My Pandemic Projects

June 15, 2021
Author: Jenny Dunlop

At the start of last year, Hamilton-based writer Jenny Dunlop started a daily journal. After the pandemic hit, she turned her notes into a personal essay to share with friends and family. 

“I went through quite a difficult time and usually, when I go through a difficult time, writing stuff down helps. It’s a form of therapy for me,” Dunlop says. 

From yoga to learning French and decluttering the house, Dunlop’s Pandemic Projects were an outlet to find what many of us have been searching for during this time: control of our surroundings and, in many ways, a sense of normalcy. 

“I hope readers take away a sense of hope and optimism from the piece. Don’t be afraid of being sad because we are all feeling that way. Things will get better.”

Here is how Dunlop’s Pandemic Projects are getting her through lockdown and what she’s learned about herself throughout the process. 

Like most folks, I’ve done some thinking in the last six months, courtesy of COVID-19 and the accompanying reaction of, “You’ve GOT to be kidding?!” This year has been a golden opportunity to make ourselves and our world better, now that we aren’t focused on our next deadline, our next holiday, or our next big event. And isn’t that what the Almighty intended when He/She sent this plague? To give us all time to step back, think, and re-evaluate our priorities? To examine our collective behaviour and its consequences? To get back on the right path before it is too late? 

I was in an enviable situation in the early months of lockdown: I was a homemaker, and used to being, well, at home. My spouse is a semi-retired work-at-home guy who rolled with the flow and, with a shrug, took up two-hour walks when his gym closed down. Taking a cue from him, I told myself, “I can do this. I will keep calm and carry on.” When my church closed its doors, I watched services online; I learned how to “Zoom”; I unrolled my yoga mat on the bedroom floor and Namaste-d by myself, and I lined up for toilet paper and basic necessities. I socially-distanced, sanitized the faucets and tried not to panic as the numbers rose. 

I also cried every day, for pretty much everyone, including myself. 

By April I had heard enough bad news for one year, so after I sobbed for the world (I call it my Good Friday Meltdown), I put down the newspaper and turned off my phone. I seized my inner pioneer housewife by her apron strings, gave myself a stern talking-to, and dove headfirst into homesteading. 

“Make do and mend,” became our household motto. I baked bread, I dragged out my bag of fabric scraps and stitched – by hand, because why not? – cushion covers for our bed. I darned socks and sewed pot-holders. I planted seeds in newspaper pots and willed them to grow. I headed out and raked the still-frozen ground in my garden when I just couldn’t be inside anymore. I rejoiced aloud at green sprouts appearing amidst the dead leaves. Spring came, pandemic be damned! 

I gave myself other challenges as well. In the interest of keeping my brain cells active I dusted off my French textbooks and conjugated irregular verbs while honing up on my pronunciation (thanks, Youtube!). I even cadged some tips – courtesy of a real French woman with her own channel – on how to be chic and elegant. And I was comforted by the thought that she, in her tastefully restored stone cottage in the French countryside, was enduring lockdown, just as I was, albeit better dressed. So I put on my (next to) nicest clothes, styled my hair, and slapped on lipstick to raise my morale as I headed out to the grocery store, my one outing of the week. Pourquoi pas? We can’t let ourselves go, just because there’s a pandemic, can we? 

Somehow the spring and summer passed, and we grew calmer and my loved ones stayed healthy.  The curve flattened, stores reopened, and I thought well, maybe the worst is past. But as the weather cooled, and we steamed inevitably towards The Second Wave with all its attendant anxiety, I was in need of a fresh focus. I’d lost the motivation to speak French to myself (when will I be able to practice on a real person, anyway?), and my enthusiasm for dressing up for the folks at Food Basics was waning. I’m not sure if I ever attained chic and elegant, but at least I was always clean and not in sweatpants.

My focus turned to my home, where, apparently I was going to be spending a LOT more time. 

Attaining “a simple life” was my new pandemic project. This time I wasn’t just going to roll my t-shirts and thank my socks for their service, like Marie Kondo. Enter The Minimalist Challenge! For 30 days, I was going to get rid of stuff, one item on Day One, two items on Day 2, and so on, until I had ditched 465 items at the end of the month. Bingo! I thought – I can totally do this! I’m SO good at getting rid of stuff, sometimes too good (I recently sent half my daughter’s stored winter wardrobe to a charity shop by mistake. Oops.) Occasional missteps aside, at the end of the month I expected to have a serene and clutter-free house. And if the philosophy is to be believed, I would be lightening my emotional burden and my carbon footprint, and making room for what is really important in life. 

My husband pondered my latest project with his usual good-natured resignation: why did I need to get rid of stuff when our house is big and there’s lots of room in the basement? Because, I told him, I wanted to be in charge of something. I have no control over what is on the store shelves, when I will be allowed in a building without a mask on my face, or when I would be on a cruise again. I couldn’t control the tsunami of bad news in the world. But heck, I could pitch that box of dusty old fake flowers if I wanted to! I could purge those birthday cards from the ‘80s and clear the faded paperbacks and dusty Victoria magazines off my bookshelves. I wouldn’t be violating any laws. I could even donate my painful high heels to someone with younger feet! What freedom! 

I realized very early on in the challenge that I was never going to get rid of the hundreds of items I was “supposed to.” My marriage wouldn’t have stood up to that kind of pressure (“You got rid of my favourite polo shirt, didn’t you?”). But I did read some old letters before I tossed them and reconnected with the friend who had sent them. I saved a few special items from a huge box of memorabilia, thanked the rest of them for their memories, and sent them to the Blue Box. I decided that going to the mall was really more trouble than it was worth and that I really had enough, anyways.

Most importantly, I thought long and hard about what I really needed to be happy and healthy. Alongside the brass napkin rings from 1985, I let go of my sense of privilege and the assumption that I shouldn’t have to stand in line to buy things. I learned never to take for granted a hug from a friend, or a visit to the hairdresser. 

My Pandemic Projects showed me that I can make do with what I have, that putting on pants with a zipper every day is a good thing, and that people are more important than stuff. My new “improved” self, as we push through the rest of this pandemic, is appreciating the little things, grateful for her health, and optimistic that things will be better when all of this is over.

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