Silver Linings Playbook: Covid-19 Edition, Part 2

[4-minute read] The ice is gone, and so are the crowds. Rideau Canal, Ottawa.

In part 2 of the Playbook, friends of, we walk the sunniest available sides of the streets of Ottawa. The number one bit of brightness is that WE’RE NOT NEW YORK. By good luck, and perhaps by a certain level of good Canadian management and prudence, we’re still only in the hundreds of cases in my city, with fewer than 10 deaths. But still, Covid-19 looms darkly over Ottawa, over everywhere that people have eyes to see and ears to hear what the Science saith unto all the congregations…¹

But there are silver linings ANYWAY. As I concluded in Part 1 of this series, they all seem to have something to do with some combination of Time, Opportunity and the Transformation of our personal and societal circumstances. What do they look like in your neighbourhood, town or city?

Here’s what my neighbour Big Sam had to say: “In a pandemic, country people still have the advantages of rural living — fresh air, woods and fields to walk in, and it’s easy to avoid people. And the disadvantages are mainly gone, because now nobody has anywhere to go or much to do. Here in town, it’s the opposite: we have all the disadvantages (nature deficits, people all over the place), and none of the city advantages like, y’know, entertainment, large gatherings and art and culture and…Big Sam has chronic tongue-in-cheek syndrome, but there’s some wry truth there. But what I’m talking about is making the best of this shutdown situation, even when densification kinda sucks! Here’s what’s silver on a cloudy Ottawa afternoon:

  • LOCAL HEROES are getting celebrated on-line. Our local chief medical officer – Dr. Vera Etches – is reputed locally to have “a will of steel” and is widely admired, as are all the health workers. (Nationally and provincially, most of Canada’s chief health officers are women, as they are municipally in Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.) Suddenly the love that usually goes to highly paid hockey stars from everywhere except Ottawa is being re-directed to truck drivers, shelf stockers, grocery baggers and other jobs that are low-wage but more essential than chasing pucks. Perspectives change.
  • SINGING FROM BALCONIES? Surely there must be parts of Ottawa, more dense than my neighbourhood, where people sing and perform with each other at a distance, à l’Italienne? (Hmm, okay, maybe not. This is Ottawa.)
  • BUT THERE’S BEAUTY ALL OVER THE PLACE. Kid-painted rainbows, strategically placed teddy bears, and all kinds of encouragement are to be found in street-facing windows. “You got this!” and “Tous dans le même bâteau” and “Wash! Wash! Wash!” and these two splendidly childish jokes to follow:

Silver Linings Playbook: Covid-19 Edition, Part 1

It’s a cliche for a reason. [6-minute read]

(And HEY FOLKS: I updated my WordPressing, and just noticed that you might have missed page 2, a button you need to punch just below the “share” notice. Not too obvious, sorry.)

This pandemic is a bloody gigantic, forebodingly black cloud that has blotted out the the sun of Everyday Life. (Yet there’s no stopping the literal sun.) Buckets of rain. Hailstones like shot-puts. Figurative lightning strikes, mudslides and wildfires – just ask doctors in New York City, Wuhan, northern Italy, and too many other outbreak spots to name. And still I maintain, and human nature appears to insist, that there are bright spots that pierce the gloom, linings of silver behind the darkest of clouds, just as my mother always said.

I’m looking for them. Lots of us are, and we can train ourselves to see positives where they exist. This is not to suggest that we ignore suffering, nor to shelter in a comfortable place and whine about inconvenience, drowning our petty sorrows in self-absorption, but also not to be blind to the light that every darkness hides. You’ve seen what folks are doing in crisis. It’s widespread, it’s constant, and often it really isn’t that hard: you support your local foodbank, he shops responsibly, maybe she’s making some extra phone calls to family, friends, neighbours, WHATEVER — but I hope you’ll join me in Finding Goodness Where We Can.

Today, I’m reporting on fortunate consequences within the cozy confines of my Ottawa home, which I share with DancerGirl and our not-long-for-teenager-dom son, The Lanky One. So:

Within These Four Walls + Our Fully Functioning Roof + Sump-Pump. Hard Times Have Been Good to Find — Let Me Count the Ways!

  • INTROVERTS for the WIN! My bride laments the lack of people, and I quietly thank my lucky stars. I don’t know if I’m storing up Loner Energy or not, but I do enjoy the lack of appointments and obligations, really, to an absurd degree. Maybe this will pass, but it’s fun for now.
  • Hang-time with the Lanky One has been almost completely good. Cabin-fever hits him hard (I hear girlfriend rumours occasionally), but he’s funny, philosophical, and the all-in-this-together vibe is working for him. (Or on him.) It’s not as sudden as it sometimes feels, but our Ornery Teen is a rather congenial housemate. Silver! Gold!

Kathleen Raine (on preference for ugliness, need for beauty)

“I have found myself wondering why the present age seems positively to shrink from beauty, to prefer the ugly, to feel safer, more at home with it; and I have come to realize that there is a reproach in the beautiful and the perfect; it passes its continual silent judgment and it requires perhaps a kind of courage to love what is perfect, since to do so is an implicit confession of our own imperfection. Can it be that the prevalence of the low and the sordid in contemporary writing is a kind of easy way, a form of sloth, an avoidance of that reproach which would call us, silently, to [aspire to] a self-perfection it would cost us too much to undertake? And yet it is in order to work upon us that transformation … that works which embody the beautiful alone exist. That is their function…”

Kathleen Raine (1908-2003) was an English poet and critic. I don’t know much about her, sorry to say. I believe this extract (the underlining is my emphasis, not hers) comes from a collection of her essays called Defending Ancient Springs (Oxford 1967). I ran across it in an essay by the Canadian poet Roger White, in a book called The Creative Circle: Art, Literature, and Music in Bahá’í Perspective, and can only think that this is more true now than when Ms. Raine wrote it.

Why Read, Anyway? The Power of the Word

Serendipity lives. Despite my love for the contents of my own little basement-bound library, I still find myself looking for (and believing in) the Right Book at the Right Time. I’m an accidentalist by literary nature: am I dialled in to the there are no accidents synchronicity of the spiritually wired world? Or grasping at the bookish straws of superstition? Take your pick.

But I have learned that I don’t need to pack much homefront reading material when I travel, because text will find me. Sure, too often it’s just that day’s sports or entertainment in another town’s newspaper, but it’s surprising how often I whimsically come across a text that I’d been looking for, or one that filled a need I didn’t know I had. Today’s example comes from an aimless stroll through my local library. Living in the big city now – and Ottawa is hugely sophisticated compared to all my tiny towns – libraries are a whole new deal for me. They’re better than the one at home. There’s great stuff everywhere. On my way to the periodicals, I was stopped by the fairly plain cover of a book featured on the end of a shelf. Why Read? was its title, and why not? was my magnetized reply.

It’s another book on the importance of reading, of course, and though I figured it would be overly familiar, the Ol’ Readin’ ‘n’ Writin’ Coach couldn’t pass it by. Published in 2004, its author, Mark Edmundson, is an American professor of literature. I was attracted by his choice of title, yes, and then by the Ralph Waldo Emerson quote with which he opens the book: “Books are the best of things, well used; abused, among the worst. What is the right use? What is the one end, which all means go to effect? They are for nothing but to inspire.” [my emphasis] In the face of a literary establishment that favours detachment, irony and deconstruction (and which he skewers with bitter eloquence), Edmundson takes an unabashedly antique position. “Reading woke me up,” he says, and made him a teacher. His beautifully written opening essay, “Literary Life”, lays out his thesis:

[L]iterature…is the major cultural source of vital options for those who find that their lives fall short of their highest hopes,…our best goad toward new beginnings, our best chance for what we might call secular rebirth. However much society at large despises imaginative writing, however much those supposedly committed to preserve and spread literary art may demean it, the fact remains that in literature there abide major hopes for human renovation.

You will see that Professor Edmundson is not one for the microscope, not an advocate for poetic alienation and identity politics.

“Books…are for nothing but to inspire.” Edmundson starts with Emerson, and builds from there a passionate and sweetly worded argument that is addressed firstly to those (his colleagues) who teach literature, and secondly to students who “read over the shoulders of your teachers”. He laments the loss of a truly liberal education in America: “Universities have become sites not for human transformation, but for training and for entertaining….[S]tudents use the humanities…to prepare for lucrative careers…[to] acquire marketable skills…[or as] sources of easy pleasure.” Edmundson, meanwhile, wants them to be MOVED, “to become other than they are”.

He insists on personal transformation as the basis of a true education. “’You must change your way of life,’ says Rilke’s sculpture of Apollo to the beholder. So says every major work of intellect and imagination, but in the university now – as in the culture at large – almost no one hears.” Mark Edmundson is gloomy about the way that his beloved literature has been used, torn asunder, isolated or completely abandoned in contemporary life, but goes on to suggest the ways it might be rehabilitated, and therefore help to rehabilitate us. He has something of the tone of the prophetic voice crying in the wilderness, and this emotional appeal combined with his reasoned and gorgeous prose lends it real credibility.

I was reminded of another citation of the great German poet Rainer Maria Rilke, this in the Canadian literary journal Brick. Included in the publishing data at the front of each issue is this statement of literary philosophy: “Works of art are of an infinite loneliness and with nothing to be so little appreciated as with criticism. Only love can grasp and hold and fairly judge them.” Professor Edmundson would surely approve my added emphasis, and he echoes this frankly ecstatic tone throughout this excellent book. Why Read? is a profound meditation and a call to ivory tower action. I wonder how many are listening.