In the Bleak Mid-Winter (Part 2)

The Hanna family at Christmas. Back: Bert, Edith; Front: Addie, Garnet (my father), Abe

There’s no date on this photograph but if I’m right in estimating my father’s age as 6 or 7, then it was taken in either 1930 or 1931. In other words, two or three years into the Dirty Thirties, known elsewhere as the Great Depression.

Two years with little rain. Two years with barely any crop. Two years of rock bottom grain prices. Two years of working on relief projects. Two years of accepting relief. Two years of making do when there was precious little to make do with.

Two years of hoping after hope that “Next Year” the rains would come. That “Next Year” there would be bumper crops. That “Next Year” grain prices would go up. That “Next Year” relief would not be necessary.

Little did my grandparents know that “Next Year” would not come until 1938. That they had yet to endure the worst year of all – 1937, the year of no rain, the year of no crop, the year of the army worm invasion.

But that Christmas of 1930 or 1931, they found the will to celebrate the spirit of Christmas. They decorated a spindly spruce tree, hung a very thin Santa Claus from the curtain rod, and invited the Robinsons to join them for turkey dinner. They still lived in hope, in spite of the dire circumstances that surrounded them and everyone else.

Much as we do now. As we should do now. Like my grandparents enduring the drought, we do not know when this pandemic will end. We can only hope that it will end sooner rather than later.

Unlike my grandparents who could do nothing to alleviate the drought, we can do some things to alleviate the pandemic. Get vaccinated. Wear masks. Take reasonable precautions. Be kind.

And continue to believe in “Next Year.”

(P.S. Four chapters in “Our Bull’s Loose in Town!” Tales from the Homestead recount the dire effects of the Dirty Thirties on everyone, be they city folk or farmers.)

#DirtyThirties #GreatDepression #HannaHistory #COVID #Pandemic #Hope #OurBullsLooseInTown #MargaretGHanna

Good-bye 2020

This has been one @#$%^ of a year. SARS-CoV-2 came storming in and stomped on, shattered, crumpled and otherwise destroyed and threw out the window every dream and plan we had for 2020. It trashed weddings, birthdays, anniversaries, family gatherings, trips to the mall, meeting up with buddies at the local watering hole, graduations, school, playtime, and then, to add insult to injury, prevented us from gathering to mourn the loved ones it snatched from us.

It made us stand apart, stop hugging, stop holding hands, fear the very air we breathe. It divided us into tribes: pro-maskers vs. anti-maskers, the virus is real vs. the virus is fake, the stay-at-homers vs. the go-out-and-partyers.

People lost jobs and businesses and homes; people cued for hours for a bag of groceries or a COVID test. Parents working from home had to juggle work with home-schooling their children.

It’s been a year of seemingly unprecedented racial violence, of demonstrations and counter-demonstrations, tyrants clinging to power, wars, mass murders, mass kidnappings, famines, etc. etc.

As if that weren’t bad enough, we’ve been pummeled with one disaster after another. Wild fires that threaten to devour the whole world, and hurricanes and tornadoes and plow winds and hail storms that demolish everything in their wake. We’ve been left homeless, bereft, bruised and battered.

But not without hope.

Hope is the one thing that has carried us through this terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad year. This isn’t an airy-fairy, pie-in-the-sky kind of hope. It is hope borne of a million random acts of kindness and generosity by neighbours, and even strangers, who look out for one another. It is hope borne of the knowledge that we have fallen on our face before and, like the words in Frank Sinatra’s song, picked ourselves us, brushed ourselves off and started all over again. We know, in our heart of hearts, that we can survive now because we have survived before.

It is hope borne of the courage of so many people who have continued to serve in the face of this scourge, people who have put their lives on the line for us and, alas, have often lost them. People, such as those who work in hospitals and clinics – nurses, doctors, cleaners, cooks, EMT personnel, maintenance personnel and suppliers. Civic workers who pick up the garbage, drive transit, keep the heat and power and water flowing, clean the streets, patrol the neighbourhoods and fight fires. People who work in grocery stores and pharmacies and department stores and gas stations, and the truck drivers who bring the stock to those stores. Business owners who care enough to make their premises safe for those who venture in.

It is also the hope borne of promised salvation. Two vaccines have been approved, others are coming. This does not mean that SARS-CoV-2 will be immediately or even permanently vanquished. We’ve fought that long-term fight before, too: smallpox was eradicated only after a long, concerted, multi-nation battle; tuberculosis and polio have been beaten back but not banished and we’ve learned to live with them. What the vaccines mean is that we can now breathe more easily, we can hope more strongly.

It is fitting, if entirely coincidental, that vaccines are being approved in December – the darkest time of the year when it seems night has won over day, and darkness over light. Since time immemorial, societies in northern latitudes have gathered during these darkest days to conduct ceremonies to lure the sun back and to ensure that Earth’s wintery death is only temporary. These festivals of lights beat back darkness and death just a little bit and remind us that, yes indeed, light and life will return. Now, the promise of light has come to us in the form of a tiny bottle of serum.

We’ve even invented a new “ceremony of life” surrounding the first recipient of the vaccine. It’s the same everywhere, no matter who the first recipient is or where it occurs. The TV cameras are there to record it, the person is surrounded by nurses and co-workers, the inoculation is given, everyone bursts into applause and cheers, and the recipient gives a little speech. Each time we witness this, we affirm that COVID is being beaten back, even if only just a tiny bit, and that light is returning.

We’re not there yet. Darkness still surrounds us. We’ve a long path ahead but we know the light is returning. As long as we have hope and courage and stamina, as long as we continue to support each other, the light will return.

Hold the faith, dear readers.

#Hope #Sacrifice #HelpingFriends #HelpingNeighbours #Caring #Future #2020 #COVID #SARS-CoV-2 #WinterSolstice #Pandemic #MargaretGHanna

Survival in the Time of COVID

Part 4: After COVID, Then What?

We are going through some truly “hard times.”

Mental and emotional stress is at epidemic proportions. Domestic violence is increasing as is the number of women murdered by their partners. We’re sleeping less, drinking more. Suicides are increasing. Young people, especially teen girls, are self-harming more. Distress hotlines are busier than ever. Xenophobia is rearing its ugly head.

We are under unmeasureable emotional and mental stress and not just because of the fear of catching the virus. There are rents and mortgages and bills to pay but no income; families to feed but no income; fear for our parents and grandparents in long-term care homes; the pain of not being with loved ones in their last days; and, for those who have to go to work, the fear of contracting COVID.

It may be difficult to believe when we are up to our ears in pandemic woes that we will endure, as did our ancestors. But endure we will, so what about the future? What will the world be like post-COVID? How will we be, post-COVID?

As I peer into my crystal ball, I see . . . only questions:

When can I hug my grandchildren?
When can I go to the baseball game? The hockey game? The football game?
When can my kids play with the neighbour’s kids?
When can we have our family reunion?
When can I go shopping at the mall with my friends? Have a beer with my buddies?
When will this end?
Will they find a cure? A vaccine?
When can I go back to work?

Perhaps we can glean some answers by a glance back at the past. How well did people recover from stress and deprivation when previous “hard times” ended?

There were both good and bad outcomes. The Spanish Flu did come to an end, although it took two years to disappear. Children who survived achieved lower levels of education and employment as adults. However, the epidemic fostered awareness of the importance of public health and spurred Canadian and European governments to create national health departments.

Perhaps one of the reasons the 1920s “roared,” at least for some people, was because people wanted to “actively forget” (as Nietzsche put it) the pain, suffering and horrors of both World War I and the Spanish Flu. It has often been called the Forgotten Pandemic – people seemed to have put it out of their minds so they could live fully in the present. And they went overboard in doing so.

Will COVID-19 also become a “forgotten pandemic?” Will we have a 21st century version of the Roaring Twenties, when the economy booms?

The Great Depression/Dirty Thirties ended in 1939 but the effects on those who lived through those hard times lingered on. I saw them in my own grandparents and parents. Grandma Hanna refused to pay a penny more than necessary for whatever she had to buy. My father kept every bit of broken machinery because, well, it just might be useful some day.

But the depression also brought about change. Communities formed credit unions when banks refused to loan money to struggling farmers and business owners. In the prairies, the Cooperative Commonwealth Federation (later the New Democratic Party) and the Social Credit Party formed, each espousing a different approach to solving the economic woes of the Depression.

The SARS epidemic of 2003 also ended, even in the absence of a vaccine. However, it left about one-third of those quarantined with depression and PTSD. The rates were higher among those who tended the sick. Patients felt alone, even de-humanized. Alcohol use increased. But even so, most people showed tremendous resiliency and lived happy and fulfilling lives afterwards. And the medical profession learned many lessons about how to deal with a highly contagious disease, lessons that are relevant to today’s pandemic.

Those questions I asked earlier – they are primarily about being deprived of social contact. Being separated from family and friends is compounding economic stress. Our ancestors endured not just because of rationing or gardening or relief, although those were important. They endured because they were part of community. They had a support network of family, friends and neighbours. They met at grocery stores, the post office, the hardware store, the café, the church. They laughed together, cried together and shared what little they had.

Physical distancing denies us those essential support networks. We crave community. We crave a real shoulder to cry on or a real hug. Social media and virtual visits don’t provide the same emotional security and consolation that comes with physical contact.

In spite of how it feels, we are not alone. We are still part of community. We care for others and others care for us – witness the million little acts of kindness that happen everywhere, every day.

Think of the pandemic as a refining fire. It will change us, some more than others, some in different ways than others. That doesn’t mean it will defeat us.

It seems to boil down to this: Our future will be largely determined by what we dream it to be, and that in turn depends on our attitude to life in general. Are we glass-half-empty or glass-half-full people?

My vision of post-COVID life is this: One day, we will be back to work, bringing in an income, and ensuring security for ourselves and our families. One day, we will be able to hug each other. One day, we will be able to have a beer with our neighbours on the deck. One day, we can hang out with our buddies at the beach. That day will include a continuation of the kindness and generosity that has helped us get through these hard times.

Who knows how or when this pandemic will end, but it will. Hang in there, folks. We are more resilient than we imagine. Be kind to each other. Live in hope and faith.

Here’s a challenge for you: Write an obituary for COVID-19. How does what you have written reflect your vision of a post-COVID world?

#Coronavirus #COVID-19 #Pandemic #AfterCOVID #Hope #Resiliency #TogetherAgain #LivingInCommunity #

Bread of Life

Man may not live by bread alone but it’s a good place to start.

Bread is as essential to us of European descent as rice is to Asia. We “break bread” together. We give thanks for our “daily bread.” When women, a century ago, marched for better working conditions and the right to vote, they sang “Give us bread and roses.”

I grew up with bread-making. Mom made bread, six loaves at a time, almost every week. We knew what was in store the day she saved the potato water. Tomorrow, there’d be bread fresh out of the oven when we got home from school! We could taste it, smell it, from that moment on.

Next morning by breakfast-time, Mom was already scooping flour out of the bin. She baked so much that we bought flour (and sugar) in 100 lb sacks. (As an aside, those flour sacks were recycled. Once the flour was dumped out, she unpicked the seams, washed and bleached them to remove the trade marks – either Five Roses or Robin Hood – and then handed them off to me to hem for dish towels. She told me when she grew up during the Dirty Thirties, her mother made those flour sacks into underclothes for the girls or shirts for the boys). She was kneading the dough by the time we left for school. The bread was into its second rise when we came home for dinner – we lived only a quarter-mile from school – and soon it would be in the pans.

The heavenly aroma of bread greeted us as we ran in the door after school. The loaves were out of the pan, cooling. Time for “coffee”, the mid-afternoon lunch that was both tradition and ritual in our family. Mom and Dad had coffee; my brother and I had milk. Mom cut the still-warm bread; it steamed as she let the first piece – the heel – fall away. Then, to prevent a battle royal from breaking out, she cut the heel off the other end of the loaf.

You see, my brother and I both preferred the heel (still do) because we could slather on no end of butter and jam without it falling apart. The heel made a most satisfying crunch when we bit into it. And it had more flavour, or so we claimed, than the inner slices.

By the end of “coffee,” we had demolished the better part of that first loaf.

Bread-making fell by the wayside for many families. It was easier to get your loaf ready-made from the grocery store or the bakery. Now, in the midst of this pandemic, people seem to have rediscovered bread-making. Yeast and flour are almost as rare as toilet paper.

My husband uses a bread machine but, for me, the grind and thump of the machine is no substitute for the physical, visceral experience of kneading bread. At its most elemental, it is a communion of person, flour, water and yeast.

Kneading is meditation – turn, fold, push, repeat again and again. I rock back and forth with each turn and push.

It is physical – I feel the dough give and resist, give and resist.

It is sensual – the smell of flour and yeast, the dough turning from sticky and obstreperous to smooth and satiny. Every now and then, the dough speaks, a slight squeak as an air bubble pops.

And it is memory reenacted, memories of my mother and her mother before her, standing at a counter, participating in a ritual generations-old.

Then magic happens. This seemingly inert mass of flour and water and yeast grows and expands before your very eyes. It seems so fragile – poke it and it collapses with a sigh. Yet it is resilient; it expands once again, this time taking the shape of whatever you want to create, be they loaves, buns, cinnamon rolls – the possibilities are endless.

Perhaps that’s the lesson to be learned from bread-making in the midst of this pandemic – that even though we may appear fragile, we are also resilient. Although we may collapse in the face of something overwhelming, we will rise again. That our strength, our resiliency, grows out of our malleability.

There’s more than food for the body in that humble loaf of bread.

#BreadMaking #Meditation #ChildhoodMemories #COVID19 #Resiliency #Hope #Courage #MargaretGHanna

“Next Year” Country

Or, Hope Springs Eternal

He looks out over the prairie, hand on the breaking plow, horses at the ready. “Not much of a field this year, but next year it will be bigger.”

They walk, hand in hand, across the blackened field. She says, “At least the prairie fire missed the house.” He says, “This ash will fertilize next year’s crop.”

He fingers the rusty wheat leaves and thinks “Next year I’ll grow that new rust-resistant grain.”

He watches the droves of grasshoppers ravage his fields. “No crop this year, but a cold spring next year will do them in.”

They stand at the window, watch the dust storm carry away soil and seed. “Next year, we’ll have rain,” they say.

They cry as they look over the hailed-out crop. They put their arms around each other. “At least we have crop insurance. That will carry us through to next year.”

He holds the grain cheque. “Hardly worth putting in the bank.” His son says, “Prices should be higher next year.”

They watch their grandson start up the four-wheel drive tractor, air seeder and fertilizer applicator attached, and go into the field to start seeding. “This year,” they say. “This year!”

#FarmLife #NextYearCountry #RuralLife #Hope #MargaretGHanna

Happiness is . . .

A friend once defined happiness as the “absence of unhappiness.” How sad, I thought, to define happiness as the absence, rather than the presence, of something.

Another negative definition: I don’t think happiness is that crazy dance you see on television commercials when someone buys a new car or discovers they get free shipping with whatever they bought on-line. That’s some kind of adrenaline-fueled moment that is a fleeting as it is intense, and, once it’s gone, leaves you feeling drained and empty.

The question remains: what is “happiness?” Is it like art – you know it when you feel it? Maybe.

Here is my attempt to understand it.

Happiness entails contentment, which is not the same as complacency. Complacency is a “Yah, whatever” mentality. Contentment is more of an acceptance of who and what you are. Of being able to live with your strengths and your weaknesses. And because of that acceptance – because of your strengths and in spite of your weaknesses – you go out and do the best you can, perhaps even better than you thought you could. Perhaps even discover that there is strength in your weakness, as contradictory as that may sound.

Happiness entails hope. Hope is what keeps us going from day to day. It gives us the courage and strength to keep on trying and striving. It is a realistic hope; you know utopia will never be achieved but, by trying once more, you hope that you can help to make the world a slightly better place for one person, for one place, for one community.

Happiness is outward-looking. It’s that feeling you get when you put a smile on someone else’s face; when you provide a shoulder for someone to cry on; when you lend an ear so a person’s sorrow or frustration; when you “pay forward” a favour. It’s when you empathize with someone else’s situation. When you’ve helped someone through a difficult time. When you rejoice with them about their own happiness.

Happiness entails connection with community, however you define that, be it family, friends or an organization. Ask any volunteer. When you are part of something bigger than yourself, you realize you are not alone, come what may. You are there for other people, and other people are there for you. Because of that, you can face anything.

Now, it’s your turn. How do you define happiness?

#Happiness #Hope #Connection #Contentment #Empathy #MargaretGHanna #Contemplation