Sunday, 17 January 2021

Bursting Bubbles




I’m going to burst your bubble, people used to threaten, when they were about to destroy one of my illusions or delusions. These days, it feels like a lot of my bubbles are being burst. Riots in the US and racism close to home are destroying my illusions about civil society, decency, truth, and so forth. And I am disillusioned about the use of the word “bubble” with reference to the pandemic.

“Stick to your bubble,” advise the health authorities. But the word “bubble” has taken on a questionable reputation. There are so many alternate bubbles. One hears references to “someone in one of my bubbles” or “a person who is sort of in my bubble”. One couple told me that they were visiting an acquaintance who “thinks of us as being in her bubble.” When I told my daughter this, she said, I like to think of Judi Dench and Maggie Smith and Emma Thompson as being in my bubble -- but they’re not!

Bubbles are being replicated, extended, elongated, expanded and twisted to accommodate immediate desires. They’re not working to limit contact. Let’s just burst them!

Right now, we’re supposed to remain in our households so let’s just use that word. Household. And if you stay in your household you can spend face-to-face time only with your spouse and family, housemate, or perhaps that one old person who lives alone and sees nobody but you. You can’t have others into your home. You can’t visit casual acquaintances. You can’t holiday in Mexico.

More bubbles, less troubles, said Sandro Bottega, excellent producer of exquisite grappas and a variety of fine prosecco wines (https://www.bottegaspa.com/en/the-collections/wines/prosecco-sparkling-wines) when we visited Distilleria Bottega in Conegliano many years ago. That’s still true about drinking sparkling wine, but not about your social contacts during a pandemic.

The virus numbers in Canada are increasing daily. When I first started checking the statistics on the Worldometer website https://www.worldometers.info/coronavirus/. Canada was 32nd out of the 221 countries listed. Now we are 22nd, and the numbers continue to be high.

Despite my bubble-bursting, I see positive signs, some things to make me hopeful. Because of tightened restrictions, the curve may be flattening in B.C. and in other parts of Canada. The vaccines are being distributed. The little bulbs are appearing. Spring is coming.

Recently, I read statistics that break down global demographics as if the world were a village of 100 people. Several such reports noted that 93 of the hundred in this global village would not reach the age of 65. The most recent report I could find indicated other ways in which I am clearly one of a very small number of very privileged villagers: https://usm.maine.edu/international/if-world-were-village-100-0 . I always knew I was fortunate, but these charts further convince me.

I have much for which to be thankful. And when I become depressed about the evildoings of humankind, I remember that my friend Rachel assures me that there are more good people in the world than bad ones. My Dad used to say that, too.

They’re probably right.

 

 

Sunday, 10 January 2021

Epiphany, Part Two






In last week’s post, I wrote about the biblical story of Epiphany, about the wise men following their vision, seeing the light, and returning by another route, no longer on the path of position, privilege and power. This week, on January 6th, the actual day of Epiphany, we saw on the news not a vision of hope and salvation but one of hatred and violence. We witnessed an attack on the U.S. White House that Rolling Stone Magazine described as one of “white supremacy on parade:”  https://www.rollingstone.com/politics/political-commentary/trump-mob-capitol-attack-jamil-1110820/

If there is one positive thing that has emerged from this event it's that the existence of white privilege, white supremacy and institutional racism has been made so very visible. Having read about peaceful demonstrations in which black protesters were met with excessive use of police force, it’s shocking to see law enforcers in Washington having selfies taken with the white rioters storming the White House.  Surely, it will now be difficult for any politician to deny that systemic racism and white privilege exist. Let’s hope we are all becoming motivated to do something about it.

It's not just in the U.S. that far-right groups exist. A recent CBC documentary referred to alt-right rallies happening in Canada every week and noted that hate groups here have formed coalitions: https://www.cbc.ca/passionateeye/features/right-wing-extremist-groups-and-hate-crimes-are-growing-in-canada. The comments in response to this program included many disturbing remarks about “PC nonsense” and “the government using identity politics, social issues and covid to keep us at each others throats.” On the afternoon of the rioters storming the White House, a small group of Pro-Trump demonstrators gathered in front of the Vancouver Art Gallery. It was only a small group, but still disturbing, as are the frequent demonstrations by anti-maskers. Canada has a long way to go to overcome extremism and racism in our own country.

Over the past few years, many institutions have engaged in what they call “difficult conversations” about racism. It’s a start. The talk is good, and sometimes it feels satisfying, but the picture hasn’t really altered much. There’s a long way to go, and we need to change direction.

Arnold Schwarzenegger in a surprisingly emotional speech compares the January 6th event in Washington to Kristallnacht in Germany in 1938: https://www.ctvnews.ca/entertainment/arnold-schwarzenegger-says-trump-is-a-failed-leader-and-urges-unity-after-capitol-siege-1.5261029

He speaks, poignantly, about people he knew then who were not Nazis but “just went down the road, step-by-step,”

Let’s not do that. It’s time to stop, think, and choose another path.

Sunday, 3 January 2021

Epiphany

 


Many years ago, my husband and I were in London, attending a service at St. Martin-in-the-Fields on New Year’s Day. The young priest who gave the sermon spoke of the evils of war and the abuse of power by political leaders around the world, in particular speaking about the American President at that time, George Bush, and the conflict with Iraq. She told the biblical story of Herod the King commanding three wise men to follow up on stories about the birth of a baby who was touted as the King of the Jews and to report back to him.

The three wise men, she said, were wealthy and influential. They had followed the star, travelling on a path of power, position and privilege. She emphasized this point before continuing to say that, having seen and worshipped the infant, the three men were warned by God in a dream that they should not return to Herod And so, according to the Bible, they departed into their own country another way.

They travelled on another path, said the priest, without the power, position and privilege upon which they had always relied.

That sermon struck me powerfully at the time. And now, I believe, the virus has shown that power, position and privilege will not get us through a pandemic.

Clearly, we need a new path. Systemic inequality, racial violence, social unrest, the climate crisis and the need for reconciliation with indigenous peoples demand new approaches. The pandemic has made this need much more urgent. Crucial.

If we and the planet are to survive, we must change. Secretary-General António Guterres has proposed a new social contract as a way forward:

https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/a-new-social-contract-for-a-new-era/

This idea has also been suggested by various environmental, political, spiritual and financial leaders. If you enter “Social contract 2021” or “Social contract pandemic” in your search engine, you’ll find several hundreds of results. The details vary, but all of them propose a radical shift in how we deal with pervasive inequalities and the climate crisis. Various consultation processes, assemblies and tables are recommended. That’s all needed for meaningful social contracts, no doubt.

But perhaps it’s also necessary for each of us to examine our own new path and to choose a better way individually. A social contract needs to be supported from the ground up as well as with whatever may be developed and imposed from the top. What can an individual do to choose as a better way?

It’s the time of year when, traditionally, people make resolutions. I don’t do that any more because I never keep them. And I don’t set out intentions, because I know what the road to hell is paved with. Often, at the time of Epiphany, I’ve chosen an inspiring word like trust or hope or community as something to guide me in the coming year.

This year the word I’ve chosen is real. I’m tired of lies, fabrications, dishonesty, alternate facts, fake news, and inauthenticity of every sort. The self-deceptions that prevent us from pursuing transformative change.

I’m going to pay attention to what is real in the world around me. In the people, In the ideas, in the words, in the physical world, in the things.

And most of all, in myself.

 

Sunday, 27 December 2020

The Year Ahead

 


What are we to make of the year ahead? Whether it’s about the environment, the stock market or the pandemic, predictions seem to vary widely.

I recall the mythical story about Zhou Enlai, in response to a question about the impact of the French Revolution, saying “It’s too soon to tell.” And that reminded me of the old-fashioned Victorian cards that pictured a cherub wearing a sash that carried a New Year's greeting

It's early days yet, and the new year will appear in its infancy.

My friend Pat sent me a Christmas card that contained a quotation from a letter Rilke wrote to his fiancée Clara on January 1, 1907:

And now let us believe in a long year that is given to us, new, untouched, full of things that have never been, full of work that has never been done, full of tasks, claims, and demands; and let us see that we learn to take it without letting fall too much of what it has to bestow upon those who demand of it necessary, serious, and great things.

What wonderful letters people once wrote, before the days of email!!

I enjoy a British website which regularly sends out what they properly describe as “letters of note”:

https://lettersofnote.com/

Check out their website to order one of their beautiful editions of collected letters or just to sign up for email notifications which will send you random letters from time to time.

Today’s letter was from Sylvia Townsend Warner writing about having received an empty matchbox, one which was “neat and charming with a tray that slides in and out as though Chippendale has made it.” She writes that she had shut her imagination up in it instantly, and it is still sitting there, listening to the wind in the firwood outside.

At this time, I doubt many people are celebrating the gift of an empty matchbox so enthusiastically, but I do hope some of us are taking time to actually write real letters of thanks for our gifts.

Many have spoken about how thankful they are these days, especially for the various connections we can still have. Without close interactions, we’ve made greater attempts to greet our neighbours. We’ve made telephone calls. We’ve connected with old friends through email and social media. We’ve learned how to employ Zoom for family gatherings. We’ve used our wonderful postal services much more frequently to send and receive parcels, Christmas cards, and even real letters.

I’m hopeful that, if we keeping sticking together while following the rules, the sun will continue to rise, spring will come, and we’ll find new ways to meet the real challenges that we'll face in the year ahead.

I like the Victorian notion of relating the new year to the image of an infant. Neither has done anything wrong yet. They both need us to love and hope and care for them in order that they may flourish.

Let’s give 2021 the care and hope it needs. Let’s help it become the best year it possibly can be.

 

Sunday, 20 December 2020

Christmas This Year

 



It’s that time of year again, but there seems to be a little less scurrying about and perhaps not so much getting and spending. It's a time which Bernadine Evaristo, in her novel Girl, Woman, Other, winner of the 2019 Booker Prize, refers to as “Greedymas.” 

For some time, the Christmas season in North America has been characterized by greed and gluttony, but this year people seem to be more thoughtful. Lots of people I know are giving donations to local social agencies. In one branch of my family, instead of doing the usual Secret Santa gifts, they are all contributing to a large family charitable donation to a non-profit organization that is helping with the current challenges.

Most people are doing much less travelling this holiday season, which is a good thing. Often people express concern about visiting older people who are “compromised.” It’s true that the compromised are more likely to get very sick and perhaps die if we contract the virus but, as far as I know, we are no more likely than anyone else to actually catch the virus.  The point is, you don’t want to pass the disease on to anyone, compromised or not.

The virus needs us to convey it from host to host. That’s why Dr. Henry and Minister Dix are telling us to stay home. Jane Godley says this more forcefully:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=QsiXbrH_vUA

Being in a global pandemic makes this a very different holiday season. It’s particularly hard for people who’ve experienced losses such as loss of income, loss of work, lack of contact with friends and family, and anxiety of the future. 

Even without a pandemic, Christmas and other holidays are often mixed for older people, who are remembering happy times and are missing loved ones who are no longer with us.. This year many will be missing children and grandchildren who are unable to visit. Lots of people will be spending Christmas alone. It will certainly feel lonely, but there will be a sense of satisfaction in doing the right thing. At a spiritual level, it might actually feel inspiring. There may be a new awareness of Peace and Goodwill towards others.

Which reminds me, on a nostalgic note, that I have always liked the Christmas carol which is set to the words from Longfellow’s I heard the Bells on Christmas Day:

https://poets.org/poem/christmas-bells

It’s encouraging to think that “The Wrong shall fail, The Right prevail, with Peace on Earth, Good-will to Men."

Perhaps that might be too much to hope for. But poets continue to give us encouraging words. Recently, my friend Marian sent me this quotation of Leonard Cohen’s parting words from his Old Ideas World Tour in 2012:

May you be surrounded by friends and family, and if this is not your lot, may the blessings find you in your solitude."

I can think of no more appropriate words for us at this time.

May those blessings be with us all.

 

 

Sunday, 13 December 2020

O Christmas Tree

 


Like most children, I was always greatly excited when, at last, the time came to get the Christmas tree. In those early years, my father would pack my brothers and I into the family car to head out to Lulu Island to find the most beautiful tree. Many years later, my husband and I and our friends would go to a property in Yellow Point where we could find, not a perfect tree, but one that was crowding out another and should be removed to allow the better tree room to grow. Those trees, my young daughter claimed, were like something from the Grinch Who Stole Christmas: scrawny, crooked, misshapen. Eventually she bullied us into buying a Christmas tree from a lot.

No matter where they were found, all these trees provided a good base for lights and decorations and offered that wonderful smell of the outdoors which so interested our various cats and dog, but some of my favourite trees were the ones my husband and I had in Montreal when we were first married. We had no decorations and very little money but we managed to get a tree. I had remembered a Christmas story I loved as a child about a lonely tree who was left behind when others were taken away to homes where they shone with light and tinsel. Happily, some children went out to hang cookies on that little tree and then the birds came to sit on the branches making it the most beautiful tree of all. Inspired by that memory, I made birds of various sizes from coloured construction paper and baked cookies with faces made of raisins, nuts and bits of maraschino cherries.

The practice of bringing evergreens in the home goes back hundreds of years. Egyptians, Romans, Celts and Vikings liked to bring various green plants and evergreens into their homes at the time of the winter solstice, in some cases to keep away evil spirits and illness and in others to celebrate new seasons, new growth and life over death. 

The origin of the modern Christmas tree is often attributed to Germany, and I grew up singing O Tannenbaum in honour of that. One legend about the German celebrations proposes that Martin Luther was responsible for the origin of the Christmas tree in 1500. As the story goes, Luther was walking through the snowy woods and was moved by the beautify of the snow glistening on the branches of trees. In response to this he brought a small tree into his house and decorated it with small candles to illustrate the Christmas sky.

It was the Victorian period that brought trees into popular use in Britain and North America. Queen Victoria, her German husband prince Albert and her children were pictured around the Christmas tree: https://www.whychristmas.com/customs/trees.shtml

Indigenous people have celebrated the winter solstice for millennia. While the tree is not the focus of solstice festivities, Tsatassaya White tells me that the cedar tree is of central importance to indigenous people, a tree of life that is a central source for ceremony and for many applications including cooking, clothing and ritual. To learn more about indigenous solstice festivals, you might sign up for the livestream event that Tsatassaya and Crimson Coast’s Dance Society are hosting on December 20th:

https://www.bclocalnews.com/entertainment/indigenous-artists-mark-winter-solstice-with-new-music-and-dance-festival/

We continue to learn new things about the importance of trees in our lives. A friend sent me this recent article in the New York Times which describes the research of UBC Professor of Forest Ecology, Dr. Suzanne Simard.  The article describes her work into mycorrhizal networks, the underground communication systems through which the dynamic exchange of resources and alarm signals through which resources and wisdom flow from the biggest and largest to the youngest and smallest trees:

https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/12/02/magazine/tree-communication-mycorrhiza.html?referringSource=articleShare

Reading about the awareness and sensitivity of trees makes me wonder about the practice of cutting them down for our Christmas festivities, but many articles suggest that the Christmas tree industry provides positive benefits:

https://www.ag.ndsu.edu/yardandgardenreport/2020-12-03/a-greener-christmas-tree

There’s something heartening about bringing a little of the outdoors into our homes. Not just the scent, but the spirit of the tree. As it is an ancient symbols of growth, transformation and connection, it’s not surprising that, at this time of isolation and separation, our Christmas trees are inviting us to communicate with them.  We feel affection our Christmas trees, as ee cummings described so poignantly in his poem Little Tree, which my friend Mark sent to me yesterday:

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/47304/little-tree

Trees are sending out good messages to us: Stay in place. Connect. Grow. Pay attention. Feel grateful.

 

 

 

Sunday, 6 December 2020

Knitting Up the Raveled Sleeve of Care









Despite a few haphazard attempts, I’ve never been any good at knitting, but I was pleased when my granddaughter proposed that it was something we could do together. I told her I could teach her how to knit and pearl so that we could make some of those little six-by-six dishcloths, and then she could find a real knitter to teach her. My friend and knitting guide Trudy dropped off a couple of balls of cotton wool and some knitting needles, and so we began.

At this time of separation and isolation, it feels good to be knitting. Through the years, many people have found solace in this activity during stressful periods. My granddaughter points out that knitting is a lot like life in that sometimes you have to go back and redo a couple of rows before you can move forward.  My own tendency is just to blunder on, ignoring the mistakes, which is why my granddaughter will be a better knitter than I. And a better human being.

Knitting has long been recommended as a cure for boredom. Theatre critic, writer and satirist Dorothy Parker took her knitting with her everywhere. In reviewing a forgettable production, she advised her readers, “If you don’t knit, bring a book.”

Although it helps with stress reduction, there's a dark side to knitting. Virginia Woolf thought of knitting as therapy. Early in 1912 she reported to Leonard Woolf, before they were married and shortly after she had been in a rest home, that "Knitting is the saving of life." That worked until 1941, when Virginia took her own life, drowning herself in the river Ouse.

Years ago, I used to watch one of my colleagues knit quickly and furiously through tedious administrative meetings. Observing her grim expression, I was reminded of Madam Defarge in Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities. With her stitches, Madame Defarge secretly knits a register of the names of the revolution’s intended victims, those who were to be executed. When she is asked about it, she claims it is just a pastime, but later smiles and says she may find a use for it and, if so, “I’ll use it.” And she did.

During the seventeen days that my husband was in hospital before he died, I sat beside him, knitting a long scarf. Nothing fancy and somewhat uneven, it contained rows of stitching on patterned wool and served as the kind of mindless activity I needed through those long days and nights. After his death, I gave the scarf to my daughter, telling her that I had stitched all of life and death into it. I don't remember ever seeing her wear it, although she says she has done.

Yarn representing the thread of life is a very old concept. The mythology of Ancient Greece tells the story of the Morae, or the Fates, who spin, measure, and cut the length of each person’s life. https://mythagora.com/bios/fates.html

These days many lives are being cut short, and it seems that many things are falling apart. Unraveling. I think of Macbeth’s longing for the Sleep that knits up the ravell'd sleave of care. The sleep, it suggests, will knit up and make new again all that has been unravelled.

Knitting is a useful image for what we will need to do to heal our damaged world. We will need to bring things back together so that the thread of life can continue. We will have to integrate a lot of pain and loss and knit it all together. The broken world, just like broken bones, will tale time to be knit together.

And how will we do it? Sitting out on my patio this afternoon, I watched the trees swaying gently in the light wind and thought of how much we have been learning recently of the ways in which trees and fungi are communicating and knitting their connections underground. Dr. Richard Atleo has proposed that the Nuu-Chah-Nulth people's core belief of Tsawalk, “everything is one,” offers a foundation for building more equitable and sustainable communities: https://www.ubcpress.ca/principles-of-tsawalk

Maybe that’s a place to start. Acknowledging that everything is one, and honouring the connections we have and will need to forge in the future. And all those ravell’d things that we will have to knit up.

It looks like we’ll all have to stick to our knitting for the next many months and years to come.