Monday 19 April 2021

Reflections on a second Easter spent like this

This column first appeared on Malta Today

It is not easy to write a column for Easter Sunday, a time which is supposed to be about joy and renewal, when we are still caught up in a sort of hazy limbo. We’re not quite in lockdown but also not quite free to do everything we enjoy.

It is also very tempting to collapse into a heap of self-pity because, human nature being what it is, we sometimes find it easer to moan about what we are missing out on, rather than to count our many blessings.

Normally, at this time of year, many of us would have booked a spring getaway to our favourite destination, or hopped over to Gozo for a long weekend, or invited friends and family for a traditional Sunday lunch or booked a table at the latest trendy restaurant. While Christmas is the most anticipated festive season, Easter comes a close second. Holy Week is marked by Malta’s many traditional and devout Catholic rituals, complete with richly decorated Churches, pageants, processions, exhibitions, the seba’ viżti (seven visits) to churches, and many other customs which have been passed on from one generation to the next. 

We cannot deny that an intrinsic part of the religious aspect is also the socialising: Maundy Thursday, Good Friday and Easter are inextricably linked to a coming together of family and friends who often go to their home town for the occasion, so for the human connection of the extended family to have been cut short by the pandemic restrictions has been acutely felt by a lot of people.  The exchanges of chocolate Easter eggs and home-made figolli would normally take place when people go over to each other’s homes; this year many of these gifts will be dropped off with no mingling.  Residents in care homes are still pretty much isolated from the rest of society. So yes, I can understand how what we are missing out on this year has thrown so many people into despondency. 

But while we might complain that we cannot meet up with our entire family at once, we need to remember that we are still better off than those who have been cut off from their families completely because they live in another country.

Like other parts of Europe, the UK has been in a real, actual lockdown but the innovative way musicians and performers have managed to connect with those stuck at home demonstrates a certain kind of community spirit which the world badly needs (if only to balance the scales against the selfishness and egotism).  I occasionally stumble upon certain videos on social media which make me smile, and which put thing sharply into perspective.  One of these has been the uplifting “Friday’s kitchen disco” by British singer Sophie Ellis Baxter.  Surrounded by her swarm of five children who casually stroll into shot as she sings and dances in her kitchen with its homemade tinsel decorations while her husband shoots the video, Sophie has brought a ray of sunshine into many homes.  It is so real, so devoid of anything remotely pretentious or fake that it is guaranteed to warm your heart. 

Gary Barlow, formerly of Take That, also had a great idea throughout this last year with his ‘Crooner Sessions’ in which he invited not only fellow well-known performers to sing duets, but also his gifted fans who have joined him in song. It is clear proof that there are few things in the world which can reach out and touch us much as the universal language of music. 

Locally, one recent event which brought many people together was the TV production Mużika, Mużika, produced by Festivals Malta, which definitely hit all the right notes by showcasing not only new original songs in Maltese, but brought back some of our most popular veteran singers who belted out all their classics. Viewership peaked at an all time record of 100,000 on the night when singers such as the inimitable Mary Spiteri took to the stage.  There were a number of reasons why this show struck such a chord, one of which was patriotism due to the use of the Maltese language (in fact, I think new composers could learn a thing or two about how to seamlessly combine lyrics with the melody by studying the old classic compositions).  The live orchestra and the impressive stage were another contributing factor.  There was something else at play however, and as I read the comments online I realised the common thread was that of a wistful nostalgia as people recalled how old they were when this or that song had won the festival.  Nostalgia is a wonderful sentiment, and there is a soothing comfort in hearing a song which takes you back to years gone by, so no wonder this song festival made so many people happy.  The spontaneous public feedback was a moving tribute to our musical history and it made me wonder why our national station has never produced a weekly variety show in which it invites singers to come back and perform alongside new performers.  The Italians have this down to a fine art, and we could learn something from the way they show the utmost respect and almost reverence towards their most beloved singers. There is definitely a niche there waiting to be filled, as the ratings amply showed. 

If music has been essential for our spirits during this year, then films and TV series have also kept us going, especially as a form of escapism.  While the range of genres is infinite depending on one’s mood at the time, sometimes a gritty story steeped in realism is important to keep ourselves from wallowing too much in our own misery.  

Once in a while, a film comes along which speaks to our very beings and makes us question what is really important. Nomadland was such a film. It tells the story of a woman, Fern, who has lost everything, first her job when the local plant closes down bringing devastation to the whole town, then her husband passes away, and finally she loses her home.  She ends up living in her van, working as a seasonal employee, packing boxes of goods for shipment through Amazon. The irony of the latter detail, of course, cannot go overlooked – people buying things online they probably don’t need in contrast with a woman who has packed her life into the back of her van. She becomes immensely attached and proud of her van, always looking for ways to introduce new features and gadgets, making the most of the limited space. Living with just the bare necessities, the first shock for the viewer is just how few possessions she has been reduced to – and it makes you feel almost shame-faced when you look around your own home at the accumulation of so many “things”. 

Fern eventually drifts into the community of nomads, people who for various reasons have also ended up without a home. They form makeshift communities for a while, before moving on again, driving through the wide open and beautiful landscapes of the rural United States.  While watching this film, it felt so organic and real that it did not surprise me to later learn that most of the people Fern meets are not actors, but people who actually live this life on the road.  They have no real ties with anyone, not even with their families, sometimes out of choice, sometimes due to circumstances, and yet because human interaction thrives on forming some sort of connection with others, they end up being each other’s ‘family’, taking care of each other, bonding in a way which only those who have lost everything can understand. 

It is a haunting, thought-provoking film, fitting for these times when we have been forced to take stock of what is truly important.  As we look back on this past year, the fact that a virus changed what we took so very much for granted: our ability to move freely when and where and with whom we wanted, still seems very bizarre. When, despite so many warnings, governments have had to step in to stop us from socialising because it was our very socialising which was contributing to the spread of infections, it underlines just how much human beings yearn to physically be with others.  

As Nomadland showed, even those who opt to leave mainstream society, still somehow find themselves drifting into their own type of society, even if only for brief periods.  Possessions can come and go, but it is our relationships which are truly the essence of what makes us human.

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