Break-time. The English sip milk through a straw, crunch crisps.
I am the foreign kid, cornered by Miss Blowers, stick the tip
between your teeth. The them there this. The they them, like this.
Her tongue protrudes from her mouth like a sliver of salami. De dem dare dis. De dey dem, like dis, I repeat.
Miss Blowers holds Noddy and the Magic Rubber. Her sharp
fingernails tap the cover; rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat, rat-a-tat. Thwack.
I am crowned with Noddy. I detonate with pain and shame. The they them there this. The they them! roars Miss Blowers.
My tongue strikes, three thunderous thumps, thanks.
Back home Mama prepares borscht, slicing beetroots, carrots,
Chop, chop, chop into small. Her knife slides through red
flesh with no resistance, taps as it hits the chopping board. Don’t like bosh, says I. Not de bosh, but de borscht! says Mama. Not de borscht but the borscht and out comes my tongue.
There’s a pandemic but no one is dying. No, they are all ‘sadly dying’. The adverb ‘sadly’ is now inevitably coupled to any mention of death. Journalists, broadcasters, politicians and other famous figures have all succumbed to this trend – feigning sympathy for the deaths of unknown people as a way of distancing themselves and their audience from the grim realities of dying. It’s particularly hypocritical when UK politicians use this phrase as their lackadaisical response to the Pandemic has caused many vulnerable people to die unnecessarily. People in care homes, health workers, essential workers, disabled people and the elderly have been thrown under the bus due to lack of Personal Protective Equipment and not enough testing for the virus.
The public are struggling, not so much with social distancing and isolation but with this close up encounter with their own mortality. Uncomfortable, terrifying, unfamiliar. Death is one of the remaining great taboos in Western societies. Many people go their whole lives without witnessing a death. Death is hidden away in hospices, hospitals, care homes and the third world. Even in the midst of this pandemic I’ve been surprised how many intelligent people are convinced they could not possible die of Covid 19. They think they’re too smart, too fit, too wealthy, too young or immune because they had a bit of a cough over Christmas and eat a lot of yoghurt.
’Dead is dead’ is a phrase my father used. It sounded harsh to me as a teenager but my father knew there was little room for sentiment when it comes to dying. We are all born to die. Sooner or later, one way or another. We are flesh and blood. My father lived through Holodomor in the USSR, World War 2 and life as a refugee. He certainly knew about death.
We do not help ourselves by hiding away from the truth. The way we use language is important.
Here are some alternative phrases and colloquialisms for dying:-
pop your clogs; kick the bucket; drop dead; snuff out; expire; breathe your last; depart this life; dead as a door nail; launched into eternity; gone to Davy Jones’s locker (drowning); pushing up the daisies; one’s race being run; shuffle of this mortal coil; peg out; hop the twig; slip one’s cable; close one’s eyes; give up the ghost; pay the debt to nature; cross the Stygian ferry; to go aloft; last gasp; the swan-song…
Here’s the marvellous Leonard Cohen’s take on the inevitable with his powerful song Who by Fire:-
Picking blackberries from hedgerows, making daisy chains, collecting acorns, playing conkers, wandering the fields looking for rabbits, daydreaming under a tree on a sunny day. These are the precious memories of my childhood when my relationship with animals and the natural world became an integral part of my imagination and personality. I was lucky enough to grow up in the late sixties before the age of parental paranoia and health and safety fanaticism. Children were allowed personal freedom to explore the world, test their bodies and minds, learn about risk, learn about the magic of nature. But times have changed. We live in an age of fear, much of it unfounded. Kids spend more time alone with their tablets than playing outdoors. I was sad to learn that the 2008 edition of the Oxford Junior Dictionary aimed at children between the ages of 7 and 9 has omitted the following ‘nature’ words believing they are no longer relevant.
The obsolete words are catkin, brook, acorn, buttercup, blackberry, conker, holly, ivy, mistletoe. No doubt they have been replaced by technology words like database, spreadsheet, voicemail, pixel.
Contact and knowledge of the natural world are essential to a child’s artistic and spiritual development, be it poetry, visual art, music. How will future generations learn to cherish other living things and respect their environment if they don’t even have the right words?
The Scots language has a perfect word to describe winter in the north highlands. ‘Dreich’ (pronounced /dri:x/) is an adjective mostly used in relation to the weather. It translates as bleak, dull, dreary, grey, comfortless, cold, overcast, miserable. At least four of these conditions must apply for a day to qualify as truly dreich. The origins of the word come from the Middle English ‘dreig, drih’ in the sense of ‘patient, long-suffering’ and correspond to the Old Norse ‘drjugr’ – enduring and lasting.
Certainly a great deal of endurance is necessary to survive a Scottish winter. The endless grey skies and lack of light can be depressing. I find my energy levels dwindle and I just want to hibernate at home, huddled by the fire. But there’s also a strange beauty in the dreich days, a potential for change. When the mist dissolves and the clouds blow away the light will be brighter than ever. Who knows what will be revealed. Something fresh is germinating but we need to be patient. It is a transition period between the old and the new, a time that can be used for self-reflection and healing.
Here are two of my favourite dreich photographs. The first shows the section of an old gate leading to an overgrown field. The second shows the windows of a disused filling station. As well as the empty shelves you can see the reflection of a minimalist landscape. If you look really hard you might see me.
I’ve been trying to figure out why I hate hearing this phrase which seems to be everywhere these days. It’s like the ultimate cop-out, a slick way to terminate any awkward conversation and is used frequently by politicians, the police, sports people, business entrepreneurs and many pop celebrities. I’ve heard it in bleak Scandi-noir TV dramas and once or twice even caught myself saying it. It’s the title of several films, songs and books. Such a pat phrase that just slips off the tongue and makes you seem cool. But why has it become popular and what does it say about our society?
To me, “it is what it is” reeks of negativity, passivity, resignation and defeat. It’s saying, ‘this is a bad situation but there’s fuck all I can do about it”. It’s saying let’s accept reality, let’s just lie down and die. The phrase suggests that reality is a fixed, immutable state and that we have no control, we are merely passengers on an uncomfortable train to hell. I don’t know about you, but that is not the way I choose to live my life. I am not a brainwashed battery hen clucking away in a cage, pretending I am free while I’m really being processed for destruction.
OK, I agree some situations may be out of our control but there’s always something we can do to improve matters. Just because it is difficult to change something doesn’t mean we should give up. We should at least try. It’s like when people shrug and say, ‘oh well there will always be wars, it’s just human nature.’ Was it human nature to profit from slavery, rape women, exterminate disabled people, participate in blood sports and send children down the mines? These are all horrors that we no longer tolerate in a civilised society. They may still happen in secret but are considered crimes. Society can and does change. People can change.
When people say ‘it is what it is’ they are implying that a situation is fixed and knowable. This is not true. Any situation, even something simple like ‘it’s raining today’ is a matter of perception, of experience, of interpretation. Reality is in a constant state of flux and so are we. It may be raining in your street but not on the other side of town. And the rain may stop at any moment. The sun may shine the next time you look out the window. We are never 100% aware of all the facts. We only have a partial view based on limited information. For example, a loved one may be diagnosed with a terminal illness, but doctors are often wrong, the body can and does mysteriously heal itself. The sick person can adapt and learn to live successfully with illness. Life is a multiplicity of greys, a misty landscape and not a row of black and white boxes.
Take this photograph as a visual metaphor. It shows a rather elegant entrance to a building which could be a hotel, a school, a conference centre, a hospital, a law court, a police station…we may speculate on what lies beyond the doors but until we pass through them we do not know. Every day in your life is like those doors. Never make assumptions about the future. Never give up on a situation.
Next time you are tempted to say ‘it is what it is’, hang fire and try to think out of the box. Change is always possible and it sometimes happens in small steps. Humans have evolved and survived as a dominant species because of our ability to adapt. We can be clever and inventive. We can be compassionate. The day we stop doing that and become resigned to an unsatisfactory fate is the day we cease to thrive.