Anxieties of The Pandemic Newcomer: This Was My Normal
It is summer 2021, and normalcy is on the horizon more than ever before here in BC. Our “Restart Plan” is underway, and virtually everyone I know is rejoicing. People can eat out again, offices are populated, and concert tickets are being sold.
Meanwhile, I’m a bundle of nerves.
I’m a writer, musician, and general creative. I perform, too, and have since I was young. My first paid gig came in 2013, playing flute alongside a tutor and a choir. I was 12 years old, and I still have the cheque framed. I loved it, and begged my tutor for more gigs. They came maybe twice a year.
Writing was more or less the same. I got into a couple of youth anthologies, and in 2017 wrote a guest article for a local outlet. None of this paid, but that was fine: not like someone like me could actually pursue the arts, right?
For some background: I’m a queer, neurodiverse student living in rural Surrey, BC, often carrying full-time work in the form of my courseload or a summer job. Surrey is nice, but I learned early on that most of the exciting opportunities were in the far-off, mystifying city of Vancouver.
(For context: in my home neighbourhood, there are three things within walking distance: an elementary school, a church-turned-mosque, and a gas station. That’s it.)
Unfortunately, if I wanted to go to Vancouver, that took literal hours of travel, most of which was just navigating my way to a skytrain. When I was doing a couple of gigs a year, it wasn’t that bad: I’d just block out the day. But actually, seriously pursuing art? That was a pipe dream. Nothing happened with queer, disabled kids in the rural suburbs.
Until, all of a sudden, they did.
On a whim in 2019, I applied to a Vancouver-based writing mentorship. I hadn’t expected to get in: there were only 10 spots, and I had little professional experience. Plus, this was paid: $500. I didn’t expect anything, but I ended up with a spot, and it felt like winning the lottery. Every week, after class, I’d travel across cities and make it in the nick of time.
About a third of the way through this first mentorship, we were told about another, at a theatre in the area. I signed up immediately, and was starstruck when I got into that too. There were more opportunities, though I had to turn those down, simply because I didn’t have the capacity to travel that much. Still, I had two programs where I was building skills and meeting new people, and that was enough.
This was in February 2020. I think you know what happens next.
COVID-19 loomed like a coming storm. Soon, it was all we could talk about. Festivals were getting cancelled and our mentorships would either have to move online or be cut short.
I was terrified; for the first time, I’d actually put myself out there and pursued my dreams, only for a pandemic of all things to snatch it out from under me. I was also under a lot of emotional stress at this point in my life between school and my pre-existing mental health struggles.
Then social distancing struck, and I was alone in my room.
I genuinely think that my continued virtual mentorships saved my life. If I hadn’t had those weekly meets where I could write out my feelings and talk to other queer youth, I don’t know that I’d be here.
In fact, those video calls made me realize something: all the barriers that’d once held me back in the social distancing world, they didn’t exist. It didn’t matter that I was in Surrey or had classes to attend. Vancouver was a Zoom link away.
Soon, I was doing at least five Zoom calls a week: mentorships, open mics, workshops, panels. You name it, I’d tried it.
Zoom broadened my horizons, too. I went to events in Vancouver sure, but also Ontario, California, and New York. And because everyone was online, our partnerships reflected that: I’ve made and released things with people I’ve never met in real life.
Over time, my name got out there. People forwarded me opportunities, reached out to collaborate, and for the first time, saw me and what I was capable of. I was on a podcast, in the Globe and Mail, in collectives alongside big names. I even had my first in-person solo gig, back in September, at the Vancouver Fringe Festival. Everyone wore masks and I couldn’t shake any hands, but it was incredible regardless.
There are definitely bittersweet aspects to it, don’t get me wrong. For example, many of the friends I’ve made in the past year, I’ve never so much as shaken hands with. I only know them from the chest-up.
And of course, people always talked about the future. How, one day, things would go back to normal, to being in-person.
I want to look forward to that, but a part of me worries. Will I go back to hours on transit every day? What about those dark times when I barely have the energy to leave my room? My disability makes it hard to drive, and I currently can’t afford to move out. How many opportunities will I have to turn down because of the new barriers of normalcy?
Besides that, I’m going to miss a lot of the accessibility that Zoom came with. Closed captioning, being able to tune in from anywhere… it’s not perfect by any means, and access to decent technology is its own can of worms, but it built unique bridges. Not to mention, it broadened the creative horizons of so many. I think of my collaborators beyond borders, who joined Vancouver-based passion projects. If we only ever meet in person, will they be left behind?
What will happen to online concerts and open mics, a godsend for people who can’t make it out to the major cities of their in-person counterparts? Even in Vancouver, how many artists say they’re coming to Canada, only to play in Toronto and bail?
Obviously, I’m not making a demand for people to continue making Zoom-based content alongside real-life endeavours. Despite my grievances, I’m excited for in-person work.
I’m just nervous, too. That I won’t be able to pursue as many opportunities as I have this past year. I’m worried my distance could get in the way, or my disability. I have every intention of doing my best as an artist, but I’m more than aware that there will be an adjustment period.
As the world opens up, I hope there’s still room for someone like me.