Deep in the woods of BESIDE Habitat, Montréal-based author and comedian Catherine Ethier gave herself space to reflect on the power of pleasure and laughter in the darkest of times.
Oh dear. What a mess.
Amid the chaos of the past two years, I spent a lot of time holding still, feeling static. I spent hours, which became days, which became—I’ll admit it—months, in this stasis. And I know I’m not the only one.
In the early days of lockdown, I was excited for afternoons steeped in hope, lying, mermaid-style, on my nice leather couch, embracing my new perspective on time, which I had never before had so much of. It was a sort of miraculous air pocket to take stock, tidy the closet, try out this sea pie recipe, paint the hall sugar-plum pink, and have grand ideas on the mountainside as a spring breeze tipped my beret. But this exquisite rethinking of time transformed, little by little, into a slow calcification of my senses, one by one, without so much as a warning. So gather round: here comes a bright, cheerful little tale, suitable for children of all ages.
As I said, it’s been a mess. Only recently have I come to understand that as the months passed, filled with dramatic upwellings and little victories, somewhere I lost my way completely. It happened without my realizing it, as in a bad TV show.
No matter how often I shouted “Marco!” in the grocery store aisles to see if I’d get a playful reply of “Polo!” from over by the rutabagas, I never got a response.
Cathie was gone. At least, the one from before.
The one who used to have fun.
What kinds of power do we want?
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A disproportionate degree of fun
It’s strange, because my job as a comedian, in addition to waving my hands in the air, raising my eyebrow quizzically, and saying stuff, is often to make people laugh.
This wasn’t planned, it just happened like that. Ever since I was little, laughter has been my default strategy to avoid dying: dying of fright or dying of shame or dying of bumping into a pop star at Pharmaprix after buying an Oskar broom and being completely tongue-tied (his dream come true, being accosted in the pharmacy by a goggle-eyed stranger with a broom under her arm).
And during these last two years of the pandemic, I was deploying the funny missiles in all directions, firing at will (I hate this war metaphor and I’m putting an end to it right now). It was a full-scale humorous song and dance to distract from all the horror and uncertainty, a radio columnist coming to you live from the cozy centre of her personal disarray. But I didn’t let any of that show! This is one incredibly funny woman who knows what to do when the time comes to appear disproportionately FUN.
Knowing (at times) how to make others laugh is the lucky gift my fairy godmother bestowed on me with her sparkling wand when I was born. In the case of a home invasion, I’d probably have more luck chasing them away with my French crooner impersonation than with my umbrella (I’ve had a lot of time to think through this plan).
I assume it was because of this reputation that the wonderful BESIDE team handed me The Power of Fun by Catherine Price, a book about the true essence of pleasure. They wanted me to open up about my natural inclination toward lightness and side-splitting laughter, toward the safe places, away from human fury and constant, terrible news, where I had been taking refuge each day and from which I had been sharing religiously on social media.
I agreed immediately: fun is something I know well! I have handfuls of it in my bag, ready to dispense and lighten the mood.
Check out this video of a corgi in high heels and fabulous caramel fur pantaloons dancing in the streets of San Francisco—isn’t it so funny? Share it right away. It’ll grant us all a 15-second reprieve from this terrifying world.
It was right around this time that things got messy—or perhaps just that I acknowledged the terrible feelings that had been troubling me for months. Every so often, I had to lie down on the ground and count to 10, compose myself, and come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t remember the last time I truly had fun. Or laughed until my sides hurt, no bra, arms outstretched in the fireflies.
I think I may have even forgotten how to have fun.
Everything is planned
When Catherine Price talks about fun, she’s not talking about an evening watching an old Patrick Huard DVD with a glass of orange wine and salted peanuts. She’s talking about pure pleasure: those electric, rare moments of pure abandon and exuberance among friends when we get so carried away that we forget our mothers’ names. She means the moments when we’re laughing so hard our faces throb and our abs remind us of their existence, tears streaming down our cheeks.
We become kids again, watching Aunt Huguette play minigolf with her dentures. These scenes only come along once in a while; they are incredible and precious. And what’s truly frustrating is that you can’t predict them—at least not really. To put the cherry on top, Price is clear: true fun must absolutely be experienced with at least one other person. You see the problem?
Swimming in masks, social distancing, fear and trembling; I’m worried that we may have lost the capacity for spontaneity, so essential for having fun with someone else. Same goes for sharing and for unexpected encounters. Now, everything is planned, or else it is on hold and could be cancelled at any moment. Everything is prodigiously risky.
How are we supposed to live, laugh, love under these conditions?
I don’t know the answer.
Fun takes more than one
I’m entering a phase of rehabilitation in terms of fun, spontaneity, and putting napkins over our heads at a cheap Italian restaurant (let’s start with the little things).
Painting watercolour birds kept my head above water during this strange season. It gave me a way to reconnect with something essential, maybe even pleasure. I felt strong.
But I never laughed, never doubled over the way I did at the funeral home with my friend Jean-Michel when we brought the wrong USB key and started projecting photos from my grandfather’s neighbour’s vacation instead of the nice montage we had prepared: a long PowerPoint of complete strangers above Guy’s urn. I don’t remember ever crying with laughter like that, or feeling so exhilarated.
Not even in front of 10,000 people cracking up at the Place des Festivals in Montréal. Not even watching La Cage aux Folles. Not even when I bought my new purple boots (which look perfectly ridiculous).
It’s both a wonderful and tragic thing to think that fun can only be experienced alongside someone else.
In order to find it, we have to envision unlocking our doors.
I’m going to start by opening the window a crack. After that, we’ll see. (Best-case scenario: birds will swoop in to tie pretty ribbons in my hair, and that will make for a good story.)
Catherine Ethier is an author, a radio columnist, and a comedian (when she can muster the courage to put on her underwear) who tries humbly to reflect on her times, wearing a pineapple on her head and a dash of naïveté.
BESIDE Habitat is an innovative living environment where humans can reconnect with nature. It’s a place where meandering leads to unexpected conversations, or a passing porcupine. If, like Catherine, you feel the urge to open the window and hear the birds singing, you know where to find us.