Tuesday, December 8, 2020

COVID-19 Musings

 This morning I could tell, even from the north windows I look out as I scan the day's news, that sunrise was spectacular.  So I went upstairs to my study, which faces east.  The windows there don't give me the clearest view; there are too many tall pine trees for that, but I can fill in the blanks. The southeast sky was apricot and amber and saffron, and I simply leaned on the window sill to watch it subtly transform to everyday sunshine.  But before it did, I would see pale peach clouds swiftly drifting east as if to see how much of the colour they could soak in.  And then, pale by pale, it became an air-blue sky with a slash of topaz at the horizon:  ready for the day.

*     *     *

I broke a cat's jaw once.  I was bringing a long, heavy box holding a broken-down bookshelf into the house, but before I got it completely in, the door closed hard and brought the box down hard.  Niagara, my first philosopher cat, had come to greet me as she always did.  Not knowing the box hit her, I fed the cats and when she didn't come, I found her under my bed with a bloodied jaw.  We immediately went to the vet, who said that I'd neatly broken her mandible and dislocated her jaw. But she was back in my household the next morning, her jaw back where it belonged and her mandible neatly wired together.  She simply and calmly curled up in my lap and purred while she healed.  I call her a philosopher cat, but that's perhaps not the whole story.  "Reflective" and "profoundly caring" might be better words. "Intuitive"?  Seeming to know I was an insomniac, she never left my side at night until I was asleep.  Attuned to my moods, she rivaled more than one suicidal meditation by sitting on my lap. She was black, the shape of ancient Egyptian statues of cats, and her fur was extraordinarily sleek.  During bad times, she would sit sideways rather than with her head facing away, and calmly study me as if to say "Aren't I beautiful?  Stroke me.  Isn't that comforting?  Now you can endure."  How could I hurt her?  But it was exactly that endurance she taught me that characterized her recovery.  The vet gave her no meds, and in my anthropocentric way, I imagined her simply saying to herself not "when will the pain stop?" but "can I stand this right now?"  That is perhaps when I came to call her my philosopher cat.  Many times I have used what I imagined to be her strategy.  We humans are too apt to ask, tersely, "How long is this going to go on?"  Whereas the real question is about right now. 

*     *     *

 In the Saturday, November 21 Globe and Mail, Alex Hutchinson wrote about a "brilliantly sadistic format" of competitive running called the Quarantine Backyard Ultra, a virtual race in which runners had to clock 100 miles every 24 hours.  The person who wins is the last runner standing.  There is no known finish line, only runners hitting their physical and psychological wall and dropping out.  People who study athletes know that a runner's performance at any given moment is influenced by teleo-anticipation:  their sense of where they are in the race.  Most runners have their best time a kilometre from the finish line.  (For many others, the first kilometre is their best and the last their second best.)  In other words, runners pace themselves by where they are in the race.  But what if you don't know where you are in the race?  How do you judge how much longer you can go on?  The answer is that you don't.  You consider what's happening now.  That's all you've got to go on.  If you ask yourself, "Can I keep going?" rather than, "Can I make it to the finish?" you're far more likely to answer in the affirmative

*     *     *

I feel, frankly, like a fraud writing to you about mindfulness in the midst of a pandemic.  In some ways, poets are already into mindfulness, into that receptive presence in a moment that is often the prompt for a poem.  But I'm terrible at meditation.  Well, not always.  But often my mind is just too busy thinking about half a dozen things, as if it's a large pool table on which a whole pack of cranky Tolkien dwarves are playing at once.  Some part of my mind is working over the fingerings of a Bach Gigue while another part of my mind is replaying episodes of "The Queen's Gambit" while I'm also thinking about getting the Christmas baking done and considering the structure of the novel I'm reading.  Madness.  

In other ways, the pandemic has made me even  more mindful.  Half a dozen times each day I take my "temperature," reminding myself that in spite of the chaos and uncertainty and illness and death all around us, I am fine.  Once I've stilled myself, I just try to think of what I can do, which mostly comes to giving outrageous tips and thanking people who clean carts or explain how the new hand sanitizer gizmo works or sending donations to the food bank.  Another half a dozen times, my mind gets really angry at provincial premiers who have been too slow to respond to the second wave, who have seen it as a health VS economy paradigm, which is a "faulty either/or"--one of the basic logical fallacies I taught my undergraduates.  Sick or frightened or dead people don't promote a very robust economy.  (Or there's the even more stupid dichotomy between wearing a mask and being free.  Don't get me started discoursing on leadership.)  And then, well, we'll just let that viral photograph of Joseph Varon, a doctor who had worked 252 straight days be our synecdoche for those moments when we all feel enormous, amorphous grief.  When one of his patients got out of his bed in tears, just wanting to be with his wife, Dr. Varon simply held him. The rumpled white hair tells the story.  There's too much suffering right now, not all of it inevitable.  Suffering without meaning.  How can a pandemic mean?  The COVID pandemic is meaninglessness on an unimaginable scale.  

I have found two things to still this whirlpool of uncertainty and grief and angst.  One is to stop and be in the moment.  To ask not "how long can we keep this up?" but "can I manage this right now?"  Well, of course not; there's still too much death.  But right here and now I can cope.  And then I stop and find a narrative I can watch unfold.  My innocent cats giving one another a bath.  Bill lighting the candles for dinner.  A conversation with Veronica about anything.  The body language of two friends trying to talk with their masks on while knowing their friends are getting only half the message.  There are narratives going on all around us that have little to do with COVID, and we must celebrate them or we'll never get to that invisible finish line.

*     *     *

I'll finish as I began, with a snippet from the media.  In an online article in Atlantic, "Galaxy Brain Is Real," Marina Koren writes about the perspective created by the Hubble Telescope orbiting in space, which is kind of a ginormous version of what we feel standing at the edge of prairie or at the edge of the Grand Canyon or at the top of a skyscraper.  "The experience of awe, whether we’re standing at the summit of a mountain or sitting in front of a computer screen, can lead to 'a diminished sense of self,' a phrase psychologists use to describe feelings of smallness or insignificance in the face of something larger than oneself. Alarming as that may sound, research has shown that the sensation can be a good thing: A shot of awe can boost feelings of connectedness with other people."  Perhaps that's because we know we can only manage our insignificance with the support of others.  Not knowing about this article, Bill took me on a search for a clear shot of sunlight after our Sunday walk and drove down a dirt road (something he never does if he can help it) west of Grasslands, and stopped the car.  The prairie was looking gentle that day, the fields pocked by melting, revealing the white-golden grass.  The air was prairie-clear.  We could see a long way, and we both exhaled.  Even there, we could see that while we might be the centres of our own perspectives, we--and our anxieties--aren't the centre of the universe and that the human is very small.  Views of space from the Hubble so dwarf us that we realize that our present historical moment, in its own yin and yang, is both unprecedented and insignificant.

No comments:

Post a Comment