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Suffering like Sadie

In her essay ‘Suffering Like Mel Gibson’, Zadie Smith more eloquently argues what I was hacking at in ‘What we’ve lost’. In short, she suggests that the acknowledgement of suffering can be seen as an act of self-care. She writes, ‘suffering has an absolute relation to the suffering individual’ and therefore no-one has the right to judge the severity of another’s discomfort. Extracts pieced together here as a summary.

The misery is very precisely designed, and different for each person, and if you didn’t know better you’d say the gods of comedy and tragedy had a hand in it. The single human, in the city apartment thinks: I have never known such loneliness. The married human, in the country place, with partner and children, dreams of isolation within isolation … The widower enters a second widowhood. The pensioner an early twilight. Everybody learns the irrelevance of these matters next to ‘real suffering’…

Early on in the crisis, I read a news story concerning a young woman of only seventeen, who had killed herself three weeks into lockdown, because she couldn’t ‘go out and see her friends’. She was not a nurse, with inadequate PPE and a long commute, arriving at a ward of terrified people, bracing herself for a long day of death. But her suffering, like all suffering, was an absolute in her own mind, and applied itself to her body and mind as if uniquely shaped for her, and she could not overcome it and so she died…

…when the bad day in your week finally arrives – and it comes to all – by which I mean that particular moment when your sufferings, as puny as they may be in the wider scheme of things, direct themselves absolutely and only to you, as if precisely designed to destroy you and only you, at that point it might be worth allowing yourself the admission of the reality of suffering.

Zadie Smith in Intimations, pg 29

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All eyes on the presidency

Over the last four days I’ve been unusually attached to my phone, regularly refreshing The New York Times to note leads, margins and the percentage of reported votes.

First stats showed strong support for Trump – at face value looking as though the polls had got it all wrong. Again. Cue flashbacks to the 2015 EU referendum and the 2016 US and 2019 UK elections. But pandemic disruption in 2020 has impacted voting methods too, with an unprecedented proportion of ballots being lodged by mail. Those inclined to vote by mail for reasons of social distancing tend to be science-led and Democratic-leaning, located in more densely populated counties which take longer to tally. Hence, the widespread approach of counting in-person votes first and mail-in votes second created a false sense of ‘count manipulation’, or as Trump would call it ‘voter fraud’, as Arizona and Nevada, and more critically Pennsylvania and Georgia slowly turned blue.

Read more

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Pandemic policy update: 4 November

National pandemic policy, in place from 4 November:

Status: Tightened Partial Lockdown

• work from home if possible
• masks to be worn in indoor spaces
limit travel travel as little as possible. Travel by bicycle or on foot for short journeys if possible.
maximum of 3 visitors to your home in one day have as few visitors to your home as possible, maximum of 2 per day maintaining 1.5m of distance from each other *
no more than 4 people can form a group outside the home no more than 2 people or 1 household can go somewhere or do something together, not counting children under 13 *
• retail stores closed by 8pm
• no alcohol sold after 8pm
• all food and drinks establishments are closed, takeaways excepted
museums, zoos, amusement parks by staggered appointment all public locations must remain closed. This includes: restaurants, cafés, bars, cannabis cafés, libraries, cinemas, concert halls, all kinds of music venues, theatres and similar cultural venues, museums, presentation venues, heritage sites, zoos, amusements parks, casinos, amusement arcades, swimming pools, tour boats and sex establishments *

*revised from the previous policy update

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Follow the river

Today we followed the Kromme Rijn out of Utrecht for a short distance, returning via Erasmaslaan and the Rietveld Schröderhuis before heading into the neighbourhood of Schildersbuurt (which got me checking house prices on Funda). We were very happy to stumble across Olijfje, a very well-stocked organic grocery store which will probably become our go-to when we move to Adriaen van Ostadelaan on the 1st of December.

On a good day it would be nice to follow the river much further to Wijk bij Duurstede, a 29km walk southeast. Two more routes: the 5km Rietveld route, and the Singel Park 360° which loops Leiden’s old city.

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The Grandmothers

Art history in particular is often cast as an almost biblical lineage, a long line of begats in which painters descend purely from painters. Just as the purely patri-lineal Old Testament genealogies leave out the mothers and even the fathers of the mothers, so these tidy stories leave out all the sources and inspirations that come from other media and other encounters, from poems, dreams, politics, doubts, a childhood experience, a sense of place, leave out the fact that history is made more of crossroads, branchings, and tangles, than straight lines. These other sources I call the grandmothers.

Rebecca Solnit in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, pg 59

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What we’ve lost

2020 has been an odd year to celebrate momentous occasions. And, ironically, there seems to be more momentous occasions in my immediate realm this year than years past. Thirtieth and sixtieth birthdays, a birth, two weddings, a ten year wedding anniversary, thankfully no funerals…

Major crises like pandemics, wars and environmental disasters demand resilience of individuals and communities: they require adjustment, reconfiguration, compromise and loss, on a massive scale.

Changes made by very ordinary citizens have the capacity to facilitate the preservation of life. In this pandemic, change has meant mask-wearing, social distancing, working from home and limited travel. In wars it has meant curfews, blackouts, food rationing. In my experience, the required modifications have been uncomfortable but entirely doable because the situation is so critical.

Having never previously lived through a global event of this kind – one which completely disrupts ‘normality’ for an extended period of time – I’d never really thought about the continuation of life on these terms. In the context of a pandemic, the civic duty to preserve life significantly suppresses the continuation of life. They are in opposition to each other.

In a post from early August I marvelled at how adaptable humans are, and indeed it is true. But three months further along, the reality of this long-term game is more tangible. It has become more necessary to acknowledge anxiety, disappointment and frustration to safe-guard my endurance – also known as the reliable human need to vent, the need to have ones grievances heard before getting on with things. Reconfiguring birthdays, weddings, anniversaries… a spring, a summer, an autumn… indefinitely postponing a visit to see my mum on the other side of the world… It has all been doable but, like every other crisis bystander in the history of time, we won’t ever get back what we’ve lost during this period of partially suspended liberty. At the same time, we are extremely fortunate to be bystanders and not victims. A pandemic is an extraordinary thing to have lived through.

The other day I started to wonder what shape life will take as the pandemic eases (returning to ‘normal’ is not desirable). I suspect that change will happen slowly. As a consequence, it may be harder to register our increasing freedoms and be grateful for them. An idea: it seems pedantic to log every pandemic policy change as it arises, but I will try it as a way of making myself more aware of the current status and what I have to be grateful for, when it finally arrives.

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Pandemic policy update: 14 October

Today’s national pandemic policy, in place since 14 October:

Status: Partial Lockdown

• work from home if possible
• masks to be worn in indoor spaces
• limit travel
• maximum of 3 visitors to your home in one day
• no more than 4 people can form a group outside the home
• retail stores closed by 8pm
• no alcohol sold after 8pm
• all food and drinks establishments are closed, takeaways excepted
• museums, zoos, amusement parks by staggered appointment