A neighbourhood casualty of the pandemic

by Tamara Miller

Running along the Rideau Canal has given me a lot over the years – stress relief, gorgeous views, an excuse to get off the couch. I didn’t recognize how it connected me to my community, however, until the pandemic took that connection away.

When I moved to Ottawa over 25 years ago, I found a cozy downtown apartment within spitting distance of the Rideau Canal. It was a perfect location for a new arrival to the city – central, easy access to public transportation, and my backyard just happened to be a World Heritage site.

As a lifelong runner, I took to the Canal paths instantly. It was tailor-made for weekend athletes, whether cycling, walking, or jogging. It could not have been better designed.

But something curious kept happening. Every time I went out for a run, runners I crossed paths with offered a smile, a nod, and even a wave. I was confused the first few times it happened: Did I know this person somehow? Why are they smiling at me? But it kept happening. Finally, after the 3rd or 4th wave, I waved back. It felt nice. By the 5th or 6th person, I added a smile and a nod.

And it wasn’t an anomaly. Every time I went for a run along the Canal, strangers greeted me, offering a gesture that said (or at least it did in my head): “Hey there. Welcome to Ottawa. You’re one of us. You belong.”

Coming from Winnipeg, I was used to friendly neighbours (I mean, our licence plates even read Friendly Manitoba at the time) but this was a level-up. When I told friends back home about this phenomenon, they told me I was probably projecting and waving like an idiot first. So, I tested it. The next five runs, I kept my hands at my side and counted the number of fellow runners who greeted me. On average, 7 out of 10 offered some sort of acknowledgement. And so, I kept running, and waving, along the Canal. Even after moving to a new home in the Glebe, after snowstorms and ice storms and broiling summer days. With baby joggers and injuries and family losses, I ran and savoured the little micro-connections with my community.

And then the pandemic hit.

The change happened gradually. I didn’t even notice it, at first. Somewhere along the way, the greetings on my regular runs slowed to a stop. It’s not like we stopped running. In fact, with gyms, parks, and even the border to Quebec, and Gatineau Park, closed, running was one of the only available activities for many of us. In the early days of the pandemic, I relished those little connections with someone other than my family bubble. It was a gentle reminder that I still belonged to a wider world.

But as things got worse — as information on how the virus spread morphed and variant after variant emerged — something shifted. I started thinking more about whether I was 6 feet away from the oncoming runner. I calculated where I would need to put by feet, how big the arc needed to be. Should I put on a mask? I forgot about my little wave, abandoned my smile, and saw my fellow runner as nothing more than a source of contagion.

And I didn’t even notice the loss.

Truth be told, I hadn’t even realized it was gone until recently. On a run last month (my first in a few months thanks to an injury), I waved to a passing runner. Nothing. No response, no acknowledgement. I waved again when I passed another, and another. I passed 7 runners before someone took pity and offered a guarded wave, clearly unaccustomed to the practice. So, once again, I tested my hypothesis. Over the next 5 runs, I counted the number of times greetings were exchanged. The ratio had tumbled to 4 in 10.

Of course, my experiment is anecdotal at best and a little trite. Given all the looses over the last two and a half years — loved ones, jobs, financial security, health — a wee little wave doesn’t amount to much. And I have no evidence that the pandemic is the cause of this observed change.

But as we face down another autumn where Covid cases are climbing and the prospect of another long, dark winter awaits us, perhaps all we can do is protect the little waves, the small human connections that remind us we are welcome, and we belong.

So, get ready fellow Canal runners, and strollers, and bikers. I’m going to wave. You might not wave back, and that’s ok too. My little wave isn’t going to stop bad things from happening nor end the isolation we all may be feeling. But I’m going to do what I can to let you know I’m glad we shared a moment. I hope a few of you wave back.

Tamara Miller lives, writes, and runs in the Glebe neighbourhood. She is the President of Ottawa Independent Writers.

Photo: OLM Staff