“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.” – Joan Didion
As most of us prepare to brace for the government-mandated three-week shutdown of all but essential services in Quebec, have you noticed how suddenly everyone is baking up a storm, watching every Netflix movie available and sharing reading or Spotify lists with each other?
Sure, we have a lot more free time on our hands, but it’s also the brain’s way of counteracting the distress of our new normal and protecting our collective sanity from the daily barrage of scary news, climbing COVID-19 numbers and constant worries about bills that need paying. When everything around us is so bleak and evolving so rapidly, art is a good way of grounding oneself. It’s a coping mechanism; it fundamentally saves us.
It’s becoming increasingly clear that social distancing and isolation will last much, much longer than a couple of weeks, and we might have to spend spring and perhaps summer physically distancing ourselves from loved ones who don’t live with us. I haven’t yet decided whether this will be harder for those living alone or those living with others. I suspect they each present their own set of unique challenges and benefits.
I belong in the former category and I can tell you that this is hard. Even someone like me, used to the solitude of a freelance writer’s life, is having a difficult time with this new status quo that has temporarily banned socialization and the human touch.
“Life changes fast. Life changes in the instant. The ordinary instant. You sit down to dinner and life as you know it ends.”
Those are the first words that author Joan Didion wrote in her book The Year of Magical Thinking after her husband John Gregory Donne, also a writer, suffered a massive coronary event and died.
My mind went immediately to these words after we were issued the directive to start social distancing and our lives started resembling something out of a sci-fi post-apocalyptic film. The book Didion wrote while still grieving her husband was the book that helped me grieve my father when I lost him. Didion’s sparse and unsentimental style — almost surgical in its precision — allows for a kind of cold dissection and observation that paradoxically provides comfort. It’s hard to explain, but Didion’s absolute belief that, as she described it, “meaning was resident in the rhythms of words and sentences and paragraphs” saved me during a time when grief kept me under water and threatened to drown me. In other words, art kept me sane when I was unraveling with grief.
It’s no accident that I reached for her words to make sense of our current situation. In many ways, I’m in mourning now, as well.
The simple things we miss most
I’m mourning my old way of life that — presently — is no more. I’m mourning the trips I cannot take, the places I cannot go to, the people I cannot see or break bread with. While I recognize my privilege and the ability I have to weather out the storm with a roof over my head and the online world at my fingertips, I’m still mourning a life that has temporarily been put on hold and perhaps altered forever. Like so many of you out there, I’m also mourning human touch, hugs from my mom, two-cheek kisses from friends, long, intimate face-to-face conversations over a bottle of wine, a lover’s touch.
I find myself missing the slow hum of dinner conversations in a busy Montreal restaurant on a Friday night, the clanging of dishes in a commercial kitchen, the hustle and bustle of a crowded metro car during Monday evening rush hour, the morning line-up for coffee, the curtain call of a packed theatre, my gym workouts with familiar faces I barely speak to, but who form part of my daily routine. That all this is unfolding just as spring is arriving in winter-weary Montreal makes it especially cruel.
The mental health implications of weeks and possibly months of a lockdown cannot be underestimated, and I’ve been thinking of how we’ll all get through this. The one thing I always keep coming back to is art. Say what you will, but art will save us. Not save us save us the way scientists, doctors, health staff and food providers will keep us alive, but in keeping us sane in the middle of all this uncertainty, isolation and boredom and making life bearable.
The things keeping us sane
If you think I’m exaggerating, just try to list all the things you’ve been doing so far to stay grounded in your isolation. I’m betting that reading books, listening to music, sharing Coronavirus-related memes, watching movies and stand-up specials, binging on Netflix, stress-baking sourdough bread, practising the ukulele or working on a puzzle are high on that survival list.
These are the things that, like long nature walks and bubble baths, help you get a grip and keep gripping when everything else seems to be slipping from us. I’m not claiming a single book or painting or song will save us, but it tethers us and helps us hold onto something stable and universal and eternal and real. It keeps us connected to the whole.
Even the neighbourhood sidewalk chalk art and the colourful rainbow “Ca va bien aller” posters in the windows soothe me and bring a smile to my face. Local artists, from comedian Sugar Sammy, who Facebook-Lived his bilingual You’re Gonna Rire show last week, to Martha Wainwright singing Leonard Cohen from a balcony over the weekend, have heeded the call to entertain and bring some much-needed joy to a stressed out populace, not to mention encourage a sense of real community. Actor Patrick Stewart has started reciting a Shakespeare sonnet every day, while Montreal writer Heather O’Neill has decided to do the same with a daily poem.
With municipal libraries closed right now, I’ve been revisiting my own bookcases, desperately trying to single out the few books that have been waiting to be read. I find myself looking at a lot of poetry and visual art online — spectacular and soothing images that remind me of the best humanity is capable of.
Montreal’s Museum of Fine Arts and CCA, as well as Musée d’Orsay in Paris and Utah’s Bryce Canyon National Park, to name a few, have been offering educational and entertaining virtual tours and digital workshops for those going stir-crazy.
And yet art is still undervalued
And yet, despite what art offers us, it’s so often the first thing to be undervalued and its budgets slashed when times are tough. When we’re facing a collective crisis of unprecedented proportions, it’s tempting to think, “Does this even matter? Isn’t all this completely irrelevant right now?”
It’s that kind of logic that allows governments during lean times to justify treating artists and art as non-essential, as some sort of luxury that gets funded when there are leftovers from a budget. Yet I can’t imagine a world without artists’ contributions. Our very humanity, survival and sanity so often depends on them.
The very act of producing art, of creating something out of nothing, of birthing something into the world — a book, a sonnet, a Bundt cake — is one of defiance. It communicates that we are here to stay, that we are here to overcome, that we are here to nurture life. It’s why that need didn’t dissipate in Nazi concentration camps, during the Plague, or while the world currently faces a deadly pandemic.
Art, by its very nature, provides a bridge between the insurmountable space between the terrifying reality of the present and the beautiful vision that one sees in their imagination. If art served no tangible purpose it would have disappeared as a human instinct eons ago. But it hasn’t, because it does — and it always will. ■
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