One of my favourite folk tales is called A Story Short. It's about a storyteller who is starving, and goes to the castle to trade a story for a meal. When he gets there he sees the cook refusing to help a beggar, so he tricks the cook into feeding both him and the beggar. When the cook realizes he's been tricked, he takes the storyteller before the king for judgement. The king is amused and, for punishment, he tells the storyteller he has to tell him a story every night for a year and a day, but if he runs out of stories he'll be executed.
On the last day of his sentence the storyteller realizes he's run out of stories. Desperate, he wanders the palace trying to think up a story, when he encounters the beggar in the garden. The beggar is secretly a magician, and tricks the storyteller into gambling away his fortune, and his wife, and then his life. When he loses the final wager, the beggar turns him into a flea and he goes on adventures with the beggar. Finally, through a strange twist, he's turned back into a man, and it's time for him to tell his last story. Mournfully, he tells the king he had no time that day to think up a story, it was too full of improbable events; he tells the king about his day, and the King announces it was the best story he's ever heard. So, of course, the Storyteller survives his punishment.
The State of Things, Generally
The quote, attributed to a tweet by Scottish author Damian Barr, went viral last April after the world shut down in an attempt to curtail the spread of the Coronavirus. For myself, it summed up the simple truth that even though the global crisis has inescapably impacted everyone, no two experiences are alike, and we all deserve compassion.
If You Could See My Boat
I wonder what you would think if you caught a glimpse into my boat. Sometimes it feels like an overfull canoe, in danger of sinking, and I'm furiously bailing, but my bucket has a hole in it. Sometimes it feels like a life raft, we've barely escaped danger and I'm grateful just to have my head above water. Usually, it veers dangerously between the two in any given week.
In my head I'm a multi-passionate entrepreneur - a dance teacher in a growing company, an online marketing specialist, and a freelance writer. In reality, most of my eggs were in the teaching basket, with writing and marketing limited to jobs for people and projects I really like. But, when the new restrictions shut down dance classes, and I started working from home full time, I had no idea what kind of challenges I'd face trying to pivot to a completely online based income.
Shortly after my country asked everyone to self-isolate, my brother and his family moved in with me. In the interest of shock value I'm going to be explicit - my brother, his wife, and their five children (all under the age of ten) moved into the house I was renting from my parents. Soon after that my Dad lost his job in Toronto, and he and my Mum moved back home, too. By the end of April there were ten of us living in a five bedroom home. As a solitude loving introvert, let me tell you, social isolation was not what I thought it would be.
Space is at a premium when three out of five adults have to work from home, never-mind the children.
As time has gone on I've become more grateful, and more frustrated. I don't do well with limited physical activity. I'm used to several hours a day of fairly rigorous exercise. Corona had me trading that for around nine hours a day of sedentary online work, plus young children who have little to no volume control when they wake up at five in the A.M. Suddenly my sleep patterns were all over the place.
Other Boats Nearby
When we were able to start our classes again in September I was able to see the effects of the pandemic on other boats. My business partner/boss went into overdrive during the intervening months, marketing and doing online classes, but the biggest chunk of our advertising came from the social dance events we held every Friday night. Without those events, and with the new social distancing rules we'd implemented to keep everyone safe, it wasn't easy to fill the group classes.
One of our students lost her brother to complications due to Coronavirus, and then her brother-in-law. Others became sick themselves, and had to return to isolation. A friend of mine had to deal with threats of violence for her work as an activist. My brother was exposed to the virus and our whole family had to isolate again. A friend of Chinese heritage had her store vandalized. Friends and family are dealing with depression, anxiety, touch deprivation, loss of jobs, growing financial debt, political conflict, and racism.
We are living in a time of upheaval, and it's easy to get lost in the fog of negativity that clogs our atmosphere.
This is bad, but you've seen bad before:
When you're in the midst of the crucible, it's easy to become myopic in our belief that this is the worst it has ever been for anyone, anywhere. But there have been other epidemics. There have been other tragedies. There have been other wars. They may not have been as far reaching, or lingered as long, but if this is the first time you've ever had to deal with hardship I pity you now.
Remember Other Hard Times, and Use Those Tools to Weather the Storm
My student years at Vancouver Film School were full of... hardship. And yet, they were some of the most rewarding years of my life. It was a very lean time, financially, and in every other way except education. I was working so hard at my classes that I had no social life. After tuition and rent, I had barely enough money for a monthly transit pass, and food. Most months I managed to scrape up between $30-$80/month for groceries. There were more than a few nights of desperate tears and prayer, one especially when I realized I only had enough food for maybe two days, and there were still two weeks left in the month.
The next day, at church, I felt prompted to invite a friend over for dinner. My immediate internal response was visceral rejection - I might have laughed out loud at the idea. Are you kidding, I can't even feed myself! But after a short conversation with that friend I realized how much she needed the company, so I invited her to dinner that night. I said nothing about potluck, didn't even think of it; I used my last two potatoes, and made a thin gravy out of two of those 89cent cans of chicken soup. That, and half a bag of frozen peas made a... cozy dinner I chose not to be ashamed of. Unprompted, my friend brought over a roast. I don't know if she'd guessed how strapped I was, but I nearly broke into tears when I saw the crockpot she was carrying. I hadn't had meat in a while.
She stayed for several hours, the companionship did us both good, and the left-overs stayed with me. I don't know how the food stretched, but I made it to the end of the week.
The next Sunday I felt prompted again, and again I struggled with the idea. All I had left in my kitchen was a bag of flour, sugar, four eggs, and two cans of beans. I started out inviting one person, and ended up with two when she asked if her sister could come. I hate leaving people out, so they both came. Again, I forgot to ask if they would contribute, but they showed up with a meat pie. The left-overs stretched into the next week, too. This pattern repeated itself for weeks, sometimes with church friends, sometimes with school friends. Eventually, I got smart and started suggesting potluck dinners at my house, sometimes it was a big group, sometimes just one person, and we'd split the left-overs instead of me getting everything, but in the end I always had enough.
Don't be afraid to spend your last penny in service of another
It's counterintuitive to the point of insanity. Every time I decided to spend my last groceries on a meal with someone who needed it a very loud voice inside my head would rail against my stupidity.
These days I can't invite people over for dinner, and I'm nowhere near as short on food or money as I was then, but there are still things I can do to help others. Winter is already here, and I can't help but worry about the people living rough. A lot of them are afraid to go to the shelters because there have been outbreaks of Covid, but they have nowhere else. Some have little in the way of winter gear.
I love the tale A Story Short because it reminds me what really matters. The people in our lives may not be magicians, but they are all here for a reason, and you may be surprised at how God blesses you for your kindness. We are all so interconnected that it's difficult to separate coincidence from fate, synchronicity from destiny, and you never really know how your actions will ripple through the world.
No one really gets to choose their trials. In these tumultuous times many people are worried about having to face yet another disaster or setback, and they're praying for a break in the clouds. I don't know much with any certainty, but I do know from personal experience that the only way to weather the storm is together.
Whatever the next year brings, I know we can get through it together.