Siege Diaries 4/3/2020


My entire life, I have held back on forming deep attachments with other people, out of a fear of getting hurt.  It’s not that I don’t make and enjoy friends.  It’s not that I don’t care about others.  It’s more that I have always found a comfort zone in being an observer, a commenter from afar, rather than in a close, ongoing connection beyond the superficial   Social media has, in recent years, augmented and enabled this tendency.  Reading updates on Facebook has allowed me the illusion of being involved in the lives of others, in expressing caring and affection without the fear of getting hurt, or of exposing vulnerabilities in my soul.

But the situation we’re now in is punching through that wall.  If I sit back and observe, taking in all of the awful news that arrives each day, I am finding myself paralyzed by my inability to change any of it, and it sends me into a spiral of despair and fear.  Each time that has happened, I pull myself out of it by looking around my home and confirming that I am as safe as I can be.  But that by itself does nothing for my anxieties, because the forces at work in the world are beyond me.  I cannot touch those who foolishly decide to ignore facts.  I cannot combat evil or cruelty at the macro level.  So what can I do?

When I first started these diaries, I wrote–rather theoretically–about the struggle ahead.  Most of that struggle is still ahead, and I am tired–and it’s easy to look around me and beat myself up for my lack of resiliency.  Like, I am sure, many others, I find myself at times during the day wondering whether life is worth living any more–that “flight” response kicking in because the “fight” has been exhausted in frustration in not being able to “do anything.”

This morning, I watched a concert of Shostakovich’s 5th symphony, recorded a couple of years ago by the St. Petersburg Philharmonic in a concert held on the composer’s birthday.  The performance took place in the same hall where the premiere took place in November, 1937, and was played by the same orchestra.  It was hard not to hear the echoes of that premiere, in which listeners wept publicly during the third movement and gave the work a half-hour-long ovation, with conductor Evgeny Mravinsky lifting the score up in recognition of Shostakovich’s achievement.   This despite the disfavour Shostakovich had been in for several years for being a “formalist’, and most importantly, this despite the premiere taking place during the height of Stalin’s Terror.  Every person at that premiere had likely had a friend disappear;  every one of them likely feared for their own life.  Shostakovich was among them–it’s said that during particularly anxious nights, he’d wait outside his flat with a packed suitcase so that if the authorities took him away, he would not awaken his family. And yet, he still found a way to communicate all these emotions in music that provided a kind of catharsis for those who heard it.

Shostakovich in many ways is remembered for his public persona –shy, intensely nervous, fidgety, chain-smoking, willing to read statements written for him by Soviet leaders to protect himself and those he loved.  But his friends describe someone altogether different–someone who was absolutely devoted to his family and loyal to his friends, who regularly tried to use his influence to help people in need behind the scenes.  Among friends, he was sociable, relaxed, with a wicked sense of humour, a love for literature, a passion for soccer, and a weakness for playing cards.  His students adored him.  The music was often for these people, first and foremost, who could hear and understand his musical language, but it is clear that that musical language was and is widely understood by anyone who understands its context.

I lack the genius of Shostakovich in any of my endeavours, but there is so much I see in him that I see in myself, both the admirable and less-admirable traits.  And listening to that third movement again today, I had a realization of what it was that allowed him to endure through dark times:  engagement with those who cared about him and who he cared about.  He had no control over the politics of the Soviet Union, and Stalin’s Terror was so random there was little he could say or do about it, either.  What he could do is to be himself–even if he had to conceal it–and to return the loyalty and love of those who extended it to him even in times of danger.

And that is it right there. There is only so much I can do for the world, and just staying in is, at this point, really about the extent of it (although I’m going to spend some time this weekend making masks or other related supplies to donate to people requesting them).  But I absolutely can do something that has always been hard for me — ignore that part of my heart that keeps me from reaching out because of a fear of getting hurt.  My friends will not hurt me.  I trust them.  And I love them, and want them to be safe, and to know that they are special to me.  I don’t say words like those that often–I’ve too often let them go unsaid, believing actions were more powerful than words.  But right now, words ARE actions.

So, for my friends–don’t be surprised if I send you a short message in the coming days to check in.  There’s no obligation to have a long conversation, but I will be there if you want to talk, whether it’s just silly small talk or about scarier topics.  Being able to listen is my privilege. And there is the benefit of solidarity–but with the knowledge that each individual should be loved, should feel needed and valued in this world.  Needful words should be said, and repeated, in the moment, now. Not stored away for tomorrow, perhaps to be forgotten.

In the immortal lyrics of Neil Peart, who never wrote a true love song, but often wrote about love:

And the men who hold high places
Must be the ones who start
To mold a new reality
Closer to the heart
Closer to the heart
The blacksmith and the artist
Reflect it in their art
They forge their creativity
Closer to the heart
Yes, closer to the heart
Philosophers and plowmen
Each must know his part
To sow a new mentality
Closer to the heart
Yes, closer to the heart
You can be the captain
And I will draw the chart
Sailing into destiny
Closer to the heart
As I write this, the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, is speaking, and I am comforted that here, in this time of trouble, the “men who hold high places” in this country are indeed guided by the new reality that must draw all closer to the heart.