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

coin

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.