MAKING PAPER AIRPLANES

On September 10th, 2013, I pressed Publish, and my very first blog post—which was also my first post for the Pointe-Claire Library’s Online Book Clubentered the public domain. It would be followed within hours by its equivalent in French, for the library’s Club de lecture en ligne.

There wasn’t much to it, but it felt like I’d just pushed off from the shore of a vast ocean and was heading out into open waters that I knew nothing about. Cyber waters, to make things worse.

When I was asked to take up the challenge by Mary Jane, the manager of Reference and Adult Programming, it felt like a fluke.  I also sensed a small opening up of my future, and knew that I would say yes. I was electrified.

It didn’t matter that I’d never done anything like it before, and that I was without credentials. Mary Jane’s offer was kick-starting my writing life into a public space that I passionately wanted to enter, despite a raging case of imposter syndrome and fluttering panic that whispered what-if… what-if… what-if… (you can’t do this).

Underneath my fears, there was an obstinate certainty that I would do this.

I have, and I’m so happy that I did.

What’s this happiness all about?

More than anything, I think that it’s about the miracle of living beyond your youth. About being on this earth long enough for the constantly updating versions of yourself to have as many chances as possible to flourish.

And it’s about the writing impulse.

I am a writer.

Such a simple and straightforward statement. And about as discomfiting as I am an artist.

 Statements that induce inner (and sometimes public) eye rolling. That come off as both posturing conceit and insecurity. Which they are at times. But often enough, they’re simply personal affirmations of something hidden away inside ourselves that we need to share. A part of us that we want seen and even recognized.

 Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Walt Whitman

 

I’m a woman, a wife, a mother and grand-maman; a friend (a good one, I hope), a teacher, a linguist, a lover of literature and an optimist. I’m also a writer.

It’s important that you know this about me because it took so long for me to acknowledge this part of myself. And the sad thing about it is that I know now that I was born a writer, and think that’s most often the case.

Looking back at my childhood and adolescence, I can, of course, come up with standard examples of the different ways my desire to write expressed itself: writing stories that teachers really liked; writing angsty poems alone in my room—that sort of thing.

But those mean nothing. The writer in me came alive and started to draw big deep breaths once I’d left home. She began to show up every time there was a greeting card to fill out or a letter to write and I sat, not counting the time ticking away, crafting a wish or a message that came as close as I could get to how I felt, or one that would effect a change in the reader. Words that would linger.

 She more and more frequently emerged to express my need to advocate for someone or some cause, so I sat down and worked through letters to the Editor at the Gazette or La Presse and emails to the CBC and elsewhere.

Often, she was my only means of self-expression.

She helped me to say goodbye to my stillborn son in a few impossibly sad letters, written days after losing him, that I have never been able to re-read.

She has helped me to step back from pain and confusion and anxiety that threaten to overwhelm me, providing me the remove necessary to encode and eventually understand a little better why I feel the way I do.

She seems to always be with me on my osteopath’s table, where far too often, while working to open up all of the places where my body stores its physical and psychic wounds, Teresa will suddenly say: “Come back to me! You’re in your head!” and I’m startled because she’s right, and I’ve been drifting back into the place of words and of the running narrative voice in my head.

Teresa isn’t always a help though, because she makes me talk all the time (she says she likes the way I say things). But I forgive her, because she gets me.

 There are other reasons why the writer in me has grown stronger and louder. I’ve noticed and inverse correlation between the weakening of my speaking voice and the emergence of the writer.

I have a soft, high soprano speaking voice, and sang in a choir till I had the twins. But some time in my thirties, more than a handful of notes disappeared from my vocal range. And I can’t scream anymore. That’s not a big deal because I rarely feel like screaming but I mean: I couldn’t scream to save my life—or anyone else’s.

The weakening of my voice is likely an occupational hazard (vocal strain comes with the teacher’s job description) and that would satisfy me if it weren’t for the fact that I also  understand that silence is an expression of resignation. I’ve learned and come to accept that there are relationships  and problem situations in my life upon which nothing I do will have an effect and so, I no longer confront them head on. In these cases, my pen and keyboard help me to find the solace of self-expression.

All of this was well in place when Mary Jane made her wondrous offer to me three years ago. I still don’t think that she knows what blogging means to me.

  

Since 2013, I’ve written hundreds of blogs in English and in French for the Library, and something inside me has opened up and found its legs and just wants to keep going. I love it so much that I found that these were not enough, and that I wanted a freer, more personal blog: this blog.

Just this week, a Facebook friend posted the link to an arresting and beautifully written essay by Roger Angell. It’s a very personal, wry, humble and soulful meditation on love, loss and impending death. Somewhere in the midst of his masterful piece, Angell wrote:

I’ve also become a blogger, and enjoy the ease and freedom of the form: it’s a bit like making a paper airplane and then watching it take wing below your window. ” –Roger Angell, from his essay “This Old Man”

This rather peripheral little phrase wasn’t lost on me. It floated off the page and I caught it.

Blogging is an act of faith. Every time I sit down to write a post, I imagine you—someone—out there. I hope only for that one person, ready to catch my words.

 

WATCHING THE OPENING CEREMONY

Friday night, my husband and I got together with two of our sons—Simon and Christian—and our friend Cindy to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio.

We made an event of it. We set up TV tables in the livingroom, grilled some pork chops on the bar-b-que and opened a bottle of delicious red wine.

Friday was a scorcher in Montreal. Thirty-three degrees Celsius (91.4 Farenheit), and my livingroom isn’t air-conditioned. The only thing providing even the slightest illusion of coolness was the rotating floor fan. I bet it was a lot fresher in Brazil.

But we hung in there, and I’m trying to figure out why.

Rio de Janeiro – Cerimônia de abertura dos Jogos Olímpicos Rio 2016 no Estádio do Maracanã. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)
Dancers perform during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP / Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

As is often the case, Simon was our event planner, which is probably the most important piece of this puzzle, because last night was about all of us following his lead. Which we often do. Easily and happily. Simon has an affinity for shared joy  and we’re smart enough to tag along.

Part of the equation is the TV itself. It stands in as a hearth—though it felt more like there was a bonfire in the room— and we love to gather around it. We do this on Super Bowl Sunday despite the fact that our sons have no interest in football. We do it on provincial and federal election nights when the stakes always seem to be high and the only thing that makes the tension bearable is being together to endure it. We also do it when a movie we saw and loved in the cinema is released on DVD and when Netflix has just introduced a terrific new series. Small traditions.

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These are hard times for idealists. Among other things, this has been the year of Donald Trump, of Sepp Blatter’s undoing and of the Russian doping scandal. Of the I.O.C. and FIFA being true to form: sports federations acting like cartels.

And yet still we wanted to watch.

This is the mystery. We aren’t naïve, nor are we flag waving patriots—we’re pretty much run of the mill Canadians and Québécois: not a jingoistic cell in our bodies. But when the Games come around and the media buzz starts, we can’t help but be drawn in.

We love to watch the sports that still seem amateur, like rowing, diving, canoing and swimming (no one goes into rowing for the money). We’re captivated by the personal stories that emerge during the Games and the surprises, like Simon Whitfield’s gold medal in Sydney.

We love the human drama and we love the performances. We’re drawn to the metaphor of the Games as a global gathering place, which has real meaning—especially for me.

But as I sat watching Rio’s opening ceremony, something was missing, and it was hard to ignore this absence.

There was no moment of visual poetry like the archer lighting the cauldron in Barcelona; no young Céline Dion—just 24 at the time—filling the massive stadium in Atlanta with her voice, singing to an audience of billions without a tremor; and no Shayne Koyczan standing alone with a mic, speaking the words of We Are More with a ferocious passion the likes of which Canadians rarely experience.

Shayne Koyczan at the Vancouver Opening Ceremony, 2010

Maybe, with Olympics now arriving in two year cycles, it isn’t possible to keep feeling the same excitement.

Maybe it’s because I watched the 2012 London Summer Games opening ceremony in a hotel room across from the Gare de Lyon in Paris: an impossibly improbable (but real) and incomparable moment in my life against which this time paled.

I saw that Christian—the youngest of us at 25—was perplexed by our loyalty to an event and an organisation that lost its integrity decades ago (I know that he would say in 1936).

Well, I do share Christian’s disillusionment. I remember the 1976 Summer Games because my summer job had me working at the central message service in the Games headquarters downtown (while my then future husband worked as a security guard at the Olympic Stadium). The scale and budget of those Games weren’t yet immoral.

My memories of Montreal’s opening ceremony are of a pre-digital non-extravaganza that included rather innocent, folkloric choreographies and costumes. I can still see Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, young and flawless (and very white), as they lit the Olympic flame.

Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson light the torch in Montreal, 1976

But of course, those Games burdened Quebec’s citizens with a debt that it took thirty years to clear. None of us feel wistful about that. But at least our stadium is still standing and most of the installations were repurposed and have enhanced the city’s life.

Construction of the Olympic Stadium, Montreal
The former Velodrome has been converted into a Biodome, Montreal.
The Montreal Olympic stadium today

Several host countries since then have not even had our good fortune, including Greece, Russia, Bosnia and China. Many of their Olympic sites look like wrecked ships dredged up from the ocean floor, or an area trashed by a hedonistic mob.

The Sarajevo Olympic podium was later used for executions during the Bosnian War. (Photo: Hedwig Klawuttke/CC BY-SA 3.0)

I sometimes feel like I could be buried alive in the cynicism of the times. It certainly seems like 21st technology—especially I.T.—has blasted the doors open to the commodification of everything. That makes it perversely easy to devalue everything and see nothing but rapacious greed and corruption beneath the veneer of the human world.

Last Friday night, watching events in Rio, I felt myself swaying in that direction.

And then, the following morning, the first thing my husband did upon waking was turn on the TV and set it to the CBC’s coverage of the Games. And the room was filled with the voices of broadcasters in their temporary high profile assignments enthusiastically describing events.

For the sixteen days of the Games, the TV will stay on most of the day and evening (sometimes with the volume turned down, but there nevertheless). This constant streaming makes our home feel more open and alive. It just does.

My sister-in-law confessed to me a couple of days ago that she prefers to watch the Games alone because then she feels free to jump and scream and rant and rave and cry unself-consciously. She says that she can’t explain what comes over her and she doesn’t care.

That sympathetic response that’s being set off in her is felt by millions of viewers of the Games.

Last night, a gawky sixteen year-old Canadian swimmer named Penny Oleksiak stepped onto the blocks at the swimming pool in Rio and ripped through the water doing the 100m butterfly so fast that the fluid displacement created a mini tsunami behind her. She isn’t swimming for money, or to move a political agenda ahead, or to increase her power and influence.

Though she mostly looked awkward, nonplussed and then elated on land with her silver medal hanging from her neck, Penny Oleksiak was and is a kinaesthetic genius in the water: her medium.

This, to me, is the principle reason why we watch the Olympics. For the bursts of joy and ecstasy that are created by the beauty and perfection of human bodies in motion, and the elevation of the spirit that we feel as we witness them together.

Mark Tewksbury wins the gold medal in the 100m backstroke, Barcelona 1992