15 ROUNDS WITH AN IMPLACABLE ENEMY

The norovirus

Part of the THIS IS THE MOMENT series.

It must have been the bragging.

The way I’d been stating, with wonder and pride, that in the 15 months I’d been receiving chemotherapy, I hadn’t been sick; hadn’t caught the plague that felled Christian in the late fall of 2018; hadn’t even had a cold.

Tsk, tsk, tsk. All it took was the good ol’ norovirus.

On Thursday, November 14th, thinking that I had allowed for a period of “minimum safe distance”, I drove the 35km down the TransCanada to visit my mum, who had been sick with the stomach flu since the previous weekend. Her partner, a retired physician, was taking good care of her, but he had returned to his home in the city on Tuesday to look after things there.

My mum, who is the Energizer Bunny of octogenarians, was still weak from her ordeal and in need of supplies. So I scooped homemade chicken soup from our freezer, enriched it a bit with some gently simmered vegetables, bought some Yorkshire Gold decaf and also regular tea (for guests) and a whole assortment of dry biscuits from the British tea shop here in Hudson, picked up some bananas, some applesauce and delivered them the same day.

Looking fragile, as she does more and more, my mum was nevertheless visibly jazzed to have some company, and so, with my white cotton gloves on (because you can’t be too careful with stomach flu, even after 5 days), I warmed a bowl of soup for her, made the tea, and got the cookies arranged on a plate.

Sadler, Walter Dendy; Afternoon Tea; Cardiff Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/afternoon-tea-158989

The conversation was lovely! My mum brightened, and soon we were talking about books and Christmas and a whole bunch of things I can no longer remember. I purposely—in spite of the multiple cups of tea—did not use her bathroom before leaving. As I left, my mum said: “We have to do this more often, it’s such fun; our conversations are so interesting.” That was mostly just a good sales pitch. Mothers want to see their children, and cancer (and the added distance between us since my move to Hudson) has made a serious dent in my ability to visit her in any kind of regular fashion.

There is so little I can do for her…so little I can do for anyone, that I drove home imbued with a feeling of having done SOMETHING to alter my general ineffectiveness.

Ribot, Augustin Theodule; Mother and Daughter; Glasgow Museums; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/mother-and-daughter-85855

The next day, Friday the 15th, Simon was invited to dinner by one of the coolest couples on the planet, Heather and Adrien: she, a geology teacher at the same college as Simon, and he, an anthropologist at Université de Montréal—who speaks at least 5 languages fluently. They live in the most cutting edge house in Hudson. It looks like something out of an upscale Wallander episode. It’s a giant wood bungalow with all of the wooden structural features (ceilings, beams, walls, the works!) exposed. It’s geothermically heated, and situated on several acres of woodland. They’re vegan and grow most of their own food (of course!). Heather and Adrien are at the forefront of preparedness for climate change. They’re also warm and kind and that’s probably why Heather thought to say to Simon: “Hey! Bring your mum!”

The evening was so lovely. Mostly, I just sat there dazed by everyone’s brilliance and the breathtaking scope of their knowledge. I’d time-travelled and somehow wound up in a room with a bunch of Renaissance polymaths.

Plague doctor masque

And then dinner was served. And as the large bowl of tasty, multicoloured (there were beets!) roasted root vegetables served over basmati rice was placed in front of me—suddenly, as though someone sinister wearing a plague doctor mask had quickly entered and exited my field of vision—I felt the first gentle wave of noro-nausea move inside my stomach. The conversation was as animated as ever, but I was retreating from it, feeling hot and sticky and clammy as the waves of nausea started to build. I forced myself to finish my meal, sitting there like a stump, while the realization of what was happening to me became clearer and clearer, and then, in the gentlest, most urgent-without-sowing-panic voice, I asked my hosts: “Is there a bathroom nearby?.”

Stainton, Alice; Trug with Carrots and Vegetables; Bushey Museum and Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/trug-with-carrots-and-vegetables-16026

That poor powder room. Poor toilet bowl. It was hit with a thundering cascade of totally undigested, colourful root vegetables. Once. Twice. Oh God.

Twenty-four hours after visiting my mum, I was noro-infected up to my eyeballs. Is there a more mortifying way to experience a first encounter with brilliant and generous hosts?  The odds are against it, I think.

Of course, this was just the beginning. I didn’t sleep a wink that night, and was up at least 10 more times, my stomach turning itself inside out. By the next day, it was like I had been scraped off the battlefield—like someone about whom the triage people would have said: We’re not sure about her.”

I spent Saturday in my bed, flattened under the covers, drinking only water and a bit of salt-spiked apple juice (I eventually switched to salted orange juice cut with boiled water—the hydrating mix recommended by the CHUM).

Sunday, I graduated to banana and some apple sauce and as much water as I could drink. And an extra-protein Boost I think.

I had my sights on Monday, which was my sister Danielle’s birthday. I wanted to keep my promise to her to take her out for BBQ chicken and GREAT fries (= Côte-St-Luc BBQ), and then bring her back to Hudson for the afternoon. I succeeded!

Tuesday and Wednesday, it was back to the CHUM for blood tests, my pre-chemo check-up and chemo itself. Back to the routine. Back to….just cancer and treatment. I had lost a kilo (2.2 pounds), but otherwise, I was good to go.

Except that…I wasn’t quite right. I still had occasional waves of nausea. Slight pain in my stomach. I was still skittish around food, and Simon was watching my intake like a hawk.

Then came the evening of Monday, November 25th. There we were, Simon and I, watching a movie while we ate the chicken parmigiana I had prepared. The movie was fun, the company, as wonderful as always and…oh no…my guts were out to sea. It was happening AGAIN.

This is the thing about the treatment of cancer (most especially after 15 months’ worth): it leaves you immune-suppressed. I had thought myself above this. I had developed a false sense of security. And boy, did my body let me have it. I spent another complete night heaving over the toilet bowl only this time, both ends of my digestive tract were expressing their outrage in tandem.

The next morning, with Simon off to teach but checking in with me every hour, I would have scared a ghost. I kind of looked like a ghost balloon that has lost all its air. I also had dark circles under my eyes (well, I think they appear when there’s no more moisture in your body tissue) and a chalk-white face. Every time I got out of bed (to get water, my hydrating juice and more water), I did it in stages, just to make sure I wouldn’t just slump onto the floor. I wasn’t sure I had measurable blood pressure.

And I slept and slept and slept. And when I awoke, I’d sip a bit more liquid, and then, at times, my mind would wander about, picking questions out of the air like: How many times in a row can you relapse with gastro-enteritis? Can cancer spread while you’re being desiccated by a virus? How much weight am I losing, I wonder? Will food ever appeal to me again? Could I just live on bananas instead?

 

* * *

Tuesday ended, then Wednesday, Thursday and so on. And here I am, living what should have been chemo week, but turned into a period of convalescence.

Cursiter, Stanley; Abstract; Orkney Islands Council; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/abstract-167473

It’s Friday, December 6th. I’ve lost weeks of my life, and 3 kilos (about 6.5 pounds). Chemo was cancelled this week when blood tests indicated that my calcium and potassium levels disqualified me. Well, gee, d’uh. Call it dehydration or desiccation or The Great 15-rounder with the Norovirus, but expect a person’s electrolytes to be damned scanty when the final bell clangs.

I’ve been taking calcium (mint green coloured) and potassium supplements (white and looking alarmingly like suppositories) since Tuesday morning. I feel much, much better,  but every visit to the bathroom is still a full systems check. I’m getting there. God bless electrolytes. And the love of sons who care for you and check in on you.

* * *

I hope you’ve smiled through this. Though every word of it is true, it was meant to make you chuckle and okay, cringe a wee bit too.

But during all of those days when I was just lying quietly under bedding, too tired and sleepy to read or watch Netflix or Britbox or anything else, I was still living. Lying there under the soft,  warm weightlessness of my duvet, my head propped up by three pillows, able only to watch, through the window, the light changing outside, and hear the cars and occasional trucks zip up and down the street, I was mostly inside my head.

I feel as though I’ve just lived through a dress rehearsal for my last days—for my palliative weeks. I think I got a glimmer of what it might mean to become so debilitated that I can no longer, or barely, get out of bed; that I no longer have any sort of appetite. It’s easy for me to see why I might choose not to fight. No more 15-rounders. No more rounds at all.

The norovirus telescoped from out of my immune-suppressed chemo body which telescopes from my cancerous body…the tendrils getting thinner at each remove from the point of origin, until I could barely touch life at all…if only temporarily. This time.

I was recovering, quietly, in a home that is mine and also Simon’s and soon Cindy’s too, and it’s a place where I feel loved and safe. This fills me with gratitude. A place where I’m surrounded by books and all of the human experiences, stories and meditations these contain. This brings me joy. A place where the spaces left on the walls are decorated with the faces of family members—my children and grandchildren—and the artwork of friends. This gives me hope for the future. Their future.

My fifteen-rounder has brought death closer to me, and helped me to feel less afraid.

To truly laugh, you must be able to take your pain, and play with it!”- Charlie Chaplin

Rand, Michael Anthony; Sunshine through Mist; Lyth Arts Society; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/sunshine-through-mist-166839

 

 

CUBICLES OF HEALING AND PAIN: Notes from chemo base camp, part 7

PART OF THE THIS IS THE MOMENT SERIES

December 10th, 2018

Last night, sleep didn’t come to me as easily as usual. At 11:25 pm, I was still awake, lying in bed in a room illuminated only by the glow of a white winter night sky. In my previous life, this would have triggered anxious thoughts about how I was going to get through the next day of work on so little sleep, but now, it’s just what it is. There are no real consequences to such things because my days are more about not getting sick, not getting tired, and laying low, than about anything outward-looking.

So I lay there in the incomplete darkness and turned my gaze toward the window through the white phantom curtains. I took in the December evening, the quiet of the house and the square space of my room—ceiling, shadow furniture and the folds of the blankets keeping me warm.  And I asked myself a question that must come to every chemo patient eventually: What is my purpose?

When, last July, I figured out that I wouldn’t be able to work, or do much else once treatment started, I felt an enormous relief. I felt lightened. It felt like I had been busy running toward the next class, the next meal, the next appointment or chore for so long, I didn’t want to run anymore. I may have been running away from a lot of things too.

So much of our lives is propelled by plans, fears, desires, ambitions, routines, hopes, commitments, dreams, obligations, pressures and momentum. But what happens when the road ahead requires passive compliance?

My life has the strangest shape. It has so few of the usual pieces that I’m stumped by it. I watch people come and go, and know that I’m outside their worlds. Every now and then, when conditions are just right, I can join them, and for a while, I feel part of the stream of life. But I’m still just a visitor these days.

Winter isn’t helping. It arrived mid-November with snow that stayed, and biting cold. It has pretty much immobilized me. Chemo and cold are incompatible. My body’s responses to the frigid temperature are odd and painful. Chemo has transformed winter into an alien thing which keeps me housebound much more than is good for me.  And it’s only just beginning.

Joni Mitchell, skating on Lake Mendota, near Madison Wisconsin, 1976, photo by Joel Bernstein

Lying in my bed last night, I found myself thinking about the other world, the one at the CHUM, where I experience short, intense bursts of purposeful, alternate life. There was nothing difficult about my treatment last Wednesday, but the day was long, as always, and my eyes wandered.

The cancer treatment centre of the CHUM is on the 15th floor: the top floor. Isn’t that wonderful? We step into the elevator and rise and rise above it all, and wait like (bald) eagles in our eyries. It’s a separate world made up of multiple large areas subdivided into “rooms”, or cubicles, where chemo is administered to hundreds of patients every week. Perhaps the most important difference between the CHUM and most of Montreal’s other hospitals is its brand-newness. Most cubicles, just like the waiting areas everywhere, have a floor to ceiling window-wall which offers not only a view of the eastern part of downtown Montreal, but also allows natural light to stream in, and patients and their families to look out and beyond the multiple wall plugs and pumps and infusion tubing.

Conroy, Stephen; The Garden; The Fleming Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-garden-218248

Still, most of the large, comfy chairs in these areas have their backs to the window, which means that during the five to six hours that I’m there, there’s always the possibility of eye contact with other patients.

I’m surprised by everyone’s discretion. Some of us smile easily at each other, but conversations between patients are rare. Most of us are accompanied by family or friends for at least part of our stay. I’ve had seven treatments so far, and have never engaged in any kind of meaningful chat with a fellow chemo patient, once inside. Why is that? Well, in part, at least, it’s about the space available to us: we’re all settled in areas with walls and curtains that allow for a high degree of privacy, so interacting is a choice.

But those partitions also delimit the borders of our pain. No matter the brave or resigned face patients and their loved ones put on, from my chair, I observe so much more. Even though the discomfort of chemotherapy is easily bearable while in those chairs, you can sense pain everywhere.

For some, it’s the effect of repeated, long term assaults on their body and spirit. There’s an older man I’ve seen at blood tests and in treatment who suffers from thyroid cancer. I know this because I overheard him one Monday morning (pre-chemo tests day). His face is razor thin and his body is brittle. He has no more fat to sacrifice: cancer and treatment have devoured it all. He’s all angles and jutting bones, and his expression is mostly sour, impatient, and defiant. I wonder how much of him hurts with every movement of his body. His wife is always there with him, and I feel for her because hers is a thankless task. Then, last Wednesday, he and I found ourselves waiting to be called in for our treatment. And I looked at him, smiled, and said Bonjour! And he looked back and smiled Bonjour!

Well what do you know! This man, with his robotic voice, —which I imagine he owes to hours of radiation treatment— he’s just struggling to find a way around his pain.

Shackleton, William; Wings of Silence; Leamington Spa Art Gallery & Museum; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/wings-of-silence-54462

CUBICLE 17

I was in cubicle 17 last time. To my left, occupying the corner space and hidden by a curtain, was 16, and then, moving along the left wall, were 15 and so on. Of 16, my closest neighbour, I could see little other than the nurses coming and going, and hear voices, until an attractive man, perhaps in his early to mid-fifties walked out, heading, no doubt, to get some coffee. He wore a suit jacket, not some comfortable sweater, and was perfectly groomed despite the venue. I‘m sure he smelled good too. What I could sense from him was the temporariness of his stay here—he was here to accompany the person I could only imagine in the armchair next door. His eyes didn’t search the room. He seemed to be trying to maintain a kind of social neutrality as he moved about, free of the I.V. pole and bags that patients are tethered to. Free of cancer.

Sims, Charles; My Pain beneath Thy Sheltering Hand; Bethlem Museum of the Mind; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/my-pain-beneath-thy-sheltering-hand-192943

CUBICLE 16

The hours passed. The I.V. bags containing all of our poisons were changed at the required intervals by hyper-competent nurses. And then a new face emerged from behind the curtain of cubicle 16. This fellow was perhaps in his late thirties, early forties. Tall and casually well-dressed in fitted black, from shirt to shoes. He was so different from his companion. He looked around as he came and went. He had an easy smile that drew me to his kind face. He could have been walking in an office building, except…for his I.V. pole with all the tubing attached to him, his shaved head and the bright red scar that began at his right ear and ran all the way up the side and top of his skull, past the mid-point. And the falter in his walk.

Brain cancer. You think that immediately. Then your mind runs through all kinds of terrifying scenarios. To words like glioblastoma. You imagine the surgery that he’s been through. You imagine what the first inklings of his illness might have been. You imagine seizures. You imagine the terror he must have felt when he was diagnosed. The bomb that went off in his life. The seismic ripples. The fear. And how far he’s come in a short time. And now, chemo.

Behind the curtain of room 16 there’s his story, most of which you can only guess at. But you wish him well. You send him every positive thought and feeling you can muster in such a place. You try to hold hope for him in your heart. You marvel at his beatific face, which is hiding so much pain.

CUBICLE 15

In cubicle 15, right next to him, there was a couple. They arrived together dressed similarly in relaxed clothes: jeans, sweater, no fuss. He got comfortable and she sat very close by on the plain stackable chair provided. They seemed close in age: perhaps their early forties. They looked like the parents of a few kids—I guessed maybe between the ages of 9 and 13…something like that.

They spoke to each other in near whispers, their expressions tense and urgent. The nurse came and got things rolling. And I found myself staring at them. I couldn’t help myself. Their S.O.S. signals were impossible to ignore. Once his drip started, she moved closer to him, and rubbed his hand gently, and for a very long time. Back and forth, back and forth. Sometimes they spoke quietly, but mostly, she sat vigil in silence. Later, I noticed that he had raised one of his legs to rest on her knees. And again, without smiling, without really looking at him, she continued her soothing, stroking motion.

Hodgkin, Howard; Silence ; Victoria Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/silence-229837

There was love there, but they were at odds. Everything about them was tension-filled and anxious. More whisperings and agitation, followed by a period of coldness. Then her hand would reach out again and stroke his…The silent inhalations and exhalations of a terrible shared suffering.

At mid-day, a plump woman dressed in civilian clothes arrived at their cubicle, and the wife left. The visitor moved close to him, sat, and a conversation began. I know she must have been a staff psychologist by the way she spoke with him—discretely, calmly—but also because she stayed with him at least a full hour. During their exchanges (which I monitored discretely—it’s so hard to look away from another’s suffering), I saw him move from tense withdrawal, to resistance, to openness and then, to tears. I couldn’t help but witness those: it was the only moment in the whole day when his voice—now raw and vulnerable—was audible to me.

And then the session was over, and his wife returned, and within minutes, she was whispering urgently to him, her face filled with anguish and tears. Her side of the story, I thought. Her reality. He didn’t reach out to her. I imagine that he was still held in the state of being he’d reached with the psychologist, feeling, perhaps (I really hope so) calmer, more centred, less afraid—and so unable or not ready to open himself to her again.

They fell back into their pattern. He, quiet and withdrawn; she with her soothing hand extended, as she focused on the book she was reading. And the love and pain radiated from Cubicle 15.

Boisseau, Annie; The Moon is Hanging in a Purple Sky; University of Surrey; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-moon-is-hanging-in-a-purple-sky-231140

* * * * *

No anguish I have had to bear on your account has been too heavy a price to pay for the new life into which I have entered in loving you.”
― George Eliot, The Mill on the Floss

“Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.”- Khalil Gibrand from The Prophet

One word
Frees us of all the weight and pain of life:
That word is love.”
Sophocles

 

FINDING A PLACE TO STAND

Part of the “This is the Moment” series

August 16th

When I sit down to write for This is the Moment, I include the date, and it’s a shock every time. Partly because the summer is entering its last month and I haven’t really experienced it. It escaped my grasp. I’ve been tied to this new house and its needs, and also lost within its walls, away from the oppressive heat, while part of me has been floating, hovering above my life like a lost spirit.

It’s a strange feeling to be made so captive by reality—separation, relocation and cancer—that there seems to be nothing to settle upon, nowhere to gain purchase. I won’t be restarting my teaching contracts, or zipping around in my shiny green Mazda 2 nearly as much as is usual for me. I’ll mostly be shuttling by train and metro between islands named CHUM CLINICS, CHEMOTHERAPY and CLSC. Those spaces on the calendar will be marked with the biggest X’s and dominate the landscape.

But most of my living can’t happen there. I haven’t quite figured out what my time there will be and what life elements I’ll find. For the most part, the CHUM is a state-of-the-art space that climbs up into Montreal’s skyline and offers almost everyone within its windowed areas the joy of looking out at the bright, beautiful city and the great river that’s wrapped around it. But it’s also the space where medicine is practiced with ferocious intensity and intention.

The view from a waiting room at the CHUM (Centre Hospitalier de l’université de Montréal)

When I begin chemo—which should happen on August 22nd—I’ll be in untested waters, for me that is. I’ve accompanied both my father and mother through theirs (events that occurred 25 years apart), and it has left its imprint, a shadow on me. As I watched the stellar nurses puncture my parents’ veins at each session, sending the poisons with inhuman names into their veins (the word Carboplatin still makes me shudder), I felt revulsion, for sure: I think that it’s the first, overwhelming and sensible reaction to have. But as I watched them and the other patients in their own recliners lean into the experience, the stakes became more easily visible. These were areas where sick but healthy people (the dichotomy that cancer creates, in which the medical teams treating you refer to you as both healthy and cancerous is one of the most perplexing to patients—it certainly was for my mum and has been so far, for me) have learned to live with their fear of needles, of pain, of indignity, of losing their hair, of losing their vitality, of losing their ability to eat, taste, walk, laugh, experience pleasure and engage with the world; of losing all of their beauty, and their grip on life as they’ve previously known it, and of ever having a carefree moment again…and yet resolutely accept what lies ahead.

There’s such strength in resignation and forbearance. Cancer isn’t all, or only, about fighting. I think it’s also about making peace.

 You can beat this!

Fight like hell!

Kick the crap out of it!

A positive attitude is so important!

Go at it with guns a-blazing!

 I’ve been cheered on already by so many people (again, thank you, thank you) with chants like these. I understand them. I do. But I don’t know if I’m capable of manufacturing this state of mind.

When I think of what’s happening insidiously inside me, I feel compassion for my body. Poor thing. It’s struggling with this tumour that has sent emissaries out into my bloodstream and has been doing so very quietly for a long time, exacting very little from me so far. Fighting this cancer, waging war on it, fills me with images of damage and destruction; of laying waste to parts of me that are my body. This isn’t where my mind wants to go.

Just in time, my sister Marie arrived in town 4 days ago (she’s on a flight home to Vancouver as I write) supercharged with encouraging energy and bearing gifts from her very recent trip to Morocco.

I felt shy opening them because we’ve agreed not to exchange presents any more. But she knew what she was doing.

Gifts from my sister Marie

Everything I opened was made in Morocco, and was a beautiful bright pink. Among the bounty, there was a necklace and leather bracelet which carry the symbol of the Hamsa or Hand of Fatima, a multicultural, multi-faith symbol of protection, and several other fuscia gifts. Marie explained to me that in Morocco, pink is a symbol of healing.

I immediately put on the Hand of Fatima necklace and bracelet, placed the cushion on my bed, and set the scarf and pens right next to it, in the hope, I think, that the message they carried would linger in my room, and settle in a quiet place in my psyche.

By an eerie coincidence, and not at all in character, the colour I chose for my bedroom in our new home is unapologetic pink. Not a speck of pink had ever graced a single space in any of my previous homes.

Love, protection and healing.

It’s among these that I choose to stand.

My room in Hudson

I’d never used the word destiny before. What is it? A coagulation of your hunger to find a path, to find a place, to set one foot after another. To come inside out: to show your guts, everything you are made of.

            If this was true about destiny, cancer was my ally on that course. It pushed me out beyond any boundary I had known. It threw me right into the pool of fear, stripped me down to animal survival. Could I face that polarity of life and death and find another place to stand?”

This is one of my favourite passages from a book by Natalie Goldberg, Let the Whole Thundering World Come Home, A Memoir. Also given to me very recently by my wonderful friend Gail.

 

 

THE DIVERSITY OF “WE”

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.

Vintage Westphalia camper

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.

Hetherington, Iain; Diversified Cultural Worker 3; Arts Council Collection; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/diversified-cultural-worker-3-64366

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.

Roberts, William Patrick; The Common Market; Harris Museum & Art Gallery; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/the-common-market-152371

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.

Charlottesville, Virginia, USA, August 2017

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.

Martin, David; Yeni Cami, Istanbul; Maggie’s Fife; http://www.artuk.org/artworks/yeni-cami-istanbul-125104

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.

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