CUBES, BOXES AND PEOPLE

My work is nomadic. I drive from place to place to be with students in businesses all over the western and central parts of the island of Montreal.

Walking into a workplace for the first time is always an experience.

When I began, it was the foreignness of these environments that struck me. I had more or less spent my whole professional life inside grade schools and adult education centres, which all have a plain-Jane institutional feel. Bureaucratic practices and the traditions of public education culture weigh them down, as does the architecture of the 1950’s and ‘60s—the baby-boom years when most of them were built, here in Quebec.

And so, office environments initially felt alien to me, and it took me a while to figure out their workings and to feel less like an imposter and more at home there.

There’s an organisational logic common to most offices that I’ve gradually figured out.

It starts with First Contact, which is usually a reception area. In French, that’s called accueil, which means welcome . I like that better, it makes me feel less like a package. In English, it could be translated as greeting (it works for me !).

There are places I teach where even that’s out of reach and I must be buzzed in or the receptionist has to get up and come open the locked entrance door. These days, I may be asked to place blue plastic booties over my own boots so as not to trail salt and dirty snow through the building’s shiny, echoey halls.

Sometimes, the reception area is smack in front of the elevators. Sometimes, it’s in a giant, lonely atrium (many companies are big on huge, glassy entrance atriums that almost no one spends any time in).

Last week, at a place where I went to do some evaluations, the reception booth was in a beat-up old cubby-hole next to a giant machine shop and it was the friendly and charming HR person himself who greeted me with a big smile (I found out later that the fancy offices were upstairs and out of sight).

Sometimes, getting into a building means clearing some serious security.

In one of the places where I teach, the security guard is chatty and sharp as a tack. From his spot behind a huge circular command post, he makes eye contact immediately, gets you sorted out with your visitor’s pass or the key to a conference room in record time, and then moves you along.

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Jail-like security doors like this one make me feel uneasy every time I pass through.

At another site, I’m greeted by curved, revolving security doors with horizontal, claw-like bars that make it impossible to enter AND exit (!!) the building without a security pass—issued by a guard from his glassed-in security booth.

No one would think to call this a greeting area.

Once you’re in, the challenge in many places is to learn to navigate their labyrinthine corridors without a GPS—especially finding the bathrooms (crucial!) and then returning to your original spot without getting lost.

The only real place for outsiders, in business environments, is the conference room. Weirdly, some of the nicest ones I’ve found have been in the simplest, least glamorous companies.

The snazziest conference rooms are where companies present their best face.

When I first started teaching on site, I was dazzled by the comforts of them. They were quiet spaces and the chairs…wow! They were comfy! (most of us have forgotten how spartan traditional classrooms are)

But that wore off pretty soon. After years of teaching in conference rooms, I now see them as artificially lit cubes with oval tables, decent chairs (usually), a ubiquitous white board (with dried out markers close by) and a projector and phone at the center of the table connected to a jumble of I.T. wires strewn across the tabletop and floor that I usually get my chair tangled in.

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Conference rooms are positioned strategically throughout offices and get lots of use. Many are booked days in advance.

The trend these days, especially in I.T. companies, is to create windowed rooms—often quite small— adjacent to hallways, so that everyone can see who’s in each.  Most of the ones I saw included a couch in a corner somewhere.

In general though, a conference room is a glorified box.

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A rather bleak hallway in the bowels of a local company. At the end of this hallway are larger office areas, cut off from everything else.

One of the places where I’m teaching right now, which employs 28 000 people in just one of its divisions, has buildings that have grown along with it and are basically giant mazes. Many of its conference rooms are in its basements. And that’s where I spend 2 days a week.

We’re not talking about dark, dangerous mines, or sweatshops, or sweltering factories, or industrial hives with integrated «living quarters»; nor are we talking about migrant work that takes men and women (but usually men) hundreds or even thousands of miles away from their loved ones for months at a time, for inadequate pay; or any other of the harsh and inhuman workplaces where people labour, suffer and die in the world and here at home, too.

Of course not.

But still, as I move around the city and discover new companies and new workplaces, I can’t help but think about what passes for normal life now.

How many Montrealers work in office spaces? I don’t know, but it’s probably the most common work environment.

 

I started photographing some of the rooms where I teach groups of three or five or even twelve people at a time. What they have in common is that they’re boxlike and that they’re completely impersonal (users are expected to remove any trace of themselves upon leaving them).

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Several of them—the basement rooms— have no window, which makes their sterility even more oppressive.

At another company, an effort was made to bring natural light into the work environment, but the architect went a little crazy with his ruler, and created so many squares in the true blue windows along the inner and outer parts of the building that the effect from the conference room where I teach is a lot like being incarcerated—or like being in a Hitchcock movie.

Inside the conference room, looking out onto a hallway.
Inside the conference room, looking out onto a hallway.
A room with a view of the parking lot
A room with a view of the parking lot

Conference rooms, like the other areas of most business spaces, whether private, partitioned, open-concept, or production and distribution areas, send us many subliminal messages:

  • there’s nothing personal here;
  • don’t put down roots—you’re passing through;
  • you’re meant to feel just comfortable enough to work, not play;
  • efficiency, function and standardization matter;
  • accept the conventions of this place.

There are undoubtedly all kinds of published studies about the effects of modern office environments on the people who work in them . I don’t expect to ever read one; I’m worried that they’ll be written in a language that’s as impersonal as the environments they’re examining.

IMG_2989But I know what I’ve observed and what I experience every time I go to teach. Though I’ve adapted to each site, and know the people and my way around the places well enough, I still always feel slightly uneasy when I first arrrive and when I settle into the conference room assigned to me; even though it’s the 10th or 20th time. And that feeling lingers as I wait for my students to arrive.

 

But when they do….

As soon as they do…

…within minutes, all of my uneasiness dissolves.

There we are: smiling and eager. Happy to be there.

The conference room becomes a strange and incongruous oasis. No one leaves his/her work behind but for some reason, there’s a solidarity between us and everything can be discussed with a different perspective and seen in a different light.

The decor means nothing except that it allows us to gather and communicate and learn from each other.

The conference room has a heartbeat and a glow.

It’s been peopled.

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WORDS FOR JANUARY AND FEBRUARY

I. INNER RESOLVE

« I can be changed by what happens to me. But I refuse to be reduced by it. » ― Maya Angelou

« If you wanna fly you got to give up the shit that weighs you down. » ― Toni Morrison

« And that is just the point… how the world, moist and beautiful, calls to each of us to make a new and serious response. That’s the big question, the one the world throws at you every morning. “Here you are, alive. Would you like to make a comment?”  » ― Mary Oliver

II. WINTER

Winter is the time for comfort, for good food and warmth, for the touch of a friendly hand and for a talk beside the fire: it is the time for home.”
Edith Sitwell

FIRST SNOW  by Arthur Sze

A rabbit has stopped on the gravel driveway;

imbibing the silence,you stare at spruce needles:

there’s no sound of a leaf blower

no sign of a black bear;

a few weeks ago, a buck scraped his rack

against an aspen trunk;

a carpenter scribed a plank along a curved stone wall.

You only spot the rabbit’s ears and tail:

When it moves, you locate it against the speckled gravel;

but when it stops it blends in again;

the world of being is like this gravel;

you think you own a car, a house,

this blue zigzagged shirt, but you just borrow

these things.

Yesterday, you constructed an aqueduct of dreams

and stood at Gibraltar,

but you possess nothing.

Snow melts into a pool of clear water;

and, in this stillness,

starlight behind daylight wherever you gaze.

III. MIGRATIONS

The more one is able to leave one’s cultural home, the more easily is one able to judge it, and the whole world as well, with the spiritual detachment and generosity necessary for true vision. The more easily, too, does one assess oneself and alien cultures with the same combination of intimacy and distance.”
Edward Said, Orientalism

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« It’s not like your personality changes when you speak a different language.
It’s more like you’re just putting on a different pair of glasses through which to see the world each time. » —Alex Rawlings, polyglot

« If you ever find yourself in the wrong story, leave. »
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« […] Certainly when I’m traveling, especially to the major cities of the world, the typical person I meet today will be, let’s say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh, she recognizes him as kin. She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.So they become friends. They fall in love. They move to New York City. (Laughter) Or Edinburgh. And the little girl who arises out of their union will of course be not Korean or German or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian or even American, but a wonderful and constantly evolving mix of all those places. And potentially, everything about the way that young woman dreams about the world, writes about the world, thinks about the world, could be something different, because it comes out of this almost unprecedentedblend of cultures. Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going. »
An excerpt from Pico Iyer’s TED Talk
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A poem by John, a grade school student in London, Ontario (Canada), and winner of The Meaning of Home contest, which  invited Grade 4, 5 and 6 students from across Canada to submit a written essay about what home means :

THE MEANING OF HOME

Home is a place, like no other place can compare.
It gives a wonderful feeling that everybody should share.
It is the place where you find lots of new things to discover
It’s the place where all your injuries recover.
When you look at it you smile so bright.
So you think to yourself, what a beautiful sight.

You learn even more things there that you never knew.
You learn what is false, and what is true.
You learn to walk, crawl and run at home.
You will find lots of new places to roam.
Think about the times you share with family.
All the moments you spend, smiling with glee.

The memories you make there will never fade.
There is almost never a time there when you are afraid.
When I see someone without the warm feeling that I feel,
I think to myself that, this can’t be real.
But there’s a sad truth that’s looming around.
It’s been here for days, waiting to be found.

That sad truth is one that I hate to say.
There are people around who have no place to stay.
They don’t feel the same warmth and love as we do.
They don’t have the life we’re used to.
But we can bring them the help they need.
I know we can, and we will succeed.

We have let it rest for much too long.
Let’s give them a place where they feel they belong.
We can all make a difference today.
And we can fix the world the right way. 

IV. FROM SHAKESPEARE’S MACBETH

Nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it.

—Malcolm’s comment on the execution of the Thane of Cawdor, whose title was then given to Macbeth.

“To-morrow, and to-morrow, and to-morrow,
Creeps in this petty pace from day to day,
To the last syllable of recorded time;
And all our yesterdays have lighted fools
The way to dusty death. Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player,
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage,
And then is heard no more. It is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
Signifying nothing.”
Macbeth

“Give sorrow words; the grief that does not speak knits up the o-er wrought heart and bids it break.”Malcolm, from Macbeth

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Malcolm (right) speaking to Macduff, after he has learned of the slaughter of his family.

WHERE IS HOME ?

His name is Fadi. I was evaluating his level of proficiency in French for future classes at a company which manufactures skin care products.

Fadi is young. Clearly. But he has the kind of face that won’t have changed very much when he’s forty-five. An old-young face. Curly pale hair combed back and off his forehead, exposing a hairline that wants to recede.

His look was « conservative office » : serviceable shirt and trousers, neat but bland, no jacket.

What struck me was his nervous intensity. His mouth was dry. His serious eyes widened every time he spoke—softly, but also rushed.

Why he should feel such a sense of urgency still bothers me. I learned that though he only arrived in Montreal a month ago, he has already found a position as the I.T. guy in the office.

An Armenian Syrian, he left Aleppo with his three brothers and came here to start a new life. He is, in fact, an electrical engineer, and I imagine his brothers are highly educated as well. But their parents stayed behind, unsure and afraid to leave their home.

As he explained this, I could almost feel his tie to his parents pulling painfully hard on his chest. And thought again about his home country being bled of its youth and its hope.

When I asked him what he would do if he won 15 million dollars that very night (usually, a lighthearted means of testing a student’s grasp of the conditional tense), he answered in French, without hesitation : I would use it to bring peace to my country…I would help others in my country.

 When I asked him if he would go back to Aleppo, he said Yes, but I would also live in Canada.

 And within the turmoil of his earnest answers and my own desire to reassure him, was the problem of home. And what’s referred to as le mal du pays, in French. Homesickness. Fadi is suffering the first stages of it. Yet still, he wants to stay here and make a new life.

Though I’ve never lived more than a twenty minute drive from the place I was born, I felt instant empathy for Fadi. Far from home is a difficult place to be.

My home

I’ve had three true homes in my life.

The first was an upper duplex in Lachine, just around the corner from the house where my husband was busy growing up, though of course I had no idea at the time (we would meet years later, as teenagers, in a different city).

My family left that duplex when I was three to move into a brand new semi-detached, two story house in Pointe-Claire, but my grandmother moved into the space we left behind, and stayed there for years, so it never lost its familiar and settled feeling for me and remains etched in my memory.

I left my parents’ house to go live with my husband when I was 22. We nested temporarily (2 ½ years) in a 4th floor apartment right on the lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, where we made our twins, providing us with the incentive to take the biggest plunge of our lives into a depressed real estate market (well, maybe the 2nd biggest plunge : having two babies is tough to beat).

Decades later, we’re still here. Our house is a 10 minute walk from my mum’s.

You see? I call her house «my mum’s», though it’s the same semi-detached house I grew up in. I think I began doing this when my twins were born, because from that moment on, my home was the place where our children were.

I can rattle off the postal codes of all of these places without hesitation, like I’m pinning them onto a mental map. And yet, I’ve come to realize that my attachment to our battered but cozy A-frame house is waning. I’ve also noticed that the objects in it mean less and less to me.

Does this signal an important change in me? Maybe. Over time, I’ve felt more and more weighed down by the familiar objects that I once loved for the memories I believed they held, or the comfort I thought they gave me. If you live long enough in the same place, you can become buried alive.

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.” ― Robin HobbFool’s Fate

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In a quirky and beautifully designed small book compiling the hundreds of photographs that first appeared on his blog, Foster Huntington asked the question : If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door ? and then set about curating all of the answers he received.

It’s a great question, and answering it is also, I think, taking steps toward defining not only what we value, but what « home » really means.

When his house in California was burned to ash by a wildfire, Pico Iyer, the British-born essayist and novelist perhaps best known for his travel writing and nomadic life, came to the realization that from then on: «My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me. » It was, he said, a terrific liberation.

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Someone once told me that home ownership—the notion that we « own » a property and that it’s ours—is a delusion. He said that no matter how many papers we sign at the notary’s, we’re still just passing through; just temporary stewards of the building. Three families lived in our home before us; I wonder how many more will after we leave it. Surely, no one will stay as long as we did.

An eye-catching piece popped up on Facebook a few months ago, about a Japanese artist who uses a 3-D printer to create  architecturally ingenious plastic shells for hermit crabs, that support miniature, identifiable cities (the tiny crustaceans appear nonplussed, but their shells wowed me).

The whimsy, technological brilliance and beauty of these little works of art are dazzling, but  I wonder if the more important message isn’t found among the hermit crabs themselves—tiny squatters of nature who scavenge their homes from the floor of the sea and discard them when a better shell comes along.

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Sometimes, though, there are no shells.

Last summer, the results of Montreal’s first official homelessness census were released.

  • The census takers were able to find 3016 people living on the streets.
  • 76 per cent of homeless people in Montreal are men.
  • 93 per cent of the people who sleep outside, in Montreal, are men.
  • 44 per cent of people experiencing homelessness were born in Montreal.
  • Immigrants represent 10 per cent of the homeless population.
  • 10 per cent of Montreal’s homeless population is aboriginal, even though less than one per cent of Montreal’s total population are indigenous.
  • Veterans represent six per cent of Montreal’s homeless.

Homelessness in the city’s suburbs is disguised as «couch surfing » in the basement of a friend.

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Man begging at the underground entrance of the Centre de commerce mondial de Montréal.

Fadi’s anguish stems from trying to create a new home here while pining for the one he left behind. He is part of what Pico Iyer refers to as « the great floating tribe» : the hundreds of millions of people living in a country not their own.  His problem is the result of the movement we call migration.

But as Pico Iyer says: « Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep, it’s the place where you stand. »

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Penelope, feverish, cuddling with her mama, Anne.

Before she was two years old, my granddaughter Penelope became sick with a flu. She got the very best of care; was held, cuddled, given medication, read to, and sung to patiently by her mama and papa. Still, at a low moment, clutching her blanket as she lay on the couch, she looked at her parents and said, in her tiny soprano voice : « I want to go home.»

We all understood that to this brand new little person, home already meant that place where there is happiness, where there is no worry, and where there is safety and security.

 

I wonder if it will be—can be—any more beautiful than this,’ murmured Anne, looking around her with the loving, enraptured eyes of those to whom ‘home’ must always be the loveliest spot in the world, no matter what fairer lands may lie under alien stars.

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of the Island

If you’re interested in reading about the migrant experience, you can take a look at this blog post: YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN.

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There’s no place like home.

 

 

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