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.
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