It was during the first lockdown not so long ago that I rediscovered a painting that had been right in front of my eyes for years.
With nowhere to go and nothing new to see — art galleries, along with every other public spaces out of sight, for the time being — I pulled out artist monographs off the shelf and started flipping the pages. And then I looked up: on my living room wall, a reproduction of a Jean Paul Lemieux landscape.
There’s not a lot to see in this painting. A snow-laden field, a sky of greys, and a solitary, faceless figure facing the elements standing in its midst. When I was a teenager I’d become smitten by his work and subject matter, which seemed to be at the core of the Canadian psyche, what Margaret Atwood once argued was, simply, survival. But now, Lemieux’s nondescript figure looked like all of us in this present moment, just magnified: mostly alone, in seclusion, up against all of the worst things nature can throw at you.
Moving into a second lockdown period, I found myself wondering what might sustain me this time through. And another artwork came to mind, a holiday season mural from a Christmas past. But this one, surprisingly, was an amateur work.
In fact, it was something I’d painted in the school hallway when I was 11 years old.
* * *
As with a lot of people in these last nine months of living in COVID times, I’ve found myself reminiscing on before times, when life seemed far richer, innocent and carefree. Going into the holiday season that will be devoid of the usual family and friends, pondering nostalgic moments isn’t always helpful — it’s not like you can go back and live in your past. And yet, I’ve been mulling that not all Christmases past were ideal; in fact, I had survived one that looked a lot like this year’s.
It was the year after high school. I was in Europe, and the holidays found me holed up in a remote Austrian ski village. On Christmas Eve, a small gathering with the family of the pension where I was staying. The frau of the house holding up to the light the small bottle of maple syrup I’d handed out, “Was ist das, schnapps?” Between their broken English and my few words of German, how to explain? Later, sitting by myself in an unheated cathedral hearing the carol Stille Nacht took on a special resonance, emphasis, on the silent part of the night. New Year’s Eve found me alone, a continent away from family and friends, wandering in solitude but for the voice of Bruce Cockburn playing on my Walkman. He’s singing about a similar experience, wandering around in solitude too, in an alien town’s environs, with the appropriate lament, “and you’re not even here, on the coldest night of the year.”
That old memory was encouraging for the coming season. Sure, we can do this, isolation and loneliness can be endured. But it wasn’t until I contacted an old childhood friend that another Christmas past spoke to this year in a more compelling way.
Like a lot of others lost with what to do with themselves in lockdown, I’d contemplated returning to an old hobby. I’d noticed that everyone seemed to be, oddly, getting into chess. This I could do, but, who to play with?
It’d been years since we spoke, but I figured if I could find my old chess playing nemesis Donald, we might be able to play remotely.
“Hey Donald, glad to hear your voice, it’s been too long,” I say when we connect. “I have some good news: when I searched your name, I discovered that none of the obituaries that popped up are for you! Actually, the good news is that I have the last unfinished game we played thirty years ago still on the board, and I’m finally ready to make my next move.”
“I’m sure it’s going be genius,” he declares. I know he’s mocking me. We never used chess clocks, and I always took way too long to respond to his superior game. It probably felt like 30 years to him every time it was my move.
“We shall see. You might wanna checkout this TV series everyone is talking about. It’s named after that opening strategy, The Queen’s Gambit, where there’s two white pawns facing a black one in the board’s centre — they’re not practicing social distancing — and the temptation for black is to get even closer and take the white pawn. The opening you employed several times to lure me into my eventual demise, recall?”
As we reminisce, the memory comes back.
“Donald, do you remember, it was this time of year in grade six. The teacher had asked me if I was interested in painting a Christmas mural in the school hallway. Of course I jumped at the chance to escape the classroom drudgery, but the thing was huge, at least 12 feet long, and it was a taking a long time. I asked you to help me out.”
I had painted the central image, a living room setting with a massive brick fireplace with a blazing fire, modelled on one we had at home at the time. I put in some garland and wreaths, a Christmas tree off to the side, mullioned windows spotted with frost in the corners just so… and up front a couple of cozy chairs to curl up in, à la the Friendly Giant. On a table, a stack of books to read, and on the carpet in front, the cat lounging in slumber.
“Yes, I do remember that well. You had me filling out some landscape, but when I put in some birds in the sky, you said they didn’t fit with your solemn snowy scene.”
True, I said, but there was something else that really bugged me with this mural. I pointed out the absence of people. The mural was devoid of any family or friends celebrating, and we were running out of time, we were just going to have to skip it.
Just as we were about to pack it in, the grade eight teacher Mr. Carr wandered by. “Nice job, boys” he said looking up at the piece. “What is the theme?”
What is the theme? What does he mean by that?
I’m a few years away from being taught theme in art and literature, but I’m pretty sure I’m missing something here, that painting a picture of what to me seems an idyllic sort of portrait of the holidays isn’t enough. If it were 2020 I would’ve been able to say, “uh, obviously, hygge is the theme!” But who knew there was a Danish word for coziness back then that would become a thing?
Instead, I wracked my brain, and in the best calligraphic style and Hallmark sentiment hastily scripted over the top of the mural: Have a Safe and Happy Holiday Season.
There you go, Mr. Carr. There’s your theme. This thing is done.
But inside, I said to Donald, I knew this was lame. What the hell was I thinking? What’s with the word “safe”? Did I mean to say, “Make sure your parents have their chimney cleaned and inspected annually before lighting a fire”…? Was it because last Christmas holidays, some kids had built a bobsled run on the toboggan hill, flew off and suffered concussions?
Better safe than sorry?
“Don’t be Sorry and Have an Unhappy Holiday Season.” Is that what I meant to say?
It’s now 2020. And finally, after all these years, my mural’s “theme” has a place. That room with the welcoming warmth at the hearth, completely devoid of people, family, is the one I will embrace in COVID days. Not even my kid will be in the chair beside me. Better safe than sorry.
“Um, you’re a prophet,” Donald mocks again.
We ring off after making a plan to play some chess over the holidays, but not before I note that, prophecy or not, there’s some value in nostalgia. Its purpose is to go back now and then and look around in our past, and see if there is anything we might need to take with us. It’s like leaving your hotel room, you might want to go back in and do a last check to see if you have everything.
Maybe we just found something we’ll need for this COVID Christmas.
Vincent Cherniak writes, in solitude and loneliness, in London, ON. (You can contact Vince at email@example.com)