Sunday, 15 November 2020

WHAT THE SOUL NEEDS



Yesterday I was reminded how good it feels to be human. I realized the great effort I have been making to be OK during this pandemic without much touch or community. For the first time since last February, I went out to an art gallery. The National Gallery of Canada in my home town of Ottawa is open with strict Covid precautions. My friend Sylvie who is also my neighbour and I drove separately, meeting at 10am (opening time!) just inside the entrance doors. We were alone. 

Masked and whispering, we wandered through the empty rooms and hallways, eyes laser-focused on the early Canadian art before us. "Don't forget to go into the Rideau Chapel", the guard said. The sounds of a Catholic choir wafted down a hallway on my left. Here, alone but together with a multitude of invisible singers, we remembered what it is like to commune with music, to worship, to feel the solace of company. Turn the sound up. 



Sylvie and I wandered through the rooms of mostly Canadian art history, landing finally in the contemporary section. Here, we found this extraordinary installation by the South African artist, William Kentridge. I felt breathless watching this procession of life, death, redemption and ceremony unfold. These marching figures were at once, me and all of humanity.


Our weary caregiver souls need each other. And we need art to help us understand the meaning of our solitude and our togetherness, in all its messy intimacy. And like my sister Karen, the artist in our family says, this understanding has a lot to do with memory. 

And if I speak of Paradise,
then I’m speaking of my grandmother
who told me to carry it always
on my person, concealed, so
no one else would know but me.
That way they can’t steal it, she’d say.
And if life puts you under pressure,
trace its ridges in your pocket,
smell its piney scent on your handkerchief,
hum its anthem under your breath.
And if your stresses are sustained and daily,
get yourself to an empty room – be it hotel,
hostel or hovel – find a lamp
and empty your paradise onto a desk:
your white sands, green hills and fresh fish.
Shine the lamp on it like the fresh hope
of morning, and keep staring at it till you sleep.

• From A Portable Paradise by Roger Robinson (Peepal Tree, £9.99), shortlisted for the TS Eliot prize.


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