Keeping Our Best Side Out

Is keeping our best side out the same as keeping our sadness in?  

I’m not a fan of pretending to be ok when I’m not, and I certainly wouldn’t want anyone in my company to feel they had to put on an act, and pretend all’s well if it’s not. Christmas is a tough time for a lot of folks, and that’s especially true this year.

What are we do? Pueblo Blessing advises us to hang on to what is good:

Hold on to what is good, even if it is a handful of dirt.
Hold on to what you believe, even if it is a tree that stands by itself.
Hold on to what you must do, even if it is a long way from here.
Hold on to life, even if it is easier to let go.
Hold on to my hand, even if I have gone away from you.

– Pueblo Blessing

My Grandmother had a more colloquial turn of phrase which captured the same sentiment, “Keep your best side out”, she’d say. I remember asking her about this once, at a family funeral. It was a cold wintery day, apt for the occasion, the funeral was over and we were in a pub, she was in a corner, looking pensive. I asked her how she was doing, and she said, “I’m keeping my best side out”. To which I responded, “You know it’s ok to be sad, don’t you?” She looked at me, pausing for a while for theatrical effect, and then said, “And what’s wrong with doing both?”

She was right, as human’s, we can keep our best side out and still be vulnerable and emotionally honest, indeed I don’t think we can do it any other way. More often than not it is our emotional honesty that is our best and most endearing side. But we can also experience islands of playfulness, mischief and joy, through streams of sadness, and fear.

Like Samuel Beckett, the Irish playwright, she was nudging me to understand life as it is, not as I would wish it to be; life like death, for her, was never an either-or affair, it was a paradox, where seeming opposites sat side by side, as Beckett said, “You’re on Earth. There’s no cure for that.”

She was born as WWI was ending; she was crawling as the Spanish flu was raging and began walking as Christmas and Saint Nicolas were just starting to become commercial in America. She was fortunate enough to live through a time when water sanitation was a given, but also suffered the misfortunes of Tuberculosis in her community. She grew up in Limerick as it was depicted by Frank McCourt in his now-famous book, Angela’s Ashes. She went to school before they had a proper handle on smallpox eradication, despite the fact that Jenner (who discovered the cure for smallpox), in On the Origin of the Vaccine Inoculation, 1801, wrote:

the annihilation of the smallpox, the most dreadful scourge of the human species, must be the final result of this practice”.

158 more years were to pass before, in 1959 the World Health Organization (WHO) started a plan to rid the world of smallpox. Unfortunately, this global eradication campaign suffered from limited resources, the absence of universal commitment, and a shortage of vaccine donations. Hence smallpox continued to be widespread in much of the Global South up to 1966. 1977 saw the official worldwide eradication of smallpox. Smallpox was already eliminated in North America (1952) and Europe (1953).

Soon after the eradication of smallpox in Ireland, as my Grandmother became a young mother in the poverty-stricken Ireland of the 1950s, post-WWII, while the rest of Europe saw a steady decline, Ireland was still in the deadly jaws of the tuberculosis (TB) epidemic. TB was a primary cause of death up until the 1950s in Ireland, especially among those living in overcrowded tenements. Which is where my Grandmother grew up. High ceilings, fresh air, leaving your babies in their cots’ outdoors for hours on end, and seaside getaways for the rich, were all in vogue, as Nanna became a young mum.

Poverty and disease went hand in glove in those days, as they do today. I think of Nanna a lot these days, and wonder what homespun wisdom she’d offer for the times we now find ourselves in. I can at least imagine what she might offer. Her best side was her neighbourliness. She didn’t have money to gather stuff, so instead, she gathered connections. She had no time for passivity or self-pity, and so she got to know her neighbours before she needed them.

Please don’t make the mistake of assuming that she was politically naïve, she was not; as well as building her local community, she was centrally involved in lobbying for policy change. She keenly understood that there are two tools for social change, one is institutional, the other is community. She believed, as do I, we need both, and in right relationship to each other.

Because it is coming close to Christmas, I imagine she might also have something to say about gift-giving. I imagine her saying something like this: “a gift ceases to be a gift when it stops being passed on. When a gift is received as though it were just private property, it stops being a gift; it becomes a thing, that we trade, horde, throw away, devalue. Gifts are for community and community is for life”.

In the same way, gifts must circulate in our communities, air will need to circulate much more effectively in our communal spaces. In 2022 we will need to reimagine how we come together to deepen our connections, to laugh, sing, dance, and grieve, and play together in new fresh and more inclusive ways. We have done this in part before, and we will do it again, for that is the human story. Perhaps this time though, we can be more audacious, perhaps we can learn to live in a way that truly enhances each other and our Food, Energy, Soil, Water, Air and Waste (FESWAW).

Cormac McCarthy says:

you never know what worse luck your bad luck saved you from”.

There are things happening in our world that are stifling the flow of gifts, food, energy, water, air and waste, that in turn are choking us and our planet. “I can’t breathe” is a common refrain of those subject to racism, poverty, exclusion, and covid-19, indeed, if the Amazon rain forest could speak, it too would join in that chorus of global lament. It will be another few years before we can round our shoulders and look back and say, COVID-19 was a refining fire. Allowing for all the inevitable missteps, I hope we’ll look back and say, we’ve responded to this crisis in more evolved, just and wise ways than our forebears did to smallpox and TB, and because of that we and our planet are better together. In the meantime let’s try to keep our best side out.

Happy Holidays!

Cormac Russell

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1 Comment
  • Gillian Lewis

    Thanks for this Cormac, much to reflect on and like you I think of my Irish nanny and what wisdom she would have for how we navigate today. I think we are at a critical time, those connections in community were so strong at the start of this pandemic, but division and self preservation with a large amount of fatigue is creating division. Institutions are returning to less collaborative ways of working with communities and I fear we have forgotten the difference it can make when we work together. I’m not sure what is ahead for our communities never mind the planet, it’s tough out there but we’ll take your granny’s advice and also aspire to more.

    December 25, 2021 at 1:47 pm

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