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Something From Everything  

February trickery

"But I thought it was spring”

On our brief walk to his school, my seven year old mouths these words to me. I can hardly make them out as he’s layered beneath shirt, sweater, scarf and fully zipped up parka.

His tuque is pulled down past his eyebrows, so that only a thin line of upper nose, cheek and eyes are exposed to the elements.

“All the snow was melting,” he continues. “I thought it was the end of winter.”

It doesn’t feel like the end of winter as we brace ourselves against the gust of frigid air blowing hard against us. I’ve left us just enough time for our walk to school, with few minutes to spare.

I don’t want to subject my son to extra time freezing outside on the playground before that first bell mercifully beacons the children inside. But it also means I have to keep us moving.

“Come on,” I reply, a sly smile spreading across my lips. “Let me tell you about February.”

My son doesn’t know about February. About how it’s a trickster.

For as long as I’ve lived here, February has tried to trick me. While only the second month of the calendar year, February is first month where I begin to notice the days growing longer.

The shortest, darkest days of winter are begin to leave us. And so our mind turns to spring. Maybe we experience a day or two of unusually temperate weather. This is a faint, but we are emboldened. We might brave a walk to the mailbox without a tuque or gloves.

The most hopeful (or foolhardy) among us may have even begun to move our heaviest winter items to the back or the closet in favour of lighter spring jackets.

“Spring is around the corner,” we tell ourselves. “I can feel it.”

Then, it comes. Winter gets its second wind, and it’s a cold one. A new dump of snow when you thought you were finished shovelling. Gusts of frigid air that blow through you, regardless of how many layers you have on.

This year it was a polar vortex, but a quick search of highs and lows from February 2020, or 2019, or 2018 all tell a similar story. Spring may be around the corner, but we never turn that corner in February.

Maybe it’s not February that is tricking us. Maybe we are the ones tricking ourselves.

Hope springs eternal, and hope for spring, annual. It doesn’t take much after a long, cold, dark winter to get us excited for the coming season. We anticipate the smells of spring, look forward to seeing the new buds emerging from the trees.

Spring means new, and by each and every February, we are ready it, salivating at the prospect of it.

We long for spring. Perhaps that is why we are so easily fooled, year after year. Maybe that is why we don’t know better, even after so many Februarys.

Each year, we continue to look ahead, continue to eagerly anticipate winter’s retreat into spring. And each year we are left waiting, huddled against the cold, impatient and disillusioned, for a little while longer.

Impatient and disillusioned describes a lot of us these days, myself included. We are ready for the new. We are waiting on spring and warmer days, but we are also waiting on our world to return to some sense of normal.

Waiting:

  • On restrictions to lessen
  • To gather friends around tables
  • On traveling to locations beyond our workplaces and grocery stores
  • To embrace those loved ones who don’t live under our same roof.

We are waiting, impatiently.

Certainly, we’ve been patient for a long, long time. We have been watching numbers and adjusting our lives for nearly a year now. Kept strangers and loved ones alike at a distance.

Our first batch of cloth masks are beginning to wear thin, and now we’re facing the prospect of replacing them anew. My friend lamented the other day that his eight-year-old daughter, who was born in March, was protesting the prospect of a second COVID birthday without friends around.

We have been patient. And now? Our patience has run thin. Now we are mostly tired.

This moment feels like the long, slow wait for spring.

Just as we are fooled into believing that the first temperate week in February marks the end of winter, we have been fooling ourselves into believing that the next health order, or the next vaccine, or the next downturn in cases will return the world we have been missing for over a year.

Then we are faced with a cold snap. Then, the new threat of highly spreadable variants that our current vaccines may not adequately protect against.

Then, restrictions are held, or heightened, when we had hoped they would be lessened or eliminated. To each, we feel frustrated and betrayed.

It is our hope and anticipation that trick us. It is our longing for spring that tells us that this February will be warmer than those past. It is our longing for our pre-COVID world that suggests that we can travel, embrace our friends and return to normal.

But none of these hopes or desires are true, yet.

We keep wanting the season to change, and we become frustrated when all that passes are the days. But all seasons are made up of days.

Each passing, freezing day in February brings us closer to spring, even if we cannot see it. Likewise, we can see signs of our way forward, see some of the progress around us. Vaccine technologies which had only been dreamed about and theorized for years are now injecting into deltoid muscles.

New vaccines (including those that are effective against new variants) continue to be developed and considered for widespread use. Outbreaks in care homes are decreasing in both severity and number.

Each of these events is worth being grateful for. Each of these, a step closer to the world we anticipate and long for.

But right now, it’s still February. It’s still winter. Spring is closer, but it is still a ways off.

So bundle up. Keep that spring jacket in the back of the closet for now. Those mitts and toques are not going anywhere this month.

The thaw, and green shoots, the adventures travelling, friends around table and loved ones held near are all yet to come.

Just not yet.



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Parts and the whole

“He’s your friend; he’s your friend; he’s your friend.”

I repeat the phrase like a mantra. Familiar words that had lost all meaning in the moment.

It’s late at night, and I’m a few beers in, staring at the latest graphic my friend has uploaded to his social feed. Something about the ridiculousness of our latest restrictions, or how the virus has a stunningly low mortality rate. About how this is all blown out of proportion.

It’s the third post from him that evening. I should leave it alone, but like a moth to flame or a dog to vomit, I keep returning.

My hand hovers over the reply button. I’m just uninhibited enough for a fight.

My wife takes away my phone.

“You’re drunk. And he’s our friend.”

She is, of course, right on both counts.

I return the next day with clearer eyes, though my mood isn’t much better. Overnight, others (whose partners did not physically remove their phones) had responded to my friends' assertions.

A back and forth had developed, these stats versus those, this infringement of rights versus that benefit. All of it feels loaded, tense, and personal.

It’s personal for me, too. Each day I’ve seen an increase of confirmed cases returning to my hospital. At home, I had just received another warning of infection at my child’s school.

The threat that once seemed so distant is here, now.

So is our collective anxiety and fear. Each conversation stubbornly fixed upon the virus, new governmental restrictions, or the uncertain near future.

My social feeds are shouting. Most of the shouting reinforces what I already believe, but occasionally there is a break in the echo chamber.

Assertions that the virus is fabricated, overblown, or the premise for a governmental power grab. All of them are grating and abrasive. All of them, from family and friends.

I respond to my friend’s post. As rationally and empathetically as I am able. A back and forth of our own develops, but after multiple exchanges, we are no closer to agreement.

I change tactics and invite my friend for a walk. My friend agrees. A little fresh air and sunlight could do us both a world of good.

I’m nervous before going on the walk, but we don’t immediately begin arguing our views on the virus or his recent posts. That’s not how real conversations work.

It’s been a few months since we’ve seen each other face to face, so we talk about our lives.

We talk about our partners and children, about our jobs, about how we miss seeing groups of people. We talk about how heartbreaking it feels to find a community to belong to, and suddenly be unable to meet.

We talk about how the use of sanitizer in schools causes both of our children to develop sores and inflammation on their hands.

We discuss what fear does to a culture, how hard it is to connect with another when you are suspicious that they (or yourself), might have a deadly virus in tow.

We consider how keeping people at a physical distance creates a mental distance as well.

We find a great deal of connection. Eventually, we discuss his posts, our viewpoints on the virus and our responses to it. I realize how raw I feel, how personally I took his posts.

There is a lot that I disagree with. We both start at incompatible points and expect wildly different outcomes. We both place reliance on data that we can not, individually, prove and authenticate. We differ greatly on who we trust and whose data we rely upon.

We do not come to complete agreement. But the walk was never about that. The walk, I realize, has far less to do with convincing my friend that he is wrong than it does convincing myself that we are still good friends.

And we are still good friends. Because on that bright sunlit morning, I saw my whole friend.

It is so easy to forget that an online avatar and most recent post on our screen is not a full person. These are snapshots, curated by creator and platform alike, and removed from the context of real life.

Those who study human behaviour have been raising the alarm that social media creates unrealistic, false, and socially destructive images of each other long before this year.

But in our isolation, it can feel like all we have.

Compounding this, we are all desperately focused on a singular, complex and unfolding event that we can’t see every angle of.

Our screens are saturated with unprecedented information. We are discussing new vaccine technologies which the world has never before seen.

We are debating the credibility of data we have never before considered. We are posting our opinions on the collective incurring of debt in the billions.

It’s especially difficult to convey the ‘whole’ of a thing online. A social media post or meme doesn’t often convey the complexity between two or more competing views.

Seeing the whole of anything requires humility. It’s more about dialogue than shouting. I can agree with our restrictions, and still be aware of the overall cost of them.

In fact, I should. We should all be able to live with some entanglement and nuance. The whole of a thing is always messy, complicated, and full of contradictions and compromises.

But so are we. In a moment where we are only seeing a part of each other, it’s easy to mistake it for the whole. We are not our most recent Facebook post or Instagram story.

Remembering a person’s wholeness does not mean that objective truth matters less, or that boundaries are not important. It is simply the generous humility of remembering our common struggles.

It is being gracious enough to allow for disagreement and complexity. It is simply the refusal to reduce someone to their sharpest edges.

And we could all do with a little more generosity, humility and grace right now.



Doing it wrong

I’ve been lighting candles.

This year, I’ve been observing and celebrating the Advent season. Starting on the last Sunday in November, we’ve gathered our immediate family around a glass lantern, and lighting candles placed within it.

By Dec. 25, we will have lit five candles, each candle representing a different theme.

Advent simply refers to the arrival of something prominent. In the wide Christian tradition that I am most familiar with, people have gathered together for generations to light candles, reflecting on the themes of hope, peace, love and joy.

Within this tradition, many have developed a very specific way of observing this. Specialty advent candle holders, specific colors of candles, an order to the themes with accompanying readings and prayers. 

Like many before me, this season’s Advent has become a special and sacred time to me. 

Also, by all accounts, I’m doing it wrong. 

We have no specialty advent holder. We even forgo the different coloured candles (purple and pink don’t match the rest of our holiday decorations). Instead we place uncoloured beeswax candles into our lantern, and each Sunday, we complete a hurriedly internet search to ensure that we are focused on the correct theme. 

While Advent is not a new tradition, it is new to me. For much of my life, Advent has been much more about chocolate calendars than Christ.

Even now, I have a complicated relationship with faith. In a household that does not attend church services, reading from the Bible feels awkward and forced. But we take our place in the tradition anyway.

We discuss each theme with a wide and generous description. When my son says that getting Taco Time on Tuesdays brings him joy, I don’t correct him (why would I? There are few things in life more joy-giving than tacos).

It took me a long time to take part in this tradition I’m uncertain I belong to:

  • To light the wrong candles.
  • To gather my family around and discuss themes with no wrong answers.
  • To read passages that give me both joy and doubt.

It took a long time to feel comfortable doing it wrong. 

When it comes to the winter holiday season, there are a lot of expectations. If you belong to a religious tradition, you may feel required to observe: the lighting of advent candles, kinara, or menorah; the decorating of a ficus tree; and attending nativity plays or Christmas Eve services.

But even if you are not religious, this is a season loaded with traditions both personal and corporate: Christmas vacation (both the excursion and the movie!), baked goods, cookie exchanges, holiday staff parties, card and gift exchanges, pictures with Santa, family gatherings and huge, extravagant meals together.

This year, nearly every event I’ve just mentioned has had to be tailored, adjusted, or cancelled outright. When so many of our long held traditions are suddenly and unwantedly upended, we might feel like we are “doing it wrong.
We may even feel nostalgic for the events that we dreaded in years previous (here’s looking at you, spouses’ staff Christmas party...). 

The winter traditions we celebrate have a power to ground and centre us. But like all traditions, they have a rhythm, a certain order, a correct way to observe them.

If you always celebrate Christmas Eve in a church, or always join your extended family for turkey dinner on the 25th, this season is going to feel off. It’s going to feel less traditional. It’s going to feel like you’re doing it wrong. 

But you can do it. Ask the person who works out of town. Ask the person who works at the restaurant open on Christmas day. Ask your local shift worker.

As a health professional working shift work, I’ve been “doing it wrong” for years, long before I lit my first advent candle.

For more than 20 years, I’ve been a shift worker. That means I’ve repeatedly been an inconsistent plus one at my partner’s staff parties.

My children often have only one parent cheering them on at elementary school Christmas concerts. I’ve left a seat empty at numerous family meals. I’ve awakened my children at 5 a.m. so I can hurriedly watch them open gifts before heading into work, or asked them to (impatiently) wait until 8 a.m. if I’m just finishing up a night shift. 

And all those Christmases? All those modified holidays traditions? Still memorable, still meaningful. 

These days, I’ve come to appreciate the grounding gift that tradition is. A rhythm that I can fall in step with. This candle, this theme, this reading. 

But that gift given should not become a weighty, cumbersome thing. The winter traditions we have participated in are for our grounding, our belonging, our adoration and enjoyment.

At times when these traditions have to be adjusted or abandoned all together, then we make peace with “doing it wrong.”

We accept them for the gift they are. We take what works. We leave the rest.


And we acknowledge and allow our discomfort. Our longing for rhythm. 

If you’re feeling like you’re missing out, that’s OK. If you feel exhausted doing half of what you normally do this time of year, that’s OK. If a season without seeing family and friends leaves mourning, that’s okay. 

That’s OK, that’s okay, that’s OK. Repeat it as often as you need until it’s true. Permission slips, all around.  

You can do it wrong, and still participate in a tradition.

You can do this wrong, and still enjoy it. 

You can do this wrong, and still make it memorable and meaningful.

You can do this.





Don't let despair grow

It was dusk, and I had forgotten where I was. 

Not literally, of course. I was on my way to pick up my son from school, and having passed through the low marshland, I began to traipse up the hill approaching the back school yard. But my mind was elsewhere, distracted. Likely somewhere between the states of Arizona, Georgia and Pennsylvania. 

It was Nov. 5, two days after the U.S. election. There was a lot in the air. 

For days, I had been refreshing an electoral map that changed, state by state, by single digit percentage points, if that. In between habitual refreshing of the map and news stories, I endlessly consumed the outrage, disgust, despair and then, fragile hope, on display in my social feeds. 

Closer to home, viral cases had begun to jump exponentially. That morning a nearby elementary school had registered another outbreak. Collective thoughts were turning more frequently to the heightened regulations and restrictions that would surely soon be coming. 

In response to both viral cases, and political upheaval, and tethered to my phone as I was, I began engaging in online arguments with both acquaintances and strangers.

Tense conversations about the balance between civic responsibilities and freedoms, about disputed numbers and scientific models, about what constitutes safety and acceptable risk.

That evening as I trudged toward my son’s school, anxious thoughts of Trumpism and anti-establishment scepticism blurred together, making the moment even more precarious in my mind.

I shivered in the crisp evening air, and, habitually, I pulled out my phone and refreshed the election map, one last time. 

Then, suddenly, a great noise encircled me. 

Startled, I looked around, squinting and unable to find the source. My eyes were temporarily blinded by the glare of my phone’s screen as I stared into the near dark.

Then, it came into the view: against the backdrop of the fading sky, a great mass of redwing blackbirds moving as a single co-ordinated, unpredictable cloud. Slowly my eyes began to identify individual birds, circling and weaving between the cattails.

It occurred to me how silly it was that the birds had startled me. They were hardly quiet now, their chorus of chirps audible amongst the tumult of beating wings.

Had they been silent and still as I had descended into their home? Or had I been sleep walking, so lost in thought that I had stumbled into another world without realizing it? 

The phone slipped back into my pocket. And concerns of U.S. elections, viral cases and online arguments were far away. I stood on that hill, held by that moment. Still staring, and listening. Realizing where I was.

A few weeks earlier, I had decided to memorize Wendell Berry’s poem, The Peace of Wild Things. I was not feeling at all at peace; it had been featured by the On Being Project, read by Berry himself.

The poem is 11 lines long, and read slowly in less than a minute. From the moment that Berry intones his first words “When despair for the world grows in me…” I knew that the poem was for me, and many of us, in this moment. 

In the poem, Berry conveys the unique peace that nature possesses and can lend us. In the night, when assaulted by anxious thoughts, the poet leaves his home and lies down in the grass, where the “wood drake rests in his beauty on the water, and the great heron feeds.”

In nature, the poet gains the “peace of wild things,” but only for a time. For in the end, the poet does not proclaim a final victory over despair or sleepless nights, but only that “for a while, I am held by the grace of the world, and am free.” 

There I was, suddenly free myself. Held momentarily by the hidden grace of that moment I stumbled upon. Caught up in something that felt so strange and otherworldly. But, of course, was very much a part of our world, occurring outside my notice in the twilight of each and every evening. 

Despite the fact that I no longer go to church, I found myself thinking of the words of Jacob in Genesis. In that old tale, Jacob falls asleep in the wilderness at dark, and in his dream he sees a ladder extending into heaven, and angels ascending and descending.

After he is blessed and reassured by God, he awakes. And Jacob marvels to himself: “Surely the Lord was in this place, and I did not realize it.” 

This story is more than 3,000 years old. Any story that old is loaded with meaning, importance and interpretations that others have placed upon it, long before it ever reaches our ears. 

But that story has survived for a reason. 

Now, you may not believe in God or angels (or ladders, I don’t know you…). But this was a story of a man finding himself face to face with a much larger reality than he realized:

  • A place that was sacred and alive when he thought it was ordinary and desolate.
  • A story where his world became much bigger, and his previous concerns much smaller.
  • One where he was still blessed and accepted.

As I stood there stunned and still and free, it felt like my story, too.

On this we can agree: that there is a whole world, that we think of as “other,” below, above, and outside our distracted attention. That beyond our notice is a world where redwing blackbirds, or heavenly messengers are ascending and descending. Where the voice of the Divine, or a chorus of chirps and beating wings can bless us and remind us that we belong. 

And that belonging is grace.

Sometimes, we think of grace as solutions to our problems, that:

  • The things we fret about are resolved.
  • There is political co-operation and co-ordination, where before there seemed only discord and chaos.
  • A virus spread and cost is halted by reliable and rapid testing, and the distribution of an effective and safe vaccine.
  • An online argument is resolved, as each participant thanks the other for bringing a new and thoughtful perspective.

But sometimes (and most often), grace comes as the simple dawning awareness that there is a world larger than our concerns. A world that does not need us, but welcomes our observance and participation. Those moments that leave us feeling both small and accepted are sacred to us, precisely because they seem so rare. 

Perhaps these moments are occurring, even now. Even in the midst of our anxious thoughts of viruses or politics or strife. How often, in our forethought of grief, do we walk right into, and through, a world waiting to capture our attention.

Waiting to lend us a moment’s peace. To cast our anxieties far from us. To cast us in a production far bigger and wilder than ourselves. 

A hidden grace, waiting to hold us and make us free. If only just for a little while. 



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About the Author

 

Matthew Rigby is a grateful husband to one, and father to three. He works as a registered nurse in emergency care, and has spent more than 15 years in healthcare. 

Matt, an avid reader and podcast enthusiast, is committed to great questions and honest discovery.

You can find his podcast "Something From Everything" wherever you listen, and find all his writing at www.somethingfromeverything.com.



The views expressed are strictly those of the author and not necessarily those of Castanet. Castanet does not warrant the contents.

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