THE CALENDAR OF FOOLS

bn-rj629_nymetr_m_20161227143125
Photo: Lisa Haney http://www.wsj.com/articles/a-night-to-bid-good-riddance-to-the-worst-year-ever-1482869972

Welcome, 2017.

As December moved along this year, similar messages and wishes kept appearing on Facebook. They can be summed up like this: Good Riddance 2016!

It’s a sentiment I understand. To anyone who doesn’t live in a cave or isn’t completely cut off from mainstream media, this year felt like one endless storm. At sea or on land, it makes no difference. We’ve still felt battered and unmoored.

Brexit, Trump, Putin, neo-fascism rebranded as “white nationalism” and the “alt-right”; climate change news that becomes more and more alarming as it’s downplayed by those who have a stake in doing so; the agony of the Syrians and Iraqis and their desperate calls for help. Black and indigenous lives which do not matter enough. And, more recently, strong media reactions to the deaths of so many writers, poets, actors, musicians and artists this year— the very best among us—the people of light whose art we’ve never needed more.

Welcome 2017, as long as you’re vastly different, is what we mean. Welcome, as long as things change for the better and we stop feeling like we’re stuck in a lesser Star Wars movie, living in the constant pall of a phantom menace.

It all resonates with me. It all feels legit. How good it would feel to peel back all of the darkness that covers us (or really, that as a species we have covered ourselves with). To press RESET. To figure out how to find our way through the desperately complex, interconnected and interdependent systems that paradoxically also separate us from one another so painfully.

img_4595
Reaching the end of the Advent calendar

This Christmas, my family received three 2017 wall calendars: one is for me, from the Reading Woman series, and the other’s a Shakespeare calendar for my son Christian. Both were gifts from my mum.  The third I received as part of a Kickstarter campaign that I funded a while ago. Looking at it brings me joy every day.

I don’t do very well with agendas (paper or smart phone) and pocket calendars. Time mostly slips through my fingers like a slick eel. But wall calendars help. Maybe it’s the fact that they’re fixed to something (though not a wall: my calendars are hanging on the side of the pantry and on a door). It may also be because they’re graphically more imposing; they’re bigger and even from a distance, I can really see time all sectioned off into squares and see the hand- scribbled entries we’ve made.

Every time I replace the old wall calendar with the new one, I feel a pang: there goes another year of my life. This small action causes me to pause. I sit and leaf through each month. My eyes rest first on the images that I’m unlikely to see again. But then, as I turn over the thick glossy pages, my eyes rest one last time on all of the annotations. What I see is the life of my family in all its banality and beauty, separated into tiny pockets of time.

img_4593All of the appointments to the doctor’s, for x-rays and physiotherapy and even an MRI that are the signposts of my husband’s year of recovery from back problems.

Annotations meant to remind me of the birthdays of everyone we love (but especially those who fly below Facebook’s radar).

All of the comings and goings: the arrival and departure dates of those among us who travelled or came to visit; my movements all over the island of Montreal where I was sent to evaluate prospective students. There’s my ever-changing work schedule too.

 

I can track the evolution of Christian’s career as an actor: the rehearsal and show dates of Macbeth; his call dates on a movie shoot; his scheduled days at the McGill Simulation Centre and his meetings with a new agent.

The impressions made by the lives of my sons and grandchildren are everywhere: concert dates, supper at The Keg and the pub, family gatherings, Penelope and Graeme’s birthdays, a visit to the Biodome and the movie premières that we always see together.

img_4592There’s also the hospital phone and room numbers of a beloved relative who endured frightening bypass surgery. The birthweight of baby Scarlett.

From car maintenance to meetings with our financial advisor, everything is there.

It wasn’t all work, and it wasn’t all bad. Some years seem cursed when you’re living through them. 2012 was like that for us, but it also marked the birth of miraculous Penelope. Experiencing that meant living through all of the rest.

Though so much of this year conspired to make us all paranoid and pessimistic, this Christmas season was one of the most sincerely kind and joyous I’ve experienced in years.

On my husband’s side of the family, almost thirty of us packed into my sister-in-law’s small bungalow and talked and played games and caught up with each other’s lives. On my side, three families came together at my son Jeremy’s and laughed and talked and were one.

Goodbye 2016. Hello 2017. I’m grateful to be alive.

Tomorrow is only found in the calendar of fools.

—Og Mandino

 

img_4599

FALLING BEHIND

Here it is again, this sense of falling behind, this sense of compression. It’s increasing, and soon it’ll crest.

It’s directly connected to my work life, and also to the twists and tangles of my inner life.

I don’t have a 9 to 5 job. That isn’t the way my professional life in adult education developed. In fact, I can’t even say from one trimester to the next what my teaching schedule will be. Contracts begin, last a certain number of hours and months, and then they’re done. They can start any time (though summer is rarely the chosen season) and end at different intervals, which creates an ever-changing, staggered work schedule.

There are all kinds of advantages to a schedule like mine. I’m not boxed in at the same work station Monday to Friday.  I have no idea what my schedule will be in three or six months. There’s always a gap in my agenda where I can stick in spontaneous events like coffee with friends of family, or those killer dental or medical appointments; and mornings when I can do some writing or preparation before leaving. Gaps that allow me to break out of a routine.

0812_businesswoman-running-wheel_416x416-300x300

Because I go to my students’ workplace, I’m always moving around. I’m currently teaching eight groups in four different companies on the island of Montreal. Though it sounds contradictory even to me, while I’m not crazy about the driving—especially in bad weather, in the winter or in rotten parts of town (the Décarie circle comes to mind)—I really do enjoy my nomadism.

My teaching job is the antithesis of getting stuck in a rut. I’ve learned so much from the near constant state of acclimatisation that I’m in. This job of mine, which is also my mission, has taught me to be less fearful and more adventurous. It has helped me to grow up (!) and to meet new situations and people head-on with both confidence and modesty. It’s made me realize that I can teach and people can learn—and vice versa—in a small conference room, a cavernous hall or in a kitchen, with or without a whiteboard (no more blackboards) or workbooks. It has taught me to simply believe in my ability to do my job well and then go out and do it as mindfully and conscientiously as I can.

The walls closing in.

I trust others more than I ever have because I’ve learned through my teaching experiences that it’s possible to meet every one of my students on their own terms and grow to know them there, where they are all, eventually, happy to be discovered.

But I’m still struggling with the flow of my life these days. The first image that popped into my mind as I started writing this was of a sine wave. Don’t get distracted by the fact that it makes no mathematical sense. The truth is, it’s exactly how I feel, riding out the hours, days and weeks of my life.

Moving along in time is a perplexing experience. When my life slows down and gets quieter—as it can in late spring when many of my teaching contracts come to an end and I have bigger and bigger gaps in my schedule— I often first feel a lightness of being because suddenly, I’m free! I have time… for other things! It’s a gentle kind of elation. A temporary weightlessness.

 

During those periods, I can catch up in all of the other parts of my life where balance has been lost: I can make plans to see my beloved friends and family (especially my mother and grandchildren); I can do more exercise; and, o joy of joys, I can sit and spend more time writing.

But if this period lasts too long, and new teaching contracts are too slow to reappear, then I start to feel disorganized inside the time. I feel that I’m squandering it. Or else I throw myself into writing at the expense of the rest and then something inside of me starts to squirm.

Of course, this doesn’t last. More works comes in. More demands are made of my time. Someone needs me. Someone is sick. Someone is suffering. The balance shifts and suddenly, I’m busy again. The pace of my life quickens.

This uneven, unpredictable, up and down, fast and slow ride along my life’s timeline is anxiogenic and right now, I’m heading into the crest of that wave. I have eight groups of students at four different places to work with and plan for every week and soon I’ll be up to ten. My sine waves have started to look more like this:

Ten is too many. I have to cut all kinds of joy-making activity out of my schedule. I have to boil each day down to the bare bones of what has to get done. Meanwhile, it feels like time is accelerating past me.

80110-70739

But it’s also temporary, and by December 23rd, I will have reached the end of my mandate with five of these groups, and then there’ll be another lull until things pick up again and I’m sent to new places to meet new men and women from all parts of the world, or else happily reconnect with former students.

Part of me wants to argue that my sense of balance and wellbeing in this life depends on getting the pacing right. But as I look at these words on the screen, I know it isn’t true.

My happiness, the joy I feel simply being alive, starts here inside my head and depends on an act of relinquishing.

Through the ups and downs, the lulls and the frenzy, I have to remind myself that no one has set a bar before me. That there’s happiness to be had and meaning to be found in tumult as in quietude. That falling behind and getting ahead are magic tricks and figments of my over-active lust for life. That I should stop fussing and just keep moving.

Photo by Vincent Bourilhon