BETWEEN THE REGIONS OF KINDNESS

I write at the urging of the voice inside my head, the Great Narrator of my small life, the one that seems to never shut up but which I trust doesn’t indicate mental illness.

I don’t know that it ever stops to rest, but I don’t mind because I know myself well enough to recognize that without it, I’ve lost a powerful way of functioning in the world, of processing my experiences and understanding my life. Of understanding LIFE. I’m no longer sure that I could find my way without it.

Shields, Frederick James; Man Repels the Appeal of Conscience; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/man-repels-the-appeal-of-conscience-57014

It’s crowded here, in my head, because there’s a second voice. It’s a smaller, primal, timorous voice that I imagine living in the dark, and that I know for sure dates back to the beginnings of me, because it’s embedded with some of my first memories. Its utterings are uncomfortable and seem to always come at a cost— to be the result of an inner struggle.

It’s the voice of my conscience.

When I was a child, it felt like my conscience spoke from a pulpit.

I eventually figured out that it was being egged on by the voices of my parents, my teachers, most adults in fact, and my peers. It felt like its principle aim was shaming. Which is why it penetrated me so deeply.

Pacquette, Elise J. M.; Protecting the Heart; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/protecting-the-heart-192960

I carry inside me a list of memories of my worst childhood moments. It’s the doing of my conscience, which still spits back up, more often than I’d like, mini-documentary remembrances of me being mean, petty, ugly.

Some of these go back to when I was barely five or six years old, but most evoke minor events that marked my passage through grade school and high school. Moments when I betrayed a friend; a moment when I tormented a classmate who was already marginalized and insecure; moments when I spoke against another for no other reason but malice and competitiveness; multiple episodes of schadenfreude.

(It’s hard not to write shameful here)

As I grew up, I often replayed these mini docs in my mind and then imagined myself atoning for them. In my daydreams, I still sometimes conjure up the person I harmed and try to express my regret.  What’s interesting is that over time, the reactions of the victims in my dreams have shifted and now, they don’t seem to remember any of it very clearly: like it’s just water under the bridge. Does this mean that I’m beginning to forgive myself? If so, I still have a long way to go. If I met any of these people in the street today, I feel sure that I would still want to dredge up the memory and apologize.

Sims, Charles; Crowds of Small Souls in Flame; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

My conscience has kept a precise ledger of my UNKINDNESS. When I was a young child, my failures of kindness were more often lashing-out impulses than anything premeditated. As those moments unfolded, it felt like nothing could override them.

I was powerless before my unkindness. And then less so, and then less so still, as I grew up.

Kindness is a beautiful word that’s strangely hard to pin down. In French, it’s said to mean a mixture of goodness—bonté—plus a blend of gentleness-kindliness-warmth-sweetness- generosity referred to as gentillesse.

Perhaps it’s simply goodness and benevolence in action.

Kindness of strangers, abstract by Blenda

I aspire to be a kind person. A kinder person. But I’m not at all sure that I am. What I feel certain of is that the wellspring of both unkindness and kindness is pain.

That explains its grip over me in childhood. Kids absorb pain without any of the filters life experience provides. They can only take so much of it, raw, into their small bodies, before it starts to splash back out in ways we and they don’t always recognize and can’t always control.

In adulthood, more is expected of us.

“I’ve always depended on the kindness of strangers” is a wonderfully mnemonic line that resonates, whether or not we know its origin. It’s a beautiful, terrible statement about our worst fears—abandonment, loneliness and dependency—and the starker truth that it’s those we love who hurt us most.

Raising my children, working in schools and now in companies, it almost seems as though the last two decades of my life have been an immersion in the lives of strangers who first are “others”, then become acquaintances, and then, often, friends.

Mostly, what this process has done is helped me to realize how quickly a stranger can become someone to discover, to know and to care about. More often than not, someone to love.

With each new class, with each new room full of strangers, I’m reminded that my openness to others is as simple as a smile (well, many, many smiles, whenever possible), grounded in my empirically supported faith that there are few human beings on this planet with whom I cannot find points of connection and kinship.

In this context, kindness comes easily.

Banksy, Kindness

Where I find myself failing is where most of the pain is: among the people I love most, if not always best. I’ve discovered that I have limits that are real and firm, and that I’m capable of a coldness that I didn’t think possible.

My coldness is a pain response that I’ve watched gain strength over time. It’s taken me years to figure it out, but I think it kicks in when I feel unsafe in the company of someone close to me. That can happen when being with a person feels like being invaded; when everything about an interaction with this person shuts me down and makes me feel like I want to hide inside myself.  It can also happen during periods when being with a person infects me with negativity, anxiety, or a sense of being controlled or pushed around. Sometimes, it’s simply that someone else’s pain is overwhelming my ability to cope.

 

In those instances, I can be so remote. I’ve cut people off for weeks and months at a time. It’s unkind, and it comes from pain and causes pain. But it feels like self-preservation, and I think that’s probably why I don’t feel as remorseful. The wellspring of my unkindness is my own pain.

And then, unexpectedly, the very real, stripped down pain of someone I love, or someone I don’t yet know, can pull me close once again. That’s the gravity of kindness.

* * *

These are unkind times, when under the guise of self-preservation, many of us now ignore the pain of others and reject kindness, condemning millions to a place Naomi Shihab Nye calls the desolate landscape between the regions of kindness.

It’s a place where none of us are meant to live.

Ernest-Pignon-Ernest-Untitled
Ernest Pignon-Ernest, Untitled

 

 

THE PERSON INSIDE

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 the McGill 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.

The McGill Simulation Centre
The McGill Simulation Centre

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.

 

Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/crib-84339
Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/crib-84339

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.

Thomas, Joseph Henry; Representing Bodily Pain from the Passion; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/representing-bodily-pain-from-the-passion-153526
Thomas, Joseph Henry; Representing Bodily Pain from the Passion; Merthyr Tydfil Leisure Trust

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.

Carriere, Eugene; Maternity (Suffering); Amgueddfa Cymru - National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/maternity-suffering-160108
Carriere, Eugene; Maternity (Suffering); Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales

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.

Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-pain-beneath-thy-sheltering-hand-192943
Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind

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.

 

Currie, Ken; The Troubled City; National Galleries of Scotland; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-troubled-city-211226
Currie, Ken; The Troubled City; National Galleries of Scotland

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.

I think it needs its own simulation centre.

Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-touch-of-comfort-55804
Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel

 

 

HOPE DIARY

I finished off my previous post with the word HOPE.

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.

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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.

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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.

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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”.

Elizabeth Warren at Logan airport, January 28th 2017
Elizabeth Warren at Logan airport, January 28th 2017

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”.

Volunteer lawyers at JFK preparing petitions for detainees, January 28th 2017
Volunteer lawyers at JFK preparing petitions for detainees, January 28th 2017

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

Addendum, Monday January 30th:

 I awoke this morning to the news that a twenty-seven year old Québécois university student entered a mosque in Quebec City last evening and started shooting. Six people died and 8 were injured. In a searing piece published in The Guardian, Nesrine Malik speaks of Islamophobia having burst its dams.

I start this day fearful of the waves ahead.

MARCH IN JANUARY

PROTEST Marjorie Hawke (1894-1979)
PROTEST
Marjorie Hawke (1894-1979)

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.

The Women's March in Montreal, January 21st, 2017 Photo by Cindy Canavan
The Women’s March in Montreal, January 21st, 2017
Photo by Cindy Canavan

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.

SHE SHALL BE CALLED WOMAN George Frederic Watts (19th c.)
SHE SHALL BE CALLED WOMAN
George Frederic Watts (19th c.)

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 GLEAM OF HOPE Joseph Wrightson MacIntyre (1842-1897)
A GLEAM OF HOPE
Joseph Wrightson MacIntyre (1842-1897)

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.

 

SUNRISE OF HOPE John Miller (1931-2002)
SUNRISE OF HOPE
John Miller (1931-2002)

 

 

 

 

 

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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WEAPONIZED WORDS

I can’t imagine what would have happened to me had I not been raised in a language-rich home. My parents’ plan was that their daughters should be bilingual from the cradle, and they set about making it happen. They also filled the house with books and read to us.

I’ve been robbed of the language of the cosmos—mathematics—thanks in part to terrible teachers in high school, to a pervasively rotten approach to math education in North America, but mostly thanks to my ineptitude.

But I seem to have been born with a brain that loves language and loves using it.

A source of joy in my life as a teacher of French as a second language is the way many classes spontaneously (and temporarily) morph into improvised linguistics workshops during which we stop to consider the complexity of French verb conjugations (%$#!!) and the comparative weirdness of English spelling, or marvel at the frequent-flyer status of ordinary words that exist simultaneously in English, French, Arabic and Russian (no mean feat!), and delight in idiomatic expressions that can create hilarious befuddlement.

I suppose it’s because they matter so much to me that I’m also so easily hurt by words.

In these Trump-saturated days, I’m in agony.

Last Sunday (October 9th), I tried to watch Donald Trump’s interactions with Hillary Clinton (there’s no way these can be referred to as a debate). After oh, maybe 30 minutes, I had to stop. I had to INSIST that we change the channel. We’d just finished supper and it was the end of a beautiful day, when I noticed that I was starting to feel sick: my pulse was elevated and my stomach was beginning to cramp and I thought that if I didn’t get away from the constant stream of Trump’s diatribe, I was at risk of vomiting up my meal. Trump’s voice and words were proving as effective as ipecac syrup.

Contrary to Mr. Trump, there’s no hyperbole in what I’m writing. Listening to the distortion and abuse of language that flowed almost exclusively out of his mouth, I began to feel that we were all, every viewer that night, being spattered with something toxic. It was as though a fire hose had ceased spraying water and begun dousing us all with the contents of a septic tank.

It was painful, and it made want to turn it off. My agitation surprised me, but my exposure to Mr. Trump’s flow was genuinely hurting me.

I read that more than eighty million people tuned in. I wonder how many made it to the end. Probably most of them. Perhaps you did.

If so, then that makes me different, but it may only be that my threshold’s lower. It’s possible that my love affair with language has made me more vulnerable to weaponized words.

Most of us were taught a simple phrase as children: Sticks and stones can break my bones but names will never hurt me.

I was never sure how I was supposed to use it. I think our parents meant it to be a kind of verbal placebo or else an incantation, either of which they hoped would act as a shield in the face of our tormentors. But instead, we often chanted it like a dare: a kind of “Bring it on!”.

I learned very quickly that “sticks and stones” was false bravura.

Supervising children in the school yard for many years made it impossible for me to forget what we’re like as children—what we’re capable of saying to each other. I remember many of the times in my youth when my words were cruel. Those memories sometimes float up from my conscience like daydreams gone bad. Sometimes I imagine myself tracking down the person I was hurtful to on that day, and apologizing. It’s never too late to apologize.

I also remember those times when I was on the receiving end of a similar lack of kindness. And worse.

What I remember most clearly about all of those moments is the feelings I experienced on each side of them. Those are the feelings that I carried into adulthood. They’re memories of pain and guilt and sadness. They’re memories I’m pretty sure I’ll die with and that’s  good because it’s the best guarantee I have that I’ll continue to be careful with my words. That I’ll try hard to not lash out, to not use words like guided missiles.

In adult life, things should be different. We should have learned important lessons. We should be able to avoid the world’s bullies. We should be able to see them coming and walk away. And in our personal lives, surely it’s possible to live in loving relationships with friends and family and neighbours that are safe and respectful and genuinely kind.

My three sons, all adults, have never said an unkind word to me. Never. I’m sure they had many moments of internal eye-rolling and grumbling that mercifully I could only guess at, but since the day they were born, they’ve always spoken to me with benevolence and have never even raised their voices. My husband, who grew up in a similar environment, has always tried to avoid using words in anger.

This is at least in part because they know what screaming and violent language does do to me. What its effect would be. And none of us want to live that way.

But what of the things that need to be said between people? Those hard things that we feel choked by—those verbal elephants in the room—when resentment and misunderstanding have filled up the space between people and want a voice?

Then we find ourselves in a minefield.

It has happened twice in my life that a relationship that I believed to be a friendship came crashing down in a torrent of words.

 

In both cases, I was ambushed. I never saw it coming. In each case, the person venting was a woman. Each in their own way—one in real time and the other, in an email—decided to blow up our friendship by telling me everything they thought was wrong with me.

The first time happened more than twenty years ago, and I remember feeling like something had detonated near me. In time, I’ve come to understand that the seed of her frustration and resentment was something about which there was nothing I could have done.

The second time was only last year, just after the November Paris attacks, when a woman I had known professionally and who had since become a friend, a Parisian who has lived in Quebec for decades, was so infuriated by something I wrote on my Facebook page following the terrorist attacks that she sent me a blistering, hateful email. And that was that.

by Photos8.com

 

Being on the receiving end of these assaults was immensely painful. The first time, I walked around in a daze, unable to think of much else. It felt like a cloud of noxious gas covered my life. I played and replayed her words in my head, trying to figure out how she could have been storing such anger for so long without my seeing it or feeling it.

The second time was different because the words were written, and so they could be read and re-read. Had my laptop zapped me with an electrical charge, it wouldn’t have been more jolting. In this case, I began to see cracks in a person I admired for her intellect and cultural sophistication. In this case, I felt shaken and uneasy.

I’ve since purged my computer of all emails from my Parisian acquaintance, and spoken several times to my neighbour and former friend who lives just around the corner. I still think about each of these events, and consider what my responsibility is in each of these failures. These women held up a mirror to me that cast a reflection I found difficult to acknowledge and triggered a lot of soul-searching.

What has struck me hardest is how lasting their effect has been, and how difficult to step outside of their pall.

Weaponized words can never be taken back and shouldn’t be responded to on the spur of the moment.

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It isn’t a fluke that all of this has been spinning around in my head since the Trump campaign began. I’ve seen so much footage of people on the campaign trail holding placards and screaming poisonous things at strangers and video cameras that I’m beginning to wish that we all came equipped with a mute button.

 

Kindness is the language which the deaf can hear and the blind can see.”

—Mark Twain

WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN

Photo by Lisa Zane

I met up with my cousin yesterday. She’s also my godchild. Sixteen years separate us. She’s a twin. On most week days, during the summer she was born, I used to cycle a dozen or so kilometers to the duplex her parents rented, to take care of her not-quite-three-year-old brother, and help out any way I could while her young mum (my aunt) cared for her newborn daughters and tried to finish writing her master’s thesis.

That’s to say that I love my cousin immensely and that our connection has deep roots. The fact that she’s a twin, and that I eventually also had twins, has only strengthened our bond. But our lives are full and we see each other too rarely.

 

Yesterday, we sat with our coffees and tried to catch up with each other’s lives. When there’s so much to say and so little time to say it, conversation does a strange thing: it cuts to the chase.

And so we found ourselves discussing insights that come only with time and distance.

If you were to represent our lives on a timeline, you might expect to see two parallel lines on which the usual signposts of life—youth—studies—romance and coupling—establishing a career—children—mirror each other’s, with hers lagging behind mine at a consistent interval.

But it isn’t really so.

In part, that’s because I got off to a very early start in some things, and she in others. We made different choices and we live with them.

 

What an easy and fruitless explanation.

I’ve been thinking a lot about our conversation. I’ve had these thoughts about the road less traveled and the road not taken—complementary expressions (and titles)—one inspired by the other, that are intended, in part, as meditations on the meaning and responsibility of choice.

This morning, I looked up Robert Frost’s poem to refresh my memory (I’ve included it at the end of this post). I followed him from the fork in the road that brought him to a place where one path wouldn’t allow him to see too far ahead: to where it bent in the undergrowth”.

I followed him as he looked from that path to the other, the one “having perhaps the better claim, because it was grassy and wanted wear” and chose that one, the one less traveled by, which “has made all the difference.”

It’s made me realize that you can read it over and over and understand it differently each time, according to where you’re standing on that day.

What strikes me most readily is the traveler’s avoidance of the road that doesn’t allow him to see too far ahead. I’m struck by his delusion that the other is really any different. Because even a straight line to the horizon offers only a partial glimpse of the road ahead.

We place enormous stock in the choices we make in life, and we should.

My cousin and I talked a long while about those. Such conversations inevitably lead to “what might have been”, the weight of which increases as we grow older.

 

Looking at her beautiful face that is just beginning to show the slightest evidence of her age, and her smile which is as luminous as it was when she was still a preschooler, you would never know what she carries with her. The pain. Held inside her from childhood and still poking gashes into her like a shard of glass. How it changed the way she walks in the world. How it has diverted her from who she might have been.

For some of us, those injuries come early on in our lives and for others, only much later. Sometimes they’re so savage and unrelenting that they break something inside us. Sometimes, they drip, drip, drip, drip until they’ve created a hole that we’ll never be able to fill or close.

 

But all of us are wounded at some point in our lives. All of us sustain blows that we rise from. All of us struggle to integrate suffering.

How different would my cousin’s choices have been had she carried a lighter burden?

That’s a question I ask about my own life as well.

It’s enormously important and also futile.

It matters: not because it’s answerable—it isn’t—but because it leads to self-knowledge and to a self-awareness that generates the truest compassion.

It has also led me to a deeper understanding of all that flows from WHAT WE CANNOT CHOOSE.

* * * *

Brompton Cemetery, London, England

 

On Monday August 22nd, I went for an afternoon walk with my youngest son, Christian. It was his 25th birthday, but we’d done most of the celebrating that weekend.

It was a cool and breezy day and that’s probably what convinced us to head towards the Library and then see where we wound up next.

Across the street from the Library is a cemetery that belongs to Saint-Joachim parish, which is three centuries old and situated a few kilometers away, on the lakeshore, the dead having long ago exceeded the space made for them near the parish church.

My father’s buried there, as are loved ones from generations preceding my parents, but I hadn’t visited it for years.

 

Brompton Cemetery, London, England

I’m not sure why that is, because I love cemeteries. When I went to London to visit Christian last year at almost the same date, one of the first places he took me was Brompton Cemetery for a long and lovely walk.

Most European cemeteries are old enough to have been partially reclaimed by nature: the trees have grown tall and many headstones—monuments really—have long since begun leaning back toward the earth.

 

That’s not the case at the Pointe-Claire cemetery. When my dad was buried there in 1989, only ground plaques were allowed. It bothered me and it bothered my mum that people could so easily walk over the stone upon which my dad’s name was engraved.

 

About 10 years ago, they changed the rule, and so my mum decided to have a new monument made for my dad’s grave, and asked me if I’d go with her to choose it. While we were there, she told me that she also wanted to have the name of my stillborn son—Gabriel—inscribed on the stone. The circumstances of his death were such that no memorial of any kind marked his passage through our lives. I accepted of course. It was such a kind and sensitive offer.

 

That must be what drew me to the cemetery with Christian on the day of his birthday. There we were, together, searching for my dad’s new headstone. It took a while because the cemetery has expanded in the years since I last visited and I was confused by the extra rows.

 

Then I found it. Christian came to stand by my side because it had immobilized me. And there we saw, below my father’s name near the base of the headstone, the inscription: “À LA MÉMOIRE DE BÉBÉ GABRIEL DAOUST”.

It was beautiful to see. It marked a traumatic event that occurred more than a quarter century ago. We stood there for a while, whispering how lovely it was and what a good idea my mum had had.

 

My mouth had gone dry and I felt a bit unsteady. We began walking toward the edge of the cemetery which overlooks a hill, and then, as though someone had thrown a switch, my heart pounding, the tears came. I said to Christian: It’s 26 years away and it’s two seconds away. Then he took me into a gentle hug and there we stood, embracing in the cemetery on a sunny summer day; his birthday. And it felt like the most appropriate thing in the world.

It was life coming full circle. Because you see, had I been given the choice, I would never have chosen to go through the dark and painful experience of losing Gabriel. I would have opted for “the better claim”, the greener path.

 

I understand that it’s good that life gave me no choice. I wouldn’t be the person I became. By choosing to not go towards the pain, I would have sidestepped one of the deepest and most resilience-building passages of my life.

Had I done so, I would never have had Christian.

At the cemetery’s edge, August 22nd 2016

On his Facebook page for August 22nd, Christian posted pictures of the headstone and a selfie he took of us both standing on the edge of the cemetery, in that moment of utter vulnerability and tenderness. They were accompanied by the following message:

 

 

“Today of all days, I should give thanks to my mum and honour one of my namesakes. A quarter century on this planet and I’m feeling really lucky. Thanks everyone for making my life grand.”

 

 

Christian was born nineteen months after Gabriel.

Had I been able to choose, Christian is WHAT WOULDN’T HAVE BEEN, in my life.

He has made all the difference.

 

The Road Not Taken – by Robert Frost

Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,

And sorry I could not travel both

And be one traveler, long I stood

And looked down one as far as I could

To where it bent in the undergrowth;

 

Then took the other, as just as fair,

And having perhaps the better claim,

Because it was grassy and wanted wear;

Though as for that the passing there

Had worn them really about the same,

 

And both that morning equally lay

In leaves no step had trodden black.

Oh, I kept the first for another day!

Yet knowing how way leads on to way,

I doubted if I should ever come back.

 

I shall be telling this with a sigh

Somewhere ages and ages hence:

Two roads diverged in a wood, and I—

I took the one less traveled by,

And that has made all the difference.