MOVING BETWEEN SERENITY AND SADNESS

Bennett, David; Slipway 1; ArtCare, Salisbury District Hospital; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/slipway-1-64745

March 23rd 2019

 Yesterday, I spent a part of the afternoon beginning the process of resigning from my position as a French teacher in adult education for the CSMB (Marguerite-Bourgeoys school board). The woman on the phone told me I should receive the papers in a week or so. The next step will be filling out the documents required to receive my small teacher’s pension. It’s very small because my professional life only got seriously started in my forties—though everything I did before that was leading me to that profession. I don’t qualify for my federal pension for five years…

It isn’t nearly enough. It’s a pittance that will help pay for food, and maybe the odd bill, but will mean being dependent on others, or else—and more realistically— running through what money I have left from my separation and the sale of our house—in effect leaving nothing behind for anyone.

It’s so startling (and ironic!) to think that there could come a day when I’ve outlived my ability to support myself, even in this group living arrangement that I have with my son and soon, our friend Cindy.  And even with cancer. I could find myself rooting for death rather than indigence, or, more honestly, being utterly dependent on my children, which is not an acceptable option.

Millet, Jean-Francois; Gust of Wind; Amgueddfa Cymru – National Museum Wales; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/gust-of-wind-116875

There are notes of melodrama there, because the people who love me would never see it that way and will probably feel like bonking me on the head when they read this, but…there’s truth here too. I can’t work for at least two years, and if I’m still alive at the end of the clinical trial, then Dr. Aubin, who leads this trial, told me point blank that she’s prepared right now to sign any document which states that I should never work again, because, well…I think she knows that magic rainbows aren’t awaiting me at the end of the two year trial, but she simply said –remembering that I’ll be 62 by then (using the future tense feels lovely) : “No, I don’t like the idea of you being submitted to the stresses of teaching,”  (which include driving all over the place) “I think you qualify for a disability pension, and I’ll sign a paper right now that states that you shouldn’t work anymore.”

My age is a factor in her decision-making process. She’s hopeful of extending my life and knows what could, and won’t, help me to reach that goal. And I probably shouldn’t write this, but I believe that when I walk into the small examination room she uses when she comes to the 14th floor of the CHUM, and we sit and talk and plan out the next treatment, she’s happy to see me, and has grown fond of me, in a professional way. I think she’s rooting for me.

I felt immediate relief, which was in part because she understood the demands of what I do. Did.

And also, because there’s so much struggle in my life right now that adding to it, even only on a list of possibilities, is too much to take in. But I still haven’t begun getting together the paperwork for a disability pension. The next step.

Schwarz, Hans; Lisa Dunwood, Teacher; Girton College, University of Cambridge; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/lisa-dunwood-teacher-195231

As I made the phone call yesterday, a workbook was sitting on this table where I write. A terrific book for learning French, published in Quebec (part of the Par Ici series), that I began using a few years ago when it first turned up. I can’t remember how it got there, but seeing it and leafing through it helped me fully appreciate the finality of never teaching again. I loved that book, despite its shortcomings (there are ALWAYS shortcomings: that’s what the teacher’s for). I love all the memories associated with it, the classes where my students were caught up in role play: one, the building superintendent and the other, the tenant with a broken kitchen faucet; or one, shopping for posh clothes being served by an obsequious sales person; or my beginners, struggling to ask questions about an Airbnb lodging they were looking to rent…

Just some of the things that have ended in my life.

It’s a long and precious list of roles I no longer play, responsibilities I no longer have, people I no longer see of whom I had grown very fond, teaching them once, twice, three times a week for 2, 3, 4 years… Ben, Armina, Peter, Christine, Arthur, Amira, Veli, all of my Filipino gentlemen…So many over the years that I cannot begin to name everyone…Day classes, evening classes…Many still Facebook friends.

And strangers I will never meet. Humans who might have been, but won’t be my students. I won’t have the chance to learn from them. A part of my future, which seemed so predetermined, now amputated.

I was so changed by my experience of teaching, which opened me up to myself and to others; which helped me feel so much better about the human race; which awakened me to the richness of otherness.

There are times, here in Hudson, when I feel myself shrinking. Losing confidence, losing my sense of purpose. The Incredible Shrinking Woman. No more Elastigirl. Leaving teaching was as far from my thoughts as would be leaving writing. I just assumed I would do both until…I couldn’t. Ah. There it is.

But I can still write (even though my eyes are bothering so much as a result of chemo that I’m forced to use reading glasses that are almost double my prescription (from +2.00 to + 3.75! and still, I don’t see clearly).

***

Over the past seven months, I’ve adapted to the routine of going to the new CHUM so often, and to the older Hotel-Dieu buildings too. I complain about the repetitiveness of it, and worse, the boxiness of it, but there are elements of these experiences that are almost ritual, and they’re soothing.

Getting Monday’s pre-chemo tests and examinations done quickly, and leaving the hospital early enough to make the 12:30 pm train home is the ultimate goal. It’s never more than half full, and it gets me on track (literally) to be home by roughly 2:15 pm.

The train is my principle mode of transport. Though I’m guaranteed free parking at the CHUM. I’ve never used my car to get there. Instead, I leave it where Simon teaches, in Sainte-Anne-de-Bellevue, at the train station.

The train at Montreal West Station, March 25th 2019

The train never failed me this winter. Not once. Not even during the worst snowstorm of the year. On the way in to the city, because my station is one of the first on the line, I’m lucky enough to get a good seat and settle in. But this is morning bustle time. People are off to work and to school. Most seem to carry with them a sense of mission. A purpose. Some are munching on their ersatz breakfast, while others, those with earbuds, have disappeared into their phones or tablets.

Returning home always feels different, but especially if it isn’t rush hour. The train is peaceful, and I love to ride the second floor—the quietest space. It creeks, and seems to rock more, left to right, at these times, in a gentle motion that soothes and settles everyone down. From my perch, I watch the strip of world that was carved out when the tracks were laid, some of them more than a century ago.

I watch Westmount and Montreal West roll past my window, showing ravines, a golf course, the ugly backsides of cheaply constructed and ramshackle garages and small grocery stores, and all of the big old gorgeous houses that passed for single-family dwellings back then, with attics and additions poking out unexpectedly.

On the train, during a snowstorm, February 2019

I love leaving Montreal’s edges behind, and reaching Lachine, Dorval, and the stations of my former home—three in all (the most!)— Pointe-Claire. They line the highway, and the houses have shrunk in size (the up-market homes are of course near the lake or in posher neighbourhoods).

But as we push westward, the cookie cutter suburbs begin to lose their geometry, and where no businesses and warehouses have yet been built, there’s still open fields, and finally, the farmlands of McGill’s MacDonald campus.

A few times, I’ve ridden the train right off the island, all the way to Vaudreuil, and once, Hudson itself (the train only stops in Hudson at 6:50 am and 6:40 pm), but they’re still working out the kinks in their system, so I’ve become partial to Sainte-Anne.

Riding the trains connects me with my past. It evokes the thrill of shopping trips downtown with my sisters or with friends when we were just thirteen or fourteen; and the years when I was a student at Concordia U, then McGill, and then finally l’Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM), always preferring the train to anything else.

I hopped the train to go buy my wedding dress downtown. I hopped the train to attend Christian’s performances at FACE high school, and later, as a professional actor. I hopped the train to attend Simon and Jeremy’s graduations from Concordia (having become a biologist and an engineer), and later, Christian’s too…

On the train during a snowstorm, February 2019

These days, when I look out the window from the commuter train, I don’t have the sense that it might also take me to Toronto or New York, as it has in the past. I try not to see it as a means of going away or getting away, but try instead to appreciate how lovely it is to move back and forth between the places and people who are helping me to stay alive, through their love and care, making the serenity worth the sadness.

 

 

 

 

 

 

BREAKING OPEN THE SKY

I’m back.

That’s the best I can do for an opener.

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.

Last fall, in a piece that appeared on author and friend Leslie Stuart Tate’s website, I wrote that:

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.

Our house in a snowstorm

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 MosleyBlue 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 GaimanThe Graveyard Book

 

MOVING ON

It has begun surfacing once again— intermittent, sudden, fleeting.

Something that I can best describe as an internal lurch; a quick and uncomfortable dropping feeling in my belly that catches me off guard.

And I’m reminded that though I’m absorbed in what I’m doing: preparing to teach, heading off to teach or actually in class with my adult students, my body knows that change is just around the corner, and sends tiny internal depth charges to remind me.

It’s a very familiar feeling of apprehension mixed with a drop of dread that’s part of a cycle that I’ve lived with for the past 7 years.

 

It’s almost time to move on.

 That’s my body’s message. For five of the ten groups that are mine right now, our story ends next week.

That’s because all of the contracts that allow me to go to students working in companies around the city eventually come to an end—usually after five to eight months.

  

When I start a new contract and meet a brand new group of students, strangers all, it always feels fresh and hopeful, the way beginnings should feel, and the road ahead feels clear and promising. It’s the luxury of time.

Though I’ve had many dozens of such groups since I began teaching French, and come to this point of parting with them time and time again, it’s still as hard as it was the first time.

 

When you care about things, it ends up wearing you out.” 
― Sakisaka Io

 

I first started in my school board’s adult education centre. It was a real boom period then, and classes were filled with people committed to learning French thirty hours a week. Imagine that. Thirty hours. Groups of twenty to twenty-five people brought together, full-time, hoping to emerge speaking a new and essential language.

I was always given the beginners, the newbies, which is a fantastic privilege because it gave me the chance to welcome them into this new French-speaking world. To set the tone. To make them forget all of their fears and previous experiences of school. To relax and trust themselves, and trust their classmates, and trust me.

It has always felt important that my students enter class with a smile, but even more so that they leave smiling.

 

Oh! the insanity of it. Because each level lasted only eight weeks. Intense as it was, our time together was a mere two months. Sometimes I got to take them a further 8 weeks, but not always. And so, that last day of each term was a big, messy, bittersweet party that included an international (and delicious!) pot luck lunch.

It was incredibly gratifying and also just exhausting for me and I always came home feeling wrung out, a bit low, and relieved that the pressure of parting had been released.

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Parting with friends is a sadness. A place is only a place.”– Frank Herbert

 

The special allure of adult language education is that each student in my class is a peer. And each is a potential friend. Could be. Might become one.

Going into companies to teach changed things around for me because in most places, I only see my students once a week for two to three hours—just a drop in the bucket—but we journey together this way for four or six or nine months at a time.

 

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The average size of a group is usually six, though it can drop to three or go as high as a dozen; and this has freed me. In the intimacy of a small group, no one is ever looking at another person’s back—we are always in a circle, always face to face. In a small group, names are learned quickly and a far more personal tone is set. Also, the possibilities of what I can bring to them and what we can discuss and undertake isn’t as rigidly structured as the Ministry of Education program. Everything is fodder for conversation in French.

You can’t hide in a small group.

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Each develops its own, unique chemistry that leaves a distinctive imprint on my memory. I remember them in feelings. I remember the interplay between them: the unexpected pairings of personalities that emerged in class. I remember what made them laugh. And which of them made me laugh. I also remember what made them fearful and stressed—lay-offs and company closings are the darkest possible clouds that we’ve travelled under.

 

Also, I suppose I wanted to say goodbye to someone, and have someone say goodbye to me. The goodbyes we speak and the goodbyes we hear are the goodbyes that tell us we’re still alive, after all.” 
― Stephen King
Wolves of the Calla

 

When I say goodbye to five of my groups next week, it will be without knowing how long these goodbyes will last.

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Just two days ago, in the company cafeteria, a man tapped me on the shoulder and said Bonjour Madame, and I recognized Luren, an intense and interesting man who had been my student in 2012 at a different company location. He was starting his day and only had a minute, but he wanted me to know that he had been back to Peru and had married a woman that he had known since childhood, and that he was very happy. When we parted he said, smiling, that perhaps we would meet again in a French class.

These are special moments in my life, when I feel how lucky I am that my work brings me into this stream of humanity.

 

Album art work for Pink Floyd’s The Endless River 

Next week, we’ll say hopeful au revoirs. Maybe classes will begin again some time next year, and many of these wonderful people will re-register. In an ideal world, we could pick up where we left off.

Maybe some will find me on Facebook and I will be given a different window into their lives.

Maybe that’s it, and I will never see them again.

Or maybe, like Luren, we will meet unexpectedly one day.

When that day comes, even if it’s years down the road, please, may I remember their names.

Here’s to:

Paola, Leon, Ying Yao, Anita, Liang Yu, Leonardo, Georgi, Graham, Chih Tao, Daniel, Yun, Azer, Leo, Keith, Jun, Pramod, JiaCong, Hong Ming, David, Manish, Stephen (Big Steve), Amira, William, Cristinel, Calin, Azadeh, Emanuele, Veli, José, Li, Yan et Manmohan.

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