April 5, 2022 — [Overcoming] “The Cyclical, Maddening Nature of Anxiety”

I hope to never get too old or culturally frozen in amber to allow new music to burrow deeply in my head. Already my Best Songs of 2022 playlist has some great candidates — “Hot and Heavy” and “Brando” by Lucy Dacus, “Sleepwalker” by The Killers, and both quiet and loud versions of “Holding Court at the Funeral Brunch,” by the stellar and immensely likeable Ottawa artist Chris Page. But the track of the moment, the song playing on a repeated loop through my mind, is “Headlines” by Toronto-based singer-songwriter Charlotte Cornfield.

As described on her website, the song lyrics place Cornfield — standing in for all of us, in my interpretation — “doom-scrolling in a small room, spinning her wheels in a state of helplessness.” Skimming headlines/walking slowly/circling around she repeats — “a device that hooks the listener while emphasizing the cyclical, maddening nature of anxiety.”

It was less than 4 months ago that I elaborated on various realities and events which were leaving me feeling anxious (couched in the article title’s euphemism of “ominously pleasant uncertainty”) — work deadlines, spiking COVID-19 case counts, the looming holiday season. Now, just to keep things fresh, I’ve come up with a whole new list! Well, not quite all new — case counts are the stats that just keep creeping up and expanding, like the lake on my sunken driveway every time Ottawa receives any sort of significant rainfall.

According to Premier Doug Ford — and consistent with the ‘learn to live with COVID’ messaging which provincial governments have virtually tripped over one another in their eagerness to adopt in recent weeks — Ontario is able to manage the “little spike” in COVID-19 that the province is currently experiencing. (Just to quantify “little spike:” as summarized by CBC reporter Mike Crawley, “by every available measure — hospitalizations, officially confirmed cases and the presence of the virus in sewage — Ontario’s latest wave of COVID-19 infections is showing exponential growth.”)

Specifically, the Ontario COVID-19 Science Advisory Table is now estimating that the province is experiencing 100,000–120,000 new infections per day — the highest number since the pandemic began.) Today, April 5, two weeks after ‘personal risk assessments’ replaced mandatory masking (so 2021) in most public spaces, 1,091 COVID-19 hospitalizations were reported — the first time that this measure has risen above 1,000 since February, and an increase of almost 40 per cent from seven days before. Also this morning, CBC Ottawa reported that 14 Ottawa classrooms are currently closed due to, as described by the Ottawa Carleton Elementary Occasional Teachers’ Association president, “chaotic” staffing shortages resulting from the current “explosion” in sixth wave COVID cases and high work-related stress levels amongst educators. (Asked in mid-March about his own personal risk assessment in relation to masking requirements being lifted, Ford assured reporters that he always errs on the side of caution, and so would be keeping his mask on in the legislature “for the first few days.” If others wish to keep wearing them, he added, then “God bless you” — but if they don’t that’s fine too.) To be charitable, our provincial government appears to be operating with a different definition of “manage” than that of medical experts, many of whom have not been shy to express their concerns — to cite only one example, epidemiologist Dr. David Fisman, of the University of Toronto’s Dalla Lana School of Public Health, has contended that the province is taking a “head-in-the-sand approach” to this sixth wave of the pandemic.

So on the anxiety front, the pandemic continues to retain its preeminent position as usual suspect number one. Though right there along with it, for over 5 weeks now, has been the horror show that is Russia’s ongoing assault on Ukraine. With the recent gruesome revelations of widespread civilian executions now having been added to weeks of indiscriminate shelling of residential buildings and public buildings — the Mariupol theatre, most prominently — in which hundreds of Ukrainians had gathered to seek shelter, “the tipping point into pure evil has been reached,” assessed John Doyle of The Globe and Mail, along with every other sane individual with enough heart not to turn the channel away from this senseless and, until recently, unfathomable war. The return to European violence is not only destroying Ukraine but will also, inevitably, consume the aggressor state by condemning it to what Nina Khrushcheva, in “Putin’s War Will Destroy Russia,” prophesied as “a future as dark as its darkest past.”

In comparison, everything else seems — well, is — so incredibly trivial. Thinking about potential summertime destinations to travel to with the kids. Debating whether to visit my parents for Easter. Trying to remain even-keeled about perceived slights by certain members of my ex’s family. But of course even the trivial can be maddening.

I watched Charlotte Cornfield’s video for “Headlines” again tonight. In it, she first encounters a young woman at a street corner who presents her with an enormous antique key. Soon after, the key proves a perfect fit for the door of friends who have been locked out of their flat. In thanks, they impulsively present her with an empty basket. And so it continues — Cornfield strides through the downtown neighbourhood, encountering a cast of characters, in each case being able to pay forward the unlikely object which she has at hand, and receiving, as thanks, what they in turn have to give. The basket transmogrifies, in turn, into a lemon, a jaunty hat, a glittery yard sale-quality painting of a unicorn, and a lighter, each of which proves to be just what was soon to be needed. Probably not so coincidentally, just watching this panorama of miniature human dramas was just what I needed to raise my spirits and determine that the best way to end musings on anxieties is to go out on a high note.

So make of it what you will, but I think Exclaim writer Laura Stanley nailed it: reviewing Cornfield’s latest album, Highs in the Minuses, in October 2021, Stanley contended that the set of songs chronicle “the dizzyingly sweet moments that happen even when things feel unbearably bad.” The “Headlines” sound — the characteristically melodic hooks of power pop — is upbeat and cheerful, but coupled with contradictory, apprehensive lyrics. Those words speak to the anxiety-inducing experience of living through the upheaval of a pandemic — the waves of which, in beach-like fashion, advance and retreat but sometimes seem destined to never again remain indeterminately calm.

A song written to reflect our current collective COVID experience, yet one with a video that imparts — quite literally — the need to take every opportunity offered to turn life’s lemons into lemonade. To innovate and be imaginative. To demonstrate kindness. To seize the day and make it, as my former director Krista Henriksen — whose funeral I attended yesterday (words that I never could ever have imagined writing less than 3 months ago) along with half a dozen current and former colleagues — liked to say, “a great day for Canada.” To make the most of the moment by just getting outside and soaking in the world simply because the sun is shining. Because sometimes it’s fun to wear outlandishly funky shoes just for the hell of it. Krista — appropriately lauded as “a woman of valour” during the service — was very much on board with that line of thinking/sense of style.

So chop chop — we’re burning daylight.

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