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Gwen Tuinman

Novelist and Advocate

Missing Pre-COVID Smiles

I visited my dentist for a cleaning, a mundane and slightly dreaded experience made all the more off putting by COVID. The hygienist welcomed me with a temperature gun to the forehead, a dousing of hand sanitizer, and a list of blanks to initial on a clipboard form. All acts were necessary for both our safety. And any one who might follow in our wake.

After the appointment ended, I returned to the reception area where four clerical staff sat in a row staring into the glow of individual computer screens behind a plexiglass wall. A voice asked, “Can I help you?” It was impossible to discern who’d spoken. No one had looked up from their screen. And their masks hid my cue–the speaker’s smile of engagement.

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The Centre Cannot Hold

Years ago, one of my daughters gave me a beautiful book, Simple Abundance by Sarah Ban Breathnach. I wasn’t feeling well at the time and the daily readings lifted me. Today I flipped to a passage that reflected on feelings of being “spaced out” and “out of kilter”. Breathnach attributed this being uncentred within. “The centre is not holding,” is how she put it.

Talk of centres not holding made me think of Joan Didion (1934-2005). In recent months, I watched a documentary, by her nephew, called The Centre Will Not Hold. I sensed gravity in the words, interpreted centre to mean inner strength. The frailty of her physical body, in later years, brought to mind the final tenacious leaf that clings to its branch in spite of November winds. The film walks the viewer through Didion’s remarkable career as journalist and author, and the personal tragedies of having survived both her husband and daughter. Winter cruelly buffeted Didion, but for her to have carried on and written books like The Year of Magical Thinking, I can’t help thinking her centre did hold.

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Sustaining Creative Focus

Focus is tough to maintain at the best of times. During this tumultuous period, it’s even more challenging to free our minds from distraction, so our imaginations can run free. This barrier to creativity isn’t new. After renowned English novelist and poet, Charlotte Brontë accepted a teaching position at Roe Head School for girls, (1835-1838), she too grappled with a steep reduction in creative focus. She wrote to a poet laureate in hopes of inspirational advice, and received a reply advising that she “take care of over-excitement, and endeavour to keep a quiet mind.”

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