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Pickle Me This

July 21, 2020


I haven’t paid much attention to the numbers, at all, unless they’re good (just 102 cases in Ontario last Wednesday!), but when they’re not, they don’t concern me. Because my concern doesn’t help, I mean, neither me nor the province, and there are actual people who get paid to know about these things, so instead I wash my hands, wear a mask, and focus on the things I can control. Like remaining calm, which is to say measured.

“Carefully considered; deliberate and restrained.”

I would like to call a moratorium on the word “surge.” I would like to call a moratorium on headlines. “It’s not a linear path,” says a person who actually knows what the measurements mean in an article whose inflammatory headline runs counter to the message. “Periodic outbreaks, periodic reopenings… It’s going to happen. It should happen. I think the key thing is communicating that and normalizing that.”

“an estimate of what is to be expected (as of a person or situation)”

How do you measure risk? I wrote about this in May, which in retrospect was a really hard time, and I was frustrated by other people’s demands for certainty and clarity, which seemed impossible. I continue to be frustrated by a lack of regard for any middle ground between ordinary life and lockdown, a middle ground that is possible (although less so with our provincial government’s dearth of vision and unwillingness to invest the money to make this possible). But then we all measure these things differently, don’t we. Slight odds mean something different and dangerous to people who have been outliers before, whereas to me they suggest safety. And neither of us is wrong.

“to estimate or appraise by a criterion”

I am thinking about how to connect all this to music, the measures that make a song as days make a week, weeks to years. How an archaic definition of “measure” is synonymous with “dance,” albeit one conducted with gravity instead of abandon. This is not the mashed potato, is what I’m saying, neither the latest, nor the greatest. But still a dance, a navigation in time and space with others.

“You know, sometimes we’re not prepared for adversity. When it happens sometimes, we’re caught short. We don’t know exactly how to handle it when it comes up. Sometimes, we don’t know just what to do when adversity takes over. (chuckle). And I have advice for all of us, I got it from my pianist Joe Zawinul who wrote this tune. And it sounds like what you’re supposed to say when you have that kind of problem. It’s called mercy, mercy, mercy.”

July 20, 2020

Pandemic Vacation

A thing I never knew until 2020 is that there is no vacation like a pandemic vacation—but what a wonderful lesson to learn. If one must live through a pandemic, I mean. Our original summer holiday was cancelled at the end of May, but summer rentals had reopened in Ontario at the same time after being closed since March, which meant there was still some availability and we wasted no time in booking. We weren’t sure what we’d find when we got to the random cottage we’d booked on the internet, or if this holiday would feel second-tier, as sad as 2020 in general. Plus what of spending time together as a family after having been holed up for months… But it was everything, beautiful with amazing swimming (I hadn’t swam for 120 days!), cut off from the world so we could forget about everything except the sky and the trees, and the way the lake was always changing. I read a book every day, relished escape from the city heat, had fun with my family, and delighted in these days of being at peace. Checking out the newspaper midweek too to learn that not much had even happened while we were gone. It was a very good week, and I’ve never been more grateful for a holiday.

July 2, 2020

Things I Like

A desktop with a laptop computer, bouquet of daisies, and a pink teapot.

I am sorry I’ve been out of touch. Except for social media updates, of course. And we’ve been getting together with friends in our neighbourhood, picnics in the park, but the idea of anything further afield kind of overwhelms me. By April, I was done with Zoom. And my world is so small right now, wedded to routine, that any deviation throws me for a loop. I’ve always been a bit like this, but living in pandemic times is even more so—and as real life begins to return again, it’s something I’m going to have to work on, at least if I want to continue to have friends, which I do.

But in the meantime, I read on the couch every night—which is kind of my ideal situation, to be honest. And I’ve tried to balance going to nobody’s online literary event by buying and reading all the books instead—even in the before-times, I’ve always preferred partying alone with my book to going to a book party anyway.

And when I’m not reading, there are a few other things that I’m getting up to, things that help me measure out my days and bring me joy, which is why I want to share them with you.

Five Minutes for the Planet

Jen Knoch’s Tuesday newsletter is fabulous reading, rich and thoughtful with smart ideas about our environmental impact. I look forward to it every week and you should sign up too!

Wind of Change

I’m not a metal fan (you are SHOCKED, I know), but “Wind of Change”, by Scorpions has long been a fascination of mine, along with Cold War history, so I was intrigued by this podcast exploring rumours about whether the song had been a project of the CIA—and it’s by Patrick Radden-Keefe whose book about the IRA Say Nothing was a favourite in our household this year. The podcast is fun, but really interestingly explores ideas about propaganda as it progresses (is the podcast itself propaganda, Radden-Keefe wonders?).

The New Abnormal

We call this “The Trashy Podcast” at our house, but it’s also smart and interesting—the episode with Congresswoman Katie Porter was unforgettable. To be honest, co-host Rick Wilson is not my fave, a former Republican strategist whose work is responsible for the mess we’re in—he refuses to see a possibility of politics not having to be a dirty game, but he likes himself enough that my feelings are never going to matter—but Molly Jong-Fast is great, and it’s the kind of perspective on American politics I appreciate right now, one that refuses to take the Ding Dong President seriously.

The Big Lasagne

There are some stand-out moments in the blur of these times, and the weekend of The Big Lasagne at the end of April was one of them. (It was actually too hot to be cooking lasagne that weekend, and I was reading Writers and Lovers, by Lily King. It was lovely.) Samin Nosrat, of Salt, Fat, Acid, Heat fame, decided that people the world over could cook lasagne together, and so we joined her, making SmittenKitchen’s recipe that involved two days of prep and fresh pasta. It was amazing and our lasagne even got reposted on the New York Times Cooking Instagram feed, which might be as close as I ever come to being in that paper.

Spade and Spoon

Things delivered to my door have also been a real delight—books, donuts, popsicles, and more!—but Spade and Spoon is my absolute favourite. We were almost out of maple syrup one day in April when they first came to our service, and we bought jam too, lots of jam, and pickles. Every two weeks they’ve been delivering their products to the GTA, and we’ve ordered quite a few times. Nothing tops the pickled asparagus though. So so delicious.

The Austins (again)

When I read Madeleine L’Engle’s Austin series last year (which I haven’t mentioned for at least five minutes!) I felt very sensible for having borrowed each book from the library, but there came a moment in April where not having these books in hand was no longer acceptable, so I ordered them all, speaking of deliveries. The best thing? They’re kids’ books so five of them is not much more expensive than a regular hardcover. (In my mind, this basically constitutes making money…which is one of many reasons why I am not rich.) And then I started to read them with my family, and everybody’s enjoying them—we’re halfway through The Moon By Night. I can’t WAIT to read The Young Unicorns with them! Previously, I’d thought perhaps these books with their ominous undertones was too dark for family read-alouds (as Vicky Austin contemplates the genocide of Indigenous peoples and fears nuclear holocaust) but it doesn’t feel like that anymore.

Yoga with Naz

I miss swimming. It’s been over a hundred days since my last morning swim and my towel and bathing are still hanging over the banister where I hung them, but I am filling the void with morning yoga classes online with the YMCA of Greater Toronto, which similarly let me start my day with my body feeling good. Our favourite teacher is Nazia White, and we love her. The YMCA is moving to a summer schedule next week so there might be less yoga in the offering, but we might double up on the classes, because a daily dose is a very good thing.

July 1, 2020

Leftover Spaghetti Frittata (or We’ve Come a Long Way)

I made leftover spaghetti frittata for the first time at the end of March. This was when I kept scrolling news in hopes of good news, and there was none. I kept checking in on food writer @emikodavies under lockdown in Italy, and it was some solace to see her family’s daily life continuing, albeit in confinement. If they could keep going, so could I, was my reasoning. The recipe she posted in her feed also appealed to me for its frugalness. This was in my “reusing parchment paper” phase, when I was worried about food availability. It made a meal that was as comforting as it was delicious.

I do not think the pandemic is over. And I WOULD go into detail about our rituals, the ways we’re taking precautions, but I won’t, because reading such posts from other people makes me anxious. Suffice it to say, however, that we have not returned to business as usual. But we have also found ways, in this new reality, to reclaim joy and pleasure, and it’s not at all as incongruous as a lot of people might think.

I do not think the pandemic is over, but I really want to celebrate how far we’ve come since that dismal day in late March when I first poured eggs into my spaghetti. I think a fixation on US politics here in Canada has confused many people about the many ways their situation is different from our own. And there are, of course, a hundred other reasons to be lugubrious right now…but we’re still here, and now it’s summer, basil blooming in my garden, which I mixed into our frittata today.

There have been unfathomable losses, it’s true, but things are better now, infection rates here in Ontario continue to be low, community spread decreasingly a factor. The pandemic is not over, but do you not see still what a wonderful thing this is? That we are not without reasons to be hopeful after all?

I am going to make spaghetti frittata forever, I think. I am going to use spaghetti even as a means to frittata, in fact, and it’s going to remind me of these days, of all we’ve learned about community and connection, living with uncertainty and weathering hard times. Of what grows, and persists, and even blooms.

The pandemic is not over, but we have come such a long way.

June 22, 2020

The Gift of June

There has been a resurgence of joy lately, ridiculous in its excess. On Friday night we came upon a giant inflatable unicorn on the road, is the kind of thing I’m talking about. Picnics with friends, cake in the park, little kids on bicycles furiously pedalling, and it’s hot, but we bought an eight foot round pool for our backyard, and the happiness the pool gives me, that pool blue, and beach towels hung over the railing. A bowl of cherries. Sheets on the line. Life itself meeting my standards for delight, which is not such a tall order, really. All these hard months as we’ve been thinking about learning to appreciate the little things, so much of what we’ll never take for granted again—but I never took any of it for granted ever, I would indignantly protest inside my frightened mind. I loved every single bit of it, which was why it hurt so hard to lose it, the life I made, the patterns of the days. Never once have I failed to appreciate how the light falls on Major Street at 9:15am, the blossom detritus on the sidewalk. But it feels like the world is returning again, and it’s never seemed more glorious.

June 18, 2020

We Can’t Let Our Imaginations Fail Us

It was interesting to read Oliver Burkeman’s Guardian column in May about expecting the worst in general and in particular during our current crisis. It was interesting, because I am usually pathologically inclined to hope for the best (albeit wisely—it’s a pack an umbrella just in case, kind of thing) and I get frustrated by doomsaying, because I feel like it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. But doomsaying and hoping for the best, so says Burkeman, are actually two sides of the same coin. Both are actions performed by people “engaging in their own private methods for managing their emotions.” And for the most part neither action has bearing on the future, because the one thing we all have in common is that nobody knows.

But I am not completely sure, at least not in the case of moment in which we find ourselves. Sometimes I feel like there is something craven in pessimism, or maybe it’s not that it’s craven so much as a failure of imagination, to be so adamant that things could not possibly ever be okay. Though as Burkeman writes, there is actually safety in imagining the worst possibilities, “as bad as things can get” as close as one might manage in uncertainty to a kind of solid ground.

And yes, of course it’s a failure too to imagine that things couldn’t possibly get worse, or more terrible, but here’s the thing: if things are going to get worse, they will, whether you imagine it or not. Whereas for building a better world and more possibilities, imagination is essential. Imagining ways to restructure societies so that racialized people are safe, for example, and the disproportionate funding of police forces is reallocated to social services instead. Imagining ways that schools and workplaces can function and keep people healthy and connected, or how outdoor parks and pools could reopen this summer and people can enjoy these amenities safely, or even how we can all keep going and working together as Covid outbreaks continue to happen, which they will, instead of throwing our hands up and screaming, “Second wave!” and taking up permanent residence under our beds.

There is optimism, and there is wilful ignorance, and they’re not necessarily the same. At the beginning of the pandemic too I was as doomy as anyone, because something was coming and no one knew what it was, and I wanted to be safe, for my family to be safe, for vulnerable people in our community to be safe. And because so many of us took precautions at that moment, which was a big sacrifice for all kinds of people (not me; I’ve been sitting at home eating gourmet cheese and keeping comfortable), things turned out to not be so bad after all. Not good by any means, but certainly good in comparison to the carnage in so many regions. I was thinking I was about to become a character in Station Eleven, is what I mean, and probably a dead one, but it didn’t turn out to be like that. Infection rates are going down in Ontario. We have reasons to be hopeful.

Which is not to say we’re about to pack hundreds of bodies into a crowded space anytime soon. Guys, we’re not Florida. And I think that many people in Canada are confused about this, sharing memes from Americans who are scared shitless, and for good reason, because culture warriors have decided to declare that an actual virus does not exist. “We’re right back where we started!” those memes keep on screaming, and they’re not wrong, but that’s because many communities have not done what’s happening here in Canada, in Ontario. (What’s happening here in Ontario is not exactly exemplary either. Testing and contact tracing have lagged. There has been a failure of imagination on that end, and also competence, but it hasn’t been an abject disaster. The answer, as always, is somewhere in the middle…)

We’re not right back where we started because people are wearing masks now, avoiding large crowds, shops have built plastic barriers and have caps on customers, people aren’t commuting en mass, offices aren’t packed with workers, we’re not sitting in doctor’s waiting rooms. This is not square one, where we are—though that risk remains for racialized communities, for people in dangerous working conditions, working in food production in particular, should not make those of us who are safer complacent. But it also means that we know a lot more about how and where the virus is spread than we did in March when we were all in such a panic and the reports that were coming out of Italy were devastating. We’re so much further down the road.

And no, I don’t think the pandemic is over, as many people keep accusing others of believing, but I do think we have to imagine a way to move forward and live with the virus. And I am trying not to get too frustrated at the sight of young people congregating in backyards, not so distanced at all, or the families who have continued to have playdates all along, because the likelihood of harm is really quite low in practical terms, which is kind of annoying for everyone who has been so strictly following the rules, it’s true, because we’d like to see a kind of justice, right? I know there were people who were disappointed that there was no documented Covid spike following an epic gathering of people in their 20s at a Toronto park in May. Because it would have felt good to be able to point to those people and say, Serves you right, and even have somebody to blame for part this bad dream we’re collectively living through. Much better than so much being random and shitty, nobody to point at at all.

(There have been spikes of illness at people in their 20s in general, however, and I wonder how much of this is tied to young people tending to be employed in high risk workplaces, living with roommates, all plans derailed, and if the backyard parties are necessary because of how much shittier the pandemic has been for them than those of us who are more comfortable and established…)

But there aren’t rules. I’ve written about this before. Everybody’s using their best judgment as we venture together into the unknown, and yes, many people’s best judgment is terrible. But many people are doing just fine, and want to stay safe, and protect their communities, and return to their businesses, and socialize with families and friends, and support their favourite restaurant, and have a localish summer holiday, and take precautions to stop the spread of the virus, wearing masks, washing hands, keeping distance, and I guess what I mean is that I wish amongst the various catastrophic outcomes so many people are imagining is the possibility that we might also be fine.

June 8, 2020

Let’s All Take Care

There was a moment when “this all” started when everything felt particularly tender, when “care-mongering” became a thing and everyone was very scared, and I’d never felt more connected to others, to the people in my community and all around the world. And while people have continued to take care in so many ways since then, the general sense of goodwill seems to have evaporated around Week 6, and I get it. It doesn’t sound hard, what those of us who aren’t really going through anything are all going through. Stay home, work from home, carry it, plank the curve—it sounds doable. It is doable, because we’re doing it, but also nobody is bringing their best self these days. I don’t know if people have never been more irritating or I have never been more irritable, and the answer is a knife edge. I’ve unfriended people on Facebook, one person before I delivered a message to “Go fuck right off,” which is not the usual way I conduct myself, on Facebook or anywhere, but I’ve got no patience these days. There is nothing in reserve. I am a relatively stable person with a lot of support, and I was at serious risk of falling apart last week, several times. And if I’ve been struggling, what about all the people without people to hold them up, without the comforts and luxuries that I can count on, people with a history of trauma and mental illness. This collective devastation: never in my memory has there been anything else like it.

It’s too big even for a hashtag (WHICH, ADMITTEDLY, IS FINE).

Do you feel it too, that brittleness, everything so fragile? That care-mongering might be more necessary than it was 12 weeks ago? That even though our devastation is collective, that none of us really has any idea what the other is going through? I am relieved to be feeling so much better after last week’s struggle, but I know that it continues for so many others, and that getting through it is going to have to be collective too. We need compassion, and patience, and understanding, and empathy. We need to stop being furious at our neighbours for wearing masks/not wearing masks/for having playdates/for their furious social media tirades about people having playdates. We need to stop taking our collective helplessness out on each other.

And it’s not even hopeless. It’s been time since I’ve been able to say such a thing with confidence, but it isn’t. And maybe it’s the brittleness, the fragility, the rawness of our hearts right now that made the fact of George Floyd’s torture and murder at the hands of police resonate all over the world. That has made those of us who aren’t Black begin to viscerally understand the pain and brutality of racism in new ways, to ask questions we might not have ever considered before. That same impulse, edginess that led to “Fuck right off” and the Facebook unfriendings are the same rage compelling people to the streets. The pain is everywhere, and it’s spilling over. A river. An ocean.

All we have is each other. Let’s take care.

June 3, 2020

Thoughts about Being Okay

I started having panic attacks again on Monday, the kind I was having back in March when “all this” began. I’d been feeling sad and overwhelmed since Thursday, on Saturday our summer holiday got cancelled, and that afternoon helicopters circled the sky as protesters took to the street to stand up for Black people’s lives and the roar of those machines was dark and ominous. The scenes in the US were getting more and more upsetting, and Monday ended with news of the US “President” assembling troops to attack citizens in the street, and also peaceful protesters being cleared with tear gas so that dipshit could pretend he was going to church. (Dude did not know it was Monday.)

I was trembling, my heart was palpitating. I knew I was going to be in some trouble, and so after my children were in bed, my husband and I sat down to talk and try to calm me down, which helped a bit, but it still wasn’t finished, and the only way out of panic, I’ve found, is through. My mind so highly strung, and I was scared. We have a fan in our room, for ventilation and white noise, and I started imagining I was hearing the sounds of more helicopters. Trying to convince myself otherwise, but I was lying in bed awake for hours, my mind a million miles and hour, and it was the sound of people shouting and screaming I heard next, and what was happening outside? To this world?

I got up to find out, and went to the window, where perspective shifted—and I realized the sounds I was hearing were birds. I’d been up so long that the birds were awake. And the fact that birds were singing was a lulling thought, this ordinary thing instead of the nightmare I’d been imagining. And I fell asleep finally sometime around 4 am.

Spending the next day bleary-eyed and with a headache, the panic still there, and it was hard to function. I barely did. And then the panic was finished, and I still was tired, but I was calm again, and there was light to see, and the birdsong was birdsong, and world a place I recognized. Such relief in that—euphoric, even. Like an illness and the absence of pain—I was so glad to be through it.

But of course it’s not over. I feel okay again, but it’s not okay again, and I don’t think it ever has been. I was thinking too about how it’s important, perhaps even essential, for white people to feel uncomfortable. And how the greatest reason for my fear when I’m overwhelmed is usually connected to my children, my fears for this world into which I’ve brought them. And the lightness of my imaginary helicopters when compared to the concrete fears of other parents for their own Black children, to feel like that all the time. The people for whom the sounds don’t turn out to be birdsong.

I get relief from my fears—I acknowledge the privilege in that, and how different my experience is from those of other parents all over the world, in my city, even. I get to feel better, which is not a bad thing, because my panic was debilitating, short of rendering me unable to function. But the point is that now that it’s done, I need to remember that my feelings are not the end of the story of inequality and injustice, of battles that are still going on and which we need to be fighting regardless of what I’m going through.

But also that I can be okay when things are not okay, and that is okay too.

June 1, 2020

Calm Is Still a Superpower

It was my fault—all of it.

Do you do this too? Do you have a whole host of reasons why the disastrous spring of 2020 was a product of your own consciousness? Covid-19 has got me out of both jury duty and a colonoscopy, and it’s crossed my mind that I’ve likely engineered all this, my ability to control the universe gone terrifically awry. (I am sorry.)

But the worst of my crimes was this blog post, the one I published on February 21, when I wrote about how after months and years of freaking out over everything (natural disaster, WW3, and mass slaughter, and every theoretical terrible thing), I finally accepted that nothing TRULY bad was really going to happen and calmed down. And even though unrest and instability, war and tension continued throughout January and February, I met it with my Zen approach, because I’d mastered consciousness, and was basically a yogi.

And then the universe said HA.

Or it didn’t, because the universe isn’t so responsive, and I don’t actually reside at its centre (so I’ve been told), but for a long time, I thought of my February blog post and felt sick to my stomach. When I’d been feeling sick to my stomach anyway, because there was a whole week in March where I couldn’t eat for a week, or sleep, or even sit down and look at a puzzle without having heart palpitations—and that I was looking at a puzzle at all is indicative of how bad things were at. I am not a puzzle person, but I couldn’t even read.

I thought I’d figured out anxiety. What a lark! And that was back when I only had abstract notions to be anxious about, when I could shop for groceries or take my children to school without fear of a deadly contagion. When the President of the USA wasn’t sanctioning police violence in the streets. It seems laughable now.

And yet, the answer is the same. And at least I wasn’t giving a prescription in my February post and I acknowledged there was uncertainty, a wavering—I’d never really claimed to have mastered anything. But I was observing a point in my process instead.

None of it’s simple,” I wrote, “and the only way toward an answer is work, which is what’s happening now all around us, and we need to be patient. And calm.”

Which doesn’t mean passive. It doesn’t mean waiting and doing nothing, and eliminate the necessity of action, but instead.

It means breathing. It means grounding. It means thinking, and listening, and connecting, and learning, and (in the words of Ann Douglas) calm is still a superpower.

Maybe more than ever.

May 28, 2020

Terrible and Fine

Pink Lilacs

I can never understand how difficult a moment is until it’s over, which is useful as far as self-preservation mechanisms go—though it might be hard for other people to understand, people who prefer to confront the darkness head on. I imagine those people find my social media posts annoying, everything crumbling, and my insistence on noticing daffodils. But I cannot look at the darkness, instead walking through it in a fog, squinting and imagining that I’m discerning silver linings, and the fog is what’s keeps me going. The fog and the hope, because otherwise I can’t get up off the floor, and it’s doubly convoluted because this crisis, for me and my family, is abstract. Our home is comfortable, we still have our incomes, my children’s needs are met, we’re healthy, and we can afford to stay home and stay safe, meanwhile the weather is glorious, and potato plants are coming up in my garden, and there are wildflowers everywhere—lilacs, peonies, and irises, so much abundance, and so where is the crisis? Whereas if I walked twenty minutes east, I’d encounter homeless encampments, but they’re not on my route. And if I walked by them, would I even see them? How would I make them part of the story I tell?

I cried this morning when the school principal made an appearance on Iris’s class meet-up. Yesterday I scrolled through my Instagram account from the last few months, which is rich with colour and beautiful things, but I knew those images were standing in for sadness and hard feelings (and if you read the captions, this is often the case. I am not entirely delusional). It’s been a terrible few months. It’s also been fine. And how the mind struggles to know both these things at once.

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