This year – for me and millions of others throughout the world – has been a year like no other. The litany of challenges was somewhat unprecedented in recent human history and included:
the early extended lockdown due to Covid that limited our social interaction and the loss of so many loved ones due to this vile disease; the spread of the Delta variant of coronavirus; the discovery and rapid spread of the Omicron variant; the sudden and tragic end to many years of military intervention in Afghanistan and the continuing and increasing number of refugees seeking help here and throughout the world; constant political upheaval; threatening environmental catastrophes from wildfires to tornadoes to global warming; and much, much more.
As I look back at the past year in abject horror, I am reminded of the 1942 Thornton Wilder play, called The Skin of Our Teeth, in which the Antrobus family, in the space of a two-hour drama, survives major catastrophes such as the Ice Age, World Wars, the Great Flood, the Napoleonic Wars and other societal shocks.
Their maid, at one early point during the Ice Age, announces “it is so cold the dogs are sticking to the sidewalks and the world is at sixes and sevens”. Wilder wrote this Pulitzer Prize winning play during the Second World War when the world really was at sixes and sevens with no end in sight.
Throughout history, humans have looked to our poets, playwrights, philosophers and other great artists to help us make sense of the world.
During a very difficult time in my own life, I recall playing a small part in a college performance of a 1976 production of William Saroyan’s The Time of Your Life, a play that was also written during the Second World War.
The following lines provided the poetry that stiffened my spine following a bitter divorce that I experienced at a very young age: “In the time of your life, live – so that in good time there shall be no ugliness or death for yourself or for any life your life touches. Seek goodness everywhere, and when it is found, bring it out of its hiding place and let it be free and unashamed… In the time of your life, live so that in that wondrous time you shall not add to the misery and sorrow of the world, but shall smile to the absolute delight and mystery of it.”
Therefore, I have followed Mr Saroyan’s wise counsel and found many more reasons to smile at the absolute delight and mystery of life this past year to try and counter-balance the travails we have also experienced.
During the past year, I have been blessed with this garden of earthly delights:
a grandchild smiling with pride and confidence as he performs in his first Christmas play; a physically healthy body and mind; the increasing opportunity to travel to see long-absent friends and family; experiencing the unique and rare natural beauty of Scotland from Orkney to the Borders and beyond; the savoury smells and sweet tastes emerging on a daily basis from our kitchen; the friendship and companionship from a long marriage to a loving woman who still finds me interesting and the successful and loving bairn we raised together; the civic and political leadership throughout Scotland that is working hard to create a fairer, more equal and just society for all of our citizens; the rapid discovery and mass distribution of millions of dosages of life-saving vaccines; the efforts of our younger citizens throughout the world to create a more sustainable world for all of us through their environmental activism; and the unconditional love and kindness of longtime friends and even strangers as I suffered from depression related to loss and uncertainty.
In Wilder’s play, the maid is told by her employer during the Ice Age to quickly stoke the diminishing hearth by burning furniture – she even asks the audience to pass their chairs up to the stage for kindling – in order to burn everything “except the Shakespeare” to produce enough warmth to ensure the survival of their family during this difficult time.
As we prepare to once again celebrate the 263rd birthday of Scotland’s national bard Robert Burns, we may find even greater sustenance to meet the challenges of the new year through his powerful verse.
In 1786, upon his first visit to our capital city, Burns wrote these immortal words in his Address to Edinburgh:
“Edina! Scotia’s darling seat!
All hail thy palaces and tow’rs,
Where once beneath a Monarch’s feat,
Sat Legislation’s sov’reign pow’rs!
From marking wildly – scatt’red flow’rs,
As on the banks of Ayr I stray’d,
And singing, lone, the ling’ring hours,
I shelter in thy honour’ed shade.”
Perhaps we should raise our sights in the early days of the new year, as did Burns, in order to discover new palaces, towers and temples of goodness within ourselves and others as we welcome 2022 with hope, ambition and a renewed commitment to cherish all that we have to be thankful for.
Then we might also discover a deeper appreciation for our poets, playwrights and philosophers whose words may help us find new ways to shelter in the honoured shade of better times to come.