Letters from the Pandemic 21: Dear Sylvia

Letters from the Pandemic 21: Dear Sylvia
by Jenny Lee


We danced, Sylvia, oh how we danced. Truth be told, my stomach bopped rather more than the rest of me and my sandals caught on the grass, slowing each enthusiastic twist and turn, but the live band lifted our feet.

Would you believe this aging loner celebrated her 60th birthday on a beachside field with 60 Covid-distanced friends and a few score strangers? Would you believe that in my sixth decade, I’ve somehow expanded my social sphere enough to be able to request five stellar musicians by name for the day’s ad hoc band? That Joe, Bonnie, Josh, Jason, and Jen actually showed up in a field on a sunny Sunday afternoon with a clarinet, trombone, guitar, banjo, drums, and double bass to play 1930s swing band music for me and everyone passing by?

Jenny Lee

My life graph shows two stark, steep plunges separated by a gently ragged, 25-year respite.

Oh the shaggy ups and downs of those child-raising years! Who knew all that noise and movement would drop once again into darkness, then resolve at this late juncture into a sunlit, high plateau?

After all, this has been the year between years. A suspended year. The year when everything stood still.

Strangely enough, it’s the inaction, the culmination of enforced nothingness that’s finally taken me to the top of the happiness graph. I’ve spent a lifetime urgently and responsibly chasing deadlines, both literal and perceived. How is it that stasis feels so darn good?

As a newspaper journalist, I spent 31 years writing. Word after word after word. Word in the ear, word in the heart, word on the page. Ideas flowed in in a constant pipeline to be explored, wondered at, wrestled with, managed, and pinned down. My interior self sailed on that never-ending stream of thoughts, words, and deeds. How I loved Monday mornings. What would I get to learn today? My colleagues and I were almost all awkward, ink-stained introverts. No smooth-talking peacocks from TV journalism in our newspaper newsroom. No, we wore our personalities on the inside.

But then the exterior world intervened. My marriage collapsed. Newspaper profits plummeted.

Vox White Shadow 4 string Bass guitar. Courtesy Craigslist Vancouver

After the divorce, ironically, it was my employer’s nemesis, Internet competition, that showed me an opening in my horizon. In my late 40s, I bought a shiny black electric bass guitar and found a brash, rootsy Commercial Drive rock band on Craiglist. I could barely name the strings let alone play them, but the band leader — a 6 foot 2 former alcoholic with a Mohawk — figured I’d pick it up fast enough and hey, being a beginner, I wouldn’t get in his face. We rocked and raunched our way through every scuzzy East Side bar that would take us. In photos, I’m Janus — face and shoulders thrust forward, feet pigeon-toed and lagging back.

Not two years later, Kate asked me to research swing dance lessons for her, a task I completed promptly with the expected parental efficiency. I found Lindy hop, a partnered vernacular swing dance that originated in Harlem in the 1930s. Kate phoned me up a few days later: “Mum, I’ve signed us up.” Daughters! Partnered dance classes brought me a new community and before I knew it, most of my friends were swing dance obsessed 20-somethings with backgrounds in tech, engineering, and math. Oh the frenzied exploration! We studied fast, flamboyant Lindy, high kicking Charleston, quick, tiny-stepping Balboa, percussive effusive Tap dancing. Swing dancing led to swing music led to dropping the electric bass for the beautiful, massive, resonant double bass, music lessons, music camps, joining three bands, and eventually starting a seven-piece band of my own. The bands, the music, the late nights! Twenty-somethings, let me tell you, need no sleep.

Then I retired. And in the new silence, I grappled with time, space, wrinkles, knees. Covid took away our dancing. But somehow, in the silence, I coalesced. The dancing mica flakes of my life floated quietly downward and settled into substance. I began to write songs.

And so it was, Sylvia my friend, that I ended up dancing very slowly on my 60th birthday. The memory of perpetual motion is paused; suspended into a sunlit tableau. 2020 was the year my world stood still. And yet my bands played on.


Jenny Lee

A former career journalist, Jenny Lee reluctantly graduated with a masters from SFU’s Graduate Liberal Studies in 2018. She could have stayed forever. She now spends an inordinate amount of time studying jazz at the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra School of Music.


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The Ormsby Review is a journal service for in-depth coverage of B.C. books and authors. The Advisory Board consists of Jean Barman, Robin Fisher, Cole Harris, Wade Davis, Hugh Johnston, Patricia Roy, David Stouck, and Graeme Wynn. Scholarly Patron: SFU Graduate Liberal Studies. Honorary Patron: Yosef Wosk. Provincial Government Patron since September 2018: Creative BC

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3 comments on “Letters from the Pandemic 21: Dear Sylvia

  1. Dear Jenny, that’s delightful.
    How full of life! And how interesting to hear your story about your musical life developing. I hope to come to one of your park gigs when the time arrives to gather in joyful groups again!
    If you want to dance your heart out again: the YWCA is doing a digital dance marathon on Wednesday, called Y-Dance-athon I believe. Five DJ’s, five hours of dancing, in your living room! A good little test for us 60-somethings. You also reminded me of the Lindy-Hop/Rockabilly revival that took place at the Waldorf some years ago, a treat to watch the amazing dancers.
    Thanks for your nice elixir of a life-loving story here, much needed during this tedious pandemic.

    1. Mariken!
      I miss dance so much. But thank goodness for the music.
      I loved your piece on the Classical Joint. It brought back memories. Those days seem like a different lifetime altogether. And of course you knew Andreas way back then. You know everyone. I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone who can rival your extraordinary ability to live life to the fullest.

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