We are living through deeply sobering times. The novel coronavirus/COVID-19 pandemic has turned the world on its head. The pandemic’s potential for chaos and destruction has created “the most profound emergency since the Second World War.”
The sickest infected individuals are being separated from their families who may never see them again. Although widespread mitigation measures such as social distancing are in place, the grim harvest of deaths is only going to get worse, at least in the short term.
But against this savage backdrop, it is worth remembering that there are kinder and gentler perspectives on death. Those who have passed on remain with us in different ways: through their contributions and through our memory of them. And some would say in other ways as well. For example, is death another type of social distancing, one that occasionally pulls the curtain back to give us a wink or a nod?
This notion of death as social distancing occurred to me recently. It was the first day of spring, a little before 8:00 a.m. Sunshine was pouring through the narrow window abutting the front door. It was pouring down the hallway illuminating the pantheon of family photos, dating back to the 1860s, that adorn the wall. The rays’ brightness drew my attention to a tiny open card showing two children on the left and a short poem on the right. The card was the topmost item in a framed collection of ten small photos from a century ago. The card, circa 1917, shows my Uncle Noël (1908-1965), age nine, and my Aunt Désirée (1910-1988), age seven. The poem reads:
Keep your face with sunshine lit
Laugh a little bit!
Gloomy shadows oft will flit
If you have the wit and grit
Just to laugh a little bit!
Lit by the gleaming rays, I saw that poem as if for the first time. It was as though I was prompted by my grandfather Sam (1872-1952) and my father Pierre (1918-2002) to see it anew.
I have read that poem before; how many times, I don’t know. It and the accompanying photo of Noël and Désirée were part of another pantheon of family photos, one that had been arrayed on the walls of my dad’s home office and on the walls of the hallway that led to it. That pantheon, that poem, that specific little photo were integral parts of the physical environment of my growing up. My psyche absorbed their energy. And now that pantheon, somewhat changed and relocated to the hallway of my home, is suddenly sparkling, revivified, silently shouting about sunshine and laughter, wit and grit.
Even more than Noël and Désirée, or their mother Blanche, a.k.a. “Poppette” (1885-1969), it is Sam and Pierre of whom I am most aware. I am conscious of the care they invested in their creations: the card Sam had made; the ten small photos selected, organized and framed by Pierre. Their creations are not only celebrations of Noël and Désirée, of the joy they brought to others, they are also memorials to a single family at a particular place and point in time, freeze-frames of splendour in the sacred progression of generations.
The extraordinary response of our governments, and of society as a whole, to look after our collective and individual well-being in the face of the pandemic is immensely heartening, despite the uncertainties involved. It shows what we are made of, what we are capable of. It means we don’t have to accept poverty or extreme inequality or environmental degradation, if we don’t want to—if we choose to apply our wit and grit and inner light to build a better world, one that honours Gaia and that safeguards the healthy succession of current and future generations.
As that little poem suggests, let’s put the emphasis on the positive. Various commentators on the current crisis are doing just that. Globe and Mail columnist Doug Saunders has noted: “During this crisis, and in its long recovery, it would be a terrible waste if we did not spend in ways that also make the world a cleaner and more resilient place.”
In the Times Colonist, columnist Trevor Hancock observed: “It might be that with this combination of reduced consumption and reduced environmental harm, coupled with societal commitment to ensuring the meeting of basic needs for all, we will find ourselves unintentionally creating the well-being economy we need in the 21st century.”
Rumi, the thirteenth-century Sufi mystic and poet, tells us:
The breeze at dawn has secrets to tell you.
Don’t go back to sleep.
You must ask for what you really want.
Don’t go back to sleep.
People are going back and forth across the doorsill
where the two worlds touch.
The door is round and open.
Don’t go back to sleep.
An author and historian, Patrick Wolfe lives in Victoria, British Columbia
 Les Leyne, “The virus’s stealth attack on B.C.,” Victoria Times Colonist, Wednesday, April 1, 2020, A8. https://www.timescolonist.com/news/local/les-leyne-virus-s-stealth-attack-on-b-c-1.24110289
 Doug Saunders, “This pandemic could trigger a spiral of disasters—if we let it,” The Globe and Mail, Saturday, March 21, 2020, o11.
 Trevor Hancock, “A different perspective on COVID-19,” Victoria Times Colonist, Sunday, March 22, 2020, A13.
 Coleman Barks, The Essential Rumi, HarperCollins (first paperback edition), 1996, 36. Quote used with the permission of Coleman Barks.
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