A Plague of Otherness

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Our brains are set up to notice “otherness” in a simple, basic sense. It’s how we distinguish between things we cuddle and things that will eat us, things that will nourish us, and things that will poison us. Our ability to distinguish this from that is part of what’s kept us alive this long. It allows us to appreciate new and interesting things, to learn from and adapt to the novelty that comes our way. It’s kept existentialists like me busy for about a hundred years.

Just as humans have evolved, “otherness” has changed over the years. This new version has gotten us into heaps of trouble.

Recently, humans have been so “other” to each other that they find reasons to stop each other from breathing, to take children from their parents, to run people down with their trucks, to volley bombs across borders, to deny many the right to love each other, or to have control over their own bodies.

Of course, this amped up, extreme version of “other” isn’t new. It’s been making us sick for thousands of years. “Other” is behind all manner of atrocities. It comes in so many varieties, dressed in “isms”, sometimes raging and sometimes nearly silent. Open a history book, close your eyes, and randomly flip to any page. There’s a story of “other” there somewhere, of someone (or rather, a lot of someones) who didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t get past “other”. It’s a long, long way from the version of “other” that once allowed us to survive.

Perhaps it’s just because for the past year or so, we’ve been distanced in a very physical, tangible way that “otherness” feels closer to the surface lately. As we’re finally starting to get a handle on a virus that’s kept us apart, it’s becoming apparent just how detached we’ve been all along. There’s a lot of “I didn’t know it was so bad” and “I had no idea people were going through that.” Even in the most seemingly peaceful and prosperous parts of the world, people of colour do not feel safe going about daily activities, women are still paid less for equal work, worshipping in your chosen way might get you attacked, the elderly are neglected, the 2SLGBTQ+ community doesn’t have equal access to healthcare, indigenous groups struggle with basic needs, those with disabilities are often unaccommodated…there’s more. So much more. And this is in the digital age, when the sum total of human knowledge is there, in our faces, all the time.

Yeah, it’s that bad, and yeah, a lot of people are going through it.

As I type all of this, I am so overwhelmed with “other”, with the weight of the past year, with awareness of my privilege, with anger and loss, with a nauseating lack of surprise at all that’s happening in the world, I don’t know where to put it all. But, as Henry Rollins once said, “My optimism wears heavy boots and is loud.” Dear readers, I am an optimist, and a fixer, and a hugger, and a humanist. I do what I do for a living because I’m a keen student of human experience, because, from the bottom of my heart, I want to know what it’s like to be all kinds of “us”. I promise to keep challenging myself and anyone else who’ll listen, to question assumptions and to think rationally about our relationships with fellow humans. I will keep learning more about the world outside my bubble. I will call “otherness” what it is, and not make excuses. I will refuse to be reduced to an “other”, and I will endeavour to catch and correct myself whenever I “other” someone else. I will screw up sometimes, and misunderstand, and speak out of turn on occasion, but I will try.

Here’s the thing about doing away with “other”: it doesn’t hurt. It’s work, for sure, probably work without an end, but it’s actually a relief. Being angry and fearful, living with the conviction that “others” exist only to make us miserable and to take things away from us…it’s exhausting. Once we face up to the idea that this extreme version of “other” isn’t a real thing, that it’s a jagged, hard shell we construct and maintain at tremendous cost to our well being, we can spend our time and energy doing something else. You know, like coexisting. I still get to be me, and you still get to be you, but we don’t dwell in a vacuum anymore, hidden from each other’s sight and each other’s understanding.

A number of years ago, I taught comparative religion classes to college students. It was only a 14 week class, with only 3 hours at a time to cover an entire faith, but we still got to take at least a small peek at the “why” behind beliefs and practices. Our classes were made up of a diverse range of learners, and more often than not, someone in the group belonged to the religion we were discussing, and added their own thoughts and experiences. Learners who elected to take those classes were genuinely curious, about all kinds of ways that faith is expressed, and about how their own fit into the mix. There were a lot of “aha” moments, and I like to think that in some small way, we chipped away at “otherness”. I’d do a whole lot to see more moments like these, outside of the classroom, to find space for these little sparks of understanding.

So, here’s a place to start. If you’re reading this, please turn to the person to your right and introduce yourself. Then the person to your left. Talk, listen, breathe, repeat. If you don’t understand something, ask politely for clarification. If you disagree, do it respectfully, with reason. If you don’t like each other, that’s okay too, just be in the same space as fellow human beings. With seven and a half billion versions of us out there, this should keep us busy for a while.

An Anniversary, And A (Sort Of) Love Letter To Writing

As of today, I have been a published children’s author for a decade. What started as an idea I had while I was teaching big kids to ask big questions is now 13 books (with #14 in the works), 14 apps, a bunch of videos, and a big pile of parent/teacher resources. Along the way, there have been conferences, workshops, and a handful of awards. It’s been a good ride.

I’ve got 10 years of learning, and deadlines, and fretting over typos. I’ve got a 10-year stockpile of stuff that never quite fit into our plans, and stuff that should never see the light of day. And yes, I have 10 years of friendly, writerly, publisher-ly advice to give to anyone who’s willing to listen.

After some careful thought I’ve distilled it down to one key thesis, with a handful of footnotes. There’s one thing I need you to know about this line of work.

Making books is really, really, really hard.

I’m not interested in turning anyone off the act of writing, but there’s this weird and, quite frankly, damaging mystique around it that is just begging to be dispelled. I’m not sure if there are very many professions that are quite as misunderstood. So, as a show of reverence and respect to wordsmithing, I’m going to take this anniversary as an opportunity to throw in my two cents.

First things first: a writer is someone who writes. You don’t have to be paying your rent with your words in order to be a writer. You don’t have to have critical acclaim. You do, however, have to do it on a regular basis. You are not a runner if you don’t run. You’re not a chef if you don’t cook. A writer isn’t someone who has an idea for a book, or who thinks it might be cool to have a bestseller on their CV. “Writer” is not an honorific or the expression of a wish. “Writer” is a verbal snapshot of someone in the act. This may sound pretty obvious, but I’ve had to explain it to a lot of people over the past 10 years.

Admittedly, writing is something you can do without a specific degree or period of professional training. There are some excellent writing programs out there, but it can be self-taught. This does not, however, mean that writing is easy, or that anyone who wants to can do it on a whim. Writers, good ones anyway, are able to produce evidence of their skill, some sort of credentials. If someone walked into a law office and announced that they were certain they could be an excellent lawyer because they’d gobbled up a TV series, they’d be shown the door. No one gets to do surgery because they’ve always found blood and guts fascinating. Airplanes are not piloted by people who think it might be fun to play with a big metal toy. Like any profession, writing requires study and practice, and if you’re looking to be taken seriously by anyone in the industry, you need to be familiar with the process, well-versed in the lingo, and able to cough up some work. Good work.

It’s also essential to recognize that a finished piece of work is not the same as a good piece of work. A great deal of any writer’s portfolio is garbage, and will/should never see the light of day. All writers need to be honest and brave enough to let some things go. Everything we write is useful practice, but it’s not all worth sharing. I have a giant backlog of old writing, and I see most of it as a collection of souvenirs. Been there, done that, got it down on paper, cried a bit and said some grown-up words while trying to make it work, moved on.

Over the last decade, I’ve been in both a writer’s and a publisher’s shoes, and I need to share a very important insight. The publishing industry may be mean and nasty, but publishers themselves (as in the people who make decisions) really aren’t. I used to stare at each rejection letter (and there are always plenty, by the way), and try to picture the face of the person who wrote it, so I could imagine the sorry so-and-so who turned down my masterpiece. I wondered what a complete stranger could have against me and my work. Now, I’m over it. This book stuff is more expensive, and time-intensive, and mind-boggling than anyone outside the industry could ever imagine. The powers that be don’t have the resources to publish every good piece that comes their way. In the case of indie publishers, it might be one or two things a year. Success means being really picky and focused. That’s the reality, and it sucks. No one’s trying to be a snob or a jerk. Pinky swear.

I sound like a royal downer, don’t I? The truth is, I’m sharing all of this because I love books. I love reading them, I love writing them, I love publishing them, and I love transforming them into other stuff. It’s a common affliction for writers that they can’t not write. I don’t feel like myself unless I’ve got my hands somewhere in the process. Kafka wasn’t kidding when he said “A non-writing writer is a monster courting insanity.” It’s this profound affection, this ever-looming insanity, that makes me desperate to have others understand the mad, loving scramble that goes into producing each work, the complex tangle of tasks and ideas. It would be such a disservice, maybe even a betrayal of my profession to let anyone think that it’s easy, or that a book just shows up. This or that book didn’t have to be here. In fact, in the grand scheme of things, it was pretty unlikely that it would be written, let alone polished up, noticed by someone in the right place at the right time, and then published. Knowing all of that should take our breath away.

So here I am, a decade in. I’m a little scuffed up in spots, a little bit proud, admittedly a little bit smug, but still enamoured and in awe.

Given the chance (and I hope I’m given decades’ more chances) I’d do it all over again, with minimal revisions.

 

I Ain’t Afraid Of No Questions: Why Being A Philosopher Is Like Being A Ghostbuster

Maybe I’m a bit of a broken record about Mary Midgley’s “philosophy as plumbing” metaphor, but it’s always helped me get my mind around what I’m supposed to do (maybe what I’m supposed to feel) as a philosopher. Like plumbing, philosophy is something that most people don’t think about on a regular basis. It’s “just there”, behind the proverbial walls, nestled under the floorboards. When things are ticking along and functioning as they should, we’re happy to have it out of sight, out of mind, but when things get backed up, when there’s an overflow and a weird smell, we panic. We call in an “expert” to fix the leaks, replace defective parts, and then we go back to just not seeing it anymore. We should all be on the lookout for problems, we should all cultivate some level of skill and knowledge about handling them (and preventing them), but we don’t.

Maybe it’s because I’m shut in and bored, maybe it’s because there’s a new Ghostbusters flick on the horizon, or maybe there’s much wisdom to be found in quirky sci-fi classics, but this quote popped into my head the other day:

“I tried to think of the most harmless thing. Something I loved from my childhood. Something that could never ever possibly destroy us. Mr. Stay Puft!”

It sparked something in my philosopher’s brain. It rang true, and summed up so much of the sentiment that’s out there at the moment. While I’ve been attached to the idea of being like a plumber for a long time, all of the sudden, I feel more like a ghostbuster. Here’s why:

With reference to the quote given above- I (like most philosophers, I’m sure), hear about a lot of ideas that seem harmless and innocent that, left unchecked and unexamined, turn into monsters. These ideas, like Mr. Stay Puft, blow up, and become destructive. Being a philosopher means treating ideas with caution, thinking carefully about them, because they’re very rarely “just ideas”. You let one slide under the radar, and the next thing you know, it’s crushing entire city blocks. How many gargantuan, bloated, deceptively jolly ideas are we fighting with lasers at the moment, trying frantically not to cross the streams or be sucked into an alternate dimension?

Philosophers, like Ghostbusters, deal with all kinds of remnants from bygone eras, sometimes in the form of thinkers, and sometimes as long-standing worldviews and assumptions. Not all “ghosts” are unfriendly. Some are downright interesting and perhaps even useful, but they still have a tendency to creep back in when least expected, often in giant spectral blobs. All of them need to be caught, contained, and studied before we let them roam freely.

Philosophers and Ghostbusters both tend to mull over concepts like:

  • identity and free will (“There is no Dana, only Zull!”)
  • life, death, and the nature of reality (“And dig this, there was a prophecy. Just before his head died, his last words were “Death is but a door. Time is but a window. I’ll be back.”)
  • responsibility (“Janine: You are so kind to take care of that man. You know, you’re a real humanitarian. Egon: I don’t think he’s human.”)
  • truth (“When someone asks you if you’re a god, you say yes!”)
  • gender roles (“Safety lights are for dudes.”)
  • the scientific method (Back off man, I’m a scientist!)
  • the nature of belief. (“If there’s a steady pay-check in it, I’ll believe in anything you say.”)

These are at the core of both of our job descriptions.

Philosophy, like ghostbusting, works better when it’s inclusive, and spans a variety of disciplines, skillsets and perspectives. Someone needs to know physics, someone else needs to have a background in history and theology, another needs to be great with tech. There’s value in having a class clown, a loyal friend, or a bit of a daredevil in the mix. And yes, I would assert that the franchise was made richer with an all-female team in the third movie (haters, go home).  There’s still lots of room for improvement in cultural and other forms of diversity, and I’m holding out hope for that too, both in the movies and in philosophical circles.  In short, the more perspectives, the better.

Philosophy, like ghostbusting, is intended to serve some useful purpose, and should be seen as a public service, if you will. Does everyone treat philosophers (or Ghostbusters) as useful or relevant all of the time? No. No one wants to hear that they’re being “haunted”, that the weird creaking noise in the attic needs taking care of.  What’s more, no one wants to be told that sometimes the only way through a problem is effective critical thinking and asking very difficult questions. Philosopher and Ghostbusters both get a lot of doors shut in our faces, a lot of eye rolls and disparaging looks, but we’re actually helpful. Really, really helpful. We might even save the day, from time to time.

Being a philosopher, like being a Ghostbuster, is unexpectedly cool. Even when everyone thinks you’re a modern day Chicken Little, when you’re dealing with demons, when you’re covered in slime (all metaphorical, of course), you can’t quite imagine yourself doing anything else. To be a philosopher is to see stuff. Weird stuff. Undeniable stuff. Amazing, interesting, life-jangling, mind-changing stuff. I highly recommend it.

Perhaps the best part of this philosophy-ghostbuster connection lies in admitting that, deep down, we all kind of want to be one. While those with aspirations to take on the paranormal might be disappointed to find themselves without a proton pack or a pumped-up hearse, pretty much anyone can give philosophy a whirl, with no jumpsuit or PKE meter required.

So tell me, who ya gonna call?

Poem: Lilies and Onions

Lilies and Onions

They’re of the same ilk,
snobbish cousins,
the golden-haired child and the black sheep
who parted ways after adolescence,
who deliberately forget to send Christmas cards.

 
One decided in favour of pungency.
A source of dutiful tears
Breaded and deep fried with ketchup
Relegated to the cold cellar
To Saturday afternoon barbeques
To thick, alkaline wedges among lettuce leaves
To hang on a lover’s breath
and in the kitchen curtains.

 
The other made only carefully-calculated public appearances
On altars
Freckled, but majestic
Sensual orange and scarlet
Bowing before blushing brides
Spreading lacy fingers among trellises.

 
One should be so lucky
as to be appreciated layer by layer
to have world’s beneath one’s skin
exposed,
to be devoured to one’s core.
Fools, we dream of expounding our importance.
Petal by frivolous petal,
we trade stoutness and semi-permanence
for two weeks of frantic glow.

 

Copyright Amy Leask 2021

The Grounded Pilgrim

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No one’s 100% sure who said it, but it translates into “It is solved by walking.” It acknowledges the profound effect of going places, of travelling, of movement. There are a lot of us who have chronically itchy feet, who think better, learn more, and feel more like ourselves when the scenery changes.

Thinker Rupert Sheldrake has much to say about pilgrimages. He speaks of the journeys we make to sacred places, for all kinds of reasons. We journey to places of significance to soak them in, to find meaning and clarity that we can’t find in our everyday surroundings,  to feel the residual energy of the many who’ve visited there before. The journey alone is an experience, the elation of putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that there’s a purpose to it, something significant at the end. Pilgrimages aren’t always long and arduous. They aren’t necessarily religious in nature. They do, however, always leave an indelible mark on the one undertakes them.

Up to about a year ago, I was a consummate pilgrim. I’ve journeyed to see works of art that shook me. Sometimes it was to be where someone I admired had been, to touch something they had touched. If I’m honest, I’ve gone on pilgrimages that revolved around food. In every case, I loved getting there, and I really loved being there. There was clarity in it, inspiration, connection. I came back a little bit different. Great chunks of who I am have been built on these trips.

There haven’t been that many (or any) pilgrimages this past year. The means to get around, to explore other places, are designated for emergency use only.  The far away wonders feel like they might as well be on the other side of the universe. The ones nearby are closed. I take the dogs for a walk, sometimes even on a scenic route, but I’m just as much on a leash as they are. These days, I do my pilgrimages on Pinterest, amidst the sound of groceries being delivered and email notifications.

I wonder what pilgrimages will look like when the world opens up a little. I’ve been stewing in my own wanderlust for more than a year. When the time comes, will I hastily pack a bag and bolt for the door, or will I be like one of those elephants who’s been chained to a post so long that they don’t know what to do when someone lets them go? I’ve been travelling by air since I was an infant, but I find myself wondering if I’ll ever trust the space inside a plane again. Will I confront my aversion to long car rides? Can I still trust the journey?

And what about the destination? Will I care about seeing the same things, soaking in the same sights? Will the same monuments feel significant, the historic figures worthy of admiration? Will the pictures and the souvenirs hold the same place of esteem?

Here’s how I cope with this particular fuzzy end of the proverbial lollipop: I remind myself that part of what I love about being a pilgrim, what many love about it, is the palpable sensation that I am treading where many before me have tread. The places and things I long to see are also monuments to posterity. They’re still there to see and experience because humans, despite our many flaws, know how to hang in there for long periods of time. Many of them were built during tough times.

And here we are, trying to persist in the face of something awful, just like pretty much every batch of humans who’ve gone before.

In the past, getting to the end of a pilgrimage had a particular feeling. I wore my journeys like a sash full of girl guide badges, with pride and nostalgia. They affirmed to me, and anyone else who happened to notice, that I was unafraid of putting in the effort to get somewhere. A pilgrimage suggests patience and determination. It means you recognize that some things are worth persevering for, that the end sometimes justifies the means, and that you can put up with some hardship, even learn from it, if it means you’ll get someplace wonderful later.

This is, by far, the longest pilgrimage I’ve ever been on. I have no idea when it will end, or even what I’m aiming to see when it’s over. But I have to think that the endless walks around the neighbourhood, the mad dashes to the post office, the quick trips to drop off groceries, are all part of a journey so long and so slow that I sometimes forget I’m still moving. More importantly, I need to believe, like every good pilgrim does, that it will end in somewhere amazing, and that I will be a little better for it. I have faith that much will be solved by walking.

Poem: A Memo From Camus

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Dearest Sisyphus,
I am writing to inform you that I have
inadvertently misrepresented you
and your situation.
As it so happens, it is not you who is rolling
the rock
but rather the rock that is rolling you
selfishly barring you from floating away
drifting
aimless balloon that you are.
Furthermore,
the rock is not in fact a rock
but rather an enormous dung ball
and one that has grown wiser
than the lowly scarab
that moves it.
Thought you should know.
Regards.

Just A Little Bit Angry

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I heard a great line while binging “The Queen’s Gambit” this week:

“Anger is a potent spice. A pinch wakes you up. Too much dulls your senses.”

Anger has been my seasoning of choice for at least a few months now, and I don’t think I need to go into a whole lot of detail as to why. There’s this pandemic thing, for starters, coupled with  a heaping helping of political unrest. I’m angry at the changes I’ve had to make in my life, in the lives of my family, for all of the parts of ourselves that we’ve had to put on ice. I’m angry on behalf of all of those who are really struggling right now, who don’t have security, or even their health.

But this isn’t a post about COVID19, or the state of the world, or human rights. We hear a lot about those things, and presently, I don’t have much to add to the discussion. I am decidedly against the first, very concerned about the second, and passionately in favour of the third. That’s about it for now.

What I do want to do is come to the defense of anger. I keep hearing that anger is poison, that it pollutes and deteriorates. Perhaps, this far into the pandemic and all its trappings, I should be at peace, in a zen state, accepting of what’s happening. But I’m not. And I’m cool with that.

Feeling angry isn’t the same as feeling helpless. Even with our present set of restrictions, I feel strangely empowered. There are plenty of things I can do and change. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do them all.

Angry doesn’t equal ungrateful either. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky to be safe and healthy and loved. There is so much good still in the world, and I recognize that I’ve had more of my share of it. I want it for others too.

Angry doesn’t negate happy either or hopeful. As I go about my daily business, I generally have a smile of my face, and a joke or two to tell. I just also happen to have a tiny, invisible flame dancing atop my head. In the right light, you can see the smoke.

Anger turns helplessness into purpose. Gratitude mixed with anger is a catalyst for change. Happiness combined with anger sparks passion and maybe even optimism. I’ve never been zen. Not even close. Trying to settle into peace feels about as uncomfortable as a pair of pointy-toed stilettos that are two sizes to small. If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I need to stop trying to accept what is unacceptable. I can’t be at peace with it.

My anger is not main dish, but more like a condiment. My anger is a dollop of ketchup or a squeeze of lemon. It’s a teaspoon of festive red sprinkles.

“A pinch wakes you up.”

Poem: Knitting

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Knitting

My grandmothers made it look effortless.
They played double
-dutch in miniature
while watching the evening news
and sweaters, scarves, thick afghans
flowed
like ticker tape readings,
strands of wool looping over index fingers
with the familiarity of their own veins.
Their eyes never bent below their noses.
What does it say for me,
the tangled messes I’ve made of their structures,
their smooth, steady morse code
turned to urban graffiti in my anxious paws?
My dropped stitches are like scars, form into awkward, misshapen lace
and I am forever picking up extra stitches
causing bulges here
ripples there,
so many more loops to account for.
My palms sweat, and the wool pills and unravels
before ever becoming anything
And I successfully knit my brow.

Copyright Amy Leask, 2021

Once Around the Fridge in 2021

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When my daughter was little, I used to read her “Something From Nothing”. It’s a story of a boy whose grandfather, a tailor, makes him a coat. When the coat wears out, he turns it into a vest. When the vest is past its peak, it becomes a tie. As time and the story march along, the tie becomes a handkerchief, and eventually, a button. It is the ultimate story about making the most of the resources at hand, about being clever and persistent.

I had a grandmother who was blessed with the gift of making “something from nothing”. She sewed useful things from scraps, knit countless toys from bits of leftover yarn, and fashioned sweet bouquets from stubborn weeds, but what sticks in my mind is her ability to make dinner from what seemed like random odds and sods. The cupboard could appear bare to the untrained eye, the bits in the fridge were assumed to be lost causes, and yet there would still be food on the table. She relied on a tried and true “once around the fridge” method of cooking. She simply took stock of what was there, sized up the resources available to her, saw possibilities, and got to work. There was nothing fancy about her cuisine, but it was tasty and filling, and nothing went to waste (heaven help anyone who didn’t clear their plate and help her avoid leftovers).

I can’t even begin to count the things that have disappeared in the past 10 months, the aspects of life as we knew it that just aren’t there anymore. I’ve been lucky in that I’m fed, healthy, safe, and employed, but I have to admit that it’s been tempting to slump into a “cupboard is bare” kind of mindset. It’s really, really easy to get stuck in that.

I never imagined I’d see the world grind to a halt at the behest of a virus, but I also didn’t think I’d see people pulling things together the way they have. There’s so much we used to assume was impossible: government assistance programs don’t get put together in a manner of weeks, vaccines take years, not months to develop, education and the arts can’t function online, and we can’t stay connected to others unless we’re in the same space as them.

Before you make puke noises and roll your eyes at me, let me acknowledge that none of this has been particularly pretty or refined. There are long-term costs to all of these things we’ve patched together in haste. I’m not at all impressed that we had to make these sudden changes (I am, in fact, mad as hell about them), but I am inspired that we could. What we’ve done, in essence, is a “once around the fridge” maneuver. We’ve collectively scraped together what we could find, and made something useful from it.

I’ve tried to mirror this in my own life over the past year. Okay, I don’t get to celebrate holidays in a typical way, or go fun places, or get together with people I care about. I’m not free to roam as I please and even small, everyday actions are covered in an extra, heavy layer of planning. I’m an extrovert with monkey brain and chronic wanderlust. Everything about this situation smarts, but I do still have resources at my disposal, things that might have otherwise been not worthy of note. I’m developing a much better sense of what I’ve neglected, and I’ve tried to connect that to my drive to just get things done.

I also have things to give others, ways to help, even from a distance. I can cobble together solutions for problems outside of my own small bubble, and that has been gratifying. As was the case in my grandmother’s kitchen, there’s nothing that can’t be used, no room for leftovers.

What I’m seeing in 2021, what my grandmother, and the tailor in my daughter’s book could see, are possibilities. There are things to be done, people to do them, and tools we can use, all of which have probably been there all along. Maybe it’s true that nothing comes from nothing, but we still have something. We still have lots of somethings, and maybe the clarity and drive to make good use of them.