Guest post: Being alone together; Solidarity and grad school life

This post is by Joy Shand.

I started my day the way I start most of my days: staring blearily at my phone, turning off my alarm, and taking several minutes to gaze at the patchy light coming in through my bedroom window. The yellow curtain makes me feel hopeful – Spring is properly on its way now. I wonder why I continue to bother with my alarm, since I have nowhere to be and nothing to do but be at home. I remind myself that even though waking naturally feels better, sleeping late does not. I once again conclude that it’s better to stick with my alarm.

I dreamt last night I had finished a new chapter of my thesis. Only 28 pages, but still.

As a graduate student, I’ve been alone for what seems like forever. Long before lockdown proper, I worked from home or from the library, reading and writing, hoping that at some point I might make contact with peers I’m familiar with. Some days I did more sleeping and less reading, or more Netflix watching than writing. Some days I didn’t do any “real work” at all, allowing myself to bedistracted by my job, friends, volunteer work, hobbies. Frequently those were the days when I was overwhelmed with anxiety, thesis notes floating in the back of my brain, an ever-present tension. Occasionally, I would have a Very Productive Day(!), and spend the following days and weeks marveling at it, aching as I tried to replicate the magic. I plodded on, working in parallel to many other people and with no one else at all.

And then, the COVID-19 pandemic came to Nova Scotia, and we all went into lockdown. With all the changes that have occurred over the past weeks, I can’t help but think to myself: what does social isolation mean when you’re already deeply isolated?

In Canada, the pandemic has dramatically reshaped public life, as we make a collective effort to flatten the curve and slow the spread of Coronavirus. The people around me are feeling the effects of working from home, where the workday loses its structure, and where their attention is constantly pulled in multiple different directions. They feel the strain of distance, of isolation, and they miss the people they usually spend time with. And yet, as a grad student, things aren’t actually all that different for me. I have lived in this (more or less) solitary mode for months.

The small differences that I do feel in my work life intrigue me. In a way, social isolation has been easier for me – not only because there isn’t much of an adjustment, but because we’re now isolated together. I have found a solidarity during the pandemic that startles me whenever I stop to think about it. My roommates work from home now, so I have new officemates. There are often people reaching out to check in, say hi, and have a chat about how things are going. How are you coping? Working from home is hard, isn’t it! So many distractions. It’s okay if you aren’t being 100% productive all the time though, we’re all just doing our best. I stop to think about how our world might be different if we employed this kind of generous dialogue always, rather than reserving it for times of crisis.

As the number of COVID-19 patients in Canada increases, it seems that our understanding of community is tested. Yet, I observe myself and the people around me drawing new strength from small and simple acts of caretaking, in the service of our neighbours, friends, and family. We feel ourselves building resilience as we reach out (virtually) to hold one another. As a society, it feels like we fear for each other in a way we didn’t think we remembered how to.

I worry about whether this new sensibility of care for each other will last, or if I’ll soon be alone again. It’s a very curious kind of feeling – but then, so much of what I feel right now is just plain odd. It’s been about two years since I’ve seen the people in my graduate cohort, with a couple of exceptions, and most of the people in my program have graduated and moved on. It sometimes feels like the year we spent in class was time that I imagined. The land I inhabit now is one of paper, ink, keyboards. It is my own little thought experiment, a brainchild that I grow and tend to, an island of evidence and arguments mixed with the occasional dream.

Perhaps in the After Times, when the pandemic has ended, we will see each other more fully. Maybe we’ll demand less and check in more – allow productivity to look like lots of different things, or even to not matter at all.

I gaze at the patchy light and the yellow curtain makes me feel hopeful. Spring is properly on its way.


Joy Shand

Joy Shand is a Master’s candidate in the History Department at Dalhousie University, where her thesis research focuses on the public discourse surrounding immigration to Nova Scotia at the time of Confederation (1862-70), and the construction of institutionalized settlement programs in Canada. Outside of grad school, she is an engaged political activist, a crafter, and a lover of great books. She currently lives in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia (Punamu’kwati’jk).