Pandemic Journal 22/5/20-17/6/20 —“Gone Bananas” Notes From My Solitudinous Solitude

22 May 2020: “Call Me: I’ve Gone Bananas”

I’m caught somewhere between Lucille Ball performing slapstick housework and a contemporary remake of Ken Kesey’s One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with Nurse Ratchet off duty during COVID-19.

At the beginning of the lockdown in early/mid-March, the golden days, I met up with friends on facetime and Zoom for civilized cocktails and dinner in the evening. Or I cheerily chatted up former colleagues who were crushed with childcare and paid labour.

Throughout that golden era of my lockdown, I cooked from scratch. Carrot Coconut Soup. Lamb Stew “Spanish Style”, Broccoli Cheese Soup – the menu fitting for winter. Now all my NYTimes recipes are rightly interrogated for cultural appropriation, a process that while fitting leaves a bad taste in my mouth. This morning I lick Liberty coconut yogurt from the plastic bucket and scrape Honey Dijon Kettle chips from the bottom of the bag while sucking on my fingers. Remembering the brands gives me hope. That’s pandemic optimism in late monopoly capitalist COVID time.

Once I went for walks in the ravine and along the river.

Now I walk less often and listen to the rain from underneath the covers. The monsoon that is late May and sometimes June promises to go on through June.

My psychic drama.


27 May 2020

During the COVID era, I renew several friendships from long ago. One friend Daniel writes to me and includes a kind note: “I was thinking about what you said about solitary living. I don’t know if I could …and admire your capacity to do it.”

I won’t write back for weeks. I’ve lived on my own for decades of my adult life, a solitudinous life that suits someone who loves time on her my own. But this pandemic arrangement irks me. A friend reminds me that I have no choice in this matter of when and not to visit. Neither does anyone else.


In Between

In the middle of the night I awaken time after time to the sound of a creaking house. Sometimes a tinkling glass is set in motion by no one. A scurrying squirrel in the attic may or may not be a phantom.

Last night I dreamt what I thought at first was a utopian dream. I boarded a plane with my dog Simone de Bebe. Nothing turns out well in COVID dream time, and the Simone de Beauvoir clownish namesake escaped from her psychedelic patterned cubist carry-on. Everyone was aghast when I confessed out loud that I couldn’t find my beloved pooch anywhere.

At the best of times. my id, an unruly child, rules my dreams. And this fantasy plane operated according to id ideas: the flight attendants cared only about the poodle Simone not passenger allergies or their corporate rules. As dreams do, the search went on and on. In the end, as I awakened, it became clear that Simone now lives in the thin membrane that exists between the airplane’s warm cabin wall and the deep freeze of the outer metal shell.

I despaired at first upon awakening. Then I reminded myself how my pet poodle is often my dreamscape stand-in. And she inevitably teaches me a lesson.


Ouroboros

One of my first encounters with the possibilities of living a life in between was during a late seventies encounter with an old friend now deceased. Hungarian Canadian poet Robert Zend lived in Toronto for decades and among other things produced many wonderful CBC Ideas programmes. He had a remarkable history.

For some time during the early 1980s, he drove via laneways to the coachhouse across from Regent Park where I lived while a graduate student at York University. Robert lived in the suburbs and on the spur of the moment he would make his way in between the roadways along many circuitous laneways stopping by for tea. He boasted of never driving along a main thoroughfare. I never doubted him. The way was labyrinthian and far enough to qualify as a journey. This liminal space suited him he said. Having lived as a writer under Soviet occupation, he enjoyed life between the walls of his fiction and poems. Somewhere between private and public, secreted in invisible space.

Robert’s life began with profound loss. His parents were murdered during the horrifying violence that marked Soviet arrival in Hungary during WWII. With his wife and daughter, he fled Hungary and arrived in Canada after the failure of the 1956 uprising.

Robert was a polymath and a multi-genre trickster. His inventive trip to my house remains for me an inspiration. There are many creative ways out of a pandemic. Some of them meander through unknown terrain. Detours and delays can be ripe with possible paths.

I wish Robert were here to show me the ins and outs of thriving in COVID-19 time.


The Hyphen

Sipping underneath that wet, burned rice after dinner in his gaze is some long night far away on the other side of earth in other eyes and other pots burned hot in the charcoal clay stove flickered light from the lit dry grass under the same stars fields of rice and water Pacific Ocean end of murmured sadness jumped intestinal interstices, bisected, circulated, tongue’s crack, crossed into gut, guttered now between the pages of this book the floating gaze and taste burnt right through to the spine.

Fred Wah, Diamond Grill
Fred Wah

Life within the in between reminds me of how poet Fred Wah describes the state of life in “the hyphen” of being mixed race in Canada. I first met Fred decades ago when he was Writer-in-Residence at the University of Alberta. I was lucky enough to attend a regular writing workshop he held for some writers during his year in Edmonton a few years after I arrived to teach in what was then the Department of English. I was lonely. I still missed acutely my Toronto friends, and my political and artistic communities. Desperate for some relief from my workaday world as a new faculty member, I tried to scrabble together writing time at dawn from a too busy academic schedule.

While Writer-in-Residence, Fred took it upon himself one weekend to participate in the Three-Day-Novel competition. This feverish writing provided him with an early draft of a book that would be reprinted multiple times and meet with great success. His “biotext” Diamond Grill is a jazz tempo prose narrative that charts a history of growing up the son of the local Chinese restaurant The Diamond Grill. As a young child Fred hid out the day he was to be sent back to China to live with his father’s first Chinese wife. So Fred’s sister was sent across the sea instead. She lived for decades in China and like others suffered through Mao’s cultural revolution. The Diamond Grill stories include his experience of racism in Nelson B.C. and elsewhere. Fred is of Chinese and Swedish and Anglo-Celt descent. His mother’s family immigrated to Saskatchewan from Sweden. This experience of cultural hybridity inspires Fred to write how “that hyphen is a real problem for multiculturalism; it’s usually a sign of impurity…and it’s frequently erased as a reminder that the parts…are not equal to the whole.”

I admire the translation of Fred’s notion of “betweenness” into Anne Marie Nakagawa’s 2005 NFB film Between: Living in the Hyphen a film with gives affirmative voice to those of mixed race heritage. And while I don’t share the ethnic or racial heritage, this writing and cultural imagining of an in-between remains a powerful metaphor.

Living in a transracial family for me has been an illuminating experience. I am a descendent of Anglo Celt settlers in Canada. Obsessed with my mother’s unknown genealogy, I discovered I am also a smattering of Swedish, German. And I have as much Indigenous DNA as Elizabeth Warren — 1% is both minuscule and an indeterminate quantity.

I make no claims at anything more than White privilege. But one does encounter circumstances that make you very aware of the attitudes of others when your family is mixed race. And that is a story I explore at length elsewhere.


Contagious Inequalities

By day, I count the inequities now underscored and bathed in broad daylight by pandemic effects. The youth with no future. The aged warehoused in dead zones. The mothers whose workday suddenly expands with childcare, teaching, and at-home paid labour. For instance, in my old haunt – the university, academic women’s publications have fallen off precipitously since COVID-19 appeared.

Those who suffer the effects of long-term inequities are especially vulnerable including Blacks and Indigenous peoples. And especially at this moment, those of Asian descent.

This pandemic unfolded in a predicable plot. Almost two months after the first deaths in Canada, 80% of the dead have been in institutional care.

Elders are struck down. Andre Picard notes how little is offered to support Canadian home care for the ill and aged. And how home care provides a setting where the deadly transmission of the virus might have been minimized. Unfortunately there is even less support for home care patients than there is for seniors in institutionalized settings.

One morning in response to a question, Justin Trudeau asked whether seniors’ residences shouldn’t be part of the public healthcare system. And certainly considering the shoddy care that distinguishes too many Canadian homes for the aged, surely this should be a rhetorical question. But it is not. Rob Ford, once the cuddly COVID toy of tears and compassion, soon enough initiated a program to privatize more Ontario senior homes. The cloak of care he wore during the intensely desperate times has been thrown off to reveal his neoliberal suit of nails.

In mid-June, though most of the dead are those in their declining years, a young healthy person hangs on to life in a Royal Alexandra Hospital ICU unit in Edmonton. This a haunting caution to the young people whose COVID numbers are rising in my city as many young people return to socializing as usual.


3 June 2020 — the Missing & Murdered Indigenous and Exploited Women Car Caravan, Edmonton, Alberta

Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women Car Caravan, Borden Park, Edmonton, 3 June 2020

I got up early one morning to drive to a political event organized to support MMIW on the one-year anniversary of the Trudeau government’s publication of Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. The report was the culmination of a national The event was very well organized with a car caravan to Alberta’s Legislature. En route, the string of about 60 decorated cars rode slowly a kind symbolic though noisy funeral procession. We honked and chanted along Jasper Avenue, downtown Edmonton’s main drag. I was an enthusiast and broke my car horn.

We hung red cloth and posters on our cars. I tied my red pj top to my window. I didn’t have a red dress, an object linked to this movement through the Red Dress Project, Jaimie Black’s “aesthetic response to the more than 100 missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada. This political art work that hangs red dresses in trees to demonstrate the absence of so many missing and murdered women and girls has been launched in cities across Canada.

At Borden Park this morning, organizers smudged with sweetgrass and arranged the sound equipment. Several Indigenous women spoke about the thousands of women who have suffered. One woman noted she helped to initiate the first MMIW demonstration fourteen years ago.

The same day, the Native Women’s Association of Canada critiqued how a full year after the publication of the federal report that included 231 Calls For Justice, the government has yet to release an action plan.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau promised at that time that: “The work of the commissioners, the stories they have collected, and the Calls For Justice they have put forward, will not be placed on a shelf to collect dust.” And in December of last year, Carolyn Bennett, the Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations, said of a plan: “We believe we have to have something in the window by June.”

But, after a year of almost no consultation with the people who matter – the Indigenous women of Canada – the Minister chose to announce through the news media that no action plan would be tabled in June and there is no timeline for creating such a document. Minister Bennett blamed the ongoing global pandemic for the delay.

Lorraine Whitman, President of NWAC, says: “Rather than a national action plan, Indigenous women have been given a lack-of- action plan. Indigenous women are still dying and disappearing in Canada, families are still being left in the dark about the loss of their loved ones,” she said. “The time to act is now, not years or even months from now.”

That is the grim and galvanizing truth.


16 June 2020: MPs from All Parties Except the CONs Are Signatories to the Canadian Black Caucus Parliamentarians’ Demands for Profound Institutional Change

“The reaction to the COVID-19 pandemic proves that governments can act quickly and ably in crisis. Black Canadians are in a state of crisis: it is time to act. Words and symbolic gestures, while important, are not enough.”

“Say Their Names,” by Kadir Nelson

The pandemic operates like a magnifying glass of injustices. The Minneapolis police killing of George Lloyd that sparked a popular international movement in the name of Black Lives Matter arrived on the world stage at a moment when the U.S. COVID deaths killed Black Americans at an alarming rate, an injustice attributed to the health conditions, class inequities, and long history of Black oppression in the U.S.

The history of the oppression of Black people in Canada is a less well known but terrible story.

In Edmonton, a remarkable 15,000 people gathered at the Alberta Legislature on June 5 to support #BlackLivesMatter – a huge number for our city. Most demonstrators wear masks that are freely distributed by organizers. And many socially distance on the expansive green of the Legislature lawn.

The effects of this uprising and profound activism globally will, one hopes, initiate lasting institutional change.

One of the change agents is the Canadian Black Parliamentary Caucus. Their activism hit the front page on June 16.

These utterly thrilling news stories circulated here in Canada when 100 MPs including 25 Liberal cabinet ministers and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland signed on to a list of demands proposed by the Parliamentary Black Caucus. It was expected that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau would be pressured to respond actively to work to put an end to racist practices here in Canada. Only Andrew Scheer’s CONs were not a part of this initiative because – among all Canadian political parties – they alone did not endorse the notion of systemic racism in Canadian institutions.

News circulates with the promise of headlines like: “Black parliamentarians, allies sign call for national strategy to tackle systemic racism.” Some of the wide-ranging and overdue Black Caucus demands gleaned from this article are catalogued below:

  • “The signatories say a standing committee focused on the strategy to eliminate systemic racism needs to be created in Parliament immediately.”
  • To address barriers to assessing public security, the caucus calls for a “fundamental reform” to the way police, public security, border security, corrections, and military forces operate in Canada.” “This is a call for the complete reimagination of the roles and responsibilities of policing and, accordingly, the reallocation of budgets.”
  • “The [police] budgets need to be directed instead towards social services for those who need them and mental health workers trained in non-violent intervention and deescalation.”
  • The caucus also suggests the creation of a justice strategy created in collaboration with Black Canadians who have “experience and expertise on criminal justice issues.” The strategy would include the elimination of mandatory minimum sentencing measures, the opening of restorative justice programs and community justice centres as an alternative to imprisonment, and addressing the lack of representation of Black Canadians and Indigenous people in the justice system.
  • The signatories are demanding the federal government immediately begin the collection of disaggregated race-based data in police encounters, public sector workplaces, and in the federally regulated private sector.
  • “Formal mechanisms are needed to track Canada’s progress,” they wrote, mentioning the need for oversight bodies who can track the progress of the measures being taken.
  • An anti-Black racism directorate in Privy Council’s office could also be created to oversee the process. 
  • Public administrations also need to reflect the diversity of the constituents they represent, the letter said.
  • More can be done to assist Black-owned and Black-run businesses,
  • and to recognize and support the economic and artistic contributions of Black people throughout Canada.

THIS IS THE MOST PROMISING GOOD NEWS I HAVE HEARD SINCE THE BEGINNING OF COVID.

As part of the parliamentary debate regarding the Black Caucus recommendations, there was a fascinating short debate between NDP Leader Jagmeet Singh and Chrystia Freeland. It illustrated the necessity in Canada of contextualize contemporary racism, in this case anti-Black racism, with settler colonialism. In response to Singh’s demands for action against systemic racism, Freeland agreed and inserted the origin story of Canada, the history of Indigenous genocide: “We could describe it as the original sin of our country.” You can watch the short clip here.


Icon Busting

And south of the border in the U.S., changes in policing and other areas of life are occurring here and there while the federal GOP Senate urges half-measures and President Trump appeals to White Supremacists like his senior advisor.

On the cultural front, statues of Christopher Columbus and racist Confederates are put on notice. Painted, they plummet from their pedestals with the energy of long-awaited liberation.

Established in 1889, syrupy Aunt Jemima, for decades the object of anti-racist critiques, finally escapes her racist iconography. Quaker Foods North America, a unit of PepsiCo that owns the Aunt Jemima brand trumpets: “We recognize Aunt Jemima’s origins are based on a racial stereotype.’

Some are cynical that this means much of anything. But isn’t this shift simply damage control. Imagine what a Pepsi boycott might have looked like at this moment in history.

Soon after Aunt Jemima fell, Uncle Ben’s rice, an enterprise owned by the Mars corporation, was destined for the dustbin. The company announced they listened to consumers, “especially in the Black community”, and to the voices of our Associates worldwide.” They described the move as “evolving the Uncle Ben’s brand, including its visual brand identity.” Since the image was established in 1946, that is one long evolution.

More on the “corporate” evolution of racist consumer projects emerged a few days later. The South China Morning Post ran a story about Colgate-Palmolive’s decision to change the brand of one of the biggest selling Asian toothpastes. “Darlie ” was originally known as “Darkie.” The name was changed in 1989. The translation of the name is “black person toothpaste.”

“For 35 years, Colgate-Palmolive has been working together to evolve the brand” said Colgate-Palmolive.” The return to a notion of “evolution” suggests their slower than molasses shift from racist iconography to, well, more racist iconography is natural. Their conscious appeal to nineteenth-century Darwin encodes a collegial wave at the history of scientific racism.

And this also underscores the anti-Black racism that exists in China and elsewhere.

from “Colgate reviews Chinese toothpaste brand ‘Darlie” amid US racism debate” (June 18, 2020)

Moving Targets – COVID-19’s Chinese Factor

During May in Alberta, unsurprisingly, the migrant and first-generation immigrant, farm and factory workers were afflicted and died. Some of them were very young:

“In Ontario alone, more than 600 foreign farm workers have tested positive for COVID-19, according to a Globe and Mail count; health officials have stressed that, for the most part, the workers came to Canada healthy and contracted the virus locally. British Columbia, Alberta and Quebec have also recorded outbreaks among migrant agri-food workers….

Bonifacio Eugenio Romero, 31, and Rogelio Munoz Santos, 24, left their loved ones in Mexico to earn a better living. Their families are now planning the young men’s funerals. Mr. Eugenio Romero and Mr. Munoz Santos died – on May 30 and June 5, respectively – after testing positive for COVID-19. Their final days were spent mostly in hotel rooms, mostly alone.”

Most of these workers are racialized – meat-packing workers in Alberta were mainly from Asia or Mexico were afflicted and died. In Alberta, outbreaks spiked in plants owned by Cargill, a company owned by an American family of billionaires with disreputable histories of worker abuse and corporate misadventures. When the first word of factory deaths in southern Alberta emerged, Deena Hinshaw, the beloved Chief Medical Officer, complained the factory workers lived too close together and didn’t isolate themselves well enough. As though their crowded communal housing conditions and distant carpool commutes were accidental. As though racialized class and labour issues in our province are invisible. Hinshaw, aware of her error, later clarified her comments.

Racism tilts and turns according to the whim of the news cycle. In a disinterested street cam video, an Asian woman, punched by a male stranger, collapses on a street in Vancouver. An aged Chinese Canadian man is kicked to the ground on a Toronto street. An Indigenous woman is insulted or mutilated or killed. A young Black jogger is shot down in the US. Another Black man is murdered in excruciating slow motion in a video assault that lasts more than eight minutes. Many others will be featured in the stories that propel the powerful global resistance to White Supremacy.

An ethnic Chinese stepsister is shot by an unrepentant Danish neo-Nazi who then attacks Muslims in a mosque. Spin the dial on racialization. Depending on the postal code of racist history, one or another human subject will do in this era when acting and speaking hatred trends exponential.

Indigenous people remain the primary target of violence on the prairies. In June, day after day, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland call out the police as systemically racist. After initially refusing to understand the meaning of the term, the national head of the RCMP and the Deputy head of Alberta’s RCMP finally acknowledge this fact. A few days later, a policeman in Edmonton is arrested for The 2019 assault of an Indigenous man. Another police assault of an Indigenous chief who is hit by a flying punch is under investigation by an independent Albertan investigatory body that unfortunately is rumoured to regularly comes out in support of the police no matter the case. Will these crimes of bigotry and hatred continue to be covered up and ignored?

The history of Canadian anti-Chinese racism resurfaces in acts of violence.On public spaces in Vancouver, during April 2020, there were 11 acts of racist violence against Asians. In all of 2019, there were 19 incidents. This proliferation is repeated around the world.  The memory the Head Tax and Exclusion Act ripples through time. At the moment COVID-19 is blamed on China, any ethnic Chinese person can become a target.

This is the irony of COVID-19 as outlined in “How B.C. Aggressively Flattened the Curve.” Kenneth Fung, a clinical professor in UBC’s school of population and public health, notes that the Chinese-Canadian community provided unacknowledged leadership. For they had learned pandemic strategies from the previous contagious coronavirus SARS and also through reports from Wuhan. Thus early on, Chinese-Canadians wore masks and avoided social events. Fung notes that unfortunately “Governments were not as sensitive as the Chinese community.”

The article notes that seven weeks before BC banned large gatherings, Lunar New Year events about January 25 were cancelled. “Kevin Huang, executive director of the non-profit Hua Foundation, which runs programs in Vancouver’s Chinatown. [said]“For me, it’s been very interesting to see how the community was so responsive, even though the Canadian government was like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll keep an eye on it, it is far away.’ Very much the community was like, ‘No, no, we’re not risking it.’ ” In fact, in the end, the Chinese community in Richmond had half the rate of COVID-19 as the rest of Vancouver and a third the rate of the rest of Canada.

Nonetheless, Chinese Canadians like other racialized Canadians remain vulnerable to racist attacks. And the numbers of White Supremacist groups in Canada have been on the rise especially over the years since Donald Trump assumed his hapless presidency.


Obscure directions

During these crappy days and nights when even the poodle is lethargic, I give myself over to pop culture. A desperate but pleasurable measure. While I don’t follow sports or sports figures ordinarily, grasping at famous sports heroes for inspiration comes “naturally”. Take the documentary series The Last Dance that features American athlete Michael Jordan’s brilliant practice.

A commentator observes how his mother responded to adversity. Her advice to her son was to remember this atrocity and injustice and use it as motivation. She transformed tragedy and grief into a psychological possible future.

Long after Jordan became an international icon, even at the best of times, he was filmed leaving the court after a winning game whispering under is breath to invent critics and hecklers, an adverse fiction to provide him with something to overcome.

One can’t have illusions of Michael Jordan’s brilliant accomplishments nor underestimate the oppressive circumstances he overcame, but taking one of his strategies to heart might make this pandemic into a possible path to growth and potential transformation.

I half believe that. And that’s all it takes to get out of bed this morning. A sunlit day.


10 May, 2020 — Mother’s Day

My daughter who has been social isolating in Vancouver tells me she will drive straight home. She traverses the mountains for Mother’s Day. She doesn’t want to stop in case COVID haunts the local.

After a dozen hours, she arrives about seven in the evening and I feel myself come alive again. Just like she did when she was a young child, she makes me a special breakfast on Mother’s Day. Her long ago Mother’s Day omelette featured a smiley face.

Feeling myself becoming more myself, I realize how my daughter nourishes me just with her presence. Not to mention her excellent vegetarian culinary skills.

I remember an ethics of care I refined through mothering.

Since she can’t visit with her childhood friends, she makes gift bags of cookies and muffins. She bakes for days.

Over the course of the week, we talk about many things. She is 22 and life begins for her in these most uncertain times. It is 21 years since I flew to China to adopt my wonderful daughter. Now I am 69 with the outline of an on/off switch somewhere in the distance.

My daughter worries I will die of COVID-19. While it is unlikely I will die of this illness, I am in a vulnerable demographic. We cry together. I don’t feel brave anymore. I don’t want to leave my daughter. Ever….

Early Sunday morning, she gets into her car and heads across the Rockies. It is a twelve-hour drive. At this moment of rising anti-Asian hate incidents, I worry about her driving across the mountains on her own. I worry about her and I hate hate.

After my daughter leaves, I encounter again the curse of mothering. Your child lives somewhere in the depths of your being. You sense their absence like cutlery jangling in a drawer. A knife-sharp sound. You celebrate their newfound independence even while unsuccessfully ignoring the hole in the depths of your being.


Skin Hunger

The dog snuggles up beside me. Her warm poodle curls push back to the touch. I am skin starved.

And so it goes. Alive I am within the walls of my house during these daylight hours. No longer “inside” but always already on the way out longing to see friends and my daughter again. and to walk arm in arm with others.

The “White possessive” in settler Canada enables me to have a home with a garden and 23 kilometres of ravine trails and river valley paths outside my door. I have no shortage of food. As well I have the great good fortune of having retired from teaching just in time to avoid this forced march to on-line delivery that the COVID-19 has initiated.

But allow me this opportunity to explore the human condition when deprived of touch.

In one of my nourishing weekly talks with a few writerly friends flung out across the country, we talk about our solitude. Not all of us live alone but everyone nods with understanding.

We talk about touch.

I miss the haptic.

The sense of touching and being touched.

One friend has a weekly visit from her lover – all they can manage due to their circumstances. That suffices.

I don’t miss sex but what can go along with it. A touch. A hug. The sensation of that pressure on the skin and the care that breathes through touch.

All through this COVID era, my nerves in my leg are electric, pulses and pricks. As though perverse stand ins for the touch of another, my body has invented its own electrical circuitry of touch short curcuits. It begins deep inside a muscle and wrestles itself out towards the skin. Fishing from inside the body for touch.

A poet friend sends me Sirin Kale’s “In Skin hunger helps explain your desperate longing for human touch.” – an article that speaks to my electric skin starvation.

Skin starved: Remember how it is our hands and arms brush past strangers, our hugs encircle friends, our passionate embraces or platonic slaps on the back invisibly generate, like the sun, immunological nourishment.

When you touch the skin,” explains Tiffany Field of the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami, “it stimulates pressure sensors under the skin that send messages to the vagus [a nerve in the brain.] As vagal activity increases, the nervous system slows down, heart rate and blood pressure decrease, and your brain waves show relaxation. Levels of stress hormones such as cortisol are also decreased.” Touch also releases oxytocin, the hormone released during sex and childbirth to bond us together. In other words, human touch is biologically good for you. Being touched makes humans feel calmer, happier, and more sane.

Without touch, humans deteriorate physically and emotionally. “We know from the literature that lack of touch produces very negative consequences for our wellbeing,” says Alberto Gallace, a neuroscientist at the University of Milano-Bicocca. He explains that humans are inherently social creatures; studies have shown that depriving monkeys of physical contact leads to adverse health outcomes. Our brains and nervous systems are designed to make touch a pleasant experience, he says. “Nature designed this sensory modality to increase our feelings of wellbeing in social environments. It’s only present in social animals that need to be together to optimise their chances of survival.”

…“We know from our research that the massager benefits from massage as much as the massagee,” says Field. “So having pets is wonderful. When you pet a dog, you’re also moving your own skin and experiencing pressure stimulation.”


22 March 2020 Get a Dog!

How to manage the gloom? It arrives. Last night I made chicken biriyani thanks to my friend Asma’s advice to purchase an abundance of spice when I visited. Much delight! …& I am reading poems, listening to music, crying, walking the dog, talking with friends.I have no reliable advice for anyone but this. If you are self-isolating alone, or perhaps among others….

Get a dog.* Any dog. A young dog. An old dog. Or any annoying pup. Don’t steal a dog. But get a dog. A fat dog. A thin as bones beast. A whippet or a mutt. 

Get a dog. A hypoallergenic one if necessary. Otherwise get a very hairy dog. Black and white or mottled. 

Get a dog. Blue or dark-eyed or one of each. A clipped fur dog or a canine monster cut. 

Get a dog that looks like the one you lost. And cry. Or imagine a dog. Get that strange green dog you’ve never seen. Find a dog who talks or one inexcusably silent. Cut that dog’s head in your hand and shake it “Yes!” when you dream of chocolate. Or you feel a compulsion to wash the floor. Give that dog ideas. And listen. Always. 

Get a dog. Take the dog, imaginary or not, to the park. Walk at a clip while talking. Give the hairy eye to incredulous socially distant passers by. Or slow your pace to show off your invisible or all-too-real furry friend. Imagine a dog asleep on a blanket. Or at the foot of your bed. 

Get a dog. Give your dog a cuddle. It nuzzles your knee while you listen or write. Is it forbidden for you to have a dog? It’s a pandemic. Get a dog.

*Or, if you must, get a cat!


12 – 14 June 2020

I visit dear friends and their children. We’ve not seen each other much for months. An eternity of sorts.

The children call me “auntie.” We sit in the garden anticipating summer and share a pescatarian dinner cooked on an open fire. When I turn to go, the eldest shrugs his shoulders and reaches out for a hug. I hug him and his brother and his sister. We are all in this small world together.

Two days later, I shared raspberry mezcalinis made by a generous friend.

On a sunny late afternoon threatening rain, we talked about the many inventive mezcal cocktails we tasted in Oaxaca City and Mexico City in late January and early February. Imagine our good fortune in having three-weeks of travel “pre-Covid.” Our last fabulous trip.

All of the haptic pleasures of Mexico flooded into my head. The women dance arm in arm on the zocalo. The heat penetrates my skin as I struggle up a pyramid. A supportive hand reaches out as I begin my descent. The tender crush of a cobblestone pedestrian street. A bookstore cafe where paintings and sculptures interrupt the cool bindings. A market almost blinding with vivid colour and the complex heat of Oaxacan spice. Conversations sharing the twinned red and green of heuvos divorciados.

Mezcal, the perfect COVID-19 drink, understands the critical nature of a pandemic. Isabel quotes a Oaxacan homily:

Para todo mal, mezcal.
Para todo bien, también.

(“For all bad, mezcal.
For all good, as well.”)

The haptic inhabits my memory of place and space. A country of touch I will return to one day.


17 June 2017 – An abundance of caution: wear a mask!

For the first time I’m going to begin to go grocery shopping early in the morning during the senior’s hour. Except for two occasions, I’ve been able to avoid going to a store since March. Such is the luxury of a solitary life and a pension.

I’ll continue to wear a mask including this hot little number a friend made for me.

The government advised people to wear masks in May. Only in Alberta would the scandalized UCP Health Minister create a programme to distribute masks to the public via fast food restaurants. (One of the MLAs owns one.) Shandro announces this optional practice would be advisable: “For example, riding transit in the province or shopping … where it may be difficult to maintain two metres between people at all times. Mask use is not mandatory, but we would like Albertans to have the option of wearing a mask if they choose.”Shandro ignores the fact that some people don’t have cars or support the unhealthy food choices of this market.

On June 15, Alberta declares the COVID-19 public health emergency “lapsed.” The government ”advice” to wear masks is reiterated but most who flock to the public sphere refuse. COVID-19 cases in Edmonton that were at one point nine times lower than Calgary rise to 190 to compete with the southern city. (A friend creates a dynamic graphic to display Albertan COVID-19 cases from April to June.)

Chief Medical Officer Deena Hinshaw announces the province health authority is investigating a request by a group of doctors advocating mandatory mask-wearing in Alberta. A sensible plan. Negotiating the pro-business UCP, a party in the midst of destroying Alberta, means she may will not be able to get what she wants.


Epilogue: “We have the words in our pockets.”

A beloved University of Alberta Faculty of Education professor and mentor of friends died very suddenly a few days ago. He was a astute critic of the Alberta government’s cuts and neoliberal revisions of education. Jerry Kuchar suffered from a heart condition but his premature end came in the first year of his retirement. His colleagues, students, and friends are grief-stricken.

I’m reminded of this poem by Denise Levertov that speaks of the loss of elders, of mentors, and poets that “leave us on the road alone.” May this pocket full of words provide some comfort.

Denise Levertov (1923-1997)
September 1961

This is the year the old ones,
the old great ones
leave us alone on the road.
The road leads to the sea.
We have the words in our pockets,
obscure directions. The old ones
have taken away the light of their presence,
we see it moving away over a hill
off to one side.
They are not dying,
they are withdrawn
into a painful privacy
learning to live without words.
E. P. “It looks like dying”-Williams: “I can’t
describe to you what has been
happening to me”-
H. D. “unable to speak.”
The darkness
twists itself in the wind, the stars
are small, the horizon
ringed with confused urban light-haze.
They have told us
the road leads to the sea,
and given
the language into our hands.
We hear
our footsteps each time a truck
has dazzled past us and gone
leaving us new silence.
Ine can’t reach
the sea on this endless
road to the sea unless
one turns aside at the end, it seems,
follows
the owl that silently glides above it
aslant, back and forth,
and away into deep woods.
But for us the road
unfurls itself, we count the
words in our pockets, we wonder
how it will be without them, we don’t
stop walking, we know
there is far to go, sometimes
we think the night wind carries
a smell of the sea…

- Denise Levertov, O Taste & See: New Poems (1964)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.