Listening in a Time of Pandemic

By Kit Dobson

I was in Spain when the world went sideways. I was visiting one of the world’s oldest universities, founded in 1218, the University of Salamanca. It sits atop a hillside on the river Tormes, about an hour and a half from Madrid if you take the fast train. (All of the locals will advise you to take the fast train.) The University of Salamanca’s buildings, made of warm golden stone, intertwine with the city and its churches. The whole thing is surmounted by twin cathedrals—one Romanesque, the other Gothic—built one half on top of the other, marking the high point above the river and its ancient Roman bridge. The university’s old traditions live into the present, like the practice of allowing those who successfully defend their doctorates to paint their victory sign in bulls’ blood on the walls of the faculties, though a durable red paint is now used instead in a concession to modernity.

I had been there for a month, guest lecturing in Canadian literature, missing my partner and my children terribly, when the pandemic broke out.

When it became clear that the situation was about to get much worse, and when the university shut down, I bumped my ticket forward and hightailed it for home. I passed through Madrid as that city’s lockdown began. Taking the local train to the airport was eerie. It was evening and darkness had just fallen. The train, with a capacity of hundreds of seats—and normally busy on a Friday night—was empty as far as I could see. The stations were ghost towns. The on-train screens to indicate the stations were glitching. They attempted to reboot every few minutes. I could have been travelling to the land of the dead. In a sense, I was.

Although each flight was packed, far fewer travellers paced the airports. Many shops in the Madrid-Barajas airport were closed, but Pearson, where I transferred, was its usual bright self. I watched films, wrote, read, ate bad airplane food, and soon enough made it to Calgary.

I went directly into self-isolation, unable to so much as hug my partner—who tossed me the keys before leaving in a separate car—or see my kiddos. I drove home, jet-lagged, under quiet, snowy night skies, the snowplows grating along Deerfoot Trail.

My days in self-isolation were marked by a particular type of quiet. Unable to move about, I found myself tuning in to the world with close attention to how the sounds of life had changed.

In conversation before I got back, we had decided that the best way for me to self-isolate was for the rest of my family to decamp to my parents’ home nearby. So I arrived to an empty house that had been cleaned and well stocked. My days soon began to blur together, time measured as much by the online tickers that tracked the spread of COVID-19 infections as by anything else.

By day five I was listening intently to what small pieces of the world I could witness from home. The best place to get fresh air is the bedroom balcony, which overlooks the alley. Our immediate neighbours’ balconies are on the front of their houses, so no one is nearby when I’m there. The taller poplars, pines and spruces in our neighbourhood show up a bit farther away, and to the southwest I can see the hills rising in the Tsuut’ina reserve. I can also, when the deciduous trees are without their foliage, see the university where I work, and even spot my office window, although it’s a couple of kilometres distant.

I had often wondered—in the idle, dystopic manner many of us might have adopted in the past—what my neighbourhood would sound like after the Apocalypse.

In good weather I’ll sit on the balcony with a book, usually accompanied by a moderate level of noise. Although some of it is birdsong and human voices, most of it is traffic. Behind the whoosh of individual vehicles is the background sound of thousands of cars that make up the traffic on Crowchild Trail. I cross over Crowchild daily on my way to and from campus.

I had often wondered—in the idle, dystopic manner that many of us might have adopted in the past—what my neighbourhood would sound like after the Apocalypse. Passing over Crowchild, I had mused about what it would look like without cars.

From self-isolation, I couldn’t see Crowchild, but I could hear it. Or, rather, I could hear its absence. Instead of the steady noise, in the morning through the light snowfall I could hear individual vehicles. They were still going. The city had not quite shut down. But the collective noise was no longer one thrumming sound. It was abating. Instead there would be a single whoosh, and then a few moments later another. Then a pause followed by a cluster of vehicle sounds. Then another pause.

I don’t think this is the Apocalypse in anything like Biblical terms, in part because I’m not of such a faith. But the word apocalypse itself literally means an “unveiling” or “revelation”—hence the Book of Revelations. So this is perhaps an apocalypse in the sense of being a moment that reveals something that wasn’t there before. The moment I inhabited revealed sounds and scenes I had imagined but never witnessed.

On my seventh day in isolation, I wept. I was alone at our usually bustling dining-room table, a good-sized 100-year-old oak one that was once the dinner table in my grandparents’ farmhouse. My grandfather bought it many years ago for $10 in a farm auction. Following a friend’s restoration, it should last another century. The table always reminds me of family. We often have large dinners—eight people can sit at it comfortably, 10 or 12 in a pinch. I am rarely alone while sitting there.

Listening to the news that they were no longer able to count the dead in Italy, I burst into tears. Perhaps I should have been spending less time listening to the news—the global death count passed 10,000 that day—but I also felt compelled to witness as best I could. From witnessing, I believe, we can learn to build a better world.

I spent the day working, speaking on the phone, baking muffins and putting the bedroom and living rooms back together after disassembling them the day before, when I’d decided to paint the walls instead of climbing them. I took on small chores, unfinished tasks, distractions to keep the terror at bay. I spent some time on our exercise bike—exercise stilled my mind.

Two days later, from my desk, I watched my neighbour. His family members, who live elsewhere, drove up and sang him Happy Birthday from two metres away, down the steps. They held up a “Happy Birthday” banner, which he took a picture of. They chatted for awhile and then his relatives drove away.

I realized I would be coming back into a world that had changed dramatically. Beyond the courtyard in front of our home, I heard children’s voices at play. Following the just-released advice of Alberta’s chief medical officer for those in self-isolation, I briefly went outside, very much alone. It was beautiful and sunny and warm.

Back inside, I made a sourdough loaf and continued to exercise, read and write. From the window, I saw the jackrabbits turning back into their summertime brown furry selves. Songbirds perched in the trees. Human sounds were muted.

Earlier in the morning I had caught a small vee of geese from the corner of my eye and briefly mistaken it for a flight crossing the skies. Watching the migrating birds, I remembered that almost no airplanes were aloft.

If and when flights resume—if and when traffic levels return to what they once were—I expect we’ll find it noisy. We will readjust, because humans are flexible and resilient, but I hope we remember the relative silence of this time.

Stepping outside again for a moment on day 11, as per Dr. Deena Hinshaw’s advice, I heard—but did not see—my first robins of the spring. A pair sang from a clutch of pines as it snowed in the mid-afternoon.

The worldwide infection count was now well past 400,000, with many, many dead. I mourned for my friends in Spain, as the country had at this point recorded the second-most deaths after Italy. As the pandemic began to move beyond the global north, where it had spread quickly on the wings of our collective patterns of travel, I feared for people in the south and who live in places without strong public health systems.

With only three more days of self-isolation left, I was now counting down, as well as up. In his morning press conference, Prime Minister Trudeau was asked what he would do now that his 14 days of self-isolation were up, and he answered that he would follow the best medical advice. I planned to do the same.

It was a bright morning in our courtyard. No one was about. I could hear a snowblower in the distance, but otherwise all was quiet. Two magpies swept through the square. No wind blew, and the wisps of cloud moved slowly. Time felt suspended, taut. Slowing down for the long haul. I thought about what to do about our collective despair, and I had no answers.

The remaining days were marked by repetition, rhythm and quiet. I emerged from my 14 days into a changed world. I found myself needing to go to Canadian Tire for a couple of house fix-its. It was my first adventure forth. The store was somewhere between funereal and carceral, with guards at the doors and empty aisles. Staff shuffled behind their masks and customers kept their distance. I realized there were two modes of navigating: the first was monastic silence and lowered heads; the second, which I opted for, involved a spoken greeting and some kind of direction-giving so that we might keep appropriate space between one another. The first mode dominated. Even the lights seemed to lower their heads, their brightness dimmed.

I am a sensitive listener perhaps by nature. I was a jumpy kid, easily frightened, and I carry some of that into my adult life. I prefer shopping during sensory-friendly hours at the grocery store and benefit from quiet time. Nonetheless, Canadian Tire was unnerving.

Quite a few people had noted visual changes to the world by this time: less air pollution; clear waters in the canals of Venice, with the fish suddenly revealed; the Himalayas becoming visible in northern India as the smog thinned. Many also used adjectives such as “quiet” to describe the moment—but a fuller conversation is to be had about listening. The noise of the world is dulled. We might carefully consider which sounds we want in our future environment. As we find ourselves building our future right now, I wonder: To what do we want to attend? Many people have observed that the world we had was broken. What do we want to listen to in this new world?

Kit Dobson is a professor of English at MRU and the author of Malled: Deciphering Shopping in Canada.



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