MY INCREDIBLE EXPANDING LIFE

No one tells you this, but a human life, just like the universe that cradles it, is always expanding.

One of the ways we experience this extension first hand is through the social connections we make. My teaching life has accelerated this, and in the past ten years or so, I’ve come to know so many people that I could and want to call friends; people I don’t want to lose…not wanting the flow of time to sweep them away, beyond my reach.

Last week, my student Mira reached out and pulled me into her life.

In late 2016, Mira left Toronto to come live close to her daughter and grandchildren. In our quiet conversations after class, she had mentioned having just found her new place, which she described in such ecstatic, giddy language that it seemed unreal. She said it was beautiful, surrounded by woods and birds; that her new neighbours were wonderful; that they planted flowers and perennials at the foot of the trees for everyone to enjoy; that she had found a haven. That she was immensely grateful and happy.

And then she invited me to dinner. Her home was exactly as she had described. Sitting on her patio that’s enclosed by a screened gazebo, we listened to the sounds of the birds and the breeze and of a piano tuner next door, who arrived not long after me. As he worked, he played. Beautifully. Every note bouncing off the sparkling light of approaching dusk.

Everything about our evening together was enveloping. Despite a long day at work, Mira had put together a bounteous meal that left me speechless (because I was at a loss for words and because my mouth was always full).

 

I felt like a funambulist in our first hour together, trying to find my way from the interactive dynamics of being Mira’s teacher to being her friend. It’s a subtle thing, because of course in adult education, we’re equals who are simply playing different roles. And yet all my teacherly reflexes were there: asking questions, steering the conversation and adjusting my language (we were speaking English, Mira’s third language after Ukrainian and Russian—French is her newest challenge).

I’ve spoken elsewhere of the pain of letting go of my students at the end of my teaching contracts. The obverse of this requires a different kind of energy and thoughtfulness.

We all know this. We learn it as we move through time, shedding friends and making new ones in grade school and high school; opening our lives to new colleagues as we enter adulthood; merging the social circles of people we love with our own.

This pulsating movement continues for decades. Our neighbours become friends and through our children and all of their involvements, new people enter our lives constantly. There’s always the possibility of friendship and attachment, but there also comes the moment when we realise that it isn’t possible to maintain each connection—that there just isn’t enough emotional energy to go around.

Every time I choose to stay in touch with a former student, I think of this and have to take it into account. I’ve sent and received many enthusiastic Facebook messages to and from former students expressing the wish that we see each other again: “We should have coffee!” “We have to meet!” “Are you free in March?”.

The desire is sincere. There’s only good will. But of course, it can’t always work out, and so I/we settle for whatever time we manage to carve out of our overstuffed lives.

It’s enough, because it has to be. It has meant breakfast with Patty and supper with Karen. It has meant an evening at the pub with Kathryn and my best friend Louise who joined us so that Kathryn could get some serious French conversation practice (there could and should have been so many more such evenings—sigh).

It has meant the unexpected joy of finding emails from Will, then Yan in my Inbox; both engineers, one a British bachelor and the second, a devoted father of three, catching me up about their lives.

One time, it was coffee at Tim Horton’s late in the afternoon with Neshat and Maryam, while their children emitted happy sparks of mischief at the next table. There was phlegmatic Thomas, fresh out of university and a long way from home; elegant and thoughtful Saran, a kindred spirit who has officially joined our Best of the Worst soirées, and there was exuberant, endearing Hatem, whom I met at his five-year-old daughter’s school, where he had joined the French for Parents class I was teaching. Though he was with me for just a few weeks before finding work, he still sends me email updates that are a study in gratitude–he gives thanks for every part of his new life–and an inspiration.

And there’s Facebook, Facebook, Facebook, and its limitless tentacles, for which I’m so grateful.

Mira at home

But Mira isn’t on Facebook. She simply cut through all of the potential barriers to friendship with her extraordinary emotional energy.

Mira’s brilliant: she’s an engineer who specialises in systems, processes, efficiency and ergonomics. One way of understanding her profession is that she has a talent for observing people and their systems and seeing all of the ways these aren’t working properly. She connects people by removing obstacles that hinder functionality and their ability to work well together. Things flow better when she’s around.

Our shared meal in her new condo provided the setting for a long heart-to-heart. In French class, I had witnessed Mira’s brilliance, competence and will, and caught a glimpse of her creativity—she’s a talented painter—but in her new home, where she claims to have found, at last, a space to simply be herself—woman, mother, Baba (grandmother), artist and engineer—she radiates gentleness and incandescent plenitude.

Speaking of her grandfather (Mira was an only child), with her soft voice and Slavic accent, she told me: “When I was small child and sat in his arms, he would stop breathing, he loved me so much. Everyone give me so much love”.

Except that she pronounces it “law-ve”, which sounds even more beautiful.

“The universe is full of doors.”—Frank Herbert, Dune

Painting by Mira

 

TRIAGE

After thirty-four years in this house, we’re slowly but surely taking our first steps toward leaving it (I know, 34! Honestly, we were very young when we moved in).

When I say we, I mean my husband of course, but also my sons—especially Simon and Christian—because we’re all bound up in what comes next. Simon most of all, because though he has lived away from us for quite a while now, this reconfiguration of the future was his idea.

A few years ago, he floated the notion of all of us investing in a multigenerational living space. A subdivided house, a duplex, a triplex—anything that would allow us to live with privacy in proximity to one another; a super-home where Simon could gain solid footing in the real estate market, a more permanent roof over his head, and live a life most suited to his values and vision of human ecology: shared space, shared costs and community. The window for making this happen is two to three years.

It has always sounded right. All of us have looked at the horizon, trying to imagine the shape of the world to come, and experienced a shiver of apprehension and a feeling that our futures will be better faced in solidarity. Together.

Together is a word that right now means as many as six of us. When I’m gone or when my husband’s gone, together will still mean…who knows how many people? In some future iteration, it could include Christian and his family, and Penelope and Graeme and their families. Anything’s possible. It’s a word signifying that life is better lived among loved ones. In proximity.

I’ve noticed a change in myself since Simon’s idea began to germinate. My connection to this house, which has been the centre of gravity of my entire adult life, is weakening, and that’s helping me to tug at the roots that ground me to this place. The pain isn’t as acute as I feared. I don’t know what it’ll be like the day the moving truck pulls up and all we leave behind are scuffed floors and nail marks on the walls, but lately, the thought of moving away has taken on the aura of liberation.

My neighbour Gail took this picture of our house from hers, March 7th 2016

Our warm and welcoming little house is dragging me down with the sheer weight of all of the stuff that has accumulated inside it. To quote Sheldon Cooper, it has become “a swirling vortex of entropy. If left to our own devices, we’re each capable of filling any room, any free space with stuff at a remarkable speed.

With the exception of my husband—whose contribution to burying us alive is related to his difficulty throwing out or giving away things that still have monetary value (at heart, he isn’t a packrat), resulting in a crammed crawl space in the basement—Simon, Christian and I * are all afflicted with the ultimate room-filling compulsions: bibliophilia and cinephilia.

[*My married son Jeremy is very neat and orderly—I often think how he must have suffered, growing up, from the effects of our shared talent for agglomeration.]

Simon’s apartment is just like our home, with walls hidden by photographs, artwork and overstuffed IKEA bookshelves that are doing fine with his huge DVD collection, but straining under the weight his books.

It must be genetic.

  

But consider: the photos are of people we love and places we’ve been; each painting or piece of art has personal meaning, including a laminated poster of the 2007 Montreal Jazz Festival where Christian performed when he was 16, and oil paintings created by my aunt. We don’t hang things because they match a room’s colour scheme. The DVDs represent hours spent watching and re-watching them together. And the books? I know that Christian, Simon and I have no interest in seeing walls. I know that all three of us (as well as our friend Cindy who is part of our super-home project) envision rooms encased with floor to ceiling bookshelves (she builds them!).

On one side, there’s the consumerism of this century that I want to run from, and on the other, its antithesis, a movement toward decluttering, minimalism and micro living environments.

There’s a beauty in the latter: the order, the simplicity, the detachment, the shedding, the room to breathe.

Darlinghurst apartment
http://www.idesignarch.com/minimalist-inner-city-micro-apartment-with-smart-functional-design/darlinghurst-apartment_3/

I can look at examples of minimalist spaces and the minimalist lifestyle and admire their aesthetic, but then my mind revolts, and what was fresh and cleansing very quickly becomes bleak in its blankness (imagine coming in from the cold of a snowy winter’s day to a white box that passes for your home), clinical in its austerity (like my dentist’s recently redesigned workspace) and devoid of everything except the rarest of personal items.

And that’s the rub. In the spaces where most of my family members live, meaning and material things are bound together through the pathways of sense memory. We feel compelled to live in very personal, evocative environments in which objects reflect and remind us constantly of who we are. This isn’t nostalgic or narcissistic, but rather, I think, a nesting, comforting behaviour. This is who I am because these are my loves.

Some of Danielle’s boxes

My sister Danielle moved here from the West Coast earlier this year, months before finding a new place. When she did, and the movers’ truck finally arrived and we helped her to begin unpacking, I was reminded of this desire to recreate the familiar. This was my Facebook post the following day:

[…] Danielle left her life in BC behind and is finally settling into her new nest.

This is the stuff that made it to Quebec, except for the furniture, which has of course already been spread throughout her new place by the friendly movers.

This is what a lifetime of baggage looks like–once you’ve sorted through it, evaluated its worth and decided that it will follow you to your next destination across a continent.

Every box that’s opened tells a story. Out of every box floats an echo, a hundred memories.

With every box come the beauty of music, the pleasure of books, the familiar feel and smell of clothing, and tchotchkes–those tiny, useless, priceless mementos of the struggle to have a full, rich life.

The unpacking of the tchotchkes mattered. We stored them in a large glass cabinet in her new living room. Each was dusted off and placed on a shelf with great care. Minimalism, shminimalism.

Painting by Suzanne Howard

A few years ago, I came across a little book about a big question. It’s The Burning House, and it asks: if your house suddenly caught on fire, what would you grab as you fled out the door?

We’re spared some tough decisions thanks to our laptops. With those tucked under our arms, photo albums could be left behind without too much anguish, I think, but what of the rest?

I’m not a phobic person, and yet I often find myself spooked by thoughts that one day, I’ll be driving home from work and see charcoal plumes billowing from our cottage. The fact that our house is sixty-three years old plays a part, but it must certainly also have something to do with The Burning House question. What I would grab seems less significant than what I would MISS.

The burning house scenario is the experience of most immigrants, no matter their status upon arriving in their new country. They’ve left so much behind. Nothing is familiar. What do they ache for and what is most precious?