Corona virus and the myth of “normal”

I call this accidental pocket IPhone photo: Whirlwind. I thought it fit

I was listening to CBC Radio as I do most weekends and a retired minister from somewhere in Ontario was asked this question: “If you were still preaching, what do you think your message to your parishioners might be this Easter Weekend in the context of this novel Corona virus crisis?”

His response was very short because of time constraints but he suggested that if we learn anything, it should be that the “new normal” that keeps getting referenced is a misnomer.

He pointed out that for most of the people in the world, there is no “normal.” Normal is that mythical reality that a very small percentage of the world population gets to live because of their education and their economic wealth.

Nobody in their right mind would want to go back to the “normal” that existed immediately before this crisis because that normal isn’t something any of us should be aspiring to return to. It isn’t sustainable.

 That normal is all about the one percent.

That normal is about how as humans we are encroaching upon other species to a degree that is forever changing the world’s biodiversity to the detriment of our health; a point this novel Corona virus hasn’t got through pointing out, in an almost retaliatory way.

Normal is being okay with the inequities that exist in society with the impoverished, as always, bearing the most direct and painful impacts on their lives. They live in crisis every day.

Normal is all those problems we have shamefully incorporated into our daily life – passing street people with toques on the ground for spare change – with no collective will to change that.

Any new normal might be all the things we knew were problems but have never acted upon.

Things like providing appropriate levels of resources including services for prevention, intervention and adequate treatment for mental illness.

Things like providing decent social housing so instead of being okay with people begging for money, in every city in the world, recognizing that every person deserves the dignity of having a roof over their head at the end of the day.

Seeing the compassion and wisdom, and even financial savings to society, in providing a guaranteed universal income.

Taking one’s personal moral opinion out of how we treat drug addiction and accepting that it is, first and foremost, a health/mental health issue and then providing the resources to treat it as such.

Switching to prevention as the main medical model, not treating illness that has taken decades to develop because of lifestyle choices, including my own.

Rethinking how we change social isolation, not just in the elderly but in young adults, in seniors and in middle-aged and older men. Especially since so many of us live alone now.

Coming to terms with ethical questions about the value of any life – at one month or 100 years.

Understanding that thinking small, thinking only about yourself and your family’s well being is now a threat to humanity.

Internalizing once and for all that climate change is still the greatest threat, much more so than this virus.

I was listening to another interview where an evolutionary biologist from UBC, Sally Otto, PhD, was speaking about how humans have brought more destruction on the biodiversity of the planet than any other species. Of course, we’ve head that before. She says we’ve become  particularly good at destroying those species which could be considered “the specialists” and contributed to the greatest biodiversity in the first place.

While she says, she doesn’t have a lot of hope because of our impact on the natural world, she does have hope because of the way scientists around the world are working together with collective knowledge leading to better and quicker solutions. We see that as work on a vaccine and general research about the virus proceeds at unheard of before speed, because of global collaboration.

My friend Gwen pointed me towards this interview with Malcolm Gladwell. In this interview on the Munk Debates, Gladwell spoke to the issues I summarized above using a soccer team as the example.

A soccer team is only as strong as its weakest link. If you were going to improve the team, focusing on that weakest link and making it stronger would be the quickest way to make the entire team stronger. Our unsolved social problems are the weakest link in humanity.

I’m making mental notes of things I need to change in my own life when this is over. I expect many of you are doing the same thing.

The novel Corona virus is shining its wily contagious ways on the old normal and all its problems like never before.

We are now at a crossroads that will shape the evolutionary biology of human beings just as we continue to deliver the death blow to so many others species.

Breathing your way through anxiety

I’ve been noticing a few posts on social media about how some of us who have experienced anxiety and depression throughout our lives are feeling a little better than we expected to feel during this pandemic.

And let me be clear: I’m not holding this up as something to aspire to. If you’re finding yourself to be a total wreck, trying to get out of bed, trying to find the motivation to do anything, acknowledge how you are feeling. Acknowledging feelings helps you let them go. Denying them keeps them stuck in your body. Then accept it.

If you or someone you know has spent most of their lives in the “fight or flight” response and suddenly now, you are surrounded by others who are feeling like you’ve felt for good chunks of your life, to lesser or greater degrees, feeling relatively well right now in the middle of this pandemic becomes a little easier to understand.

If in childhood you were in a family situation that put you in the middle of crisis intermittently for whatever reason. Maybe you lived with an abusive or a very moody and unpredictable parent. Maybe one of your parents was living with a mental illness, officially diagnosed or not. Maybe one or both of your parents was addicted to alcohol or other substances. Maybe you experienced difficult things that left your physiology and mental health impacted. 

Those things might range from sexual abuse to witnessing another member of your family being abused to any experience that really emotionally affected you negatively and changed you in some ways from that point on. The list is endless. That’s trauma! All of those negative and unhealthy experiences will impact everyone very differently but with some predictable commonalities.

For those of us who can relate, living with uncertainty and being prepared and being on guard or being hypervigilant is just a lifelong way of being. It’s not healthy. It’s hard on the heart and the kidneys. And sometimes in times of extreme stress, it can make you seem less intelligent than you are.

That’s especially true if you begin to disassociate where you lose your train of thought. You might just freeze. Your vision fogs. Everyone around you suddenly feels like they are there but not there, mere human outlines drenched in a soft hazy wash.

If that’s been your experience, then a pandemic is just falling into line with the uncertainty you’ve lived with your entire life in in one way or another.

You hear people focusing on the uncertainty right now, wrestling with that when it seems like just accepting what’s happening could be a more helpful response.

I’m not saying I haven’t been anxious lately. I’m feeling anxious writing this now that I’m paying attention to my body. But I’ve been aware of trying to recognize that. STOP and be aware of it. STOP and sit down. Stop and BREATHE. STOP and go out for a walk.

Because let’s get real, if you aren’t even a little bit anxious in the middle of a pandemic then honestly you need to check in with yourself and get real.

Anxiety isn’t the issue. It’s what you do with that anxiety that can make a difference in how you function.

If you’ve haven’t done any meditation or investigated other modalities of healing then the exercises in this video might seem weird to you. Having experienced just a taste of somatic movement earlier this year in a class offered by a yoga practitioner from Mayne Island, I’d recommend just watching this and trying it.  

I trust the experience of this individual and that’s good enough for me.

Join Dr. Levine as he leads us through a series of Somatic Experiencing® exercises to help regulate our nervous system. #somaticexperiencing #drpeterlevine

Posted by Peter A Levine, PhD on Thursday, April 9, 2020

 

Daydreaming the past in April 2020

Siem Reap, Angkor Wat

There’s something about being inside mostly that has set off my daydreaming about all those times I felt the most free and so I decided to make a list of 25 experiences that came to mind.

I hope you’ll reflect on your own special times of exploration that were particularly satisfying while you’re cooped up these days.

  1. Walking along Walker Hook Road on Salt Spring Island and down to the Fernwood dock and back again to the cottage where I lived on Hedger Road. Camping at Ruckle Park.
  2. Riding a bike on a day trip to one of the Mekong islands across from Phnom Penh and on a dirt road that passed by wooden shacks with little children running out and saying Hi to me as I rode by.
  3. Walking on the Isle of Mull in Scotland, with almost no one around, with a young woman who was also on a day trip and passing fields of those hairy Highland cattle as we made our way to the other side of the island to see Duart Castle.
  4. Daytrips to Mayne Island and walking from the village to the lighthouse over to Bennet Bay and back again on a beautiful summer’s day. I once saw a pod of Orcas rounding the corner in front of the lighthouse, some of them spyhopping.
  5. Driving in a sports car from Phoenix to Flagstaff and on to the Grand Canyon in the middle of February and having to finally “give” and put up the top and blast the heat. Silly Canuck moves.
  6. Being in the beautiful Botanical Garden outside of Hilo, Hawaii, beside the ocean and being so inspired by the lushness and tropical beauty, and staying in the village of Volcano, Hawaii.
  7. Running down an empty country road in Finland on the way to the country store at least a mile away that summer in 1980.
  8. Walking across the Painted Desert at The Ghost Ranch in New Mexico on a hot day in June on the way to the other side near Georgia O’Keeffe’s house.
  9. A seven day kayaking trip through the Discovery Island Group and setting up camp on a beach every night, often with a fire.
  10. Hiking the Stein Valley with Will and the ponderosa pines reminding me of the annual summer trip to Osoyoos with my parents when I was a child.
  11. Walking across a courtyard in Greenwich, England, and hearing someone playing a beautiful piece on the piano, the light high notes sparking into the air like electricity.
  12. Walks in Reifel Bird Sanctuary on Westham Island on the farthest dike on a hot August afternoon where it used to be possible to sit on randomly placed benches, soak up the heat and watch the red winged blackbirds among the tall grasses and just linger.
  13. Whale Watching in the zodiac when Ian Gidney used to own that on Salt Spring and the joy of speeding across the water in search Orcas but mostly just enjoying the wind in my face, especially on hot summer days.
  14. Exploring a ruin in Mexico called Uxmel and hearing the rustling of leaves behind me only to see two big green iguanas coming in my direction and feeling, stupidly, afraid.
  15. Exploring the streets of Chiapas, and one beautiful afternoon of exploring an historical centre called NaBolom.
  16. Riding a bike from Prachuap Khiri Khan in Thailand across a military checkpoint to the most beautiful deserted beaches.
  17. Taking that boat to an island off Sihanoukville in Cambodia to a small place where a group of us spent the day, playing volleyball, hanging out, barbequing. Koh Ta Kiev.
  18. Walking along a footpath in Bath, England that led from the city, overlooking the weir and back up to the Italianate mansion on the hill converted into a hostel. And a footpath in Oxford past the river boats with Don, the man I met at the Summer Opera Festival on our way to that famous restaurant, La Petit Blanc, which I understand is now gone, not surprisingly since my visit was 19 years ago.
  19. All the times I’d go with a friend and ride my bike around Point Roberts on day trips in the 90s that always included back then, a stop at that restaurant that started with a “B”, now gone unfortunately. It was always such a nice place to have lunch. Carrying on past the marina and onto the bluffs before heading down the big hill to the beach.
  20. Riding a bike around the Palace of Versailles grounds with a guy from the hostel in Paris where I was staying.
  21. Riding the Bamboo Railway near Battambang Cambodia. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=gk1B-GSG6Mg
  22. Long walks around the Stanley Park Seawall with the end point The Sylvia, one of my favourite things to do.
  23. The rapids of the Fraser River on an overnight rafting trip along the Thompson into the Fraser with Kumsheen Rafting before they had a resort and we camped.
  24. Giving up our seats on the plane that was overbooked and the joy of having one more day to explore San Francisco, and the meal in that Italian restaurant in North Beach, Calzones.
  25. Walking through Saguaro National Park in Tucson and being awestruck by the purple and orange sunset as the backdrop for the tall saguaro cacti.

COVID-19: The Mother of all staycations

I keep finding messages. First I found a whole street of fairy houses I didn’t know existed in Victoria and then this (above), in a tree, near my apartment. I like it. Sweet.

I can take no credit for sourcing what I’m about to share with you.

My friend Susan in Vancouver sent it to me yesterday and someone sent it to her. Please share it if you are so inclined.

I started reading it while I was still in bed, early in the morning, worrying that using an IPhone in bed that I hadn’t wiped down upon waking would surely come back to bite me. You see how my brain has changed in ways that I’m not okay with?

Of course the topic is COVID-19. But it’s something that’s written with so much insight.

Yesterday, (today right now as I write this) was the first day I was feeling like, ‘oh, this, this is for real! This isn’t just some mother of all Staycations.'”

Here’s the article, The Coronation (15-30 minutes)  https://charleseisenstein.org/essays/the-coronation/

Here’s a link if you’d like to know more about this person, Charles Eisenstein.

Hope you’re staying the course, physically distancing at 2 meters, socially connecting, keeping up some weird new routine, taking time to go inside yourself, and think about what you might want to change once the crisis part is over. I hope you’re doing okay.

When the poetry arrives

There’s something so special about reading a book by someone you’re acquainted with after it has finally been written and published.

When I came home from an evening walk and saw a slim cardboard box leaning against my apartment door, I knew right away what it was.

I ordered it from Indigo way back in February (which I realize isn’t that long ago but now feels like another decade). The poet created it over 7 years.

I was sad the poet couldn’t see me rip it open. That would have been gratifying for her, I’m sure.

Her name is Tanja Bartel, the “j”, the Finnish give-away, perhaps.

She was one of my SFU Writer’s Studio peeps and by day she’s a high school English teacher in Mission, something she’s done for a very long time. She appears to be one of those high school teachers kids talk about into their futures and at reunions.

She’s been published in a bunch of literary journals: Geist, New Poetry, Antigonish Review, Rusty Toque, Grain, Maynard and others. This is her first book of poetry.

She’s of Finnish heritage with white blonde hair. She’s a wife and a mother to two children, now grown, including a son who lives with a rare genetic mutation. It’s almost guaranteed that she must be the only poet to have written an article that’s been published about a member of her family in the American Journal of Medical Genetics.

She has an old yellow lab named Romeo who, in Facebook photos, I love.  She loves to walk Romeo on the dikes near her home in Pitt Meadows. And she’s a woman with a mind full of intrigue and eccentricities as I expect poets to be.

What I have just told you is pretty much everything I know about Tanja.

Her book is called Everyone at This Party, published by an imprint (icehouse poetry) of Gooselane Editions in New Brunswick. It’s 71 pages. And it has a fantastic cover you can see above by artist/photographer, Alexey Turenkov.

She’s agreed to let me write this blog post and to share a poem from the book with you. I picked the poem, Whisper Street, because it really captured me, including the line about the “caged hamsters,” or maybe especially that line. A commentary on suburbia that anyone who has ever lived in suburbia could relate to. While the themes can be dark, there’s a lot of humour in the poems as well. 

When I told Tanja which poem I’d picked, she told me it was the last poem she wrote, added to the book in the eleventh hour and one of her favourites.

There are so many other poems I loved every bit as much, like Oxygen, Everyone at This Party, Sawmill Town, Backyard Wedding, Best Laid Plans and others.

Whisper Street

People are not as friendly as you’d expect

in places that run on friendliness.


Work, parties.

Work parties.


I came to see all co-workers and all partygoers

as one rude unit.


And to view myself as an only

(a single rude unit).


On my street, crumbled clouds, a half-eaten sun.

Agony rolls underground.


Something stings my wrist in the fattest vein.

The day ahead itches and I embark on a radiant


laziness in an effort to mimic the way

of dogs, envying their thoughtlessness.


My deaf dog’s hauled his shapeless old self to bed.

I’d follow, but for all the noise:


One thousand caged hamsters crack

sunflower seeds. Neighbour removes the Earth’s crust


around his property with a pressure washer.

Toddler next door screams blue murder


that he won’t go to bed. A mirror busted in half.

Rubber gloves snapped off and flung to the tiles.


I want to live on Whisper Street where a lounging

willow tree soaks up all our consequences.


Where nobody kills dandelions and everyone

grows yellow roses that hug one bee per blossom.


Violins play from tree houses.

No one mows their lawns and laundry blows by


like sails down a stream.

Green traffic lights that say you’re allowed to keep going,


but you don’t have to.

Good luck that won’t let me be.
Congratulations Tanja. I’m savouring them.

Walk like this: Do The COVID

You may not be old enough to remember this, but if you are, of course you remember the incomparable comedian John Belushi.

One of my favourite things about him was how he scurried about in the movie Animal House (1978). His movement was part sideways crab, part Pink Panther and part Muhammad Ali. He floated on his feet but in a really stupid, yet amusing “Private Investigator for Dummies” kind of way. (To see an example, it starts at 6:47 in the video clip below).

When I go out for my COVID-19 ‘keep my sanity, get out of the house’ walk, I keep thinking about the way John Belushi used to move about in that movie. And I feel like, in my head at least, I’ve taken on a lesser version of that style. Especially when I’m outside, on high alert, trying to avoid getting too close to other pesky humanoids.

I make sure that when I turn a blind corner, I don’t saunter right into one of them when uck, yuck, blech, stay the hell away from me, you disgusting Corona viral host you. Read my lips: Six feet. Actually 6.5 feet to be exact.

Because I walk almost everywhere in my teeny weeny little life that has shrunk down to some microscopic 3 square miles or whatever, and ever since the physical distancing rules came in, I have been paying attention to the way people are handling themselves while out and about.

There’s the people who just walk down the sidewalk like they’re playing a game of chicken. Who’s going to give first? I always give. No. That’s a lie. Correction. I ALMOST always give. But after I’ve given and given and given, on the 10th time I might use one of them as an experiment.

I might decide to just keep walking, especially if I was the there first. I like to think of this as the sidewalk version of manspreading because I hate to say it but too often, it’s guys who are not moving. You can feel their defiance from 25 feet away. They are not changing their location in the space not one bit. Entitlement. All mine. Move the hell out of the way. Some things never change. Yup, said it.

There’s the people who, like me, as soon as they spot a human coming towards them on the sidewalk, they cross the street. Avoidance is our life long modus operandi. We’ve perfected it. We just never realized it would really come in handy one day. We didn’t know we were practicing for The COVID.

There’s the people who, like the adults they are, can actually USE THEIR WORDS! Bless their emotionally intelligent hearts.  “I’m going on this side,” they’ll say. They tip their head. They gesture with their hand. They let you know what the hell they are thinking. They are walking like they drive. I’m sure they must all be Roadstars.  I’ll tell you what they are not. They are not COVIDiots!

Then there’s the people who are oblivious. They just keep getting closer and closer. They are walking their dogs. They are looking at their cellphones. They act like they’ve just woken up from a 100-year-long nap. Rumplestiltskn wannabes. They are the ones who behind the wheel would always go through a 4 way stop or take their turn when it isn’t theirs to take. They might as well be on vacation with Chevy Chase.

When you stop to see what direction they are going so you don’t run right into them, they think you’re actually stopping to have a chat. They keep walking towards you as you back up. Darwin Awards. Give them one.

There’s the people who act like zombies and can’t differentiate between staying six feet away and still managing to be friendly. They can only focus on one thing at a time: six feet, six feet, six feet. Don’t expect them to say “Hello” at a time like this for God’s sake.

Oh, let’s not forget the cyclists. As is often the case, just like before, they don’t think any of the rules apply to them, so why would physical distancing be any different. After all, they’re moving. So what if they’re six inches at the shoulder away from you when they whiz on by.

I liked the old days–two weeks ago–when some people were every bit as oblivious but it was just an annoyance, not a potentially life-altering encounter.

Check your attitude during COVID-19

The best thing you can do for your mental health right now, if you haven’t already, is to snooze or get rid of every single person on your social media feeds who thinks this is the time to debate what’s going on because they don’t “trust” the government or they’re trying to prove some sort of point.

Get rid of anyone off your feeds who purposely makes others feel bad or in general is argumentative and negative.

My life is already and intentionally filled with people, the ones I am closest to, who are focused on being positive, helpful, optimistic (way more optimistic than I usually am), future thinking and expecting the best. There’s no room for conspiracy theorists in my own little delusional universe and that’s the way I like it.

I work for the B.C. Government and I can assure you there isn’t a single person in any ministry who isn’t doing what they can to make things easier within the realm of what’s possible for citizens in B.C. They are doing the best they can under these very difficult circumstances that are requiring immediate response and instant decisions, in an institution that isn’t used to making change on a dime.

There is that old saying when it comes to keeping the peace in relationships: Do you want to be right or do you want to be happy? Well, now that question has changed slightly. Do you want to be right or do you want to be sick or in the worst case scenario, dead?

Focus on beauty and positivity. Join an online meditation group or whatever kind of group turns your crank. Listen to symphonies performing concerts online. Watch comedies on TV. Once you figure out Zoom or messenger, have a chat with those people who aren’t going to ramp up your anxiety, but in direct contrast, recognize that now is the time to soothe it.

This is not the time to prove that you’re an intellectual, wiser, more enlightened or more incisive than others. This is the time to be the kindest, most compassionate person you are capable of being. Be a good listener. Be open. Watch how you’re impacting others. Your community needs you to do the very best you can do.

This is also not the time to be a rugged individualist, stubborn insistence that you’ll be absolutely fine on your own. You’re missing the point. If someone reaches out to you and you don’t even respond to them, you’re not getting what’s going on and how you could use this as a time to rethink the story you’ve been telling yourself about who you are your entire life.

If you’re like a lot of people, you have probably never been so connected to family and friends online on a daily basis – checking in, keeping spirits up, having a laugh, commiserating. Doing what humans have been doing for centuries – around the piazza, around the water cooler, at the watering hole, over the fence and now, from your own living room – apart but together. Same same but different.