Swastikas – the idiot’s tag

A childish chalk scribble of a swastika on a path behind Ely Cathedral has stirred up my emotions at a few levels.

First of all, I detest seeing graffiti in the town of Ely. It makes the place, population 20,000, seem too urban in a gang-ridden way. Ely is not that. But it does have bored youth hanging around convenience stores and school playgrounds late at night. The spate of graffiti in Ely started before the pandemic and is not limited to swastikas. In fact, most of the graffiti has been the tag ‘Ray’ spray-painted in large bubbly letters, often pink, sometimes blue. (Gender identity issues?) Using #findray on social media, residents have assumed that this is the work of a teenage boy. Police have been searching for him for two years now, visiting schools with photos of the tag. The parish and district councils are also on the trail of this elusive vandal, bent on defiling our beautiful town. Parochial annoyance, I know, and I have sucked into it.

Secondly, swastikas offend people. On some walls and fences spray-painted swastikas have been found in close proximity to ‘Ray.’ The District Council clean-up crew removed the swastikas – on the basis of their power to offend – and left Ray’s other self-absorbed scrawls behind for property owners to contend with. For most adults these are symbols of Nazism and anti-Semitism, but I do wonder if that’s what Ray had in mind. Ely is not known for its Jewish population, and in the ward where Ray operates, Jewish people make up 0.2% of the residents.

Fountainebleau, France.

This reminds me of an incident that happened in Fountainebleau, France a few months ago. A cemetery was peppered with swastika graffiti, headstones desecrated with bright spray-painted signs. Problem – this was a Catholic cemetery. The Jewish cemetery was up the road. Either these vandals had a faulty GPS or they didn’t understand the meaning of the swastika since the 1920’s (it had been used before then by various groups in history, such as being the symbol for Surya the Hindu son god). I suspect that Ray and his French counterparts were cut from the same idiot’s cloth, possessing a miniscule amount of knowledge, enough to know that swastikas offend and little else.

Finally (for now), upon seeing the chalky swastika on the Ely path, the other emotion that came to the fore was strangely one of nostalgia. Stay with me. When I was around five years old I found some broken plasterboard in the alley behind our apartment. Any city child will tell you that a shard of plasterboard makes for a great piece of chalk. At this age, I probably had limited writing abilities coupled with a limited vocabulary. I guess I had the wherewithal to understand the importance of context and copied the words that I had seen in other public spaces – ‘screw,’ ‘fuck’ and ‘hell’ – on to the pavements of Ashland Avenue, Chicago. I don’t know how she found out, but she did, and my mother sent me outside with a bucket and scrub brush to remove my first ever attempts at graffiti. If only Ray was answerable to my mother.

My new nook

To call it an office or writing space or den doesn’t do justice to a space where I meditate, read, daydream, write and connect with the world through my laptop. I’ve also grown weary of the ‘room of her own’ cliché. Simply put, a writer needs a space to create and get on with the job of writing. Over the years, I’ve integrated my writing space with my meditation space, realising that I need mindfulness to think, thinking to write and writing to practice mindfulness.

When we moved house a few months ago we decided to use space in a creative and more utilitarian way. What was referred to as bedroom one, the second largest room next to the dining/living room, became my office. Bedroom three, also referred to by the estate agent as ‘dining room’ as it was connected to the conservatory, became our bedroom. Bedroom three may have been a tight fit for our bed, but since it was a room only used for sleeping and marital recreation, this made sense. I was blessed with the big room looking out over the front garden, our quiet street and in the distance the West Tower of Ely Cathedral. A writer’s dream.

But you can’t dream, or even daydream very well, if you can’t sleep. Our new bedroom may have been at the back of the house, but it was lit up at night by a streetlight from a private carpark. The conservatory glass doors, windows and ceiling made sure of that. On the other side of the equation was my new office, which needed to double as a dressing room with wardrobe and dresser, and it needed to ‘triple’ (new verb) as an exercise room for me with my yoga matt and hand-held weights (David uses the living room). To top it off, this dream office shared a wall with David’s African-themed office, which meant that he could hear me talking to colleagues in Zoom and waffling in French during online sessions of ‘Le Book Club.’ After a couple of months of light sleeping and working around each other, following other renovations that had to come first (functioning kitchen and bathroom), we did the big switch.

In the larger bedroom with the wardrobe, dresser and space for the yoga matt, we are both sleeping more easily, and we no longer need to squeeze around the bed. My new office is smaller than my last office but has the quiet and privacy I need to meditate to think to be mindful. Looking through the conservatory doors and windows into the garden, I’m writing this from my office nook.

Dalton Trumbo wrote in his bathroom.
Patricia Highsmith in her nook.

The Digital Divide

It’s easy to talk about the digital divide in terms of generational differences and the overused ‘digital natives’ and ‘digital migrants.’ I used these phrases myself in academic articles and in my book Digital Textuality, citing Marc Prensky (2001), the person who coined the terms. In the early days of the internet and portable devices, stark differences appeared between those aged 40+, who restricted their use of computers to work and personal emails, and youngsters, who seemed to have superhuman skills at thumbing text messages, pirating music and coding their own webpages. But in the world of technology, those days are ancient history, and age is no longer what distinguishes the computer literate from the luddite. 

Today we have a new digital divide, one that is less straightforward and harder to joke about. While the power of computer technology and influence of social media are often overstated, if this pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that people need computer technology and the support to use that technology to work and study from home and to feel included in their families and communities.  Those without access to this technology have clearly suffered more than those with it. 

I recently attended an online conference where Dr Jane Seale of The Open University spoke about people with learning disabilities and the impact the pandemic has had on them. Compared with the general population, people with learning disabilities are six times more likely to die from covid. This alarming statistic is being used by researchers while the UK government claims that the death rate is only four times higher. The same government has attempted to explain this away by citing the fact that people with learning disabilities are more likely to have other health conditions (e.g. obesity and diabetes), live in care homes and find social distancing difficult.

What we haven’t been hearing from governments (and it’s not just in the UK) is how people with learning disabilities have been cut off from their carers, whether family members or other support staff, because they have fallen on the wrong side of the digital divide. For the learning disabled, computers can be particularly challenging. Worse still, carers and support workers might also have limited experience with computers. I witnessed this myself a few years back when I was involved in adult literacy training and often went to care homes for the elderly and learning disabled to help support staff improve their literacy. Typically, these carers had mobile phones and could work with apps and images, but stayed clear of written language and computers. While there have been a few stories in the British media about children with learning disabilities being cut off from schooling and care during the pandemic, adults in this group are not being reported. I suspect the media is reflecting society and catering to the interests of their audiences. Dr Seale summed it up when she explained that  ‘People with learning disabilities are among the most ignored in our society.’

Corona Writing Corona

One of the downsides of being a writer at the moment comes from receiving emails for writers. Since the Covid-19 lockdown, literary magazines, writers’ competitions and writers’ organisations have taken it upon themselves to provide a service by coaxing us into writing during the lockdown.  Whether it’s corona-themed issues, creative writing competitions for our suddenly increased output or sharing our dryly humorous lockdown stories, we writers should all be writing right now.

This unearths several problems.

First of all, lockdown does not equal free time. My academic and professional writing life, which involves mostly confinement with my laptop, has not changed at all. Student assignments are still coming in and writing deadlines are still looming. My non-work time has been filled, in addition to the usual jogging/walking, news and fiction reading and language studying, with Zoom calls to friends and colleagues and with standing in long queues outside of supermarkets. Finding the time for creative writing involves breaking some laws of physics.

Second, thinking is a big part of creative writing. The thinking part of my brain (I believe my brain also emotes and reacts without thinking) has been rather pre-occupied. If I were to etch out some time, probably from the one-subject-only newspaper reading, my thought space would be filled with the enormity of this all. Sometimes my head wheels are turning over the different approaches to the spread of the virus across different countries, and I suspect Britain is not doing the right thing, but I don’t know what the right thing is. Other times, my thoughts are wallowing in the sadness of what is happening, the loss of so many lives and the stories of some of those lives. I do express these thoughts, as I am now, but mostly in my journal, where I have the privacy to convey ideas in their raw form without having to find the bon mot.

This brings me to the third problem. You can’t turn creativity off and on like a tap. I find that my fountain of creativity is not only unpredictable at the best of times, but runs dry when I’m sad about something (which is different from being inexplicably depressed, where writing can be therapeutic – another time, another blog). I admire the war poets who could compose the most beautiful verses in the face of such fear and sorrow. Does the sadness I’m experiencing need to be explained or explored? We’re all experiencing it. When I experience it, I recoil from creative writing. In recent weeks, I’ve spoken to other writers about this and I know I’m not alone.

Fourth, other writers, mainly journalist, are writing about the virus. Whether it’s reportage on the science, analysis of what governments are doing or not doing, or those who tell us how the lockdown is affecting our lives, there are plenty of writers kept in work by Covid-19. I ask myself, what could I possibly add to the public discourse on this virus that hasn’t already been said? The real challenge for writers – journalists, non-fiction and fiction writers – is to not write about Covid-19 and get published.

That brings me to a solution to these problems, at least for now.  As an avid diarist, I’ve been writing most days in my journals. Only the subject matter has changed to the topic of the day – as it’s stuck in my head – details of the ways our town has changed, the joys of more birdlife around us and feelings about my existence/mortality and that of those around me (spiritually if not physically these days). Someday, as with a lot of my journal writing, these thoughts will find their way to a public readership, but in some other form – a story, a novel, an essay. Something will be created out of these recorded memories, but with the assistance of hindsight and reflection.


Travels in the Time of Corona

We did consider whether we should go at all. Covid-19 had struck Italy hard, but at that time only the region of Lombardy was in lockdown. Still, northern Italy is just a 45-minute train journey from Nice, and how long would it be before France was in lockdown? Thanks to the European bus service of the sky, Ryan Air, we had rationalised that we could always come back sooner, only losing the money spent on cheap tickets. As we were going to our second home, we didn’t have to worry about the costs of cancelled hotel bookings. Everything would be fine.

We agreed before boarding our flight from Stansted that if anyone was sitting next to us and there were other seats available, we would move, spread ourselves out and play it safe. Sure enough, in our row of three, sitting next to me was a young man with the physical appearance of someone from the Wuhan. David and I moved, guiltily imagining the young man thinking we were paranoid, racists or both. Things were not off to a good start.

As we arrived in Nice, the final weekend of the centuries-old carnaval had been cancelled. Nice didn’t feel like Nice without coach loads of tourists or the buskers and pickpockets taking advantage of the increased trade. Concerts we had planned to attend were cancelled. The city didn’t have its usual buzz of people or vehicle traffic. Fortunately, cafes, restaurants, cinemas and clubs were still open with no talk of closures. Yet, we weren’t going to be foolhardy. We didn’t go to restaurants or our usual jazz clubs and mostly got our croissants at outdoor cafes – if you’re wondering, average daytime temperature was 16C.


While it was important to be cautious, we didn’t want to be sucked into the media hysteria. The information available from British and French health sources made the risks of contracting Corvid-19 appear small. Not wanting to be cooped up in our one-bedroom apartment every evening, we decided to go to the cinema – twice in one week. Before you think we were being foolish, English films with French subtitles (as opposed to dubbing) shown in the early evenings are not typically well-attended. At both films, the dozen or so in the audience spread themselves out while the fragrance of disinfectant hand gel hung in the air.

As the death toll in Italy was skyrocketing, the cases of Covid-19 and deaths were steadily going up in France. This was the unavoidable main topic at my French drop-in class, which I opted to attend because it was at the teacher’s home, usually with only a few students. Again, I was rationalising and trying not to be hypnotised by the wall-to-wall media coverage we were getting in two languages. As it turned out, there were only two students that day, and we both rubbed our hands with disinfectant hand gel at the start of class.

Living close to the Promenade, pleasant seaside strolls and jogs are de rigueur, but we also like our other walks. Problem – getting from our apartment to these picturesque walking paths in Villefranche-sur-mer and Cap Ferrat involves trams and/or buses. In that first week, we braved several tram journeys, keeping a safe distance from people when we could, and two bus trips with near-empty buses. Of course, we realised that others thought crowded buses would be too risky, especially the elderly, who were heeding the advice to stay chez vous.

The week ended with Italy entering total lockdown. We went from slightly concerned to PANIC. My main worry was getting out of France before it would no longer be possible. I had to get back to the UK for meetings and to chair a doctoral exam. My second worry was not being able to get out with David, who was going to stay in Nice for an extra week to paint doors and window frames.

Fear comes in waves. We went from ‘let’s leave Wednesday’ – three days away – to ‘let’s stay here as planned but leave together on my flight in 10 days’ – then back to Wednesday or Friday – or maybe Sunday. Realising that we couldn’t really make up our minds, and that the news about the spread of the virus and the actions of governments were even less predictable than our brains, we held off on booking any new plane tickets. We agreed that whatever we did, we would go back together.

I soon learned from two of my friends back in the UK that people were panicking there as well. Both messaged me to let me know that supermarket shelves had been emptied of toilet roll. I could only chuckle, wondering why food and medicine seemed less essential.

For those last days in Nice, however many they were going to be, we focused on just enjoying the sunshine by day with walks around the city and staying in at night watching Netflix, doing crossword puzzles or me working on a writing assignment. We limited our socialising. We didn’t see our elderly or recently ill friends, but reasoned that it wasn’t unsafe to go to the home of two of our friends who had just arrived from Colorado, which at that point had only recorded two cases of the virus. We greeted our friends with Namaste and at the end of the evening tipsily waved goodbye. Strange not hugging or kissing friends.

A couple of days later, the death toll in France rose sharply, but mostly to the north of us, while the number of cases in our region doubled overnight. Tr*mp stopped all flights from Europe to America, except for those carrying US citizens returning home. As fewer and fewer people were flying between European countries, airlines were cancelling more and more flights. Ryan Air had still not cancelled our flights, but we knew that we couldn’t stay much longer. Fear was in the air. Half-empty trams echoed with announcements to cover your mouth with a cloth when you sneeze or cough and to keep a social distance – at this point defined as a one-meter space. Disinfectant hand gel and surgical masks had sold out.

The time had come to book a new flight back for both of us. A few days were cut off my working-holiday and 10 days were taken away from David, along with his painting duties.

In the days remaining, I fought off the sense of panic by meeting with girlfriends for an apero in a hotel bar. No hugs, no kisses, but plenty of hand gel and a distance of roughly a meter between us. The following day, I attended my French class – the only student this time. Of course, all we talked about was the virus and people’s strange and sometimes silly behaviours, ranging from Tr*mp’s flippancy to people hoarding toilet paper. I’m one of these people who often uses humour to hide my anxieties – from others as well as myself.

I was indeed anxious. One of us could get ill before our flight, and even though we could manage healthcare in French, it would be easier in English and in a health system that we know. In all of the times I’ve gone to Nice over these past ten years, it was the first time I was looking forward to leaving.

On the day before we flew out schools, universities, restaurants, cafes, bars, non-essential shops and cinemas across France had been ordered to shut. I joked on Facebook about leaving now that the cafes were closed.

As I packed my carry-on bag, I realised I wasn’t taking much back. In fact there was loads of space. Full of embarrassment at myself, I packed two rolls of toilet paper.

At Nice Airport Departures all the shops were closed except for a newsagent. No restaurants or cafes, except for one take-away coffee shop. At the gate, people were keeping a social distance, some of us standing or sitting on the floor in order to have a meter between us. That is until the gate opened and an undignified queue formed – suddenly safe spaces seemed unnecessary. I did wonder if everyone else was as anxious as me to get home.

We’ve been back in the UK for nearly two weeks now, and I still feel as if I’m travelling. I’m a tourist in a country where people only go outside for exercise or to the supermarkets that only allow 25 people in at one time and where customers are ordered to stand 2 meters from each other at the checkout.

Afterward: David’s original flight was cancelled by the airline and he is awaiting his refund. My original flight was also cancelled, but it was later ‘reinstated.’ I was informed of this reinstatement by a text message sent out two hours after my flight landed in Stansted. Like me, Ryan Air makes jokes when they’re nervous.

Not ready to say goodbye

Since June 2016, I have marched down the streets of London four times, Cambridge twice and Ipswich once. I’ve attended countless rallies and delivered thousands of leaflets. All in the hope of bringing an end to this lunacy called Brexit. Over the past three and a half years I have shifted in my goals from fighting to overturn the freak election results of the referendum to accepting  defeat following the last general election to where I am today with a new goal – I’m trying to stifle the feeling of ungroundedness and the anxiety that eventually comes with it.

Leaving the EU is stripping me of my EU citizenship and that seems remarkably unfair. The rug that has been pulled out from under me was more like a magic carpet.  Now there is only air between me and the ground and I can’t seem to land.

I have to visualise and remind myself that a sense of groundedness exists with my David, his family, our friends and with some of the things I do – writing, jogging, walking and of course meditating. Not to underestimate these attachments and therapeutic activities, but these last few years make me aware that outside of these inner concentric circles, I’m no longer living in a place where I feel I belong. This isn’t the first time. I left the United States in 1984 to live in Scotland, among other practical reasons, as an act of self-imposed political exile against Ronald Reagan and the many – even Democrats – who were prepared to re-elect him. Instead of wondering if the world had gone mad, I turned it on myself and thought there was something wrong with me.

Older, more confident, this time, it’s not me. The cult of pro-Brexitism has brought hate and isolationism to the foreground. Brexit has never really been about leaving the EU, or to ‘gain back control’ as the slogan claimed. In order to justify those sentiments, people had to believe a lot of lies about what the EU does and Britain’s place in it. I’ve toyed with the idea that millions of people were lazy when it came to researching and discovering the truths (it’s in another blog). While laziness might be a factor, I also suspect that those who voted to leave to varying degrees pretended to believe the lies in order to find a cause of, or someone to blame for, their own unhappiness. For some this unhappiness has been economic, for others it festers in feelings that our more tolerant, liberal society has been foisted upon them.

Perhaps this is just a coping strategy – an attempt to get my dangling feet back on the ground – but I will only permit myself to say goodbye to the EU as a British citizen. In a year’s time, this will be enforced by laws and regulations. What the Brexit elite at the helm of this operation cannot take away from me is my Italian heritage, my second home in France, my abilities in romance languages or my spiritual connection to some European countries and their peoples. This time, I won’t flee into self-imposed political exile.


Memories of Sultan Qaboos

Nizwa, Oman, spring of 2015. I was circling the university car park looking for a space. The car park was packed. This wouldn’t have been unusual at 8 in the morning, but this was 4 in the afternoon. I wondered if there was some ceremony or conference going that I didn’t know about. The bewildered foreigner once again.

When I eventually stepped into my department’s offices, the Omani admin workers were all gathered in one room speaking excitedly in Arabic about something. One woman in the group appeared to be crying. I saw one of my Jordanian colleagues in the hall and asked what was going on. Full of ennui, she rolled her eyes and explained that on television the previous night Sultan Qaboos spoke to his nation from Germany to say that his cancer treatment went well and that he would be home soon. This broadcast created such a stir that people stayed at work the next day just to talk about it.

In the days that followed, Omani flags went up all over campus and throughout the small town on Nizwa. Large companies and banks hung posters and displays welcoming the Sultan back home. The great man’s image appearing gigantic showed him seated in full traditional clothes, an Omani boomerang-looking sword, the khanjar, his beard more white than grey.

It’s hard to imagine in our cynical times a country where its leader is genuinely adored and worshipped and where political satire is non-existent. Sultan Qaboos was rightly admired for taking his country from illiteracy and poor health to public education and modern hospitals, from dirt roads to highways. Above all else, while neighbouring countries have had to deal with wars and terrorist attacks, Oman has remained at peace.

These decades of peace have been in part circumstantial. Oman doesn’t have the abundance of gas and oil that its neighbours have and hasn’t been fought over or exploited by foreign interests. The country has also stayed out of the fray by the simple fact that it practices Ibadi Islam and is neither Sunni nor Shiite. In Western newspapers, Oman often appears on colourful maps as grey. Taking advantage of this neutral greyness, Sultan Qaboos often played the part of arbiter and intermediary in the region.

What Sultan Qaboos brought to his beloved country which cannot be denied him is the country’s reputation of holding to many of its traditions and at the same time being one of the most socially progressive societies in the Middle East. Oman has modernised, but even its capital Muscat does not have the commercial glitz found in Dubai, only a few hours’ drive away. Where I lived in the town of Nizwa, every Saturday morning the goat market is held and people from neighbouring villages come to barter and bid in ways their ancestors did centuries ago. But this is not a backward country by any means. Not only do the local women drive cars, they also hold public office and managerial positions. It still is a male-dominated culture and many of the laws and customs are discriminatory, but they’ve made huge advances under the paternal gaze of Sultan Qaboos.

Just over a week ago, this ‘father of the nation,’ who has been in charge for nearly 50 years, died peacefully at the age of 79.

When I departed Oman over four years ago now, I typed these thoughts into my journal:  ‘It’s good I’m leaving now. I don’t wish to be in Oman when the much-loved Sultan passes away, leaving behind a country not only in mourning, but more worryingly, a country vulnerable to radical conservative takeover and upheaval.’

The people of Oman are in my thoughts today.


Some things I learned in 2019

Please forgive this listacle – at least it’s not another top 10 of this or that. As I try to sum up 2019 in a way that doesn’t sound as bleak as the way it ended, I offer these thoughts of some of the year’s more enlightened  moments.

  • Are Alain de Botton and Slavoj Zizek really philosophers of our time? I’ve learned more this past year from Kenan Malik of the Guardian/Observer and Hasan Minhaj on Netflix.
  • I’ve learned a great expression in French – la poudre de perlimpinpin. Great, largely because of the way it sounds, ending /pɛʁ lɛ̃ pɛ̃ pɛ̃/. I’m told it’s onomatopoeic and meant to sound like abracadabra.   It’s the French equivalent of snake oil. I was talking to a French person about Trump and Johnson at the time.
  • Unconscious bias – it’s become a buzzword. Like many, I’ve had awareness training through my employer. It’s made me more aware of myself, especially the myopia of my younger self, and gives me a handy phrase that sounds less caustic when describing the ways of others. Yet, I’m still left flummoxed at the receiving end. That is, I can’t stop it from happening to me. But this year I’ve learned to expect it and acknowledge that I can’t change it.
  • With the help of YouTube, I’ve learned how to remove a car battery without getting electrocuted, how to take in trouser legs and the difference between Italian R’s and Spanish RRRR’s.
  • Before this year, when it came to politics, I would have said that some people are ignorant and latch on to any populist that comes along. As 2019 appears in the corner of my screen for the last time, I now believe that those people aren’t ignorant, but they are politically lazy, wanting someone else to think for them and not bothering to fact check. Unfortunately, for the rest of us, these people have just as much a right to vote as we do.
  • Selling a collection of short stories is more difficult than I had imagined. It might even be harder than the research, soul-searching and writing and rewriting that went into the stories in the first place. I’m reminded of Salman Rushdie’s words of advice to Milan Kundera when he said that 50% of writing is strategy. Saving Spike and other stories is available at Amazon.

During 2019, there were loads of other things that I learned – surely, I must have –given my daily consumption of newspapers, magazine articles and books and other things I’ve probably gleaned from television, radio and conversation. And then there’s writing – I’ve learned, as I always have from writing. Apart from my obsessive journaling, I couldn’t write without an audience in mind. Thank you, readers, for being that audience during 2019. Best wishes to you for 2020.


Black Friday

Black Friday didn’t start with Amazon, gift wrapping or 30% off this or that. It didn’t even start, as the story goes, with shopkeepers coming out of the red and into the black due to the hordes of Christmas shoppers on the day after Thanksgiving.

The first Black Friday was on 18 November 1910, and it was in England. This was the day that some 300 women marched on Parliament, furious that Prime Minister Asquith called an election, meaning that Parliament would soon be dissolved and that the Conciliation Bill, giving some women the right to vote, was going to be scuppered. The Conciliation Bill was far from ideal, allowing only women property owners to vote, but it had already passed its first and second readings and was likely to pass into law. This was going to be momentous, a start of things to come on the road to full suffrage for women.

The women who converged on Parliament were angry and loud, but not violent. The violence came from police officers and men in the crowd. Some 30 women were seriously injured and a few days later two women died from what some sources believe d were conditions brought on by the police beatings.

Equally disturbing was the level of sexual violence perpetrated on these women. One suffragette noted: ‘Several times constables and plain-clothes men who were in the crowds passed their arms round me from the back and clutched hold of my breasts in as public a manner as possible, and men in the crowd followed their example… My skirt was lifted up as high as possible, and the constable attempted to lift me off the ground by raising his knee. This he could not do, so he threw me into the crowd and incited the men to treat me as they wished.’ (Source: British Museum)

Black Friday has come to mean an orgy of consumerism, the start of the Christmas shopping season. On the internet it takes place all weekend and in France it’s a week of ‘Black Fridays’. (Obviously, something got misplaced in translation.) So far removed from its original use and so little known to the average English-speaking person, Black Friday serves as a reminder of what we have come to value and what we choose to forget.

black friday

Two kind men

Former French President Jacques Chirac and my husband’s Uncle Dennis died within a week of each other. Both had lived long, full lives, one in the spotlight, the other not.

Eulogies about Chirac have evoked images of a slick-haired politician who had his share of enemies, whom he also treated as friends, and of a man who was convicted (but never served time) for fraud. He wasn’t the leader of heroic war years, nor did he leave a name synonymous with some grand social movement. Politically, his greatest accomplishments were keeping France out of the second Gulf War and keeping his right-winged party closer to the centre. Bizarrely, within these commentaries and testimonials, the word kind often came up. He was a kind man. Not just ‘underneath it all’ as they say, but outwardly as well. When he met with friends or the public, he was tactile and engaged. Sympa, as they say in France.

Kind was one of the first words that came to mind after hearing of Uncle Dennis’s death. Of course, talk about him we did and continue to do. When someone is no longer there it’s only natural to want to bring them back to life through reminiscences, or to get used to talking about them in the past tense – a training of the mind, fighting against the loss. I didn’t know Dennis during his working life, and the life of a man who ran a fish and chip shop doesn’t fill the headlines in the way presidents of countries do. Dennis, without any higher degrees, was one of my teachers. Nearly everything I know about gardening I learned from Uncle Dennis. What is more important is that he shared this knowledge not to act the role of the expert, but out of genuine kindness, always in a helpful mode.

In Buddhism, kindness is embedded in the four immeasurables and has its place in the meditation practice of the DennisMetta Prayer. These are my ways of tapping into the practice of kindness and trying – with mixed results – to live it. As far as I know, neither President Chirac nor Uncle Dennis practiced Buddhism. Yet, these two starkly different men exemplified one of its leading principles and leave us touched by it.