Tag Archives: Covid19

The Story is Not the Experience

My eyes are not working as they should be right now. The words are blurry, so I’m typing with eyes closed. I suspect it’s some sort of migraine; I’ve been there before. A headache slammed into my head shortly after I returned from my run and I’ve taken painkillers and drunk a whole lot of water, and I’m almost done with my first cup of coffee. My head is far less sore than it was half an hour ago, but my eyes haven’t caught up.

And yet, I could be wrong. Perhaps the blur is because the lenses of my glasses are simply dirty. That’s easy to test, so I take them off, give them a good wipe, and aha! Problem solved.

Yes, sometimes it’s really easy to tell when something’s wrong. Physical pain, someone we love “forgetting” to return calls, a colleague crying in the office, a teenager’s choice to adopt a dramatic new hairstyle are all obvious calls that something is up. We can see it, or feel it or hear it.

But these are symptoms, and all we know is the symptom but not the cause, so we make assumptions and our assumptions might be mistaken.

If we can be wrong when something is tangible and immediate, consider how much more wrong we can be when it’s not. I have written before about the importance of listening and building relationships and, more recently, of the challenges of communication in a digital era. That piece focused on the difficulty of sharing meaning in the absence of visual cues, but did not explicitly address the challenges of communication across time, place, and space. And it is crucial to do so.

I am speaking from the lens of one living half a world away from my family. We speak daily and message almost as often, yet we still experience breakdowns in communication. Why?

As we know, the purpose and method of communication changes out of necessity when crossing time zones. We often need to wait to contact others and there is precious little real time immediacy in our conversations. Instead, we lag. I could send a message to my mum about my blurry eyes right now, but it’s the middle of the night where she is and I can’t expect her to respond, so I turn to friends nearby or other sources for help.

I would rather have spoken with my mum, but by the hour our time windows align, my eyes have returned to normal. There are far more interesting things to discuss, and really there is no point in worrying her unnecessarily. So she will never know.

Now imagine this in a much more serious context. Imagine your partner is on a business trip and has just been robbed. Wallet gone, identification gone. When you finally speak six hours later when it’s morning for you, your partner has already gone to the police, recovered the wallet, and attended the late afternoon meeting. “I was robbed” is now a very different story. Your partner might have been terrified at the time and never mention it. Perhaps the fear itself has become a memory or perhaps he was robbed at a strip club. Either way, you’ll never know.

Let’s go further. Covid-19 is a phenomenon that has spread across the globe and it has caught us in very different places. Our experiences in the last few months differ based on location, age, employment status, living situation, health, and through what we choose to read. But we do not recognize that we see things differently, even as we compare across countries. Even though we should know better, we expect that others are experiencing largely the same things as we are.

Those sharing real time and place with a person who has contracted Covid-19 have a different experience of the illness than those who are not there, and the lived experience might not be communicated faithfully. Those present who experience scary moments, for example, might for a number of reasons omit the memory of these moments from any later conversation. This can happen either intentionally much in the same way as the examples above – why worry someone who is far away and can do nothing anyway? – or unintentionally – those moments have passed and there are other things to talk about

And yet, they may well expect others to know how they were feeling or what was happening. They may be upset that the listener does not respond with as much concern as they had expected. The speaker assumes shared context, which might be mistaken. In this case, the listener misses the fact that just because we are talking about the same thing does not mean we experienced the same thing. Similarly, it is also understandable that the speaker may leave things out. But omission means that the listener does not have the same story. 

I do not think this is anything new. We know and largely accept the above when reading the news. We know that the way we respond to nationally, globally, and culturally significant events such as war, famine, festivals, and Super Bowls varies widely depending on our experiences with these events. But we often do not consider that the same might be true of personally relevant events. We might not consider the power of time, place, and space when it hits much closer to home. 

And we might therefore make the mistake of expecting others to see, understand, and behave just like us.

How to Tell When Someone is Smiling

The Covid-19 circuit breaker measures here in Singapore mean that we are unable to interact in person with anyone who is not a member of our household. Going to the grocery store for a little human interaction has been very real.

As I’ve written before, I’ve been really good about starting the day with some physical activity, usually going for a run but otherwise practicing yoga. It has been really important to me to create a transition into the working day. A couple days ago, however, my need for human interaction was greater than my need to feel my body move.

So I made a cup of coffee and called an old friend. I could hear the smile in her voice when she picked up the phone and I know she could hear the same in mine. We caught up while on my side of the world, the sun rose and the day began. My friend’s day was just beginning to wind down. Since moving overseas, I’ve rarely made a phone call to another timezone without first planning to do so. People are always rushing about and it’s more likely I’ll miss them than not.

But not right now. Many people I know are waiting with open arms for human interaction right now.

Let’s keep this part of our new world, shall we?


I had conversation over the phone with my mum not too many days later and we talked about how strange she finds it to interact with people wearing masks. I know that this is very unfamiliar in North America, but I’ve lived in Asia for some time now and masks aren’t all that unusual here. The fact that the stores ran out of masks as everyone began buying them indicates that stores stock masks as a normal product (and they were back in stock as quickly as toilet paper). Reusable masks have always been common among people who ride motorcycles and there were always some food service workers wearing masks. And then there were the people who wore masks just because it’s not a strange thing here.

Mum said that people where she is don’t look at each other and don’t interact. My sister, located in another North American city, has said that people regard one another almost suspiciously. People in Singapore aren’t as overtly friendly as people often are in North America, but I have not had the same experience. People still communicate and some wave to the people they see every day. People are smiling, even if you can’t see it.

I started to think about this when my mum mentioned that she’d smiled at someone in thanks and then realised he couldn’t see it. I know I’ve been doing the same thing (because I was raised in a society where that’s what you do) but I also know I’ve become much more aware of the expressions around people’s eyes and foreheads.

When you can’t see someone’s face, how do you know if they’re smiling?

I thought back to my phone call with my friend. I’m not fond of video calls because I make most of my calls to other time zones when I’m getting ready for work in the morning. A good old fashioned voice call suits me just fine. I have never questioned whether the person on the other end of the line is smiling. Probably like you, I just just know.

When you can’t see someone’s face, you still know when they’re smiling. If you’re face to face, look around their eyes. The corners might crinkle or the cheeks might lift. Eyebrows or foreheads might wrinkle. If you’re on the phone, or can’t see each other, or if a mask has thrown you off completely, just listen. People sound different when they’re smiling.


Covid-19 has meant that we need to adapt in ways that many of us never imagined. It has led me to ask questions about the ways in which humans have evolved and why we behave in the ways that we do.

It has also caused me to look at the world a little differently, a little more carefully, and a little more critically. There is not one way to live in the world, this I have learned, but there are some ways that are more pleasant than others. There are ways in which we can honour our social responsibility while still doing what makes us feel whole. We can look at the world openly or with suspicion, and this attitude affects not only our outlook but also the ways we interact with others.

Wearing a mask might be new or strange, but it’s a whole lot better to be out in the world with one than trapped alone at home without one.

Three Pops

I was stretching after my run on Tuesday morning when I heard three pops. Uh-oh. I’ve been a reluctant but reasonably dedicated runner since university and I’ve been a dancer my whole life. It is not good when something pops while you are stretching.

My right hamstring grew stiffer as the day went on and I did what I normally do, which is to forget that icing immediately is a huge help. Tiger Balm later in the day helped instead.

I felt much better the following morning but I’ve learned a few things in a highly active life and one is not to push it. That being said, working from home has brought an entirely different pace and shape to the day and feeling my body move before settling in at my makeshift standing desk has been an anchor, something that signals to me that I have transitioned from my world to the work world.

About ten years ago, I started practicing yoga early in the morning to support a roommate who was trying to build a healthier lifestyle. We practiced in our living room in our university apartment with the aid of a video series. It wasn’t until many months later than I actually took my first yoga class but videos are still the most common way that I practice. And so, unable to run but no longer limping and feeling a need to anchor my day, I modified the poses in a yoga video.

The point of yoga is to breathe, which is easy to forget. I understand that many people use yoga as a workout and it certainly can be. You’re supposed to get the blood and body moving and it feels really good. Especially at the beginning, the poses are new and it takes time to get used to what to move and when and where. But the point of yoga is to move with the breath. The poses are simply a way of moving the body to follow the breath.

As I breathed through each pose, modified differently on the right side than the left, I thought that this actually made for a nice metaphor of living in our Covid-19 world. I know that countries are tackling this pandemic differently and I have certainly seen Singapore’s response develop since January. But no matter where we are, life is different than normal and we are finding ways to modify our lives in order to keep breathing, to keep doing whatever we can to hold onto what is important to us. And in the situations where we cannot do so, where the relationships or activities or work that bring us meaning have transformed unrecognisably, we have found ways to modify our lives to cope with this reality.

The depth of human resilience has brought me awe in the last few weeks. I’ve written about human fragility but I think I’ve overstated that and neglected something that I now understand about human determination, dedication, and flexibility. It is probably not an exaggeration to say that everyone I know is stronger now than they were before, and probably stronger than they thought they could be. I’ve been looking for silver linings and perhaps this is yet another one.

I went for a run again this morning before work after last night’s rain and immediately found my socks and shoes soaked from the muddy ground. I shrugged off the discomfort and laughed with the childish joy one experiences running through a mud puddle.

And then the body moved with the breath, perhaps slower than a few days earlier, but the body moved with the breath.

On my way to practice yoga in Ubud, Bali, Indonesia – January 2020