Wistful While I Work by Amra Jamal-Ahmad

I have been a commuter for my entire working life. That’s 32 years of trains, subway trains and buses getting me to my job in the city. For 27 years that city was London, England, and now since 2016, it is Toronto, Canada. The commute has been the one constant in my life and oddly enough, when I moved continents, it was a source of comfort, a continuation of the old and familiar against the unsettling nature of major life changes.

Some of my most precious memories are of sitting on the top deck of a double-decker bus in rural England, for an early morning ride to the nearest train station. It would be dark when I boarded the bus and the sun would come out some way along the ride as the bus wound its way through the villages and fields between our house and the station. I did this trip for two years and through all seasons. Saw the most beautiful sunrises and made good friends with a few of the regulars who were doing the same bus-train-city commute. At the time, I felt aggrieved at the situation I was in. Those early morning starts were a killer. It is only now that I realise how special those journeys were and how privileged I was to be in that setting.

Nine months on and I desperately miss going to work. I miss the whole discipline of getting ready in the morning and leaving the house in a purposeful rush.
Amra Jamal-Ahmad
Wistful While I Work

In March this year, when I started working from home, the luxury of not having to jump out of bed and rush to catch the train was a welcome respite. We all thought we would be home for just a few weeks. The novelty factor soon wore off. Nine months on and I desperately miss going to work. I miss the whole discipline of getting ready in the morning and leaving the house in a purposeful rush. I miss waiting on the platform with fellow commuters, clutching our bags and peering in the direction from where the train is expected. I miss the physicality of boarding the train, the scrambling for a seat. I miss the ride into the city, peering out the window at fleeting glimpses of life and lifestyles through house windows and backyards. I miss observing fellow passengers. Mostly, I miss being around other people.

My weekday mornings still begin with the dreaded alarm going off, as it has every day since I started working. The sound strikes a jarring note no matter what alarm tone I choose. It could be the gentlest harp strings and it would still make me wince. Even after all these years of waking up early, I am not a morning person. Now that I am working from home, in theory, I have an extra hour and half in bed in the morning. But for me, all that means is that I go to bed even later at night. Getting up is still a struggle.

Aside from the sound of the alarm, my working day is largely steeped in silence. I shuffle to my impromptu office space just steps away from where I sleep, and log-on. And so, starts another day of work, just work stripped bare. I have lost my colleagues. They are still there but only in the virtual sense. Emails and messaging cannot take the place of office banter or the connections that form in physically shared spaces.

The world is much changed since the pandemic. Everything appears silent and subdued, as if a thick blanket of snow has fallen over it, but without the peace or beauty of snow. The deserted office blocks in city centres and near-empty trains, the boarded-up shops, the masked line-ups, the hastily written sign on the window of a thriving downtown family-run lunch spot for office workers that said ‘see you in 2 weeks,’ back in March. It all feels like the set of disaster movie. The lockdowns and social distancing have taken their toll. People seem wary of each other, tensing up if anyone walks by too close. I have witnessed altercations at grocery stores, someone getting into a rage because the person behind them in the checkout line was not standing in the marked 2-metre circle.

I fear that the ease with which we once mingled might never return. The ‘new normal’ does not feel normal at all. It is not normal for us to do the opposite of what we have always done, which is to seek the company of others, to celebrate and mourn together, to see and be seen. There is a growing sense that this pandemic may have altered the way we live and work forever, that we will move further into a virtual world with less and less of a reason to come out of our own private bubbles. I cannot imagine anything more depressing or more damaging to humanity. All the social media platforms and computer screens in the world cannot replicate the warmth and vitality that emanates in spaces shared with other humans, and we must make sure that we don’t let anything take that away from us.

Photograph by Mara Ahmed
All audio, text and images are under copyright © Neelum Films LLC

Comments (1)

  1. Katherine Denison

    Wistful, and achingly true. I hope that you, that we all, find inventive ways to be with one another as we tentatively resume vaccinated contact. You capture well the inadequacy and eeriness of distant relationship. Enduring it, though, seems to be our only path to safe reconnection, with humor and new ways to adventure the best guides along the way. All comfort to you.