If there is one thing I’ve learned from the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s that keeping busy helps keep one sane and grounded..
My 2020 began with a resolution to have my book on Quebec’s 1970 October crisis out in time for the 50th anniversary. This would be on the heels of a writers’ anthology due out in May.
David Sherman’s Fish Wrapped: True Confessions of Newsrooms Past was published by Toronto’s Guernica Editions at the height of the first lockdown. Absent any possibility of a book tour and the usual hoopla, the book and my contributions to it went nowhere.
At the same time, the town council I sit on was having to make pandemic-related decisions regarding staff layoffs and shutting down public amenities such as the town beach and public pool in the midst of the hottest July on record. As a result of several confrontations, I developed symptoms that required that I be tested. The results took four days to confirm I didn’t have it. It was the warning I needed to get serious about mask wearing, distancing and who we were comfortable being around.
Meanwhile my non-fiction October Crisis project was going nowhere. After losing key segments of my manuscript to sloppy file management, I realized I had forgotten how it feels to write instinctively. I was utterly defeated by the thought of having to press on with the project now in its fifth year. I walked away from my publisher and stopped communicating with my sources. I was overwhelmed by a sense of failure and shame and stopped answering phone calls and emails.
At the same time I found myself pulled in a dozen directions by picayune calls on my time. We had sold our beloved Herreshoff Nereia in September 2019 to an American in Buffalo, but he couldn’t cross the border to get it (eventually he had it shipped by truck). In the meantime I had to babysit a boat that was no longer mine. We tried to maintain a semblance of family life with outdoor visits with my daughter and son and their families, but they had their own challenges. Town business occupies at least a week a month, what with quick meetings on Teams and regular/special council deliberations on Zoom. The lack of public consultation — decreed by the Quebec government — generated angry recriminations from people I respected and liked.
I decided I would self-isolate emotionally, filling my time with achievable projects. First, I built a vege-bunker and vertical trellises, a pestproof garden centre in our back yard where Louise spent the summer growing tomatoes, beans, cukes, squash, greens and herbs and learning farmer’s tricks from the internet, books and pros like Peter Robinson. I had an excellent reason to get the backyard farm done quickly. Unbeknownst to Louise, I had ordered an expedition rowboat kit from Colin and Julie Angus, a Victoria B.C. couple who had designed and built two prototypes to voyage from Scotland to Syria. Over the course of the next two months, I rushed to get the thing out of the garage and teach myself how to row a sliding-seat craft with feathering oars. We biked or we walked when I wasn’t building the boat or working on town files. It was a summer of daily excursions and tiny expeditions. We figured out how to sleep comfortably in the back of the SUV. I figure the summer of 2021 will be similar.
When one’s hands are busy, one’s mind has the opportunity to wander off to play by itself. Once I was no longer agonizing over The Book I found it kept coming back in flashes of insight into how it should be structured and improved. The October Crisis 50th anniversary brought the expected crop of derivative rehashes by the usual hacks but it has also prompted comment from principals who had remained silent until now. They allowed me to make plausible deductions to fill gaps in what I knew. I’m back to writing with enthusiasm I haven’t felt in months — proof of that adage that when you want something done, ask a busy mind.
Mission: build a boat in two months
The Fleet circa September 2020. Bert, the tubby little dinghy on the left, was acquired as a tender in 1998 but had been sitting behind the garage for the past several years before I converted him into a sailing dinghy in between stages in the rowboat’s construction. Another pandemic brainfart.
Bert’s first test sail as an eight-foot sportboat with a boardsailing rig and deep daggerboard and rudder. It was like dropping 500 horsepower into a Corolla. Unbelievably fast for its size, seriously unstable — and laugh-out-loud fun. We had Bert almost sold to a couple who had a cottage on a lake up north. The deal died in the ruckus after some fool tried to drive his car across the Jack Layton Park footbridge to squash a cyclist he claimed had ripped him off on a drug deal. Another offer came in and Bert is now the star attraction on a private pond in the Eastern Townships.