Reflections on Isolation and Covid-19 – To Each His Own Experience!

My history as a visual artist, writer and musician, all solitary occupations, certainly prepared me for this Corona-test of isolation…

Ester Entertaining in Los Angeles
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Isolation happens in many ways! My older daughter, Sharon, remarked that being isolated for Coronavirus must have triggered emotions in me that my children, and most others, could never experience. I thought about it and how I was coping with my current situation, alone in an apartment in Los Angeles. I am classified in the highest risk category for catching the dreaded Covid19.

Ester Age 8 in Shanghai

My own first experience of isolation occurred in 1942 when I was five. Our family, being British, was interned for three years as POWs of the Japanese during their WWII occupation of Shanghai. There were only three Jewish families in our high-walled, guard-gated camp. I suffered extreme loneliness, exclusion, and overt racism from kids needing little excuse to regularly shower me with pent-up hate. I learned to depend on my own resources and creativity to entertain myself during the long days in which we were free to roam around the grounds of our camp. I sketched and colored with whatever limited tools I could find, read books brought in by internees, and danced and sang to myself. I watched over babies in prams for moms doing chores. We were schooled by fellow internee teachers.


My formal schooling ended abruptly when I was nearly fourteen and we emigrated from Hong Kong, our home for three years, to Israel, where I experienced intense loneliness born of unfamiliarity and lack of a common language with peers and other new immigrants. I became a teenage ballroom dancing teacher in my mother’s new dance school, and eventually taught modern dance. Daily survival was challenging! Early on, magically, I was awarded a piano tutoring scholarship—a solace and hedge against the acute pain of being uprooted.

Ester Dances

Ester dances

When 18, I served two years military service, married a South African, and moved to his country, to a small town 100 miles from Johannesburg, where I was, once again, “different”. I raised 4 kids, worked, studied music, wrote songs, read a lot, and sewed clothes for hours. I penned and produced full length musicals celebrating Israel’s independence, and played Maisie, the lead in the staged musical, “The Boyfriend.”

Thirty-six years, and a couple of new careers later—living in Toronto—I spent days alone, painting in a basement, descending in the morning, and emerging early evening, both while it was dark during long hostile winters. I only left home to teach art and history of music part-time for the board of continuing education, or when I felt signs of cabin fever. I used public transport, and walked miles in below-freezing weather, clothed in heavy black winter garb, lost in private lonely thoughts! All that while I was collecting material and making notes for the book I would eventually publish about my family’s century in China and the multi-ethnic groups that lived and thrived in Shanghai, the city known as “The Paris of the East.”

My history as a visual artist, writer and musician, all solitary occupations, certainly prepared me for this Corona-test of isolation—though I hope it’s my last lock-down! I’ve felt a surge of creativity and for several weeks have published an inspirational poem a day on social media and I will self-publish my collection, interspersed with my own paintings and illustrations.

Painting by Ester Benjamin Shifren

Now, during the Covid-19 lock-down, I made a couple of masks and look more like a bank robber or terrorist, but they work!

My Mask poem:

First I made a no sew-mask it really was quite clever! Though it was an easy task, mask didn’t stay put, not ever. So I made a sewing one and finished it with ease, Aha, I thought, now this protects from any cough or sneeze. The mask is black, oh my, a really dangerous error! I’m more like a bank robber now, or someone bent on terror! Now I’m searching through my stuff, found fabric that’s more snappy. I never sewed for past three years, but now I’m scissor-happy!

Colorful Mask

Each day, I call friends—walking while talking—play the piano, dance, watch webinars, movies, and way too much TV news! I’m zooming regularly—from meditation to Zumba classes, meetings, and even celebrated Passover online with family and friends. My days are not long enough…I’m too busy to reflect on isolation!

Here are some of my Covid-19 inspired poems—I hope they help people through this difficult time.

Don’t worry if you don’t get through the list of chores you meant to do. You’ve loads of time to finish all—those wasted hours in the mall are all yours now to re-explore, some things you don’t do anymore. Did you once paint or write, and sing or dance? Well this is it! Your second chance! Pick up again, or start a new one, just resolve that you will do one.

Do you know, to hear a voice, or see a face, is one’s first choice? How do you feel when those who miss you, long again to hug and kiss you? Don’t neglect the easiest chance to make another’s spirit dance. Call today, tomorrow, soon, your welcome call will be a boon. Think of some you know, alone, whose day you’ll make—pick up the phone.

When you feel that you can’t cope, phone a friend and give them hope
Tell them something—make them laugh, reduce the stress they feel by half. You will feel much better too. It’s such a simple thing to do. Start today to make things better by phoning, writing, email, letter.

So use your days and moments well, and practice things that help uplift. We just don’t know, and none can tell, whose lives will end—life is a gift. Just being human in these days may help in many gracious ways. Be the one to help another—friends and siblings, father, mother.

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