WORDS FOR APRIL

This month, I had to let go of many beloved students, which is a fact of my life but always a bittersweet experience. It’s done. I’ve said my goodbyes to thirty or more brilliant, funny and endearing people.

The relationships I make through my work enrich me in ways that are incalculable. I feel that I’m a better person because I carry inside me something of each of these students who, by the miraculous workings of the Universe, has passed through one of my classrooms.

Thus, the brief gem from Seamus Heaney, below.

I also discovered the beautiful autism of Daniel Tammet, who is a mathematical and linguistic savant and, I think, a gentle human being who will help enlighten is all.

I. ABOUT LIFE

A) “Since when,” he asked,
“Are the first line and last line of any poem
Where the poem begins and ends?”
Seamus Heaney

* * * *

B)  ABOUT AUTISM, LANGUAGE AND HOPE

A poem published by the National Autism Association, introduced with the following message:

“A mother writes, “My 10 year old son with Aspergers was asked to write a poem for school titled ‘I Am’ he was given the first 2 words in every sentence. This is what he wrote…”

I am odd, I am new

I wonder if you are too

I hear voices in the air

I see you don’t and that’s not fair

I want to not feel blue

I am odd, I am new

I pretend that you are too

I feel like a boy in outerspace

I touch the stars and feel out of place

I worry what others might think

I cry when people laugh, it makes me shrink

I am odd, I am new

I understand now that so are you

I say I, “Feel like a castaway”

I dream of a day that that’s okay

I try to fit in

I hope that someday I do

I am odd, I am new”

 

John Martin, 1789-1854: "Solitude"
John Martin, 1789-1854: “Solitude”

 

“I hate textbooks. I hate how they shoehorn even the most incongruous words – like ‘cup’ and ‘bookcase,’ or ‘pencil’ and ‘ashtray’ – onto the same page, and then call it ‘vocabulary.’ In a conversation, the language is always fluid, moving, and you have to move with it. You walk and talk and see where the words come from, and where they should go. It was in this way that I learned to count like a Viking.”
Daniel Tammet, Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math

Pi Landscape
Original artwork by Daniel Tammet

 

“Clouds and buttercups exist in poetry, but they are there only because storms and flowers populate the world too.”
Daniel Tammet, Thinking In Numbers: On Life, Love, Meaning, and Math

II. ENDINGS

C) “October knew, of course, that the action of turning a page, of ending a chapter or of shutting a book, did not end a tale. Having admitted that, he would also avow that happy endings were never difficult to find: “It is simply a matter,” he explained to April, “of finding a sunny place in a garden, where the light is golden and the grass is soft; somewhere to rest, to stop reading, and to be content.”
Neil Gaiman, The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists

 

III. ABOUT BOOKS

A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.
[Cosmos, Part 11: The Persistence of Memory (1980)]”
Carl Sagan

“Reading is like thinking, like praying, like talking to a friend, like expressing your ideas, like listening to other people’s ideas, like listening to music, like looking at the view, like taking a walk on the beach. ”
–Roberto Bolaño

Roberto Bolano

 

 

 

MOVING ON

It has begun surfacing once again— intermittent, sudden, fleeting.

Something that I can best describe as an internal lurch; a quick and uncomfortable dropping feeling in my belly that catches me off guard.

And I’m reminded that though I’m absorbed in what I’m doing: preparing to teach, heading off to teach or actually in class with my adult students, my body knows that change is just around the corner, and sends tiny internal depth charges to remind me.

It’s a very familiar feeling of apprehension mixed with a drop of dread that’s part of a cycle that I’ve lived with for the past 7 years.

 

It’s almost time to move on.

 That’s my body’s message. For five of the ten groups that are mine right now, our story ends next week.

That’s because all of the contracts that allow me to go to students working in companies around the city eventually come to an end—usually after five to eight months.

  

When I start a new contract and meet a brand new group of students, strangers all, it always feels fresh and hopeful, the way beginnings should feel, and the road ahead feels clear and promising. It’s the luxury of time.

Though I’ve had many dozens of such groups since I began teaching French, and come to this point of parting with them time and time again, it’s still as hard as it was the first time.

 

When you care about things, it ends up wearing you out.” 
― Sakisaka Io

 

I first started in my school board’s adult education centre. It was a real boom period then, and classes were filled with people committed to learning French thirty hours a week. Imagine that. Thirty hours. Groups of twenty to twenty-five people brought together, full-time, hoping to emerge speaking a new and essential language.

I was always given the beginners, the newbies, which is a fantastic privilege because it gave me the chance to welcome them into this new French-speaking world. To set the tone. To make them forget all of their fears and previous experiences of school. To relax and trust themselves, and trust their classmates, and trust me.

It has always felt important that my students enter class with a smile, but even more so that they leave smiling.

 

Oh! the insanity of it. Because each level lasted only eight weeks. Intense as it was, our time together was a mere two months. Sometimes I got to take them a further 8 weeks, but not always. And so, that last day of each term was a big, messy, bittersweet party that included an international (and delicious!) pot luck lunch.

It was incredibly gratifying and also just exhausting for me and I always came home feeling wrung out, a bit low, and relieved that the pressure of parting had been released.

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Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place.”– Frank Herbert

 

The special allure of adult language education is that each student in my class is a peer. And each is a potential friend. Could be. Might become one.

Going into companies to teach changed things around for me because in most places, I only see my students once a week for two to three hours—just a drop in the bucket—but we journey together this way for four or six or nine months at a time.

 

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The average size of a group is usually six, though it can drop to three or go as high as a dozen; and this has freed me. In the intimacy of a small group, no one is ever looking at another person’s back—we are always in a circle, always face to face. In a small group, names are learned quickly and a far more personal tone is set. Also, the possibilities of what I can bring to them and what we can discuss and undertake isn’t as rigidly structured as the Ministry of Education program. Everything is fodder for conversation in French.

You can’t hide in a small group.

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Each develops its own, unique chemistry that leaves a distinctive imprint on my memory. I remember them in feelings. I remember the interplay between them: the unexpected pairings of personalities that emerged in class. I remember what made them laugh. And which of them made me laugh. I also remember what made them fearful and stressed—lay-offs and company closings are the darkest possible clouds that we’ve travelled under.

 

Also, I suppose I wanted to say goodbye to someone, and have someone say goodbye to me. The goodbyes we speak and the goodbyes we hear are the goodbyes that tell us we’re still alive, after all.” 
― Stephen King
Wolves of the Calla

 

When I say goodbye to five of my groups next week, it will be without knowing how long these goodbyes will last.

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Just two days ago, in the company cafeteria, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said Bonjour Madame, and I recognized Luren, an intense and interesting man who had been my student in 2012 at a different company location. He was starting his day and only had a minute, but he wanted me to know that he had been back to Peru and had married a woman that he had known since childhood, and that he was very happy. When we parted he said, smiling, that perhaps we would meet again in a French class.

These are special moments in my life, when I feel how lucky I am that my work brings me into this stream of humanity.

 

Album art work for Pink Floyd’s The Endless River 

Next week, we’ll say hopeful au revoirs. Maybe classes will begin again some time next year, and many of these wonderful people will re-register. In an ideal world, we could pick up where we left off.

Maybe some will find me on Facebook and I will be given a different window into their lives.

Maybe that’s it, and I will never see them again.

Or maybe, like Luren, we will meet unexpectedly one day.

When that day comes, even if it’s years down the road, please, may I remember their names.

Here’s to:

Paola, Leon, Ying Yao, Anita, Liang Yu, Leonardo, Georgi, Graham, Chih Tao, Daniel, Yun, Azer, Leo, Keith, Jun, Pramod, JiaCong, Hong Ming, David, Manish, Stephen (Big Steve), Amira, William, Cristinel, Calin, Azadeh, Emanuele, Veli, José, Li, Yan et Manmohan.

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There is no real ending. It’s just the place where you stop the story.” 
― Frank Herbert

 

 

 

WORDS FOR MARCH

Story: a painting by six year-old artist Grace Halmshaw

I. THE FINISH LINE

Paul Kalanithi’s message to his infant daughter, written mere weeks before his death:

“ There is perhaps only one thing to say to this infant, who is all future, overlapping briefly with me, whose life, barring the improbable, is all but past.

The message is simple:

When you come to one of the many moments in life where you must give an account of yourself, provide a ledger of what you have been, and done, and meant to the world, do not, I pray, discount that you filled a dying man’s days with a sated joy, a joy unknown to me in all my prior years, a joy that does  not hunger for more and more but rests, satisfied. In this time, that is an enormous thing.”

 

Aging is an extraordinary process where you become the person you always should have been.”   -David Bowie

II. WHO WE ARE

The most authentic thing about us is our capacity to create, to overcome, to endure, to transform, to love and to be greater than our suffering. ”
Ben Okri

Hiatus:
A painting by six year-old artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

III. THE WRITTEN WORD

I still believe in man in spite of man. I believe in language even though it has been wounded, deformed, and perverted by the enemies of mankind. And I continue to cling to words because it is up to us to transform them into instruments of comprehension rather than contempt. It is up to us to choose whether we wish to use them to curse or to heal, to wound or to console.”
Elie Wiesel, Open Heart

***

In a secular age, I suspect that reading fiction is one of the few remaining paths to transcendence, that elusive state in which the distance between the self and the universe shrinks. Reading fiction makes me lose all sense of self, but at the same time makes me feel most uniquely myself.”

-Ceridwen Dovey, “Can Reading Make You Happier?”

***

The poetry dispensary doesn’t fit into any framework for “ordinary relationships.” It is not therapy, though I’m a psychotherapist. It’s not friendship or teaching. Is healing happening? Art? At once, playful and deeply serious, it’s a performance and exchange. I rely on people’s willingness to share their stories. I rely on the poem to reflect what might not be articulated any other way. Though its efficacy is uncharted, I rely on it the way you rely on art to do something when you need something nothing else can do.

– Ronna Bloom, “On Prescribing Poems for the Sick, the Dying, the Grief Stricken”

Anima:
A painting by six year-old artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

EACH OF US IS A WORLD

While we were grocery shopping last Saturday, Christian spotted someone who looked familiar at the next cash, so he struck up a conversation with him. It turns out he was right. It was the father of a former work mate who had also become Christian’s friend.

Christian had never actually met this man so he went over and introduced himself.

I know the son too, but would never have guessed that this man was his father.

The person before me was a long-legged, small man wearing an ill-fitting coat that would have been refused at a thrift shop. He was thin in a way that suggests neglect or bad habits. His stringy hair had outgrown its cut months ago. His shoulders stooped in a bookish way, as though a permanent pair of reading glasses at the end of his nose had altered his posture and dragged them forward (I don’t think he was wearing glasses, but it felt that way).

He was friendly and yet oddly casual as we parted ways.

While heading to our car, Christian said to me: “You’d never guess by looking at that man that he’s a martial arts master who traveled the world, lived all over Asia, fell in love with a beautiful Bangladeshi woman, married her and came back to Montreal to have two gorgeous kids and live his life, would you?

No. No I wouldn’t have. Not in a million years. He looked like an old-school journalist or wrecked university professor.

This made us both smile. The coolness of it. The unpredictability of humans.

It struck us both—and not for the first time— that there are as many stories as there are human beings. And then some.

I grew up in middle-class suburbia and never moved away, and that has given me a sense that my life is—that I am—mainstream.

Which means generic.

Which means part of something homogenized and indistinct. Made uninteresting by sameness and an unwillingness to be adventurous.

Ugh.

Fortunately, it’s all optics.

We are pieces of a great mosaic; it’s true. And when the lens pulls far enough back—as it does in that wondrous video footage from orbiting spacecraft we’ve grown accustomed to seeing—we disappear and all that’s left is our blue planet.

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Move in closer though, and it’s a subjective lens that shapes us: it’s the image of ourselves we receive from others.

unnamed I feel this very keenly now. It took a long time, but I’m much more aware that the different shades of who I am are brought out or suppressed according to how individual people respond to me.

The fact that this is ongoing in my life perplexes me. Apparently, I’ll never outgrow it and never become impervious to it.

If that’s the case, and if I’m not alone in this, then I have to become a much better person. I have to learn to look at others with vastly more seeing eyes. I have that responsibility.

 

Each of us is a world.

 

the-worlds-strongest-librarian-290I was reminded of this just days ago, while reading Josh Hanagarne’s The World’s Strongest Librarian.

Toward the end of his endearing memoir, Hanagarne refers to a passage in George Orwell’s essay, “A Hanging”, in which Orwell witnesses the execution of a prisoner in a Burmese jail.

Hanagarne writes:

This was a man like him. A man of tissue, organs, bones, muscle and, one would hope, a man who had dreams of something better for himself. Then comes the line I can’t forget:

 He and we were a party of men walking together, seeing, hearing and feeling, understanding the same world; and in two minutes, with a sudden snap, one of us would be goneone mind less, one world less [the italics are Hanagarne’s].

For Orwell, the loss of a life was the loss of a mind was the loss of a world, and the world we inhabit is poorer for each loss, for the contributions that mind could have made.”

 

This beautiful message runs through Hanagarne’s unique and honest book, written by a 6’7” weight-lifting Mormon-raised man with severe Tourette Syndrome who has a Masters degree in Library Science and is an accomplished writer.

He’s the gigantic embodiment of the notion that every life story is a unique saga and that literature is just scratching the surface of Us.

Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune Josh Hanagarne, an employee of the Salt Lake City Public Library system, struggled with Tourette Syndrome as a child and teenager before finding refuge in reading and strength training. Hanagarne, author of "The World's Strongest Librarian" is photographed at the City Library in Salt Lake City on April 29, 2013.
Kim Raff | The Salt Lake Tribune
Josh Hanagarne, an employee of the Salt Lake City Public Library system, struggled with Tourette Syndrome as a child and teenager before finding refuge in reading and strength training. Hanagarne, author of “The World’s Strongest Librarian” is photographed at the City Library in Salt Lake City on April 29, 2013.

 

This makes me happy.

And sad, because while reading The World’s Strongest Librarian, I was reminded of the far-too-many moments of unkindness I’ve been guilty of in my mainstream life; how often I have failed to treat people with true empathy because I failed to imagine their world.

But I was fortunate:  I wound up teaching French to brand new Montrealers and learning to see the worlds they brought with them.

Hani Al Moulia

A few days ago, a story appeared on BuzzFeed that is a testament to the value of each person’s, each family’s story. It’s a short photo essay written and shot by Hani Al Moulia, a young Syrian, who arrived in Regina with his family after living in a Lebanese refugee camp.

The characters of this story: a father, a mother, four brothers and a sister, have already experienced so much, and yet of course, their stories are being written every day.

Who could have possibly imagined that they would be where they are now? Who can imagine where they are each headed?

It’s good that we have those questions in common.