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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Loudest voices don’t say smartest things

(January 26, 2021)

If you follow the news cycle, it is impossible to escape the fact we live in a time of strong opinions.

Every time I pick up my pen to reflect on the events of the day, words like “incompetence,” “arrogance,” “negligence” — even “stupidity” — immediately spill onto the page. Whether it is about politics, pandemics or pipelines, I feel angrier and more frustrated every day.

But I also feel like I’m at a wedding social (remember those?) when the party really gets going. As the volume grows, communication is reduced to yelling a few words right into the ear of the person sitting next to you. Everyone is competing to be heard, but no one is getting through. (I always wished there was some giant gong that could be struck when the decibel level got too high, some sign that would make everyone stop and reset their volume to a normal level.)

After all, in life and at wedding socials, it’s not the loudest voices that make the wisest observations. And if words matter as much as I believe, we also need to be careful which ones we choose to use ourselves.

When it comes to the pandemic, the quietest voice in the room is saying “follow the science” — instead of being blown about by the winds of political expediency or battered into accepting the demands of special-interest groups. Simply put, dead people don’t shop — and sick people don’t work — and right now, we have too many of both.

Every single time restrictions have been relaxed, anywhere, there has been a further wave of disease that makes things worse than before. As for the mental-health impact of lockdowns, it is worse to keep saying things might get better, soon, instead of being honest about the longer term. Whatever the public-health guidelines are going to be, put them in place for at least six months at a time, or people will lose trust in the judgment of those now making these decisions every couple of weeks.

For example, I have believed from the start that there won’t be a return to “normal” face-to-face classes at universities until the fall of 2022 — if we are lucky. If everyone adjusted to that more realistic timeline, instead of planning four months (or less) at a time, it would help us all make better decisions about how to live and what to do until then.

As for politics, if we learned everything we needed to know in kindergarten, the past four years have demonstrated that many current politicians were not paying attention to their lessons. Maturity and politics are words not often used together these days; instead, petulance, immaturity and tantrums are commonplace on both sides of the border. Of course, no one gets things right all the time, but mature leadership (however old you are) recognizes its mistakes and corrects them.

Looking at Manitoba, Premier Brian Pallister has been hard of hearing throughout his entire political career, so it is no surprise to find it getting worse with age. Unfortunately, the ideological voice in his head has always been the loudest one in the room for him, especially when others start to yell. Admitting mistakes is never easy for any politician, but not admitting them can lead to a Trumpian nightmare that hurts a lot of innocent people, as we have seen.

For example, Bill 57 — the Protection of Critical Infrastructure Act (PCIA), introduced without details on Nov. 2 ­— is effectively an authoritarian smackdown of people who protest against the immorality of government actions. The PCIA is guaranteed to inflame and antagonize, and probably will be found to be against the charter rights of Manitobans, too.

It is more in line with Trump’s version of America than with a progressive Canadian province, in which we need to live and work together toward a sustainable future for everyone, regardless of politics.

So, in light of how well that kind of divisive approach has worked in the United States, Bill 57 should be withdrawn, offering the reasonable explanation that there is already ample protection for the welfare and safety of Manitobans within existing legal frameworks. Coupled with an apology, this would go a long way toward setting the stage for the thoughtful public conversations we will need to have about managing the growing climate crisis, with all of its social and economic implications, as the pandemic eventually recedes.

Finally, in terms of ending our political addiction to doing more lines of pipe, the incoming Biden administration has thankfully already demonstrated more wisdom and maturity than our own government. The fossil-fuel industry is only an investment option for those with money to burn (such as banks and pension plans). Everyone else is already investing in green energy and sustainable development, instead, and so should we.

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New Year deserves a word of its own

(January 13, 2021)

WORDS are never accidental. They are the colours and shapes that intentionally change bare canvas (or blank paper, or empty screens) into something more. Words also shape the space between us. Individual words matter – and so does how and when we use them.

It’s no surprise to learn the 2020 Merriam-Webster “word of the year” was “pandemic,” followed closely by “coronavirus” (based on the number of online searches).

Perhaps instead of waiting until the end of 2021 to find out, we should intentionally choose “resilience” as the word of the year, right from the start.

In physical terms, resilience means the capacity to restore something to its original shape, especially after compression. In emotional terms, it means recovering from a sudden shock or change, usually a loss.

Emotional resilience goes deeper than merely bouncing back, however. The potential for resilience is always there, but it is bred in the bone, woven into who we are as people, Unfortunately, it needs that kind of traumatic experience to emerge, but — like a muscle — it also grows and strengthens with use.

This past year was certainly full of traumatic experiences for many people. But what made 2020 worse was the loss of those things that would normally help us to cope. Sporting events, concerts, theatre, ballet, opera, symphony, movies, parties, holiday trips to wherever – all gone. Coffee with a friend, drinks in a pub, a bunch of people sharing a loud meal in a restaurant – gone.

Many people lost their jobs, but others lost the ability to escape out the door for their day at work or school elsewhere, or their chance to stay out for an evening of play.

These things were nice to have, but we have learned they were not essential – or, at least, we have been told this by public-health officials. They made life more interesting, more exciting, more fun – but, in the end, we were also forced to confront the reality that Disneyland matters much less than the chance to see and hold the people you love.

All these changes should make resilience our coming year’s word.

Resilience doesn’t mean a return to exactly how things were before, however. People are resilient, but not elastic. Change changes us, too. Stress, grief, anxiety – all these experiences mean things will never again be the same as they used to be.

While change is inevitable, not all change is bad. Sometimes what we lose leaves a hole forever, but change can often create new possibilities. The pandemic experience is teaching all of us something about who we are, as well as about what really matters. It has forced us to rely on – perhaps to recognize – our inner resilience, and to share it with the people around us.

People are discovering they can cope with things they never thought they could, accepting their own strengths and weaknesses and finding new ways to relate to other people. Liquor and cannabis sales show some people are still trying to escape their reality, but others are finding new ways to relate to friends and family through activities at a distance. Whether it is Zoom parties or virtual choirs, spending time talking on the phone or writing letters for the first time in years, all these things keep that space between us open for what will become possible again in a vaccinated world.

Resilience is not just a word that we can apply to ourselves, however. It is also a word that best describes the ability of communities to persevere in the midst of hardship. By ourselves, none of us has the resources, the strength, to handle everything that overturns our normal lives. We need our families, our friends, our communities, to support us in difficult times, just as we support them when they need us.

One of the interesting things about this pandemic is what it has revealed about community. There is more of it around us, in our wired world, than we might have realized – neighbours who really act like neighbours, not just the people next door; strangers who help us out of simple kindness and generosity; people at a distance who reach out to us over the internet, by mail and on the phone, to deepen a relationship that we have long neglected.

These examples of community – groceries delivered, snow shovelled, dogs walked, parcels left on the door knob and a host of similar things – weave resilience into the fabric of where and how we live together.

Familiar moments we took for granted at Christmas and New Year’s back in 2019 now mean so much more, because those words of 2020 changed our world. Let’s use “resilience” to define our life together in 2021, as we change our world forward into the kind of place we want to live in, once again.

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