Close to home is where we need to live

(February 9, 2021)

Nine years ago, I began to write a trilogy of books on the sustainability problem – what was wrong, how we got here, and what we could do to avert the disaster that lies ahead.

The title of the third book, published in in 2016, was somewhat prophetic, given our current pandemic situation. I called it Live Close to Home.

One of the things I had realized about our unsustainable western culture was that many of us are more interested in things at a distance than in things close at hand.

Instead of eating staple foods that are produced locally, we import them from away — often, far away. Instead of spending time at home, we escape from there as often as we can — again, sometimes going far away. Instead of spending cash we already have in our pockets, we buy more and more on credit, which is money we hope to have, sometime in the future. We fume about politics and global affairs in other places, but ignore what is happening in our own city or neighbourhood.

When it comes to the environment, we worry about global warming, pollution and environmental degradation and how these affect people and planet somewhere else, but don’t think much about what we eat, drink and breathe ourselves, right here.

If you think about our relationships with other people, there has been a similar shift there, too. We don’t really reach out and touch someone – too often, we use our communications technology to do it instead, from a distance.

Not surprisingly, the pandemic has only made this situation worse. So, with physical distancing morphing into social isolation, it’s not surprising that we worry about our mental as well as physical health during this pandemic.

I remember watching people, supposedly out together to talk over coffee, yet both on their cellphones messaging someone else instead. After all, when you text and message instead of talking face to face, your partner literally can be anyone, anywhere in the world. Often, these partners are far away — because distant avatars may be more exciting than an actual person picking the food out of their teeth, seated across the table.

Surveying students, especially international students, I found many are spending six to eight hours a day on their phones and computers, and others confess they are online from the moment they wake up, all day long. So if the internet goes down or the cell service stops, it seems we are utterly cut off from everything and everyone that matters.

Of course, this is not true. But that’s how it feels.

Obviously, isolation and loneliness are not new problems. You could argue the pandemic has merely removed the distractions that used to keep us from noticing how alone we really are. A night at the club, the pub, the concert, the game — all these activities allow us to avoid the awkward fact that the crowd would not have missed us if we had stayed away.

In the end, we can’t escape who and where we are. For the sake of our own good health, we need to live close to home, focusing first on ourselves and where (and how) we live, and to make that the foundation of everything else.

Living close to home provides other benefits for a green recovery and a sustainable future, too. We can buy local food to cook for ourselves; shop local, in community stores; help neighbours struggling with chores they can’t manage on their own; drop food on the doorstep of someone who feels just as isolated as we do. We can be kind, rather than cranky, when someone makes a mistake because of the stress they are under, too.

We are trying to spend less and stretch each dollar further, because our future income seems not as certain as it used to be. We now know more about our kids’ education than perhaps we ever did before, because we help them with it every day — or perhaps we have become their teacher.

Favourite restaurants provide us with takeout food that families are now eating together, instead of everyone alone and apart. We can no longer easily escape the people we live with, a fact that can be both painful and hopeful at the same time, as we are made to focus on what is happening close to home.

And yet while we have learned, the hard way, that nothing on a screen can replace a hug from someone we love, no one is ever really alone when there is someone, somewhere, who appreciates us for who we are. Especially when our communications technology is used to develop or enrich our personal situation, not just to escape it, living close to home can be a healthy and positive approach to coping with pandemic stress.

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A single light shining in a dark place

(December 24, 2020)

My favourite part of Christmas Eve church services in different places over the years was always singing Silent Night by candlelight.

There are many variations, of course, but it’s emotionally powerful to see a single candle, burning in the darkened room, and then to watch its light spreading out as all the other candles are lit from it. One by one, the room brightens into (literally) a blaze of light, as the song ends.

I don’t know why singing that carol and candle lighting has become such a western Christmas Eve tradition over the years — its words by Father Joseph Mohr, its simple melody composed by Franz Gruber, and first performed in rural Austria in 1818.

But the image of light overcoming darkness — even a single light — is rooted deep in ancestral memory. Humans have always been afraid of the dark. With eyes adapted to daylight, we are completely vulnerable to predators that see well when we can’t. So the light of a fire kept them at bay, and kept us safe and warm in the dark.

These symbols of light and warmth are most powerful in the northern hemisphere, as we pass the winter solstice on Dec. 21, the longest night of the year. It may not always be the coldest night, but the long darkness can certainly make it feel that way.

Close to the equator, there is little difference between night and day, all year long. But as you move farther north, to the latitudes where most of the people of Europe lived, the cultures there combined the winter solstice with the pagan feast of Yule (and no doubt a few others), the Roman festival of Saturnalia, and finally added the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Long before what we would recognize as math (or even geometry) in more southern climes, people measured and marked the longest night, the furthest distance away from the warmth and light of spring. The candle — or fire — lit at the winter solstice was a reminder that the sun would return, leading people toward the longest day and the first fruits of spring planting.

The famous passage grave in Newgrange I once visited — a megalithic mound built on an Irish hillside 5,300 years ago — precisely angled the entrance to illuminate the central burial chamber as dawn struck on the winter solstice. Similarly, 1,000 years later, the stone pillars at Stonehenge were arranged to have the light strike them at a unique angle at sundown, on the same day.

The image of a single light shining in a dark place transcends the religious and cultural settings in which it is found. “Light One Candle” was a powerful idea long before Peter, Paul and Mary first performed their hit song, because its symbolism extends beyond the duality of light and dark. Whether it is the lights of the menorah, celebrating the miracle of Hanukkah, the celebrations of Diwali lanterns lit for Chinese New Year or any of the local (or family) traditions involving fire and light, all make their defiant contrast against some background of darkness.

Whoever first said, “It is better to light a candle than to curse the darkness” understood the emotional relationship between light and hope. All it takes is that one first candle to defeat the darkness, no matter how large or strong it seems to be.

As that candlelight service always reminds me on Christmas Eve, we receive the flame from our neighbour to light our own candle. It is our choice to dip the unlit candle to the flame, knowing that when we do it, nothing will ever be the same again, as we then become light-bearers ourselves.

By our choice, and the choices of others around us, it spreads from that one flickering flame to light the whole room — and, once outside those walls, into the world around us and across the generations.

One of the individual lights that went out in 2020 was U.S. congressman John Lewis. Hero of the civil rights movement, because of his persistence in working for justice and equality right to the end, he set an example of hope that will continue to spread and grow.

Throughout his 2017 book, Across that Bridge: A Vision for Change and the Face of America, Lewis drew on that image of a single light in the midst of darkness. Bringing it all home, the last page began:

“You are a light. You are the light. Never let anyone — any person or any force — dampen, dim, or diminish your light.”

Whatever the darkness, Lewis’s words remind us that what is good, in ourselves and in others, is the fuel we need to keep that light burning.

This Christmas Eve, in a world darkened by pandemic, may we find ways to share with each other the light we all need.

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Finding hope where the love light gleams

(December 14, 2020)

If there is a COVID-19 Christmas song this year, it surely must be I’ll be Home for Christmas. Written for those who were overseas in military service during the Second World War, its most famous recording was by Bing Crosby in 1943.

The emotional punchline comes at the end: “Christmas Eve will find me, where the love light gleams. I’ll be home for Christmas, if only in my dreams.”

I will never forget the first time I didn’t make it home for Christmas. That song echoed in my ears for weeks beforehand. All of the excitement of a new place, new beginnings, creating new traditions of my own, crashed on the emotional rocks of what, for the first time, was missing.

Christmas is the most poignant of Christian holidays, when whatever we do is measured up against the ghosts of Christmas Past (or Hallmark Christmas movies), and invariably seems to fall short. Especially as family ages and children grow up, there is also the mournful question about who — or how many — will be missing from that Christmas table next year. Every Christmas could be our last — there is no comfort in realizing that it always is, until the next one.

This year, more people than usual will only be home for Christmas in their dreams. Others will never again be able to make that journey, or to sit around the table sharing familiar foods and annual celebrations.

Yet this is not a new circumstance. Every year, many people experience a “blue” Christmas, instead of a “white” one. Like that other Christmas song (by Elvis Presley), they are “blue” because someone is missing. Grief may not wear an obvious face, but at Christmas, at least it has a colour.

Believers who bumper-sticker their Christian faith by proclaiming “Jesus is the reason for the season” miss the point of the Hallmark formula: the meaning of Christmas extends far beyond its religious expression, into the heart of Western society and culture. But that doesn’t mean Bing Crosby got it entirely right, either.

Singing “I’ll be home for Christmas” presumes you have a home, and someone in it who wishes you were there, too. And mistletoe is pointless, unless you have someone to kiss under it. As for the snow, in a climate-changing world, fewer and fewer places have a white Christmas — but none ever did in the southern hemisphere (except Antarctica), and nor much south of Minneapolis, either.

Every year our Christmas celebrations compete — and usually lose — against both the magic of Hallmark (do other people really decorate that much?) and the power of memory (“That’s nice, but I remember when…”). Christmas can too easily become a hollow celebration of inadequacy, of not-quite-enough, of not-as-good-as-before, at least until those hoped-for, magical moments in which all the flaws are swamped by the real feelings those movies try to capture on screen.

And when you don’t make it home for Christmas, or when someone you love never will again, those people and experiences you took for granted before become painfully present through a sense of loss, even grief, that the familiar songs somehow manage to make worse.

Yet the focus of I’ll be Home for Christmas is entirely personal. It’s all about me, and life often gets in the way of what I want for myself. For adults, therefore, Christmas can easily mean a personal sense of magic lost. But that can change in a heartbeat, by seeing Christmas again through the eyes of a child, by receiving gratitude from a stranger helped — or through the wonder of some stranger helping us, unexpectedly.

Growing up, that kind of unrequited generosity was key — giving, more than getting, was central to that feeling of being home for Christmas. With other relatives far away, Christmas dinner was just us — until one casual invitation for some plum pudding became an annual gathering of my father’s Jewish colleagues and spouses that overflowed our dining room.

Family at Christmas became who you chose, not who you were given. As people (like me) moved away and others passed on, that dinner table was filled with other faces and new family members, some celebrating their first Christmas in Canada.

Too many of those soldiers who heard Bing Crosby sing in 1943 were never home for Christmas again. But that doesn’t mean they were loved any less — then, or now.

As we make plans for a COVID-19-infused holiday season this year, in which our care for other people (not just public-health rules) means staying where we are, we need to remember this:

That lyrical “love light” will find each one of us this Christmas Eve once again, because it gleams as far as we need it to, in time and in space. Wherever we are, and whomever we are missing, that is a dream of home worth having.

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