SAMUEL

Henderson, Anne G.; Life Circle; Poole Hospital NHS Foundation Trust; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/life-circle-59910

June 21st 2017

My day had an upbeat beginning. My teaching engagements have slowed to a trickle, so I have more windows of time to fill differently.

This morning, that meant accepting my mum’s invitation to a tea party at her house with Anne, my daughter-in-law, and Penelope and Graeme, my grandchildren (now 5 and 3).  While my mum and Anne stayed at the table a little longer enjoying each other’s company, I was called to a higher purpose—that is, playing with P&G (or Beans and Chuck Norris, as their papa calls them).

Aside from a bit of teaching preparation for tomorrow that still needed doing, the only other thing on my agenda was (and still is as I write this) an invitation to attend the vernissage of the latest collection of works by members of the Montreal Camera Club.

In between, I spent some time in front of this laptop. A couple of hours ago, an email dropped into my Inbox. It was from Miriam, a former student of mine whom I last saw in class last fall. Its title is MEET OUR BABY BOY.

These are just words to you. Happy and upbeat.

But in me, they’ve set off something altogether different: a swirling wash of feelings that have completely taken me over. Even as I sit here typing, I’m almost entirely absorbed in the emotional memories Miriam and Abmel’s newfound joy has awoken.

I feel such bliss for them. Such empathy and euphoria. And something close to disbelief, because this event is sublime, and laced with a residual sadness that has made me cry and left me with a pressure in my chest from so many more tears still wanting to be released, and my physical self just barely able to contain them.

Miriam and Abmel became parents on June 15th, at 9:12 pm. Their son weighed 7 pounds one ounce. A lovely time of day to be born. A perfect weight. In her email, Miriam wrote: “We are very happy and just wanted you to share our joy.”

How perfectly normal.

Munn, Michelle; Untitled 1954; Birmingham City University; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/untitled-1954-32987

But no, no, no. NOT to Miriam and Abmel, who are in their early forties, who have lost several babies, I think, to miscarriage—the last time, at more than twenty weeks—a baby they could hold and touch and recognise as having everything and yet still did not live. A baby old enough to tear their hearts out.

Miriam was a beginner when she first started French lessons, and more than once had to endure the litany of beginner questions like: Are you married? Do you have children? How old are they? What are their names ?—to which her colleagues responded so naturally, but which required of Miriam tremendous grace and discretion. I only realised this later.

When she first became my student, and those questions came up and Miriam answered “No, no. No children”, with a polite smile, I thought that perhaps there was a fertility problem with the couple, or that they’d just chosen not to have any. Miriam was always so private.

But when Abmel, who was more advanced in his French, became my student, things changed between the three of us. While Miriam is ebullient and expressive, Abmel is quieter and more intense.

Anima 1
by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

He was struggling with his pain, and with a weariness that was in part the result of dealing with family problems back in his native Cuba, but more profoundly, with an incipient loss of meaning in his life.

Miriam is always warm and optimistic, despite the trauma of her losses, but Abmel’s was the energy of someone aggrieved. It isn’t just that he had the words to say more; Abmel wanted to say more; to express his feelings of growing dissatisfaction with a life in which career pursuits seemed hollower, and in which there was nothing, yet, that he could imagine on the horizon, to quell his unease.

Miriam stopped coming to French class a month early. I’d heard that she was very busy with work; that her department was overwhelmed by the effects of a recent project. And then, one Friday afternoon in December, after his class, Abmel waited till everyone had left the conference room and told me that Miriam was pregnant again. No, that’s not quite right: he whispered that Miriam was pregnant.

Fisher, Samuel; Mater et filius; Solihull Heritage & Local Studies Service; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mater-et-filius-55683

I remembered an earlier class when, speaking of the last child he and Miriam had lost, Abmel had spread his hands out in front of him—the width of a shoebox—his opposing palms slightly curved, as though touching invisible feet and an invisible head, to show me that THIS was the immensity of their loss.

On Abmel’s face last December, I could read everything. He didn’t smile when he delivered his news and I knew why. He was afraid that Fate was listening.

He didn’t smile because he was afraid to hope and to believe that this time could end differently. He didn’t smile because he was now on guard. Again. Thrown into a state of powerless vigilance. There was fear in his face and a tightness—each experience having further compromised his capacity for carefree joy. Abmel’s face is beautiful, and lined.

MEET OUR BABY BOY detonated in my Inbox. I had resisted contacting Miriam, asking for news. I knew that she was on precautionary pregnancy leave and I worried that if something had gone wrong, my inquiries would only cause her distress.

Downie, Kate; 12 Minute Baby; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/12-minute-baby-83821

MEET OUR BABY BOY. And attached to her words, a photo of baby Samuel, minutes after his birth, resting on Miriam’s breast. And on her face, an expression of completeness and peace.

I lost most of this afternoon to a flood of feelings that I couldn’t contain and that left me spent and all upside down and, improbably, calm.

A Lullaby, by child artist Iris Grace Halmshaw

Miriam and Abmel’s son Samuel is like my Christian: the life that vanquishes a grief that seemed bottomless.

His parents are not sleeping very much these days. Their lives have just expanded a thousandfold and are no longer their own. Abmel’s search for meaning is over. And Miriam? Well…I like to imagine her in the moments captured by Abmel’s photo.

June 15th, 2017

 Dear Miriam,

                 Today, you sit up in a hospital bed. It is early evening. Your bleary-eyed husband stands next to you, staring in awe at the beautiful new son you cradle in your arms, who is as fragile and miraculous as life itself. And imprinted on his tiny head and body are all the joys, sorrows and pains that Fate will cast upon him. But you will love him enough to make his journey worthwhile.

             And then, you turn him toward you. You lift him to your face, feeling his breath, absorbing his scent. And you bring him closer, ever so gently, so that his tiny head might nestle in the warm hollow of your neck. And slowly, slowly, you rub your jaw along the silky down covering his delicate skull, and then it happens: that long awaited moment of absolute remembrance. It is exactly as you knew it would be. It is timeless. It is sacred. And at long, long last, you tilt your head and kiss your son.

Collins, Cecil; Dawn Invocation; Towner; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/dawn-invocation-73112

 

                                                   

MY DAEMONS

I’m up early, as usual.

It’s been rough of late.

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

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

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

These passages are always anxiogenic.

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

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

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

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

This is both fact and figment.

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

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

Dusk in winter. Yesterday.- photo: mine

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

EXPRESSIONS OF RESISTANCE

I arrived home yesterday depleted. That’s really the only word for it despite the fact that it was a good day. Wednesday is my hardest and longest teaching day. Paying such close attention to people who are nestled so closely around me for hours on end may, in fact, draw out of me more than it does some of my colleagues. Perhaps more than I’m really able to give.

November Sunset, photo by me
November Sunset, photo by me

At the end of such a day, it makes sense that I just wanted to head home to lay low, to have several cups of steaming tea and soothe my vocal chords.

I dropped all of my bags, set the kettle on the stovetop and opened this laptop. I do this to reconnect with the world that I’m drawn away from by my work and my absences. I move from my email inboxes to Facebook, seeing what I’ve missed (or briefly caught on the screen of my IPhone before it flitted away).

It’s a highly interactive but quiet world that is both a highway of engagement with others and one of my favourite places of retreat.

November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window
November 17th, the sun through my kitchen window

I discover brilliant sites online that I subscribe to happily and which now fill my Inbox every day with notices. I skim through the online papers though there are too many.  I visit the surface of the lives of the people I care about, wanting to see the evidence, through pictures, posts and messages, that they’re well, that they’re still there. I’m apprehensive about letting any of them fall through the cracks of my awareness.

 

When I got home yesterday, Christian and my husband were sitting together watching something on Netflix. Everything about the scene and the feeling in the house was benign and calm, except me.

Victor Hugo, La Pieuvre

I couldn’t bring myself to go sit with them; it was too soon. So I opened up this laptop. And scrolled. And scrolled. And scrolled. And was inundated by posts about the Trump presidency. Facebook’s algorithms saw to it that all of them—from the most considered and balanced to the most polemical and shrill—were unrelentingly distressing, worrying, disturbing, depressing and alienating. This stream was magnified by the posts of friends and their friends from both sides of the border who are, as I am, in agony.

 

This election year in the country of my neighbours to the South has filled me with a sense of dread. There’s a darkness in the world that has revealed itself and that clings to me.

I know how this sounds. But I also know that I’m a healthy and emotionally balanced, level- headed, very intuitive woman and I trust what I’m feeling.

I’ve been alerted.

Warned.

I feel the breath of something that wills ill. Something that’s tearing the social fabric in an unendurable manner. Something that it may take decades to heal from. Something that seeks to separate us from each other and divert us from what we must do and become.

More immediately, it’s a dark energy that will envelop and endanger the people I love: my students from all around the world, my children and grandchildren who will be more wounded than I because they’re still headed into the biggest portion of their lives.

There are so many voices crying out these days. Some of them (many?) screaming painful, ugly, vile things that infect everyone. But many, too, yelling out like sonar beacons in search of kindred minds and spirits and the reassurance of these connections. People of kindness and conscience.

I don’t feel that there is an US and a THEM.

This dark thing that hovers over us all is about inequality, despair, fear, tribalism, malice, innocence, ignorance, corruption, rapaciousness, cynicism, greed, misfortune, selfishness, the degradation of modern life, insecurity, exploitation, and a sociopathy that normalizes and institutionalizes everything that breaks down the connections between us and the planet which is our shared home.

Surveillance, by Levalet

Facebook has hugely amplified my bewilderment and sadness in the wake of the rise of Donald Trump and his entourage. It’s true. Sometimes, what I read there makes me queasy.

I think maybe that’s part of what was happening to me yesterday when I sat down after work. I just felt sad. It was a heavy and cold feeling. It was that longing for a good cry. It’s what creeps in when my energy is low.

In recent weeks, I’ve come to understand that maybe suffering is part of what I’m meant to experience. When there’s little else a person can do to effect immediate change in the face of a terrible wrong, owning the suffering that emanates from that darkness is something. It’s a valuable first step.

This seems to be a shared sentiment because, beyond the unrelenting stream of post-election news online, there are the cries of many voices expressing pain and distress. And also a desire for something good and just and universal.

Melancholy, by Alyssa Monks

From the pain comes resistance. I’ve felt this too and I watch its myriad expressions and modulations appear online every day, especially among artists and writers.

I’ve recently been invited to join other writers searching for a means to combine their voices in an expression of resistance to the darkness, certainly, but also, hopefully, to build pathways of understanding and unity between us.

I want to be part of this movement, but I know that I’m not a political writer. I hope I’ll be able to find a way to contribute something that’s meaningful and useful even though it’s personal.

On the table yesterday, I found a package from Amazon addressed to me (most of them are and most of them contain books). Inside, I found three volumes of Mary Oliver’s poetry. Lean, lovely books that weigh nothing in the hand but somehow have such import.

I opened the smallest one first, A Thousand Mornings, and read one poem after another. At first, I thought that I would break down and cry—her work is so beautiful—but I couldn’t stop reading. There was such grace and truth in the short poems I pored over that I felt them lifting my spirits almost immediately. I can only describe this as a moment of quiet bliss.

The ones I found most beautiful are the ones that spoke to the pain inside me yesterday. Who knows which will resonate in a week or a month from now.

Here are two of them:

 THE MORNING PAPER

By Mary Oliver

Read one newspaper daily (the morning edition

is the best

for by evening you know that you at least

have lived through another day)

and let the disasters, the unbelievable

yet approved decisions,

soak in.

I don’t need to name the countries,

ours among them.

What keeps us from falling down, our faces

to the ground; ashamed, ashamed?

 

POEM OF THE ONE WORLD

By Mary Oliver

 

This morning

the beautiful white heron

was floating along above the water

and then into the sky of this

the one world

we all belong to

where everything

sooner or later

is a part of everything else

which thought made me feel

for a little while

quite beautiful myself.

SOUNDSCAPES

There are many ways to mark the seasons, rhythms, places and moments of my life, and one of them is by its soundscapes.

Put simply, I live—like most of my fellow Canadians—half the year with the windows open and half the year with them shut.

I’m reminded of this when May rolls around and finally, FINALLY, I’m able to open them wide and welcome in the fresh air and the accompanying sounds of the world outside my cocoon.

I do it with gusto. In that moment, it feels like my house and I are inflating our lungs together as we take in a big broad breath of outside air. One breath in….and then aahhhhhhhhhh!

pic5

There’s that first waft of unheated outdoor air which is followed by a sense of expansion, of everything opening up. The accumulated household scents and dusts of fall and winter are swept up and whooshed away—or at least that’s how it feels.

It’s a moment of reconnection with the world outside, but especially, with the sounds of the natural world.

I thought of all this in early June as I listened to Bernie Krause describe his life’s work on CBC radio.

Krause is an acoustic ecologist who has been listening to the natural world since he was a young boy. Afflicted as he was with, in his own words: “a terrible case of ADHD”, Krause discovered that the only thing that seemed to make a difference and mitigate his feelings of stress and anxiety was going out in the field and listening to natural sounds. In the CBC interview, he relates how the sounds of nature calm him and focus him, an effect which he describes as analgesic—literally relieving his pain.

 

Bernie Krause at work
Bernie Krause at work

Krause has dedicated his life to recording the sounds of nature and now possesses a priceless archive of soundscapes—many of which have since gone silent.

I was moved by the urgency and eloquence of Krause’s ecological message.

I was also taken up by his view of a world in which every living creature strives to establish its own acoustic territory, to express its “voice”, with or without vocal chords.

In the sonic universe Krause has spent a lifetime capturing, the soundscape is “a different way of experiencing the living world around us. […] It’s a narrative of place”.

51CR1ZJ9syL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_

Krause has dedicated himself to archiving the sounds of the biophony—that is: “the sounds made by living organisms collectively”.

But we also live and share space in the geophony, which simply means earth sounds such as the wind, as well as in the anthropophony, which includes the controlled human sounds of music, as well as the chaotic noises our technologies produce.

This is a wondrous world view that brings me back to the soundscapes of my home with its opening and closing windows.

 

I’m very sound-sensitive. It’s why I love the radio: it’s the closest thing to having someone read to me. I don’t turn on the radio for background noise— I listen to interviews and news and documentaries and music that engage my mind, my imagination and my emotions while I’m cooking or cleaning or driving around. Sometimes, like when Bernie Krause spoke, I just stop and listen.

It’s this same sensitivity to sound that makes the arrival of spring so thrilling. I miss the birds terribly over the winter. Come open-window season, the first whistles and trills of cardinals make me want to sing.

My very early mornings are less lonely because I can listen to the robins—my favourite sentinels of the sun—who return at dusk to sing the giant star to sleep. Throughout the day, I can sit and write or work with an ear tuned to the activity of starlings and grackles and red windged blackbirds and blue jays, chickadees, sparrows and occasional woodpeckers nearby.

I noticed just a few days ago that the cicadas have already begun their metallic, vibrant song hidden away up in our maple trees, signalling the arrival of true summer heat and reminding me that the countdown to autumn has already begun. They’re early this year. The Earth is warming.

 

There are other living outdoor sounds that bother me.

 

When I hear the frantic chittering or screeching of a squirrel, I can’t help but wonder which predator is causing it distress. And cats mewling in the night is awfully disquieting.

There’s also the occasional tapping of insects against the windows, and the violently ugly BANG of birds smashing into them as they hunt mayflies—a particularly ominous sound, I think.

 

Most of these sounds I owe to the trees that shelter them and envelop our cottage. Stripped of their voices in late fall and winter, the maples in my yard have now recovered their leafy sibilance and hiss gloriously on breezy days, reminding me of the sea. When it rains, it sounds like millions of tiny marbles are falling through their foliage.

 

The soundscape of trees means everything. We should listen more attentively, I think.

It got unseasonably cold last Sunday: the temperature dropped to 15 degrees Celsius (from 30 just days before) and I found myself having to shut the windows, which had the effect of shutting out all of the sounds from outside. The house sounded like fall. And winter. It didn’t feel right.

 

Winter’s quiet. Outdoors, it’s the sound of silent, open space. Of mute trees and fauna. Of an environment acoustically dampened by snow.

Indoors, it’s a shut-in soundscape. Anthropophony [the stress is on the third syllable].

Like so much else about our environment, we aren’t mindful of the soundscapes of our homes. But close your eyes and sit still inside your own house or apartment and be attentive to all of its sounds.

Depending on the floor and the room I’m in, I can hear:

 

  • The hum of the refrigerator compressor or the percolating sounds of its dehumidifier;
  • The scale of tones and pings produced by my Iphone as it signals a message dropping into my email or Facebook account, or a more insistant text message warning, or else a phone call, which on my phone is the classic marimba ringtone;
  • The television in the livingroom—turned on far too often;
  • The sounds of my son Christian’s laptop emanating from his room: tinny and scratchy from a distance—superficial;
  • The radio, my acoustic window on the world;
  • The rotating floor fans cooling the house at this time of year;
  • The low bangs in the water pipes encased inside the walls, heating the house in winter;
  • The whistling kettle;
  • Youtube, somewhere in the house;
  • The spin sounds and beeps of the washer-dryer down in the basement.

 

And depending on the intensity, with or without the windows open, I can also hear:

  • The trains with their lumbering diesel locomotives, and occasionally, like last week, the deafening and nerve-shredding blare of their horns—sometimes in the dead of night;
  • The airplanes—mostly in the summer, taking off (only when seasonal repairs are being done on one of the strips);
  • The automobiles on highway 20—even the lush trees can’t completely muffle their distant drone.

 

Yesterday, the quiet of my office upstairs was invaded by the sounds of a circular saw and other power tools next door, where renovations are being done, and by a landscaping crew with their blasted leaf blowers.

I think that Bernie Krause is right about the importance of our soundscapes. His acute connection to the biophony makes his voice important, and his work makes me wonder and worry about our twenty-first century retreat behind earbuds.

 

What does it mean, that so many of us prefer to pipe recorded sounds directly into our ears, effectively shutting out everything and everyone else, including the sound of our own voices?

 

It probably says something about wanting to scale down the soundscapes of our lives. It probably says something about our desire to carve out an acoustic niche of our own design, wherever we go. It may also signal our turning away from the noises and sounds of others.

This last one distresses me the most. What if the natural world went silent?

What if the sounds of human voices, especially those of my loved ones, were to disappear?

Listening to the sounds we make and those around us tell us a lot about who and where we are. I’m a language teacher, dedicated to the human voice and its varied expressions.

 

There is in souls a sympathy with sounds:

And as the mind is pitch’d the ear is pleased
With melting airs, or martial, brisk or grave;
Some chord in unison with what we hear
Is touch’d within us, and the heart replies
.” —William Cowpe

* * *

I collect words—they are sweets in the mouth of sound.”
― Sally GardnerMaggot Moon

26011-Song-Bird

 

 

 

 

EACH OF US IS A WORLD

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Which means generic.

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

Ugh.

Fortunately, it’s all optics.

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

624664main_station_xl

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

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

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

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

 

Each of us is a world.

 

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

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

Hanagarne writes:

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

This makes me happy.

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

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

Hani Al Moulia

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

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

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

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

WHERE IS HOME ?

His name is Fadi. I was evaluating his level of proficiency in French for future classes at a company which manufactures skin care products.

Fadi is young. Clearly. But he has the kind of face that won’t have changed very much when he’s forty-five. An old-young face. Curly pale hair combed back and off his forehead, exposing a hairline that wants to recede.

His look was « conservative office » : serviceable shirt and trousers, neat but bland, no jacket.

What struck me was his nervous intensity. His mouth was dry. His serious eyes widened every time he spoke—softly, but also rushed.

Why he should feel such a sense of urgency still bothers me. I learned that though he only arrived in Montreal a month ago, he has already found a position as the I.T. guy in the office.

An Armenian Syrian, he left Aleppo with his three brothers and came here to start a new life. He is, in fact, an electrical engineer, and I imagine his brothers are highly educated as well. But their parents stayed behind, unsure and afraid to leave their home.

As he explained this, I could almost feel his tie to his parents pulling painfully hard on his chest. And thought again about his home country being bled of its youth and its hope.

When I asked him what he would do if he won 15 million dollars that very night (usually, a lighthearted means of testing a student’s grasp of the conditional tense), he answered in French, without hesitation : I would use it to bring peace to my country…I would help others in my country.

 When I asked him if he would go back to Aleppo, he said Yes, but I would also live in Canada.

 And within the turmoil of his earnest answers and my own desire to reassure him, was the problem of home. And what’s referred to as le mal du pays, in French. Homesickness. Fadi is suffering the first stages of it. Yet still, he wants to stay here and make a new life.

Though I’ve never lived more than a twenty minute drive from the place I was born, I felt instant empathy for Fadi. Far from home is a difficult place to be.

My home

I’ve had three true homes in my life.

The first was an upper duplex in Lachine, just around the corner from the house where my husband was busy growing up, though of course I had no idea at the time (we would meet years later, as teenagers, in a different city).

My family left that duplex when I was three to move into a brand new semi-detached, two story house in Pointe-Claire, but my grandmother moved into the space we left behind, and stayed there for years, so it never lost its familiar and settled feeling for me and remains etched in my memory.

I left my parents’ house to go live with my husband when I was 22. We nested temporarily (2 ½ years) in a 4th floor apartment right on the lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, where we made our twins, providing us with the incentive to take the biggest plunge of our lives into a depressed real estate market (well, maybe the 2nd biggest plunge : having two babies is tough to beat).

Decades later, we’re still here. Our house is a 10 minute walk from my mum’s.

You see? I call her house «my mum’s», though it’s the same semi-detached house I grew up in. I think I began doing this when my twins were born, because from that moment on, my home was the place where our children were.

I can rattle off the postal codes of all of these places without hesitation, like I’m pinning them onto a mental map. And yet, I’ve come to realize that my attachment to our battered but cozy A-frame house is waning. I’ve also noticed that the objects in it mean less and less to me.

Does this signal an important change in me? Maybe. Over time, I’ve felt more and more weighed down by the familiar objects that I once loved for the memories I believed they held, or the comfort I thought they gave me. If you live long enough in the same place, you can become buried alive.

“Home is people. Not a place. If you go back there after the people are gone, then all you can see is what is not there any more.” ― Robin HobbFool’s Fate

tumblr_m0yc8bdwXC1qjfqe4o1_1280  the-burning-house

In a quirky and beautifully designed small book compiling the hundreds of photographs that first appeared on his blog, Foster Huntington asked the question : If your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door ? and then set about curating all of the answers he received.

It’s a great question, and answering it is also, I think, taking steps toward defining not only what we value, but what « home » really means.

When his house in California was burned to ash by a wildfire, Pico Iyer, the British-born essayist and novelist perhaps best known for his travel writing and nomadic life, came to the realization that from then on: «My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me. » It was, he said, a terrific liberation.

quote-home-is-not-just-the-place-where-you-happen-to-be-born-its-the-place-where-you-become-pico-iyer-73-18-06

Someone once told me that home ownership—the notion that we « own » a property and that it’s ours—is a delusion. He said that no matter how many papers we sign at the notary’s, we’re still just passing through; just temporary stewards of the building. Three families lived in our home before us; I wonder how many more will after we leave it. Surely, no one will stay as long as we did.

An eye-catching piece popped up on Facebook a few months ago, about a Japanese artist who uses a 3-D printer to create  architecturally ingenious plastic shells for hermit crabs, that support miniature, identifiable cities (the tiny crustaceans appear nonplussed, but their shells wowed me).

The whimsy, technological brilliance and beauty of these little works of art are dazzling, but  I wonder if the more important message isn’t found among the hermit crabs themselves—tiny squatters of nature who scavenge their homes from the floor of the sea and discard them when a better shell comes along.

3d-printed-hermit-crab-architectural-shells-aki-inomata-1 3d-printed-hermit-crab-architectural-shells-aki-inomata-6

Sometimes, though, there are no shells.

Last summer, the results of Montreal’s first official homelessness census were released.

  • The census takers were able to find 3016 people living on the streets.
  • 76 per cent of homeless people in Montreal are men.
  • 93 per cent of the people who sleep outside, in Montreal, are men.
  • 44 per cent of people experiencing homelessness were born in Montreal.
  • Immigrants represent 10 per cent of the homeless population.
  • 10 per cent of Montreal’s homeless population is aboriginal, even though less than one per cent of Montreal’s total population are indigenous.
  • Veterans represent six per cent of Montreal’s homeless.

Homelessness in the city’s suburbs is disguised as «couch surfing » in the basement of a friend.

IMG_2211
Man begging at the underground entrance of the Centre de commerce mondial de Montréal.

Fadi’s anguish stems from trying to create a new home here while pining for the one he left behind. He is part of what Pico Iyer refers to as « the great floating tribe» : the hundreds of millions of people living in a country not their own.  His problem is the result of the movement we call migration.

But as Pico Iyer says: « Movement is a fantastic privilege, and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents could never have dreamed of doing. But movement, ultimately, only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep, it’s the place where you stand. »

269242_10152670715750111_822498053_n
Penelope, feverish, cuddling with her mama, Anne.

Before she was two years old, my granddaughter Penelope became sick with a flu. She got the very best of care; was held, cuddled, given medication, read to, and sung to patiently by her mama and papa. Still, at a low moment, clutching her blanket as she lay on the couch, she looked at her parents and said, in her tiny soprano voice : « I want to go home.»

We all understood that to this brand new little person, home already meant that place where there is happiness, where there is no worry, and where there is safety and security.

 

I wonder if it will be—can be—any more beautiful than this,’ murmured Anne, looking around her with the loving, enraptured eyes of those to whom ‘home’ must always be the loveliest spot in the world, no matter what fairer lands may lie under alien stars.

― L.M. MontgomeryAnne of the Island

If you’re interested in reading about the migrant experience, you can take a look at this blog post: YOU CAN’T GO HOME AGAIN.

******************

tumblr_nmxsv09o741qanwe4o1_500
There’s no place like home.

 

 

.

 

 

 

 

 

 

STUDENT OF WEATHER

Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015
Ice-covered tree in Pointe-Claire Village, December 28th, 2015

In my last year as a history undergrad at Concordia University, I wrote a paper about Canadian identity, specifically about our «northern-ness», and how the North—more than any other criteria in the «What-makes-Canadians-Canadian» debate—defines us and has shaped our culture.

I think back on those years and smile. Undergrads can churn out essays like nobody’s business. And if memory serves, the ideas were far less important to our professors than how we articulated them (that was a big verb in those years) and structured them.

 

Even as I handed it in, I remember feeling that it was a purely intellectual exercise. My belief that there is such a thing as a Canadian identity was still far more visceral than rational. And yet, that’s among the papers I remember most clearly.

It’s presently 6:23 on a cold winter morning. The sun won’t be rising for another hour. The walls and windows of the house crack and make subtle banging noises as hot-water heatingIMG_2487 pipes, frames and panes react to contrasting heat and cold. The furnace has been running for hours and hours, on and off but mostly on, because it has been very cold, minus 17 ° Celsius (1 ° F) and this old house just can’t keep in its heat.

It’s pitch black, but it isn’t. And you can’t understand that unless you understand northern winter skies, which are never completely dark. Because the night sky over my house is actually white: dark white, which makes no sense until you see it. But it is. And in spite of the fact that there’s still not a hint of sunlight in it, you can see the clouds that overlay the basic whiteness of the sky. Dark blue whiteness.

Winter sky over my street.
Winter sky over my street.

It’s beautiful.

My IPhone camera just can’t do it justice, which disappoints me.

I wrote about our Christmas Eve weather in a previous blog: about how the temperature climbed up to 17 degrees  (63 ° F). That was crazy weather that’s nevertheless slowly entering our climate-changed collective consciousness here.

Not long after that though, normality returned. A snowstorm blew in and dumped 40 cm of fresh white snow on the ground. It’s gorgeous. Tree branches, rooftops and even roads were covered. White streets are just the prettiest thing.

IMG_2802  IMG_2796

People shoveled driveways and front walks. They cleared the snow from their cars. Those who live closer to downtown found their vehicles buried and jammed-in by packed, plowed snow.

Many people in Quebec hire contractors to come clear their driveway in the winter, usually getting together with their neighbours for better service (and a better price!). This didn’t exist when I was growing up, but I like the industriousness of it (a few entrepreneurs understood that you can establish a decent business doing this) and the job creation. But it says something about our changed lifestyle too: no one has the time; everyone is pressed to get to work, to school, to daycare. Or isn’t fit enough to shovel.

Christian in his Northern NInja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm
Christian in his Northern Ninja attire, getting ready to walk out into the snowstorm

 

My wonderful neighbor John revved up his big, heavy, noisy snowblower and cleared his driveway, then his next door neighbour’s, then ours. He kept going till he was too tired to continue. Such kindness is the stuff of angels. Or Frank Capra movies.

Earlier this morning, I heard the voice of Mike Finnerty on CBC radio (he’s fantastically good at his job) explaining that temperatures are now on the rise again, and that by Saturday, we’ll be back to +5° C.

 

 

That means that my furnace will get a bit of a break (and my Hydro bill too), but that we’ll lose a lot of the snow that adds beauty to the landscape and provides acoustic peace in a leafless winter world.

It also means a temperature swing of 22 degrees in a few days.

What kind of people live with these kinds of major shifts in the environment they blithely walk around in most of the time?

Canadians do. Well, almost all of us. Except for the folks on the lower West coast, and Torontonians—historically at least (recent meteorological history has destabilized them too).

A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn
A walk along the Lakeshore in Pointe-Claire, in autumn

 

A lot of our culture comes straight from the U.S. Most of it, probably. But not our weather culture. That’s 100% ours. And I’m pretty sure that no one, anywhere else in the world, does weather the way we do.

Weather—or météo, as it’s referred to in Quebec—is one of the most important modules in beginner level French classes for adults. Understanding forecasts is crucial, and newly arrived immigrants need to pick up the skill fast. Being fluent in «weatherese» means knowing which clothes and how many layers you’ll have to put on or take off during the course of the day; what your children need to wear to school (especially in the schoolyard) ; how long your commute will be and how many public transit delays are likely. It also means being able to start a conversation with anyone, anywhere.

IMG_2804   IMG_2805

Montreal winters can get so cold that people migrate below ground and work, stroll, shop and socialize in the heated underground city (actually, an indoor city); and Montreal summers can be so hot and humid that the same climate-controlled spaces beckon once again. It’s a wonder there’s anyone in the streets. And yet, outdoor terrasses everywhere are packed and lively.

Many years ago, in late March or early April, I wrote a letter to my younger sister who lives in Coquitlam, BC. It was a year when winter was long and spring’s arrival was incredibly swift. I must have waxed poetic about everything going on outside in « the weather ».

Not long after, I received an email from her, which read like a long sigh, asking me to keep writing to her about these thing, telling me that she missed the changing seasons and longed for those natural rhythms and shifts.

Surely, we’re changed by the climate and the weather we live in.

IMG_2833 IMG_2838

IMG_2830

 

A winter gale brings the skin pain and bone-deep shivering of «wind chill», but on a steamy summer day, you can find a shady spot, close your eyes and feel the strong, cooling wind on your skin, hear it hissing in the trees, and feel truly happy.

 

There are summer days when the scorching sun—that even my South Asian students are distressed to feel burning their skin—is so merciless that the only place to be is at the shopping mall or in the water. But on a frigid winter afternoon, when the sky is the clearest, driest blue imaginable, you can find a sunny spot at home, by the window, and sit there like a happy cat, soaking up the warm rays, your face turned, flower-like, toward the golden light.

With each equinox, our homes become bellows as we shut our windows tight in the fall to keep the chill wind out, trapping the smells of harvest cooking, only to fling them wide open in spring to let in fresh air and birdsong.

Every summer, sitting outside on the lawn and listening to the birds (and a lawnmower or two),  I have a moment when I look around me and think:  I can’t believe that in a few months all of this will be gone and I won’t be able to sit out; there’ll be no leaves on the trees; I’ll be spending my days indoors, and going for a walk will feel like an impossible memory.

And then, in early spring, I’ll look at the trees and I’ll will them to sprout the leaves I love so much, while dreaming of green, green, green;  and I’ll feel like bursting with optimism when the first flock of migrating Canada geese flies over the house.

What have I learned from the weather? Adaptability, I think. Maybe that’s part of my Canadian, northern identity.

An acquired acceptance of change?  The ability to shift my perspective?

I hope so.

To everything there is a season.

IMG_2866     IMG_2869