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;

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;

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




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;
Guy, Alexander; Crib; Glasgow Museums;

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;
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;
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;
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;
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;
Cauchi, Carmel; The Touch of Comfort; George Eliot Hospital Chapel




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.


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.


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.




These were the chants in America’s big city airports—and the entreaties in countless hearts.


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.


PROTEST Marjorie Hawke (1894-1979)
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.)
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.


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)
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)
John Miller (1931-2002)







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.


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.


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.


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.


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.



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.



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.


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


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.







I was a little girl when the first episodes of the original Star Trek series aired.

Sometimes I think that it was a miracle that I ever found it at all on TV because ours, which sat atop the piano (or some other high piece of furniture in the livingroom that forced me to look up, much the way people do now with their big screens mounted on the wall), was strictly controlled by my mum, who at that time was 100% stay-at-home and always vigilant.

But there must have been a day when conditions were right and I managed to watch it.

Like almost everything else about my childhood, I can’t recall any of the details of this exactly. My memories aren’t stored in neat episodes. They’re mostly telescoped inside my mind, and tugging on any one of them pulls several out in one long tangle.

What I’m left with, though, is enough. I remember watching the first season of Star Trek and feeling pure wonder and happiness. Like it was a miracle. Like I had found a place outside of every other part of my life that was populated by people who saw the world a lot like I did—that is, with openness and optimism. I always left the Star Trek universe reluctantly.


I think what I had found, really, was the first TV show beyond my favourite children’s programs that conveyed the same essential benevolence and yet was ADULT.

This was perhaps the shocker for me. To discover that there were people like Gene Rodenberry who unabashedly adored life and the human race and refused to succumb to what, eleven years later in another imagined universe, would be described as the dark side. Pessimism, cynicism and disguised despair.

In these memories, it feels like I was watching the show alone, but that’s unlikely because our house was small; my sisters must have been nearby. But I don’t think either of them felt the way I did about Star Trek.

My mum, well, she was listening in from the kitchen.

I remember that she didn’t GET IT. My very bright mother— the product of the post war years in Quebec, which were profoundly traditional and Catholic, and who reached her twenties in 1955—couldn’t help herself; she just felt threatened by the show.

She saw in Star Trek a menace to her faith and thus my faith, and she said this to me in exactly those words. I think it may have been her first serious exposure to science fiction, and it unsettled her. She couldn’t see how something that expanded our view of the universe and our role in it, the way Star Trek did, could be compatible with Catholic cosmology.

My memories of how this made me feel are very clear: I desperately wanted her to see what I saw when I watched Star Trek. Rodenberry’s future contained all of the recognizable evils and suffering I was already aware of: illness, death, poverty, war and destruction. But in this future, the predominance of diversity, inclusion, cooperation, benevolence, sharing, acceptance and understanding were matter-of-fact.

Enlightened, essentially good people would always strive to bring everyone on board. The power-mad and the destructive would be dealt with swiftly and justly.


What young mind wouldn’t be swept up in a world that presented endless what-ifs and ways of being, and then threw Captain Kirk and his crew into the mix to see how they would all make it through?

Even as a grade schooler, I felt vindicated by the idealism of Star Trek.

I also had a mad crush on Captain Kirk.

That’s how Star Trek entered my life, sharing space with Batman, Barbie, Willy Wonka and Thierry la Fronde.

I don’t remember how many of my friends were Star Trek groupies, but I do remember ersatz communicators  turning up in our play, sometimes fitting into our improvised Batman-inspired utility belts.


The Star Trek universe and I grew up together.

A dry spell followed those years of my childhood, and when the next great wave of space adventure hit in 1977, I was just emerging from adolescence. When I exited the cinema after seeing Star Wars: A New Hope for the first time, the only sounds I could muster were: WOW!


We forget that these were the VCR years, when Sony Trinitron TVs were considered hot stuff.

No one had ever seen anything like it.

The original Star Wars movie was one of the first things I ever taped on our VCR, in 1986 or ’87, when the twins were 3 or 4 years old. It was a version dubbed in French (it was a great translation!), that they watched over and over and over and over till the cassette wore out (is there a little boy alive who can’t make legit lightsaber sound effects?).

And THAT was the beginning of my sons’ slow indoctrination into Star Trek, Star Wars and everything sci-fi/fantasy/geeky.

I’m the resident sci-fi and fantasy buff in the house. My husband, who was also wowed by Star Wars in 1977, is nevertheless made of different stuff. There isn’t a nerdy or geeky bone in his body and he isn’t prone to even the shortest flights of fancy.

Happily, it fell to me. They’ve taken up the torch with a vengeance, and have outpaced and outstripped me by light years.


Cut to last Wednesday, when my son Simon (Twin One) organised our trek to the Canadian Aviation and Space Museum in Ottawa with Christian (Son Three) and our friend Cindy, so that we could share The Star Fleet Academy Experience.

 It wasn’t lavish or super-impressive. It was a straightforward interactive experience in a setting designed to be boxed up and moved to a different city every few months and it was a blast.

farpoint 3
Data and Captain Picard on the bridge: Star Trek, Next Generation
Simon and Christian on the bridge
Simon and Christian on the bridge

It featured animations and quizzes and simulations and when I was done, I received an evaluation that was later emailed to me:

Thank you for taking part in the Starfleet Academy Experience at the Canada Aviation and Space Museum.

Attached to this email you will find:

  • Your Starfleet Recruitment Certificate
  • Your Starfleet Personnel File
  • Your Species Selfie
  • Your Transporter video

We hope that you enjoyed your visit.
Live long and prosper.

How cool is that?

I wasn’t shocked to read that Star Fleet Academy had accepted me to study in the field of Communications.

Data commands the bridge: Star Trek-Next Generation
Christian commands the bridge

Pumped and in full geek mode, we passed the time during the drive home quizzing each other.

Questions started like this:

Who’s your favourite Star Trek main character? Secondary character?

There was lots of debate: Do you mean just the shows or are the movies included? All of the series?

Answers included Picard and Kirk, of course; Data—well yes (sigh); Ensign Ro, the Traveller, Q and a host of stragglers.

Favourite Star Trek movie?

Wrath of Khan dominated, but emotional responses also supported The Undiscovered Country and The Voyage Home; and I have a soft spot for Tom Hardy’s stunning performance in the role of Shinzon, going head-to-head with Patrick Stewart in Nemesis.

Then we veered off into the superhero cannon: Captain America or Iron Man?

(is that even debatable? Of course its Captain America; I have reasons coming out my ears!)

Which was worse: The most recent Superman or Batman VS Superman?

I hated the latter and had been warned by my sons not to see the first, but it was the winner of that debate.

We of course veered all over the place, and there were all kinds of leaps from genre to genre and medium to medium (how could any of us forget books, graphic novels and comics?), and the 200 km drive home passed in a flash.

I’m a lucky woman indeed. I can now boldly go where no one has gone before–into the undiscovered country– with a crew that includes family, friends and soon, my grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, who are gently being brought into the fold.

I hope to live long, and have already prospered beyond my wildest dreams.

Star Trek was an attempt to say that humanity will reach maturity and wisdom on the day that it begins not just to tolerate, but take a special delight in differences in ideas and differences in life forms. […] If we cannot learn to actually enjoy those small differences, to take a positive delight in those small differences between our own kind, here on this planet, then we do not deserve to go out into space and meet the diversity that is almost certainly out there.”
Gene Roddenberry






Deep down, I believe that fathers get the raw end of the parenting deal. You may have expected this if you’ve read A Love Supreme, but it’s worth giving it some thought.

I would even say that fathers are cheated by life. Which sounds harsh, but consider: a father enters his child’s life already nine months behind, without having the right to complain about a false start.

For those first forty weeks of his child’s life, a father warms the bench while the mother of his child walks around in the world as two people (and sometimes more). Inhabited.


A mother transforms as her baby grows inside her, and thus begins a private conversation between them. Whispers at first, but then much louder exchanges as the mother’s heartbeat and rushing blood follow the ebbs and flows of her emotions. This, and her muffled voice in the outer world, is her baby’s soundscape.

From the moment his child is born, a father has to establish his voice and his presence.

 Know me.

My son Jeremy, a few minutes after his first child, Penelope, was born.


What would it be like to feel so attached, so intrinsically bonded, so protective of one’s own best connection with time and the ages, of generations past and future, of another human life, of their time?” 
― J.R. Tompkins, Price of the Child


In English, even vocabulary conspires against fatherhood*. While mothering refers to an ongoing process of caring for children, fathering is much more commonly used to describe the act of generating offspring. It’s so…biological.

[* I find this interesting because in French at least, the verbs materner and paterner both exist and each refers to the process of caring for one’s child or caring for someone else in a motherly or fatherly way. They aren’t even particularly gender biased. They’re great little verbs.]

And then, there’s the fact that other than through genetic testing, a father really has to just accept on faith and trust that his child really is his.

Well, my husband never lost a moment’s sleep with such concerns because his sons all look like they were made from the same mold as he was: same tall, slim build, same brown eyes (though with dashes of green—my blue-eyed genes poking through a tiny bit). Daousts all. Through and through. When they all walk together, from a distance, you can’t tell the father from the sons.

My husband Sylvain with Jeremy at one month
Sylvain with Simon at one month

But even so. The biology of fatherhood is such that only the mother knows for sure that her child is her own.

Which makes it all the more astonishing that most fathers set all of this aside the moment they lay eyes upon their child for the first time—a wonder-inducing bonding experience that has been moved up on the parenting calendar thanks to ultrasound examinations—and feel a rush of insane happiness, pride, apprehension (downright terror?) and protectiveness.

But fathers aren’t always there for their children’s births. Nature certainly doesn’t require it, and sometimes they can’t be. Sometimes they don’t even know it’s happening.

You can be a father and not know it.

It’s also easier for fathers to run away.

The stories of young men searching for their fathers are the stories of young men who through their adventures father themselves by doing for themselves what they hoped a father would do for them.”

― William S. Wilson, Why I Don’t Write Like Franz Kafka

I was eleven when my father left, so neither of us really knew our fathers. I’d met mine of course, but then I only knew my dad as a child knows a parent, as a sort of crude outline filled in with one or two colors. I’d never seen my father scared or cry. I’d never heard him admit to any wrongdoing. I have no idea what he dreamed of. And once I’d seen a smile pinned to one cheek and darkness to the other when my mum had yelled at him. Now he was gone, and I was left with just an impression—one of male warmth, big arms, and loud laughter.”

― Lloyd Jones, Mister Pip


Phillip Toledano, from the series “Days with my father”


I’m not trying to write a sociological piece about fatherhood and patriarchy and the sexism of generations past or present, and I’m not a psychologist.

I just wonder what would happen if we compared notes about fathers and the meaning of fatherhood.

No matter our individual experiences of our own mothers or of motherhood, the sacrifice women make is incontrovertible. It isn’t possible to give more to another person than your own body. It isn’t possible to risk more than your life.

What fathers bring to their children is less directly physical and yet…

Fathers only begin as outliers.

Three decades after watching my husband transform into a father, I’m now observing the same metamorphosis in our son Jeremy.

Jeremy with Penelope

From my vantage point, new dads are a lot like young actors who have been sent to audition for a part without sides to guide them.

What IS a father’s role?

The motto of the Los Angeles police force comes to mind: To Serve and Protect. In many ways, this says it all for fathers too.

In the famous Proust Questionnaire, around which I’ve created a learning activity where my adult students interview each other, there’s a question about “your heroes in real life”. I’m stunned by the number of students who simply answer: my father.

When I ask them to explain this, most tell me what they observed about their father, how he lived and what his life meant. About what he denied himself.

Fatherhood by example. Fatherhood as commonplace heroism.

Jeremy and Graeme watching Penelope

“…if I were an angel of the Lord, I would mark the doors of each of my children’s homes with an X, so that plague and misfortune would pass over them. Alas, I lack the qualifications. So when there was still world and time enough I fretted. I nagged. I corrected. I got everything wrong.”
― Mordecai Richler, Barney’s Version


They slept huddled together in the rank quilts in the dark and the cold. He held the boy close to him. So thin. My heart, he said. My heart.”

― Cormac McCarthy, The Road

I believe that in the lives of children, fathers mean protection and safety.


I also think that no one is harder on a father than he is on himself.


Why do men like me want sons?” he wondered. “It must be because they hope in their poor beaten souls that these new men, who are their blood, will do the things they were not strong enough nor wise enough nor brave enough to do. It is rather like another chance at life; like a new bag of coins at a table of luck after your fortune is gone.”
― John Steinbeck, Cup of Gold: A Life of Sir Henry Morgan, Buccaneer, with Occasional Reference to History

I can show him how to be the right kind of stupid.”

― Nick HarkawayTigerman


This may be because while mothers tend to work in concert, fathers are soloists. The mantel of fatherhood is passed through succeeding generations in the silence of diligent, unglamorous service: a selective mutism that has found its way into human history.


Certainly, our culture is filled with stories of fathers and sons who love each other fiercely but cannot express this love with language. Fathers who will not let their sons enter their inner worlds. Sons who first feel confused by this, or resentful, but who eventually settle for much less than what might have been.

There may be a difference between the way fathers relate to their daughters, but that wasn’t my experience.


I could have asked my father lots of questions. I could have. But there was something in his face and eyes and in his crooked smile that prevented me from asking. I guess I didn’t believe he wanted me to know who he was. So I just collected clues. Watching my father read that book was another clue in my collection. Some day all the clues would come together. And I would solve the mystery of my father.”
― Benjamin Alire Sáenz, Aristotle and Dante Discover the Secrets of the Universe


You can know a thing to death and be for all purposes completely ignorant of it. A man can know his father, or his son, and there might still be nothing between them but loyalty and love and mutual incomprehension.”
― Marilynne Robinson, Gilead


There are things about fathers that are uniquely beautiful and which fill me with tenderness.

For instance, while young children seem to naturally disappear into to the pillowy curves of their mothers’ bodies, I’m a soft touch when dads hold their children: in one hairy hand at first, or propped up in the V of a strong arm, or up top on their shoulders. The bigger the dad and the more delicate the child, the more touching it is.

And though his play is often boisterous, a father’s devotion to his children is usually more stolid than a mother’s, and there’s a sweetness in that too.

I think, finally, that a father’s role is to step up, over and over again, for his child.

Last February, Rob Scott, the father of a boy with Down Syndrome, while still in the grip of very strong feelings of failure and pain, posted a video in defense of his son Turner.

While I was moved to tears by the truth of his message, I was also very deeply affected by his courage and willingness to lay himself bare in defense of his child. In this moment of stepping up, Rob Scott towered over most parents.


A few days after we came home from the hospital, I sent a letter to a friend, including a photo of my son and some first impressions of fatherhood. He responded, simply, ‘Everything is possible again.’ It was the perfect thing to write because that was exactly how it felt.”

― Jonathan Safran Foer, Eating Animals



Pablo Picasso – Mother and Child, 1901


This May, three babies were born among my neighbours and family. The first is Scarlett, the closest to my heart, who joins her three-year-old brother in what I know will be a happy and close sibling adventure. The other is Audrey, who lives right next door and will do the same, I hope, with her big brother who is just two. The third lives around the corner.

They arrived like the warmth of spring trailing joy and hope.

They arrived inevitably, after a slow and patient wait that veered sharply as it came to an urgent ending.

They arrived, and for all of the preparations—the fresh feathering of the nest and frequent medical monitoring—they’ve brought unpredictability and disorganization into their parents’ lives.

They’re all healthy babies and their seasoned mothers and fathers aren’t having to reinvent the world. They have a frame of reference, a bank of experience from which to draw. These families are already up and running.

The job of child number two or three or four, in any family, is to hop on a train that’s already moving and in which some seats have already been taken.

Each child eventually finds their way into adult life while bumping alongside siblings or else never having to share their ride.

It’s the experience—with some very sad exceptions— we all have in common.

But what of motherhood?

Amanda Palmer, Pregnant living statue

All human life on the planet is born of woman. The one unifying, incontrovertible experience shared by all women and men is that months-long period we spent unfolding inside a woman’s body. Because young humans remain dependent upon nurture for a much longer period than other mammals, and because of the division of labor long established in human groups, where women not only bear and suckle but are assigned almost total responsibility for children, most of us first know both love and disappointment, power and tenderness, in the person of a woman.” 

― Adrienne RichOf Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution


My breath caught when I read this. It has such weight. The enormity of it. The unquestionability of it. The responsibility of it.

I’m the second of three sisters. My father decided when I was very young that I should wear my hair short and then gave me the nickname Mikie. I think it was a clear message about who I should be, or who he was expecting. But, mysteriously and despite my tomboyish appearance, the strongest memory I have of my childhood hopes and dreams of the future is of a deep, unswerving desire and conviction that I should one day be a mother.

I can’t explain it. It was just there inside me.

I became a mother at twenty-four, while still a graduate student.


“That first pregnancy is a long sea journey to a country where you don’t know the language, where land is in sight for such a long time that after a while it’s just the horizon – and then one day birds wheel over that dark shape and it’s suddenly close, and all you can do is hope like hell that you’ve had the right shots.” 

― Emily PerkinsNovel About My Wife


 The story of how I became the mother of three goes like this:

The first time, I wanted a baby, and had two.

The second time, I hoped for one baby, but my son died in utero and was lost at 29 weeks.

The third time, I had learned to just hope for a healthy child and mindfully experience every second of the time he lived inside me.

This doesn’t begin to express what any of these experiences were like. How beautiful and terrifying and difficult and euphoric and painful and instinctive and dangerous and traumatic and life-threatening and life-altering and true and transformative they were.

This is the medical lexicon of my motherhood:

Twin high risk pregnancy, pre-eclampsia, prolapsed cord, emergency caesarian, intra-uterine death, compound presentation, prolapsed arm.

My childbirth experiences are all stories that I must hide from women expecting for the first time. They’re unshareable.


He carries no burden, he feels no pain. What man, like woman, lies down in the darkness and gets up with child? The gentle, smiling ones own the good secret. Oh, what strange wonderful clocks women are. They nest in Time. They make flesh that holds fast and binds eternity.” 
― Ray Bradbury


I’ve thought so often since I became a mother about what it would have been like to live the way most women have lived since the beginning of time— that is, without the possibility of choice. Without any control over whether or not I would become with child.


No woman can call herself free until she can choose consciously whether she will or will not be a mother.” 

― Margaret Sanger

What I experienced in bringing children into the world branded me for life and changed me profoundly. I was brought right up to the brink of myself and of what I could bear. I became the place where life and death did battle over my own and my babies’ existences.

I carry the wounds and scars of those battles with me every day.

This is not nothing. It is, in fact, almost everything to me. And to many women, I think.

Had I not had any choice at all in the matter…would I have survived?

I bring all of this to my mothering. And always have. How could I not?

And yet, I’m no different than every other mother. I feel a connection with my children so visceral and so deeply embedded in all of me that I know it will never abate.


 “When you moved, I felt squeezed with a wild infatuation and protectiveness. We are one. Nothing, not even death, can change that.”
― Suzanne FinnamoreThe Zygote Chronicles

 “It’s come at last”, she thought, “the time when you can no longer stand between your children and heartache.” 
― Betty SmithA Tree Grows in Brooklyn


There’s a pain in mothering that just never goes away, and it lives conjoined with a love supreme. And from this connection comes the strength possessed by every mother to defend and protect her child no matter the consequences; no matter the danger; no matter the cost to herself; no matter who or what stands in her way.

Stephen King wrote that: “There’s no bitch on earth like a mother frightened for her kids.”

He’s right, of course. I’ve transformed many times during my decades of mothering, and the ferocity of my feelings shocked me.

Lioness, Furiosa, Elen Ripley. I’ve been all of them.

When Elen Ripley took on the Queen in Aliens, I was on the edge of my seat, roaring along with her.

But I’ve more often felt very close to Joan Allen’s character, Bonnie, in the movie Searching for Bobby Fischer:

In that small and very personal movie, Bonnie is the mother of the boy—a chess prodigy—whose life is fast slipping into a very adult and male world of competition for its own sake. In a short and very powerful scene, Bonnie is the quintessential mother: she’s not projecting herself into her child, she’s simply drawing a protective line in the sand that she will not allow to be crossed:

Bonnie: He’s not afraid of losing. He’s afraid of losing your love. How many ball players grow up afraid of losing their fathers’ love every time they come up to the plate?

Fred: All of them!

Bonnie: He knows you disapprove of him. He knows you think he’s weak. But he’s not weak. He’s decent. And if you or Bruce [her sons’ chess teacher and coach] or anyone else tries to beat that out of him, I swear to God I’ll take him away.


If I live to be a hundred and ten, I’ll never do anything more meaningful, more hopeful and more astonishing that bringing my sons into the world.

With them, I’ve lived many more lives. I’ve experienced innumerable do-overs—those opportunities to start again and do things better, do them right and become a much better person.

I’m filled with an immense sense of gratitude.

My gratitude has four names. They are Simon, Jeremy, Gabriel and Christian.


As I cooked in the cauldron of motherhood, the incredible love I felt for my children opened my heart and brought me a much greater understanding of universal love. It made me understand the suffering of the world much more deeply.”

― Tsultrim Allione













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.


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.



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.



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.


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.


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





Original preschool artwork by Penelope Daoust, 2015-16

In recent days, I’ve been swept along by a current that I can’t fully understand.

I trace the start of it to a month or so ago, when I read a unique piece of fiction by Alan Lightman titled Einstein’s Dreams that I was drawn to like a magnet.

A short novel. A meditation on the value of time, presented as a series of dreams Einstein had during the long nights he worked and slept in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, where he eventually developped his theory of special relativity.

Alan Lightman

Why I alighted on this book, I can’t know for sure, though I think it started with my fascination with the author himself, who is both a physicist and writer, and MIT’s first professor to receive a joint appointment in science and humanities.

the_original_1920_english_publication_of_the_paperIt seems nearly impossible that anyone should have a mind both brilliantly mathematical and linguistic, but it is so.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be so lucky? Instead, I’ve always been drawn to the kinds of questions he asks without possessing the means to begin answering them.

I wonder what I would have become if there hadn’t been many others like Alan Lightman: extraordinary minds belonging to gifted writers.

People whose written work gives me a second home; a place to slip away into; a space outside of the mainstream of my life, using words in ways that expand my sense of what it means to be human, filling me up and helping me to see beauty and truth in a new way.


In my experience, what we’re seeking and what we find often have a strange, synchronous quality that doesn’t feel predestined as much as it feels in harmony with life at that moment.

Does this make sense to you? Have you experienced anything like this?

This notion seems to have been confirmed by the fact that, at about the same time, I acquired a copy of Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. I had seen so many laudatory reviews of this treasure of a book that I ordered it.

And here it was, and I immediately started reading it.

Kalanithi’s book, which is indescribably beautiful, chronicles the last years of his life and death, at the age of 37. He was a soulful, brilliant intellectual, a dazzling literary mind and exceptional neurosurgeon who wrote When Breath Becomes Air as a means, I believe, to making himself whole before meeting death— reconciling everything that he was and everything that he loved and hoped to give to the world.

Paul Kalanithi at the end of his life with his infant daughter Cady
Paul Kalanithi at the end of his life with his infant daughter Cady

It was hard to let that book go when I reached its end, and it stayed with me for days. I wish I could have stretched out that time and been able to prevent the space I inhabited while reading it from collapsing under the weight of life, but alas, it isn’t possible.

This is the stuff of happiness, real happiness. When we come to these moments that feel transcendent. When we experience snatches or stretches of time that are a kind of walking through the clearest, most distilled awareness.


When I was seventeen, my great aunt Gertrude, who was in her late seventies, lost her husband. They had married late and had no children, but had always been close to my mother and so we saw them often and loved them too.

My great-uncle had died early in the day, and as evening approached, plans were made for someone to stay with Aunt Gertrude, and so I volunteered to spend the night with her in their apartment downtown.

The first night after his death, there we were, the two of us, in this home she had shared for close to forty years with her husband.

I remember that she passed in and out of a state of shock, absorbing then rejecting her terrible loss. I remember how she moved from simple chatting and cups of tea to restless, frightened and disoriented meandering through her apartment, like the victim of a tornado sifting through a life reduced to rubble.

I remember how, just when she seemed to have calmed herself down, she turned and noticed her husband’s glasses on a side table, picked them up, turned them over in her hands with tenderness and dissolved into sobbing as another wave of loss rolled over her.

It was a long night. I remember that we didn’t sleep very much, and yet I also recall that even then, she was able to smile and chuckle as she told me things about my great uncle.

I remember the next day: how tired I felt, and how I had such a headache. But what I remember best, what I walked away with, imprinted in me for good, was the knowledge that THIS IS LIFE. Pushed up as I was against my great uncle’s death and his spouse’s grief, this couldn’t have been clearer.

 “There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

Painting by Suzanne Howard, from the series “People in search of new spaces”

I’m old enough now to live with the silent countdown of my days. It’s hard to say exactly when that shift in human awareness occurs, but for women, the biological clock probably hastens it : its ticking is too loud to ignore.

That’s okay.

My grade 1 photo
My grade 1 photo

If given the chance, I would never want to turn back time. It would feel like going back to an inferior version of myself—or maybe an emptier version is the better way to put it.

In my French classes this week, I had several of my groups finish the following phrase:

Quand je regarde mes photos d’enfance, je me sens…(= when I look at photographs from my childhood, I feel…)

This was a group of beginners, so they used their smart phones and came up with satisfying answers like: actif, vieux, détendu, souriant, …que mes souvenirs sont précieux…

(In english: active—I think maybe “energized” was the meaning sought here—old / relaxed / like smiling / that my memories are precious).

At first, I wrote “nostalgic and a bit sad”, but a more honest answer would have been that I feel that the person in the photo is a stranger. There is no sense of alienation from myself in this, but rather, there’s an awareness of ongoing transformation and adaptation through experience.

Whoever I was at 5 or 12 or 23 or even 37, I am no longer. I’ve evolved, and continue to do so, perhaps with greater will and a clearer intention because I know, as Paul Kalanithi knew, that my life doesn’t have a horizon, it has a finish line.


These thoughts were very much with me when the phone rang on Monday morning, while I was doing preparation for the 8 groups that I teach french to. This was a terrible call. A colleague has been diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer: could I take over two of her groups?

I felt sick. I also felt…prepared for this, somehow.

Of course I took her classes that Tuesday.

Her students asked about her. They were worried about her. The first group of men told me that she has been sick for weeks. They thought she had pneumonia. They had been helping her get back to her car after class for several weeks…

One small, shy man who had arrived a few minutes early got up and wrote the day’s date and weather in french, with a red dry marker, on the white board. Very dutifully, respecting the routine she had set up with them. It was such a bittersweet gesture.

I told them nothing, other than that I would be their teacher till the end of the contract.

Presently, the “human resources” of this same corporation are being laid off and let go by the hundreds and hundreds. The company is experiencing tough times and so are its people.

One of my students this week mentioned that this work climate was like a slow poison.

Another informed me and his french class colleagues that he had received his pink slip, and would not be coming back. He is a tall, quiet Chinese immigrant with two very young children. At the end of class, he lingered a moment because there were kind things he wanted to say to me. I told him what I honestly feel: that I think he has a bright future and this tough patch will soon be over. And I smiled.

When he left, my throat caught and the tears came.

I think that in our lifetimes, we experience many deaths, but also many lives.

I will share your joy and sorrow / Till we’ve seen this journey through.”
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air


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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.

trap of death
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.

IMG_3002   IMG_3004


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.

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).

IMG_2521  IMG_2532 IMG_2436   IMG_2156

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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