Friday, October 9, 2020

Imbalance and ballast

Synechdoches fall into my days like little fragments of a poem.  Fragments of a despairingly joyous poem or one that is joyously despairing.  Like photographs that leave you uneasy because the brightly-lit foreground just manages to distract you for a moment from a threatening background.  Or the threatening background nearly overwhelms the smiles in the foreground.

This morning.  Up at 6.  The dawn light was so golden that our back lane--full of the leafless skeletons of volunteer trees, trash cans, garages and garage doors in various states of peeling disarray--looked like a Rembrandt.  A miracle of light and perspective  until I remember that this autumn's unusually golden light is made from wildfires on the west coast.

 Or this.  Two days ago, I was working with my windows open--in October!.  Now that the lilacs out my window have lost most of their leaves, the eastern sunlight casts shadows on my walls, not of lilac in the mass, but of rhythm and beauty in the singular as the few leaves are tangled in the wind.  And then there, in the background.  One fire truck.  Several tire trucks, moving very fast.

A week ago, that golden morning sunshine lit up an enormous tree that had gone unproblematically golden.  Not greeny-golden.  Not bronzy-golden.  If you could have tasted the colour, it would have been a pure flavour like orange or dark chocolate. Two days later, the leaves on the northern side of the tree were gone; next day the tree was bare.  What it said was clear:  "Watch with both eyes!" as the troll Fafner tells a desperate Wotan in Wagner's "Twilight of the Gods."  And I have been watching with both eyes.  The fall of those gold leaves marked a subtle shift in the changing of colours.  No longer are the velvet ashes serenely golden, assuring us that fall is a gift for our eyes, the perfect gift before winter's minimalism arrives.  Now it is the elms' turn, and their colour is more variant, more subtle.  Their beauty and their melancholy are one and the same, and we can't have one without the other.

Here are the other things that drop into my day--and probably into yours. Children are back at school, where they should be.  When it's very quiet, I can hear them chatting animatedly to one another as they walk down the street--something to celebrate.  On the downside, children are back at school and we really don't know whether the preparations we've made are going to work or whether they will bring COVID 19 home to their families.  In how many other ways do we live on the teeter-totter of uncertainty?  Parents working from home are probably so relieved to have a quiet house and their full concentration--but do they have their full concentration?

Some good has come from this pandemic.  It has provided a reset for societies that worked too much and that spent more money on goods than was sustainable--in either financial or environmental terms.  We've slowed down.  We've made bread and learned new crafts and read to our kids and taken long walks.  Our air is cleaner and our carbon emissions are lower.  But the price has been too great.  Too many have died or have had their lives changed forever.  Too many people were unemployed.  Too many little businesses that create a rich ecosystem in our neighbourhoods have gone under or will not survive the latest shutdowns necessitated by the rising number of cases in Ontario and Quebec.  After we flattened the curve and returned to relative normalcy, the rising curve of uncertainty plagues our days.

Trump is, day by day, losing more voters, most recently the grey vote who can see his callousness his inability to care who else he infects.  But are the Proud Boys getting ready to intimidate voters?  The New York Times has endorsed Joe Biden, pointing to his humility and his empathy with people in pain and his ability to work with others.  But will Trump ever leave the White house?  I can't even think about this.

As I have said here many times before, the glass is about half.  You decide if it's half empty or half full.  Recently, in Rutger Bregman's wonderful book, Humankind, he argues persuasively that the glass is more full than we'd like to believe.  It has been an evolutionary advantage for us to be on the alert for danger and disaster, so we're primed to pay more attention to bad news--especially right now.  But he tells us, for instance, that the group of real boys who were alone on an island for 15 months were incredibly cooperative.  So don't believe the worldview of Lord of the Flies.  He tells us that, if you dig in the archives of Stanley Milglram's experiment that showed how willing people were to follow the instructions of the white-coated scientist and give screaming human beings another electric shock, you find that most subjects didn't believe the situation was real.  On the other hand, if you are a psychologist who has mice in your labs and you arbitrarily put a sign on two cages of mice who are being put in mazes, labeling one group smart and the other group slow, the smart group will be smarter.  That's because your grad students doing the experiment will treat them more nicely.  Since that experiment, the positive effects of believing the best of people have been proven time and time again.  Hint to teachers:  expect the best of each of your students, and that's what you'll get.  Hint to CEOs and manager:  ditto.

But even knowing these things, I can't find my balance right now.  I feel like I'm on a ship in a wild storm, and I just can't find vertical.  We're teetering on the edge of so much uncertainty, and I can too easily see that there will be more death and loss of all kinds. So I need to find some ballast--which I looked up in the OED to make sure it was the word I really wanted.  Ballast refers to the heavy material placed in the hold of a ship to ensure its stability.  But is it also "something providing stability or substance."

Thanksgiving may be a time to be grateful for that ballast.  Is it your partner?  The playfulness of your children or their smell at night when you put them to bed?  The uncanny and perceptive intelligence of anyone under twenty?  Friends?  Nature?  The enormous dog you have to walk twice a day?  The cat who sleeps with his head on your shoulder?  Just as we are looking carefully at the natural world right now, finding that balance of beauty and melancholy, so does this time of uncertainty prompt us to celebrate what gives us ballast.

But there are at least three other things that can give us ballast.  One is kindness--whether it's kindness we receive or give.  An act of kindness radiates into people's days--a kind of anti-virus or anti-politics.  A second is gratitude in and of itself.  When I have things to be grateful for, it's hard to feel sorry for myself.

And then there's beauty.  Kant's right:  the beauty of the world on some days does seem to be made just for our delight.  We feel more like ourselves in some numinous way when we are in the presence of such beauty, if we stop to admire it.  Yes, the remarkable light we have had in September and October--light that irradiates everything with its attention--has come from forest fires.  But that's what's here right now.

Monday, September 21, 2020

On Listening 2

Gordon Hempton, who calls himself an acoustic ecologist, first became aware of the rich world of natural sound when he was driving--all night, as young people do--from his home on the west coast to his master's program in the midwest.  He had decided to sleep in his back seat in the middle of cornfields when a thunderstorm hit.  There was so much sound--so much unexpected sound--not only from the storm but from the fields around him.  He realized, in the words he offered to Krista Tippett, that listening for him was really screening out the unimportant before he heard it.  He also told Tippett that we're much less likely to help one another in noisy urban environments.  This is because we're not really listening.  We may be trying to sort out the few relevant words, but we're not paying attention--perhaps we're not able to pay attention--to tone of voice.  We're not picking up body language or facial expression.  We're not of a mind to make a connection and understand what our interlocutor really means or needs.  When we really listen, we're engaged in perspective taking, trying to take in the speaker's frame of mind, mood, needs, griefs, joys and playfulness.  Real listening allows us to stand in someone else's shoes. 

Hempton, who now lives near Olympic National Park in the rugged northwest of Washington State, has been around the world three times to record our sound world.  He describes the earth as a "solar powered jukebox."  The closer to the equator you record, the noisier it is.  Moving either north or south, the sound world gets quieter; in winter it get quieter still.  He has also said that "silence is the think tank of the soul," perhaps explaining why artists often engineer quiet, monastic places to work.  This has led him to argue for the protection of spaces around the world that are silent--by which he means free of human sound for at least twenty minutes.  Given our ears can hear much farther than our eyes can see (there is an unseen person with a weed eater who is interrupting my morning quiet), that's a challenge.  He's only found twelve in North America, and none of them are protected.  

Hempton is attuned to the extent to which our listening is part of our socialization, and thus to the extent to which there's a lot we don't hear.  If we really want to hear, we should go for a night time walk with someone under five and ask them to describe their sound world. Their childlike curiosity highlights how much we simply dismiss as background noise, the white noise of our life.  He also highlights the horizon of our hearing.  Using one of his recordings to take Tippett along with him on a walk through Olympic National Park, he lets us hear the sounds of mating elks, which up close are powerful and gutteral, but heard from a distance sound almost flute-like. 

But I find I'm put off by his resistance to the music of human noise.  Asked to chose a kind of human sound that he doesn't drop into the category of the extraneous and unnecessary, he admits that he's fond of trains.  Their whistles all bear the signature of the conductor as well as the physics of their location.    Tippett tries to nudge him toward music, but he stalwartly will not go there.  I don't want a world where I do not hear how the dryness of August and September changes the sound of leaves in the wind, which is an important part of immersing myself in fall, along with the changing birdsong and the colour of the light.  But I also don't want a world without Ella Fitzgerald or Bach or Crosby, Stills, and Nash.  Music, Craig Minowa tells us, has been "medicine" for humans since time out of mind, soothing us, inspiring us, moving us, providing us with connection us to the spiritual because there's some element of it that refuses to mean but simply is.  This organization of sound, along with its complexly mathematical physics, is beyond everyday understanding.  How can certain chords or melodies speak so directly to our feelings?  Natural sound is also--I was going to say 'otherworldly,' but it's very much of this world.  Once we needed natural sounds for information about our environments.  Now it's a much-needed reminder of nature's beauty and richness--about as necessary as art, in other words. 

Both Hempton and Bernie Krause, whom I wrote about in August, point out that we can close our eyes but not our ears, as if hearing were our most important sense.  Partly, it's that adaptive thing:  we can hear many threats coming when they are too far away to see.  But what does that tell us about being human, about being alive, being animal?    That perhaps the most essential thing about ourselves is not our appearance, but our voice, its timbre, its emotional music, the words we choose.  The visible body is mute without its voice to appeal, to command, to converse (unless one is a great actor). Conversation--one of the great delights of being human--is difficult without voice.  (I find myself in a conundrum here, noting that sign language certainly has a 'tone of voice.'  For Helen Keller, tone of voice must have been tactile.)  And we are back to perspective taking, to listening.  

In Pauline Holdstock's charming novel, Here I Am, the six-year-old boy who has stolen on board a cruise ship with nothing but the clothes on his back is not discovered by any of the people in the children's play room or the movie theatre or by anyone who can see that his clothes have not changed in days and he's getting a bit ripe, but by a blind man whose dog the boy seeks out.  Because Gordon Knight must be more deliberate about collecting information about his context, he discerns that six-year-old Frankie is alone, lonely, and possibly traumatized.

 The COVID-19 lockdown certainly taught me how much I love the sound of a coffee shop, and now that we are allowed to stay to drink our coffee and eat our scone, I am more attuned to its sound world, more appreciative of what it offers.  A coffee shop's sound is full of theatre.  Good Earth on south Albert, where we go  on Saturday morning, has two groups who are there at the same time that we are.  One is a group of women ranging in age from 35 to 70--and what I love is the rhythm of their conversation and the sound of their listening. There might be four small conversations all going at once, but when something wise or needy or smart is said, there is a sudden silence in which you hear the sound of listening.Then there are four men from the Balkans, I suspect.  I can hear the deeply-throated sound of a Slavic language, but can't make out any of the words, so that's just my best guess.  They are all experts in everything!  Can men mansplain to one another?  There is the high, flute-like sound of a child having the privilege of morning coffee alone with dad or mum, or a couple with one chirpy voice, one sleepy drone.  I don't have to look up or stare or reveal my human curiosity.  I just listen to the human music.

Friday, August 21, 2020

On Listening


The only cricket I've heard this August was just inside the Grasslands' Walmart doors to their garden center.  That may be because my ears struggle to hear signal apart from ambient noise--part of being seventy.  It may also be because it hasn't been a good year for crickets, or because the crickets' habitat has moved for any number of reasons.  But I've missed the sound.  I have always loved the sound of crickets.  They signal the arrival of August and the new year that will soon begin when I--we--you--go back to school.  Another is that they recall sleepless nights when I was a child and perhaps managed to create a meditative state by listening closely to crickets.  It seems there was always a chorus of crickets that kept up a subtle rhythm while one single cricket sang a long endless song over the top of their accompaniment.  Imagine my surprise when, in my late teens, I heard my first Shostakovich symphony and heard the same sound pattern in his quiet movements.

That's the conclusion Bernie Krause comes to in his book The Great Animal Orchestra:  Finding the Origins of Music in the World's Wild Places.  Krause thinks the biophone humans live in structures and inspires music.  Krause began his musical life with piano and violin lessons, dismaying his proper middle-class family when he instead took up the guitar and became a member of the Weavers, backing up Pete Seeger in his 1963 Carnegie Hall reunion concert.  In the mid-sixties, he moved to California, drawn by experimental music for synthesizers, becoming friends with Paul Beaver, a LA musician who composed the music for such feature films as Creature from the Black Lagoon, and War of the Worlds.  In 1968, Beaver and Krause were commissioned by Warner Brothers to do a series of albums using long segments of natural sounds.  Beaver, who affected a three-piece suit, was not about to head for the woods and record natural sound, so Krause did it alone.  How different the sounds of nature were when you used mics and picked it up on your headphones:  much more intense, focused, and purposeful.

One of the things these experiences with microphones, earphones, and nature showed Krause was that he used his ears primarily as filters which told him what not to listen to.  (I've done that.  I wrote my Ph.D. thesis with a child at home..  When she had a friend over for a play date, I listened only for conflict or frustration in their voices, and managed to get quite a lot done between 3:30 and 5 before we walked her friends home.)  As well, he realized that his experience taught him what to listen to, not what to listen for.  When Beaver collapsed suddenly and died of a brain aneurysm, Krause enrolled in a creative arts program, studying marine bioacoustics.  Water, he tells us, is one of the hardest things to record because your ears mix the far-off sounds of breakers with the close sounds of water and wind on sand; mics can't do this.  But he has ventured far beyond the California coast, recording the biophone among Dian Fossey's great apes, recording the sound of corn growing, and analyzing the complex biophonies of rain forests.  What he has learned is that an ecosystem's sounds are a lot more like music than we might think.  Each species, in order to communicate clearly with far-flung individuals of its "tribe," maybe about mating, maybe about danger, develops its own niche in the biophone.  It's that signal to noise thing I'm so bad at these days.  They find a space to establish their signal among the voices, with insects setting the stage, which may be the other reason I am missing the sound of crickets.  Perhaps, through evolution, they've experimented with their relationship to the biophone, pitching their signals high to avoid the deep rumbling, well below human hearing, of giraffes.  Insects and frogs might work out a harmony, one higher, one lower, one sound sustained, one pulsing, to keep out of one another's acoustic way.

Karuse spent hundreds of hours among the mountain gorillas of Rwanda, listening to them sing, noting the soft grunts that were a welcoming, all-is-well  "Hi!"  And the females hum to one another while they are grooming.  Some scholars are arguing that humans sang before they talked.  Think about how music is--for me at least--like a main line into feeling.  If at first all we need to convey is that we belong together and that we are safe, music will do the job.

Sadly, Krause has also learned the biophones are under erasure as more human sounds disrupt the music of the creatures and as we destroy their habitats.  (I'll have more to say about this in my next post about audio ecologist Gordon Hempton, who argues that "Silence is the think tank of the soul," and who notes that we are destroying it in natural places.  Silence for Hempton is not the absence of sound, but the absence of human noise.)  It seems we need snowmobiles in national parks and military jet paths close to earth near vulnerable ecosystems or more and more cruise ships and tankers in our oceans.  This causes creatures to give up, to move house, to become prey, to fail to thrive, even to die of the noise. 

Is it possible that we, too, are dying of the noise?  It's not hard to argue that much of Donald Trump's reaction to COVID 19 has been noise and bluster and lies, and that all too many people have listened to that noise rather than looking to other channels for information about how to keep themselves safe.  There's altogether too much bullying, too much selfish shouting, too much faultfinding regarding everything the "other" party is doing, for us to have a civil dialogue and solve the problems that face us and that need complex perspective to anticipate a solution.  As well, think of Bonnie Henry, whose voice is so measured, empathetic and informative at exactly the same time.  We trust her voice.

Indeed, we have a crisis of listening.  If  you think back to your most recent meeting, you'll doubtless recall at least one moment when one of your colleagues wasn't listening but was preparing a rebuttal without all the relevant information.  I love--and deeply miss--the conversations in coffee shops, but all too often when I'm there to read or think, I hear a conversation where one individual is holding court.  It reminds me of Atwood's wonderful line in Cat's Eye, delivered ironically by the problematic Cordelia:  "But enough about me.  What do you think about me?"  

Psychologists have coined the phrase "perspective taking" for those moments when our view of the world suddenly comes through someone else's eyes or experience or story. Most often, art affords us opportunities for perspective taking--the novel, the movie, the painting, the symphony or song that delivers us to another viewpoint.  Maybe that's one of the reasons beauty in nature and in art is so important:  it grasps our attention and shifts us into another realm, another perspective.  Perspective taking is crucial to empathy and compassion, but it also allows us to solve problems more successfully, because we've suddenly got a cluster of viewpoints and ideas.  Like the creatures Krause records, we need to find the music that comes out of a variety of voices, to find a niche in the environment for each of them.

Monday, August 3, 2020

Ambiguous Loss

That wonderful phrase, "ambiguous loss" is, alas, not my own.  Those are the words of Pauline Boss and the title of her 2000 study published by Harvard University Press.  Ambiguous losses include the inability to get pregnant, the end of a relationship, the disappearance of a family member, or the disappearance of a family member's memory.  Alzheimer's triggers all kinds of ambiguous loss because the person you love is physically present; death hasn't occurred, so you can't properly begin to mourn.  The end of relationship, particularly when a partner is still alive and still remains part of your daily life (think of shared custody of children) makes it very difficult to 'get on with life.'  As with infertility, you are grieving a future you had begun to imagine but had not yet fleshed out.  How do you get 'closure' on something you'd just begun to imagine?  Actually, Boss hates the word 'closure,' saying it's good for deals on a car or a house, but not in the realm of human emotions. 

Let me leap from Boss's sublime concept to the dailiness of my life.  Once it was clear that the pandemic was real, wasn't going to disappear in a matter of weeks, I bought an exercise bike.  On our nightly pandemic walks in April, I realized how quickly the muscles of a seventy-year-old get lazy.  At the same time, if the virus was spread by droplets expelled by someone  with COVID-19, I wasn't going to be going to a gym, where people are breathing heavily, anytime soon.  To get through the workouts without a TV, I started listening to Krista Tippett's On Being podcasts, where she interviews poets, historians, psychologists, monks (Buddhist and Catholic), poets who are avid about creating orchards in public spaces where the fruit is available to anyone who wants to eat, and sound ecologists.  This last week, she broadcast an earlier interview with Pauline Boss, introduced by a brief "Living the Questions" conversation with Boss about ambiguous loss and the present moment. 

Boss is unambiguous about how Americans (and to some extent Canadians) have pathologized grief, to the point where the latest Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders considers grief lasting longer than a couple of weeks to be an example of mental illness, worthy of a visit to a psychiatrist and medication.  I've mourned my cats longer than a couple of weeks--what must that say about me?  If you love, you grieve.  It comes in waves, as almost any griever will tell you.  And if that mourner is seventy--?  The losses mount up and only those people with chitinous shells are free of grief.   She also suggests that we're into "mastery," rather than acceptance.  We want to solve or close off the grief, which is more difficult with ambiguous loss.  There, acceptance is not a matter of saying "well, I've got a fix on that now.  I know how to understand my loss and how to give it meaning.  Done," uttered with a ritual washing of hands.  In cases of ambiguous loss, you have to accept duality.  "Well, maybe next time my father will recognize me.  And maybe not."  This is the most honest response, Boss has learned from people like the families of cleaning staff who worked in the Twin Towers on 9/11 and whose last bedside conversations with parents and children and partners didn't occur and whose bodies were not found.

While I was listening to Boss and Tippett's conversation, I was experiencing just such a duality.  The wonderful rain we've had this year has left the ferns and snow on the mountain and the vegetable garden a landscape of rich green that I watch out the window as I pedal, ratchet up the resistance and pedal harder.  The bird feeders--our Meow TV--are just outside the windows and the sparrows are their usual ebullient selves.  While I work out, Lyra and Tuck sit on the window sills and swish their rails while making smacking, snacking noises.  All seems right with nature.  But at my back, College Avenue is very quiet, particularly in later afternoon, one of the rare times it's truly busy.  People are not coming home from the office or the shop or the factory.  The world is the same.  The world is utterly different and there is no way to tell how things are going to sort themselves out.  I read that a record number of restaurants will not survive the pandemic--along with jobs for waiters and cooks and the farmers who grow the food and the truck drivers who deliver it.  I learn that jobs are going to change in wonderful ways and that there will be fewer entry level jobs cleaning hotels and more sophisticated jobs working with robots.  Who knows?

Boss and Tippett just touched on our experience of ambiguous loss right now, but let me see if I can't flesh out their thoughts.  Boss acknowledged that we've all lost a lot of freedom, that each time we go out into the world we consider whether this trip is really necessary.  No doubt many of your are both elated that your children are going to school in the fall as well as terrified.  We are terribly isolated, but that condition is addressed by the very thing we can't have:  human connection.  Like the person ending a relationship, we grieve a future we can no longer anticipate.  Will our world become more caring, less racist, more creative, more environmentally aware, more sustainable?  Or will we be so hungry for a bit of retail therapy that we snarl at someone who wants to try on the same shirt that we do?  Will we go back to traffic jams and our casual racism that simply doesn't acknowledge the presence of people of colour?  Do you know what I miss?  A coffee shop in the morning full of animated conversation.  When will we be sociable again?  When will we have lunch with that one person we meet twice a year for passionate conversation and long meaningful hugs?  When will we begin to hug again, instead of trying to get our eyes to say everything over our masks--from 'you look lovely today' to 'no problem' to the person who nearly ran into us?

Boss and Tippett did talk briefly about what we can do.  Stay in touch.  Phone calls or Skype calls are lifesavers to many people.  Keep rituals alive because rituals give meaning to our experience.  Go to the online funerals or church services.  I would add that you need to take care of yourself by taking online tours of art galleries or listening to online concerts.  Read something outside your wheelhouse or a book you've read half a dozen times.  Celebrate the creative online work made by hungry artists.  Watch the funny videos of giraffes making Olympic-worthy dives or the San Francisco Orchestra and their children and pets performing the "William Tell Overture."  Send the links to other people.  Walk or garden:  time in nature always leaves our minds and bodies healthier.  Find ways to connect and to endure the uncertainty, ways to grieve the past and celebrate an unknown future together. 

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

On the (Pandemic) Sublime

I get easily overwhelmed these days.  Things are just too.  Days are too beautiful.  Other days are too windy.  I'm overwhelmed by the number of cases of COVID 19 worldwide; I'm overwhelmed even more by the number of deaths and the impacts these deaths have on those left behind.  I'm living inside grief for both humanity and the planet.

I'm overwhelmed by my good fortune:  how rich and meaningful my life is!  How wonderful the people and critters who have companioned me--from Bill and Veronica, to good friends like Katherine and Jeanne or the former creative writing student I now talk to every Tuesday night.  My nine cats, each with his or her own distinctive personality, each with his or her own generosity toward their bumbling human companion.  The world is wondrous and bloody terrifying, and I feel in the thick of it all.  I feel this strange, uncomfortable mix of acute joy and profound sadness that can't be resolved into something one-dimensional. 

The best and simplest example is a beautiful evening.  Bill and I will have finished carrying watering cans to the pots and boxes and hanging baskets and tomato plants, and I'm sitting on my old garden bench, which will get a new coat of paint when it dries out after last night's thunderstorm which gave us the longest rolls of thunder I've ever heard, ending in a stentorian boom--but that's another story, a sublime story.  Or another side of this story.  Back to the lovely evening, sitting on my garden bench.  Golden light is coming through the brake of trees on the west side of our back yard, and a breeze is moving the leaves slightly, revealing two realities.  There are transparent leaves infused with green light, but these change slightly as the evening breeze moves the shadows of other leaves across them.  Even in a quiet breeze, that thicket changes second by second.  Sitting in my shady back garden, I feel as if I'm inside an emerald, with its dozens of different facets offering different viewpoints.  I can almost feel cooler air falling; I'm intimately aware of the fact that my skin is my biggest organ and it's reveling in gentle change.  I can count the times the wren who has nested in one of my bird houses comes in and out to feed her brood.  I hear, if I listen quietly, the sparrows of course, but also a nuthatch and a couple of chickadees, and the purple finch who sings to me in the morning and the wren who is celebrating the capture of another bug for her insatiable brood.  And there's a robin, singing his evening song.  The sky is like the vault of Santa Sophia.  I'm awash in joy and sadness.  All this is so present and so transitory.  When I described this state of mind to my friend Michael Trussler, he said "You've discovered the sublime."  Now I trust Michael.  And I've read both Kant and Burke about the sublime.  But I hadn't put it together in quite this way.  Just in case you sometimes feel the same way, I'll see what I can do about that--though I don't promise a philosopher's disinterested reading of either text.  I've cherry-picked elements of the sublime that at least give a name to what I feel so profoundly and so continuously this summer.

Edmund Burke began our fascination with the sublime in his 1757 study, A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origins of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful.  In this study, Burke is concerned with "the passions," that feeling part of human experience, and the sublime is one of the supreme of these.  He starts quite boldly by writing that "Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain, and danger, that is to say, whatever is in any sort terrible, or is conversant about terrible a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling."  We are most terrified, of course, by the threat of pain or death.  But in order to experience the powerful passions of the sublime we must experience them "at certain distances, and with certain  modifications" so that they may be as "delightful as [anything] we every day experience."  Think horror movies or thrillers, if that's what you find horrifying and delightful.  In fact, it was Burke's ideas of the sublime that informed the Gothic novels of Mrs. Radcliffe (Mysteries of Udolpho) and Matthew Lewis (The Monk) and that Jane Austen mocked in Northanger Abbey.  Burke considers how terror, power, vastness, infinity, loudness, suddenness or even magnificence in architecture prompt feelings of the sublime.  Infinity, he tells us "has a tendency to fill the mind with that sort of delightful horror, which is the most genuine effect and truest test of the sublime," but he doesn't mean the kind of infinity we find on the prairies when we crest a slow hill and can see the earth falling away beneath us.  He is more likely to see it in the ocean.  If it's a stormy ocean, all the better. 

Burke introduces us to the powerful feelings we have about something we cannot comprehend, like infinity or ranges of mountains. It's helpful to think about the Latin roots of "comprehend":  "com," or "with," "prehendere" or "grasp."  If we translated "comprehend" as "I can't get my head around," we wouldn't be far off.  Also helpful is his idea that we experience the sublimity of things at a remove.  We're not right in the incomprehensible mountains or afloat on a raging sea.  Our response, in other words, is aestheticized.  It's also contradictory.  We feel both horror and pleasure. Or, in my example of a lovely evening, we feel pleasure in the present moment while we're aware of an immensity of inexorably changing time that also evokes sadness.

In 1764, only 7 years later, Immanuel Kant wrote Observations on Feeling of the Beautiful and the Sublime [sic]; then in 1790 wrote his magisterial Critique of Judgement.  I only know the latter text, so cannot tell you how the earlier one might have responded to Burke or might have differed from Kant's later theories.  But I can say that his approach is much different from Burke's, in the sense that for him the effects of the sublime come not from our feelings or passions, but from the thinking we do about our reactions.  (Just right for me; more than one friend has said "Kathleen, you think too much!")  When we see something beautiful, we are aware of its purposefulness, of the rightness of its form.  Think about a cactus that manifests the Fibonacci sequence, and how we feel wonder at its beautiful mathematical order.  Part of the pleasure we feel is that our brain seems perfectly made to apprehend (from old French for "lay hold of") beauty in the natural world or in the arts. "But in what we are wont to call sublime in is rather in its chaos, or in its wildest and most irregular disorder and desolation, provided it gives signs of magnitude and power, that nature chiefly excites the ideas of the sublime."  The sublime offers us something of a magnitude that cannot be comprehended, indeed, something that seems beyond comprehension.  For Kant, we think about the sublime, attempting to comprehend it as a whole.  In turn, that effort of thought, successful or not, is evidence of a  mind that transcends "every standard of the senses."  Kant is Burke for eggheads:  "This makes it evident that true sublimity must be sought only in the mind of the judging subject and not in the object of nature" that calls forth the reaction.

It's our effort to comprehend the incomprehensible that seems to be the source of the sublime.  How, sitting in my garden, I try to wrap my head around the unfolding of season after season, year after year--not that many left to me in all probability.  As I wrote in "On Turning Seventy," this "judging subject" that produces Kant's sublimity is every day more aware of limits and endings--things my mind struggles to take in but that only have meaning if I joyfully try to comprehend them.

There's a sublimity to our experience of the pandemic, as well.  It is as incomprehensible as a range of mountains or ideas of infinity, particularly as the number of cases and deaths continues to rise wildly.  I can neither comprehend nor apprehend each individual who has died, much less those left behind who grieve those deaths, and the enormity of this overwhelms me.  I certainly can't comprehend some of the stupidity--political and individual--that puts our economies, ahead of lives. 

But our reflections on this sublimity reveal some other realities.  Even the pollsters know that we have become more reflective during the pandemic, and that on some levels we are relieved to have time slowed down for us.  There is an awkward beauty to the fact that the pandemic has forced us to be aware of what matters:  family and relationships--the foundation, many psychologists will tell you, of the good life.  David Berry wrote an article in the Globe's opinion pages this weekend, arguing that we will feel nostalgia for the pandemic, the way people felt nostalgic about the depression and for much the same reason:  we are pulling together as a community and taking care of each other.  Each time we put on our mask or use sanitizer before entering a public space or go the right way down the grocery aisle, we are acting in the interests of our community.  There is also evidence that during this reflective time we have taken stock of our societies and have decided that they can and must be made more equitable, and that change is already occurring.  City counsels are adopting resolutions.  Others are using the need to reconfigure public space, taking it outdoors, as a means of improving disadvantaged neighbourhoods.  We are attempting to create something meaningful from this tragedy, but that doesn't counterbalance all the death and suffering.  Like the sublime, we can't contain or balance the complexity and contradiction;  we simply have to be with it.

Friday, June 26, 2020


I was really slow getting the garden in this year.  I gave myself ten days to turn over the vegetable garden but didn't manage to get it done in the ten days because some of those were cold and grey; others were unimaginably windy, and the wind makes my vertigo worse (or windy days make my vertigo worse, maybe because the air pressure is changing).  I got most of the seeds in on time, but some of the tomatoes were a bit late.  I got most of the mulch out on time because Bill had arranged to have it delivered and to have someone  help me.  There are still a couple of spots that need more mulch, but I also need to dig up more creeping bellflower and put down landscape fabric to discourage the bellflower from coming back before I finish that off.  I fertilized the lawn more or less on schedule, but putting down the seed, fertilizer, and mulch to fill in the holes took longer than necessary.  I was really late getting flowers into pots for the front deck.  I still haven't painted the front stairs or the old bench in the back yard that needs a coat of paint every year or two.  Again:  cold, wind, the tiredness of being seventy.  All these things became "shoulds."  Day in, day out: "I should do this today."  "I really should get that done before long."  "Should" made me miserable.  It was part of why I had a love/hate relationship with spring this year--the other reason being the crazy wind.  "Should" reminded me of my incompetence, of my tiredness, of my lack of discipline, of time passing inexorably.  "Should" haunted my days and beat me up.

It took me longer to clean up the rose bed for the same reason.  We didn't have nearly enough snow cover this year, so a couple of my roses almost died back.  One calm evening I took my sucateurs, my gardening gloves, and the bushel basket I put garden waste into, out to my favourite rose. It's not one of those hybrid tea roses that suddenly goes "pfft!" into layers and layers of petals.  It has a single layer of large, calm, pale pink petals that are almost white.  It somehow makes me think of earlier times, of the calm I attribute to gardeners of the past who are disciplined and not haunted by "should."  And maybe who had less to do.  Gardeners who weren't trying to finish a novel and bring a prairie garden back from the dead and get rid of creeping bellflower.  I had seen, from a quick look, that this rose had been seriously damaged by the cold; I wasn't even sure how much of it was still alive.  But by the time I had gotten around to this "should" on my list, I could see that this rose was not only fine, but had put out buds.  If I had cleaned up the rose bed when I "should" have, I'd have cut it back drastically.  Screw "should," I thought to myself.

I tried to think of a single instance when saying "should" had actually gotten me into the garden.  Never.  It only made me miserable.  Rather, when I had finally gotten myself out, finally found a nice day and enough energy to sow seeds or convince the clematis that no, it didn't all have to grow in a big clump, that there was lots of room on the trellis for it to climb, I found great joy in my time outside. So when "should" is going to make me feel incompetent, lazy, or guilty; when it's going to put me at war with wind and grey and rain, I'm giving up on it.

There are enough real, meaningful "shoulds" in our lives right now.  We should wash our hands more often; Dr. Tam is recommending that we wear face masks to protect others.  We should keep our bubbles small--no big parties!  We should maybe get to know the people who really matter to us a little better.  And those people living on their own?  A phone call, at least.

The murder of George Floyd and other people of colour at the hands of police--particularly in the context of a pandemic that takes the lives of the poor so much more often than the lives of the privileged--has launched a plethora of "shoulds" into our society.  At the very least, we should all do whatever we can, whenever we can, to ensure that everyone we encounter is treated with dignity.  As I try to untangle these painful incidents--some of them in Canada ironically occurring during "wellness checks," all I can conclude is that there is too much distrust of people of colour;  they're always up to something and always present a threat.  And of course there's another layer of distrust of people who are struggling with their mental health.  Whenever we can challenge those conceptions, we should.  Maybe after the Coronavirus Pandemic is finally over, when we've all come out from behind our masks, behind the plexiglass, we should all remember that every one of us helped to "flatten the curve," and that many of those who bore the most responsibility were people of colour stocking the grocery shelves and checking us out, feeding our parents or grandparents at long term care homes.  They deserve a raise in the minimum wage, but just in case that's not forthcoming we can give them our trust.  We can use whatever political leverage we have--writing letters, voting for progressive candidates--to change the way our country is policed and the way the justice system treats people of colour.

We should be more green.  I'll just stop there:  you know how I can go on about this. 

These are important undertakings that we can only work on a step at a time, one meaningful step at a time. In the meantime, I need to spend more time in my garden watching the birdhouse a little wren goes in and out of a dozen times an hour.  I'm sure there are wrenlets in there and I'm trying to make myself innocuous enough that she might let see them learn to fly.

Monday, June 1, 2020

Pandemic Exhaustion

At first, I thought I was just interested in the comforting social comedy side of Dorothy Sayers' Lord Peter Whimsy novels, but then I began to notice that windy weekends during COVID time seemed to require a mystery--a lengthy Sara Paretsky or a slightly shorter Peter Robinson.  I should have been getting into the garden, but this year's very windy spring had set me back and challenged my very deliberate  timetable.  I had divided up my vegetable garden into eight do-able sections which I thought I surely could get turned over in ten days.  (The vegetables are in, but I still haven't planted the boxes and pots that cheer up my front garden.  That's partly because I can't find the plants I want.)  Then last night as I was doing dishes, I found myself missing the characters and problems faced in Peter Robinson's Many Rivers to Cross, which I'd just finished.  'At least their lives had a sense of purpose, a clear meaning,' my unconscious delivered to my conscious mind.  And at the end of the novel, Banks's team can get together and celebrate their accomplishments, something forbidden to us now--if, that is, we have a sense of accomplishment.

I can't see much meaning to my own life right now.  I finished drafting Soul Weather in August of 2019, began revising in January of 2020, undertook two revisions for different problems, and am now carefully writing the last chapter.  I had hoped to be at the Sage Hill Fiction Colloquium in May, where I'd get some reaction to the work, but that has wisely been put off until September, and even then it may be delivered online.  So I feel as if I'm writing in a vacuum.  This is common for writers, particularly those working on long projects that don't lend themselves to piecemeal publication in journals.  It's part of the drill--part of the shape of our lives, so it's something we should get used to, something we should just learn to tolerate, this lack of meaning that we face everyday when we boot up our computers.

Except that our lives right now are full of meaninglessness.  First, there's the shape of our still partly locked down world.  Our virtues are negative virtues--things we don't do rather than things we can do.  Altruism in the face of a world turned upside down requires us to stay home as much as we can stand, to meet as few other people as possible, to avoid little situations where we might have a kind or grateful exchange with someone who has poured us coffee or baked us lovely muffins.  We can say thank-you to the grocery store clerk, but we're separated by plexiglass that is a continual reminder of the fact that we need to stay in our separate spaces.  I worry about how long that plexiglass will be a feature of our lives:  beyond the second wave?  Is it part of the "new normal," and a constant reminder that we're to keep ourselves to ourselves? 

Not only is our altruism tested.  We won't know if it's had any effect for two weeks.  Or, ironically, we will only know that it's been effective if there's nothing to see--no new cases or fewer new cases.  So in a sense, our restraint is invisible.

What is visible are the cracks opening up in the world around us.  Just in case we hadn't noticed, COVID 19 is making very clear that we are all interconnected:  my restraint is your well-being or the well-being of your grandmother.  On the other hand, your poverty is a threat to my health.  Even if we could have kept this fact invisible to ourselves--the fact that the health of a society or a culture is dependent on fairness and justice--we can't avoid it now as we see the demonstrations erupt in the U.S., not only over the most recent death of a black man at the hands of police, not only over George Floyd's very public murder, but over the disproportionate deaths of African Americans from COVID 19, because poverty is often sequestered in areas that lack fresh air, green spaces, food security, adequate education.  No wonder they're angry.

Then there's the fact that time has changed.  We have both too much time and too little time.  I've been thinking about this paradox for a week or so now, and I can only come to this conclusion.  The days stretch uncomfortably sometimes, since I'm not driving to the gym or partaking of any modest retail therapy a new season often justifies.  I don't have any rituals during COVID time that relieve me of the obligation to work as hard as I can.  But I'm not getting a lot done, either, which contributes to my sense that there isn't enough time.  

This is partly because a good deal of my emotional and mental energy is taken up with grieving.  I'm grieving for those who have died and for the families of those who have died.  I'm startlingly aware of my own mortality.  I'm grieving for the people who are unemployed or for the people trapped in a small apartment with an abusive spouse and three active children.  If I'm flummoxed by windy days, what can it be like in those small rooms?  There seems to be too much time because while I have extra hours in the day, I'm too exhausted to use those hours particularly effectively.

I'm grieving for a world that is going to change profoundly when we've found our way through a second wave and found a vaccine.  How many of the small business that create my little Cathedral Village ecosystem with unusual teas or beautiful paper will make it through this time?  When will I want to travel again and in the meantime what happens to all the airline workers?  I know that it's just possible that the world will change for the better.  We may see that an economic system in which the 1% accumulate their wealth at the expense, often, of those at the bottom of the economic spectrum, is utterly stupid, inhumane, and exploitative.  We may see the birth of a universal basic income, now that we've noted the dramatic effects of poverty.  We may see that people need to be adequately housed--not in some tenement with dark tiny rooms, but in homes they can feel at home in, homes they can be  healthy in.  As a country, we may insist on standards for the care of our wise and vulnerable elders.  

There are some signs that the planet is going to benefit from the pandemic as more companies discover that their employees can work from home.  We'll build fewer high rises, which have got to be carbon spewers, both in their building and their maintenance.  (And if you're going to lose income from the high rise you own because companies are use less space, well, tough.)  There will be fewer carbon-generating traffic jams.  We'll fly to fewer meetings, now that we've had to get comfortable with Zoom.  We may be more attuned to our local economies--the maker of Saskatoon Spruce cheese who ages his raw milk cheese on spruce boards--and realize they're more sustainable. 

But we're not there yet, and so we're exhausted by the prospect we'll never get there.  Mortality is part of all our days, yet while it threatens us, it's not giving our lives more meaning, partly because we're keeping our relationships to a minimum.  We're angry on the behalf of others for the ways they are paid and housed, yet we're not certain that exploitation will end.  As part of an ever-reinforcing cycle, the part of ourselves that is exhausted by being locked down is probably finding it difficult to be hopeful.  I can't tell you what to do with that sense of meaninglessness and despair.  I can only suggest that for now your actions are going to be closer to home rather than on the larger society.  Cultivate kindness wherever you can, because kindness is always hopeful.  Cultivate gratitude, even when you seem to be too exhausted to be grateful, because it will lift your partner's or child's or parent's spirits to know you are thankful for them. Pet the cat.  Walk the dog.  Wave to the dog-walker across the street or to the family out for a Sunday bike ride.  Find your own way to claim the little freedom you have to be kind, hopeful, and grateful in the face of circumstances that overwhelm us all.

Thursday, May 14, 2020


I began reading Boccaccio's Decameron in January.  I must have picked up a whisper of news about some kind of new flu arising in China at about the same time that I was thinking about Robert Pogue Harrison's wonderful book Gardens:  An Essay on the Human Condition, in which he recommends Boccaccio's collection of one hundred stories told by a group of seven people, five women and two men, who have left Florence during a plague that killed up to 3/5 of its population.  Decameron also recommended itself to me because I was experiencing "decision fatigue" about what to read.  Yes, "decision fatigue" is a thing; psychologists write about it and teachers and professors experience it in spades.  I do remember sitting down with a pile of exam booklets, endlessly optimistic and eager to get to my Christmas shopping or my summer writing and thinking "I don't have to comment.  I don't have to fix any comma splices.  This shouldn't take me that long," only to have my brain turn to mush three or four hours into the undertaking.  I couldn't tell a good response from an awful one.  That's decision fatigue, and during the winter, when I'm doing a lot of reading, sitting down with one very large book looks like a welcome break from having to decide on the next book.  Once the pandemic became international news, I found I had rather a few "plague" books on my shelf.  I muddled on with Decameron until I felt like an incompetent reader,  unable to thread all these stories of lusty priests and bad aristocrats together, though I did come to the conclusion that being in the midst of a pandemic prompts you to distrust authorities who otherwise ruled your lives and your ethics. I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and started Saramago's Blindness, when I was defeated by bleakness.

As a response to my decision fatigue, Katherine Arbuthnott loaned me Jo Walton's trilogy, Thessaly, which I pounced into. It resonated for quite a number of reasons.  It took me back to the days when I was reading Ovid's Metamorphosis and other versions of Greek myths, which Veronica says I would tell her while I washed her long hair.  It took me back to the days of being an eager undergraduate who not only majored in English but took two of the University of Michigan's Great Books courses--a model created at the University of Chicago for juxtaposing any of the world's many towering texts to one another.  I do remember reading Plato's Republic in the same class, taught by a small, dapper biology professor, alongside Darwin's Origin of the Species.  So I thought how much more I would enjoy Walton's novels if I re-read The Republic, and managed to find a small hard-covered Classics Club edition on my bottom bookshelf.  

The pandemic hasn't just exploded my reading time, even after the midwinter tendency to huddle in the dark inside someone else's world has passed.  It's also changed my workout routines.  Trigger warning.  When  you are seventy, you become unfit very quickly, and as it began to appear that I would not be working out at the University of Regina gym anytime soon, I bought an exercise bike.  It's inelegantly occupying our living room, facing out into the back yard where I can study spring's small victories.  I could wheel it around to face the TV, but why?  I seriously don't want more news.  So instead I have been listening to the On Being podcasts, wherein Krista Tippett, who must do nothing but read, interviews writers, thinkers, artists, historians, poets as various as Rebecca Solnit, Mary Oliver, Stephen Batchelor, Ross Gay.  It's like a crash course in the humanities at this historical moment.  One of the things that I noticed is that many of these podcasts offer us little nibbles of utopias--possible utopias, inner utopias.  Rebecca Solnit talked about how progress is often made possible by disaster.  Stephen Batchelor (whose The Art of Solitude is on my iPad) writes about how time with ourselves, time being curious about ourselves, our desires, habits, quirks, strengths, undoings, allow us to forge what he calls an "inner autonomy" and "ethical intelligence."  Ross Gay talks about how gratitude and delight are central to justice.  He argues that too often we are angry about injustice--as we should be--but that this fury blinds us to the need to do justice to the things we love and to beauty.  He might say, pulling an example from the present moment, that demonstrating (two metres apart) on behalf of a living wage for front line workers is of course important, but that it's also important to thank them and to ask about how they are doing--and to listen to the response.

I'll admit that I have an affection, a deep affection, for people and representations of people who struggle to do their best with their own quirks and weaknesses.  This was one of the reasons I loved Downton Abbey and Call the Midwife.  This was one of the reasons that Warlight appealed to me in the early days of the pandemic's uncertainty.  Two children are handed an intolerable situation by their mother's decision to continue working as a spy after the end of World War II, but the unlikely people around them manage to jerry-rig surprising comfort and safety for them.  I'll be even more shameless in my admissions.  As I come to the end of my third edit of Soul Weather--the novel I've been working on at least since 2011--I realize that my favourite characters do this as well.  In the manner of earnest undergraduates everywhere, they face the crappy worlds they're handed by "adults" and manage to concoct, out of bailing wire, books, conversations, youthful energy and optimism, moments both of critique and of hope.  

So I've decided on a summer reading and listening project which I'll happily share with you.  I'm going to be reading utopias.  I'll begin with The Republic and move on to Thomas More's Utopia, but after that I may be a bit less systematic.  I'll happily re-read Hawthorne's Blithedale Romance, his fictionalized version of the Brook Farm experiment in creating a utopian farm.  But I thought I might read it alongside Walden and see if Thoreau's memoir is also influenced by utopian goals.  I'll re-read Harrison's book on gardens:  he'll have some suggestions.  I'll finish Jo Walton's trilogy and tell you how it strikes me.  Any recommendations?


Monday, May 4, 2020

COVID 19 and community

What complicated feelings pandemics arouse.  Even while you are frightened about the many unknowns created by COVID 19, you probably have a mental or literal list of things you'd like to change once the pandemic is over.  My own list includes a living wage for front line workers who have kept society ticking along: people who have unloaded the groceries and stocked the shelves, people who clean our grocery carts, people who clean the grocery stores and pharmacies we all depend on, the cashiers who now tell us to 'stay safe.'  I want us to realize that it's the artists and creators--creativity itself--that have often given us the delight and hope to continue on, and I want our newly recognized value of their work to be supported, financially, by all of us.  (More about that next week.)  

I want  us to be seduced by the return of nature in our newly-quiet cities.  Then I want us to realize that if a country can cooperate by closing itself down, it can cooperate in the task of addressing climate change.  I want the regulations around long-term care facilities to get a major overhaul as we recognize what those wise and caring lives mean to us.  I want us all to think about time differently--about how our time doesn't just belong to our employers, but to our families and to the people who matter to us.  Our mortality should remind us that our time belongs, in the first instance, to us.  Time to reflect.  Time to be.  Time to create.  Time to create living, feeling connections with others and with ourselves.

What I really want is for intrinsic values to rule.  It's so much easier to know exactly where you are--and who you are--if you can measure that by the money and power espoused by extrinsic values.  How much easier it is to comprehend the meaning of life, the meaning of the good life, if you can point to some figures or a corner office.  This is the myth that's been sold to us by neoliberalism.  Neoliberalism argues that we are all freest if we simply let the market do what it does while keeping government out of the way.  The market should control everything from the price of infant formula to the salaries of CEOs.  But it assumes that the freedom we seek is freedom to be a single-minded employee and a good consumer.  The person with extrinsic values believes in the individual, and even, as George Monbiot argues, espouses a kind of Darwinian narrative:  the deserving are successful.  The deserving become wealthy or relatively powerful.  

Kiran Misra has written an insightful article for The Guardian that reveals the cost to ourselves of the  neoliberal myth, of working hard to maximize someone else's profit.  (Link below.)  She, along with her generation, who do not have the financial security I for one enjoyed, is being encouraged to use the downtime from the pandemic for something she calls "the hustle," an effort to learn new skills or suss-out new part-time gigs.Yet psychologists and economists report that if our goals are extrinsic, there is never enough money.  Do you ever wonder why millionaires need to be billionaires?  Or do you wonder whether Donald Trump is a happy man?

George Monbiot, in his Out of the Wreckage, offers some straightforward definitions:  "Intrinsic values, in their purest form, are expressed as compassion, connectedness and kindness toward all living beings, including oneself.  Extrinsic values are expressed as a desire for self-enhancement, through attaining, for example, status or power."  These values aren't often manifested in their purest form.  For example, I write because I write.  I am a maker who wants to make something beautiful (not pretty) and insightful with words.  I write because I want a conversation with my readers; I want to pose a perplexing question about what it means to be human and to get as far as I can in exploring it so the reader and I can undertake this exploration together.  All intrinsic, seeking compassion and insight into my characters, in connecting with my readers.  But I'd be lying if I told you I didn't care a whit whether my work was read or reviewed or recognized in some way.  (Notice I didn't say anything about money!  My humility is still intact.)

Were I to forced by circumstances to efficiently define "extrinsic" and "intrinsic"--I here imagine Luke Skywalker hanging from that delicate pole beneath a spaceship, or a climber of Mount Everest edging towards a cliff, or just someone living through (albeit comfortably) a pandemic--I'd say extrinsic focused on self and stuff while intrinsic focused on connection and community.  And here I come to one of the paradoxes of COVID 19:  our isolation has brought us together.  We've been brought together by a world-wide emergency that can only be addressed if we stay apart.  The shooting rampage in Nova Scotia revealed how much we value connections:  people were worried about those who had to grieve alone, without touch or hug.

I think about all the ways we have tried to reach out, to create communities in our isolation.  The people in Italy singing together from their windows or sharing an exercise class from their balconies.  The hearts we put on our windows to thank the health care workers and the front line labourers are an attempt to express a sense of community.  The concerts people have put online.  My favourite quilt magazine, Quiltmania, has organized a block-a-thon:  you can make a 10-inch block in pinks or reds and mail it to them.  They write "Every day, healthcare workers around the world are working tirelessly to fight the Coronavirus, risking their lives and sacrificing time with their loved ones.  Here at Quiltmania, our hearts are set to unite our large quilting/patchwork community around a project to give thanks to our healthcare workers for their extraordinary work caring for the sick.  The blocks will be assembled for hospitals around the world."  I think of orchestras playing the lovely "Nimrod" variation of Elgar's Enigma Variations together via Zoom.  I've missed some things, surely.  Please--in an act of community--add them to the comments below.

One of the world's experts on pandemics, Frank M. Snowden, author of Epidemics and Society, was interviewed by Isaac Chotner for an essay in The New Yorker.  (That link is also below.) Snowden observes that "epidemics are a category of disease that seems to hold up the mirror to human beings as to who we really are. That is to say, they obviously have everything to do with our relationship to our mortality, to death, to our lives. They also reflect our relationships with the environment—the built environment that we create and the natural environment that responds. They show the moral relationships that we have toward each other as people, and we’re seeing that today." Those 'moral relationships' have shown up in the actions of governors who have "opened" their states, despite the fact that the number of cases continues to rise.  It shows up in everything Donald Trump has done--from minimizing the pandemic because he didn't want to rock the stock market to praising his  own actions because he wants to get re-elected.  The individual in all his extrinsic glory.  But those moral relationships also show up in each individual who practices physical distancing out of care for the vulnerable.

The central argument of George Monbiot's wonderful book, Out of the Wreckage--written well before a pandemic that can become an opportunity for change if we let it--is that the signal thing we need at this historical moment, when neoliberalism has been re-named "late capitalism" in a recognition that it's not working, is community.  A British author, he has seen the rise of the "ministry of loneliness" that the British government has created, as well as the increasing number of doctors in England who give out "community" prescriptions to patients whose symptoms might be addressed by a meaningful connection to others--in a choir, in an art class.  Many of these doctors have an employee, often an artist, whose job is to make these careful recommendations.  The later chapters of Monbiot's study focus on the nuts and bolts of organizing communities that strengthen social ties enough to have an impact on their societies--from the practice in Rekjavik of considering citizens' proposal to improve the city's infrastructure--and implementing many of them, to Germany's Federal Agency for Civic Education. 

Monbiot, who is more familiar with politics in the U.K. and the U.S. than with Canada, notes that we can depend neither on our jobs nor on our governments for our well-being, so we must rely on community:  "By reviving community, built around the places in which we live, and by anchoring ourselves, our politics and parts of our economy in the life of this community, we can recover the best aspects of our humanity.  We can mobilise our remarkable nature for our own good and the good of our neighbours.  We will no longer walk alone.  We will no longer work alone.  We will no longer feel alone.  We will restore our sense of belonging:  belonging to ourselves, belonging to our communities, belonging to our localities, belonging to the world.  In turn, we will develop a politics and an economy that belong to us.  By rebuilding community, we will renew democracy and the hope we invest in it.  We will develop political systems that are not so big that they cannot respond to us but not so small that they cannot meet the problems we face.  We will achieve something that, paradoxically, we cannot realise alone:   self-reliance.  By helping each other, we help ourselves."

At this moment, we can so clearly see and feel our longing for community and connection.  And I believe, as well, that we have an opportunity to challenge the way our world has worked:  how we have altruistically sought, through physical distancing, to protect the vulnerable, and how the vulnerable are nevertheless still with us, whether they are in personal care homes or homeless shelters; whether they are alone in a house or apartment, afraid, depressed, anxious; whether it is our planet itself.  Reach out.  Demand change.

The photograph was taken by Veronica Geminder and initially contained in our manuscript.  Because the woman is recognizable, University of Calgary Press strongly suggested removing it.  But it was taken a dozen years ago, and I've missed this remarkable woman, and so honour her here.

How Pandemics Change History

Being productive

Quiltmania's solidarity quilt blocks

Friday, April 24, 2020

COVID 19 and altruism

How many times over the last five weeks have you heard the statement--in numerous variations--"We're all in this together."  Or "We can get through this together."  Or "We are acting as one"?  From Justin Trudeau, every Canadian public health officer, even advertisers as various as Bank of Montreal, Toyota, and Staples.  We were told, again and again, that even if we didn't fear catching the virus, it was our task to reduce the number of vectors through which COVID 19 could reach the vulnerable.  As we look at the heartbreaking, lonely deaths occurring in long term care facilities, elders dying without their families around them, families losing a chance to say a loving goodbye--we realize that we didn't do enough--or that we hadn't closed down soon enough, that there wasn't enough testing done, or that some policies around long term care facilities worked again our best intentions.  Yet most of us tried to accomplish this very abstract task of protecting others.

At the same time, I would also venture that many of you have reached out to people you don't connect with often enough.  I've been having the richest, most meaningful "phone dates" with a couple of young women who live alone and whom I suspected could use some 'company.'  My sister Karen and I have been sending more emails asking "How are you?"  Even as Bill and I go on our physical distancing late afternoon walks, it seems incumbent upon us to holler out "Hello!" to the very people we are trying to avoid.  The tragic deaths in Nova Scotia (the only way for me to write about something as hugely incomprehensible is in the simplest way possible) only emphasized how reaching out in times of loss is just something we do.  Here is the central irony to the physical distancing COVID 19 has made necessary:  it has brought us together.

Like you, I've been doing a lot of reading and re-reading, though I found that fiction or poetry with too much angst was unbearable.  I admit I re-read the first two Dorothy Sayers Peter Wimsey novels--it was like going on a picnic or drinking hot milk at bedtime.  I read Marquez's Love in the Time of Cholera and re-read Michael Ondaatje's deeply moving Warlight, which was both perfect for its nostalgic tone and for the way it captures what happens to human stories when history intervenes in our intimate and daily lives.  This is what history has done to us:  it has asked what happens to each of us when our small desires get caught up in history's mangle.  Despite the differences between Warlight's plot and the plots of our daily lives, it is a wonderful study of our helplessness in the face of forces we can't quite comprehend.  But one of the most helpful books I've been reading, and one I would highly recommend, was George Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage.  It is a hopeful book, and some of its thinking about how we can improve our civic and political lives meshes wonderfully with what I suspect you have been thinking about.

Because I'm sure there are some elements of your quarantined life--elements of our collectively quarantined lives--that you would like to be part of your lives after the pandemic is over.  The quiet of the streets and your ability to heard birdsong.  (We have a robin that begins to sing at 4:15 a.m.--don't ask.)  People from Italy, India, China, NYC are wondering how they can keep the air clear of car and industrial exhaust, and Milan is creating miles of bicycle and pedestrian lanes as we speak.  I ran into a woman--no, I didn't:  we were six feet apart--who first asked where she could get garlic powder, then where she would find the jars of chopped garlic, and then sought me out, my expertise revealed, to ask where she could find condensed milk.  She was going to bake and she was trying new recipes.  Walmart has apparently been keeping track of the trends in their sales.  There was a week when hair dye sold like hot cakes.  Then the sale of yeast rose over 600%.  A headline in the New York Times read "COVID 19 is making millions of Americans healthier." You've got it:  we're baking and cooking at home, and it's good for our spirits, good for celebrating with our family, and often good for our nutrition. If you're feeling guilty about the baking you have done or the baking you have consumed, here's the surprising fact:  almost anything you make has less salt and sugar than any fast food on the planet.

Anyone trying to work from home and take care of small children has my deepest respect.  Anyone home schooling similarly has my respect.  But how many of us are finding that more time spent with the people we love, less time shopping and running around to lessons and sporting events has been a balm?  I suspect the very nature of time has changed for many of us, and that going back to the old rush-rush seems foolish.  We've been given a chance to recalibrate what matters.  Amongst all the death, we've been given a quiet chance to consider what the good life is.  It's the people we love.  It's time to be reflective and to focus on things that matter to us, not on the things that matter to our jobs or our lives as consumers.

Monbiot's Out of the Wreckage was written in 2017, yet sheds important light on this moment.  Here's the startling fact that is the foundation of his plea for creating a better world out of the one we are living in.  The thing that distinguishes humans from the planet's other creatures is our altruism:  "We possess an unparalleled sensitivity to the needs of others, a unique level of concern about their welfare, and a peerless ability to create moral norms that generalise and enforce these tendencies."  This very human trait shows up as early as fourteenth months, when babies will hand another child something that's out of reach.  At two, we begin to share.

In a sense, COVID 19 is a test of our altruism.  The ultimate test was whether we'd be willing to shelter in place while the virus ravaged our communities because it was so abstract.  Our altruism largely sheltered others, but only fourteen days later.  Yet there are other tests as well.  Will governments find ways to protect the vulnerable?  We've come to recognize that the people who stock shelves and clean buildings and drive trucks and say "Stay safe!" after we've checked out at the grocery store are hugely important to our safety and well being.  Will we transform that recognition into a living wage?  Many of the ads I have seen on TV take time to thank front lines workers, right after the doctors and nurses, but I wonder if they will take action after the economy bounces back and push governments to increase the minimum wage?  Will we be willing to contribute to that wage, or will we complain that after COVID 19 everything seems a little more expensive?  The homeless are particularly vulnerable:  will we find better ways to house them?

I had planned to write about a couple more things:  how cultural institutions have given us free access to art--how Stratford is making Shakespeare available via YouTube, how museums are creating virtual tours, how concerts and book launches have gone online.  In the context of Neoliberal economics, culture should just be part of the market.  If it's really valuable, we'll pay for it.  But COVID 19 has shown how central it is to human thriving.  I see creativity happening everywhere, from my favourite restaurant's shift from serving meals to delivering them to homes, to the creation of an art gallery for a pet guinea pig or the various hearts that make their way into windows.  We've had time to discover how joyful creativity is, how it is part of our well-being.  We've also created communities in inventive ways.  But this post got long enough, so I'm going to save Monbiot's urgent thoughts about community and my thoughts about creativity and community in the time of COVID 19 for next week.  In the meantime, please share your thoughts about what changes COVID 19 has brought to your life that you'd like to see remain.  Just add them to the Facebook comments.

The photograph at the top was taken by my daughter, Veronica Geminder, as part of an Instagram project on photographs illustrating our COVID 19 isolation.  Here's what she says about it:  "The photo is a visual metaphor for the way that the isolation of the pandemic has made us turn inwards towards simple and solitary pleasures (tea and cake eaten on old, pretty china) while the outside world and the company that would require a second plate and cup are present in our minds but are physically inaccessible except through objects that both connect and divide."  Veronica is really skilled at using reflections so convey multiple realities, as you might have seen in our book of poems and photographs, Visible Cities.  So check out the reflections in the teapot.  Can you find the photographer?