December 11, 2020 — The Approaching Lights of Christmas

“A long December and there’s reason to believe / Maybe this year will be better than the last” — Counting Crows, “A Long December”

It’s December 1st as I am starting to write this, and I don’t need to be much of a clairvoyant to know that it will, indeed, be a long month, just like each of the past dozen have been. No tree yet, but the colourful lights are up on the porch and elsewhere on the street, blinking brightly through the darkness, and they do help to raise spirits during these shortest days on the calendar. For years I’ve found the Christmas season to be at least equally split between magical and stressful; as might be expected, the separation and the pandemic have certainly not positively tipped that balance.

Last Sunday morning, the CBC radio program Fresh Air requested listeners’ suggestions for non-traditional Christmas songs that bring the holiday season to mind. First up was an entirely unexpected but rather brilliant choice: “Your Ex-Lover Is Dead,” by Stars, inspired, seemingly, by the video for the song, which features the band lying atop and skating across a frozen lake. Snowflakes swirl as the string section builds to a majestic crescendo. Live through this / And you won’t look back. While I’m not sure that’s a great tagline for the holidays, it might be tough to find a more apt 8-word summary for the train wreck that has been 2020.

But it was “River,” my very favourite Joni Mitchell song, which was, hands down, the top suggestion from radioland. Listening to that wistful and familiar chorus — a sorrow-filled lament that is such a nakedly honest expression of loneliness — was almost too much to process at such an early hour of solitude. Oh I wish I had a river / I could skate away on.

These short and mostly grey days zap my energy. Small accomplishments — a couple of presents procured, the trampoline dismantled, technological aggravations overcome — seem overshadowed, by day five of the kids not being at the house (I have become acquainted, in 2020, with the numerical shorthand of separation schedules: 50/50, 2–2–5–5), by the overpowering silence inside and the early darkness which engulfs the outside world at this stage of the year. I identify only too closely with the musings of cultural writer and former CBC radio host Eric Friesen, who in a 2014 Queen’s Quarterly essay suggested that “the fading light of our northern world exposes the darkness inside of us: the regrets, the sadnesses, the losses, the failures, the fears, all the shadow side of ourselves we long to transcend.”

Seasonal malaise is not so conducive to finishing articles, as it turns out.

Fast forward to December 11: the tree is up, lit and decorated, and even Jessie has accorded it with her highest seal of approval (“it looks good”), which — given the painful process of Parkdale Market procurement — is surely not far off a Christmas miracle. Hopefully only one more week of intense work before the holiday ‘spirit’ (such that it is, in this party-less season) of MS Teams conviviality (sigh) trumps the daily hamster wheel grind of providing Ministerial and senior management briefings, input to meeting scenario notes, responses to incoming correspondence, etcetera, etcetera…

Encouragingly, the Ottawa COVID-19 numbers have, as a whole, continued to improve, defying the ever-more-troubling province-wide trajectory: the 7-day average for the city overall has further declined, from 56 to 41, over the past month. Ottawa has not, however, remained exempt from the increasingly-recognised statistical correlation between poverty and the pandemic: “Ottawa’s poorest neighbourhood is also where COVID-19 is hitting hardest,” wrote CBC-Ottawa reporter Laura Glowacki in mid-December. In comparison to the bubble where the kids and I reside (a very porous bubble: Carlington, a neighbourhood with a very high prevalence — 31% — of low income households, is only a short walk away, and many of its residents surely shop at the same grocery store that I do), the percentage of households living in poverty in Ledbury-Heron Gate-Ridgemont, statistically the poorest area of the capital, is over 41%. This is almost exactly 3 times higher than in Westboro, where Jessie goes to school, and 9.5 times higher than in Wellington Village (we live almost exactly on the invisible border between these two neighbourhoods). The rate of COVID-19 per 100,000 residents in Ledbury-Heron Gate-Ridgemont is over 9 times higher than that of Wellington Village, and nearly 3 times the city-wide infection rate.

This array of sobering data aside, the positive overall local trend is helping to quell my internal debate about having decided to go ahead and travel home to Chesley for Christmas celebrations at my parents’ new house. Without, of course, the customary extended family gathering at the church — no giant buffet or afternoon of chitchat, anchored by the customary $5 gift stealing session. But if that and keeping track of ever-elusive masks is the extent to which we are inconvenienced by the pandemic this holiday season then maybe we — all of us, that is — can actually manage this.

I’m still pondering whether, personally, I can. Though I expect that I ultimately will muddle through, in some fashion which hopefully doesn’t incorporate too many full meltdowns. None at all would be really great.

Today was the annual Project Give fundraiser on CBC radio for the Ottawa Food Bank, and a number of local musicians wrote and performed original songs to support the cause. So, circling back to the light theme: Chris Page and Lyle Odjick contributed “Disappearing Light,” the lyrics of which channel, as the Food Bank’s blog put it, “the panic and the perseverance” that is inherent to continuing to artistically create — or, in the swirling uncertainty that is 2020, to simply carrying on and existing — when, as Page sings, “lately I’ve felt so alone”:

Hey disappearing light / Take me on a trip where things will work out right

Hey disappearing light / I can make the best of something I can’t fight.

The days are almost at their shortest now, but at least all the lights, both figurative and those outside and on the tree (“it looks good” — remember that!) are glowing a little more brightly this week.

Counting Crows, Recovering the Satellites
Stars, Set Yourself on Fire
Joni Mitchell, Blue
CBC Ottawa Project Give, featuring Chris Page and Lyle Odjick

Music, single parenting, and pandemic-tinted views of the world from central Ottawa, Canada.

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