Sunday, 20 September 2020

Frogs, Oxen and Long Spoons

The word “inured” usually refers to one having accepted something unpleasant: being habituated, toughened, hardened, etc. I’m impressed with the ways in which so many of us are becoming accustomed to the restrictions of the coronavirus. I wonder, are we becoming inured?

The dictionary proposes that the opposites of inured are words like weakened, enfeebled, burnt-out. Are there only two options: inured or enfeebled? If so, inured would be surely my choice.

In the happy, long-ago days when I lived with my husband on Protection Island at the edge of the ocean, I swam several times a day in good weather and tried to extend the swimming season late into the fall. One year I was determined to swim until the end of November. My husband encouraged me by recounting the tale of Milo of Croton who was a great hero in 16th century Greece. According to the story, Milo built up his strength by carrying a calf on his shoulders every day until it became an ox. Every day, as he grew sturdier, he became inured to the task.

I quit my daily swims midway into November, but I think I was wiser than Milo who, later in life and overly proud of his strength, attempted to tear a tree apart until his hands became caught in the tree. He was then surprised and devoured by a pack of wolves.

Know when to quit and always treat trees with respect was my takeaway message from that story.

The other fable that comes to mind for me these days is the one about the frog who is placed in a pot of cold water which is gradually heated. Unable to detect the gradually increasing heat, the frog relaxes and is slowly cooked to death. Neither of these stories offer appealing choices at this time of Covid. Is that all there is?

But no, I remembered the parable of The Long Spoon. This story explains that in hell people gather around a pot of delicious stew but, because the handles of their spoons are longer than their arms, they cannot bring the stew to their mouths and thus are starved to death. In heaven, people learn to reach out, share, and feed one another, and they thrive happily together.

These old fables are instructive. It’s good to be inured and strengthened, but we don’t want to get too comfortable when things heat up around us. Whatever stresses we’re feeling these days, many of us are in the presence of abundance. If we accept our interdependence and learn to help each other out and to share, we’ll get through these trying times.

As Minister Dix has often pointed out, we’re all in this together.

And we need to be all in.

Sunday, 13 September 2020

Difficult Times



If you’ve ever taken music lessons, you probably remember having to count out the number of beats in a bar and supplying whatever crotchets or quavers or rests were needed to make the notation match the time signature. In the early years, you mostly had to learn 4/4 or 3/4 or maybe 2/4 time signatures, but later you encountered difficult time signatures like 5/4 (Dave Brubeck’s Take Five) or 13/8 (Main Theme from The Terminator) or 3/32 (Telemann’s Gulliver Suite). Bach used strange times in his Well Tempered Clavier and The Beatles employed a number of them in Happiness is a Warm Gun. Musicians know about difficult times.

When we met for coffee recently, my friend Kathryn-Jane was sporting a These are Difficult Times T-shirt with musical staffs showing 13/8 and 6/4 time signatures. And she told me about how choral music was helping her through these difficult times, even though she was no longer able to meet with her beloved choir. In fact, she said, some of her new musical experiences were thrilling: joining a 1500 voice international choir via Zoom. Attending a one-week Zoom music camp which featured some of the best voices in Canada and working with them to sing Bach’s Magnificat. Without the virus, she wouldn’t have had these opportunities. Here’s a link to one of the recordings of the Self-Isolation Choir in which Kathryn participated: https://youtu.be/Ye_A-ebDsj8

Many musicians are entertaining and educating us through our viral challenges. Listening to Vancouver Phoenix Choir’s version of Billy Joel’s The Longest Time made me feel that I was not alone. Indeed, the song stayed with me as an ear worm for several weeks and it was reassuring: https://phoenixchoir.com/2020/04/the-longest-time-quarantine-edition

Symphonies around the world are currently making their concerts available online, and many small musical groups are performing in small or large venues with social distancing and audiences of fewer than fifty people. Some offer excellent short programs such as the Victoria Baroque’s Music for the Pause series: https://victoria-baroque.com/

I like the possibilities that can arise from referring to this time as The Pause. In music, as in verse, the caesura is a space between notes or phrases which separates what went before and what comes after. It gives us a chance to catch our breath.

My daughter tells me that in Shakespeare’s plays, the caesura signals a dramatic pause and also a change. What comes after will not be as it was before, she says. It’s a launching into something else.

It was Mozart who declared that “The music is not in the notes, but in the silence between." Both Claude Debussy and Miles Davis said something very similar -- and all three were drawing attention to the potential of the pause. Maybe, when we move forward, we will have learned from these standstills.

At times, though, feeling trapped in a pause makes us uneasy. Here, again, musicians can offer a different way of approaching things. My friend Gwyneth, a harpist, tells me that sometimes when her small chamber group gets stuck in rehearsing a piece, they jump to the end and play the last bar, and then the second to the last bar, and then work backwards from there, which heartens them. When they return, they are ready to work through the problems.

I see it as a way of throwing a hook out into the future. You hope to catch on to something that will pull you forward. It reminds me of that beautiful choral song Woyaya, the lyrics of which were written by Annie Masembe from Uganda. Woyaya, in a Ghanaian language, means “we keep going”:

We are going … heaven knows where we are going,
But we know within.
And We will get there … heaven knows how we will get there,
But we know we will.

So I plan to keep going by signing up for some events – courses, commitments, concerts – that will take me into the spring. It helps create a feeling that a tangible future lies ahead.

And I’m determined to make the most of the silences and spaces in between those events. I will practice the Covid Caesura.

The Pause.

Sunday, 6 September 2020

Zoom Heaven


 
 

 As we often say, the virus has brought us many gifts. One of the most surprising is the spike in digital communications. Everything is online which is a very mixed blessing. It’s nice to connect with doctors without spending hours in their waiting room surrounded by people who are coughing, sneezing, or groaning. On the other hand, many of us have complaints about technological glitches that force us to recover passwords or security codes or fix our computers without any access to actual human beings.

 At the top of the list of new challenges is ZOOM.  Who ever heard of it before March? Who had the foresight to invest in it? Now many of us are zooming every day, either rejoicing in or rebelling against its enforced presence in our Covid world. Some people are happy with the ease and comfort of working from home; others miss the socializing that workplaces provided. Grandparents living a distance away from their families are now becoming familiar with Zoom, and they love the opportunity to see and interact with grandchildren.

Some of us love Zoom, some of us hate it, some both love and hate it. Some have written about the love/hate relationship they have with Zoom, about how it can create moments of intimacy and also of resentment:


Recently, I’ve been thinking of Zoom as something like Heaven, although I know that a great many teachers and professors and their students feel differently and, understandably, may find it to be Hellish. Like Heaven, it's hard to get into.

I’m old enough to be captivated by it and to find it remarkable. What would my grandparents think of Zoom? It would surely appear miraculous, inconceivable. I remember my grandmother telling me about the magic of hearing a human voice by means of a crystal set. Though she was familiar with telegrams, it was not until she was middle-aged that she had a telephone and much later before she had a black-and wife TV set. My parents had a hi-fi set and coloured TV, but they never had a computer, nor a cell phone.

They would have marvelled at all the wireless capacity we have. How could it be possible to do so many things from a distance: open doors, turn on stoves and computers, dictate and print out documents while driving our cars? All without any wires or cables? Incredible!

There’s a famous poem by Henry Scott-Holland that says, “Death is nothing at all … I have only slipped away into the next room”:


Zoom feels a bit like that. Though people are very far away, on Zoom it’s as though they are just in the next room.

As I try to imagine the multiple universes within which our earth is a mere dot, I wonder if somewhere in a distant galaxy there could not be some interstellar server which picks up all the details in our lives and those of our loved ones. Perhaps it could gather them together for us when we leave this mortal coil. After all, doesn’t the very name, Zoom, conjure up the world of Marvel comics and superheroic feats?

For some of us, one of the gifts from the coronavirus is time to imagine. To conjure up fantasies about all things great and small, visible and invisible.

Tomorrow I may be complaining about the various diabolical aspects of Zoom communications, but for tonight I’m happily visualizing the possibilities of Zoom Heaven.

 

 

Sunday, 30 August 2020

Covid Crankiness




 

The virus makes me cranky for many reasons, one of which has to do with the way our language is changing.  I hear people speaking about how things will be when we get “back to normal,” and, in my cranky way, I feel obliged to point out that “back” and “normal” are words which must be removed from our everyday lexicon because we will not be going back anywhere, and because what once was normal was often not good for a great many people. Nor for the environment.

At the same time, we are having to get used to a batch of new words: self-isolating, curve-flattening, social distancing, infodemic, covidiots, doomscrolling, etc.

With the virus numbers rising it’s hard not to get into doomscrolling, while we try to sort through all the disturbing news and conflicting information. As Nicole Ellison pointed out in a recent issue of Wired Magazine, there's a “lot of demand on cognitive processing to make sense of this. There’s no overarching narrative that helps us.”


Our activities continue to bring us new words. Many of us are spending a lot of time zooming and hoping to stay away from zoombombers and, at the end of the day, needing to settle down with a couple of quarantinis.

Even the Oxford English Dictionary broke its usual cycle of adding new words every four months so as to add a slate of new words and terms which have come into use during the coronavirus outbreak:


It’s understandable that, at this time of unprecedented change, new words become necessary. We need to change with the new world and the new words.

What I don’t like is the way some old words are being used. My friend Bill drew my attention to the overuse of the word pivot, for instance. Until now it was used primarily to describe the central point on which something turns or oscillates and, only secondarily, as a verb meaning to turn, as if on a pivot. It was used infrequently. Now any change is called a pivot, and the word appears so frequently in news about politicians that most public figures appear to be whirling dervishes.

We are dealing with constant change, and maybe we're all feeling and behaving like dervishes these days.

I’m now described as compromised, because of my respiratory and cardiac issues. Compromise used to mean a settlement of a dispute or accepting standards that are lower than desirable. Sometimes it meant the weakening of principles, or a shameful or disreputable concession.

These days it’s used primarily to refer an impairment to the immune system. People worry about visiting me or having me participate in certain activities because I am compromised. They check up on how I am doing because I am compromised.  I’ve heard the word compromised more in the past 5 months than in more than 7 decades, and I don’t like it.

It implies that someone is fragile and vulnerable, which is not how I like to think of myself. Nor do I think of myself as a person who easily lowers her standards.

On the contrary, with regard to the virus, I respect the advice given by our health professionals and I follow the rules. I won’t compromise my principles. On these, I will not pivot.

Do new words and changed usages really matter? Probably not. Language evolves, and we must evolve with it. I’m ready to make that concession. I’ll make that compromise.

But I myself refuse to be considered compromised.
And covid crankiness encourages me to complain about it.

Sunday, 23 August 2020

The New Deadly Sins




 
 

The idea of the Seven Deadly Sins has long been of interest to me. I can’t remember when I first heard of them. Maybe in The Canterbury Tales, in which The Parson refers to them and offers remedies against them. There are references to the deadly sins in Faust, with Mephistopheles presenting a show of them to entertain and tempt Faust.  

The representation of them in the images in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting of the Deadly Sins and the Four Last things (Death, Judgment, Heaven and Hell) has always stayed with me.


I've prided (which is the worst sin, according to Chaucer’s Parson) myself on my ability to quickly recite the Seven Deadly Sins: Pride, Ire, Greed, Lust, Envy, Gluttony and Sloth. This is a trick which results from my habitual acronymizing, hence PIG LEGS.

Through the years, I’ve been guilty, to a greater or lesser extent, of each of those sins.  I regret those misbehaviours, and yet they don’t seem so very bad to me. They’re certainly none of them attractive behaviours, but the list is a bit old-fashioned. In the crises we're facing today – the virus, the climate, the economy, racism and violence -- there are much worse sins.

I propose a list of New Deadly Sins which are worse, because they are much deadlier.

And let's make it simple by focussing on three main areas:

1. For starters, Complacency and Carelessness are the deadliest. That’s why the virus is spiking again. I heard an interview with someone in Australia who was asked about the causes of the spike which resulted in a declared state of disaster and new lockdown measures: she answered in one word: complacency. We were congratulating ourselves on how well we had done, she said, and we got careless and started to ignore the guidelines.

Complacency and Carelessness are what we're seeing here in our province right now. We think we're doing well, and we just decide to forget about the rules so as to enjoy the pleasures to which we are accustomed.

These sins are closely related to two others: Smugness and Selfishness, which limit our thinking and prevent us from being responsible citizens.   

2. Cynicism and Disrespect are increasing, perhaps as a result of virus fatigue. People ask: do the experts really know what they are talking about? And, if so, why is there so much inconsistency?

Becoming cynical and disrespecting experts can lead to foolish theories about conspiracies and hoaxes which may result in very deadly behaviours. Sometimes one's own death. 

3. Nostalgia is deadly. Looking back to how things used to be will not help us. We're not going to be going back to the way things used to be. It doesn’t help to have old people recalling the past and bleating on about the fact that young people won’t have the carefree world they inhabited in their long-ago youth. There was plenty wrong with that old world, much of which led us to the problems we have today.

We old people owe it to the young to support them in moving forward.

I’m not suggesting that we should forget all about PIGLEGS, and I don’t yet have an acronym for the new deadly sins. But I think we should keep them in mind: Complacency, Carelessness, Smugness, Selfishness, Cynicism, Disrespect, and Nostalgia.

Remember, and try to avoid them.

 

Sunday, 16 August 2020

Ceremony


 
The word “ceremony” comes from the Latin word caermonia which refers to events involving “holiness, sacredness, awe.” Ancient cultures around the practised ceremonial rituals, sometimes bloody and more often joyous. These ceremonies were ways of paying attention to all aspects of human life: birth, death, coming of age. Indigenous ceremonies were often seen as means of connecting with the land, the life cycle and with each other. Such ceremonies emphasized reciprocity and interconnectedness.

In Western society, the word “ceremony” frequently refers to conventions of formality and politeness and is sometimes used disparagingly, as in “mere ceremony.” And yet our ceremonies are usually of great importance to us. We may complain about the effort that ceremony requires, but celebrations and ceremonies connected with such occasions as birth, weddings, funerals, graduation, awards and honours are important to us and help us to experience and express our feelings about such milestones.

The coronavirus has stripped us of many of our customary traditional ceremonies. Many hundreds of students have missed out on the usual graduation ceremonies, funerals are now kept to small numbers, and weddings are being postponed. No large gatherings and no hugs are permitted to mark these milestones. Church services have been restricted and choirs discontinued. We’ve had to forego many rituals we have about annual gatherings for birthdays and festivals. Like many others, I am feeling the loss of these ceremonies.

And yet, in other countries, people seem to have ceremonies in their daily life. They may create small shrines for their ancestors. They sometimes set a place at the dinner table for a dead family member. Many indigenous people bless the salmon and food they are about to eat. Saying grace before a meal, expressing gratitude for the sustenance that is about to be eaten, has been a common practice in many cultures. It's good to pay attention. Attention, Simone Weil said, is prayer.

As a result of COVID, we may have to work very hard to bring ceremony into our lives. But our they don’t have to always be formal; we can learn new ways of making ceremony and ritual part of our everyday life. Around the world and throughout history there have been ceremonial practices that have taken place in small yet intimate and meaningful ways.

Recently I watched the first Turtle Lodge’s first episode of the  Reconciling Ways of Knowing: Indigenous Knowledge and Science Forum (https://www.waysofknowingforum.ca/episode1) in which Dave Courchene, Elder and Leading Earth Man, spoke movingly about the importance of ritual. As he says. “Ceremony has always guided us.”

I feel in need of that guidance. A need for ceremony.

How can I create ceremony in my daily life? Well, I could begin each day with a yogic sun salutation. Or I could regularly walk a labyrinth as a mindful meditation. Or, more simply, I could make daily practice of just sitting on my patio each morning and saying aloud, as was written in Ecclesiastes, Truly the light is sweet and a pleasant thing it is for the eyes to behold the sun.

In these uncertain times, when we don’t know anything at all about what lies ahead, it makes sense for us to use ceremony as a way of feeling and expressing gratitude for each new day.

Sunday, 9 August 2020

Emergency

 
Anyone who has read Emily St. John Mandel’s brilliant and terrifying dystopian novel, Station Eleven, will remember the early conversation in which an Emergency Room doctor is telling his friend about a patient who presented at the hospital with flu symptoms after arriving on an international flight. Within only a few hours, more than two hundred additional patients are admitted. He describes the ER being full, beds parked in hallways, half the ER staff too sick to work, and advises his friend to get out of town as fast as possible.

It’s a terrifying image of a situation which worsens as the story unfolds. It’s not the story I wanted to have in my head as I went to the Nanaimo Hospital earlier this week to deal with an episode of atrial fibrillation. Here, though, the Emergency entrance opened to a clean, well-lighted place with calm, professional staff firmly in control. As I entered, a friendly young attendant kindly noted that my daughter could not accompany me, asked me the usual Covid questions, and pointed to the hand sanitizer.

The waiting room was busy, but the admitting nurses were efficient and quickly moved patients through to the next stage. It was odd to see everyone wearing masks, and I could feel that many people were missing having their spouses or children with them while they were waiting to see what was in store. All of this, along with the endless sanitizing of equipment, might have made the atmosphere feel clinical and alarming, but that was not the case. The kindness, supportiveness and calm presence of doctors, nurses and support staff made everything peaceful. It was a busy night when I was there, and yet I felt well attended. Well cared for. I recall the King’s speech in Shakespeare’s Henry VIII in which he says Things done well, and with a care, exempt themselves from fear.

I left the hospital with my heart rate normal and steady—and nobody presented me with a bill for their services. If I lived a little south of here, my hospital experience would have been very different. I thought about this when I read Wade Davis's recent article in Rolling Stone: https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/covid-19-end-of-american-era-wade-davis-1038206/

We are fortunate to have our good governments and solid health programs. No amount of pot banging and window hearts can begin to express our indebtedness to our professional healthcare workers and hospital staff for all that they do and how they conduct themselves in these challenging circumstances.

I am deeply grateful.