Life in Spain with the Coronavirus

Between March 12-17 Spain saw coronavirus cases rocket from 3,146 to 11,178. In those five days my husband, Chris, lost his job and our plans to move were put on indefinite hold. Normal life distorted, then vanished, as the government banned travel, locked down the country, and put the police under military control.

Wednesday, March 11

The first broad hint that things were accelerating towards the unknown was when my friend Maria offered an elbow-bump instead of the usual Spanish greeting of a hug and two kisses: for coronvirus, she caroled.

Other countries judge crises by politicians’ statements or the somberness of news anchors. In Spain, EXTRAORDINARY CIRCUMSTANCES are when people don’t hug and kiss at least twice in a two-minute conversation.

I teach English at an academy and private school in A Coruna, Galicia. Tucked in the northwest corner of Spain, daily life in Galicia feels remote from the bustle of Madrid and Barcelona, or the sun-bleached, tourist-swarmed costas. Suddenly, it wasn’t remote enough.

Coruna’s first coronavirus case, confirmed on March 6, was a man from Madrid who came to the city for a job interview. In the subsequent days the word had become a taunt among my younger students – he has coronavirus! No, she has coronavirus!

The Spanish pronunciation, coh-roh-nuh-vee-rus, is gently musical. It chimed in snippets of conversation on the street, in bus-stop chatter, in the rapid dialogue between our secretary and parents killing time while they waited.

On the bus ride home, I mentally reviewed our weekend agenda: clean, pack, pick up rental car and welcome a house-sitter on Thursday; set off early Friday to make the 1,000km trip to Valencia; spend Saturday unpacking in our new home; fly back to Galicia Sunday so I could be at work the next day.

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Photo by Vonecia Carswell on Unsplash

Thursday, March 12

Chris woke me early: “You shouldn’t go to work and I don’t think we should fly.”

He’d been up all night reading about coronavirus, watching the case-count tick higher.

By the time coffee had brewed, I’d called in sick, messaged the house-sitter to cancel: It would be awful if something happened while you were here and they closed the border.

At the time, this seemed about as likely as another moon landing.

I went to the grocery store and piled a cart with hand soap, gloves, toilet bleach, rice, dried beans, peanut butter, potatoes, zucchini, peppers, cheese, wine, water. The only notable out-of-stock item was rubbing alcohol.

Chris and I sketched a new plan: pick up a van Sunday, load what we could, leave first thing Monday for Valencia. Two of our three cats would travel with Chris, I’d follow him in our car with the other. “It feels like fleeing a burning building,” I sad. But we agreed that if we had to get stuck somewhere, which seemed increasingly likely, better Mediterranean sun than Galician rain.

We’ll be back as soon it’s over,” he assured me.

Friday, March 13

Galicia announced it would close schools from Monday. My boss sent a text saying the academy was still open and he wanted to offer childcare service in the coming week. “Very few kids came yesterday,” he noted. “We can probably combine classes.”

We went for a walk, following our usual route along one-lane country roads, past small farms and the curious stares of knock-kneed lambs and cud-chewing cows. The neighbor’s dogs, a little black mutt and a Tibetan spaniel, ran to greet us.

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Photo by Jayden Brand on Unsplash

Saturday, March 14

Shops close on Sundays, so we went into the village to pick up a few things. Chris took one look at the supermarket parking lot and over-spill of vehicles lining the streets and shook his head.

Instead, we went to Razo. A noted surf spot, the beach is usually busy even in winter, but it was deserted apart from gulls. We walked onto the clean white sand, putting up our hoods against the keen Atlantic wind, and watched turquoise water curl into foaming breakers. Driving back past stubbled cornfields, patches of bushy-headed kale, neat houses hedged with purple blue and white hydrangeas, I wondered if we’d see this again.

We stopped at our friend Ramon’s wine shop – texting first to say we would were observing social distance. We often spend Friday evenings there, clustered around a barrel that serves as a table, drinking red wine, carving up cheese and empanadas, yakking about politics or music. This time, Ramon eschewed the usual kisses for a half-bow. We had a drink, bought two five-liter boxes of wine for our new house, waved goodbye and promised to be back when we could.

Mid-afternoon, while Chris was napping, I took a break from writing and looked at my phone: Spain’s state of alarm had become a state of emergency.

From the outside, Spain looks homogeneous. In reality, it is a complex and not always congenial patchwork of 50 provinces, 17 autonomous communities, and several co-official languages. The public health system is administered independently in each community so there was no coordinated response as coronavirus blossomed across the country. The state of emergency gave the federal government control of the public health service and the right to take over private healthcare as well. It also put police and security forces under military control. Suddenly, the lock-down that seemed fanciful 48 hours earlier was real. Nobody could leave home except to go to work, buy groceries, visit the doctor or pharmacy, or care for children or the elderly.

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Photo by Wes Hicks on Unsplash

Sunday, March 15

With no need pack, nothing to plan, and nowhere to go, we spend the day in a limbo that resembles tranquility. He calls the rental car place and arranges a refund. I rebook flights, trying not to think too far ahead. Chris is an audio technician. All his work has canceled. My teaching is gone for the foreseeable future; I try not to think about how quickly freelance writing will dry up.

Monday, March 16

I awoke to a voice message from a friend in Ibiza: police there are cautioning people traveling by bicycle, or more than one per vehicle. The only thing people are legally allowed to do outside is walk a dog. Within hours, ads appeared on Wallapop (a LetGo-style second-hand shopping app) offering to rent dogs out for strolls.

My LinkedIn feed was full of photos of deserted offices in Madrid and Barcelona tagged #yomequedoencasa (#istayhome). National radio played The Police ‘Don’t Stand so Close to Me’ and the DJs repeated “stay home”. Friends sent snapshots of deserted streets, parks, playgrounds. The cats follow us everywhere, as if they knew something was wrong.

Tuesday, March 17

More out of curiosity than need, I went to the grocery story at 9AM. A car pulled in behind me and a couple in matching lavender latex gloves got out. Signs were taped to the floor and at eye-level: ‘1 meter between people’. Strips of tape marked the distance in the checkout lanes. Some of the staff were wearing gloves, some filtered face masks, some both, some neither. The store filled as I restocked vegetables and wine, grabbed the lone bottle of rubbing alcohol on the shelf. Most people were elderly and seemed unconcerned; a younger woman in multi-colored platform sneakers wore a surgical mask and gloves; another hiked her scarf over her face on entering the store, as if coronavirus were a sandstorm.

Back home, Chris and I pulled on boots and tramped through the long grass behind the house. Our cats scampered along, breaking off to chase butterflies and bees. Pink camellia blossoms littered the ground, the olive tree shimmered silver, creamy flowers clustered on the pear tree’s gnarled limbs. We stood facing the sun, absorbing energy for whatever the next days bring.

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Photo by Paul Trienekens on Unsplash

 

Embodying Empathy

It is apropos that I missed posting last week due to lack of sleep. My tiny black ninja cat decided that 2:30AM was an excellent time to sit on my pillow and conduct intensive grooming. If you’ve ever had a cat bathing in your ear, you’ll understand why this put a kink in my sleep schedule.

A day later, Chris had a trip so we were up at 5AM to get him to the train station. Then something came up workwise and I had to get up early the following day to write.

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Photo by Hannah Troupe on Unsplash

Just a normal conflux of niggles and responsibilities, in other words, but enough to throw my system into a spin. My mouth was dry, my head ached, I yelled at the cats for getting underfoot. A layer of chill wrapped me that had nothing to do with the cold, damp day. Every small task was aggravating, painful, like a shoe-bound pebble that swells with each step.

As an adult with, heaven help us, responsibilities, it is up to me to negotiate sleep deprivation without becoming a danger to myself or others. Babies, on the other hand, are immune from expectations about how they should act when they are tired. Well into childhood, Richter scale meltdowns are excused because “s/he’s tired”. Rightly so. Being tired is harmful to health. According to the International Journal of Endocrinology, “sleep deprivation and sleep disorders may have profound metabolic and cardiovascular implications.” It is, “adversely affects the physical wellbeing and quality of life of participants, demonstrated in bad mood, somnolence, and tiredness” (Journal of Family Medicine Primary Care).

Babies, kids, are responding appropriately when they have a tiredness-induced crying jag or temper tantrum; their bodies need rest and are wired to seek it at whatever cost to adult sanity. This is reasonable.

What isn’t is that as adults we expect/are expected to have a different – unnatural – relationship to sleep. Instead of acceeding to our physical needs, we are supposed to keep going, as if our bodies are wrong for needing what they need.

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Photo by Carl Heyerdahl on Unsplash

Cultural deprivation

There is a certain cultural tendency to fetizishation of work at the expense of sleep. Margaret Thatcher famously slept four hours a night. “For the Iron Lady four hours was a badge of almost superhuman strength. It fits the narrative of the “warrior” prime minister…” wrote Tom de Castella in a BBC News Magazine piece. The same article noted that Trump claims to only sleep three hours a night.

That suggests something with deep implications.

As a baby, we are begged to sleep; as a small child, we are made to sleep; as an older child/adolescent we still have bedtimes or curfews. As a young adult, we have the giddy freedom of being able to stay up as late as we want – and do all sorts of dumb things as a result. Then, at some invisible point, we suddenly find ourselves expected to function perfectly, whether we’ve slept or not. We’re running to stand still and those bitterly resented childhood naps sound idyllic.

This was my experience, in any case, with minor variations. When I was very small and expected to take an afternoon nap I’d lie awake, telling myself stories to pass the time. Staying up till midnight was a once-a-year occasion, a thrilling New Year’s Eve pressed up against a space heater, eating Planter’s Honey Roasted Peanuts, turning pages with sticky-sweet fingers until the clock reached 12.

When I was a young adult, immersed in music and club culture, midnight was a starting rather than an end point. The delirium of those years seemed, at the time, like part of the fun. Now, I feel anxiety amounting to dread at the thought of being out at two or three in the morning, much less four or five.

Unrested = unhinged

When duty and distraction combines to keep me from sleeping my first reaction is anger. And, because I’m tired, it is irrational rage. I am minimally patient at the best of times; sleep-deprived, I’m plain mean. I lose the ability, or will, to see things from a different perspective, or have a sense of humor. Incidental slights – a rude driver, a slow shopper – become personal affronts.

Is it coincidence that a three-hour-a-night sleeper is unhinged and meglomaniacal? Or that a four-hour-a-night sleeper was willing to crush entire industries and thousands of lives on an ideological whim?

Trump is, and Thatcher was, remarkable for lack of empathy shading into brutality. It is horrible to witness; like a toddler’s tantrum, a sign of something amiss.

It makes sense, though, that people who deny their own basic needs are willing, even eager, to deny the needs of other. I feel bad, so why should you feel good?

A couple of years ago I had a student who responded to a prompt about homelessness with a devestating account of her own struggle with poverty, homelessness and mental ill health. It was a brave thing to write. Her conclusion shook me: “Nobody ever helped me, so I don’t think they deserve any help. If I had to do it myself, so should they.”

There is a cold, undeniable logic to her statement, but it is a building block to a society I don’t want to live in.

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Photo by Matt Collamer on Unsplash

Cultivating kindness

We have two options: value ourselves and others; or not. If we truly value ourselves, we can’t denigrate others; if we don’t value ourselves, we can’t then magically summon goodwill towards those around us. For all our intellectual capacities, we operate as physical beings. When we are rested, nourished, and secure, we are capable of being expansive, creative, contributing members of society.

If anxious, tired, and hungry, we can’t think about anything beyond meeting those immediate needs. We can scrape by for a while, but we can’t consistently deprive ourselves of essentials without getting pinched and wild-eyed.

Kindness has to begin with ourselves. Respect and compassion for self begin with taking care of our needs – without guilt or apology. Then, fortified and of sound mind, we have the capacity to care about other people.

 

Childless for Sleep’s Sake

There is a scene in J. D. Salinger’s Franny & Zooey where Zooey tells his mother that he doesn’t want to get married because he likes to sit by the window on the train, and once you’re married, you never get to sit by the window.

It expresses, rather beautifully, how my thoughts on children. To paraphrase, I don’t want to have a baby because I like to sleep, and once you have a baby you don’t sleep.

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Photo by Michal Bar Haim on Unsplash

To have or not to have: the baby question

Throughout my adult life I vacillated between wanting and not wanting children. Aged 18 I started a list of baby names. In my early 20s, immersed in London’s club scene, I barely had time to sleep, much less think about kids. Then it kicked through my senses like a police battering-ram. One of our friends fell pregnant and a crazed, logic-free longing rushed through me: I want a baby.

The only problem was, as I said to my then boyfriend in so many words, was I didn’t want his baby. In my defense, I was skunk drunk; which is no defense at all. It was a terrible thing to say and he should have dumped me on the spot.

Whether to it’s his credit, he didn’t, and our relationship stumbled along for a few months. Then I gathered my courage, said what had to be said, and moved to out of the country. At the time, it seemed necessary; now, it suggests a penchant for self-dramatization that does me no credit.

Absorbed in a new life in Ibiza, I didn’t think much about getting into another relationship. The undertone hum of wanting a baby remained, though, reinforced by the Noughties cult of the yummy mummy, epitomized by Kate Moss. Ibiza’s beaches were dotted with plenty of stunning taut, topless mamas romping with catalog-cute toddlers. Even if I hadn’t wanted kids sheer lifestyle envy would have gotten me.

Still, with no potential baby daddy, and a freelance journalist’s intermittent wage, having a child remained an abstraction.

At 32, in a relationship, the baby name list I had been cultivating for over a decade took on new significance. I tried names out with my partner’s surname, and mine, and double-barreled. The only grain of sand in this oyster was my boyfriend’s horror of procreation. As a 30-year-old who lived on Fanta and pizza, and spent hours at a time playing Mario Kart, he felt their was enough youthful energy in the house.

Once again, a case of not your baby.

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Photo by Ana Tablas on Unsplash

The allure of old wounds

For the next couple of years friends and I discussed, semi-seriously, having children as lone parents. One dear friend said she’d nearby and help out (unlike most of these offers, I think she meant it). Another, already a mother, promised me it would be worth it. My ever-supportive sister said she thought I’d be a good mother.

It was this idea, perhaps, more than anything, that kept me hooked – the chance to be a good mother. My sister and I were not blessed with good parents. We, and our brothers, had to find our way through a fog of repression and emotional abuse. In a practical sense, we were on our own from adolescence, working minimum wage jobs while going to school, trying to secure our escape.

Time, distance and my father’s death had helped me be a bit philosophical. Finally, I could see my parents as wounded souls whose sins of omission and commission were grounded in unhealed traumas. Part of wanting to have a baby was wanting to prove it is possible to overcome a crappy childhood. Being a good mother would give me license to keep a little of the familiar old anger.

Axiomatically, this is a poor motive, but no worse than any other reason to have a child.

The right man

When I met my now-husband, one of the first things he told me was he never wanted to have kids. This conversation unsettled me but I figured he would be persuadable.

As our relationship developed, it was me who was persuaded.

Strands wove together, revealing a pattern unseen in earlier years.

Having a child is marketed (particularly to women) as a shortcut to fulfillment, an elevator ride to realms of higher purpose. Having a child is a route to social approbation, as long as you’re a well-educated, middle-class (passing) white cis-woman, as I am. Having a child is supposed to buy entry to some Rockwellian fantasy of family harmony.

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Photo by Clem Onojeghuo on Unsplash

Why sleep matters

What I found in the affection, intimacy and adventure of our partnership is that these things thrive in the presence of freedom, resources and – above all – sleep.

The toughest moments of our relationship have been when work and travel schedules left us bone-tired. I learned the hard way that it is obscenely difficult to be a nice person when you’re exhausted. And when you can’t be nice to your partner, things get rough.

Going through relatively mild sleep disruption warned me, vividly, that I’m not built for protracted sleep deprivation. More than a night or two of curtailed sleep is a kick in the face of my mental health in the face. My moods start swinging like a clobbered piñata, my sense of humor vanishes, and my self-control withers – freeing the snider, sadder parts of my personality to wreck havoc. This is consistent with studies that show insomnia is a causal factor in mental health problems.

The idea of chronic sleep deprivation – recent research published in the journal Sleep shows that women’s quality and quantity of sleep suffer for six years after having their first child – is terrifying.

Perhaps choosing to not have children because I like to sleep sounds as petty as not marrying for the sake of sitting by the window. If so, I’m okay with that.

To be a good parent, you have to know yourself – and that includes knowing your limits and being realistic about your resources. It would be a disfavor to a hypothetical child, and to my real and cherished marriage, to do something that would irrevocably change the basis on which it operates.

***

Do Less, Accomplish More

Sleeping in

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Photo by Zohre Nemati on Unsplash

Over the holiday period I’ve fallen into the habit of sleeping till 9 or 9:30 – some 90 minutes longer than my usual routine. For the pats few days, I set my alarm for the normal hour, but hit the off-button and go back to sleep. This feels indulgent, borderline sinful, most certainly lazy.

On the night of 1 January, my husband and I settled in to watch The Big Lebowski.

It was an individual favorite when we met; since then, it has become a totem for our relationship – a source of private idiom and in-jokes on loop.

The opening voice-over informs us that the Dude was a lazy man. What a contrast, I thought, to the expectations a new year brings.

Resolutions

New Year arrives with a cultural imperative to improve. What are your new year’s resolutions?

The noun resolution, in this sense, alludes to a determined wish, or decision.

It is worth remembering that another definition of resolution is ending, or conclusion.

Linguistically, all unwitting, we start the new year by demanding conclusions.

Is it any wonder they fail to materialize?

If there is one thing writing teaches it is that you cannot force a conclusion. They are reached by patience, effort and serendipity.

Let it be

The Big Lebowski is a tale of serendipity.

Sheer coincidence brings together two characters who clumsily try to exploit their chance encounter. The lostness of this cause is what makes the film funny; the universality of the impulse to connive and manipulate makes it poignant.

That The Dude comes off better in the end has nothing to do with effort and everything to do with his ability to, in moments of crisis, tune out and go bowling.

The other foot

As a stone type A, with a self-perpetuating to-do list I love Jeff Bridge’s character because The Dude is my antithesis.

Worry… it’s how I stay in shape, poet Maggie Smith writes in ‘Let’s not begin’.

Me too.

I crave resolutions – the conclusion kind – and if one isn’t plain I’ll fret all day and toss and turn all night, trying to wrestle one into being. If I can’t see how a thing will turn out, I’ll manufacture an ending, toss a match to see what sparks.

Wearing out

This leads to plenty of fractured nights, followed by days where tiredness clouds my senses like swamp gas. The demons of weariness are legion: irritability, forgetfulness, poor hand-eye coordination, binge eating, anxiety, tearfulness. If I get less than eight or, preferably, nine hours, they swarm – shattering my mood, judgment and productivity.

Given my love of ticking items off a list, you’d think that alone would be enough to ensure I got enough rest, but something in my wiring (Puritan genes + protestant upbringing perhaps) gibes me to try harder.

One of the first rational things lost when I’m tired is the ability to admit I need a break.

Instead, I try to fix myself by doing more.

I’m almost done…”

My husband has heard these words too many times to count. They are always a lie. He’s learned to spot them for what they are: a self-sabotaging effort to put my life and spirit in order by crossing off one more line on my to-do list.

Being the partner of a perpetual fixer must be a massive drag. The nearest I got was a long-running infatuation with a man who refused to date me because he had to much to do. At the time, I thought it was a terrible, bogus excuse. We stayed friends, though, and now I’m grateful to have someone who understands the ridiculous compulsion to seek solace in busy-ness.

Even The Dude falls into this trap, lamenting that his thinking had gotten very uptight.

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Photo by Tiago B on Unsplash

Corridors without doors

When I get tired, my brain ceases to create and wallows in endless grooves. Instead of romping through fields of possibility, it marches along grim, fluorescent-lit corridors without doors. Inspiration and joy are things that happen to other people, in other places; for me, the grindstone, the factory clock; the slow treadmill.

This is lethal for my writing, and sense of self.

As someone who struggles to stay ahead of clinical depression, self-care is essential. Skimping on sleep is the first domino; next come exercise, eating, socializing, work, creating. Then the need to do more panic kicks in and flattens what is left of a painstakingly built structure.

Do less, accomplish more

My guilt at “over”-sleeping is rooted in a real fear that it’ll turn me lazy, like my good friend The Dude. Life is no movie, my brain chides. In the real world, the other Lebowski was right – you gotta get a job.

Yet this fixation with being busy is, as many wise souls have remarked, antithetical to actual accomplishment. Presenteeism is malingering for suck-ups. Most of the things I busy myself with, from house cleaning to answering email, have little bearing on the things that bring me satisfaction and joy. These things – reading, writing, time with my husband – get shoved into corners and fed scraps of my energy and attention.

Fail again

Instead of resolutions, I made a list of new year’s goals. It felt good to write them down, better to fantasize about completing them.

The next day, I woke under a cloud: sad, drained, mind blank. After drinking coffee, I got back into bed and cried for no explicable reason.

It felt like I’d put too much of myself on that page. Once again, I was looking for validation in tasks, instead of being open to what a new year might bring.

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Photo by Stijn te Strake on Unsplash

Start simple

Later, my husband and I went for a walk. The sky was bright and the air smelled of wood smoke and bales of sweet straw. We said hello to cows and picked windfall apples. The world began to resume its correct proportions. Cresting another hill, I realized it was time to edit the new year’s goals: sleep, move, eat, love. Everything else will come.

How will you honor yourself this year? 

On Integrity

Jenny Odell, in her manifesto: How to do nothing: Resisting the attention economy (the book), quotes Mark Zuckerberg saying: “The days of you having a different image for your work friends or co-workers and the other people you know are probably coming to an end… having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

Integrity is a word that means a lot to me, so this claim caught my eye.

A few years ago I sat down to work out what attracts me to my (superficially) disparate friends. Most them to I met as an adult, so childhood bonds weren’t it. Apart from the odd freelance collaboration, none are or were colleagues. We’re scattered across continents and time zones, so it isn’t proximity. And we don’t always see eye to eye on culture and aesthetics. So what is it I look for in a friend?

Three things, it turns out: integrity, generosity, and curiosity.

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Photo by ricke 76 on Unsplash

Integrity can be hard to define. Joan Didion writes (in On Self-respect) that the word “character” has been unfairly relegated to describing homely children and unsuccessful political candidates. Similarly, “integrity” has been softened into a synonym for ‘honesty’, a bloodless approbation for people who don’t fiddle their taxes.

My guess is Zuckerberg used it in this sense. In his two-dimensional, blue-bordered world, having more than one way of relating is dishonest. By his definition, Zuckerberg has mounds of integrity as his smug, Bond-villain-bland facade rarely flickers.

That’s not my idea of integrity. Nor a quality any of my friends share – nor one I’d value.

Integrity, the kind that makes my synapses pop when I get near someone who has it, is internal consistency. People who have it are like those wobbly toys you can shove over in any direction and they always right themselves. Integrity is the weight in the centre, the internal gravity that keeps a person true to themselves.

Plants are a wonderful example of internal consistency that is not rigid. Let’s take wheat. When I left southern Spain a few weeks ago the wheat fields were already dry and bleached to pale gold. In the north, they are still fresh, damp, and bright green. Neither gold nor green is dishonest, it is simply responding to its environment according to the mandates of its deeper purpose: which is to grow and ripen.

 

My friends have grown. They’ve changed careers, faiths, relationships, locations, hobbies. They are not the people they were. Yet, they are. Because – integrity.

They have internal consistency. All the external changes, however far-reaching, arise from deep roots of character (in the full, Didion-endorsed sense of the word). The qualities of their integrities (which are legion) include self-awareness, critical thinking, dark humour and responsibility. Whatever they do, or don’t, I can count on them to be true to these fundamentals.

My husband often admiringly quotes a friend who said: “I may have low morals but I have high ethics.” This gets to the heart of why integrity matters.

Morals are something imposed from outside; one obeys out of fear or a desire to please. Ethics, though, are a manifestation of integrity. Internal consistency creates an intrinsic framework for relating to others, which is expressed as ethics.

“Ah!” you say. “But without morality, what will police integrity? Are you saying that serial killers and child abusers should be allowed their internal consistency?”

Right. That.

Needless to say: of course not. The point of integrity is that it is internal – a relationship to oneself. People who exploit and abuse have relinquished the relationship to self in favour of externalising their anger, disappointment, etc. They have traded the possibility of integrity for the ugly, fleeting gratification of brutality. They are ethical failures. Though, tellingly, they may not be moral failures. Just look at the Catholic church cheer-leading for Fascism during and after the Spanish Civil War, or the fundamentalist Christians murdering doctors.

Letting someone else think for you, even in the name of “morality” makes violence more, not less, likely. As Germaine Greer wrote in The Female Eunuch:

To abdicate one’s own moral understanding, to tolerate crimes against humanity, to leave everything to someone else, the father-ruler-king-computer, is the only irresponsibility. To deny that a mistake has been made when its results are chaos visible and tangible on all sides, that is irresponsibility.

One’s own moral understanding is an important phrase. It implies that we have to be aware of our fundamental beliefs. It isn’t enough to have internal consistency, we need to interrogate it. It isn’t enough to know what we do; we need to know why we do it. Self-study is a safety mechanism. It helps us articulate who we are, which then determines how we relate to others.

Self-knowledge is what prevents internal consistency from becoming routine. Without it, we can mistake superficial interests or habits for something intrinsic. When we know our foundations, we can build, tear down, rebuild. If we mistake décor for structural support, we get trapped in an unchanging space.

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Photo by Daniel Peters on Unsplash

What does it matter, integrity? (Who cares how I choose my friends?)

It matters because we live in uncertain times. I’m going to go not-very-far-out on a limb and say that many of us are, or will be, in political situations where personal integrity may be the only way to avoid abetting crimes against humanity.

I cannot look at what is happening at the U.S. southern border, specifically; or American prisons, generally; or the farce that is British “democracy”; and believe that things will work out. We may yet halt the slide to full-blown Fascism, but it won’t be by chance.

Odell also quotes from “On the Duty of Civil Disobedience” by Henry David Thoreau: “If [the law] is of such a nature that it requires you to be the agent of injustice to another, then, I say, break the law. Let your life be a counter-friction to stop the machine.”

One person of integrity can’t stop the machine. But, if we band together, our collective friction might just be enough.

This is what the Odyssey means

As we bid farewell to 2017 I’d like to share a favourite poem: ‘Trouble’ by Jack Gilbert,  and some snapshots.

Trouble | Jack Gilbert

That is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life.
The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer
in the Mediterranean mixed with
the rain and bitter cold of February
on the Riviera, everything on fire
in the violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the wrong
size for this world. Love is always
disturbing in the heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

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Unexpected

Saturday, 19 December 2015, I plotted a route around Portland’s used book stores. In the back of my sister’s red Wrangler, a box of Oregon Wine Pioneers. In the seat beside me, a show-copy, its gloss paper cover softened with wear. I hoped to sell a few copies, or inspire a few orders.IMG_20161225_115917

On my phone, a string of Tinder messages from some guy who spent Friday evening trying to cajole me out of the house to the some downtown bar. “The feet are up,” I had replied, by way of refusal. He seemed nice, though, so I agreed to meet him in Old Town at 6PM on Saturday.

The day started out sunny. I navigated between bookshops using Google maps print-outs since my phone didn’t have roaming. Clouds gathered in the afternoon. By the time I got lost on my way to my last destination, a wine distributor’s office in north east, it was raining and prematurely dark.

Driving back to the west side, I thought about heading straight home. I could message my excuses from there. Throwing in the towel by 6PM was lame, even for me. Anyway, this guy, Chris, said he had to be at work by eight. No danger of date creep.

We were meeting at the Roseland Theater, a few blocks from my mum’s apartment. I parked near her place, to have a clear line of retreat. The rain had stopped; the air was cold. On my way to the Roseland I passed a small, colourful Mexican dive.

At the theater, I stopped in bafflement. The building, the whole block, was six deep in teenage girls, a barricade of hormones and cheap perfume. How the hell was I supposed to find this guy? No point in checking my phone — no roaming.

After one full lap, I stopped and stared at the red-and-green lights twinkling high on an adjacent skyscraper. If he didn’t magically appear in the next few minutes, I’d call it a night. Almost as soon as the thought formed, someone walked toward me from the corner I just passed. Please don’t talk to me, I thought.

“Hi.”

One drink, to be polite, that’s all.

“Hi,” I replied.

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This morning Chris woke up at 4AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I dozed, intermittently aware of his restlessness.

I am tempted to say something florid like, I can’t sleep/live/breathe without him, but that would be untrue.

What I thought, as we yielded to wakefulness was, if you don’t have any expectations you won’t be disappointed. 

Anything is possible, even the absence of us. That is what makes this so precious.

I fell for him like rock tossed into a canyon (still falling). One drink, to be polite turned into three margaritas and a long kiss in the middle of that noisy Mexican dive. It turned into a relationship built on air miles: Ibiza, London, Rome, Brussels, New York, DC, Detroit, Denver, Salt Lake City, Milan, Vienna, Manchester, Glasgow.

We got married in Memphis. Adopted a cat, sold a car, moved to Spain.

All of it unexpected, none of it inevitable. Loving was a fact from the outset. What we did about it was a choice. Of all the things I learned, and am still learning, this is the most important. Life is full of surprises. What comes of them is down to us.

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