It’s foggy and soggy.
It’s weirdly, unnaturally warm.
I have one son on a train, Toronto bound, meeting up with his past and his future;
Another in his apartment, taking it easy (I hope so: he comes by rest so rarely);
And the other son—his voice full of worry on the phone—nursing a sick child, my darling grandson, back to health.
Already this morning, the internet has brought me images of pain, violence and terrible drama;
Of heroism, courage and grace.
My feelings have moved up, just under my skin;
The world is Pain and the world is Love.
And I have the time this morning, precious and priceless, to witness it all.
To know that I’m happy. To know that I’m afraid. To know that I love.
My son Christian’s life as an emerging actor has already taken him to places I would never dare to explore. One of these is theMcGill Simulation Centre, which is an integral part of the medical education of many health practitioners in Montreal. He works there part-time.
Sometimes, Christian’s only job is to offer up almost every inch of his body so that med students can learn ultrasound techniques. At others, the full range of his acting skills is tested, as he works with other actors to bring to life scenarios for young student MDs and even seasoned practitioners, simulating situations that are designed to test the maturity, knowledge, technique, resourcefulness, empathy, interpersonal skills and even just plain resolve of the caregivers.
Listening to his stories has made me realize how difficult medical training is and how much is expected of the students who are often only in their early twenties. It’s helped me to understand how much thought is put into the training of physicians, nurses, occupational therapists and everyone else who passes through there, and helped me to see that acting at its purest is the art of compassion.
Last week, Christian was given his biggest challenge yet. He was asked to play the role of a young adult with cerebral palsy whose symptoms include spastic diplegia and spastic dysarthria. In this especially long and multi-scene scenario, his character, Pat, is fighting to maintain an independent life in the face of increasing pressure to place him in institutional care.
A few days into his preparation, I asked Christian if he could show me how he was coming along with his character. In seconds, Christian transformed himself right before my eyes. His body shifted until it had assumed a strange, distorted angle on the couch. His head twisted backward in a way that exposed his neck and made his chin protrude oddly, as though pulled leftward by a painful force and constraining him to look at his interlocutor from an obtuse angle.
And then he began speaking. And there was no more Christian. Everything that makes Christian himself had been stripped away and what was left was a thin, monotone and laboured voice, struggling to express itself. Every word seemed to come at a cost to him. Only his eyes were steady. And distressing.
He didn’t make me uncomfortable or embarrassed: he shocked me. Being with him and paying attention to what he was saying, I realized that despite the clarity and intelligence of the thoughts he was expressing, my own mind wanted to reduce him to so much less than he was.
And it became painful to watch my son this way. And it made me cringe, because I know, now, in a way that I didn’t before, what the suffering of this person Christian had briefly become must be. And the struggle. And the injustice of being locked inside a body that cannot come close to expressing the expanse and the dignity of the person inside.
And the vulnerability.
When he came home after his performances that day, Christian told me that he knew that if Pat had any chance of avoiding institutionalisation, that he would have to make every health professional in the scenario like him—fall for him—and begin to root for him.
This is beautiful work.
Every time Christian becomes Pat, even for just a flash, my eyes well up. He does it because he knows he’ll be playing him again soon and he wants to keep him vital and true. And because he cares about him.
This all coincided with a period of sickness that rolled like a wave through my family. One of my sons had fever for three days, recovered for a week and has just relapsed this weekend. His twin was also intermittently feverish and eventually wound up with bronchitis, while Penelope and Graeme, his children, were treated for tonsillitis, otitis and bronchitis. Then it was my turn. Two weeks in, I’m still coughing, but at least my strength has returned.
Until this recent family epidemic, I hadn’t been ill for several years. Sick with fever last weekend and feeling weak and wobbly, I felt vulnerable and diminished and a bit scared. I couldn’t be sure that I’d be able to work the following week. I couldn’t be sure I wasn’t incubating pneumonia. I couldn’t know for sure when I’d be able to go get groceries, or clean the house or do any of the mundane things that make up daily life.
All this brought about by a simple virus. Everything happening out in the world took a back seat to the necessity of recovery. To bringing my body’s affliction to an end.
These past few weeks, I’ve been schooled by life.
Actually, I believe that this should be a daily occurrence, as constant as sunrises and sunsets. Every day should be about gathering in more learning and seeing more clearly. But there’s something about human consciousness that’s flighty and inconstant and it causes us, me, to check out or else be diverted.
At the same time, reliant as I am on the stream of information pouring into my life through the mushrooming screens that have become my most used windows on the world, I’m not growing wiser. My representations of life are hardening around ideas and actions that test the strength of my connections with the world, that wipe away understanding and compassion, and fuel fearful, anxious feelings.
Recently, I’ve felt more like a greyhound on a track than a sentient, mature woman.
And then there was Christian and Pat.
I marinate every day in news about wars, walls and the billions in currency it takes to make each happen; about mass migrations and refugees and camps on almost every continent that have become lawless dead ends where violence and starvation have set up permanent residence; about immigrants, both legal and illegal and about how, for some, living off the radar without status is the brightest option; about national greatness and sovereign borders which seem to depend more and more on turning inward and away. About Others. Aliens. About Them and Us. More recently, about white-nationalism and just this week, an anti-egalitarian, anti-democracy movement skittering behind the scenes and referred to as Neoreaction or NRx.
It’s a swirling vortex of what’s worse about us. Its clamour is drowning out the calls of our better natures. It’s smothering our compassion with darkness. It’s making us blind.
I think that our civilisation needs retraining. I think serious intervention is required to help us see what’s behind our outer shells, to understand every individual’s struggle, and to embrace the expanse and the dignity of the person inside each one of us.
When I typed it, it felt like the only way to end a piece that was otherwise defeating. It isn’t in me to be bleak. I can’t bear pessimism for too long before I’m torn asunder, and I couldn’t bring myself to pass the despondency along to you.
But my God, in the week since the MARCH IN JANUARY, the news coming out of the United States has drenched us all with such vile and gut wrenching ugliness that the effect of reading it has been emetic.
It’s reconnecting me with my formal academic training. I am (or was) an historian by trade and the dark clouds emerging over the United States and spreading beyond its borders to parts of Europe are reminiscent of so many sinister periods in history that only the ignorant or the malevolent can ignore them.
This week, an unbridled Trump and his men did as much as they possibly could to shred the social fabric of their vast and beautiful nation in order to maintain the privilege and status of their small, coagulated, self-interested cabal.
The effect of this week on millions of people has been galvanizing.
How good it feels to know that it’s Trump’s executive orders targeting refugees and immigrants from Muslim-majority nations that has just caused the pot to boil over in the country’s metropolises for the second time in one week.
Watching the crowds, live online, at Dulles, JFK, SFO and Logan airports yesterday chanting for hours and hours, selflessly and righteously in defense of the rights of ALL, got my pulse racing and overwhelmed me with an emotion that’s too complex to name.
The day ended with a temporary victory as a federal judge granted the American Civil Liberties Union’s request for a nationwide temporary injunction that will block the deportation of all people stranded in U.S. airports under President Trump’s new Muslim ban.
NO BAN, NO WALL, SANCTUARY FOR ALL!
NO HATE, NO FEAR, IMMIGRANTS ARE WELCOME HERE!
NO BAN, NO WALL, NEW YORK CITY IS FOR ALL!
These were the chants in America’s big city airports—and the entreaties in countless hearts.
As I watched my Facebook feeds, I imagined others, just like me, all over the internet, bursting with a desire to join those crowds, seeing a petite Elizabeth Warren’s face and hearing her clarion voice urging the echoing crowd: “Let’s make our voices heard all around this world”.
I know many of us were listening and watching, and checking in at regular intervals. I expect that many of my immigrant students were. I thought of my former student Nima—a lovely Iranian man who has settled in Montreal but has hopes of living in Boston someday soon—being made to see himself as something odious in the eyes of the Trump administration, and what that must feel like.
I was moved when a childhood friend of my sons—a boy who arrived in Montreal (Dorval) at the age of eight, speaking “only” Farsi, German and English, but who was fluent in French by the time he was thirteen, went on to med school at McGill and is now a practicing neonatologist in California—wrote this on his Facebook page yesterday:
I have always abstained to post political comments as I am aware that nothing I have to say will be influential. Those, including myself (maybe through denial), who were encouraged to give Trump the benefit of the doubt on what type of president he will be once elected in office, can now rest assured that all doubt has been removed. To live in a “democracy” and yet fear that my parents (Canadian citizens) may be denied entry into the US to visit me because they were born in Iran is frightening.
After having been spat at by the White House, he remains, in my opinion, far too polite, far too gracious for his own good. Still, if the measure of a man is in how he expresses himself in difficult times and what he contributes to society through his work, then the man in the White House doesn’t deserve to breathe the same air as this bright, young “immigrant”.
It means something more, that all of these expressions of resistance and human solidarity occurred the day after Holocaust Remembrance Day; that they happened on the Chinese lunar New Year.
The world has become as accessible as the closest internet connection. No borders can obviate the fact that on this improbable, beautiful blue planet, WE ARE ONE.
Learn this lesson quickly, Mr. Trump.
If a man is to shed the light of the sun upon other men, he must first of all have it within himself. -Romain Rolland
On this grey Sunday morning in Montreal, all I seem to be able to do is sit in front of my computer screen.
I was up early and had some lonesome time here; time to search online for feedback from yesterday’s Women’s March in Washington, those across the US and the world, and also here at home.
The images I’ve turned up are marvelous. Some snapped by friends (thank you Gail, thank you Alice, thank you Cindy) but most are by amateur and professional photographers I’ve never met.
It feels good to look at all of the faces. Many white women, for sure, but more than that.
I didn’t go to the March in downtown Montreal. My feelings about the marches were strangely unenthusiastic. And now, looking at all of the faces and placards in the photos online, I feel a pang of sadness and discomfort which comes at least in part from a sense of guilt.
I should have been there.
Should I have been there? Why didn’t I go? Why should I have gone?
I have to say that I feel relieved that so many mobilized yesterday. It HAD to be that way. Any other result would, I think, have been a counter-productive, booming, echoing failure with awful repercussions.
I feel immensely grateful to everyone who marched somewhere yesterday. THANK YOU.
There is, in part, a contradiction, an incoherence in my absence from yesterday’s March in Montreal. For the past six months especially, what’s been happening in the United States has ulcerated me. It has stained every single day and dredged up such intense feelings of dismay, despair and discouragement that I’ve felt both fearful and impotent.
The community of writers online has been furiously, obsessively expressing its outrage and resistance to the reign of Donald Trump and his dark entourage. At first, I couldn’t get enough of it. I read and read and read and commented and searched out more. I mentally fist pumped when I viewed merciless, bullseye parody, read especially caustic and effective zingers, or else brilliant pieces of journalism that laid out the facts of the sickness that now occupies the White House.
But with each week that has passed, I’ve grown tired of this same ocean of words. I’ve become wordlogged. I’ve started to feel myself being dragged down. Lost.
I’ve been reading less and responding less to the sentinel voices. Time to see something else. To feel something else. To see beyond.
Yesterday should have been my opportunity to ACT.
To DO SOMETHING.
Mobilizing must feel good. So, why didn’t I?
There was a certain defeatism in my passivity yesterday, as I imagined the grim, contemptuous and dismissive attitude of Trump, his people and the wider circle of opportunists buzzing around him now. Blowflies.
A feeling that the movement expressing itself yesterday, its message, its energy, its spirit, will soon be tainted, respun, labeled and diminished by the new President and all of his men.
I wasn’t sure what it would be like out on the streets of Montreal yesterday. I wasn’t sure what the crowd’s ultimate message would be. I wasn’t sure how idealistic, how innocent or how angry it would be. I couldn’t predict how many ways it could be misconstrued.
So I stayed home and kept an eye on Facebook.
There was lots of self-protection in my choice to do other things yesterday.
There were the voices of all of the people who have always been there to say It won’t make any difference to the things that I’ve advocated for and fought for in my life (they’ve often been right: this dismays me).
There was waiting and seeing.
Where are we headed, the vast WE who cannot accept what is? How will our course be plotted? By whom?
I don’t want the truth of our intentions usurped or hijacked.
And so, I hover. And wait. And read. And write. And converse. And live. And hope.
People to whom it isn’t possible to attach anything other than the qualities of adulthood and maturity; upon whom the traces of youthfulness seem to have had no hold. People who can be projected into middle and old age with almost no effort of the imagination.
Sometimes, when I’m watching movies with my son Christian, older movies especially, we’ll fall upon great character actors at the beginning of their careers, and after admiring their craft, I’ll find myself thinking and often exclaiming: My God, he’s probably only 25 in this, but he looks 45!
A lot of it has to do with the styles of the period (was forties fashion designed to rush everyone into middle age?), and sometimes, it’s about the face, shape, movement and especially voice of people from whom all traces of lightness, silliness, innocence and of becoming have been erased.
There’s a bagger at the grocery store down the street that I feel very protective of. He’s been working there for several years but he can’t be more than twenty or so. He isn’t tall: maybe 5’6” or 7”. Some days, he wears glasses, but not always. He’s blond but his hairline is already receding dramatically and I expect he’ll have lost most of it before he’s forty. His body looks unloved: soft, with a belly already, and sloping shoulders that indicate humility, or the absence of self-confidence. The way his head leans forward exacerbates this. Not so much geeky as simply neglected. This is accentuated by the generic, shapeless clothes he wears. His face is gentle, mild and unassuming. You can barely hear him when he speaks.
There’s intelligence in his eyes, a presence, and something else. Resignation? Retreat?
Every time I see him, I have the thought that high school must have been such a desert for him and I wonder what his life’s like and what his plans are. Has he found love? Will he? What are his ambitions? What are his parents like? What home life does he return to?
It’s so easy to imagine him at forty, fifty and even sixty. Even now, in his youth, he doesn’t look or act young. It makes me feel that his life path is inalterable.
Of course, and thankfully, not a single part of this is necessarily true.
It’s simply the way I see him and my vision is often faulty. It’s easily fooled by my subjectivity.
My mum is a case in point.
Up until recently, she just wasn’t aging. At least not to me. For the past thirty years, which have seen her live through the loss of her father, aunts, mother and husband (my dad: to cancer at 61); then seen her regroup, reinvent a life for herself and fall in love a second time, she was always my vital, energetic, indomitable, beautiful mother. Eternally so.
While I’ve been painfully aware of the signs of aging in my own body and on my face and hands, my mum remained in stasis: always keen, active, lithe and unsinkable; her vital energy not having diminished one bit, her wits about her and her face still unlined.
And then, about five years ago, storm clouds gathered again. She’s been hit, in succession, by aggressive breast cancer and the ensuing chemo and radiation; she fractured her hip in a freak accident a couple of years ago while traveling, had it mended with screws and then, just a week ago, finally had it replaced.
She’s had the sh*t kicked out of her.
It’s during these past five years that it occurred to me that my mum is, in fact, growing old along with the rest of us. It’s still hard for me to think of her this way. And yet, the evidence is mounting. The gruelling, punishing periods of sickness, surgery, injury and more surgeries provided me with a glimpse into her fragility and her vulnerability.
We’re most exposed when we’re dependent upon the care of others. When getting out of bed is something we can’t do unassisted. When we’re dressed in drab hospital gowns and bedridden. When our veins are being pumped full of poison. When there’s no point in offering a façade to others.
My mum is growing older. She’ll soon be 82, and still, if you saw her, your jaw would drop. In spite of everything she’s been through, she’s more beautiful than ever. And just as resilient.
The morning after her hip replacement, my son Simon and I went to visit her at the hospital. I’d had an anxious night, worried that hers had been tough, that walking on her own would be too much.
We arrived to the sight and sounds of my mother being wheeled out in her bed by her nurse, both of them laughing their heads off, headed to get a hip x-ray done. The nurse was saying: “You’re a superstar! You’ve done more in one night than most people do in a week!”.
That’s my mum. I know she’ll never grow old because I know her superpower. It’s moxie.
As December moved along this year, similar messages and wishes kept appearing on Facebook. They can be summed up like this: Good Riddance 2016!
It’s a sentiment I understand. To anyone who doesn’t live in a cave or isn’t completely cut off from mainstream media, this year felt like one endless storm. At sea or on land, it makes no difference. We’ve still felt battered and unmoored.
Brexit, Trump, Putin, neo-fascism rebranded as “white nationalism” and the “alt-right”; climate change news that becomes more and more alarming as it’s downplayed by those who have a stake in doing so; the agony of the Syrians and Iraqis and their desperate calls for help. Black and indigenous lives which do not matter enough. And, more recently, strong media reactions to the deaths of so many writers, poets, actors, musicians and artists this year— the very best among us—the people of light whose art we’ve never needed more.
Welcome 2017, as long as you’re vastly different, is what we mean. Welcome, as long as things change for the better and we stop feeling like we’re stuck in a lesser Star Wars movie, living in the constant pall of a phantom menace.
It all resonates with me. It all feels legit. How good it would feel to peel back all of the darkness that covers us (or really, that as a species we have covered ourselves with). To press RESET. To figure out how to find our way through the desperately complex, interconnected and interdependent systems that paradoxically also separate us from one another so painfully.
This Christmas, my family received three 2017 wall calendars: one is for me, from the Reading Woman series, and the other’s a Shakespeare calendar for my son Christian. Both were gifts from my mum. The third I received as part of a Kickstarter campaignthat I funded a while ago. Looking at it brings me joy every day.
I don’t do very well with agendas (paper or smart phone) and pocket calendars. Time mostly slips through my fingers like a slick eel. But wall calendars help. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re fixed to something (though not a wall: my calendars are hanging on the side of the pantry and on a door). It may also be because they’re graphically more imposing; they’re bigger and even from a distance, I can really see time all sectioned off into squares and see the hand- scribbled entries we’ve made.
Every time I replace the old wall calendar with the new one, I feel a pang: there goes another year of my life. This small action causes me to pause. I sit and leaf through each month. My eyes rest first on the images that I’m unlikely to see again. But then, as I turn over the thick glossy pages, my eyes rest one last time on all of the annotations. What I see is the life of my family in all its banality and beauty, separated into tiny pockets of time.
All of the appointments to the doctor’s, for x-rays and physiotherapy and even an MRI that are the signposts of my husband’s year of recovery from back problems.
Annotations meant to remind me of the birthdays of everyone we love (but especially those who fly below Facebook’s radar).
All of the comings and goings: the arrival and departure dates of those among us who travelled or came to visit; my movements all over the island of Montreal where I was sent to evaluate prospective students. There’s my ever-changing work schedule too.
I can track the evolution of Christian’s career as an actor: the rehearsal and show dates of Macbeth; his call dates on a movie shoot; his scheduled days at the McGill Simulation Centre and his meetings with a new agent.
The impressions made by the lives of my sons and grandchildren are everywhere: concert dates, supper at The Keg and the pub, family gatherings, Penelope and Graeme’s birthdays, a visit to the Biodome and the movie premières that we always see together.
There’s also the hospital phone and room numbers of a beloved relative who endured frightening bypass surgery. The birthweight of baby Scarlett.
From car maintenance to meetings with our financial advisor, everything is there.
It wasn’t all work, and it wasn’t all bad. Some years seem cursed when you’re living through them. 2012 was like that for us, but it also marked the birth of miraculous Penelope. Experiencing that meant living through all of the rest.
Though so much of this year conspired to make us all paranoid and pessimistic, this Christmas season was one of the most sincerely kind and joyous I’ve experienced in years.
On my husband’s side of the family, almost thirty of us packed into my sister-in-law’s small bungalow and talked and played games and caught up with each other’s lives. On my side, three families came together at my son Jeremy’s and laughed and talked and were one.
Goodbye 2016. Hello 2017. I’m grateful to be alive.
Yesterday, I said farewell to three groups of students I’ve been working with since last February.
Perhaps it was simply au revoir, but only time will tell. It felt that way because it was relaxed and informal. We left each other smiling, with the promise of a lunch date sometime in the new year. I hope I’ll see all of them again. I plan to make that lunch date.
Last evening, it hit me that I had forgotten to take a picture of them, and thinking of it now upsets me. My son Christian said: You were just living the moment, and of course that’s true. I had actually written a reminder to myself on a paper that I felt sure I would have within sight while with them, but I was swept away by the then & there.
Our near year together wasn’t always smooth. These people work very hard in an industry (nuclear pharmacology) that allows no slouching and no errors, and absenteeism was always a problem which we lived with each in our own way.
Never knowing which of them (in the three groups I saw every Friday) would be able to attend class on any given week meant that my integrated and interconnected lesson plans would always be more like moth eaten teaching attempts (or Swiss cheese?) from their perspective; that there would always be someone who didn’t quite feel in sync with the group.
I’m not sure who was bothered most by this. Inexplicably, this pressure they were under, their struggles to attend class, brought us closer. We arrived at an unspoken understanding.
There was even a Friday when a student arrived late looking frazzled, sat down, sighed and apologized for being late and then said in her tenacious Cuban accent that though she had work up to her ears and even several meters above that, she had come knowing she would escape all of her stress for two hours. She then plunged right into the activity we had started and gave it her full attention.
Even if it’s only for two hours a week, you learn a lot about people that you see for ten months. Their individual narratives are revealed in uneven scenes and chapters according to their desire to share on any given day.
There’s no end to where language can take us. One of my greatest motivations is to bring them to a level of fluency that’ll make it possible for them to express everything they want to share, with nearly as much subtlety and nuance in French as they have in their mother tongue. I hope to reach the point with them when the medium and the message become so intertwined that grammar lessons and verb acquisition meld with the exploration of current events, the vagaries of our daily lives, our pasts and futures, our passions, hopes and dreams.
In my three groups were people with experience in accounting, finance, nuclear pharmacology, radiation safety, research and development, standards and safety, information technology, chemistry and production. These rarely came up in conversation. In their place were stories about one student’s passion for jewelry making and another’s childhood memories of life in Colombia with a big brother who was a real-life Indiana Jones; about one man’s worries and struggles to care for a mother who is sliding into depression and dementia but lives thousands of miles away; about the stresses of preparing a son for the entrance exams to a coveted school; about one life started in India, then restarted in China, then Montreal; another’s wandering from Iran to perhaps Boston one day (he misses the proximity of the sea); or another’s life that started in Russia, migrated to Israel and now seems to want to settle in Quebec.
Who can account for such trajectories?
Last week, my youngest student, who has been in Montreal for a couple of years now (I think he counts them by winters) told me a great story. It’s the current hovering of this year’s first polar vortex over Canada that brought it to mind.
It happened two years ago. It was a frigid minus twenty degree winter day and a snowstorm was making a mess of local roads. He had recently arrived from India, had started his new job and was driving home with a young Indian friend visiting for a few days. On the service road, just off the TransCanada highway, he hit a snow drift, lost control of his car and veered wildly into the left lane where it collided with another.
Though his car was badly damaged, he and his friend were okay. They were also—as is the case with all new immigrants experiencing the ferocious bite of their first Québec winter—dramatically underdressed. While they stood out in the howling wind and sharp cold, shaking, shivering and in shock, the woman whose car they had smashed emerged from her vehicle. In the back seat, he could see her children. That’s when his heart sank.
With a wide-eyed expression of incredulity that’s no doubt identical to the one he was wearing on his face that day, he told me that the woman walked briskly toward them and, after listening to him babble his profuse and stricken apologies, simply answered: Well, welcome to Montreal!
I burst out laughing.
These are just some of the loose threads dangling in my life this week. I want to pick them all up. I hope I will.