LOOSE THREADS

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.

The conference room where we meet. Waiting for students to arrive.
The conference room where we meet. Waiting for my students to arrive.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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?

Polar Vortex hovering over Montreal, December 2016
Polar Vortex hovering over Montreal, December 2016

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.

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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.

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PENELOPE’S HEART

Written January 26, 2015 ·and just recently rediscovered:

Penelope’s Heart

I believe that my granddaughter Penelope’s heart bears no secrets.
It is as open as a smile,
As glorious as the sun,
As knowing as the stars,
As tender as tears,
As fierce as a lion,
As gentle as sleep,
As expansive as a dream,
As sudden as lightning,
As sensitive as a flower,
As boundless as the ocean,
As natural as life,
As sacred as a shrine.

picture1 Penelope, October 2016

 

MY DAEMONS

I’m up early, as usual.

It’s been rough of late.

Turning back the clocks this year has simply meant that I’m often up at four rather than five o’clock. This is a crummy new development and I’m still figuring out how to best live with it until I’ve reset my circadian dial.

Not long after the return to Eastern Standard Time and the darkness it envelops us in, my working life slipped into fast forward with new contracts coming in before old ones had reached their endings, and I’ve felt a little bit like I’m drowning (marinating?) in fluctuating stress hormones ever since.

At four in the morning
Tree at four in the morning (Photo: mine)

These passages are always anxiogenic.

I know this, and am frustrated with myself, because no matter how many such cycles just like this one my work puts me through, I don’t seem to get much better at warding off the waves that upset the balance in my life.

The moment I realized that I would only be able to manage all of the work (by manage, I mean do it well enough and with joy!) if I cut back on seeing my grandchildren and friends and suspended my writing, I began to feel a weight on my chest and a whispering sadness.

Time, lately, has been like a box that encloses me (or maybe this image comes to mind because, as the amount of online Christmas shopping I’ve been doing has increased, I’ve been piling up those brown shipping boxes).

It has also felt like a greased rope that’s slipping through my hands. It has felt like my oppressor.

This is both fact and figment.

I’m preoccupied with good reason. There aren’t really enough hours in the day. The balance is too precarious.

And yet, my students have been wonderful; my husband has been cleaning up a storm at home; my son Christian has been cooking up delights while his brothers have been the bringers of only good tidings and kindness; my grandchildren and friends have been understanding. And this teaching wave will crest on December 23rd.

Dusk in winter. Yesterday.- photo: mine

So: I’m not one iota less grateful for all of it, just woefully inadequate to the task of applying all of the wisdom gained from life experience, my yoga practice, and from being loved by good, good people.

 

I’m a slow learner indeed. Part of the problem—a very big part, I’ve come to realize—has been that making the adjustments to teach three new groups that all have very different needs, and balancing the seven others, has taken all of the time that I would otherwise devote to writing.

Writing—this thing that I’m doing right now—seems to have become necessary. I don’t know at what moment this became a fact, but there it is.

Early dawn under the maple-photo: mine
Early dawn under the maple-photo: mine

Writing is my daemon. Being separated from it causes me distress that only increases as the days pass. Being able to return to it this week, finally, has helped me to feel both relief and a kind of hopefulness.

Strange. The library blogs I was finally able to write this past week (in English and then in French) were about the recent, merciless unmasking of Italian novelist Elena Ferrante.

It was a new experience for me to write about an author whose work I haven’t even yet read, but something about the story of this woman being dragged against her will into the media spotlight last October 2nd really got to me.

The vast majority of the reaction pieces to Ferrante’s aggressive “outing” that I read were by women writers with whom I couldn’t help but feel a kinship. There’s the ominous scent of something regressive in the air these days and we are picking it up.

But I think that I connected to Ferrante’s fate for more personal reasons as well, because everything indicates that her ability to create and write are contingent upon her ability to walk the tightrope between fact and fiction that she believes is only possible for her in anonymity—that space that allows her to hide in plain sight.

She has been stripped of the conditions necessary to the practice of her art.

Winter sky at dusk. photo: mine
Winter sky at dusk.
photo: mine

It isn’t very Zen to state that there are elements upon which my happiness depends, but today, and every day previous, this has been so.

My existence as a living being is nurtured, like tree roots, by my connections to all of the people I love and care about—these are roots I want to continue to grow till they connect with the vastest possible network—and by those that I create through my work and my writing.

"Our winter sky at night, a sight to behold." -photo by Christian Daoust
“Our winter sky at night, a sight to behold.”
-photo by Christian Daoust