Thursday, September 15, 2022

Kindness and goodness

Henry James has said that "Three things in life are important.  The first is to be kind.  The second is to be kind.  And the third is to be kind."  I don't know many authors more finely attuned to the quality of our relations with one another, to the ethics of how we treat one another, or to what happens when we cease to treat one another with generosity. If he says that the almost obsessive attention his characters give to their relationships is useless if they aren't kind, I believe him.  

Bill's 27 months working from home during the pandemic only reinforced James's belief.  There were practical things we did to make the claustrophobic days as pleasant as could be.  I would put out a plate of fresh vegetables at lunch on a lovely glass dish given to me by Jeanne Shami.  I would scour "Reasons to Be Cheerful" and "Future Crunch" for good news.  I spent time cooking things I'd never tried before because time was mostly what I had. At dinner there were candles. But what I began to notice was how careful we both were, how patient we were and how patiently we listened to one another.  I noticed how deliberate our generosity and our gratitude were.  One day I summed it up by saying "Kindness lives here."  We stopped and looked carefully at one another.  Yes, that about summed it up.  

I didn't know that was going to tip me into a philosophical quandary.  What's the difference between kindness and goodness?  Why do we have two words that live in different houses but are so friendly?  Kindness can come into those everyday "micro-connections" that researchers are telling us are so important to our baseline well-being. I've witnessed some dispiriting moments when customers treated a barista or a grocery store clerk as if they were badly-programmed robots: the customer had completely forgotten the human connection.  So I'm really deliberate about telling someone who is harried by three customers before she or he gets to me "That's okay.  I'm not the only one who needs your attention."  Or I ask about what they're studying in university this fall.  I hold the door for a woman pushing her husband in a large wheelchair. Or I leave a crazy tip because I don't know how the barista's pandemic has been, and we're not out of the woods yet.  That's not goodness. And it borders on goody-two-shoes virtue signaling. But it's the only way I can think of to change the world. If just one of those people I've connected with or helped stands up a little straighter or settles the tension out of of their shoulders or smiles at someone else, I've done my job.

But kindness isn't hard.  It doesn't require me to make judgments or weigh options the way goodness does.  Rutger Bregman, whose Humankind I cannot recommend highly enough, finds that most people are pretty decent.  Given my experience, I believe him. So I'm not making any judgments about whether the seventy-five-year-old woman is really patient with her husband, in spite of the fact that he requires a lot of care and she has less and less energy every day and her feet hurt.  I'm not wondering whether the traffic jam in the coffee bar is the result of the barista's incompetence. The manager will sort that out. I'm just assuming everyone deserves kindness, and although the Buddhists tell me that is true, that feels a little lazy to someone coming from a western philosophical tradition.

But here's the thing.  The only cases where I can see that kindness and goodness aren't sharing a lot of space on their Venn diagram is when the good thing to do is to call someone else out, insist that they be accountable or take responsibility for their actions. At its most dramatic, I can say that principle of goodness requires us to resist evil or injustice.  Yet those who attacked the U.S. Capitol or the Truckers who settled down in Ottawa thought they were resisting injustice.  Maybe kindness has something to teach our assumptions that we're being good.

The kindness/goodness quandary is particularly hard for me when I see someone struggling to grow and not behaving very well in the process. I overthink whether or not I should call them out, and I'll admit I often decide not to. Which of us isn't striving to grow into a better person?  On whose schedule? At the same time, I'm such a wimp! Often I think the behaviour needs to be named but not necessarily judged.  If they're stuck or lazy, though, kindness be damned:  a little reality check is called for. But the last question I ask myself before I deliver my edict is whether my focus on goodness is at least informed by kindness.  After all, helping someone to grow or see themselves more clearly is kind as well as good.  

Or do I just want to be right!  Do I just need to blow my top because the last four days have been cloudy and my writing is not going well and the construction taking place on the street outside my window is driving me crazy with the constant "beep beep beep"? Am I depressed?  Did I get up on the wrong side of my bed? If I answer "yes" to any of those questions, my temper tantrum is called off. It has taken me a long time to get to this practice, to see that my judgments often have as much to do with my mood as with someone else's behaviour.  But, bit by bit, I'm getting better at it.  The ethics of depression, if we can speak of such a thing, force you to find the real source of your unhappiness and anger.

There was nothing kind about the Truckers or the Proud Boys.  They just wanted to have things their way.  Witness the violence.  Witness the way the Truckers wanted to make everyone else's life miserable.

So maybe asking that seemingly innocent questions, "Is this kind?" has more relevance to goodness than I'd thought when I started to write.

(I was also thinking about kindness and love--whether they're really different--but that's for another day.) 

Thursday, August 25, 2022

Life's broad river

Bill came home from work on a Tuesday in mid-August to declare that he felt like crap.  He hurt everywhere and he was sure he had a fever.  Without a kiss or a hug, he carried everything upstairs to take a Covid test, letting me know fifteen minutes later that it was positive. 

I was not panicked—we both had two vaccines and two boosters.  So my first reaction was to go into problem-solving mode.  My father repaired TVs before schematics were common, and my mother sought to be middle-class on a very tight budget, so I come from a family of problem solvers.  A tray table at our bedroom door would house hand sanitizer and paper towels and would give me a place to put his meals before I backed away (masked, of course) and he opened the door.  (I had to stand there until he claimed his meal so the cats wouldn’t eat it first.) His dishes went straight from their tray into the dishwasher and then the tray got washed before it even touched my counter.

Until I got bleach wipes, he could use the sanitizer—the annoying spray kind, which was why I found it under the kitchen sink—and paper towels to erase his presence in the bathroom.  Meanwhile, knowing I couldn’t ask him not to cough or sneeze in the bathroom, I took everything I use out of the room.  Towels, toothbrush, pills.  We have a single bathroom in the house; I would only use it for basics and he would relentlessly sanitize.  Then I made lists of groceries to get the next day, lists that didn’t look that different from those I made at the beginning of the pandemic lockdowns.  Bleach wipes, vitamin C, oranges, orange juice, a bag of lovely rolls and some good cold cuts.  He craved chicken noodle soup.  We had green beans, cherry tomatoes and beefsteak tomatoes coming ripe in the garden, along with just about every herb we’d want.

My second reaction was entirely different.  I had seen life during these two and a half years as a wide river, shallow at the edges, swiftly moving and deep in the middle, flowing through every landscape and language.  All over the world, people had been pulled into that river, some only adrift in its swift current for ten days or two weeks, their heads just above the water while they flailed, until they were strong enough to make their way to the shore.  Some people’s lives had been entirely changed by their immersion, at least for the foreseeable future.  Some were pulled into the middle and drowned, families watching from a distant shore, traumatized and grief-stricken, health care workers helpless and burned out from seeing so much suffering and death, from dedicating themselves to healing others which, in the early days, they had to do with so little knowledge or equipment, with so few drugs.  With the appearance of a pale red line, we were promptly swept to that river’s shore, joining a stream of diverse humanity. The water smelled like hospitals and sanitizer and old people’s residences.  I could feel its slippery humidity on my skin, like something left by a fever.

Bill, I suspected, especially by his second day, when his symptoms were a slight fever, muscles that ached everywhere, exhaustion, lung congestion that he coughed out several times a day, would be plashing at the edge, and I would be walking alongside him, with the odd bowl of chicken soup or a plate of his favourite pork chop dish with mushrooms and oregano-infused tomato sauce.  And noodles.  He was hungry—a good sign. 

Perhaps this metaphor verges on drama and cliché, but I can’t find a better one to capture how all of us have oriented our lives, our hopes, our daily habits and decisions and occasional delights by a single…what? What metaphor is large enough to capture how a mass of humanity has been swept up by a single force, like metal filings to an immense magnet?  Because I was not alive during World War II and didn’t experience my mother’s panic about being a lonely single parent, panic that changed her body irremediably, because I didn’t read the newspaper headlines on the day the atomic bomb was dropped on Hiroshima, I can’t find a better one.   That little red line made it impossible not to see—no, it made it imperative that I see how our experience connected us to a world-wide community, how it rendered us all helpless and human and frightened—how so many of us felt the same things (until the exhaustion and the blame started).

But there was also a third reaction.  Parts of life were suddenly irradiated.  The next morning when I watered the vegetable garden, a spider’s web in the corner of my herb planter pulsed with light in the morning breeze.  When I drove home from the grocery store armed with cans of chicken noodle soup and oranges and bleach wipes, the local pump track was thronged with kids, their mothers collected in the small shade of a small tree, talking to one another, petting their calm dogs.  ‘Oh, that’s life,’ I thought. While I was watering the roses, our elderly neighbour walked toward his house with a book under his arm.  He had been to the little library down the street and had found himself a book—lucky man! These small human gestures were beautifully flooded with light.

Yes, I caught it, but all our precautions meant that I didn’t get it until Bill began to feel better.  Mostly I tried to ignore it and keep on reading.  And I’m on the mend.

Thursday, July 28, 2022


Something happened last Saturday morning.  It was as if I was breathing in wonder--though I couldn't explain why. True, we had altered our usual Saturday ritual by having breakfast at Brewed Awakenings downtown rather than French Press on south Albert, so I had an entirely different group of people to observe and wonder about.  And I had different things to notice, like all the fish made out of bits and pieces of machinery and gears.  There was one robot figure near the cashier that held up a sign reading "Peace."  I couldn't agree with it more. And the young, energetic barista was a delight all by herself.

Then Bill and I put away our books and got a bag out of the trunk for the short walk to the Farmer's Market for our first visit this year.  I bought fresh peas!  They took me half an hour to get them out of their pods, but every one that went bouncing around on the floor was fair game for my cats, who love peas and scurry for them crazily.  Go figure.  And I found tiny carrots.  Farmers' markets, I learned this week from one of my favourite e-newsletters, "Reasons to Be Cheerful," almost disappeared with the rise of supermarkets.  But it seems we can't resist buying produce--or mead, or doggie treats--from the person who grew or made it.  And I had to think of Farmers' Markets in the context of the time we're living through.  They are really important to our future.  We can't keep on with the high-carbon industrial farming that turns whole hillsides gold or blue--though I can't help admiring the sheer verve of fields of canola or flax.  And canola and flax together in the same landscape!  Still, we can't continue to ship wine from France in those heavy bottles or buy all our carrots from California. Local not only tastes better, it's always more carbon-efficient.  What you are paying for is labour, not an airplane ticket.  I couldn't help but look around and see the people at the Farmers' Market as the ones who will get us through once we really begin questioning what truly needs to be shipped thousands of miles.

Our Farmers' Market has a nice plaza downtown, but the Farmers' Market I grew up with as a child gathered on a huge parking lot we used during the school year for our early drivers' ed classes.  There were holes in the concrete where the farmers put in the legs for the old slanting wooden shelves that held their produce. I have such memories of going there with my mother.  I remember a farmer who happily cut a cantaloupe in half for us to smell, thinking I'd never smelled anything quite so rich.  He taught me to press the end of the cantaloupe that connected to the stem to gauge how ripe it is.  I remember the year--Michigan is known for its fruit trees on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan--red delicious apples arrived in farmers' markets.  Our favourite apple seller showed us the characteristic little bumps on the bottom of a red delicious and cut one to give us a taste.  So different from the softer, more mealy Spartans or MacIntosh that were the apples we usually ate.  Its crispness was a delight, a kind of clarity that echoed the late August sunlight.  Every year, Mother bought a peck of peaches and a peck of pears--so beautiful in their brocade skins--to can.  We would sit in the back yard under our elm tree, in our clamshell chairs, a roasting pan on our laps for the peels, and peel fruit for days and days, it seemed.  

Maybe memory was the source of my wonder?  The memories were rich and the crowds were heartwarming and varied.  There was sitar music, and the all the things people had made and grown created a colourful kaleidoscope. It was a delight to do out-of-the-corner-of-my-eye people-watching. The Farmer's Market was a feast for the senses.  But I didn't quite think the Farmers' Market was the source of my wonder.

When we got home, the groceries put away, it was time to fertilize the garden.  I do the roses and Bill does everything else that blooms.  I do the shrubs that don't bloom and Bill gives the ferns a good watering.  Then I do the vegetable garden.  Regina is greengreengreen this summer, thanks to the rain.  The roses were past their peak--I would deadhead them and the itinerant daisies the next day--but the liiles and the hydrangea were on their way and the clematis hadn't stopped blooming.  Maybe that was the cause of the wonder I felt?  Frankly, after hauling a dozen watering cans with their proper dose of fertilizer in them, I was simply tired.

So I went in the house and opened all the windows.  Saturday began cool and it would stay relatively cool.  We could have all the fresh air we wanted.  No closing drapes against the sun or closing down the windows in the afternoon.  And that was when it hit me.  It was the coolness that I'd been walking through all day that stirred something.  Maybe a hint of fall--my favourite time of year?  I think it was actually that I didn't have to work against Mother Nature.  We were on the same side all day, and the weather forecast, which turned out to be mostly right, though it missed a few periods of rain, projected cool days all week.

Solastalgia is the word we've chosen for the grief we feel as we notice all the changes in our environment, on our planet.  But a summer day that was just a summer day, not an argument about how hot I liked it or about how dark rooms needed to be to keep us cool or about how I would sleep tonight--that summer day rekindled wonder.

Thursday, June 30, 2022

Hope: Learn It from the Bees

This morning I was down on my knees, weeding the vegetable garden so my tomatoes, beans, potatoes, cukes, lettuces, and herbs could get the best of the water and food in the soil.  And, to be frank, I love weeding.  I love the look of a garden after a good bout of weeding. I love this acknowledgement that I am merely nature's handmaiden.  After I've put in seeds and plants, I can add water and some fertilizer to my garden, but that's about the extent of my powers.  I can't take away too much water.  I can't do anything about unseasonably hot or cold days, except to see things are watered on the hot ones.  But I can weed.

While I was weeding among the tomatoes, I was buzzed by a couple of bees, reminding me of my last year of teaching.  I'd decided it was important to teach an English 110 class on literature and the environment. (English 110 is the second English class most of the students on campus are required to take.) I remembered telling them that if people disappeared, the earth would thrive.  But if the bugs disappeared, particularly the pollinators like bees, the human race would be toast.  So we're here courtesy of bees and their kindred.  Interestingly, when I read the final exams for that class I noticed that almost every student had found somewhere to include that fact and I remember being rather pleased that I may have shifted their sense that people are the centre of the universe.

It's humbling, isn't it?  Bugs. This humility runs through Jenna Butler's Revery:  A Year of Bees.  Jenna and her husband, Thomas Lock, live off the grid, just at the edge of the boreal forest in Alberta, where they farm and keep bees. The book begins with Jenna up in the wee morning hours on a cold January day to stoke their stove, light a wax taper, and daydream through seed catalogues.  Choosing what to grow in their vegetable and cutting gardens--choosing what will feed them literally and what beauty will feed their souls--has an impact on everything around them, particularly their bees' sister pollinators.  In this scene, two of her book's themes meet.  How we must bring humility into our relationship with the natural world, and how we are profoundly interconnected with it.  Everything we do resonates outward.  

A garden, I tell myself when things aren't going as well among the flowers and shrubs and vegetables as I'd like, is always a work in progress.  Some things stay the same.  For years now I've had Asiatic lilies in my west perennial border.  But the weather has changed.  Last year was appallingly hot, and the lilies didn't flower.  This year it's been cool and rainy, so I think I'll get some blooms, but I'm not entirely sure yet.  When I visit the border, I look down into the Fibonacci swirl of leaves and ask if they're setting a bud.  Some of them are; others, I'm not sure about. As well, the enormous evergreen in my next door neighbour's yard has grown, so my lilies probably don't get enough sun.  There are too many variables!  Similarly, Jenna writes that "As students of the land, we can choose to learn through humility or hardship.  Humility can be a tough path at times.  It often means setting aside the things we dream of doing with the land until such time that we learn a way to make them possible without destroying ecosystems or compromising the many untouched acres of forest."

As Jenna thinks about seeds for the next summer, recognizing that she's just part of the landscape, she arrives at an ethics of husbandry that recognizes that we are interdependent, and that human beings are really only a small part of any ecosystem, a small part with outsized impacts: "One of the most powerful results of working with the land in a conscious way has been coming to see it as a series of interlinked ecosystems, and realizing that what we do to one ecosystem we effectively do to all" (22; emphasis mine).  Yes, she seeks to be careful what land she clears, what seeds she plants, but this involves some granular thinking. If they grow their garden into verges, for example, that will have an impact on the pollinators that have laboriously evolved to thrive on the plants that grow there.  Revery is full of facts about bees and bee-keeping.  Alberta is the fifth-largest producer of honey in the world, thanks in all likelihood to professional beekeepers who cart their bees around the province to fertilize canola.  But bumblebees are joined by 320 different species of bees, and not all of them are doing well.  So Jenna plants for her honeybees and for the others who are also busy fertilizing Alberta's varied ecosystems.

As well, she and Thomas are aware that their bee hives are complex; each kind of bee has its own task; the hive itself has its natural shape of a superorganism: "A superorganism is, at its core, a social unit that's carefully diversified when it comes to divisions of labour and works together as a whole" (24).  I try not to take my honey for granted, and I'm very careful to always buy Canadian honey.  In this sense, Revery is a gift to all of us, an insider's glimpse of how simple and yet complex hives are, particularly given how far north as their farm is, and how contemporary farming practices endanger them.  We learn about the coats the hives wear for about half the year and about how Jenna must order new queens from New Zealand when something hasn't gone quite right.  She and Thomas have two different ways of attending to their bees.  Jenna listens. And Thomas watches from what is apparently the best seat on the farm, one that calms and fascinates just about anyone who sits there.

These superorganisms to which they pay so much attention are natural synecdoches for the human relationship with the natural world, one that informs every decision Jenna and Thomas make on their farm.  If nature is fine, we'll be fine.  If nature is in trouble, we're in trouble--or will be soon. The ethics of husbandry that Jenna and Thomas practice acknowledges that when human beings work with the natural world, we are the beneficiaries.  As I've tried to show in my "Nature's Culture" poems, the complexity and generosity of nature can profoundly benefit us.  First, there's the sensual beauty they bring to our lives.  Jenna writes of harvesting the honey in late August:  "The scent of the kitchen on processing day is a smell as old as memory....The scent of it, and the taste of a stolen teaspoonful on the tongue, releases May's willow catkins and June's wild roses, July's white clover and August's goldenrod  It releases all the weather of a boreal summer in the faint tinge of forest fire smoke or the watery flavour of flooded blossoms" (89).  

European monks are credited not only for their tasty honey mead, but for their recognition that honey is a reliable unguent.  The Egyptians buried their dead with pots of honey.  Manuka honey from Australia and New Zealand can heal skin trauma. An Austrian, Heinrich Huttner, recognized how much he benefitted from inhaling the warm air as he worked his hives, coming to believe it could cure the common cold.  He has opened a bee spa where patients can take afternoon naps among the breath of bees and the scent of honey, which helps with a number of breathing-related ailments.  Jenna herself has turned to the bees as a way of understanding and mending her life-long relationship to pain. 

I've been working on this post for a while.  The vegetable garden is going to need weeding again soon, but right now I am encountering bees in my roses, where they seem to dance in the middle of the flowers.  Whenever I hem and haw about whether we should water the flowers and vegetables again today, I think of Bill saying something so wise and so grounded in his own experience.  He loves watering, especially after a tough day at work.  "Watering our garden," he reminds me "is an investment in our mental health."  It gives us beauty and food, two essentials for our well-being. And because tomorrow morning I'll be heading out to the roses again or watering the pole beans, it gives us hope.

Wednesday, June 1, 2022

Hope is the thing with petals

In 1976, I completely missed spring.  I was in Ann Arbor, living for two months with a friend and her husband, trying to finish up my master's degree from the University of Michigan so I could start a Ph.D. in the fall at the University of Manitoba.  If I were simply there to finish a couple of English classes, this would have been a fairly easy spring.  But there were complications.  First, I was taking a very interesting course on the psychology of perception.  Although I had the principles down cold, it became clear from my mark on the midterm that simply knowing what we knew about perception was inadequate.  I had to tell the professor how we knew what we knew, which meant memorizing the dates of experiments, the names of experimenters, and the methodology of the experiments.  I clearly did very well on the final exam, but sadly, I'm afraid that all those dates and names obscured my memory of the principles. 

Second, in order to graduate I had to buff up my second language, which was Russian.  Luckily, an old professor was more than willing to give me tutorials and practice translations, but this came on top of memorizing names and dates. Before bed every night, I settled down to do another practice translation.  

Then there was the husband of the friend I was staying with.  Ginny was gone for a couple of weekends to conferences of librarians, and the husband and I discovered we both had frustrations with our relationships.  This resulted in a lot of long drives in the countryside around Ann Arbor, which is very beautiful in a winding hilly-foresty sort of way.  No, it came to nothing more.  The drives in the beautiful landscape were as far as the romance went. But it did confirm that I really didn't want to return to Winnipeg but had no idea what else to do.  As I spent hours in the final days looking at job postings in various papers, I couldn't help ask what I was doing with two useless degrees besides seeking what I had been told would be a third useless degree.  In the seventies, there was almost no hiring done in universities.  

Each day I walked the three miles from Ginny's house into campus and then walked back.  Ann Arbor is a lovely town, yet with stresses practical and existential roiling in my head, my eyes were turned inward.  I simply missed spring.  Just before I left to return to Winnipeg, I noticed that the maple trees had full-sized leaves on them.  When did that happen?

I've already complained here about this spring--the spring that wasn't.  The crabapple tree in my back yard has, for the thirty-two years I've lived here, bloomed on May long weekend.  Except for this year.  I worked very hard last Saturday to get my garden planted and my lawn fertilized before the rain showed up on Sunday, and the result came with a kind of euphoria.  At seventy-two, I can still work vigorously in the garden for hours on end.  But the soil simply isn't warm enough for seeds to sprout.  We're going to have another windy day today and overnight temperatures this week will be in the low single digits.  I've planted nasturtiums to add their bright colour and flavour to our salads this summer, but I'm not sure when they'll want to poke their heads above the soil.  Ever hopeful, I keep them watered.

But here's the wonderful things about spring this year:  I have paid careful attention to every shift.  I've noticed when the trees got fuzzier and when that fuzz actually became a brilliant lime green. You can only see this from a distance, as if perspective is one of the things you need to practice.  I've been out to talk to my irises every day to see if they are going to give me flowers.  At first I thought they weren't, and that I needed to dig them up and thin them, but last night I saw the thinnest, most transparent stems and flowers growing out of the spiky fans of leaves.  They seem paper thin and I can't imagine them turning into three-dimensional flowers, but I'm hoping they will.  

Last week, I sat on my little gardening stool and patiently sorted out the clematis.  Sometimes growth comes off old wood and sometimes the old wood simply needs to be carefully extricated from the tangle.  So I was out looking for little hopeful sprouts on old wood and pulling out the detritus.  Last night I went to see how they were doing and found that new growth has somehow emerged from the soil and overtaken the old growth.  How did it do that?  I tucked it poetically into the trellis so it wouldn't mass up on top and then fall to the back so the flowers are invisible. 

The crabapple tree in my back yard was old when I moved in thirty-two years ago, and I could see no signs of blossoms among the tiny vestigial leaves.  I thought maybe it had outlived its fertility.  Yet it not only bloomed last weekend, almost exactly a week late, but its blooms have held on during the rain and the wind. Those petals are so vulnerable and transparent, yet they hang on until they've done their work and the tree can set fruit.

Yesterday, Nikka and I checked the peat pots she'd planted our cucumbers in.  There are no leaves, but there's this tiny arc of stem pushing its way through the soil that we know means leaves are on their way.

All this is like hope.  Not like optimism.  I'm out of optimism.  I don't think we'll go back to something that looks normal after the pandemic; I'm not sure there will be an 'after.' I'm not optimistic about the war in Ukraine, and I don't think either the Russians or the Ukrainians are ready to quit once the Donbas is taken by the Russians or re-taken by the Ukrainians once the U.S. weapons arrive. 

Is optimism tied to age?  I was not optimistic in my teens and twenties.  We go to dark movies at art house cinemas and read Russian novels. At that age our shit-detectors are too good to be optimistic.  There was a stupid war in Vietnam and there were too few black students on the Ann Arbor campus--though enough to gather a good number for a demonstration.  And then, ohmygod, there was Watergate.  If anything could make me cynical, it was Watergate.  I lived in Boston that year, working at Brandeis University, about an hour's bus ride away. I began my day by picking up the New York Times at the corner pharmacy and reading it on the way to work.  When I got home, we turned on our tiny tv and watched the highlights of the day's testimony.  I brushed my teeth, rinsed, and repeated next morning.  If this wasn't going to make me cynical, I don't know what was. 

Optimism might have arrived with a wonderful baby and by feeling at home in the Ph.D. program at the University of Manitoba.  It took a big dip during a divorce, only to spike when I moved to Regina where I found a lovely city and a welcoming English Department.  It took a downward turn, more or less, with 9/11, with more stupid American wars in the Middle East. Obama made me optimistic, but then it took another sudden dip when Trump was elected--his election only highlighting some of the significant problems alive in the world. Optimism is a way of thinking--or a way of not thinking.  Of assuming things will be fine, no watering of irises or hilling of potatoes needed. Veronica didn't sleep through the night for two years; I may have been too tired to resist the pull of optimism. 

But I believe in hope. I think of those tiny little stems that are pushing their way through the soil and realize that I know exactly what those mean:  I've checked seeds hundreds of times in my life, so I recognize an unfurling seedling when I see one.  But I've also kept them watered so they could bloom. That's hope.  Hope at its best is active, as my brilliant friend Katherine Arbuthnott argued in an essay she wrote for a group trying to cope with the trauma of climate change. When researchers studied the hope of people concerned about climate change, they uncovered something surprising, Katherine tells us:  

"Only active hope was associated with pro-environmental actions, including support for environmental policies. Most importantly, participants reported that active hope was most strongly evoked by seeing others working to solve problems, both directly and indirectly....This suggests that the actions and communications of local individuals and groups are particularly important for encouraging and maintaining active hope. In a social species such as ours, it seems that the actions of every person matter because they can counter the ever-present news of climate inaction from our business and political leaders."

When it comes to hope, small actions matter.  I think I've written before--but it bears repeating--that the reason homo sapiens thrived when other hominids did not is that we're social learners.  We're good at doing things we've seen others do.  That means hope is catching and, like those tiny cucumber seeds, blooms in the small actions you take, the small actions you inspire in other people.  Who knows?  You might even inspire yourself.

Friday, May 13, 2022

A Hard-Won Spring


We have no flooding or forest fires in Saskatchewan, so perhaps I shouldn't be whining so much.  But this has been one of the most unpleasant springs ever.  Our days have been very grey and cold:  tulips are behind their normal budding about a week after Easter.  My crabapple tree, which always blooms on May long weekend, has no more than tiny little leaves on it.  And even the sunny days, which I drank up eagerly, getting out into the garden to start the spring cleanup, have often been windy.  Windy days make my vertigo act up, probably because they come with changes to barometric pressure.  But they also make me edgy. It's as if the wind threatens to sweep away parts of who I am.  I can't look out a window without seeing chaos moving through the landscape or walk without feeling chaos on my skin. A single cloudy or windy day doesn't bother me, especially if it comes with rain.  But a whole streak of rainy or windy days in a row--which we've often had this spring (calling it "spring" gives it too much credit) leaves me feeling like a deflated balloon.  

On Wednesday about ten days ago, I woke up to such a morning after several similar mornings, and said "I can't do this."  I seem to have an inner voice that only has two options when faced with a challenge:  either "I can do this.  No problem." Or a whining "I can't do this." It doesn't even deliver an explanation, though there are obvious candidates, with a few extras during Covid.  Loneliness.  Dismay at how greedy our "leaders" have been to lift mask and passport mandates in order to get the economy moving again and to please impatient voters. (That certainly hadn't worked here in Saskatchewan; we have the lowest GDP in the country and one of the higher death rates.) The after-effects of insomnia.  Feeling that my writing is pure shit. Feeling that my writing makes no different in a world where a bully just decides to invade a neighbouring country.  I'm supposed to be standing up for humanity, for beauty, but what good do humanity and beauty do in a world where a single person can say "I want...." and mobilize thousands of others to meet his desire and in the process kill and be killed?   All those blasted apartment buildings we're shown on TV are people's homes and lives, and I can't stop thinking about that and about the needless deaths and trauma.  These are glass half empty days in the life of someone who has fought hard to see her glass as half full.

How can the weather do this, tipping me over into helplessness?  It's just weather.  Unless it's thirty below and my furnace has to run full time just to keep the house warm, or unless it's thirty-five above (and we don't have air conditioning), weather has little effect on my comfort. What is weather all about if it isn't about comfort or the lack of it--unless you're a farmer and need rain or unless you're a farmer and need the rain to stop? 

I have this sense that my moods are a heavy cloak.  I don't mind holding it up for a while as I try to adjust my relationship with a magical and maddening universe so I can find enough hope to be a productive person. But at some point the arm holding my cloak off the floor gets stiff and then very tired.  You wouldn't want to sully such an essential cloak; where would we be--what would we be without our moods?  I count on the beauty of the natural world to hold my cloak for a while on those days when politicians don't care about human lives or tyrants have a good day with their bombs.  Or those days when I have slept badly or can't find the words for my thoughts.  Or the days when the people I love are struggling.

We had an unexpected nice day last weekend, so I got out into the garden to begin the spring cleaning.  I rake my lawn fairly carefully in the fall so it can go on photosynthesizing even in the cool weather.  But I rake most of those leaves onto perennial beds where they can decompose over winter and in the spring serve as cover for insects that the robins come looking for.  So my first spring job is to lift the leaves off the things that bloom early:  my two bleeding heart and the iris in the front yard.  This is such a pedestrian thing to do.  Nothing is particularly beautiful besides the air on your skin or the sounds of birds.  But lifting decaying leaves off the bleeding heart and finding little white sprouts below--the layer of leaves prevented photosynthesis--was inexplicably joyful.  I had uncovered a miracle. The week after that Sunday was nicer than expected--continuous rain had been forecast--so I tried to get out most days and work at turning over my vegetable garden.  As I told the young man who shovels our snow and who offered to borrow a rototiller so he could rototill my garden, the one thing standing in the way of seeing myself as an old woman is the fact that I can still turn over my vegetable garden.  At the end of an hour of digging, I'd roam the yard to see what was putting out buds--what, in effects, had made it through the winter.  The hydrangeas, much to my delight had.  The mahogany nine bark had, but I suspect the silver dogwood I'd planted as a companion hasn't.

All this spoke to the voice that said "I can't do this" with reassurance that in fact I could.  That reassurance came in two ways.  First, I know when I rake leaves over my perennial beds in the fall or lift them off in the spring, that I'm nature's handmaiden; nature's midwife. That's a small role that gives me joy.  I'm also reminded of the fact that when the universe goes pear-shaped, but best thing is to look close to home--to look closely--to appreciate what it's just as easy to miss otherwise.  My lemony lace elderberry turns bright and vivid green when spring really gets under way, but its buds are a wine red. My cats--another part of nature--are remarkably intuitive. My friends and family are the best.

Here's the thing that makes me curious, though.  When we're in blue moods, we're inclined to pay attention to detail; happy people tend to see the big picture, something that makes them even happier.  But during a rainy spring maybe paying attention to detail is all you have.  Best to be mindful about it, to see its small miracle and to understand the place of the small in a universe that is constantly expanding.


Wednesday, April 6, 2022

Beauty and kindness; war and despair

Last night I stood looking out the window at the dusky skyline; Lyra had joined me. The view was quite simple:  the cloudy sky put the naked trees and the row of full evergreens into sharp relief.  Lyra examined my face carefully, his expression changing, as if he were trying to read my mood.  'What's up with Mom?" he seemed to be asking as he turned his head and widened  his eyes.  It was simply this.  That the world was so beautiful, even on a cloudy evening in raw spring; that Russian soldiers had committed atrocities in Bucha. Lyra purred and leaned into me the second I began to pet him.

I'm never sure what we mean this time a year when we say that a day is beautiful.  A careful look reveals that it really isn't.  While we can see the tree buds stretching and plumping every day, the overall effect is that the stark lace of tree branches just looks a little fuller at the top.  There are dirty snowbanks everywhere.  Where our lawns have been revealed, they're a sad green.  But all this is visual.  Our sense of touch is glorying in the warmer days, the softness of air on skin--on our faces, on our hands if we've decided to tough it out without our gloves. The sound of birds has changed as robins come north and add their liquid song to the staccato of sparrows.  If I'm patient, I can smell earth and leaf mold, which I leave on the garden to provide cover to the insects the robins will seek as they return. I can't quite explain it, but the blue sky on a spring day says "Hang in there.  You can do this."  A blue that seems infinite promises that the future is there, waiting for us to join it--though it doesn't give us permission to ignore the fact that this moment is the only one we have right now. 

As Russia built up its forces just outside of Ukraine, I still didn't think that Putin would invade--that he would risk starting World War III.  I thought it was male posturing.  Unhappy male posturing.  One thing we need to remember is that Putin is a profoundly unhappy man, an unspeakably rich man who is not satisfied with what he has--riches from a large country that he's not really governing.  He's just taking their riches for himself and other oligarchs.  There is no satisfaction for such an unhappy person. No satisfaction in wealth and land and power because there's always more out there for the taking.  But we also need to admit that such men are unpredictable.

The invasion sent me off for a philosophical talk with my therapist.  Distraught, I simply didn't know how to see the world.  I knew it was an important ethical task for me to witness what was going on.  But what did I do with that knowledge?  If I didn't do anything with it, did I still have to sit quietly with my horror and take in more every day?  The answer was yes, but I didn't know why, though I knew that it had something to do with being honest to history.  But that honesty threatened to erase the beauties of the present moment:  my relationships with Bill and Veronica, wonderful friends, two cats who are the most affectionate and intuitive that I've ever had, and spring on the way. An earth, despite all we've done to her, who just doesn't stop being beautiful.  

I imagined the present moment as the scales of justice.  Putin was putting war, destruction, death, the loneliness and disorientation of refugees--and now unnecessary atrocities--in the left-hand pan.  Going to war, I suppose, means that you will kill people.  But it doesn't mean you have to rape, torture, and execute. What could I possibly put on the other side of the scales that would not be dishonest?  The beauty of a spring day, a remarkable marriage, a daughter that's just an astonishing, loving person--how did I teach her that?  Think of that miracle:  that people can teach one another to be loving. Two cats who, from the beginning of the war, know that Mom is troubled and who stay close by?  I was stopped briefly by that:  my cats have  figured out what Putin needs to know: that the meaning in our lives comes from the relationships we build, the care with which we build them, and from our mindful presence here and now.

All that on the other sides of the scales seemed, for all its wonder, inadequate.

And then, I realized I had the wrong metaphor, the wrong paradigm.  In my blogs, I've often included links to the Future Crunch newsletter that comes out of Australia.  The people who create Future Crunch are swimming upstream in the current media environment.* They write about the improvements human beings are making to health around the world, the latest tech wizardry, the creative and disciplined ways we are actually making progress on reducing our emissions and protecting ecosystems like forests and oceans and grasslands.  Each newsletter ends with the story of an everyday person who has made a significant difference in the world. Last fall, Angus Hervey, its director, wrote about "the rope of history" after he gave us two starkly different views of the present moment.  It isn't just horror that makes up the rope of history.  It's also good things we do together and good things we do as individuals.  From time to time the rope of history is dominated by wars and cruelty and hunger.  But the creativity of individuals and cultures working toward progress is always there too.

Right now, it's kind of like looking at spring struggling to unfold.  If we choose, we can see the beauty alongside the grittiness. Spring sunshine lights up the bark of trees and the feathers of sparrows, falls gently on our faces, but it also creates tangles of shadow. Except that spring goes on without us.  It's not the same with humankind.

Rather than understanding my astonishment as dishonest, I have come to see it as necessary.  What happens to that rope when we give in to despair and all the lack of care for others and the planet that follows close on the heels of despair? To keep the rope of history strong during this time, we need to celebrate the beauty and the goodness that threads through each of our lives. We need to realize that our lives matter.  The attention we give to our lives matters.  Every act of kindness and creativity adds another thread to the rope of history.  

The quilt above is a hybrid.  The block is distinctly American, and is called a log cabin.  The subtle fabrics are Japanese.

*Whether you agree with how mainstream media covers what's happening in the world--if it bleeds, it leads--thank them, please.  Putin can only get away with this war because he controls Russian media with an iron hand and the threat of jail.

Friday, April 1, 2022

Writing about cooking is not always just about food: Bread and Water

 I  have just finished re-reading dee Hobsbawn-Smith's luminous Bread and Water, and the second reading was worth it. Our lives are infused with food and drink, so the spine of dee's book immediately captures us and underscores what is important:  our relationships with others, with pleasure, with the planet.  And, oh, the writing about food!  The metaphors!  "Summer flows from spring like a butterscotch sundae." The fragrances and colours!  When dee writes about food, it's a sensuous experience; she brings her poet's eye and ear to everything within her purview.

In some ways, this book of essays is a memoir.  Were she not happy with the incisive Bread and Water, her title could have added that this was a book about family or a book about finding oneself.  A book about taking risks--whether it's jumping with a horse or leaping into a job she wasn't ready for.  But the essays, not arranged in any chronological order--not, indeed, subject to chronology--balance self and subject carefully.  Memoir, as I understand it, differs from autobiography in that it doesn't even attempt a full accounting of one's life, instead using one's experiences as a lens on another topic altogether, albeit a topic that is central to the writer's life, curiosity, or passions.  The architect Philip Johnson built himself a completely glass house--a simple but hardly livable structure--it had no library or sewing room.  There's a story about the first night he spent there and actually inhabited the structure with the lights on.  He phoned a friend to say "You've got to come over.  I've turned on the lights and all I can see is me me me me me!" Autobiographies can be a bit like that.  Memoirs are as curious about the world as about the self.

Dee links cooking and caring for others through the way family and food intertwine in her essays.  We learn about her grandmother, who was generous with her time in the kitchen, teaching dee to make transparent strudel dough and showing her a central paradox that's almost existential:  "Time has no meaning in the kitchen.  Time means everything in the kitchen."  Like all craftspeople, dee's grandmother knew that when we're cooking we commit ourselves to taking the time to do it right.  But when we're feeding a large family, getting the timing right so every dish meets perfection at the same moment marks the cook's devotion to her or his craft.

We learn about dee's peripatetic life as an air force brat, at one point fetching up on the Vancouver Island coast and often gathering oysters for dinner. We learn about her father's cooking career, begun after dee's Mom could no longer cook, and about how his spread sheets showed the way he experimented with a recipe.  We learn about her teaching her sons to cook and their choice to become chefs.  We are invisible guests to the times when she cooks with these now adult children and how that brings back whole wafts of memories along with pleasure in the present.  Some nights after I've had a rough day, Bill might ask me whether I really want to cook.  I know he's being attentive and helpful, but he doesn't love cooking, so he doesn't quite grasp the fact that those are the very times to cook. The physical and sensuous experience of making pleasure for someone else perfectly balances with an intensive day writing.  I've always thought that cooking combines basic yet pleasurable self-care with our drive to be generous to those we love and to give them pleasure; dee profoundly shares that belief. 

Dee also links cooking with care and gratitude for the planet by writing about her commitment to slow food, a commitment to knowing your local farmers, cheesemakers, and vintners.  Dee comes to the prairie version of the 100-mile diet via learning to cook with Madeleine Kamman in France.  Madam began her days with her students by taking them to the market to see what was fresh, a practice dee translated to her Calgary restaurant, Foodsmith. There are points when the 100 mile diet severely limits what one can eat or drink--the thought of a morning without coffee terrifies me, and dee was saddened by the loss of the spices that can make a lovely Moroccan or Indian stew out of a bit of meat, some beans or pulses, and a few vegetables.  Without olive oil, she learned to cook with rendered duck fat. She uses local vinegars and home-grown herbs to give her dishes panache. "What grows together goes together," she tells us.  But she also teaches us that the fresh, intense flavours of local food make simple cooking into something remarkable. Here is dee's "bellweather moment.  My reconnection to a local diet came with unexpected benefits.  A deeper sense of immediacy and place meant I ate what the moment and the weather rendered possible....Casting this net created a symbiotic network.  I knew the people who grew my food and they knew me."  She pleads with us to make time for good food and the relationships it builds with growers and family and friends, and to realize that "locally grown will feed  us better than what has travelled thousands of miles."   

The pandemic has made many of us leery about eating out.  Dee gives us insight into what goes on in the backrooms of restaurants:  the sexism, the physical demands of coping with the heat of a kitchen and staying on your feet for hours on end.  And high-end restaurants are hardly the worst:  dee's first job in Fernie B.C. involved buses "parked like ghostly mastodons," unloading hungry tourists at ten and four everyday, where dee was expected to organize the many moving parts of a kitchen.  It was a lonely, exhausting, isolating job from which she fled.  Essays like "Cooking for James" and "Love Affair with a Wolf" (a riff, I suspect on M.F.K. Fisher's How to Cook a Wolf), she gives us the insider's view of restaurants.  You know what?  Maybe we should occasionally tip more generously.  And maybe, when we've really enjoyed a dish, we should send a comment back to the chef.  They are unsung heroes and only get complaints, I'll bet. 

Dee has certainly had experience with water.  Her Calgary house was flooded in June 2013 by the Bow River.  Her prairie farmhouse was graced by an ad hoc lake in 2011, the result of record-breaking snow fall which came swift on the heals of a summer of unprecedented rain.  She made lemonade of lemons when she and her husband Dave held mid-winter bonspiels,  feeding them, of course.  But the essay called "Floodplain" is the occasion of some of dee's most poetic and insightful writing.  I think I'll just end my casual review with her words.  They will show you what a treat you have in store:

"Water is light, mirror-glass physics, angle of incidence equals angle of refraction.  Is mercury droplets.  A sheet. Ice/steam/fluid.  Invisible.  A rock-chipped diamond.  A skater's agony.  A skier's liftoff above the T-bar.  Raft supporter, life raft.  Float.  Inhale, and death to all but fish.  Life and death.  Water is blue green aqua emerald azure cobalt sapphire cerulean indigo.  Sea of Tranquility.  Sea of despond.  Sea of heartache.  Water is in.  Out.  Fashionable bottles, stored, iced, jugged, poured, hoarded, squandered.  Water is hip. The arctic, tamed and bottled, icerbergs with olives and a twist.  Tankers, plastic bottles forming floating islands of post-industrial despair in the oceans.  Glasses.  A mattress.  Water is eternal. Evanescent. A desert. An ocean."  

Monday, March 7, 2022

Being Grateful

At the end of February, my brain uttered a couple of sentences that were initially surprising.  Once, it observed that I was grateful to be doing the dishes.  The second time, I was grateful to be able to play Bach, albeit on a very old and out-of-tune piano. 

That first sentence told me how startling and violent and shocking the first images of women and children fleeing Ukraine were.  Doing the dishes, even before locking up the house they hoped to return to, was utterly beside the point.  When they were on the road, it was the least of their worries.  What could they actually take?  What could they carry, along with the two-year-old who would sometimes need to be held?  What on earth were the logistics of spending days in your car waiting to cross the Polish border?  How could you have enough food and water?  I remembered a moving photograph by Dorothea Lange, who documented the dirty thirties in the U.S.:  an unending road reaching the vanishing point, open fields with nothing in them but dust, and a young couple pulling two children in a wagon.  It has always stood for me for those moments in history when people must turn their backs on the known world and turn their faces to the unknown, and the unspeakable number of times people have had to do this. 

Feeling grateful to be doing the dishes acknowledged how even the most ordinary labours of my life marked me among the fortunate and reminded me of Viktor Frankl's Man's Search for Meaning, which I'd begun to read a week before.  In the concentration camps, he tells of being grateful for the smallest things, like getting a bowl of soup from the bottom of the pot, where there are actually a few vegetables.  Any act of kindness was worthy of gratitude, no matter how small.  And he found he could get positively excited when he was being transferred to another camp, a smaller camp, one that didn't even have a chimney.  

If being grateful for doing dishes was "ridiculous," being grateful for playing Bach was the "sublime."  I hoped that their days would have some beauty in them; a smile on an unfamiliar face, the bright purple of a child's hat, the calm grey before dawn arrived.  Frankl tells of being dead tired at the end of a day and having one of his fellow prisoners rush in to call them to beauty:  "Standing outside we saw sinister clouds glowing in the west and the whole sky alive with clouds of ever-changing shapes and colors from steel blue to blood red.  The desolate grey mud huts provided a sharp contrast, while the puddles on the muddy ground reflected the glowing sky.  Then, after minutes of moving silence, one prisoner said to another, 'How beautiful the world could be!'"  That the universe simply drops such revelations of beauty into people's hands in a concentration camp is an affirmation that there is some meaning for which we can hold out a little longer.

Beauty remained life-saving.  He tells of working at dawn in a trench and of having an inner conversation with his wife about whether he would give in to hopelessness.  And just at that moment when he might have decided hopelessness was more powerful than the will to survive, "a light was lit in a distant farmhouse, which stood on the horizon as if painted there, in the midst of the miserable grey of a dawning morning in Bavaria."  There was often music in the camps which highlighted the difference between sublime beauty and the greys of brutality.

Well might Frankl have wondered whether there was freedom in a concentration camp.  Even when he was in a slightly better situation as a doctor in a typhus hospital, the utterly arbitrary rules of the concentration camp--even forgetting the barbed wire for a moment, if one could--shaped his days.  When his field hospital was being "inspected," the inspectors cared more about how the patients' feet were tucked in among the blankets and whether there were any wisps of straw on the floor than whether the patients had the medications they needed.  Being both rule-bound and arbitrary gave the Nazis the psychological edge.  Yet Frankl tells us that there were men who often did something kind, comforted others, gave away a precious piece of bread.  "They may have been few in number, but they offer sufficient proof that everything can be taken from a man but one thing:  the last of the human freedoms--to choose one's attitude in any given set of circumstances, to choose one's own way."

This is what we are so admiring of the Ukrainians now as they are led by a defiant Volodymyr Zelensky.  In their heroic defiance, they are maintaining their freedom--and ours. While the Russians, like the Nazis, have a tactical advantage, one they exploit by announcing cease-fires around humanitarian routes--and then shelling them--the Ukrainians refuse to be dehumanized or cowed. They have already inspired North Americans and Europeans by their vivid example of maintaining one's freedom in the face of might. 

Monday, February 28, 2022

Finding ways to act in times of uncertainty

In this startling and dismaying year, three things have happened that I could not have predicted.  The first was that Omicron, arriving nearly two years after the Chinese admitted that there was a pandemic loose in Wuhan, would cause higher levels of illness than we had yet seen.  Watching the numbers skyrocket was surreal, especially since so many Canadians were vaccinated.  When Dr. Bonnie Henry said "There's always a second wave," I believed her.  But I thought that in a year's time--by spring of 2021--we'd be done.  COVID-19 has changed our world in ways we can barely begin to see.  I worry especially about what it has done to the performing arts and universities. And I am grateful to libraries  for dispensing quick COVID tests and showing their patrons how to access their health records for proof of vaccination.  I don't know about you, but libraries and bookstores kept me sane--or as sane as I've managed to be.

The second was the freedom convoy to Ottawa, where some Canadians were unspeakably rude and violent and others woefully misinformed about how democracy, and Canadian democracy worked.  Did they really think they could protest and honk their way into a government coup?  I try to think about each protester imagining they had the power and authority to undo a democratic election, and my mind boggles.  What role did hot tubs and bouncy castles play in their efforts to change Canada's constitution?  What has happened to the limits on the words "I want"?

The third of course is the invasion of Ukraine.  I knew, just as you and world leaders knew, that Putin was lying about the coming and the going of troops on Ukraine's borders.  But one of the things I've learned about the powerful from Rutger Bregman is that shamelessness of the powerful is unlimited, as is  their ability to lie shamelessly.  Nevertheless, I was a victim of what Viktor Frankl calls "the delusion of reprieve," something that Jews in the death camps felt in order to keep the will to survive.  "This is not really going to get as bad for me as I think it might," is an infinite loop in the mind of someone whose right to exist and whose humanity is under erasure.

Yes, the powerful are different from us.  Bregman identifies their disability as "acquired sociopathy." It arises, he tells us, "after a blow to the head that damages key regions of the brain and can turn the nicest people into the worst kind of Machiavellian.  It transpires that people in power display the same tendencies.  They literally act like someone with brain damage.  Not only are they more impulsive, self-centred, reckless, arrogant and ruder than average, they are more likely to cheat on their spouses, are less attentive to other people and less interested in others' perspectives.  They're also more shameless, often failing to manifest that one facial phenomenon that makes human beings unique among primates.  They don't blush."  Blushing is the human tell, out there for everyone to see, that we know we're being evil and unreasonable.  Pasty-faced Putin doesn't blush.

If this seems like too much to take in a mere two months into 2022 (Omicron identified toward the end of November 2021), that's because it is.  So I'd recommend that you visit Shawna Lemay's comforting blog, Transactions with Beauty:  "It's Hard to Concentrate right now."  The link is below.  I'm in more of a "Don't let the bastards get you down" mood.  In the face of such profound uncertainty, it helps if there are things we can do.

Putin has threatened every Russian journalist with fines up to $60,000 if they publish any thing about the war that they didn't find on official Russian sites.  They've shut down Facebook as much as they can so people can't gather or share accurate information.  Yuval Noah Hirari tells us that nations are built on stories.  (A link to his essay in The Guardian, "Why Vladimir Putin has already lost this war,"  is below.)  So you can support a thriving journalism culture in Canada.  You can support free speech.  Buy newspapers.  Join PEN Canada.  We know from what happened in Ottawa and what is happening next door, justified by the shout "fake news!" that the truth has become vulnerable in the cesspool of conspiracy theories and personal desires. Do what you can to keep it alive.  Support libraries, another form of literacy, the only public space where everyone, whether they have money or a roof over their head or not--is welcome.

What we see acted out by the Freedom Convoy and Putin's war is a belief that individual desires are sacrosanct, not to be questioned, debated, or thwarted--under threat of nuclear attack or attempted coup.  We need to call rampant individualism into question by celebrating "The Commons." What do we share that we can't do without?  Paved roads and traffic regulations. Public transit.  Clean air. Clean water. (Though unfortunately this isn't available to all of us. It's a file we seriously need to work on.) Health care and hospitals. Libraries, Schools and all post-secondary institutions.  Parks and other places of respite.  What we need, especially in Saskatchewan, is to shift the conversation away from individual wishes and actions toward a recognition that the things we hold in common--like information about how many COVID cases there are in a province with no vaccine passports or mask requirements in place--are crucial to our health and well-being.  

We can keep alive beauty and hope in our daily lives.  They lighten our hearts and nourish our souls and give us the energy to fight "the bastards."  We can keep kindness and tolerance alive.  Think of every act of kindness or smile of tolerance as counterweight to Putin and our homegrown protesters.  Anne Applebaum wrote in December's Atlantic about the fact that democracy is under threat and that the autocrats are winning.  It used to be that one in every two people lived in a democracy.  Now it's one in five. Beauty and hope and kindness and tolerance won't directly allow Canadians to effect the war in Ukraine, though we're hearing stories about people in Poland who are driven by exactly those values to help those fleeing the war.  We have to support their generosity and altruism by keeping those qualities alive here.  And who knows  how such ideals spread in the real world?  But they sure as hell don't spread if we aren't practicing them. 

And there are donations.  UNHCR is gearing up to give respite to Ukrainians fleeing the war.  Donations to the Canadian Red Cross, which is already at work, will be met, dollar for dollar, by the Canadian government. 

UNHCR in Ukraine 

Canadian Red Cross

The Commons during a pandemic

"It's hard to concentrate right now"

Why Vladimir Putin has already lost this war