Saturday, 4 April 2020

If We Could Talk to the Animals...

While most of us are self-isolating at home, all over the world there are animals taking to the streets. Wild boars wander around Barcelona, silka deer are seen on the streets and subways in Nara, Japan, gangs of wild turkeys are swaggering around the streets of Oakland California, and pelicans are gathering on Peruvian beaches. The virus that has us humans hunkering down at home has given free rein for many birds and animals to take over our territory. I’ve particularly enjoyed the videos of wild goats exploring the Welsh village of Llandudno:

When we humans return to those places, we may need to develop better relations with our animal neighbours who are presently out there. I find myself thinking of Dr. Doolittle’s song:

If we could talk to the animals, learn their languages
Maybe take an animal degree.

Many vegans and animal rights supporters have spoken out about the dangers of zoonotic diseases, meaning those diseases started in animals before spreading to humans. Zoonotic diseases rank among the world’s most infamous examples: HIV, SARS, Ebola, and H5N1 influenza, for example, all percolated in wildlife before close interactions with humans spawned international outbreaks. And there have been others: the avian flus related to chicken farming, swine flu beginning on pig farms, mad cow disease, and so on.

The Guardian recently published an interesting article exploring the relation between factory farming and the coronavirus.

Recently there have been social media claims that COVID-19 could have been prevented if people ate less meat. These claims have been countered with suggestions that they are too simplistic or “partially false.” But, as the Guardian pointed out, they may also be “partially true.” And, if so, it may be the case that, as a friend suggests, “Animal culture represents a vast petri dish in which the very bugs that are killing us are being created.”

Maybe it’s time to take a moment to reflect on how we treat our animals. A vegan friend says, “It’s the cruelty that boggles the mind. How can something that’s so cruel be anything but wrong? Why can’t we leave the animals alone?” Although I am not a true vegan, I can’t help but agree. Keeping animals cooped up and penned in at very close quarters is cruel. Even the creatures that are “kindly” or “gently” killed deserve better.

Easter is coming up in a week with its attendant imagery and messages of resurrection. Perhaps, when this epidemic is over, we might consider no longer crucifying our animal friends -- for their sake and for ours. We might create a more humane planet on which we would care for all species. We might even try talking to the animals.

Monday, 30 March 2020

The Plague

These mornings, when I first awaken, I sometimes feel a little bleak. And when I think of bleakness, I often think of King Lear. In particular, I recall the scene in which when, out on the heath, battling the elements of nature, Lear thinks of the poor and wonders How shall your houseless heads and unfed sides/Your loopd and windowd raggedness, defend you/From seasons such as these? He realizes, tragically, that he has overlooked issues that were once within his power, and cries O, I have taken/Too little care of this.

Some people think the point of the play is that King Lear gave away his money and power too soon, but what the play really presents is a portrait of a man who, because of his egotism and narcissism, has never been able to distinguish between good and evil. Blinded by the fawning flattery of his two heartless older daughters, he fails to see the honest love of his youngest and thus gives everything to the forces that will destroy him and his kingdom. The Fool, loyal to the King, speaks truly to Lear and challenges him: Thou wouldst make a good fool and Thou shouldst not have been old till thou hadst been wise.
The play has a lot to do with wickedness and malevolence. Perhaps the most shocking scene Shakespeare ever created was the one in which Goneril and Regan bind Gloucester and gouge out his eyes. The line Out, vile jelly! Is hard to forget! But there is also love and loyalty. If Goneril and Regan are led only by appetite and ambition, Cordelia is guided by honesty and devotion. Gloucester is faithful and trustworthy, as is his son, Edgar, disguised as Mad Tom so that he can help his father.

It seems to me that the Covid crisis is making us all more aware of good and evil and, for the vast majority, it has given us a reinforced desire to do good. We are becoming aware of some of the things that have misled us. Like Goneril and Regan, we have suffered from too much appetite and ambition, but now every day now we see both small and large acts of kindness and generosity.

My teenage granddaughter sent me a link to a Guardian article that argues that Shakespeare may have written King Lear during the plague:

Certainly the bubonic plague may have had Shakespeare in quarantine at the time the King Lear was written, a time when the theatres were closed for many months. It is suggested that he also wrote Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra during this time, which certainly sets the bar quite high for what the rest of us might be achieving during our own dark days. 
And our days are not without the possibility of a happy oucome. At the end of King Lear, Edgar proposes that the tragedy requires all to conduct themselves with honesty and authenticity: The weight of this sad time we must obey, Speak what we feel, not what we ought to say. It seems likely that we too will be changed for the better when the crisis has ended.
Very often we hear people speaking now about how thankful they are for their family, friends and neighbours. We feel fortunate to live in Canada, and are very grateful for all the health care workers and so many others who take great risks to make this plague much more bearable for the rest of us -- and much more bearable than the conditions many had to endure in previous times. I feel lucky for all of this and for a great many people in my life, especially my granddaughter who sends me Guardian articles to keep me challenged!

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

March 25th


During this time of self-isolation, I have been reading Dickens again, partly from nostalgia and mostly because it’s good to read about good and evil and bleakness and optimism and to know that at the end it will all turn out all right. Reading Barnaby Rudge today, I came across a reference to March 25th “which, as most people know to their cost, is, and has been time out of mind, one of those unpleasant epochs termed quarter-days. On this twenty-fifth of March, it was John Willet’s pride annually to settle, in hard cash, his account with a certain vintner and distiller in the city of London.”
It got me thinking that it would be a good thing these days to have an annual account with a vintner and distiller.
Settling into the nostalgia I got to thinking about how as a child of about ten years I had memorized the entire catechism of the Presbyterian Church which I pursued because the Minister of our church paid a dollar—a lot of money at the time – as a reward for this feat and also because I liked the language. I particularly liked the question What is the chief end of Man? The answer was Man's chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever.  Somehow I took that to mean that we should all have a good time, and in the following years I did too much of that.
Although I was never christened and continue to be a heathen, I was happy to memorize Corinthians I, Chapter 13, for my Explorers’ group. I liked phrases like, “Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.” Sounding brass! Tinkling cymbal!
Charity interested me because, when I was very young, because my mother gave me three illustrated Sunday School cards from her youth which featured the three theological virtues of Faith, Hope and Charity. I loved them and likely still have those cards somewhere, probably in one of the boxes labelled “Nostalgia.” The angelic creatures on those cards were all beautiful and saintly with sweet smiles and uplifted gazes but the one I liked best was Charity, because she had a basket over her arm and actually seemed to be doing something helpful, not just thinking about it.
As a teenager I learned about the Seven Deadly Sins. I could recite them without hesitation and, from time to time, practised all of them. Pride. Ire. Gluttony. Sloth. Lust. Envy. Greed. It occurs to me now that those are the things that have brought us to where we are now in this strange time of the coronavirus.
I think there is a change happening these days. I find evidence of much kindness, a good deal of charity. And, of course, we hope. And there is faith that we will get through these uncertain times. Those three theological virtues have been linked with the four cardinal virtues to form the Seven Heavenly Virtues. Faith. Hope. Charity. Prudence. Justice. Temperance. Courage. The opposite of the Seven Deadly Sins. We may need all of these to see us through the coming weeks and months.
Self-isolation is a time of reflection. Many people are saying that they now find what they had thought was important is, in fact, not what really matters. Many are displaying charity and courage and other thoughtful behaviours. All the Heavenly Virtues may gain popularity. And, as the bible says, the greatest of these is charity. And it has never been needed more.
At the moment, I am not quite sure about Temperance, however. I find a little wine helps, and I hope that, like John Willett in Barnaby Rudge, I will still be around next March 25th and will be quite ready to settle my account with the vintners and distillers.

Sunday, 22 March 2020

Planet Earth

Some of us are looking for the silver lining at this stressful time. Given the rapid spread of the Covid-19 virus, the deaths, the hard times that so many are facing, and the fear that we all feel, this is not an easy task. And some of the optimistic stories we hear aren’t true. It was disappointing to learn that the dolphins aren’t actually returning to Venice, despite the lovely video that circulated so quickly. Perhaps we are being too hopeful.

And yet there are some good things worth noting. The canal water in Venice has cleared, even though there are no dolphins. There are reports of blue skies in China and of smog lessening in Seattle. Peter Gleick, a climate scientist and founder of the Pacific Institute in Berkeley says that “As for the environmental benefits we see from the slowdown of day-to-day life and economic activity in terms of improving air quality and other slight benefits, it’s a good sign that our ecosystems are somewhat resilient if we don’t completely destroy them.”

Things could improve. It’s also possible that the economic response to Covid-19 will be not have any focus on stimulus packages that consider climate change. Airlines are asking for billions of dollars in government aid, which President Trump has endorsed, and air travel may bounce back after the pandemic subsides. The resurgence in industrial activity may outweigh short-term reduction of emissions. The climate crisis challenges will remain.

Many people are using this time to hike and cycle and enjoy the natural world. More than ever we are talking about the need to take care of our planet. I find myself thinking of P K Page’s wonderful poem, “Planet Earth” in which she says, It has to be spread out, the skin of this planet, has to be ironed, the sea in its whiteness; and the hands keep on moving, smoothing the holy surfaces…It has to be loved the way a laundress loves her linens…like a lover coaxing, or a mother praising…” It’s worth taking a few minutes to listen to P.K. reading this remarkable poem which has been read aloud in such places as the Mount Everest Base Camp and the Antarctic Research Station.

Let's hope that the Covid-19 epidemic will help us to see the planet differently and to understand that we are just one of the many peoples and many species who make earth their home. Maybe we will develop compassion for other people and various species. Maybe we will develop an appreciation of the trees and plants and rivers and oceans that surround us. Maybe we will see the earth differently and learn to love and care for our planet.


Thursday, 19 March 2020

The Bottom Falling Out

A few afternoons ago, I decided to sit down with my book and a glass of wine. And then, thinking that this may be a time to be more than usually disciplined, I poured myself a glass of clamato juice instead. As I was about to sit down, I saw streams of red trickling from the bottom of the glass and when I lifted it, the clamato juice flowed freely. The bottom fell out! The glass had split at the base, a clean break, and I was holding only the empty top half. I’d not seen that happen before.

After I cleaned the table and carpet, I decided to check online to see how my small portfolio was doing. The picture seemed very similar there.

The really weird thing is that the next evening, when I removed the small casserole I had baked in a clay and ceramic pot I have used for years, the bottom fell out of it as well, spreading beans and potatoes all over the kitchen counter.

The message was clear. I should not be checking my investments portfolio but, instead, focusing on other things. This is what I decided for myself:

·        It’s time to stay in close touch with loved ones. Even when self-isolating I can send emails, texts, and have phone conversations.

·        I can appreciate and thank all the people who are carrying on with their work staffing hospitals and other community services, cleaning homes, delivering mail, picking up garbage, and myriad other jobs that I sometimes forget to notice.

·        I can take the time to thank and continue to thank our governments –local, provincial and federal – and our medical practitioners and health professionals for the great job they are doing under extremely stressful conditions.

·        Since I find myself stuck at home for the next few weeks, I can take up the activities I often neglect because I don’t think I have time for them: playing the piano, reading, keeping a journal, exercising, sketching, birdwatching.

The bottom may fall out of my portfolio, but it’s only money. I can recover. And, if I keep doing all those things on my list, perhaps the bottom hasn’t fallen out of the cornucopia of potential activities. There are many good things to pursue.

There’s not use crying over spilt clamato juice. I will settle now for a glass of wine. And get back to my book.



Sunday, 15 March 2020


William Faulkner said, when accepting the Nobel Prize in 1950, “I believe that man will not merely endure: he will prevail.” Because, he said, he believed in the soul, “a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance.”

Good words to remember, in these strange times. The next months will be challenging, but it could be that a spirit capable of compassion and sacrifice and endurance will see us through.

We are, now, in a situation we did not anticipate.  We might have figured out that our sense of security would not last forever. But here we are in a “new normal,” as many say, and we must do the best we can.

A few weeks ago, my dear friend Paula brought me this air plant, or wind plant (Tillandsia) in a black Murex shell. I love it. It doesn’t require much attention and will live for many years with minimal care.

Right now, I'm trying to emulate it. I think the next few months will be difficult. I am old, and am ready to die, if it comes to that. I'm at risk at least in part because I have taken too little care of my health through the years. What concerns me, though, is not my own future but the larger things -- the infrastructure, the economy, and other events that will affect my granddaughter and the other much-loved young people in my family.

I tried tonight to make a sketch of my wind plant in its Murex shell, along with a folk art carving that a dear friend brought us from Nova Scotia. In the sketch is also a small cup I treasure that my husband brought me many years ago.  It is just a small cup but I filled it with sherry -- and may refill it.

My drawing isn’t any good, but I’m going to post it anyway. Given the circumstances, it may have been the best I could do. What I have done throughout my life, including my many regrets, may have been the best I could do.

Faulkner was right to draw our attention to the spirit capable of compassion and endurance. But maybe we should start with compassion for ourselves, in order to move forward and follow through with the sacrifice and endurance we will need in order to support others.

The days ahead will be difficult, but let us prevail.

Thursday, 12 March 2020


Recently I wrote a letter to the editor of our local newspaper to praise the work of our community food bank, and the editor chose to print it as a Guest Colum:

I was pleased to make the point that the Three R’s of Reduce, Re-use, Recycle have been augmented by two additional actions which are Refuse and Repurpose, and I proposed that Loaves and Fishes adds a further and important activity which is Redistribution.
In these challenging times, Redistribution may be the most significant thing we can do. With the crash of the stock market and the resultant loss of employment, many people will be greatly in need of assistance. And just as there is an abundance of food which, through the work of organizations such as Loaves and Fishes, is redistributed, there is also an abundance of wealth in the hands of a very few people. It too can be redistributed. Let’s support the politicians and governments that introduce measures to redistribute that wealth. The uber-rich can afford to share!

In the meantime, even those of us who have much less money to throw around can participate in redistribution by being more than usually generous to homeless people and the organizations that support them: the shelters, the foodbanks, and the social agencies who help out. If you can afford to buy groceries, you can afford to ask the cashier to add a few dollars for the food bank.
It occurs to me now that, by performing these R’s, we may discover a seventh R: Redemption.

These days we mostly hear about Redemption in terms of redeeming Air Miles or Aeroplan points in order to get free trips. But practicing the six R’s listed above offers a different kind of redemption. Not a trip to Rome or Paris or Thailand -- nor even an admission to Heaven -- but perhaps it will give us a sense of having atoned for some of our thoughtlessness. The word comes from the Old French ’redimer’ which means to deliver or to buy back.  

Redemption! It’s a good feeling.