By Deatra Walsh
Deatra Walsh has a PhD in sociology, a Master’s in rural development and a mobile biography. Her studies and work as a researcher, a post doc, a contract university lecturer, and a senior manager in government have taken her across Canadian town and city landscapes. She’s lived in Brandon, Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal, Sackville, Toronto, and Iqaluit. Most recently, she lived in Tromso, northern Norway, working as an Associate Professor in methodology at the university there. She now lives in St. John’s.
I’m going for a longer walk, I say to my partner and my daughter as I close the front door.
I congregate on the sidewalk with the two dogs – a husky and a hound. I tighten my scarf; fix my mitts. I adjust my tassel hat.
It’s April and I can see my breath. Small liberated exhales as I contemplate where to go. It’s still winter in St. John’s.
I turn left toward the harbour, dogs pulling ahead in the anxiety of an unfamiliar route.
Normally, we take two to three walks a day – short jaunts around the perimeter of Bannerman Park. It’s just the right distance for an eight-year old.
I’ve been doing this since January – walking in staccato because my partner works in Nunavut. He’s a red seal carpenter and superintendent on several large construction projects.
Living apart together is a recurring theme for us. We’ve been apart for almost 2 years now.
He’s returned from self-isolating and we will be living in the same house for the foreseeable future. Luckily, we both still have jobs and can work from home.
Now, longer walks are possible. They weren’t before.
Before, he was on a rotation – 6 weeks on, 2 weeks off. Before that – from August to December – we did not see him at all.
When he left in early March, we had no idea he’d be back so soon.
His work site shut down. He made the pilgrimage home. He self-isolated at our house in central Newfoundland – what used to be my mother’s house – before it became a public health directive for those coming from out of province.
We didn’t want to take any chances.
His parents and I facilitated a no contact return. He borrowed one of their cars. They left it at the airport, stocked with groceries, and waved to him from another car.
Life was different before COVID-19.
Life was busy.
Before, my daughter and I toggled between downtown and Mount Pearl via Pitts Memorial Drive – drama at Gower Street United on Mondays, accordion in Paradise on Wednesdays and Brownies on Elizabeth Avenue on Thursdays.
Girls laughed and ran in our house on Saturdays, six feet pounding up and down stairs from hide and seek shenanigans.
We ate Sunday dinners with my in-laws in Mount Pearl, talking provincial politics over gravy-soaked root vegetables and beef. Dinner occurred between basketball practice on Topsail Road and gymnastics on Commonwealth Avenue.
These were the rhythms of our lives.
We liked them.
After a whirlwind of moving to Norway in 2018 and returning to Newfoundland in 2019 amid the grief of my mother’s loss, we rooted ourselves in the daily interactions of our lives and the people who punctuated them.
Walking seems to be our only recourse to sanity – albeit at a physical distance from one another. That and driving cars.
There are few cars and fewer people on the route I now walk on this first Saturday of the month.
I make my way down the stairs past Toslow, a speak-easy next to the War Memorial that opened in 2018.
An early review described it as a place where you can “actually see and hear each other”, adding that “face to face time is a rare commodity these days, so it’s nice to enjoy it.”
How times have changed.
Reflections on changing times are now collective sentiments.
I think about Toslow. I think about all of the other small businesses throughout downtown St. John’s still reeling from the effects of the January snowstorm’s state of emergency.
The descent takes me to Harbourside Park – described on a commemorating plaque as a historic landmark, maintained by the City of St. John’s for the “enjoyment of our citizens and visitors to the City of Legends.”
Tourism is taking a hit across the globe. Here in Newfoundland and Labrador, the sting is especially sharp. In the wake of the cod moratorium, tourism became the industry upon which an economy was built.
But tourism requires mobility. It needs people to be on the move.
I come to the controversial harbour fence. Supply ships are tied behind it. Work is happening. I can hear it. Somewhere further down against the backdrop of a low frequency engine drone, the clang of metal on metal tells me someone is there.
I see the person between the black metal spokes of the fence.
Tucked in to the deck of the boat, a fluorescent safety vest operates what looks to be a small crane.
There is no one other than this person. I am relieved.
The thick mooring rope becomes taut. The boat hugs the dock. Another clang rings out. Chains reverberate. I think: this must be a winch. Are they going somewhere? Or are they simply hunkering further down, repositioning the anchor, like the rest of us.
The noise of work is oddly comforting. People are doing things out there. They have to.
I feel hope. I hear it.
But it’s fleeting. I come upon the stairs linking George Street to Duckworth. In all directions is an eerie silence, save for the gulls. Neither a plastic cup nor last night’s late-night chip refuse tumbles, wind-born, across the asphalt.
There is nothing but dirty spring snow.
I walk up through streets and paths I frequented before, past The Rooms and onward to the Basilica. Closed.
I take the footpath beside the empty church into Georgetown.
On Hayward Avenue, the Georgetown Café and Bookshelf stops me in my tracks. The sign reads that it is a “neighbourhood space.”
Neighbourhoods. Something that looks and sounds like something different now. The complete juxtaposition, as others have pointed out, to Georgetown’s front-yard fire gatherings featured during snowmaggedon. Neighbourhoods. Spaces textured as places to gather.
Neighbourhoods look different now.
But then again, they have been moving in that direction for quite some time as we retreat increasingly inward to our devices and our lives. Let us not kid ourselves, packs of children laughing and playing along neighbourhood streets is a thing of the past. But now this possibility is impossible.
We express neighbourhood through window art, signs and doorstep pot clanging on preset times.
I interpret these as somewhat dreary thoughts of the long road still ahead.
But as I turn my head to the right, I feel hope, again. I smell it.
Sweet-fragrant steam pours out of the side of the Georgetown Bakery. The shop door is open. Patrons wait to go in. They are appropriately physically distanced. I smile and wave from the other side of the street.
I breathe in the baking of bagels. I breathe in the fresh air of a cloudy day. I breathe in a small slice of normalcy in the midst of pandemic.
And then I walk.
I make my way to Circular Road, now adjacent to Bannerman Park once again.
The dogs calm as they realize that they are back on their route again – back to the parameters of their own lives.
An hour has passed. I open the door.
 Walking is a particularly important form of mobility. The ability to walk unfettered and unencumbered is something that women rarely have.
 As we adapt to new modes of work, physically distancing is now a part of occupational health and safety protocols.
 My partner was quick to remind me that the work of tradespeople who are still out building things, fixing things, are providing essential services like snow clearing and garbage collection requires more attention and acknowledgement.
Photo Credit: All photos were taken by Deatra Walsh and published with permission.