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Charity’s Column: Lessons of a Scots mouse

Have you noticed that there’s not much to do here in January? 

I’m not complaining, especially this week, the highlight of which is Burns Night, when admirers of the Scottish poet Robert Burns celebrate his birthday (Jan. 25, 1759) with Scotch whisky and haggis, a large sausage-like sheep’s stomach, stuffed with offal.

If you can find someone to play the bagpipes when the haggis is served, it’s more authentic.

I generally skip the haggis, (by that I mean always) and observe Burns Day instead with a reading of his poem, “To a Mouse.” The poem is an apology to a rodent whose wee home was destroyed by Burn’s plow, and one line gets quoted the most, 

“The best laid schemes o’ mice an’ men / Gang aft a-gley.”

Before COVID changed things, “best laid schemes” is how I got through the cold winter months. I used to enjoy the annual events that defined winter: a post-Christmas birthday treasure hunt requiring a team of clue-writers and gift-hiders; a Chinese Lunar New Year party with family, friends and dumplings; and for 14 years running, a one-week trip to Florida to watch professional baseball players get in shape ahead of opening day. Some years I had a spring graduation to look forward to.

The anticipation of these spirit-lifting activities that involve teamwork, traveling, seeing friends, and eating unusual things was a powerful antidote for head colds, and a distraction from the ice fog, freezing rain and black ice of January and February.

But for two years, instead of anticipation, I’ve had cancellation. New Year’s Eve with live music and a glass of champagne? Too risky, better to sing Auld Lang Syne (Burn’s best-known work) at home.

Retirement party?  And risk a super-spreader? Fly to Florida? Not without a vaccination. Law School graduation?  Zoom it.

Like Rip van Winkle I’m waking from a prolonged state of suspended consciousness brought on by staying inside, wearing a mask and avoiding human interaction. When I try to remember what I did last year, nothing comes to mind right away. 

A quick look at the calendar shows that during the week last year when I should have been looking at manatees in Florida, I dog sat for my son’s new puppy. Scooter looks a little bit like a manatee, only with a jaunty tail. He and I had fun and cemented our grand dog/grandma relationship.

On another day that week, when I might have watched the Blue Jays play the Yankees, I gave blood at the Greenport American Legion, a satisfying activity that didn’t hurt, but still allowed me to feel smug, and hang out with other donors afterward, while eating a package of Lorna Doone cookies.

The highlight of that week last March was getting vaccinated, which I definitely could not have done in Florida, and which was arguably the best thing I did all year.

In the last stanza of ‘To a Mouse’ Burns says the mouse, whose home he has just dug up, is actually the lucky one, because mice live in the present without regret for the past or fear of death.

“Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!

The present only toucheth thee:

But Och! I backward cast my e’e,

On prospects drear!

An’ forward tho’ I canna see,

I guess an’ fear!”

Is Burns saying it’s better to live in the present, enjoying the quotidian events of winter, even if there aren’t any events? Should I be more mouse-like?

There was one event — a walk in the woods of Mashomack after sunset, my path lit by tiny battery-operated lights. I enjoyed it so much I turned off my flashlight and wandered around until dinner time.

On the recommendation of a friend, I read a great book about oak trees that inspired me to gather, and hide some acorns for planting, which I guess is closer to squirrel behavior than mouse, but still … very in-the-moment.

My favorite restaurant closed for a few days, so I stayed home, rummaged through the cabinets (like a mouse!) and cooked up everything I could find. That cheered me up considerably. And when the restaurant reopened, I celebrated by ordering way too much food, which was also jolly.

I’m not sure I can sustain this in-the-moment feeling until spring, but it’s working for now. And every afternoon the sun sets a little bit later.