Channeling Dorothy Amidst COVID19

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If my grandmother were alive, today would be her 100th birthday.

Her name was Dorothy, and she lived through the great depression, World War 2, and a bunch of other stuff. I’m not sure if it was just her nature, or all of the awful nurture going on in her formative years, but she was tough. Dorothy was practical, stubborn, driven, and hard-working. Her mornings never began with a cup of coffee and a reading of the paper, but with a diligent survey of all the tasks that needed to be completed before the sun went down. I don’t think I ever saw her sit for an entire meal. She was up doing the dishes before anyone else had a chance to get to dessert.  She could make an entire meal out of the fuzzy things at the back of the freezer, and I once saw her scrape ants off a birthday cake and proceed to serve it (don’t ask). She broke her arm in her late 80s while throwing around cinder blocks in the yard, and on occasion, greeted visitors in the driveway with an axe slung over her shoulder.

Dorothy had no time for laziness, or complaints, or wastefulness. She was all business. The fact that it’s her birthday today is reason enough for me to bring her to mind, but with everything that’s been going on in the world this week, she’s been front and centre. She would have kicked ass at a time like this. True, she would have been royally peeved at being told what to do and what not to do, and there wouldn’t have been any camp fire kumbaya to discuss feelings, but things would have gotten done.

As it turns out, when faced with a major crisis (knock on wood, I haven’t had a lot of them in my life), I channel Dorothy. Unlike my grandmother, I’m not opposed to being reflective or discussing emotions. This past week or two have been riddled with uncertainty and fear for everyone. There’s a lot of loneliness and worry, and I’m absolutely down with sharing and caring. But like my grandmother, I’m not paralyzed by any of that. Like Dorothy, I’ve just been trying to get things done. I couldn’t care less about the state of my actual house, but my proverbial house is being set in order. I’ve cleaned up a lot in the past week, and I don’t see an end in sight.

Dorothy didn’t teach me to do my hair, or bake cookies, or any other softer stuff that grandmothers are sometimes expected to teach. She did, however, convey the relief that can be found in constant forward momentum, the pride one can have in standing one’s ground in the face of adversity. She was all about being useful and productive, and she cherished the good, tired feeling one has at the end of a busy day. These are lessons that I’ve been taking to heart lately. I’ve been feeling her presence as I ask, over and over again, “What can I do?” and then rolling up my sleeves and doing it.

I think people cross paths for a reason. In most ways, Dorothy and I were completely different people, and although I know she was proud of me, the life I lead probably seemed strange to her. But being faced with our opposites can be useful, even crucial to our development. Maybe this is the nugget of wisdom we were meant to share, the wee bit of extra strength a sloppy, sentimental type like me might need in times like these. I think the best way I can honour this wisdom is to take a cue from Dorothy, and put it to good use. Right away.

So…what do we need to do today?

My First Online Story Time Reading

In trying times like this, we need to take stock of the skills and knowledge we have and see how we might use them to help. I’m a writer and an educator, and what I have to offer is a story or two. So I set up a makeshift studio in my office, and I recorded one of my stories.

I hope it makes a few people smile, think, and talk to each other, but more than that, I hope it keeps wee kiddos busy while they hunker down in their houses and wait for schools (and the rest of the world) to reopen.

Please enjoy.

Sartre and Seclusion

In one of his plays, our existentialist friend Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people.” Just for clarification, he didn’t mean that human beings suck and we should be ashamed of being one of them. He, and others of this school of thought just took notice of the fact that we’re kind of stuck with one another, responsible for one another, and at the same time, we’re constantly watching each other, judging and taking note of one other. Long story short: this self-other business is complicated.

Less than a week into COVID19 seclusion, this particular self is missing all those others. I’m an extrovert, a chatterbox, a hugger, a student of human nature, and most definitely not a home body. I love visiting crowded, stinky, noisy cities and diving into a mob. I thrive on sharing a good meal, chatting about big ideas, blaring music and singing off key together. Yeah, I’m connected online, and I’m most grateful for that, but it’s just not the same. There’s only so much that I can suppress with compulsive baking and folding laundry, you know?

I have faith that we’ll eventually crawl out of our hobbit holes and back into the sun, and life will go on. Maybe it won’t quite be life as we knew it, but still…

Being removed from others, at least in an immediate, physical sense, has got me thinking about “otherness” in general. Human beings seem to have this habit of sorting people into “me”, “us”, “them” and “those guys waaaaaay over there”. We’ve gotten a little too comfortable with distance (both actual and theoretical), and that’s part of what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place. Stuff like this is supposed to happen to others, not to us. Until it happens to us.

To this virus, this microbe with a raging case of wanderlust, we aren’t others. It doesn’t see this person, or that person. There is no “us vs. them” to a bug like this. We’re all just a free ride and a meal ticket. Pandemics don’t give a tinker’s fart about existentialist philosophy.

Ironically, being separated from most humans, unable to shake hands, or embrace, or even pass around a plate of cookies, I am feeling much less like an “other” than before. The phone ringing is no longer a pain in the neck, it’s an “OOOOh, I wonder who that could be?” I’ve been welling up while watching videos of the quarantined singing to each other from balconies, of toddlers doing traditional healing dances. I’m noticing every hopeful soul out for a walk with their dog, every kid cautiously orbiting their house on roller blades. I’m wilting at the thought of the elderly being alone and woefully under-engaged. Absence is making my heart grow fonder.

I’m also more sensitive to those who think that precautions don’t apply to them, who insist on doing whatever they want, who are stubbornly clinging to their “otherness”. This separation thing is a hard habit to break. We like to feel special, like individuals, even when we need each other. And sometimes when our specialness is questioned, and we’re called to rejoin the herd…well, we do things like hoard toilet paper.

What I’ve been reminded of these past couple of weeks is just what Sartre floated out there: we aren’t on our own. For better or for worse, we’re tethered to one another. What we do, even the little stuff, wiggles its way through so many other lives. This makes me feel like a very small jellybean in a very large jar, but it also reinforces that even one jellybean matters. Right now there are seven and a half billion jelly beans squished together, and most of us are trying not to tip the jar.

It’s not that I don’t want to matter. I’m still me, and I still like being unique. I just want all of us to matter. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that we have an opportunity to reevaluate and reset when the dust settles (and it will). Can we see our communities in a different light? Can we have more support for our education system? Can we have an economy that values our togetherness more than our separation? Can we elect leaders who can put “otherness” on the back burner? Can we knock down dividing walls between genders and races? Can we start valuing arts, social sciences, the humanities, and other pursuits that seek to explore our connections? Can we extend our newfound appreciation of non-otherness to non-human selves as well?

Besides their highlighting of this self-other tension, existentialists were also very keen to talk about responsibility. Sartre and his contemporaries insisted that every free choice we make serves as an example of what a human being should be. We should all be behaving as if all the other “others” out there are watching, because they kind of are, and not always in a bad way. In the weeks to come, I hope we take this to heart, and continue to rise to the occasion.

Stay safe, happy and healthy, everyone.

 

 

A Poem: God of Spare Change

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God of Spare Change

He makes the offerings

among the rolled up socks

sandwiched between couch cushions,

among the dregs of last week’s junk mail

Tiny copper eyes

not unlike his own

that wink reassurance

from table tops and kitchen drawers

in amongst the paper clips and thumbtacks.

He peppers the floor with silver

a cold, flat trail of breadcrumbs

a small bite against the soles of bare feet

a musical rattle in the vacuum canister

a nickel-pebbled path that leads the way

from room to room

to and from work

a homing beacon from the car’s cup holder.

He utters a prayer

a mantra in tiny metallic disks

a fortune that lies in small denominations

a harvest of minute treasures

the gathering of which brings patience

and mindfulness of blessings earned

one cent at a time.

Copyright Amy Leask, 2020

It’s International Women’s Day 20: Are We Finally Listening?

Malala, Greta, Emma, Autumn, Alexandria

I’m looking for a collective noun that accurately describes the group of young women who have demanding the world’s attention lately. Even the word “demanding” seems wrong. It’s more like deserving. What do I call them, as a group? Army? Posse? Barrage? Cavalry? Onslaught?

Ew.

Anything militaristic seems just wrong. There’s anger in their voices, but it’s righteous anger. They haven’t come to take over or destroy. Quite the contrary, they’re all trying to fix something, and have simply grown impatient with the powers that be (or were).

Legion doesn’t work either. It’s not like any of them are looking to be superheroes. As many on the list above have stated, they’d give anything to be elsewhere, to not be needed anymore. They’d rather be at school, with friends and family, away on vacation, building a career and a life. Instead, they’ve been taking/dodging bullets (for real), watching the environment suffer, and bearing witness to all sorts of human rights violations.

It’s not like women have never stood up before. Suffragettes put their necks on the line for the right to vote at the turn of the last century. The 60’s saw women speak out for the right to govern their own bodies. We’ve seen at least three waves of feminism wash over outdated beliefs. But I don’t remember ever seeing the next generation get so loud before. They mean business, and the fact that they can’t vote, can’t rent a car, can’t become president (yet) doesn’t seem to phase them at all. They’ve been observant, resourceful, empathetic, brutally honest, and most important, tenacious. There’s an immediacy to their battle cries, a “This can’t wait until I’m older!”

I’m in awe, and as a feminist who is not a kid anymore, I’m so happy to make room. More than that, I’m happy to turn to them for a more objective take on world events and issues. They have far less reason to be swayed by flattery or bribes. They have a variety of social media platforms at their disposal. They’re all keenly aware that the things they let slip through the cracks will be the same things they have to clean up later. And they have a bunch of us to listen and to back them up, a large number of slightly more aged women who’ve been feeling and thinking and even acting, but have never found as wide an audience.

Maybe the appropriate collective noun is a “mobilization”? What about an “education”? I think the proper term is a “realization”. A realization of young female thinkers. A realization of activists. A realization of future-looking minds with the will to make themselves heard.

I look forward to it getting bigger, and louder.

A Poem for Women’s History Month

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Wee Elizabeth Learns to Count

My father was under the impression

that girls didn’t do math

couldn’t do math

shouldn’t do math,

but very young, and in spite of my gender,

I learned that one sickly son

was greater than the sum of two daughters

brimming with their father’s temper,

that a mother with divided loyalties

could easily be separated into two parts,

that each sworn love could be added,

subtracted,

one cancelling out another,

that both waistlines and egos

were subject to exponential expansion,

and that when asked to account for one’s

self,

it’s always preferable to keep the

remainder at one.

Poem: A Spot of Tea

File:Buffalo Pottery Argyle Teapot.jpgA Spot of Tea

Precisely four cups of water

luke warm

Kettle positioned in the centre of the element

set to high

Boiling only until the timer sounds

Hot the pot

Two bags in

Five more minutes on the timer

Exactitude in seemingly-random splashes of milk

in small spoons brimming with symmetrical cones of white sugar

Viscous, semi-liquid beams of honey

The fresh acid of lemon

A fan of circular biscuits

 

The rest of creation spins and twists

in fractal formation

A daily exercise in nihilism and chaos

But there is order to be found

in the teleology of dried leaves

and steam

warm cylinders of bone china

and terra cotta

cupped between eager palms

Cosmic nonsense set right

with careful doses of Darjeeling and Chai.

 

Paris On My Mind

 

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Paris is probably a little cliche as an escape. Romantics, foodies, philosophers and history buffs alike talk about whisking themselves off to the city of light. Mention that you’re going, and everyone around you sighs dreamily and gets twinkly-eyed. That’s just what Paris means to people, at least in theory.

And I’m one of them, but for a slightly different reason. You see, my first visit to Paris inspired me to upend my life. Once upon a time, I was living somewhere I wasn’t crazy about, working bits and pieces of jobs to make ends meet, and generally sulking about being part of the rat race. I was tired, I was frustrated, and I was…stuck. I’m not ashamed to say that it was the film “Amelie” that put Paris in my head. I bought right into the cotton-candy pink images of flitting around on a moped, hearing snippets of love songs in the subway, musing about the meaning of life in sweet little cafes.

Maybe I should mention that years before, I did my thesis on Simone de Beauvoir, and no, that didn’t trigger any of this (sorry, Simone). The intellectual history of Paris just didn’t mean that much to me. The clincher was the idea that somewhere else, everyday life could include a healthy dose of whimsy. I needed the smell of croissants, the twinkle of lights on the Eiffel Tower, to be stared at by a gargoyle atop Notre Dame.

Long story short-Paris was everything I’d hoped it would be. We went for about a week, and packed in as much of the city as we could. On our first day, we sat on the edge of the fountain in the Trocadero and stuck our feet into it, like eager pilgrims who’ve reached the wellspring. We lived off lemon tarts and crusty bread. We walked, and walked, and walked, and observed how people enjoyed their meals without the distraction of electronics. Like many, many foreign suckers before us, we fell completely and utterly in love with the city.

And then we went home. And soon after, we quit our jobs. And then we moved. And then we started our own business. A complete life overhaul was all sparked by Paris. For a while, like a kid who becomes obsessed with dinosaurs after a trip to the museum, I was pretty single-minded about it. I decorated our kitchen with black and white photos of the city of light, and learned to bake Parisian treats. I watched every movie I could find that was set in Paris. I learned to wear an artfully-arranged scarf. Paris flipped a switch in my brain that wouldn’t be flipped back. It made me re-evaluate all the things I thought were important.

In the years that followed, there were two more trips to Paris, one just the two of us, and one with a preschooler who seemed to be just as enchanted as we were. The changes that came after each subsequent trip maybe weren’t as profound as the ones that followed the first one, but there was always some shift in world view, some re-evaluation of goals. Paris has become our symbol, our touchstone, our shorthand for needing something to move, to transform, to breathe.

Paris has taken up lodging in my subconscious too. I dream of it when I’m faced with major decisions or feeling stagnant. In my dreams, I mean to explore just the right little corner, to revisit something fascinating. In every dream I have of Paris, I run out of time and have to go home, or I keep walking past someplace important without realizing it. Sometimes part of the city is closed off or too crowded. Without fail, I wake to the overwhelming feeling that something has been left undone, that something has been uncovered.

It’s been about six years since I’ve been back. I’ve been lucky enough to explore all kinds of other fascinating cities around the world, but they’ve never had the same transformative effect that Paris does. Lately, I’ve started to notice drawings of the Parisian skyline on t-shirts and posters. I’m longing for roast chicken with frites and pain au chocolat. I’m feeling the need to wander through cobblestone streets, unhurried, past clever murals on the sides of buildings, to hear the lilt of chatter at the market.

I really have no idea what needs to change in my life right now, but I’m hearing the call, and with a little luck, I’ll be heeding it soon. This time around, I’ll be flying in from a place of curiosity, rather than dissatisfaction. When I come home, I won’t be quitting or uprooting anything, but I could be discovering or building. Once again, Paris has something to teach me, and I ache to learn.

“Paris is always a good idea.” Truer words were never spoken.

An Ode To Those Who Live By Their Pen (Poor Souls)

Poet Stuck In a Rut

 

My verse is like a greeting card,

With meter regulated,

Each verse a carefully-measured length,

All meaning strangulated.

 

I swear my fierce, undying love,

For better or for worse,

I pulverize my passion sweet

Into uninspired verse.

 

And to my rage, I grant no flair

For free-verse there’s no room.

Oh, only couplets can convey

My all-consuming doom.

 

The angst, the hate, the fits of joy

That burst forth from my mind

With help from lifeless, starchy odes

Conveniently left behind.

 

 

©️Amy Leask, 2020

Pretty Optimistic, For A Pessimist

Oh, 2020. So young, and yet you’ve already dumped on us heaps of human dumbassery. No, I apologize, arbitrary number on a calendar, you didn’t do this. We’ve dumped it on ourselves. It’s so tempting to throw up one’s hands and concede that while homo sapiens sapiens are persistent, loud, and creatively destructive, we’re really not that smart, or that nice. Each new year seems to bring new reasons to lose faith in human nature and our supposed intelligence. We fumble our way into misinformation, unnecessary power struggles, wanton destruction of the very things that sustain us…ugh. Throwing up in my mouth a little as I write this.

Fun facts: humans have the largest brains of any vertebrate, relative to size. Over the millennia, Mother Nature has knit us a toque of trillions of synapses. We’ve got the grey, squishy goods to write symphonies, to explore other parts of the galaxy, to craft poetry, to fawn over sunsets, to restart someone’s heart. For the love of Pete, we were smart enough to invent butter tarts. And, even on a good day, all of this is grossly overshadowed by many, many instances of people repeatedly playing a worldwide, championship game of “You’re Hitting Yourself. Stop Hitting Yourself.”

Nope. We can do better. And when I say we can do better, I’m not saying that we should do better. Of course we should, but we really are able to do better. We’re waaaaaay smarter than this. Sometimes, it’s because we underestimate ourselves, our own intelligence, just like we underestimate the incredible smarts of kids, or animals. Sometimes we get flustered at the effort it takes to act like a clever species. Sometimes we’re overwhelmed at the amount of responsibility that comes with brain power. If you know better, you should be doing better, and you kind of can’t just excuse yourself from it. Regardless of our motivations, we are not living up to our potential. Not even close.

Remember this quote?

IMG_8088John and Yoko were really onto something, and I think you could easily replace”war” with  “stupidity”, “foolishness” or “irrationality”. Even if the movie Idiocracy is slightly less than fictional, and we are, in fact, shrinking in our intellectually capacities, we still have a ways to go before we lose it entirely. For the time being at least, we are smart, and we are savvy, and we have the equipment necessary to not think like moldy kitchen sponges. It’s right there, people.

Do I think we’ll see an improvement in human behaviour in 2020, or 2011, or 2030? Probably not. You see, I’m a bit of a pessimist. It disappoints, but does not surprise me when my fellow humans make a circus act of their very worst actions. When I turn on my phone every morning, this is pretty much what I expect to see.

But there’s an optimist that lives in my head as well, and although she’s tiny, she “wears heavy boots, and is loud” (Henry Rollins).  I know what we’re like most of the time, but I also know what’s available to us, all the resources and talents we have tucked away. I’ve seen it in the kids I work with, who celebrate their sparking, overloaded minds and hammer their elders with questions. I’ve seen it in my students, who manage to find really good ideas in the midst of the heavy task of finding themselves in the world. I’ve seen it in random strangers I meet at community events, when I get a glimpse of some nugget of wisdom they’ve been hanging onto for years. I hear it in a comedian’s punchlines, on the pages of my kid’s graphic novels, in song lyrics, and in protest movements. This tiny optimist is why I bother to do what I do, both professionally and personally. She won’t stop pointing out these possibilities to me. She’s why I brace myself for the worst in people, but still squint to see what’s hiding underneath the ick.

So we still have another 11 months left this year to redeem ourselves as thinking beings, and yeah, if we don’t screw things up too badly, we’ll have a lot longer than that. Let’s not blame the year itself, or the stars, or each other. Let’s just use what we’ve been given, and think.