud & reached Mar Mikhael. All I could hear was the noise of glass. Broken glass.

The damage is beyond my ability to explain. A piece of my heart is broken. Everyone lost a part of their heart. Everyone died a little, even if we survived the blast.

All the frustration, disappointment & heartache, however, was transformed into helping others. By early afternoon, youth from around the country had joined us in Beirut to give a hand.

Everyone was a stranger, but it felt like everyone knew each other. We were going through the same grief. Strangers became a community of volunteers. Each doing what they can. Some with a broom or a shovel. Others giving out water. Preparing sandwiches. Distributing food. Checking up on each other. Sharing their individual recollection of the moment. Taking turns to make sure no one is overworked.

This is a people so used to a failed state, they knew this was on them.

On the day of the explosion, I walked from Gemmayzeh to Mar Mikhael to get home. It was a battlefield. Traumatizing to say the least. The next day, walking from Mar Mikhael to Gemmayzeh, it was a heartbreak. The type where you physically feel the pain in the heart.

Looking around you understand that this isn’t a day gone wrong. This is a city destroyed. This is not reversible. And the fact that all this was preventable is killing me.

137 deaths. 5000 injured. Many still missing. The numbers will rise.

Wild foods for wild times

Glasgow, Scotland

Living in this part of the world, when good weather comes you know to make the most of it. Usually, this means scanning the seven-day forecast and plotting trips to the mountains or coast as soon as a chance of sunshine reveals itself. Currently, the geographic boundaries of opportunity are somewhat smaller- an invisible circular perimeter drawn five miles around our homes as a little bubble of safety. Gone are the summits and the sea-swims, replaced with whatever is in walking distance. Days of repeating the same walks in the same parks, looking at the same grass and trees, following the same paths. 

How much do these things really stay the same though? For a species whose very survival was once inextricably tied to our natural environment, many of us have become disconnected from the subtle signs of seasonal change. The native ‘cuckoo flower’, for example, named because its flowering coincides with the time when our ancestors would hear the first cuckoo of the year, singing out its trademark tune in a local valley. 

Scarlet elfcup mushrooms

For a few years now I have been actively working to reclaim this ‘folk knowledge’ through foraging – learning about and identifying plants and fungi for food and other uses. Being forced to stay local during lockdown has focused this effort. Seeing the same places each day allows me to notice plants transforming from a few scraggly leaves into glorious full bloom, whilst others die back to make way for the next wave of growth. Over the past two months, I have baked nettle bread and wild-garlic Scottish oatcakes, made stir-fry with the aptly named ‘chicken of the woods’ fungi, and collected salads of young lime tree leaves and wildflowers. 

Chicken of the woods fungi

As well as the nutritional goodness of the plants themselves- the humble nettle, for example, contains fourteen times more calcium than kale[1]– I am also noticing other benefits. Being outside has positive mental health impacts, including closer connection to nature and a little dopamine reward when I find something tasty. We may be 21st-century humans, but we still carry the 100,000-year-old wiring of hunter-gatherers which knows how to motivate us to survive!

Wild garlic in flower

Next on my seasonal events list is the flowering of the elder trees. These put out beautiful sprays of fragrant white flowers in late May/ early June, and I am looking forward to a sunny morning of collecting before trying my hand at homemade elderflower ‘champagne’! For anyone interested in starting their own foraging adventure, for those in the UK, I highly recommend my mentor Mark William’s fantastic website as a starting point: http://www.gallowaywildfoods.com/.

Get curious, get re-connected, and remember not to eat anything until you are 100% on your ID of it!

Pink purslane in flower

[1] https://simplynourishednutrition.com/simply-nettles/


United Kingdom

Please note this post contains content that may be distressing to some readers.

Approximately four weeks before the UK government announced that we were to go into lockdown due to a worldwide pandemic, my husband and I found out that I was expecting our second child. Our daughter is almost four years old; we had been trying for this baby for about a year, and the news filled us with incredible joy and happiness. Despite delight at our personal news, there was a shift occurring in the minds of everyone we knew. Everybody I spoke to was beginning to worry about the implications of the virus due to its prevalence in other parts of the world and what it might mean for us here in the UK. Questions were beginning to arise for all of us and an uncertainty and anxiety was beginning to set in my heart. I was not concerned for myself. I was concerned for the life that was growing inside of me and I felt genuinely afraid.

My professional background is as a research scientist so I started to do whatever I could do to reassure myself. I read as many news articles and scientific journals on the topic of coronaviruses that we know about and this new one. What has been the effect on pregnant women? Being a completely novel virus, the majority of data was scant to say the least, most of it conjecture and so my anxiety grew. Understandably so, when lockdown occurred, pregnant women were put into the vulnerable category. My husband insisted on doing all the grocery runs himself, despite being asthmatic. But we had to do whatever we could do to keep our family unit safe, including our newest addition to be.

I was finding even the thought of isolation demanding from a mental and emotional point of view. I am an extrovert with many friends and an extensive social circle. For the past ten years I had been working as a private tutor and was lucky enough to work around my daughter’s schedule. Not a day went by without a range of activities planned for myself and our little one. Trips to the farm, preschool, music classes, soft play. Our social diary and commitments were always filled to the brim. In fact, my husband and I used to yearn for weekends where we had no plans and could stay at home. And now we were living that reality.

The first couple of weeks of isolation went by painfully slowly. I was struggling like many people to get used to the new normal. Having my daughter and other half at home all the time. Coping with immense fatigue, brain fog and morning sickness that lasted throughout the day. I was really missing my friends and mum (who was isolating in another city) and I was not feeling myself. I had to have my pregnancy booking appointment partially over the phone and partially in hospital in order to limit the amount of time I spent outside the house. Going into hospital was strange. I was all masked and gloved up and the EPU was eerily quiet. It felt like I was in a horror film. The midwife told me my scan would be in three weeks’ time, but I would have to attend alone as partners would not be allowed due to the new rules. 

Life under the new normal went on. Human beings are adaptable. We adjust. The days started to pass by a little faster and we started to find our rhythm, keeping in touch with friends and family via technology as best we could. The papers were filled with comforting articles on how the virus was not affecting pregnant women in an adverse way and children and babies were the least at risk. I started to feel mentally and physically better and by my eleventh week of gestation, my pregnancy symptoms that had been so overwhelmingly strong only a few weeks prior, had started to ease. I suddenly had my get up and go back! My nausea has started to lessen, and I felt a clarity that I had not felt in about two months. I felt happy that maybe this pregnancy would be easier than the last (nausea and fatigue pretty much well into my fifteenth week). My scan was only days away and I was happy and excited to finally see my little one that I had nicknamed Blimp wriggling around, and to finally be able to share our news with extended friends and family members. I was only a little sad that my husband would not be able to come to the scan with me.

The day before the scan, I woke up as usual and went to the bathroom. I noticed that I had a trace of brown spotting which immediately unnerved me as it would do any pregnant woman. I shared the news with my husband who reassured me that he was sure everything was fine and that we should just keep an eye on it. Luckily I was due to go into hospital the following morning. I called my midwife and she said the same. Spotting can be very normal during pregnancy, especially during the first 13 weeks, she told me. I spent the whole day in a state of tension and nerves. And despite the reassurances that I received somewhere deep down I felt, knew, in only a way a mother can, that something was not quite right. I did not sleep that night but tossed and turned and googled and prayed. The morning of the scan, I went into hospital and was asked to wait for the scan in a room with about five other women at various stages in their pregnancies. I was the last one in and went in feeling exactly 50/50. Half of me feeling everything was fine and I would be going home happy and excited. The other half was expecting the worst with certainty.

When the sonographer started the ultrasound there was a look on her face that I could not quite work out. I turned to look at the screen and I could not see anything. Having had this happen only a few years prior I was expecting to see a picture that most of us are familiar with. She kept looking and finally found our little one. She told me that the baby did not seem to be as big as she was expecting it to be this far into my gestation. My first thought was that I must have got my dates wrong. She took a measurement and told me that it was around 8 weeks in growth and at this stage there should be a heartbeat but there wasn’t one. Again, my brain was not processing the information. So, would I have to come back in a couple of weeks to see if there was a heartbeat? It was only when she held my hand, squeezed it in consolation and told me that she was sorry, but it looked like my baby had died at around 8 weeks that I finally understood. In a haze of shock, disbelief and tears they put me into a private room where I had to relay the bad news to my husband. He was as together as only he can be and was worried about me having to drive back home on my own. “Don’t worry”, he said, “you just need to get yourself home safely. We will get through this together I promise you. Drive slowly and carefully”. I was unable to even contemplate speaking to my mum who had been bombarding me with messages and calls to see a picture of her second grandchild.  A midwife entered and explained that I had experienced something called a Delayed Miscarriage which is where the baby dies in utero, but the woman’s body keeps producing hormones, so you still feel pregnant. She told me my options were limited due to covid19 so I could either allow my body to miscarry naturally or to have some pessaries inserted to start the process off more quickly. I decided to go with the former. I felt that due to spotting the day before maybe my body had begun to realise the loss and also, I needed time to talk with my loved ones and start the grieving process without having to do more hospital visits. I was given a leaflet explaining what would happen over the next week or so and was told I would have some pain and cramping akin to strong period pain. 

I really don’t quite remember making that journey back home. My husband was waiting for me and we hugged, and I cried. The next few days were surreal. I was not sure what to expect so I read as many articles on delayed miscarriage as I could find. I found solace in hearing about other women’s experiences as I felt so very alone. I prayed. I finally began to tell friends what had happened and the outpouring of love and support that I received was unbelievable. Friends from around the world called me daily, cried with me, shared their own stories of pregnancy loss and made me feel that I was not alone. It sounds strange, but by now I just wanted the physical process to begin so I could start to emotionally heal. Some light bleeding and cramping had already started. About five days after my scan around 10am, I started to get severe, contraction-like pain. It was not like a strong period pain. It was far, far worse and only what I can describe as labour pains. Hour by hour, minute by minute the pains got stronger and stronger. My husband managed to find some codeine phosphate that we had in our medicine cabinet of which I took 60mg, with 1000mg of paracetamol which did not even touch the pain. All the while trying to shield our daughter from what her mother was going through. Finally, after eight hours of the worst pain I have ever experienced in my life, I finally passed the pregnancy sac. I was exhausted mentally and physically and could do nothing more than sleep. I woke up the next day still having mild contractions, pain and bleeding but nothing like I had experienced the day before. I genuinely had no idea that my body would go through labour. No one had told me that it was even a possibility and I had not read about it anywhere. But having been through it and after more research I now know it can and does happen like that for some women.

I am writing this post five weeks after an experience that genuinely feels like it did not happen to me. It almost feels other worldly as if I experienced it from another plane. I have spent the last month or so of my life in contemplation. Trying to heal as best I can, crying when I need to and finding gratitude in all I have. As a Muslim woman, I believe that God has everything planned for me. We plan but he is the best of planners. I know that there is a reason only known to him why this child was not meant to be in our lives. And there must be goodness in it for me and he will bless me with better. I have patience and belief. I feel blessed to have had the support and love from family and friends that I have had, even whilst we have been in the one of the worst situations of our lives with this pandemic. I do not want you to read this post and feel sad. Or feel sorry for me. I want you to realise how amazing we are as human beings. We are strong. We are resilient. I have a newfound love and respect for my body and my mind. I will never forget this experience. And I will never forget the child that I loved, from the very moment I found out about its existence. And the child will always be alive in my heart. But I feel stronger for having been through this experience, despite the dark days. Sometimes when life deals us a hand which we feel will cripple us, we must always remember that given time, we will find light again and bounce back. Life is difficult for all of us right now. Living through this pandemic, all of us are going through our own journey. Countless lives have been lost to a new virus. We are all having good days and bad days and just trying to get by as best we can. Know that we will and can get through it. Remember that no matter what, we have a resilience and strength that we do not even know we have until we are forced to find it.

Hillside Refuge


Which day of the lockdown is it today? I’m not too sure, where I am, it’s easy to lose track of time.

My partner and I have been staying at our house, which is located in a hilly rural area of Nepal, approximately one hour away from Kathmandu. It’s a quiet place, surrounded by nature and stunning scenery. Covid-19 does not seem apparent here. The farmers who live nearby don’t wear masks and no one is visibly practicing social distancing. They continue their usual farming chores – right now it’s the perfect season for corn plantation. However of course, what is not seen is in fact, very much felt. By local children who are unable to return to school; by migrant workers who have not only lost their jobs but are also experiencing an arduous journey back home; and by the majority of households in this area, which rely on informal labour and remittances. The effects of this crisis are sparing no one, but some have felt it more than others. Crisis always deepens existing inequalities, specially in Nepal.

Here in the hills, away from police checkpoints and the underlying tension felt in an empty Kathmandu, it’s easy to experience the lockdown from the outside, like an observer watching these events unfold. 

Amidst the confusion and sense of helplessness, we have been finding comfort in the small pleasures of life: sharing homemade meals with loved ones, learning how to take care of plants, and contemplating ever-changing clouds in the sky.

The simplicity of these comforting moments amidst a very complex crisis, gives me certainty that humans need meaningful connection. We don’t belong in isolation. We belong in community, be it in global ones or a local ones. These simple but fundamental moments of solidarity and connection will keep us going until we get through this.

The year the music paused

Nashville, USA

When I first penned this piece I titled it – The Year the Music Paused, as a play on the Don McLean song –The Day the Music Died. In it, I wrote about the impact of COVID-19 on Nashville and my life here with my husband as a musician. 

I wrote about how I’ve gotten a first-hand look at the music community in Nashville. My husband is a drummer and typically spends about half of his year on tour. For musicians and all of the people in the music industry – managers, tour crews, venue employees – the coronavirus has meant a complete halt to their careers. For some, their only source of income disappeared in an instant, leaving them suddenly worried about being able to make rent next month. For my husband, he has gone from playing to crowds of thousands of fans, to planning our nightly dinners. I’m grateful for his new interest in cooking, but also know that he misses playing music and being on stage. 

When I read what I wrote just a few weeks ago, it doesn’t really seem possible that the world could be upended even more since the start of this global pandemic. However, it has. 

The deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery sparked international protests. People everywhere are demanding societal change and pressuring states across the US to rethink how they’ll fund law enforcement and address police brutality in the future. Being in an inter-racial relationship, the outcry over the ways Black Americans have been mistreated, underserved, and underpaid has also brought out a lot of emotions and unrest in our home.  

Being a black man in the south, the fear and distrust of the police was nothing new for my husband. He’s shared these experiences with me over time and I’ve witnessed them myself – just a few weeks before this he was stopped by the police while taking the trash down in front of our house. 

While these fears and frustrations aren’t new, the protests have felt very different this time. They have sparked him to go over past experiences in the music industry that begun to lift of a veil that was closed for a long time. He has started to find his voice throughout this chaos and is beginning to sharing his stories.

His stories sadly aren’t unique in the music industry. Recently two music executives issued an impassioned plea that #TheShowMustBePaused in response to the deaths of black citizens at the hands of police. Their choice of hashtag felt oddly linked to the pause we have been experiencing due to the coronavirus.   


The world is reeling from the unimaginable numbers associated with the virus – over 8 million cases, almost a half a million deaths, 1.5 billion children have had their education interrupted, 36 million unemployed in the US. And at the same time we are reeling over the names and stories of the people that have died due to the color of their skin – George, Breonna, Ahmaud, Rayshard… 

My thoughts continue to imagine the stories behind each of these numbers, the people behind the names. They drift toward the stories of those that have lost loved ones and weren’t able to be there in the final moments or gather for a funeral. To those that have lost fathers, sisters, best friends. To those that have lost careers and a way of life. This year was meant to look very different – but it has now become a year of awakening, of a change in perspective and being grateful for the pause. 

Lockdown: A journey in emotions

Ottawa, Canada

When my partner and I went on lockdown on March 13, I had just come back from a work trip to Toronto one week earlier. I was attending a large conference hosted by the Canadian food service industry. Thousands of participants were in attendance, including large numbers of food producers, restaurants, and bars. The conference showcased a food service sector that was innovative and growing successfully in Canada. It is surreal to believe how things changed within a week, with emerging reports of COVID infections among people attending conferences in Toronto and with the news that Sophie Trudeau, our PM’s spouse, tested positive for COVID, following her travel to London, UK. At that time, I do not remember if we were first asked by the Government to work from home or if it was a collective decision from staff, but what was clear was that there was mutual consensus among people that we ought to stay home to stop the spread of the virus. There were less than 200 cases in the entire nation, so I had hopes that we could overcome the virus quickly. I had also worked from home numerous times before and lived under lockdown at least twice during war time in Lebanon (in 2006 and 2008), so I felt ready to stay home to eradicate this virus.

Fear and Self-Doubt
Two to three weeks, I thought, would be sufficient to stop the spread and show a decrease in new COVID infections. After all, we did not have more than 200 cases in Canada and our leadership and people were determined to win this battle. But a totally different scenario played out. In those first three weeks, the total number of cases grew astronomically. In Canada, it grew by 62 times, while globally the number of cases increased from 145,000 to more than a million cases. Feelings of resignation supplanted credulous optimism, as we realized that stay-at-home would be the new normal. We needed to adjust to the new reality and find a way to continue to be productive, while sentiments of fear from uncertainty and self-doubt lurked at the back of my mind. Many things that we took for granted were no longer so. Even focusing on work was becoming harder as typical interactions were replaced by audio and video calls, workspaces confined to my couch or bed in my one-bedroom apartment, and work kept shifting from one priority to the next. Feelings of self-doubt emerged when it was becoming hard to pay attention at work for eight hours straight. As economic and social figures trickled in, fears about the future grew. Millions of people were losing their jobs. The food service industry, which I was working with prior to the crisis, completely shut down and one in five food establishments might never open again. In developing countries, poverty numbers were expected to double. Could this crisis undo years of development efforts to eliminate poverty and hunger?

Love and Gratitude
When fear of uncertainty grows, we tend to fall back and hold firmly to our foundations, what makes us who we are, and what we can depend on. For me, I took strength in three key pillars of my life. As a first step, my job, which provides me with both financial security and a sense of purpose. I am very grateful to have not lost my job during this period. Secondly, I turned to my loved ones, my family and my partner. Weekly phone calls to family became daily check-ins; friends who I thought were far away in Brazil, Europe, or the United States were as close to me as my friends in Ottawa. With my partner, we understood that physical proximity was not equal to emotional connection and intimacy. Being confined together in the same physical space all the time takes mutual effort and understanding. Interestingly, it was important to create a sense of space for each of us to feel comfortable and to come back to each other. Finally, one can take great strength from oneself, from our own experiences and from a deeper understanding of our emotions, fears, ambitions, goals, etc. The crisis is an opportunity to learn about oneself and to grow in resilience.

As time passed, I followed from my bedroom window the changes in nature. The white snow melted, strong winds whistled through the leafless trees, grey clouds brought rain and then gave away to a bright sun. The breeze got warmer, trees got covered in green, and flowers blossomed. As I looked at a beautiful bird perched on my balcony and two fuzzy squirrels running after each other (possibly in search of love), I felt a sense of hope and optimism emanating from nature. This crisis was a wake-up call of how we as humans have failed to create a more sustainable earth. After all, COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease–a disease passed from animals to humans–and is thus a reminder of the risks created by our agricultural and environmental practices. But this crisis has also shown that we have made great strides in terms of medical knowledge, environmental awareness, and international cooperation, never seen during past crises; and so I am hopeful that we will come out stronger.

By Mohamed Yassine

See-sawing between gratitude and hopelessness

Philadelphia – Boston – Dubai – Islamabad 

I was in tears while on hold with Emirates. During a span of 48 hours, I had gone from reassuring fellow international students at UPenn and saying we should stay put in Philadelphia to changing my flight ticket twice. First, I bought a ticket home for the end of the week. I needed time to wrap up, and I wanted to submit an assignment on time. This was a full month before my initial plan. Countries were closing down borders and Qatar Airways was randomly cancelling bookings. Then the Pakistani Government released a notification that said starting 21-March midnight, no one (not even citizens) would be able to enter the country without a negative COVID19 test in their hands. Even people with symptoms were having trouble getting tested – this was as good as a border closure. My flight landed at 01:35 – a full 95 minutes too late. So, there I was – on hold with Emirates for more than two hours, the tears finally starting to roll down my face.

I managed to get a ticket that would get me home in time. I had 12 hours to pack my things and leave Philadelphia as an inhabitant forever. Graduation was just a few months away, but I knew I wouldn’t be walking any time soon. One of my friends grumbled that she didn’t have time to finish the beautiful embroidery she was making for me. The other said my real goodbye present had not been delivered yet but she still had snacks and bangles for me never-the-less. A friend of a friend volunteered to help drive me to the airport. In a whirlwind with no time to feel, we packed, sorted and made piles of things for the thrift store. Leaving behind a great pair of boots I found on sale and several other beloved things was not hard. They were things. The world was shutting down and all I wanted was to be home with my husband and cats. Nothing else mattered. 

The airports were apocalyptic. Non-essential businesses were closed, the smell of disinfectant was seeping into my lungs (with their own special type of damage) and everyone was washing their hands for a full-20 seconds. My prayer mat did not make the final cut of things, and I was too afraid to pray on the airport carpet. I saw people arguing with airline personnel because rules had changed in the few hours they departed from their homes, got their boarding passes and made it to the departure lounge. At least 150 passengers were off-loaded from my flight. I had an entire row to myself and we were definitely socially distant. But I did not feel relief. My heart was breaking for the people who would not be making it home any time soon. 

Four airports, a 10 hour layover at Dubai airport, a pack of Lysol wipes and a full coloring later, I was home. My husband gave me a mask and drove me home. It would be a full ten days before we hugged. At least our long-distance marriage had a smaller parameter now. 

We are all living through our struggles. I waited five years to apply for graduate school in a society where women apply for their masters immediately after their bachelors to make sure they are done and dusted before marriage. I applied to my dream schools and scholarships – much rejection, heartbreak and mini-triumphs later, I was studying Social Policy at UPenn.

I will not be walking with my classmates in May. After maintaining a solid 3.9 GPA, I struggle to write out assignments and I submit them right on time. Not a minute earlier. I had to redo two of these assignments. I miss my friends, but I do not have the energy to reach out to them. Each day goes by quickly, I scramble to do everything I need to do but I feel like time is standing still. I feel like I am living the same day over and over again. I see-saw between gratitude (making it home in time, cute cats, cuter husband, garden, beautiful weather, financial security, etc.) and hopelessness. 

I prayed a lot when this started, but in between the news, graphs and assignments, I faltered. Perhaps tomorrow, I will start again. 

Houston, we have a problem

Houston, United States

By Ansam Sinjab

Entering week six of work-from-home, week 10-ish of social distancing (depends when you started to take things seriously in this country), week four of my Nike Training Club fitness program, day six of my guided mediation program (last one was two weeks ago), day 20 of not watching Trump’s daily awesome, massive, more-than-any-other-country, huge COVID response press conference (I gotta admit, the first couple were really entertaining), and after resisting the urge for the longest time: day four of creating an Instagram page for our cats – @flokibindi – (not an entirely proud moment, I must admit). My quarantine has treaded on the tracks of most of my fellow humans, and it can be summed by a few creative wins, surprising oneself with things to be proud of, definitely a few things to be ashamed of, and things that are just pure bitter-sweet.

To me, the most astonishing yet grounding thing about succumbing to the decision to shut down the research labs and switch to work-from-home mode was realizing that importance is relative, even when you thought certain aspects of your career are immune to that. Life in a cancer research lab, working on weekends and holidays is never out of question. It is always a matter of “what is better for the cells or mice” rather than the researcher, and how soon can we get data from this experiment to answer that question that has been picking my brain ever since I read that publication. It was humbling to realize that while what we do is so utterly important, so timely, so necessary for the future of medicine, it does not stand a chance of “urgency” in the midst of the current alarming situation. Machines unplugged, specimen freezers locked (those same samples I was rushing to obtain and process a month ago like it was a matter of life or death), gloves and safety goggles set aside for pickup by Houston PD, PCR machine set aside for donation to the laboratory testing department… Yes, it is surreal, the gravity we thought had kept the world together is now gone, and with it, the weight of anything we once deemed important and urgent. Switching off my office computer, I came to terms with the fact that it’s not about me or my curiosity anymore, it’s about humanity, and it’s about the precious lives of all the cancer fighters at our institute. The hospital is a hotspot for immunocompromised patients, with one of the highest congregation of patients at high risk of COVID worldwide. Not going to work was not a compromise, not a personal gesture of heroism, but an unquestionable act of absolute and sensible humanity.

First day at home and my personal shock almost completely masked by the immensity of the horrific pandemic and the risks faced by first responders and their stories of compromise. The “get yourself grounded lady” moment kicks in, and much like everyone else, I went on to set up a daily routine for myself. I wondered at how the heck I will be able to do any wet-lab research from home, and that gave me a good laugh, basically because it was impossible. Yes of course I can write papers, plan for upcoming projects, and analyze data, but for someone whose every single day at work is as unique as our DNA makeup, and whose Garmin watch clocks more than 13k steps a day just from shuffling between the office, the lab, and other parts of campus, this whole thing seemed like a death sentence to the body and mind. Everyone’s talking about getting all creative, but (drama moment alert): how oh how will my problem-solving intellect not wane, how will I get through this? Fast forwarding into more scientific webinars than I can keep up with, more abstract deadlines than I can submit, and more data analysis courses than my slow typing fingers can code, I managed to contribute to the submission of two scientific articles (one of which is serendipitously related to COVID susceptibility in cancer patients), and two additional ones are en route. I also got hooked up on a data analysis program which I am now using to generate hypotheses for our next project, and caught up on a fair amount of scientific literature, well enough to realize that some of the research ideas I had thought were most exciting are just plain stupid (quite a normal thing for a self-critical scientist). So yeah, creativity in science can flourish when you are staring into a screen, but I still cannot wait to do the tedious, meticulous, and disgusting things (we do not really do that, but I felt the need to satisfy the readers’ imagination) I used to do in a research lab. 

Physically, it was amazing to see how restrictions on outdoor sports activities have varied across the globe. My husband and I are frequent runners, and going out for a quick run was pretty much the “out to the supermarket” trip everyone has been looking up to as their only escape from these four walls. In fact, I have been dreading going to the supermarket: first couple of weeks because I could still see, in the emptiness of shelves and aisles, the repercussions of an unprecedented depiction of void in social responsibility. And later, because I was sick and tired of having to disinfect every single item we bring back home. I figured I’d rather sweat it with a five-miler around the neighborhood and de-coronize myself behind the shower curtain. Thankfully, Houston has been a breath of fresh air in that respect: a spacious city (another reason to call it Space City!), the limited opportunity to crowd one park, added to an overall high level of social responsibility and health-related consciousness thanks to the Medical Center microcosm.

Speaking of microcosm, of facts, science et al, I can’t help but feel a sense of gratitude to see that my non-sciencey friends and family now have a pretty clear idea of what a “PCR” is (in case you didn’t know what the acronym stands for, it’s polymerase-chain reaction), they talk about “viral evolution” and know why “peer-reviewed” scientific output is important, they are excellent at reading graphs and interpreting trends, they analyze health-related news with a critical eye and are frequent fact-checkers who can debunk unreliable resources, and they also take conspiracy theories with a grain of salt. I am in no position to identify whether such a structured interrogative sense of science is inherent or acquired given the current circumstances, and I do not intend to turn my acquaintances into lab rats to answer that question. Yet, I have extensively used those positive realizations to calm myself down, to get it together when reading anti-social distancing/pro-clorox (figuratively, thankfully not encountered thus far) online threads. I have long acknowledged our duty as scientists to communicate our work to the public, but I had never wished I was better trained for this than today. It has been difficult for me not to get emotionally involved, and to remember to take a breather before getting dragged into an aggressive argument about how science is being mis-interpreted. I am struck with disappointment to see that while scientists, doctors, virologists, and public health specialists go into a spiraling practice of self-criticism every time they write (and re-write) “the virus may cause”, “is likely caused by”, “is associated with”, “ought to be further investigated”, the fact of the matter is that their efforts to protect the masses can be immediately thwarted by a single gesture of grandiose ballot-seeking political claims. We’ve all had our “low” moments during quarantine, and those may have been mine, where I contemplated the thought of giving up on trying to clarify scientific findings for what they really are. But then there were those moments of leading a calm, composed, and fact-based rhetoric, which won me over tiny victories with some online readers; to me those were big wins, they were my quarantine highs.

On a personal level, I would like to believe I am making the best of my quarantine time. After almost a year of being apart, my husband and two cats finally moved to Houston just before this whole situation exploded. I am soaking up every lazy or active moment with him, making up for lost time and missed existential conversations, and together getting ready to welcome our newnew life. As for having our social life physically distanced by oceans and continents, on top of the 6 ft, with friends scattered across the globe: my bitter consolation comes down to lack of FOMO on what our friends back home are up to (for obvious reasons), and not being worried about building a new social life once the beta version of life kicks in (it’ll be new to everyone, and everyone will want to make friends from 6 ft-apart at any chance they have!).

This pandemic has not changed my adult convictions, it has only strengthened my belief in the power of being grateful for what we have, loving what we do and being creative about it, and staying connected with those who matter the most. 

May 2020

The Blackbird Show

Madrid, Spain

A concrete planter next to the subway is no decent home compared to the coniferous forest, the blackbird’s natural habitat. But these are the kind of situations you have to deal with when you grow up in a city like Madrid, where housing price is absolutely nuts.

March is the month in which these birds begin to sing their melodies: “do, do, do, re, mi, fa”, considered one of the most beautiful ones in the word. I mean, even the Beatles have a song about them, that’s how used they are to standing ovations. But this blackbird’s first recital ended with something very unusual: absolutely nothing happened. Not a single person came by to listen to his lovely song, and despite his efforts, the same exact thing happened the next day. Even though this little bird is solitary by nature, realising how lonely he was made him extremely sad.

The sky must have been watching and was willing to add a little drama to the story, because it snowed in plain April. As the first flakes fell on his beak he desperately flew away from his small planter and among the intricate buildings of Ciudad Jardín to find a better refuge. It was around eight o’clock, when he finally found a small wooden box inside a tunnel – the perfect refuge to hide from the cold. Oh, it felt so good, it reminded him of his childhood nest and the soothing song his mother used to sing. The blackbird got so carried away by these memories, he started singing again, but this time for himself.

At first it was very subtle, but in a matter of seconds the whole street was full of people leaning out of their windows and clapping. Surprised by this sudden burst of appreciation, the Blackbird sang all the songs he remembered making the audience go mad. Some even brought out saucepans to show their excitement. He was so happy, it was like his life mission was finally achieved.

It was so that the Blackbird spent the following months singing at dawn, only a few minutes before eight. And people would never fail to show their appreciation thought the windows. Finally, after all those sad days, everything in his life made perfect sense.

* * *


Blackbirds sing from March to June so it is very probable people will go back to the streets before this little fella finds out the truth.

Go Home, Stay Home

From Maine to London

Days before the quarantine became mandatory, Nils, my British fiancé, spotted the homemade sign taped to a second floor window in the block of brick flats across the lane. “Go Home, Stay Home” it read, in colored pencil. We could see it from our kitchen. I’d caught glimpses of a woman at that window, raising the sash on sunny March mornings. A millennial, we decided. Maybe she worked for the NHS, and understood the contagion risks of Covid-19 sooner than the rest of London. Sooner than the Prime Minister. 

That was weeks ago, shortly after I arrived in London from the States to join my fiancé in our new flat on England’s Lane and prepare for our wedding. “You got here just in time”, our friends said, and it was true. I arrived on March 6th, before the lockdown and international travel restrictions were imposed. When I’d rolled my suitcases down the bumpy sidewalk from the Swiss Cottage tube station along Eton Avenue, traffic was heavy, and I’d had to dodge dozens of chattering children in pleated skirts and blazers on their way to school. On England’s Lane, diners in the Camomile Cafe ate at small tables, heads inclined in intimate conversation, and artsy college students sat outside smoking and chatting over coffees at Black Truffle. 

Camomile Cafe is closed now, and Black Truffle has taken its tables in. The windows are dark at the Indian restaurant across the street we never got a chance to try. There are fewer people on the street. The pharmacy on the corner is still open but allows customers in just a few at a time, and shoppers line up at two-meter marks newly painted on the sidewalk in front of Tesco Express. Children’s crayon drawings of rainbows and hearts for the NHS dot ground floor windows; chalk versions have appeared on the sidewalk next to the Royal Free Hospital.

Coming from the rural state of Maine, I am more comfortable with the sight of wild foxes roaming back gardens or trotting down the street than seeing neighbors outside our windows. My first week in London, I was careful to pull down the blinds each night, and avert my eyes from the lit windows of the flats across the lane. I didn’t want to look into the kitchens and bedrooms of strangers. A New Englander with a vein of Puritan heritage, I value my privacy. 

Or so I thought. On that first Thursday evening after the UK lockdown, Nils and I were startled by the sound of people clapping. We looked outside and saw our neighbors leaning out of their open windows, applauding the doctors and nurses risking their lives to care for Covid-19 patients. People on the sidewalk join them, hooting and hollering. Motorcycles, cars, and a city bus tooted their horns in support as they passed down the lane. Nils and I stepped out onto our first floor balcony to join them, something we’ve done now for six weeks, until we flattened the curve, until we passed the peak.

The flats across from us rise three stories above the street level shops, most of which are shuttered. I marvel that the bike shop is still open, deemed an essential business, like the butcher, the bakeries, green grocers, and cafes that now offer takeout. Shoppers still come and go, singly, and in couples, walking dogs, with children in strollers or on scooters. More and more people wear masks, even gas masks, but most don’t. They are healthy and young.

At breakfast, when I glance up from my bowl of oatmeal and see the sun shining into the tic tac toe grid of windows, and see the silhouettes of young me on their laptops, it no longer feels like snooping. I’m proud of their diligence. I am cheered when geraniums appear on a shallow terrace on warm days, then disappear, like the potted basil and parsley plants I bring in from our balcony on cool nights. At dinner, Nils points out the athletic girl who skips rope in a backlit entryway.

Except for the scream of ambulance sirens that don’t let us forget why we are doing this, the neighborhood is quieter. Nils and I wake to birdsong. We know it’s a weekday, by the sound of jovial conversations in Polish. A crew of construction workers gutting the garden apartment next door, show up faithfully. We envy their purposefulness and learn to appreciate the distraction of their noisy work. From my office window I watch them take breaks in the garden. They wear no masks, working together as closely as a family. When they don’t show up one Friday, we fear one of them got sick and they are must self-quarantine. We are relieved when they return on Monday.

On an unseasonably hot day, I go out to water my plants on the balcony and notice a man in shorts and no shirt up on the roof. He gesticulates wildly, cell phone to one ear. Is he on a conference call or talking to his mother? I wonder. Two young women in bikinis sunbathing two roofs over stand up to stretch and take in the unusually clear view of the city. One stands on the stone wall that borders the roof and shades her eyes, as if peering out to sea. Nils and I worry she will fall, as if we were her parents.

When we venture out on our daily walks, I recognize a few neighbors from the windows — the jump roper in her running tights, the bearded man who plays the guitar, a slim man with ear buds who chatters in French, the couple we saw dancing in their kitchen. I’m falling in love with them all. We are truly apart together. We don’t know each other but we are living our lives in parallel along England’s Lane, constrained by the same threat, but living still, in community.

I’ve yet to see the face of the woman who lives in the flat directly across from us. Only her slim pale forearm slides out beneath her window sash, to tap cigarette ash into the gutter. Doesn’t she know how much worse it will be for her if she gets the coronavirus? Nils is concerned. I wonder, does her landlord know she smokes? Does her boyfriend mind? Does she even have a boyfriend?

Our wedding plans have been delayed, then demolished by this virus but at least we Nils and I are able to be together during this crazy time. I hope the girl across the lane doesn’t have to bear this lockdown alone.

Picture taken in the garden of our chosen wedding venue, where we were meant to marry on May 23rd

Them changes in Minneapolis

Minneapolis, United States

In the brief moment that Thanos snapped his fingers to bring the demise of the Avengers in Endgame, is how quickly the social activities dissolved.  Many of us hoped this year would be the year; a year for expansion of travelling and seeing different sights. A year which might have seen us take more advantage to see each other face to face.  Maybe your docket was filled with essential concerts and festivals you were going to see, or trips you were planning on taking. 

It’s all gone. Granted, our health is tantamount, and it’s for the best.  One can’t help what would happen.  Perhaps that’s why we are staying inside.  This is the time the world has provided us; an opportunity to reflect and slow down, no matter how hastily we need the world and its wonders to reopen.  

We shared the years
We shared each day…
But soon the world
Had it’s evil way…
I’m going through changes
I’m going through changes
In my life…
–Charles Bradley “Changes”

Home feels like many things.  On the one hand, home can be a sanctuary, a respite from the hectic movement of the city.  On the other hand, it can lull one into a false sense of security.  In a lot of ways, the stability of home can make one feel immune to the ills of the outside suffering in the world.  A lot of times, our idea of home can seem constant, but throw something like uncertainty into that picture, and the idea of home can be rocked at its foundations.  

I want to devise a virus
To bring dire straits to your environment
Crush your corporations with a mild touch
Trash your whole computer systems
And revert you to papyrus
I want to devise a virus
Strong enough to cause blackouts 
In every single metropolis
Cause they don’t wanna unify us
So fuck it, total anarchy
And can’t nobody stop this…
–Deltron 3030 “Virus”

2016 seemed like such an eternity ago.  Hell, by that measure, February 2020 almost seemed like ages ago.  We’ve already been through by most accounts a stressful four years.  Every day is filled with something new; a new way of doing things, a newfound scandal, a new thing being said that almost seems like history repeating itself.  A history that is set in the past for a reason.  We’re all tired.  Tired of what’s being said, tired of the extremes, tired of being stuck with the same options as before.  It’s an overwhelming mess.  

We tried to say goodbye to a world knowing what was laying ahead for us, knowing we’re fighting an ideological battle, with neither alternative serving our way.  An old but reliable and stable clunker, that is resistant to change for the longest time, until it is rewired properly to adapt to the new world, or a downward spiral that bends and dodges the old ways set forth to keep balances in check, and seeks to have us belting out something like R.E.M’s “It’s The End of the World As We Known It,” although with little fanfare, and a ton more concern.

So what do we do? We’re trying to trudge through sound medical advice that shifts depending on how much more it spreads, and the ghostly gasps and throes of capitalism trying to save itself from itself.  Small businesses shuddering, jobs eliminated or furloughed longing for either a better tomorrow, or a return to the world as it once was.  

Rooted in the purposes and the prose
We hope whatever grows
Mirrors all the seeds you ever sowed
So when the time comes
And your vines run
And your mind numbs
They will define sums
In the divine sun
That’s filling my lungs…
–Jonwayne “Paper”

It’s difficult to speak on next steps or where we go from here.  Another country is about to undergo yet another election with even more dire stakes as the last one.  A virus has not only humans enveloped in its path of destruction, it’s also ceasing dream businesses and ways of life as we know it.  In the yin to the yang, it is also causing the environment to revert back to pre-crisis conditions, an environment that no longer sees oil as a precious commodity, but sees the earth as something that should live on.  Maybe that’s speaking too hopefully, since we haven’t reverted back to normal, but we’re even unsure if that normal will return, or if it’s another evolution to a new normal, one that sees more of a balance between work and home life, .  

We all are being murdered by a similar process
Whether you work at the candy store or slave at the office
The purpose of our life is just to serve the economy
They misinform our minds to paint a picture of harmony
But if you’re listening, you know that shit’s out of tune
‘Cause the function of our life is just to work and consume
Fuck reaching out to help the next, there ain’t any room
Just close your eyes and block your ears and march to your doom…
Can’t you see that I’m busy, jerk?
Don’t dare approach me with busy work
Take another step and get hurt…
Everything inside of me is about to erupt
‘Cause a righteous individual dislikes the corrupt
–Mr. Lif “Live From the Plantation”

Right now, there are tons more questions, than answers.  Should you see the other side of this pandemic world we live in right now, where do we go from here?  If we do survive, is it back to the ways of yore with the snap of a finger and the invention of a therapeutic or vaccine? We’re left with so many questions, with zero immediate answers.  Whatever that change may be, I hope you walk out with that change and exercise it to its fullest extent when you see the other side of this pandemic, and the altered realities it presents. Whether it’s a new normal, or returning back to normalcy, or a sense of normalcy, rest assured that there is no normal, and it can change.

Listen to the playlist on Apple Music, Spotify or Tidal.

Inaaya’s life under lockdown

London, United Kingdom

Hello. My name is Inaaya Shah. I am an 11 year old girl living in coronavirus-affected England. Life here has changed a lot for me. School has shut down for one. You might think that’s perfect for me but it is not. You see, I’m in year 6 at school. I was going to do my SATs this year but they are now cancelled. To be honest, I actually wanted to do my SATs. Another thing affected by coronavirus is my residentials.  Residentials is an activity when my class goes to Norfolk (a place in England that’s 82 miles away from London) and stay at this place for a few days and do some fun stuff like archery and zip lining. It is disappointing that it has been cancelled now. Although we have an extra-long holiday, it is not as fun as it seems. We can’t visit our relatives and friends, we can’t go on holiday or go to some fun place near us. We have to social distance now. At some shops like Asda, they have these long queues just to get inside for shopping. In addition, they have queues at the checking points too. 

Although most is bad here in coronavirus England, there is some good too. Like now I got Roblox (an online game). My Mum said after my SATs I could get it but because I can’t do my SATs I could get it early. Another thing is that we fixed our old computer so that I could do my homework online. My uncle helped via phone because he lives in Texas. This is good because that’s where I have roblox. 

Another thing is that it is Ramadan. I am a Muslim so I am fasting. It’s good I don’t have the pressure of my SATs or would not have been able to fast. The way I am learning at home is via websites like Purple Mash where our teachers send us work to print and to do homework on the website. The school also does competitions for us. This picture that can be seen at the top was my entry for one of those competitions the school sent. The competition was about who is your hero in this pandemic. I and my Mum decided to do nurses, because we think that they are doing an amazing job looking after sick people. We sent it via email and soon my teacher called us and said that we won and they would send us the prize soon. I am still waiting to get my prize. 

So there you have it, my review of my life under coronavirus.

Reflections from a London household

London, England

‘It’ all seemed so far away – China! And even when ‘it’ reached Italy, maybe having decided on Brexit, it was ‘over there and we felt removed from any threat. But….. we are all connected’ and this ‘Runway’ disease knows no borders.

The Lockdown though, we should have anticipated it (other than toilet paper and pasta!) caught us unawares – a little like “where were you when the music stopped?” Some in the wrong place, some miles away not able to get to their otherwise ‘Households’ of choice. 

Yes there is a feeling of fear – for oneself and loved ones. The not knowing, the uncertainty. This invisible enemy, whose attack is indiscriminate, unpredictable. The worry about being caught, in spite of all good efforts, precautions and adherence to the Government guidelines..  

We’ve all had to adapt – discover more about oneself, discover new ways of living, of socializing, of being; realise the things that are not really important and the people who are, and they include the professions and workers who we should now recognize and respect as being important – no essential – to our everyday living.  It has been hard for us all in differing ways; but particularly for those who have worked with, or contracted COVID19 and especially those who sadly have lost loved ones to the virus. Yet, there have been positives and we must hold on to these and the belief that ‘This will pass.’

Contact with and from Christmas cards friends has opened up connections. We’ve ‘checked in’ frequently with family and friends. I’ve become a more proficient IT user, taken online courses, explored functions on my mobile phone and discovered the fun of family and friends Zoom encounters. I thought I would miss many things – like outings to the cinema and theatre. But in reality, it’s been difficult keeping up with broadcasts of some good films and streamings of live plays, operas and concerts.

Who would have thought of the enjoyment from daily walks round the block, appreciating people criss-crossing the road to keep their distance, until some got inured to the restrictions and the pavements became busy.

The world outside has been peaceful: no cars speeding down the road; no planes soaring overhead. Only the birds seem to be making more noise – are they loudly rejoicing about the cleaner air, or is it because I can now hear them.

The Spring weather has been dry and warm. Being lucky to have a garden, there’s been the opportunity to dose up on vitamin D while tending the garden or enjoying an outside gym.  No excuse for weight gain! Food has been interesting. Simple and inventive meals, as one’s normal shopping trolley has had to adapt. Panic – No! but I never realized how much the British loved eggs!

So, when the ‘lock’ is opened, what then?  What will we have learned? What must we NOT forget? We’re not going back to ‘normal. No one can. Not least because the way we were living was not ‘normal’. We should all think about and make our own pledge for our ‘new normal. Let’s have faith. ‘It’ will pass.


Mexico City, Mexico

Here we are in May 2020, in Mexico City, living the same confinement as everyone else. It has been six weeks already and I anticipate another eight weeks to start resuming activities.

I am experiencing this pandemic with my family – my husband and three children – Luisa, 5 years old, Simone, 3 years old, and Martin, 1 year old. Although it is hugely physically and emotionally exhausting to be locked up with three babies, I wouldn’t change it. My set up leaves no room for either depression or boredom.

It all started in late 2019 when an epidemic broke out in China. As Mexicans, we said “how terrible what China is going through” and we continued with our lives … But then world events progressed at great speed and in February it was clear that we would not escape. As the saying goes “No one experiences in someone else’s head” and we clearly had no idea what the implications would be for us. The time came, the first infected fell and by March 13, schools, restaurants and bars closed. Events of any kind cancelled.

And here we are … all locked up, we never saw it coming, something so OBVIOUS we didn’t even expect. 

There we were expecting ‘the future’ to surprise us with technology or something(!), thinking we already knew everything about the world that hosts us. Well, we’ve definitely been caught off guard by the future, not with technology, but with a virus, something so familiar we saw it come and go every other season, something we lost the fear of thanks to vaccines, a virus that’s now making us face our greatest challenge as humanity.

The government is looking for a way to overcome the health crisis and visualizing an economic crisis that will have a brutal impact; companies trying to reinvent themselves so as not to go bankrupt during this pandemic, many lost jobs, generating fear, uncertainty, hunger and violence.

Society is trying to find new ways to be productive, new channels to not feel lonely, using technology to take care of ourselves, entertain us and communicate. And families, and here I can only talk about mine, because each family will tell their story, we are trying to survive … Although we must all share chaos, screams, tears, laughter, housework, made-up games, iPads, television, homeschooling; the emotions of five untidy people generate a particular environment and it is in this environment where the virus challenges each of us individually.

Each family member has a different perspective on the situation depending on how old they are and the role they play within the family. I see in my oldest daughter an enormous need to return to school. It is important to say that she is an exemplary student; she likes to do everything perfectly and she loves that everyone applauds her work. She gets it at school constantly, but here at home it is different and not all of us follow her rules. Frustration begins to take over, along with boredom and the need for new academic challenges.

My 3-year-old daughter, the middle one, is always looking for her role in the family. She is neither the big one or the baby and that forces her to constantly attract attention; she is the challenger, she knows how to make each one of us angry and many times she seeks that. For these reasons she LOVES going to school, where she does not fight for any space, where she can be authentic, where she obeys without question and that gives her security. She is the one who likes the routine the most and today we do not have any clarity, she has repeated on many occasions “she is fed up with the virus”..

And the youngest 1.3 years old, he is very well off. His sleep routine has been marked quite well, and his learning continues just by observing his sisters. But he is the one who tires us most physically, he does not stop running, eating, shouting and being in dangerous situations, one cannot stop being with him for a minute.

My husband is not very good at keeping a routine but his job forces him everyday to maintain order and he actually performs incredibly and is good solving specific issues.

But now all is crashing down; not only because offices and workspaces are closed but also because the industry in which he works has been completely stopped by the Pandemic. So, on the one hand there is the fear and uncertainty caused by the lack of work and on the other hand to face himself, the gaps in time and the feelings caused by being unproductive.

And I, who prefer routine, always full of tasks, projects, meetings, always loving to plan and have an agenda, constantly anticipating the facts. Now I am trying to contain all this uncertainty, frustration, ANXIETY and lack of planning. Distressed to think that you are not doing what is best for your children, that perhaps you could better educate them, make this moment something memorable, trying to lower the academic elements to achieve homeschooling, constantly being an intermediary in sibling lawsuits, judging the behavior of my partner and then regretting it… Now I’m beginning to understand that I have to learn from chaos, that perhaps it is not as bad as I always thought… that a little bit does not hurt and sometimes it is enjoyed.

I decided to find a space before my family wakes up and one when they fall asleep for myself… and thus fill myself with energy…

I think that these months should make us better people, face ourselves, our partners, our children, our parents and anyone with whom we’ve had to go through this quarantine SHOULD train us, make us reflect and give us tools to improve, it is not easy but at least we have to try.

I hope to make this isolation weigh less every day and I really wish it for everyone.

Frontline to Backline

From the UK to the Persian Gulf

I’ve spent 14 years working for the NHS. Spent a variety of years tasting many specialities spending days and nights walking along various hospital corridors. After this I decided to become a general practitioner and for the last nine years this is what I did until 14th February 2020. This was the last day I worked in the NHS and then on 15th I boarded a plane to my new future. My children and I were welcomed at the airport by my husband who had arrived a few months prior to me and had already begun working as a primary health care consultant. I, on the other hand, had decided on a career break. I wished to break free from the madness that was life working as a GP and being a mother of three children aged nine, six and three. 

Many people work hard and juggle children. It’s not easy and you lose yourself in it. Being a doctor there is always that worry that it’s not just an email that you might send to the wrong person but a mistake with much worse consequences. It’s the sadness you feel when you lose the patient that you had developed a close relationship with or discuss a devastating diagnosis. There are also happy moments to share, like the news of a pregnancy from a lady who has been waiting so patiently for so many years. It’s a wonderful job, but also an emotional rollercoaster, and that coupled with my own children and the challenges of motherhood and life in general meant I needed to stop. Not permanently, but just to breathe and enjoy. To slow down time and cherish my children before they quickly grow into young adults. So came the move. 

The first few weeks were like a holiday. Beautiful weather, sights to discover and lots of fun. The children settled into their new school, which was my biggest worry, but it was as smooth as could be. They attended for 12 days and then in mid-March the schools announced closure. The process of lockdown had started and slowly the measures became stricter. Shortly after schools closed, play areas, pools, beaches, parks and malls all closed. All in a matter of days the streets became quiet. 

We now live our life in the confines of our small flat. I don’t have the clothes, toys, books and every possible gadget that we had access to a few weeks ago. I only have what I could squeeze in my suitcase and I have realised that even this is more than enough. It’s a testing time but I know I have the luxury of spending this time with my children. I help them with their school work, we paint, we read and we play. My dream of time with my children came true but never would I have imagined these circumstances. 

I am baffled as to how I have spent 14 years in the NHS and at the time of a pandemic I am so far from home and work. Word from colleagues at the extent of the problem back home causes so much worry. I pray for my family and friends back home, the patients I had once cared for and my colleagues. 

I wonder what life would have been like if I had not made a leap abroad. There would have been some difficult decisions. Would I have sent the children to live with their grandmother? I could not have come home from work and risked my mother in law or mother getting unwell. I would have had to change the way I had worked and brush up on my telephone consultation skills. General practice until recently has been about face to face consultations. However, this pandemic has meant a change in the way general practice is working. I think this will change the way we work forever. I applaud the frontline workers all around the world. They have always been at the front line but we have only just recognised it. 

There is also some sadness and guilt. My patients of nine years may have needed me now during this pandemic more than ever. A familiar voice of the end of the telephone may have been comforting. Then I remember I am also a mother and I stand firm with the decision to dedicate just a few years to my children.

The problem for healthcare workers and their families is much the same wherever you are in the world. My husband returns home to us now having swabbed patients and cared for them and we can only hope and pray that his clothing was protective enough. The fear of developing the virus is as real anywhere you are. 

My plan of a new life has turned into a new life that has in fact been planned for me. Not just me but for us all. 


Every cloud has a silver lining

Toronto, Canada

Go Train schedules, traffic jams, changing seasons, pressing deadlines, and take-out dinners. This is the day to day life in Toronto and much of the Greater Toronto Area (the suburbs outside the city). The COVID-19 pandemic caught us off guard. Usually when world-wide events happen, in this part of the world we tend to grieve briefly (if at all) about the unfortunate events affecting other less fortunate countries, and then we go back to the daily grind. Not our problem. Life here calls for fast-paced movements, quick decisions and steadfast responses to high demands, either professional, personal or social.

However, this unfortunate health pandemic has changed the way of life for the majority of us, with the exception of front-line workers. In their case the daily grind has now become a never- ending nightmare in many ways. For the rest of us, our panic has now been shifted to ensuring that we obtain the daily needs of food, medicine, and notoriously now, toilet paper! Never would I have imagined that I would be living in a time when the fear of a scarce supply of toilet paper would preoccupy our thoughts. At the same time, many of us have had to face some dire situations, of losing employment, not being able to make rent, caring for a loved one who has contracted the virus, living in anxiety that a loved one would contract the virus, and simply bearing the burden of the emotional and mental ambiguity of feeling like we no longer have a purpose to fill our day to day.

Many might wonder about the purpose behind this COVID-19 pandemic. I too have pondered on why in an already problematic world, another life altering event arose. We may not have the answers behind the why, but I choose to focus on how we can use this time to reflect on what we’ve learned so far from the time that we’ve had to socially distance ourselves from our family and friends. As challenging as it can be to not see our loved ones, we are comfortable with the fact that keeping our distance is protecting them. We tend to worry about the unknown, but when we find comfort in a decision, we’re more inclined to focus on the positive side of a situation. In light of people realizing the brevity of life, many of us have allowed ourselves to embrace the life that we do have. It’s astonishing how far we can soar when we just allow ourselves to take a step back, breathe, and ask ourselves what we should do with all this time. Or rather who we should become.

We’ve received the gift of time. Time is a luxury in today’s age. I’ve been cognizant of how my time can be used wisely, to feed my personal and spiritual growth. Speaking to friends and family, many of them have taken advantage of this self-isolation period to explore their creative side, rest more, catch up on tv shows, explore new recipes, spend more time catching up with family and friends via virtual calls. Many of them find this time to be a refreshing breather from the everyday hustle and bustle of North American life. I’ve also enjoyed discovering my hidden talents and revisiting activities that I enjoyed in my child hood like playing the piano, and drawing.

Taking it a step further, I’ve recently asked myself how can I use this time to learn and process the things that might one day benefit others. If there’s one positive thing that stands out during this time, globally, there is a sense of solidarity. Suddenly, the things that divided us matter less. Only one thing becomes important – protect yourself so you can protect those around you. It’s fascinating how humanity gives us a wakeup call. Living a usual life of individualism has now become a matter of ensuring that we work together as a community to protect one another by doing our part. Essentially, when we focus on the important things about ourselves, we not only benefit ourselves but we ensure the well-being of others, and I do not mean materialistic things. I mean the bigger questions about the significance of life and each person’s purpose in this world.

Personally, as someone who is spiritual, I have grown closer to God during this time. Social distancing has allowed me to revisit past wounds, enabling me to process and grieve the things that I did not fully reconcile. This has led me to analyze the good and the bad in our current circumstance. If in our most dire times, we as a collective human race can open our eyes to appreciating the service of our front line workers, something that we never gave attention to in the past , then we truly can in our most prosperous times, put others’ needs above our own and appreciate one another, and the various roles we play in society.

Finally, and I believe most importantly, this time has presented an existential question – why are we here? Given the fragility of human life, what does one more day mean to us? Let’s wake up and ask the big questions. This monumental event in our time is begging us to question our purpose. As for me, I believe that we were created for relationship. Our hearts yearn for connection, intimacy and love. This social distancing period proves it. Isolation goes against our most inherent need. For me, this means relationship with God and each other. Nothing else matters.

Especially not toilet paper which will wither away with just one use! I hope we can all come out of this time in history with a renewed perspective on our purpose in life.

Ashrita Rajkumar

Lahore in Lockdown

Lahore, Pakistan

Spring brings out the best in Lahore, the city of gardens, of ancient architecture, of culture and heritage. In the last decade especially, the academic scene in Lahore has boomed manifold. Spring has been an usherer of all things creative and positive, like Lahore’s first biennale in 2018. Come spring and Lahore hosts its literary festivals and art connoisseurs from around the country gather in places to meet and greet, enjoy art, theatre, literature and music. Lahore brings together all its citizens irrespective of their social status offering a plethora of activities for the rich and poor alike.

Some of the lush and expansive parks in the city hold enormous annual spring festivals with food carts, joy rides for children, handicraft stalls, boat rides and a blooming floral display that could compete with any in Holland.

COVID has also given me more time and opportunity to practise my art. Always a passion, I never gave the craft as much time as I wanted to. Two years ago I started to learn the art of Persian Miniature and now I sit in my – previously scarcely used – studio to work on pieces I have always wanted to create. I am suddenly filled with an over flow of creativity! On the positive side I have also started using my treadmill which had long ago turned into a dedicated towel stand.

As I sit and work on my Persian figures, stroke by fine stroke, chalking out stories from Shahnameh of Ferdowsi, the streets previously roaring with the noise of motorbikes, rickshaws and cars seems to have lulled.

The city appears to have slowed as the regular hustle and bustle of life has met a hiatus. The roads look like they have cleared and my regular hood – the neighbourhood parks – full of blooming petunias at this time of the year are uncharacteristically empty. Ultimately, the city that is home to 11 million inhabitants seems to be taking a well-deserved rest.

Khadija Khosa
Teacher. Artist. Academic. Researcher.

The wonderful art in this piece was inspired by this poem by Jalaluddin Rumi

A Moment of Happiness

A moment of happiness,
you and I sitting on the verandah,
apparently two, but in one soul, you and I.
We feel the flowing water of life here,
you and I, with the garden's beauty
and the birds singing.
The stars will be watching us,
and we will show them
what it is to be a thin crescent moon.
You and I unselfed, will be together,
indifferent to idle speculation, you and I.
The parrots of heaven will be cracking sugar
as we laugh together, you and I.
In one form upon this earth,
and in another form in a timeless sweet land. 


Freetown, Sierra Leone

April 2020

Sierra Leone had been the only country in the West and Central Africa region without a case of COVID-19 – that’s out of 24 countries and something to be proud of. But on March 31, things rapidly changed when the President, in a nationwide broadcast, made an announcement that the country’s index case was confirmed, a male who had traveled from Paris on an Air Brussels flight 15 days prior on March 16.

Up until then, many of us were hopeful, optimistic, and even oblivious (in retrospect), that Sierra Leone may actually succeed in avoiding the global pandemic, but our wishes were quickly shot down. I still remember that afternoon, a Tuesday (and my dad’s 68th birthday), when the news swept through the office, Whatsapp messages poured in, and the head of our agency called for an emergency all-staff meeting to activate the business continuity plan.

Fast forward 22 days – the number of confirmed cases has gone up to 61, with one death and over 600 people in quarantine. In a matter of weeks, life in Freetown rapidly transformed as regulations went into effect like the rest of the world – national lockdown, travel restrictions, school suspension, daily curfews, and business closures. In latest news, the government has now made it mandatory for everyone to wear a cloth face mask in public.

This is a country that experienced the Ebola virus epidemic not too long ago. With a fatality rate of 50%, approximately 4,000 people died in Sierra Leone during the outbreak, which lasted for little under two years. Approximately 12,000 children were orphaned as a result and the social fabric of the country was completely shattered. On the other hand, Italy had recorded around the same number of COVID-related deaths in just about a month. I clearly remember speaking to my Italian colleague about this, contemplating how crazy and surreal all of this is. Is this really happening in 2020?

I’ve seen a bunch of articles and work-related emails on how the Ebola experience has placed Sierra Leone in a good position to be prepared and respond to COVID-19 – all of the lessons learned, how the experience can even provide lessons for other countries, and the like. However, though I genuinely believe that Sierra Leoneans came out of the last crisis stronger and more resilient, I’m not so sure if the contexts are the same and the two viruses can even be compared. We cannot underestimate COVID-19. Sierra Leone should not underestimate COVID-19. The way it’s spreading globally and affecting all facets of our lives is unprecedented. It now dominates the news and our conversations, and we are downright consumed. The present is uncertain, and the future is unpredictable.

Before things became serious, my friends and I, all of us expats, were constantly debating whether to evacuate or not while flights were still available. And many of my friends did end up leaving for safety, to be close to their loved ones; but I chose to stay, both for personal and professional reasons. Now feeling a bit stuck, I still think about what the right thing to do was.

But I’ve come to a conclusion that there really is no right or wrong answer and we just have to remain positive. The only thing we can do at the moment is to take care of ourselves, and others, and to not panic about the virus, wherever you are. That life moves forward and we mustn’t let the virus make us lose sight of the bigger picture. It is not the end of the world, though it certainly feels like it. 

We can’t let COVID-19 get to us, both physically and mentally. Rather, I remind myself that we in Sierra Leone need to be more cautious and fearful of the mundane diseases in Africa like malaria and cholera – with the already weak healthcare system, it would be a nightmare to get ill at this time! At least we can still go out and enjoy the lovely beaches here, I tell myself. Supermarkets are well-stocked, and restaurants are available. I look out of my apartment window and see the hustle and bustle of Wilkinson Road, a major road in Freetown, which gives me a sense of relief and normalcy. We’re going to be okay and I can’t complain.

Well I take that back – I do have a complaint… Not knowing when my next haircut will be. 😊

Colorado to California

California, United States

This ‘break’ was never expected nor called for. I was busy with my schoolwork – graduate school has been nothing but all work – when we got an email that there was a suspected case on campus and students would be taking their classes online until further notice. Until then I had only read the name COVID19 in reference to China or maybe Italy, but the unrealistic tale, as I called it, had travelled all the way here. There were rumors that airports might be shut down soon and I had made plans to travel to California the following week to meet my husband for spring break.

I changed my flight to the next day leaving as early as I could, deciding it was better to be stuck with someone rather than being alone and isolated. There were many people hustling at the airports. I was still in denial and imagined myself as one of the characters in a science fiction movie; this was all unreal. As the days passed by, the phone would buzz with alerts saying that shelter-in place had been announced for most states and California was one of them. The number of deaths was increasing exponentially – with New York being the epicenter. 

The panic and chaos did not end here. Superstores like Target, Walmart and Costco were all short on staple foods. People were stockpiling for the future (if there would be one), emptying shelves of pasta, rice, flour. This whole apocalyptic scenario had never been witnessed by me before. I tried not to let it lead to panic. My husband and I did our groceries from various places to gather enough food for a week. We go out at least once a week to get stuff to make sure there is enough left for others to consume as well. Although the empty racks of tissue rolls have been providing us with a lot meme material, it was a disappointment to see the selfishness of humans. Alongside this are the people –  all the doctors and nurses – who were willingly putting themselves in danger for their patients. I find it amusing that all of this is real and while we are supposedly preparing for the future, no one still knows what unpredictability lies ahead.

The highways of the Bay Area are now mostly empty, and people are all wearing masks of different kinds to protect themselves from this ferocious virus that has instilled fear, chaos, and hopelessness in their worlds. The same places that would be bustling with people and their laughter are now barren and abandoned. I am grateful that I have someone to share this experience with and I have been trying to be a constant support to all my friends who are stuck in places that they had not planned to be in or with people they do not know. Amidst all this, I just hope people do not fade out, they do not forget what they had because all of this is temporary, and it will be over soon. 

On the bright side, I have had enough time to waste and reboot my system internally and externally. I have started organizing myself to be more productive after procrastinating for three weeks in every possible way (my roommates even got a pet), but that said every day is different. Feeling anchored and centered has been my main struggle with all the randomness we have all been experiencing. To try and achieve that, I have kept myself away from the numbers being calculated everyday by different universities and research facilities predicting the future of the virus. The world outside seems very quiet now, and I am curious to see how we will all go back to the normal world, or if there would ever be one? 

Dancing out of the lockdown

Islamabad, Pakistan

It was March 18, 2020 when I realized I had been at home for two full days, avoiding any social interaction. My movement inside the house involved going from my bed to my sofa and then back. It took me a day to mess up my sleep cycle, and while I was working from home, taking calls and video conferencing, I wasn’t following my usual weekday routine. I was exhausted mentally, but physically my body didn’t feel quite the same. 

Naturally, screen time was skyrocketing and I was making up for the time not spent meeting friends by catching up on the lives of everyone I was following on Instagram. Most people were struggling with adjusting to the idea of social distancing and were using their social media accounts to journal their rants. That’s when I realized – why not dance! So I put up a story saying that I would be releasing basic, shot at home, dance videos everyday so that people could watch, enjoy, follow and stay active. It seemed like the perfect thing to do. I had cancelled my regular dance classes some months back because I was finding it a little difficult juggling between work and the studio. But now with no office to go to early in the morning every day, I had all the time to make choreographies, practise them, shoot them and share on my Instagram. 

Solo Dance 1

So I set out to release my first quarantine dance cover to a popular Bollywood song. The response was great, I had over a thousand views the same day and people really appreciated the effort. I asked for song suggestions for videos I would release in the coming days. Later that evening my housemate, who had left for her hometown earlier, called me and told me she had heard rumours of a two week city lockdown and that I should leave Lahore for Islamabad (my hometown) immediately. I packed the essentials – four t-shirts, a couple of shorts, a pair of jeans, some toiletries and left for what was going to turn out to be an emotional roller coaster ride!

I reached home to find out that no was there because my aunt had been rushed to hospital in an emergency. This was not the warmest welcome but I sat in my car and waiting for my mom and sister to return and used that time to choreograph my release for the next day. They returned at length and informed me that the situation wasn’t very good and that the hospital run was also very difficult. Local hospitals were not taking emergency cases due to the COVID 19 crisis and not admitting older patients because of their compromised immune systems. My aunt was critical so she was sent to the ICU. 

The next day, I went to see her briefly and told her about how I had decided to dance. She asked me to show her the dance and I performed for her live next to her bed. She found it very entertaining. After meeting her I came home and shot another video. These daily video releases not only gave me something to look forward to, but also put pressure on me because I knew people were waiting for a new dance the next day.

So I set a routine for myself. I would wake up at 9am to start my day with office work, get done by 1pm and follow a little YouTube workout a friend had sent me so I could stay in and stay fit. After the workout was dance time.. I’d spend the next two hours preparing a new dance, practising it, shooting it and posting it on my social media pages. Then I’d wait for responses and feel the adrenaline rush, enough to go out for a walk or a hike or a run, till it was time for the sun to set. I’d come home to shower, visit my aunt and spend time with family. Later in the night I’d video call my friends, both regular and those I hadn’t been in touch with. By the end of it, I’d have spent a complete day, exhausting myself mentally and physically enough to happily fall asleep. I was happy for the productive day I had spent, grateful to have my family around me, committed to my work deadlines, excited about my videos and the appreciation I was getting. Life seemed to work out.

A week later my aunt died. With everything in lockdown, this was a messy situation. No shops open for arrangements, no clergy available for funeral rights, no one in government offices for formalities, no people to attend the funeral and on top of everything, a very emotional family almost failing to function out of disbelief. The entire routine that I had prescribed for myself failed to remain practical. While I grieved, it was difficult to detach myself from the depressing quagmire my family was drowning in. 

Things seemed to be gradually normalizing after a week and I found myself building the same routine that had been working out for me really well. But it didn’t feel quite the same. My motivation was dying, my choreographies were becoming monotonous, some people had even started hating on my videos. Someone commented on my dancing saying she could do it better.

While I was upset at first over the fact that she failed to understand the concept behind my dance videos, which was not to impress but to get people to watch and dance too – I was struck with the idea to turn the tables. The next day I released a story telling people how I had released fifteen videos and now it was their turn to dance. So I challenged them to learn one out of my fifteen choreographies, make a video of themselves dancing and send it to me. I told them I’d announce a winner who would get to be featured in my next dance cover release. 

The response was wild. I had several people send me their videos and I loved how I had gotten everyone to dance. I then released my first socially distant dance cover where I sent a video of myself dancing to a friend, who learnt it and sent me a video of her dancing. I stitched our videos together and it turned out to be great. I had launched an upgraded version of my quarantine dance series. Of course, this was a longer process so the frequency of my releases reduced to once or sometimes twice a week. 

Quarantine Series Dance 1

And then came the second hit to a perfectly motivating routine. I lost my twelve year old cat to an unexpected organ failure. It was deja vu – the same set of issues, the same emotional family and the same disoriented approach to the next few days. Losing a pet is severely underrated, pet lovers would understand. Over the next few days I gathered my motivation and then came across a video shot a few days ago where I was dancing with my cat. It melted my heart. It was like the universe reminding to get back on my feet, quite literally.

Today is day 40. While I have lost two very essential beings in my life and depression seems to linger inside the house with us in our lockdown and the general vibe in the city (the country and the world) has been sad and scary, I also have 15 solo videos and five socially distant duets on my social media, a newly launched YouTube channel and an online TEDx talk to boast about. At this point I must credit the power that lies in dance and how it can take one out of the darkest times in life. It connects people, it motivates, it inspires, at times pressurizes, exhausts and seldom injures… but it keeps one going! So guys, DANCE!

For inspiration or dance videos:
Youtube: www.youtube.com/faizaanahab
Instagram: @fad.faizaan / @faizaanahab
Facebook: www.facebook.com/fad.faizaan

There are no foreigners in a lockdown

Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

By Saqib Sheikh

The world is in a state of harmonized chaos. A calamitous tumble of the economy and global order is visible through empty streets and vacant parks, not protests or violence. It is peaceful, yes, but an eerie peace that has been forced upon us.

The Coronavirus has thus proven to be a most egalitarian of public health challenges, not discriminating between prime ministers and the man (who was once seen) on the street. These lockdowns and quarantines are not as egalitarian though. 

As with any crisis, this economic shutdown, while justifiable, has pushed those on the margins even further to the edges of survival. In Malaysia where I am based, this includes the over 170,000 refugees who are not formally recognized by the government. Their paltry means of livelihood has been largely cut off. Imagine earning enough to only cover tomorrow’s meal and then discover find out that tomorrow no earning will be allowed. 

Photo credit: Hadi Azmi

They suffer silently and are reliant on a lifeline of hastily arranged NGO food aid distributors. The Government, perhaps concerned that local sensitivities can be triggered at this inauspicious time, has made it a point to mention that such aid to needy refugees is privately funded and not on the public dime, unlike aid given to below-poverty locals. Meanwhile, the Navy sent back two boats of over 200 Rohingya refugees seeking sanctuary in the country, citing concerns of being overloaded beyond the country’s capacity to host.

This hardening of distinctions, between local and refugee (and foreigners generally), between the familiar and unfamiliar, can be expected. But the virus doesn’t care for such distinctions. Logically, every member of the confined population represents an equal potential virus carrier. The shutdown has jolted foreigner and local in equal measure as well. 

Portugal has taken a more novel approach to their own State of Emergency, granting refugees and asylum seekers temporary rights of citizenship. What can be seen as an act of magnanimity likely has a bottom-line pragmatism behind it. Removing restrictions to healthcare and public services for particular subsets of the population would likely ease the overall government strategy of containment of the virus. It will also build a sense of greater solidarity for all residents regardless of where they come from. 

It may take some time, but this crisis will pass. What will define humanity is our takeaways from this extended socially-isolated reality. Borders will almost certainly be tightened. But perhaps there can be a recognition that when faced with a collective threat like a pandemic, those who are part of the same social fabric deserve the same protections.  

A US national, Saqib Sheikh is based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He serves as Project Director of the Rohingya Project, a grassroots initiative for financial inclusion of stateless Rohingya worldwide, and is an Adviser/Co-founder of the Refugee Coalition of Malaysia (RCOM), a network of refugee community groups in Malaysia focused on advocacy and empowerment. He is also a Senior Teaching Fellow at Sunway University where he teaches media and communication at the Center for American Education. Contact: saqib@rohingyaproject.com.

Running away

London, England

You come from behind and swoosh past me at great speed, nearly brushing my side, oblivious of me. One moment you are there, another and you are gone, in your world, running at pace and lost in your earphones.

I shout at the receding back of your head, “Give me two meters!” but you are gone and anyway you can’t hear anything I say, the music in yours ears drowns my voice.

Next time this happens, you invading my safety space in a devil may care attitude, I will run and pant after you and confront you: “How can you be so careless, so into your own need for speed, fitness and escape that you don’t take a moment to keep me safe? What makes you so invincible and superior that you can discard someone’s safety and not care?”

You are already one of the lucky ones. Your sport has not been banned as others have. No more swimming, in pools, ponds, lakes or the sea. No more matches. No more walking in National Parks. So many “No more”.

So, think of others quietly walking for peace or sanity, or walking at pace for exercise while inhaling the beauty and nature. Give us a minimum of two meters but ideally way more as we know that your droplets in your trail will catch us from much further than two meters. 

Who are we? Anyone you treat in such thoughtless manner. We could be your cousin, your parents, your granny, your siblings, your friends, you don’t know who we are, you did not see us as you run so fast and did not notice us. If only you visualized us as the closest and frailest person in your life, or one of your icons, your favourite musician, writer, footballer, actor…maybe, just maybe, you would overtake us with care and with four or five meters between us. 

For now you have made me scared to walk, my only outing every day as I self-isolate and shy away from all shops, from all human interaction except those living in my household. 

Maybe you run so fast and so carelessly because you too are afraid of what is happening all around us but stop it please. Think of others, let us live in peace, let us walk in peace, give us space and stop compromising our safety and health. Open your eyes to others.

Sophie Gateclou-Marest
April 2020

The shower dilemma

Paris, France

I would have never imagined that the number one topic of discussion with my friends would one day be about how often we are showering. Two weekends ago, I started this discussion with some friends on a group video call. Ever since, we have been keeping each other updated of our shower time, accompanied sometimes with a picture. In pyjamas. In a nice and fancy outfit. In an incomplete outfit. A picture of the empty shower. 

The lockdown has disrupted our routine habits. What is the point of showering when I know, based on the last five weeks, that my day will not be any different socially from the ones before it? Exercising at some point during the day would require a shower. But the sport session might be in the evening rather than in the morning. There is no pressure to meet anyone. I will be my only companion. Also, why should I take a shower now if I know that I might go out for a walk or for groceries, and that the virus can stay on clothes for several hours? I will have to shower after my outing. And when does a shower become more important than enjoying the warm weather on the balcony?

I am totally free of my schedule, and I am not necessarily prepared for freedom. This is such an interesting time to explore the paradoxical effect of freedom! And our existential choices. What is it that really matters for my time to be filled with? Why would showering be prioritised over cooking, or cleaning, or reading, or studying, or working? Or simply hanging out ? What is the actual priority ? Having plenty of time suddenly offers us new possibilities. We could suddenly train to become yogis, dancers, filmmakers, learn a new language, chefs, and so on. And still have time to spare. Our daily habits have been so much determined by our social lives, and schedule. 

If you are now wondering about my own showering habits, well, I will not surprise you much. I have at least one shower per day, or worst case, every two days. I need to keep moving, even if it is just out of restlessness. Feeling the warm water on my body brings me back here, and it can be so anchoring, when my mind is going in all kinds of directions within this lockdown. Thank you for reading my shower philosophising! 


Toronto, Canada

 There was this village, a farming village. It was not so big, not too small. Farmers there grew all sorts of crops: rice, wheat, maize, eggplant, lentils. And there was always plenty of food to go around. One day the rains did not come. Then another day, then a week. The farmers began to get worried. What will happen to our crops? When will it rain? The time came when they all decided to gather in the temple to consult with the priest. All but one of them.

One farmer remained at his farm, and just like he did every other day, he went out in the morning and tilled the soil. Another week past and the other farmers started to get desperate. They began offering sacrifices, they began attending  prayers, doing everything they could to bring back the rains. But the one farmer still did not join them. Every day he went out into the field and tilled the soil. Naturally, the other farmers became frustrated him. Why are you wasting your time? They thought. Can’t you see that there are no rains? You should be doing something more productive like joining us in trying to bring back the rains. But the farmer didn’t pay any attention. He woke up the next day, just like he always did, and went to till the soil. 

Then one day, as it was bound to happen, the rains came. For almost 4 days it rained without stop. But where the other neglected farms had become flooded, their lands stripped bare by the rushing water, the one farm, whose soil was ready, began to bear fruit. 

We share this fable from the Panchatantra because it embodies how we are trying to survive the current change in our lives. We are lucky enough to have an infant daughter who will insist that we wake up (early) every morning, ready to go. There is no luxury available to us, in the time and space to  lament about the past or focus and speculate on the path of the future; of counting down the days when the global pandemic will be over.

The most that occupies our mind on a daily basis is: what should we make for lunch, and what about dinner? Will bed time be at 7:00pm tonight? Does she need a diaper change?There is a wisdom in this, and for that, we are eternally grateful. Our daughter has been our blessing. She has been our rock. In the current uncertainties the most we can do to repay her is to help keep alive the wonder and adventure that exists so purely in all children. To try and protect it regardless of what we as a society are going through.It has not been easy, and some days are harder (sometimes much harder) than others. But what better ethic could we embody in these times than wake up every morning, and till the soil.

Self-discipline in quarantine

Pennsylvania, United States

It was the first week of March when I watched a documentary about life under lockdown in the Wuhan province of China. I empathized with the people living under the constant threat of Covid-19 but not even for a second did I think of being in the same situation sometime in the near future. Somehow I felt that it was not possible for the virus to travel to our small college town in central Pennsylvania. I was not underestimating the scale of mobility in today’s world, but in fact, I was overestimating the capabilities of humans in containing the Coronavirus to China. 

That same week I was leaving with three other friends for a week-long Spring break to Costa Rica. The only concern all four of us shared was that we did not want any hurdles in our vacation plans due to Corona. We were glad that we made it to San Jose, Costa Rica on March 6. Fast forward to March 16, we were arriving back at JFK airport in New York which had the highest number of Covid-19 cases in the US at the time. We were very nervous about landing in JFK. There were so many fears – what if we caught Corona while crossing through New York City, or worst what if they made us go into quarantine for two weeks. One of my friends is an expert of travel hacks. She did some online research and suggested all of us to take Tylenol one hour before landing at JFK to hide any symptoms even if we had caught the virus. To our surprise no one checked us at the airport. Next task was to take a six hour long bus ride to Pennsylvania. As a standard practice during a global pandemic, we cleaned our seats with disinfecting wipes before taking our seats in the bus. We made it to central Pennsylvania without getting any symptoms. This was a big relief.

Next, as a responsible citizen, I planned to keep myself in self-quarantine for fourteen days. I was mostly eating lentils as I did not want to go out for groceries fearing that if I had Corona I might infect other people. During this time I kept hallucinating Covid-like symptoms. I was scared, more so because I did not want to be the first case of Covid-19 in my town. Then by the time I was out of my self-quarantine, everyone in Pennsylvania was under stay at home orders Our town already had 26 confirmed cases. 

My next worry was my productivity. How will I work from home? I don’t have the self-discipline one needs to work from home. All day in my PJs I was either stress-eating or spending too much time listening to news updates about Corona. Two weeks in a row I told my boss during our weekly meetings that I could not work and I needed more time to figure out what was going on around us. He was nice and understanding about it but I did not want this to happen for the third week in a row. So I called a few friends asking about their routine. I also listened to some podcasts and read some articles about productivity in the time of Corona. This was all helpful. I received some useful tips. I decided to dress up every morning, and to listen to news updates only once in the morning and close myself off for rest of the day. This has been hard, because sometimes I miss important current affairs updates but I am glad that I save myself from a lot of dramatic headlines. I work two hours followed by an hour long break, and repeat. During my breaks I love watching birds from my window. I have been living in this apartment for the last three years. Until this quarantine I never noticed that my balcony was hosting Blue Jays, Cardinals, Common Grackle, and the American Robin. These birds are my biggest joy these days. I have started going out for an hour long walk every evening to accomplish my 10,000 steps. Every time I go out I feel blessed to be living in this small college town in Central Pennsylvania during a global pandemic. I no longer complain that it is a sleepy town. 

To keep up our productivity, my friends and I decided to hold Zoom writing sessions. The idea was to come online, share your writing goals with the group and go offline. Come back online after two hours and share your progress. Instead of following these set rules, guess what happens in these writing groups: we come online, we start chatting and we keep on chatting for two hours, the only thing that doesn’t happen in these writing group calls is writing itself. But that is okay, we know everyone is craving some human interaction these days 🙂

Shock, Humour, Acceptance

Lahore, Pakistan

The shock:

It started as a dreadful email, informing us about the closure of university. It came as a shock to final year students who were busy planning their last two months at university. The awaited delights like the grad-trip, photoshoots and the final goodbyes.We were too oblivious of what was happening around the world and hardly discussed the possibility of this virus’s outbreak in Pakistan.

Most students evacuated the university premises, without proper goodbyes, leaving much of their belongings, thinking it wouldn’t be long until life resumed back to where it had paused. I had my suspicions though and packed my bag with a heavy heart, not knowing when I would see my friends again. They had become more of a family over the past 4 years.

The bus station was jam packed. The surroundings looked quite comical with an ocean of faces hidden behind black and white masks. The anxious eyes, fidgety demeanour added to the tension in the atmosphere. Everyone impatiently waiting for their buses. I could hardly breathe behind this locally produced cheap mask. As elsewhere in the world, we faced a shortage of masks in Pakistan. These new tight masks along with protection, offered an immense strain on the back of the ear lobes. However, I could also see many people hurriedly pushing their masks back up after they had slipped down to the chin, not so tight for them.

I came back to a very different Lahore. As we cruised through the almost empty roads, my Uber driver complained how he had been desperately looking for customers since the enforced lockdown 3 days ago. In an almost tearful voice, he told me how he had taken a loan last month to buy the car and had hoped to pay back by working as an Uber driver. I could picture the millions of labourers who relied on daily wages to support their family and would now be losing their jobs, as businesses were shutting down all over the country. 

When you hear the word ‘Lahore’, a vibrant and an ever-busy city with a strong sense of culture and food pops in your mind. No wonder it is known as the ‘Dil’ or heart of Pakistan. Its specialities like murgh chanay, nihari, karahi, paye and kebabs served in restaurants spread widely, to the very last inch. However, the empty bazaars and markets were telling a much different story and gloom hung over the city, a city once filled with ever cheerful and lively people.

Humour in times of crisis

The initial lockdown days had certainly not weakened the socializing spirit of Pakistanis. In fact, many families saw this time as a perfect opportunity to visit their relatives and host house parties now that everyone was finally free.

My relatives were probably the most stubborn against precautionary measures advised by the health authorities. It’s almost impossible to greet them without shaking hands lest you want to be lectured on disrespect and how ‘these new rules don’t apply here’.

Suddenly, WhatsApp and Facebook became the hub of “Corona Intelligence”, flooded with randomly shared Corona videos. To the millennials’ amusement, mothers geared up for a frantic race to develop remedies that would eliminate corona for good. Some of these remedies were as simple as forcing their children to drink gallons of hot salty water every two hours, while other concoctions contained a complex mixture of innumerable herbs.

I suffer from a few allergies, but I would dare not sneeze or cough in front of my family who had already begun to develop their suspicions towards me. My mother, however, was empathetic enough to give me warm salty water to drink after every two hours.

On a lighter note, a meme warned Lahoris that they shouldn’t be surprised if the shawarmas had a different taste now. The shawarma makers have finally begun to wash their hands in these ‘corona times’. Maybe these testing times can later be rephrased as ‘corona times’.

The acceptance:

The lockdown was extended for a further 3 weeks as the number of infected people kept on increasing in the country. Deep down, we all had a feeling it wouldn’t be just 3 weeks and corona was going to stay for a good long time. It wasn’t going to die down in the summer either, as rumoured.

Like universities all around the world, my university also decided to shift to online lectures. This online education on MS Teams or Zoom must have been a dream come true for all the lazy students including me who always fantasised of studying from bed rather than dragging themselves to classes. Though, often I find myself muting the speakers and dozing off in these virtual classrooms. 

I have always been a productivity freak or that is what I try to tell myself. The truth is that I have always struggled to identify the thin border between being busy and being productive. Like many quarantine-bored people, I have also tried to come up with a to-do list. Though, honestly, it’s a huge struggle trying to suppress the urge to check my phone while reading those books I had put on hold years ago.

Despite these difficult times, it has also brought opportunities and blessings. With every family member at home, lounges are once again brimming with boisterous kids and ever-quarrelling siblings. Grandparents and parents finally getting the chance to dine with every family member. It dawned upon us a harsh realization, about the precious moments we had been missing while being preoccupied with building our career. With the pace of life slowed down, the boring quarantine days have helped filter out the many distractions and the peace has allowed people to listen to their ‘real-selves’.

The news, however, has become even more depressing. The numbers keep on growing exponentially and the curve doesn’t seem to flatten even a tiny bit, and this has made me all the more fearful for my family and friends.

Every night, I find myself desperately asking Google the same questions. 
“When will Corona virus end…?”
“How many people are expected to become effected by Corona Virus?”

But it seems that  Google doesn’t know answers to these questions, and even in the 21st century humanity has been forced to bow against a microscopic strand of protein.

Corona has just accelerated the process of history. With businesses, work and education being conducted online, it’s not hard to imagine how we are living on the brink of a socio-political, economic and technological revolution.

As in any crisis in human history, habits usually stay long after the crisis is over. I desperately need answers to these questions because I fear that we might wake up to a very different post-corona world for which we are not prepared, just like we weren’t ready for this pandemic.

One step beyond

Pisa, Italy

“When in April the sweet showers fall
That pierce March’s drought to the root and all
And bathed every vein in liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower;
When Zephyr also has with his sweet breath,
Filled again, in every holt and heath,
The tender shoots and leaves, and the young sun
His half-course in the sign of the Ram has run,
And many little birds make melody
That sleep through all the night with open eye
(So Nature pricks them on to ramp and rage)
Then folk do long to go on pilgrimage,
And palmers to go seeking out strange strands,
To distant shrines well known in distant lands.”

Geoffrey Chaucer, Prologue to the Canterbury Tales

Today is Day 42 of our lockdown. We’re tethered to our apartment by an invisible 200 metre chain. The Piazza dei Miracoli is seven times further away than that. Right now, a trip up to the Leaning Tower seems about as exotic as the moon landings. Today is also the day we were due to start our 1700 kilometre walk from Canterbury to Rome along the Via Francigena. That’s 8500 times the length of our invisible tether. We’re staying at home of course.

This was to be no ordinary walk so I can’t let it go without marking the day. We’ve spent a whole year winding up projects and setting aside more than a decade of constant travelling, working, and being apart from one another. The plan was to take a four-month break from everything and think about nothing more complicated than the essentials of what to eat and where to sleep, while putting one foot in front of another. As it turns out, that’s more or less what we are doing, just without the walking.

The Via Francigena is an ancient pilgrim route. It winds its way through Kent, and, once over the water, heads down past Reims and through Champagne, crossing into Switzerland past Lausanne, before dropping down into the Val d’Aosta, through the Po Valley, past St Gimignano and Siena and across to Rome. It goes almost directly past our home. Whether it would be cheating or not to break off and spend a night here has been a topic of some debate.

Sigeric the Serious, Archbishop of Canterbury and King Æthelred the Unready’s trusted adviser, made the trip in 990 to pick up his pallium from Pope John XV. His travel diary was one of the major sources used in recent years to reconstruct the route. I really hope he waited until mid-April to set off. Our planned start date was determined by the vagaries of the San Bernardo pass which re-opens sometime each June depending on the weather.

400 years after Sigeric’s trip, Chaucer wrote the Canterbury Tales, using the 75 mile route between Southwark and Canterbury to let the Knight, the Pardoner and the rest of the crew talk about post-Black Death English life and society in all its turbulence. It was at this time that the Lollards started speaking out against the abuses of the Church, and the Kentish peasants revolted and marched on London, protesting the Poll Tax. I wonder how we’ll see our 21st century John Wycliffes and Wat Tylers emerge in the coming years.

I’ve thought more about the Black Death in the last months than at any other time in my life. Reading about Chinese people being abused on the streets of London, New York, and other centres of cosmopolitan living puts 14th century accounts of Jews being burned out of their houses, and pogroms of entire communities into sharp relief. Pointing the finger seems to be a near universal human response to disasters over which we have no personal control.

Our ancestors seven centuries ago had some inventive theories, blaming everything from tight clothing, poisonous air, and black cats for the disaster engulfing their way of life. Pilgrims also came under suspicion, quite possibly with good reason. If you only read one thing about why quarantine is so important, make it this very cool reconstruction of the spread of the Black Death along mediæval trading and pilgrimage routes.

Back in October we bought our Pilgrim’s Passports ready for the walk. I’m the kind of person who collects international number plates on road trips, so there was no way I was passing up the chance to geek out over official stamps marking 1000 miles and countless stops over four countries. They asked for the purpose of our pilgrimage. The options were tricky for a pair of people simply looking for a way to take four months off work and reconnect with a simpler way of living.

In the end we checked the box marked spiritual. That choice is going to have unexpected meaning for us next spring, the one after, or whenever we can safely revive our walk. For now, I’ll wait for the day the tether is loosened and we can take just one step beyond.