Archives For COVID-19

The Masked Lady

June 12, 2020 — 4 Comments

US Virgin Islanders have been fortunate in the management of COVID-19. Our Governor has listened to health experts, instigated common sense practices and after a period of lock down has been opening the islands up in a measured manner. There is a strict mask policy, with shops stating in large letters, No Mask, No Service, No Exceptions. Big burly men comply. Children over the age of five comply. There appears little reason to not comply. Our islands have had some deaths but nowhere near the numbers seen on the mainland, which has allowed our hospitals to withstand the stressors of treating those seriously infected. We wear our masks!

I, along with everyone else, am learning a whole new way of reading people. Are the eyes crinkling in laughter or distaste? Is a slipped mask a sign of belligerence, or just a slipped mask?

I don’t go in for public shaming but I did feel moved, after dancing around a young man wandering the aisles of my local supermarket, to suggest that wearing his mask across his chin was as much use as a condom on his big toe. His girlfriend, suitably masked, burst into laughter and dug him in the ribs. 

“I told you,” I heard her chortle, as her beau got caught up in his gold chains in his haste  to protect himself. And others.

I was encouraged to encounter them again, this time at the cashier, and see his nose and mouth was suitably covered. The girl grinned and waved.

My weekly outing revolves around the supermarket. Actually three of them. The only way I am able to gather all the items on my list. On Monday, as I tied my mask in timely fashion before approaching the ramp to the store I was surprised to be haled by a tall, masked woman I did not recognize. 

“Wait!” she called. “I want to ask you something?”

Her tone was peremptory. I am, by nature, suspicious of unknown, over-friendly people, dreading a monologue on the glories of Jehovah. But what the hell? In these days of isolation and fear a brief encounter might help ease someone’s day. Mine included.

“Sure,” I replied, waiting by Otto, our truck, as she ferreted around in her handbag.

“Which do you think?” She waved two strips of paint swatches in front of me. “I can’t tell the difference. They’re both grey. And that,” she jabbed at a duck-egg blue square, “is meant to go with both.”

“Um,” I replied. 

“My decorator said I must decide.”

“Well,” I said, pointing, “that grey has yellow undertones which is why it’s a bit murky. And that one has blue tones which makes it sharper.”

“How do you know that?”

“I was an interior designer.”

“Hah! And I find you in the parking lot.” Her laughed trickled around her mask.

“So it would seem,” I said, hoping my eyes reflected my amusement. “What room are they for?”

“Kitchen and lounge. Together.” 

“Have you lots of windows? Lots of light?”

“No.”

“Then I’d go with the blue grey.”

Her brow wrinkled above her mask – a clue I took to mean she wasn’t relieved at my profound judgement.

“Um…” I said again, dithering in the blistering heat as to whether I really wanted to continue the conversation. “Do you like the colours?”

“I’m not sure.”

“That usually means you don’t. If I were you, I’d get some more samples. Good luck.”

We parted ways, she to her car, me to my trolley. My mask hid my smile.

Scanning the shelf for ginger cookies, my sole reason for being at the store, I was surprised to feel a tap on my shoulder.

“Oh, hello,” I said to the woman, again noting the intricate braids and marveling at the patience required to attain them.

“Are you still a decorator?” She asked.

“No,” I replied, hoping my tone was firm. “I haven’t practiced in twenty years.”

“I don’t know what to choose? Or which paint. Sherwin Williams. Behr. Benjamin Moore. Who?”

“Why don’t you get your decorator to put together another storyboard with different colours, a different theme,” I said. 

“Storyboard?”

“Oh,” I said, and explained. “Look, the colour should reflect you, not your decorator or what she deems is in vogue. Do you have favourite plates, dishes, or a sofa or cushion you can take a colour from? Something that ties the walls to your things.”

“Huh,” she said, looking again at the two strips of paint samples.

“Then buy a small tin of a couple of colours you like, brush a bit onto each wall. Each wall will show the colour differently depending on the time of day and night. But ma’am,” I said, “It must be something you like, not something someone else thinks you should like.”

“I’ll tell my friends I found a decorator in the parking lot?” She laughed, and patted my arm. “Thank you. “

“My pleasure,” I assured her. 

The masked lady went down the ramp and I wandered along the aisle in search of ginger cookies. My heart laughing and my smile broad behind my mask.

No mask, no service, no exceptions taken to new dimensions. 

Way back in the day, a day in 1966, a chap called Geoff Stephens recorded the album Winchester Cathedral with a group of session musicians, The New Vaudeville Band. On that album was a song Stephens penned with Les Reed, which was covered a year later by Herman’s Hermits and ten years after that by The Carpenters.

It is the first couple of lines that swirl in and out of my mind as around the globe we close our borders, our doors and retreat to the inner sanctum of our families, where possible, and certainly to our thoughts. “There’s a kind of hush, All over the world tonight”.

As I listen to the quiet, my mind wanders and wonders at the fact that in a relatively short period of time, a time when we noisy, intrusive humans have been forced to take a back seat due to COVID-19, the animal world is reasserting itself.

A Malabar civet, critically endangered and not seen since 1990, has been spotted (forgive the pun) sauntering the streets of Kozhikode in the State of Kerala. (I was terribly impressed he was using the pedestrian walkway.) Dolphins cavorting and swans gliding in Italian waterways may not be wholly uncommon but residents have reported seeing more of them in the clearer canals. Manatees are meandering around in the chi-chi waters lapping the docks of the rich and infamous in Miami now that boat engines have been stilled. A puma has broken curfew in the centre of Santiago, Chile. Wild boar, arguably the least attractive of animals, have been seen in Barcelona, perhaps grunting for the right to self-determination, and ducks have waddled near the Comédie Française. And why shouldn’t they? Have not Parisians always flaunted their feathers? 

And for a little levity. Kashmiri goats have descended from Great Orme, the limestone headland on the north coast of Wales that lours over Llandudno, and have been feasting on leafy delicacies dotting the township’s squares. If you are wondering why there is a herd of goats from the sub-continent roaming a Welsh hillside, it is due to those tandem human traits of envy and avarice. Learning of a herd of goats imported from Kashmir to France in the 1800s, our hero Squire Christopher Tower of Brentwood, Essex wanted a piece of a possibly lucrative wool industry. The two goats he bought soon required a nursery, and so the herd was born. Their wool was turned into the finest cashmere shawl which won the favour of King George IV, who then also wanted goats. Jump forward a few decades and we come to the illustrious Major General Sir Savage Mostyn. He too coveted goats and, so the story goes, was given a couple by Queen Victoria from the royal herd at Windsor. He freed them in the grounds of his ancestral home, Gloddaeth Hall, near Llandudno. Whilst some obviously strayed, ever since a Kashmiri goat has been given the rank of lance-corporal and has served as the Mascot for the 3rd Battalion of the Royal Welsh Infantry, the Major General’s regiment. How’s that for a shaggy goat story?

But perhaps the most amazing story of animals reclaiming their lands came after the Chernobyl disaster of 1986. Humans left, and suffered horribly. The animals stayed, and suffered horribly, according to an article recently published in ThoughtCo, by Anne Marie Helmenstine, Ph.D. called “What We Know About the Chernobyl Animal Mutations” 

What scientists have found through collecting samples of dung and soil and watching animals through camera traps is that, with time, plants and animals have rebounded and reclaimed much of the region. They are of course still radioactive and often have smaller brains, but are breeding though producing fewer young, some of which are deformed. It is the mammals who appear to have adapted best – wolves, badgers, moose, elk, lynx and Przewalski’s horses to name a few. Birds and invertebrates have not faired so well.

The article makes for fascinating reading, but one of Dr Helmenstine’s most chilling sentences was, “Ironically, the damaging effects of radiation inside the zone may be less than the threat posed by humans outside of it.”

Her comments beg the question, when our present restrictions are lifted, will we humans return to our destructive ways? Drive the animals back to the brink of endangered species or worse, extinction. Thankfully, unlike Chernobyl, it appears we will not be contaminated by this current crisis for years. Hopefully will we not recontaminate each other in a rush to demand our spaces back and our reclamation will be gradual. But human mammals are already massing – some never even stopped. China is opening up and we are seeing photos of people gathering in the rush to normalcy, albeit wearing masks.

So perhaps we should listen very carefully, not get too close now, and we might see it isn’t a dream. 

It will be interesting to see if we have learnt anything from this time of hush.

Interregnum

March 25, 2020 — 12 Comments

A recent Sunday morning was spent speaking to a small congregation of Unitarian Universalists, www.uua.org whose seven principles would seem to be a pretty good guide for decent living. I promised that Same View, Different Lens would discuss cultural awareness in a world wherein countries, and some peoples, are reverting to an insular and intolerant outlook.

But this isn’t a piece about the brilliance of my talk! Rather it is the coincidental nature of it as the precursor to the hell happening around the world as COVID-19 shuts down our borders. An action wholly understandable but which threatens to make us more inward looking and parochial, quick to lay blame beyond our boundaries.

Pico Iyer, a philosopher and travel writer I much admire says in his book The Global Soul, “The airport was a rare interregnum– a place between two rival forms of authority– and the airplane itself was a kind of enchanted limbo…. And so, half-inadvertently, not knowing whether I was facing east or west, not knowing whether it was night or day, I slipped into that peculiar state of mind– or no-mind– that belongs to the no-time, no-place of the airport, that out-of-body state in which one’s not quite there, but certainly not elsewhere.”

It is this feeling, this interregnum, in which I find myself now. Not, however, the anticipatory kind of limbo that airports induce but rather in a discombobulated state of nowhereness. I should be used to that feeling. I grew up a ‘Nowherian’ as Derek Walcott, the St Lucian poet called us. An in-betweener, and so am accustomed to often being on the outside looking in, to not always quite fitting into a prescribed mold. 

My family is global. My daughter is married to a Trinidadian and lives in Port of Spain, my son is soon to marry a Polish woman. They live in London. I have no doubt we will continue to live in different parts of the world, that their children will grow up with an inherent cultural awareness and, as I sit fretting at the keyboard, I remind myself that cultural awareness and common sense go hand-in-hand. I just need to get a better handle on the latter in these days of COVID-19 because I have a constant refrain in my head. 

What if they need me?

I know that is highly unlikely. I believe and trust in their ability to deal with anything thrown at them. That was how they were brought up, around the same world they now have the temerity to call their playground. And, in my current state of mind and despite my pride in them, I am to blame for their independence. 

It was only this morning, as I walked my dog along the empty Boardwalk in Christiansted, I realised what is causing my somewhat irrational mood. It is grief. 

Grief for a world that has changed beyond anything I could have imagined. No one knows how long borders or skies will be closed. A sorrow for those whose family and friends have died from this rampant virus. But my newly understood grief is also selfish one. It is grief at the freedoms I have lost, the freedom to hop a plane to see my children. It has sent me to find words vaguely remembered from when my father died. In his desk I had found a book of quotes, snippets of Latin and Greek, Malay and Urdu, he jotted down. Words that took his fancy. The words I wanted were written by the British doctor and eugenicist – not a science I agree with but, in the current context, wise words nonetheless, “All the art of living lies in a fine mingling of letting go and holding on.” 

So in this interregnum, this limbo, I must accept that some things have changed, maybe forever. That is the grief. I must embrace the ease of virtual communication which, for a while, is replacing the joy of real and tactile social intercourse. With vigilance COVID-19 will be contained and once it has run its course our borders will be reopened, and our minds once more excited about the infinite possibilities and cultural awareness that travel provides. But for now it is a time of letting go, and holding on, and remembering we see the same views through different lenses.