When my mother asked me to write the second part of her final blog, I knew that it would be my eulogy to her.
In her last blog, she describes her many losses. The gradual decline of her health, quality of life, and autonomy. I know from our conversations that this chipping away at her ability to live was the most emotionally taxing part of this whole experience.
For me, they represented a sequence of little deaths, each accompanied by a period of grief.
I mourned my mother’s ability to ever feel well and healthy again, and gained a deeper gratitude for the privilege I still possess.
I mourned my mother’s mental clarity, what she called “Chemo Brain”. A very real and disheartening phenomenon.
I mourned the deterioration of her physical strength, and her appreciation of her own luminous beauty. First with the effects of treatments on her hair, then the inescapable indignity of a wonky colostomy bag.
It was hard to see my mother’s ability to read and write without hinderance slowly vanish.
Harder still, I mourned my mother’s ability to live a pain-free life. That is, until she was placed in palliative care.
But I was also witnessing something awesome.
After four years of suffering, anxiety, and cancer eroding my mother’s mind, body, and soul, I discovered what remained; who my mother really was at her core.
Despite it all, the woman I visited in room 105 was kind, patient, easy-going, and generous. She was lovely. She was love distilled. Not only did these parts of herself survive the process, but the darkness in which they were set made them shine brighter. The bitterness, and the resentment at the cruelty of life that was robbing her of her future, weren’t there. She had her moments of sadness, of shuddering under the weight of all those losses, but these feelings inevitably passed through her.
Among my mother’s many passions was teaching. I would say it was her calling, one she found later in life. She was the kind of teacher who got to know her student’s life stories. The names of their partners, the names of their children, and grandchildren. The trials and tribulations which led them to leave their home countries and come to Quebec. Here’s a little story about my mum.
Years ago, now, she was beginning her career teaching French as a Second Language at an adult education school. It was mid-December, almost the end of term, and she heard that a student of hers–a young single-mother who was struggling to make ends meet–couldn’t afford to buy her child Christmas presents. The very same day, my mother went out and bought some. She wrapped the presents, and brought them to the school’s director, requesting that they be given anonymously to her student. She told no one about this. The only reason I know it happened is because I was home when she walked in with the packages.
In the grand scheme of things, this small act of kindness is just a drop in the bucket. It certainly didn’t rescue this woman—my mum’s student—from her difficult circumstances, but it did ensure that a child would feel special on Christmas, and I can only imagine how important that is to a parent.
With my mother’s passing I have lost more than a parent. I have lost a great friend (my very best friend, in fact), a confidante, a font of wisdom and love, my writing partner, my ideal reader, and a vital part of my support network.
I think that for all who knew her, she was more than one thing. Always more than just a friend, a teacher, a sister, a daughter, a neighbour. If nothing else, that’s something remarkable to aspire to.
I love you, mum. The best in me, came from you. Au revoir.
I’m back at the CHUM today, after an almost month long hiatus from chemo. It was an unplanned winter break. It felt a little like playing hooky, like an unexpected escape, like getting away with something.
But clinical trials don’t let you off the hook for very long, and today, it’s back to a full dose of reality: pre-chemo blood tests, a visit with Dr. Aubin, the chief oncologist involved in this trial (a young, petite, brilliant woman who has been wonderful with me), and SURPRISE !, my second CT Scan (the study requires a scan every 8 weeks).
I didn’t know this was on today’s calendar. This serious return to reality is unwelcome.
I should feel optimistic; everything so far has indicated that my body’s response to my treatments is positive, but I would have liked to coast on that feeling a while longer. There’s a whisper inside my head cautioning me to prepare for the possibility of disappointment.
What would disappoint me? I have to think about that.
(I have lots of time to do so: 4 hours in fact, because it’s 10 am, I’m done with Dr. Aubin and my scan is scheduled at 2 pm)
—If my tumours have recovered and even grown, I will…I will…
I can’t complete that thought.
It belongs in the Do-not-go-there-until-you-have-to category. The place of the unwritten future. May it remain banished there.
—If my tumours have shrunk a lot less than on the first scan?
Yes, this would definitely disappoint me, but it seems quite plausible, doesn’t it? My body has been adapting to the poisonous drugs invading it; surely the tumours are pursuing their own survival strategies?
When you have cancer, things get real very quickly.
The holiday is over.
But you know what? Almost 5 months into chemo, I’m not frightened the way I was before it started. I live more comfortably within my life’s new landscape. Forward momentum means very little to me now.
What’s just bubbled up from my memory are images—like footage—of all of those summers of my childhood, when we would pile into the car with a trunk full of suitcases, and a cooler full of food, and off we’d go, on vacation, usually eastward, spending hours and days in the car, my sisters and I seated in the back seat, sometimes with our grandmother; my parents in the front with one of their daughters wedged between them if grand-maman was aboard, watching cars whiz past us, in both directions of the Trans-Canada highway, and the scenery along with them. Whoosh! Whoosh!
That’s how my life has felt, for the last decade at least: me speeding through the days, and rarely in the driver’s seat, constantly monitoring the passage of time and feeling it running out…
Cancer brings the stillness of a dropped anchor.
What struck me yesterday in Radiology was how sick people were. So many were rolled into the CT-Scan and MRI area in gurneys, that I lost count. One older man could barely stand, but still tried to avoid using the wheelchair provided for him to move about. He sat very still while having a catheter installed in his arm. He couldn’t speak, just the faintest whisper was possible for him, because there was some wound or incision in his neck. But every single one of his breaths was audible as he shuffled to the room he was called to.
I remember my first scans well. On that day last July, I was to have the first of my two diagnostic scans: the MRI and the CT-Scan—those that ultimately revealed the advanced stage of my cancer. I was still new to the stages of malignancy, to the CHUM, and to the hijacking of my life by a disease. On that summer day, waiting seated along that same wall where I found myself again just yesterday, with a good half-dozen other patients, I felt and looked like the newbie. I felt younger, and vibrant. I could still smile and act relaxed. But right next to me was a woman at the other end of the line. She made eye contact with me immediately and I could see how much she wanted to talk. She may have been only 5 or 6 years older than me but she was ancient by the standards of health. Her pale blue hospital robe—just like the ones the rest of us were wearing—accentuated her pallor and that unmistakable yellow-beige “chemo” complexion that’s so common to patients who’ve been battling cancer for a long time. Her hair was short and patchy and her eye lashes and brows were virtually gone. But she turned to me and smiled an exhausted smile, and though I’ve forgotten her exact words, I remember that she was three years into her battle to survive breast cancer that had travelled to her bones and was now in her brain. I remember that she touched the port-a-cath, that visible square bump under the skin of her upper-right chest—which is just like the one I now have implanted in me—and said: “This is what you want, it’s fantastic.” She was right. It is.
I’ve thought of her often. I wonder whether she’s still fighting to survive, five months later, or whether her body has reached the point of exhaustion. I think about her will to live, about her gentle smile, and about the distance between us and how much of it is delusion. How many patients like her are there? Where does their strength and determination come from? Their willingness to be stripped of almost everything but their pulse?
You enter the area, you walk into a small room and lock the door, because you have to get undressed. In an impressive, succinct combination of images, words, and alphabetical order, you follow the guidelines written out for you on a poster hanging on the wall. Instructions A, E and F pertained to my situation. When you leave that change room, you’ve left behind your distinctiveness, your spark, your colour, and most of your joy, because you’ve become indistinguishable from everyone else. The hierarchy of illnesses is almost invisible. Everyone is just a patient.
No one could stand this for very long. We all need the recognition and validation of others. We need to experience agency in our lives. We require the dignity that comes with being able to speak for ourselves, to be treated as individual, precious humans who also express themselves by means of their clothing, their demeanor and their social interaction. Sometimes, just the look in our eyes is enough. Some of us are positively heroic in our endurance of pain and our astonishing resolve. Some of us are sad, some angry, some terrified and some, all of the above.
Illness and injury reveal us to ourselves. And to our loved ones, I think.
Yesterday afternoon, I couldn’t wait for my CT Scan to be done. I lay there, on the mobile slab inside the big white ring that vibrates and hums and lights up, with my arms above my head and the catheter placed uncomfortably right where my left arm bends, and held and released my breath as prompted by a disembodied voice, and felt the hot, fluttery rush of iodine as it entered my bloodstream and quickly made it all the way to my bladder. And then it was over. My catheter was removed, I gathered my things, re-entered the change room and recreated the person I am by dressing and leaving Radiology, walking down the long, labyrinthine hallways of the CHUM, till I reached Champ-de-Mars metro station, blending in with everyone. Similar, but Me nonetheless—and free.
Until last Tuesday, I hadn’t written a word in two months; hadn’t posted anything here on REEF since February 10th. But the time has come. Except that I’m all jammed up, very much in I-don’t-know-where-to-begin territory.
In part, this is because REEF isn’t a diary. Though it’s deeply personal, I mean for it to be something that extends beyond me—always beyond. But these past months have been the culmination of a very personal odyssey.
Not everything written should be shared, and so I sit here feeling the push to write and the reflex to hold back. It doesn’t sit well with me.
“I see myself as an emotional writer, and believe that my writing works best and reaches my reader more truthfully when I’m able to draw from the emotional climate of my life at any given moment to help me make sense of my thoughts and concerns—which seems like a huge contradiction given that I’ve been told many times that I’m too analytical (my osteopath constantly scolds me for being too much “up inside my head”!). “
I’m happy I came up with this for Leslie, because I think it just may be true. It explains what happens when emotional reality overwhelms the space inside me and my ability to step back. What happens is silence.
Here’s what I’m willing to share—what’s necessary, to make way for the rest.
In the last five months, my husband and I have accepted that we must separate, after thirty-seven years of marriage and our entire adult lives together. Is this irrevocable? We don’t know. Time will tell. There is still deep and abiding love between us.
This is an outcome that was years in the making, of course, and by late last fall, we could both see the fork in the road ahead. No matter what the future holds for us, this decision means a series of endings. Life as we’ve lived it for three and half decades has come to an end. Our time in this house—our first and only house—is almost over. Life as Michelle et Sylvain, which has been all we’ve known since I was seventeen and he, nineteen and a half, will soon cease.
And so, over the past five months, we’ve ridden an emotional roller coaster whose ups, downs, frights, lurches and dramas belong to us alone.
You don’t have to know the details of our life together and the places where we went wrong, the pain and anxiety that follows us into each new day, to understand that in our small lives, separation has set off a seismic shift.
I’ve not been writing because each day, for so many months, has been weighed down by the implacable fact of ongoing deconstruction, and the fullness of it, that has kept me saturated in an anxious state of emotion, of watchfulness, and of wanting to salvage as much as possible.
And yet, on our families’ trees, my husband and I have helped grow new branches—three living sons and two grandchildren so far: new connections that will continue to grow together and also sprout outward. There’s no stopping this thing we started in adolescence.
I’ve not written because in addition to my full-time teaching, my husband and I, with the help of our sons, have put ourselves through the unforgiving, almost clinical undertaking of preparing our house for sale: what, in the business, is referred to as “staging” our house.
It’s a process that took us about six weeks (I don’t know if that’s a world record but it feels like it should be). Working together, we filled over two-hundred boxes with all of the stuff (books, mostly) that we want to bring into the next phase of our lives. They now sit in a storage unit. On hold. We threw out so much that we had to call the city to send a garbage truck over. My husband repainted rooms and fixed the small broken things that unhappiness had caused him, us, to neglect and let go for years.
We transformed our house into a series of clean, clear spaces from which we were as absent as possible. This process of staging, of excising yourself from your own home, is exhausting, demoralizing, cleansing and…therapeutic. With our sons’ help, my husband and I unburied ourselves.
And then our house went on the market. And sold almost overnight.
A young couple will soon make it theirs. They’ll say: It’s ours, but just like us, and the three families who lived here before us, they’re just passing through, their ownership of the property one of civilization’s most entrenched delusions.
They say they loved it from the moment they saw it. I learned that they came twice in one day to see it: once in the morning, then again in late afternoon. They wrote us a letter to say that it’s a house that they can grow into and grow old together in; that they love the natural light that fills it; that from the moment they walked through the front door, it felt like home to them. They say it will make them happy.
Since then, I’ve found it easier to let go of this cozy house that, in truth, was filled with happiness too. I look outward, and so does my husband. Our sights are on the horizon. Like everything else in the Universe, we’re on a trajectory taking us away from where we are now.
“We are not trapped or locked up in these bones. No, no. We are free to change. And love changes us. And if we can love one another, we can break open the sky.”
― Walter Mosley, Blue Light
“You’re always you, and that don’t change, and you’re always changing, and there’s nothing you can do about it.”
― Neil Gaiman, The Graveyard Book
Translation: That’s the [so-called] artist’s life.
I’ve heard this expression interjected into conversations for as long as I can recall, and like so many sayings, its meaning is slippery. In my translation of it, I added “so-called”, tentatively. C’est ça la vie d’artiste isn’t a completely innocent turn of phrase. There can be a little bit of Shakespeare’s salad daysin it: hints of youthful idealism and inexperience minus, alas, the connotation of heyday. Usually though, it falls under the pall of “so-called”: the implication that la vie d’artiste is more pretense, posturing and bohemian conceit than it is an authentic way of life.
I recently stumbled upon Léo Ferre’s “La vie d’artiste”, a sad song about disenchantment and love gone wrong under the pressures of struggling to live when making ends meet is a daily grind, and it occurred to me that I had a bit of all of those elements on my mind when my son Christian arrived home last Thursday night.
Christian’s return sometime after 11 pm capped one hell of a day. Whatever else the artist’s life may be, it isn’t boring. On the program that Thursday, he was booked first at the McGill Simulation Centre, where he’s been working year-round as an actor since early 2016, slipping into the skin of every imaginable patient or person the job requires, and picking up more and more hours. Yesterday, Christian was again playing Pat, a young man with cerebral palsy desperate to maintain an autonomous life. He’s one of Christian’s favourite characters to play.
That work done, he was off immediately, with little time to spare, to an old church in Westmounta bus ride away, where he’s been performing in Antigone for over a week and still has a couple to go. The Greek tragedy is this year’s production by Raise the Stakes Theatre, a classical theatre ensemble with a shoestring budget whose limits are absolutely eclipsed by its passionate approach to up-close-and-personal theatre. But there’s no escaping the hard truth that no one does theatre to get rich. And yet still, it was possible to assemble fifteen actors, four musicians and a production team made up of a half dozen creative and dedicated people, and draw them to rehearsals as often as six times a week, from 6 to 10 pm—the quiet hours in the beautiful old church.
And this they did for a month of rehearsals: out of passion, out of commitment, motivated by a longing to create, collaborate and perform; out of a need that I think I understand, and also, simply, out of personal loyalty to the director, and/or to each other.
But all of those extra hours that punctuate long work days add up, and not long after the play’s opening, Christian mentioned an infection spreading through the ranks (“a plague” was actually what he called it), causing fever, congestion and, worst of all, laryngitis. By Wednesday night, two actors, members of the Greek Chorus, were down for the count, leaving their mates, including Christian, scrambling to divide up their lines, drop some, and reconfigure the blocking of the affected scenes, all within hours of the performance. Then their director was hit with flu symptoms. And it began to feel like they’d all been cast, unwittingly, in a re-enactment of And Then There Were None. Regroup, recover, perform.
I’m not making light of their predicament. I’m flabbergasted. What drives them all? It isn’t the money: there’s none, which is the usual case with small theatre companies. The costs of mounting a production, the time invested, the long rehearsal period and the fact that money only comes in with each performance at the end of a very long cycle of planning and preparation: these test the elasticity of the budget to its limits.
What drives them is something so strong that it interferes with self-preservation.
That’s the thing about theatre: it’s alive. Whether Christian has transformed himself into a patient for some future medical doctor to learn from, repeating his performance as many times as necessary on any given day; or whether he has put himself out there on the altar of an old church on a weekday evening to bring to life ancient Greece with his fellow actors, he is embracing la vie d’artiste, in all of its poorly remunerated, often thankless, electrifying, anxiety-inducing, improvisational, collaborative and soul-expanding glory.
“Most of the truly remarkable experiences I’ve had in theatre have filled me with uncertainty and disorientation.”
― Anne Bogart, A Director Prepares: Seven Essays on Art and Theatre
“Movies will make you famous; Television will make you rich; But theatre will make you good.”
― Terrence Mann
It included a snow storm and horrible driving conditions;
cold and biting wind;
teaching contracts that have tilted to the bad side of too many;
a constant cough that appears to be caused by allergies to what’s in the air at one of the places where I teach;
sad or worrying news about people I care about;
more sad or worrying news about them;
a heaviness I carry around, which is the weight of what I cannot change or resolve (at this moment in my life, it’s as dense as gold);
and a sense of being trapped in a power crusher, with the walls of time closing in and no way to stop them. No room (not for escape, but for breath and perspective and space to maneuver).
At such times, I walk about with the feeling that I could easily cry (and wouldn’t that feel good?), and that I am inadequate to the task of being a good friend, a good daughter, a good sister, a good mother, a good teacher, wife, neighbour, human being …
While I tangled with all of these, the sun rose every morning, and my life–the single miracle from which everything flows—never failed in its task of moving me along.
My sister, hip deep in her own struggles, remembered to enquire about the wellbeing of a friend I worry about;
A son cooked dinner for me to come home to late in the day, once, and then again the next evening. His alchemical actions transformed food into love, meals into sharing, and weariness into wellbeing.
(How do any of us survive loneliness?)
A friend reached out to me and found my hand, though I couldn’t hold hers nearly long enough.
An afternoon and evening spent with my granddaughter and grandson yesterday took me sailing on a true-blue ocean of simple, hopeful joy. It saw their parents off to a Christmas party and the rest of us, my other sons and husband, together, making merry ourselves.
A first son fetched us a meal of fried, roasted and sweet foods that left us all with greasy fingers and feelings of satisfaction. He choreographed the day’s end: stories, baths, bedtime without mama and papa.
As the house went quiet, my sons and I—they with their extraordinary niece and I with my sweet-hearted grandson—lay in the dark next to the small and trusting bodies of these children who are the channels of all of life’s promises and reminders that we cannot fail them, and listened to them breathe in the dark, sometimes moaning softly, sometimes crying out as the day’s tiny storms caught up with them, entering their dreams.
Danielle, Christian, Louise, Simon, Jeremy, Anne, Penelope and Graeme and Sylvain, I love you. Thank you.
4 am wake-up + 2-hour bus-ride to the airstrip + 6-hour flight to Mirabel airport (the forlorn and once beautiful place where The Terminalwas shot) + 45-minute bus ride to Pierre-Elliott-Trudeau airport (Montreal) = HOME
Christian was the luckiest of the hundred people also leaving the mining installation and port to travel with him that day, because he had reached his destination while most still had flights to catch, taking them due West (to British Columbia) and due East (to Newfoundland) —and points in between—for thousands of kilometers more. Such is the vastness of Canada. And such is the pull of home, because almost all of these men (and Geraldine, the only woman on board) will make the same trip in reverse, in two weeks, beginning a new rotation.
The tides of the lives of these men are set by the rotations of a mining installation: two weeks on site, two weeks home. Only the Moon does things with more inevitability. But the gravity of Christian’s life and his Captain’s—the port captain—was governed by the activity at the port: day one of their stay marked its opening for the brief, ice-reduced summer, and their final day was marked by the ice-congested port’s closing. For a hundred days, they stayed put, watching people come and go. The only two to do so.
No matter what he was told by those who employed him and the handful of people who had actually been there previously for short stays; no matter what Christian had imagined of Milne Inlet, whatever wild and barren landscape and hardscrabble life he had fashioned in his mind, nothing could have prepared him for the absolute immersive experience he volunteered for.
Latin-infused words best encapsulate Christian’s hundred-day stay at Milne Inlet: deprivation, seclusion, sequestration, isolation, alienation and even, at times, incarceration. All words that Christian and his Captain would agree upon. And also, austerity.
Christian’s daily routine at the mining camp at Milne Inlet consisted of moving between a small room with a bed, a TV, a closet and a shower (and a window covered over in aluminum foil to keep out the perpetual summer sun), to the galley for food, to the truck that he drove to the port, to the trailer box that was the office in which he worked days with, for the most part, no discernible beginning or end because he was always required to be available. He certainly wasn’t the most important person at the port—his Captain, the stevedores and many other people did work that was critical and shouldered heavy responsibilities, but Christian was the only person at the Inlet who had no backup—not even for a couple of hours. Ever.
Christian is eloquent, and a wonderful, often hilarious writer, and he sent me regular, detailed two-page letters attached to his emails, with meticulous discipline, and which I then shared with friends and family at his request. These opened up his world to us, and allowed us to catch a glimpse of a life so withdrawn from the world—at once so exotic, eccentric and bare-bones—that it felt fictional.
On the day he arrived home, my understanding of his experience changed. It started the moment I saw his face as he stood, eyes locked on me, in the arrivals area at the airport. It was him. Of course it was him. But across his face, which is so distinctive, there was the shadow of loneliness and bone-weariness and also, I think, a mixture of joyous relief and disorientation. And something deeper and more private. Estrangement sickness. Like the astronauts of the international space station, he was experiencing the shock of re-entry.
It was hard for him to absorb the fact that his adventure was done. To believe that it was over. And I realised that he was overwhelmed by the people, the sounds, the colours and the smells of his home.
When astronauts return to Earth after months on the space station, a lot is made of their physical rehab and the effects on the body of their prolonged stay in orbit. The battle to regain as much of their previous physical form as possible is front and centre, and we hear far less about their mental struggles.
Christian has told me that the Arctic Circle is a truly xeno environment: in summer, it appears to be as barren as Mars, with its reddish soil and absence of vegetation and only the odd arctic fox and polar bear moving about. There’s no birdsong. There are only ravens the size of turkeys who lurk in ominous silence. In winter, which lasts three seasons—it was -25 Celsius when Christian left— the Arctic becomes itself, splashing extraordinary hues of white, grey, blue and turquoise over the waters, the sky and the ground. At the Milne Inlet settlement, besides the mechanical noises of trucks and generators, tug boats and the iron ore loader, there is very little natural sound—at least to the ears of visitors. Neither can you witness the aurora borealis; the Inlet is simply too far north. When the sun eventually begins to set again and night falls, it brings a darkness as black as ink; an impenetrable curtain. Christian never saw a single starry sky, and we still don’t understand why.
This past week, I’ve observed many things in Christian. On his first night home, at the end of a long and rewarding day, Christian said to me that he was reluctant to go to bed, that he felt anxious. When I asked him why, he said that he was afraid that he would wake up in Baffinland. I think that Edmond Dantes probably felt the same way after he escaped the Château d’If. This literary reference is meant to make you smile, but the photo below, of the scrap of paper Christian held on to from Day One, and on which he marked the days till his Arctic stay was over, suggests that there’s as much of fact as of fiction in his fluttering feelings.
And then, just five days after his return, he made plans to go downtown to return the company laptop he’d brought back with him. As he prepared to walk to the train station, he told me how uncomfortable and antsy he was, how anxious the thought of going into such a developed, populated place made him feel. The hubbub. The crowds. All of it. And I realised the extent to which Christian’s experience had altered him.
All of the days and nights in a compound where straying from the makeshift road could mean death at the paws of a polar bear; all of those hours spent filling out prodigious amounts of paperwork, listening to the conversations of mariners; all of that time trapped in a place that didn’t provide enough bandwidth to Facetime or Skype with loved ones; each and every one of those days eating fish, meat and frozen vegetables; the sheer weight and repetitiveness of it all had forced Christian inward, into his deepest reserves.
A week has now passed since his return, and Christian’s skittishness has faded very gradually as all of the life he has here flows back to him, filling the lonely places that had opened up inside him. He has returned to the garden of earthly delights that is so familiar to him; he is back with the people he loves and the life he wants and hopes to live.
I’ll never know just how altered he was by his hundred days at Milne Inlet: perhaps he misses the hyperreal colours of the water and skies, the unique tang of brackish water, and the stories of the men, especially the seamen who arrived with their ships.
It has also struck me and Christian (through whose eyes I’ve come to see so much) how wide is the gap between the indigenous people of the Canadian Arctic, theInuit, and everyone else. I think it’s what fascinated Christian the most, observing the coming and going of the Inuit men hired by the mining company and talking with them in the galley at every opportunity. Their experience of the world, their daily life is the product of a matrix so radically different from everyone else’s that in some ways, it’s as though we are from different planets.
And one wonders how the gap between the two worlds can ever be bridged, and whether it should be. To have grown up in a barren, beautiful, unforgiving, extreme habitat of vast spaces and limited sounds, in almost endless cold and opaque darkness at nightfall, where “close by” means a two-day boat ride to the next settlement and time unfolds without increments…These are realities that Christian glimpsed just long enough to understand what many of his Inuit companions must feel when they enter his world, how their suffering must be the reverse of his, and include the pain of immersion, congestion, crowds and clamour; the nonsense and indecipherability of it all ; and the absence of solitude, quiet, immense expanses and kin. Their own estrangement sickness.
“Not for the first time, Peter thought about how much of our lives we spend sequestered inside small patches of electric brightness, blind to everything beyond the reach of those fragile bulbs.” ― Michel Faber, The Book of Strange New Things
Last evening, I attended a concert in a perfectly renovated hundred-and-fifty-year-old church in my home town. We sat at ninety-degree angles on stiff wood benches, huddled together inside that beautiful and ornate old building listening to a musical group that calls itself LaNef.
The men on stage (on the altar), seven in all, were there to perform sea songs and shanties in the purest tradition of the sailors of the Atlantic (with the exception of the song Rolling Down to Old Maui).
In the evening’s program, I read: “Our goal here tonight is to present these songs, not only as they have always been sung, but also as music to be listened to. It is no small challenge to drag these pieces, tar-stained and tattered, into the concert hall. We hope to give you something new to listen to in these pieces.”
They sure did. Reverberating off the wooden walls and arches of an old church, those songs take possession of you, swirl around inside your head and chest and squeeze your heart. And you find yourself awash in feelings and images from a world of groaning wooden ships and motley crews of men, and the cold, grey, salty sea with waves crashing and rolling, and gales blowing mercilessly, and the men chilled to the bone and hanging on for dear life.
Those seven men up on the stage sang and played their hearts out, and what they sang was beautiful, funny and sometimes tender but of course it was also about the punishing harshness of being at sea and living that life—a thousand years ago, and today. Which is why their songs made me laugh and made me want to cry as they transported me away from my own, comfortable world.
It was easy for me to let go and follow them, because a hidden part of me has been living among large cargo ships and frosty air for months now. First, there’s been my son Jeremy’s life with his new employer: a large ocean-going dry-bulk shipping company, and his frequent travels to board and inspect his company’s fleet. Last July, Jeremy opened an unforeseen door in his brother Christian’s life when he made it possible for Christian to take a three-month contract working as the Boarding Clerk on behalf of the same company, at the port built by its business partner, a corporation that mines iron ore in Milne Inlet, Baffin Island, Canada.
Before leaving for his hundred-day stint at the “sixth northernmost community on Earth” (his words), Christian spent a day with Jeremy, inspecting a ship berthed here in Quebec, meeting the mostly Indian crew, and slowly catching the scent of the distinctive culture and language of the life of mariners. This hundred-day Arctic contract was an opportunity to make some serious money—the life of a young actor and writer is precarious—and seemed like it would be a hell of an adventure.
Christian left for Milne Inlet on July 19th, and arrived at his temporary new home —well within the Arctic Circle and separated from Greenland on its northern side by Baffin Bay—on the 20th. Nothing he had done previously to get himself ready (buying lots of extra warm clothes, a pair of indestructible-waterproof-extreme-cold-resistant-protective-steel-capped-boots, a good camera, and several pairs of sunglasses for the days of endless sunlight) made any kind of dent in the reality of living in an Arctic mining camp.
None of it made Christian a sailor. He’s spent these last three months of his life at the mining port, working alongside his superior, Captain P, a veteran seaman, hardened by years of often thankless and even dangerous work and crushing responsibility; alpha down to his bone marrow and surefooted whatever the conditions, both inside and outside the port’s office.
Christian won’t have become a sailor, because the extent of his travel upon the surface of the water was the distance between the tugboats he sailed almost daily and the ships at anchor further off in the Inlet that he had to board in order to begin the endless amounts of paperwork that were his responsibility.
But he will have smelled the brackish water of the inlet daily, and grown fond of it. He’ll have discovered that he’s as steady as any member of any deck crew when it comes to climbing the gangway to board a cargo ship, and looked forward to each and every visit. On the worst, choppy, heavy, restless days at Milne Inlet, he’ll have found his sea legs aboard the tossing and tilting tugboat, and been proud of it. And he will have grown to admire the mariners he had the honour of meeting with every boarding.
When he finally does arrive back home after a hundred days of endless work and ruined circadian rhythms, having lived with miners and truckers, cooks, cleaners and stevedores, engineers and technicians—all male and all constantly counting off the days till their two-week rotations ended and they could head home for an equal number of days off— Christian, standing by and watching them come and go while he stayed put, will have peered, as through a porthole, into the lives of the men on each and every ship that entered Milne Inlet, duty bound to fill her holds with iron ore, their destinies linked to their ship’s, all of them a long, long way from home, and perhaps only a few weeks into a six or ten-month round-trip.
He may feel a kinship with the Russian, Indian, Finnish and Filipino seamen whose lives intersected with his at the frigid top of the world.
I think if Christian had been with me at the concert last night, he, perhaps more than anyone else in the church, would have been moved by the tar-stained and tattered sea songs and shanties of his brothers in spirit.
“Hate will only eat the truth, then spit out a lie.” -Anthony Liccione
There are words that feel like they embody their own meaning. The shape and the sounds of them as they escape the speaker’s mouth carry their emotional charge.
Love, lovely…Beginning as they do with the L right at the front of the mouth, and then the O that opens the mouth—they are like verbal caresses. Like gentle emotional exhalations.
And then there are those whose effect is the reverse. As a lover and teacher of language, I’m sensitive to these. I’ve been struck by the word UGLY, with its built-in exclamation of disgust: Ugh! And struck, too, that in other languages, it’s also without beauty. It’s one of the words I remember easily from my high school Spanish classes: FEO (pronounced fay-o), which has a merciless quality to it. In French class, when I’m introducing my students to the morphology and meaning of adjectives, I find myself pausing at the word for ugly, LAIDE (the feminine form, pronounced just like the English word “led”), or LAID (the masculine form—the D is silent). In each of these languages, there’s no way of saying it without it sounding harsh, judgemental and filled with disdain.
C’est laid! (it’s ugly).
When it comes up, I always ask my students whether it’s a word they use, and if so, how. And the consensus among us, regardless of our mother tongue, is that ugly is a word that is almost never required—and certainly not to describe people. When put on the spot, neither I nor my students ever seem to be able to come up with an example of someone we find so objectionable in appearance that they warrant being called ugly.
HATE. The roots of the word run deep, and it seems that no definition adequately encompasses the harm it can wreak. “Intense dislike” doesn’t begin to describe what I’ve seen unleashed in the world these past few years. I was a victim of both violence and bullying in childhood and adolescence, but I don’t know that I’ve ever felt hatred toward anyone. Honestly. Hate hurts, no matter which end of it you’re on.
The recent Charlottesville riotsbrought hate into my life in such pornographic fashion that for days, I felt ill; overwhelmed by a sense of sadness and shame for my race—the human race— and disgusted to be a member of a species that’s capable of emotional and cognitive savagery that is a form of self-immolation (hatred exists nowhere else in nature). It got me thinking about this heinous thing that I was seeing in faces and hearing in voices raging “You will not replace us!” “Jews will not replace us!” “Blood and Soil!” Blood and Soil!” “Whose streets? Ours streets?”. It expressed a desire for the brutish, degenerate shunning of most of the population: a rampant, mob propelled hysterical impulse to hunker down in a diminished world: one which, to me, would look a lot like what’s left in the sink strainer when everything else has flowed down the drain.
It was “Us” vs “Them”.
I know hatred when I see it and hear it, because I feel it. Hatred can be an invisible, cold, calculating and soulless thing, but at the Charlottesville neo-Nazi, fascist, white supremacist marches, its unleashed incarnation was rabid and fanatical. I believe that I saw a willingness, by a group of zealots, to lay waste to everything that harbours “Them”. In other words, a lethal campaign motivated by something dark and ugly (yes, the adjective is definitely appropriate here) and fratricidal.
What must it feel like to be one of those men holding torches and chanting hideous refrains? Do they feel their skin crawling? Do they experience an adrenaline-fuelled release of toxicity: shame, resentment, anger, fear, frustration and self-loathing? Surely it’s painful to be held in the grip of such poisonous thoughts and feelings.
“I imagine one of the reasons people cling to their hates so stubbornly is because they sense, once hate is gone, they will be forced to deal with pain.”
― James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
The close-up shots of some of the marching Haters revealed the monstrousness of hate. The men on camera reminded me of angry baboons and hyenas.
To hate requires that a person summon stores of energy—a negative, aggressive, focused malignancy— and stoke it day after day. How can a person remain in such a corrosive state of being?
“Once you kill all of us, and you’re alone, you’ll die! The hate will die. That hate is what moves you, nothing else! That envy moves you. Nothing else! You’ll die, inevitably. You’re not immortal. You’re not even alive, you’re nothing but moving hate.”
― Ray Bradbury, A Pleasure to Burn: Fahrenheit 451 Stories
We’re not made to live this way. Nor are we made to cut ourselves off from our fellow humans. We’re programmed to feel what others feel and seek connection with them. All of THEM. We’re designed to recognise ourselves in each other. WE and THEY are simply the two sides of US.
I heard it said several times that you can only hate what you once loved. At first it gave me pause, but I’ve since come to believe that it’s nonsense. I prefer to pin my hopes on the belief that you can come to love what —and those—you have hated.
“The one thing you can’t take away from me is the way I choose to respond to what you do to me. The last of one’s freedoms is to choose one’s attitude in any given circumstance.”
― Viktor E. Frankl
There was that ominous prelude yesterday, mid-afternoon, when the storm clouds rolled in, one after the other, angry and thick and imminent.
And then there was a single, explosive crack of thunder that made me jump right up out of my chair, grab my phone and head to the front porch, where I stood, heart thumping, waiting.
I wanted to collect footage of the moisture and the deep green darkness that blanketed our street—enveloped as we always are by the canopy of tall trees—to send to Christian, who presently lives in a place where nature mostly manifests itself as absence.
And then the sky and everything in the moment seemed to stand still, and in the dark of the charcoal clouds, there was a such a hush, a void of sound, and the most ominous stillness I’ve ever felt outside of a cinema. Like nature sucking in her breath.
And then, the first rain sounds: like rice confetti, then like shelling. And the wind picked up, fierce and angry. I also made out the sounds of an airplane taking off from Dorval (what must that have been like?). It seemed to be groaning, labouring to climb up above the electrically charged cloak of storm clouds.
And I shot short bursts of video that would soon travel to Christian, thanks to a Messenger that’s quick as lightning, and immerse him in WEATHER: green, lush, swishing, howling, rumbling, wet and windy.
And then, around 3pm, the power went out, just as I was finishing. It stayed out till some time during the night. And whatever plans I had or Sylvain had for the rest of the day were snuffed out.
Sensing this could be a long outage, we decided to resist opening the fridge for any reason (and them, immediately began craving drinks with ice!). We ended up going out to eat fast food slowly, delaying powerlessness as long as we could, until finally, we headed home. Out came the candles, which I stacked onto TV tables, placed strategically beside the sofa Sylvain occupied and the armchair I’d settled in, and there we remained, with our books and enough light to lose ourselves in them, quietly, till our eyelids got heavy.
Since the month of May, my son Simon has traveled to the Ecuadorian rain forest and back, scouting possible future locations to bring enthusiastic college science students who want to get a feel for the study of biological systems in situ.
Just a few weeks later, his twin, Jeremy, traveled to Istanbul and then to Varna, Bulgaria, with a mission to inspect huge cargo ships for his employer.
And last but not least, off went their younger brother Christian on July 19th to begin a three-month stay in the northern part of Canada’s Baffin Island—a place just slightly less alien than the surface of Mars.
Welcome to the twenty-first century! When it comes to destinations, ecosystems and cultures, it doesn’t get much more diverse than that.
Of course, their lives aren’t always this nomadic, but Simon, who is perhaps the least likely to travel abroad on a regular basis, has already visited the Americas—North and South—Europe and Australia.
There’s nothing of the retro cool or counter-cultural VW Westphalia quaintness to their adventures. It’s just one dimension of what globalisation means to the generation knocking at the door, poised to take over (probably a step behind Gen X) from my generation, known as the baby boom in the West, that’s fast losing its relevance, anchored as it is to past paradigms that have become cement blocks tied to its leaden feet, and unable to keep up.
Their time can’t come soon enough, as far as I’m concerned. The planet is their oyster, in ways that it can never be for most of their elders. The world came to their neighbourhoods and classrooms. It never did for me. When I was in grade school, the most exotic classmate I had was Kamilla Giedroyc, a sweet girl from Hungary (so unusual was she, that decades later, I still remember her name). But as my sons grew up, here in Montreal, French Canadian names no longer dominated class attendance lists: these were filled instead by the names of children arriving from the Caribbean, China, India, Africa, the Middle East and the rest of Asia, Central and South America, Eastern Europe, and Russia and its former republics. The first Omar who appeared in the school yard took a bit of ribbing for his name (the French word, homard, pronounced exactly like Omar, means lobster—the kids couldn’t resist), but within months, there was no such thing as an exotic name to most kids in French language schools.
My sons, even sheltered as they were, here, in the quiet suburbs of a city that can only thrive through immigration, encountered diversity everywhere they went. It’s the best thing that could have happened to them. It peeled away any constricted sense of human identity they might have, and instead nurtured in them the notion that “We” humans speak many tongues, come in many shades, pray to many gods, love in many ways, enjoy myriad food smells, textures, colours and tastes, admire different heroes, have different sporting traditions, have varying world views, spiritual practices, political opinions and ways of defining and connecting to gender identity, family and community.
The diversity of “We” in their childhoods was perhaps the most formative lesson they could have learned, once they had absorbed into every one of their brain cells that love, kindness and acceptance of each other matter above everything else.
This is the way of all Life. It was good that my children were able to sense their place in the giant web of all living things so soon. It was good that they lived some of the richness and complexity of the natural world and human societies as preschoolers. It opened them up to the incontrovertible fact that life in all its manifestations is complex, interconnected, interdependent and diverse.
The word diversity is immensely important to me, but of late, I’ve been forced to come to terms with the fact that diversity must include (and often does) fringe, freakish, ugly, violent, bigoted, hate-filled, twisted people in various states of arrested development. They can’t all be written off as stupid or ignorant. They are simply a concomitant of diversity. Zealotry mixed with sociopathy or psychopathy is especially frightening, and I’m sure that’s in the mix of this photo of Charlottesville, posted by a Facebook friend earlier this week. It’s the stuff that nightmares and history are made of. This diversity of vision and values and ideas is always there: these people were always there…But it’s so much easier when they’re hidden away in the cracks and basements and every other tainted place where they gather.
All of these youngish white men screaming monstrous things and prepared to do so much harm (but I don’t for a minute doubt that there are lots of equally bent and cruel girlfriends and wives—boyfriends seem less likely among this cabal—egging them on): it is soul crushing. It hurts us all.
These past few weeks, my attention has been drawn to these people who appear to be so terrified of diversity, so desperate to reduce their world to an impossibly simple, stark, suffocating, stunted, hateful and exclusionary society that they are prepared to tear nature’s matrix to shreds.
It’s impossible, of course. This is simply not life. It is not nature. We are interconnected, interdependent and interwoven. We are multitudes.: heterogeneous, complex, and diverse.
The veneer of American society was very thin. It didn’t take much to expose what lay beneath it. Maybe it’s good that high wattage lamps are now shining on them, because in nature, the things able to grow in the dark are often the most resilient.
About this painting:
A teacher at Leith School of Art, David Martin is originally from Fife. He has travelled extensively and his art reflects his experiences; he is interested in exploring new and varied environments. In this scene of Istanbul, though Yeni Cami is one of the best-known mosques in the city, he chooses to capture a variety of elements which explore the diversity of the city and the people who live there.
Inside me, joy, love and sadness share a space so tight they’re all tangled. The way they were yesterday.
I’m a July baby, and my birthday fell on a Saturday this year. I don’t know whether you have specific traditions surrounding yours, but a weekend birthday is different, I think.
On the one hand, it’s probably a little less busy on the social media front, because people are not as close to their phones on a beautiful summer Saturday. But on the other, because it’s the weekend, people are free to be with you, and to make plans without feeling harried.
What happens then is that rather than being spread out over several weekdays—a coffee or drink with a friend on Monday, breakfast with your mum on Wednesday, dinner out en famille on Friday—everything becomes focused on that one day. Your friends and loved ones are free. They’ve had time to conspire. They’ve planned.
I was the very fortunate focus of this embracing attention this year.
When I was a child, my birthday experiences were very different. It was summer vacation for everyone, so I had few birthday parties with balloons, hyper excited neighbourhood friends or classmates, games and cake with super-sweet icing. School was out. It wasn’t easy to reach classmates and usually, we were away on family vacation. Mostly in the Maritimes, but almost always away and sometimes even in the car all that day—traveling.
This year, things began the night before, with a terrific supper at a local bistro and a terrible two-hundred-million-dollar movie at the Cineplex with my son Simon and friend Cindy. We dined, drank wine, and laughed like mad at the movie’s end (shame on you, Luc Besson!).
Yesterday was B-Day. It started off under a GORGEOUS, glittering blue sky (it deserves the uppercase letters: such days have been so infrequent in Montreal this summer), and breakfast in a new pub a few kilometers west of here. Simon picked me up and whisked me away. We were joined by my dearest friend, Louise, who drove all the way from her country house—where her husband was still sound asleep—to be with us.
(You likely already see where this is going. It’s a tale of kind, generous people being their usual, exceptional selves.)
In the afternoon, I was expected at Jeremy’s (Simon’s twin) and Anne’s, to be with them and my grandchildren, Penelope and Graeme, and to be joined not long after by my mum and her partner and finally, by Simon and my sister Danielle.
And that’s when I started to feel an internal wobbliness that makes no sense.
It has to do with the number of times someone said: It’s Grand-maman’s birthday, to my grandchildren, and It’s your birthday! to me. It’s about a pressure building around that, and how I wished I could stand up and send a giant wave their way, filled with all of the love and gratitude and bliss I feel having them in my life: enough so that none of the fanfare would ever be necessary. The being together? Yes, oh yes, most certainly, but not the rest—not the spotlight.
With that spotlight following me, I flounder. I’m not meant for it. The sadness in me floats up with the love and joy. It’s so strange. Opening boxes and boxes of extremely generous and thoughtful gifts with the help of Penelope and Graeme’s paper-ripping skills…It’s all so much. There’s no reciprocation possible.
Then it was dinner at the big table that fits everyone. Burgers, delicious salads (thank you dear Anne), chips, condiments galore, wine and laughter. Penelope and Graeme suddenly becoming a comedy act.
An experience of communion.
And finally, there was Christian, live and in colour, brought to us on my IPhone all the way from Milne Inlet in Northern Baffin Island, three thousand miles away from home for the next three months; due North, in the Canadian Arctic, in the same time zone as us ( ! ); his face the size of my phone’s small screen, missing us, looking, looking, looking and feeling outside of it all, looking for the love on our faces.
And suddenly all of our attention was on the miracle of that phone and the person it was bringing to us. And the phone passed from hand to hand, each of us asking questions in the noisy room where the rest of us chattered as we eavesdropped.
And then it ended up in my hand, and I turned and held it up over my head so that everyone at the big table could catch a glimpse of Christian while he first answered my maternal questions, then told us stories of his first days there, and then just took questions from everyone and made us laugh, and made us feel connected.
As the signal weakened, we all said our goodbyes and see-you-soons. And then it was bath time for the kids, and time to kiss, hug, and say goodbye.