ARRIVING

Greig, Neal; The Mists of Time; Queen’s University, Belfast

Last week marked the 60th birthday of someone very close to my heart.

There’s a familiar pattern and flow to “milestone” birthdays. Hitting any decade sticks out like a signpost against the backdrop of our lives, and feels weightier, as though somehow, thirty were more substantive than twenty-nine or thirty-two; fifty any different than forty-eight or fifty-one. Invitations are emailed, phone calls made, a reception room reserved, photographs collected and scanned. This is the ritual.

I’m resistant to the milestone birthday concept and have been for as long as I can remember (except maybe number 18, which opened so many new doors). Marking the passage of years and then decades seems like self-brainwashing—like self-inflicted neuro-linguistic programming:

You’re __ years old and thus, you must feel (THIS) way.

The higher the number of the milestone birthday, the greater is the focus on looking back and taking stock: Look at where I’ve been; look how far I’ve come; look at everything I lived through (and survived!). Here, my wedding day; there, the births of my children, the deaths of loved ones.

 The surgeries, the summer trips, the mundane biographical moments caught on camera that have meaning only to the handful of loved ones who were there, and even then, will recede in value as their subjects age and fresher memories are made by younger people.

A list of events seen through a nostalgic lens: It all went by so fast.

Clayton, William J. M.; Time to Remember; Nottingham City Museums and Galleries

I’m not a great fan of nostalgia, though every now and then, I’m gripped by a sudden and intense longing to re-experience feelings from the past, to excavate sense memories like the softness of the tops of my children’s heads against my fingers and the curves of their fragile skulls when they were babies; the feel of their bodies against mine when they were in my arms; their tiny hands settled in my palm with such trust when we went walking; the experience of feeling crazy in love with their father and knowing only joyful optimism…

There are times when I feel like I would give anything to hear the young voices of my sons again, their distinctive speech, and watch their small faces that were full of sweetness and innocence as they spoke—in which not a glimmer of the sharper bones of manhood could yet be guessed at.

A thing as banal and lifeless as my kitchen floor is a doorway into the power and cost of memories. It was there 34 years ago—freshly installed by the previous owner—when we bought this old house. It was ugly even then. There used to be a tiny corner table in the kitchen, and it’s where I bathed my infant twins every morning, warm water splashing onto the floor as they kicked and thrashed. Through the years– from high chairs to kitchen chairs–chunks of spaghetti, splotches of applesauce and crumbs of everything edible that entered the house formed temporary mosaics on its surface, miraculously disappearing into its ugly pattern. When we eventually removed the corner table, we left behind the holes in the linoleum, undisguised. With no porch space between the kitchen door and the world outside, we tracked all of the grit of the outdoors back into our house and onto the floor. New appliances we brought in, making fresh indentations on its surface next to the old ones. I cooked thousands of meals over it, slopping and spraying ingredients onto it as I went. I still get down on my hands and knees to wash it.

 

I hate that floor, but the story of why it’s still there is also telling. It speaks of the modesty of our means, especially when we first started out. It speaks of harder times when the boys were older and there just wasn’t enough money. It tells of a terrible, painful time when our baby died and a pall fell over the house that I had, until then, thought of only as a safe cocoon, and which I began to love less. It documents the abandonment of certain dreams, and an exhaustion, a turning away from what, to me, was no longer desirable.

In spite of how intensely beautiful some remembrances are, I would never want to go back in time. My memories are a laminate composed of innumerable experiential layers. They’re what’s made me stronger and more human and I know that they can’t be peeled apart and separated one from the other. They can only be added to.

Phillips, Norman; Hewing out; National Coal Mining Museum for England;

 

Time travel has no allure for me.

How could I go back into the past without losing most of what I’ve learned and come to understand over time? It would be like trying to fit myself back into size 5 clothes. It would mean being painfully reduced.

Time seems to be passing more and more quickly as I grow older.

 This is said and heard so often that we accept it as canon.

I understand why most of us feel this way. It comes as we begin to brush up against our mortality.  My lifetime went from being counted in years to being counted in decades, and those are piling up. The sense of the end of my days is no longer a vague and amorphous thing hanging somewhere out there in the ether.

But I honestly don’t feel that time is speeding up. And I don’t feel like the days were endless when I was a child (though summers sure seemed to be). Something altogether different is happening. In recent years, I’ve begun to feel squeezed by time.

Schober, Helmut; Time with No Beginning 2; Bury Art Museum

My problem is one of perception. It seems to me that for the first thirty-five years or so of my life, all I did was keep my eyes on the horizon because there was always something out there I was after: every project, every choice was about moving forward and building the future I would inhabit with my family. And everything else flew by, just like the scenery did from the back seat of the car when I was a child.

And then, not long ago, my foot came off the accelerator, and I began to see that I’ve arrived. I’ve reached the place where I want to be. All of the pieces seem to be here. There’s family, closeness, love. There are the new sprouts: my grandchildren. There’s friendship, deep and intimate. There’s work that it took me years to find and that’s a little like standing in a stream that brings the whole world to me. There’s art and science and travel and learning, as immediate and accessible as this laptop. There’s reading and there’s my writing.

Instead of looking far off into the distance for the future I want, I now too often find myself straining to find large, open spaces of time, like gaps in the calendar, that I can stretch out in, where I’ll be able to write more, read more, travel more, experience more.

More than a Game, Brightmore, David;  St George’s, University of London;

 

 

 

 

THE CALENDAR OF FOOLS

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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.

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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

 

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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.

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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.

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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

 

THE SUM OF GATHERED EXPERIENCE

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Original preschool artwork by Penelope Daoust, 2015-16

In recent days, I’ve been swept along by a current that I can’t fully understand.

I trace the start of it to a month or so ago, when I read a unique piece of fiction by Alan Lightman titled Einstein’s Dreams that I was drawn to like a magnet.

A short novel. A meditation on the value of time, presented as a series of dreams Einstein had during the long nights he worked and slept in the patent office in Bern, Switzerland, where he eventually developped his theory of special relativity.

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Alan Lightman

Why I alighted on this book, I can’t know for sure, though I think it started with my fascination with the author himself, who is both a physicist and writer, and MIT’s first professor to receive a joint appointment in science and humanities.

the_original_1920_english_publication_of_the_paperIt seems nearly impossible that anyone should have a mind both brilliantly mathematical and linguistic, but it is so.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be so lucky? Instead, I’ve always been drawn to the kinds of questions he asks without possessing the means to begin answering them.

I wonder what I would have become if there hadn’t been many others like Alan Lightman: extraordinary minds belonging to gifted writers.

People whose written work gives me a second home; a place to slip away into; a space outside of the mainstream of my life, using words in ways that expand my sense of what it means to be human, filling me up and helping me to see beauty and truth in a new way.

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In my experience, what we’re seeking and what we find often have a strange, synchronous quality that doesn’t feel predestined as much as it feels in harmony with life at that moment.

Does this make sense to you? Have you experienced anything like this?

This notion seems to have been confirmed by the fact that, at about the same time, I acquired a copy of Paul Kalanithi’s memoir, When Breath Becomes Air. I had seen so many laudatory reviews of this treasure of a book that I ordered it.

And here it was, and I immediately started reading it.

Kalanithi’s book, which is indescribably beautiful, chronicles the last years of his life and death, at the age of 37. He was a soulful, brilliant intellectual, a dazzling literary mind and exceptional neurosurgeon who wrote When Breath Becomes Air as a means, I believe, to making himself whole before meeting death— reconciling everything that he was and everything that he loved and hoped to give to the world.

Paul Kalanithi at the end of his life with his infant daughter Cady
Paul Kalanithi at the end of his life with his infant daughter Cady

It was hard to let that book go when I reached its end, and it stayed with me for days. I wish I could have stretched out that time and been able to prevent the space I inhabited while reading it from collapsing under the weight of life, but alas, it isn’t possible.

This is the stuff of happiness, real happiness. When we come to these moments that feel transcendent. When we experience snatches or stretches of time that are a kind of walking through the clearest, most distilled awareness.

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When I was seventeen, my great aunt Gertrude, who was in her late seventies, lost her husband. They had married late and had no children, but had always been close to my mother and so we saw them often and loved them too.

My great-uncle had died early in the day, and as evening approached, plans were made for someone to stay with Aunt Gertrude, and so I volunteered to spend the night with her in their apartment downtown.

The first night after his death, there we were, the two of us, in this home she had shared for close to forty years with her husband.

I remember that she passed in and out of a state of shock, absorbing then rejecting her terrible loss. I remember how she moved from simple chatting and cups of tea to restless, frightened and disoriented meandering through her apartment, like the victim of a tornado sifting through a life reduced to rubble.

I remember how, just when she seemed to have calmed herself down, she turned and noticed her husband’s glasses on a side table, picked them up, turned them over in her hands with tenderness and dissolved into sobbing as another wave of loss rolled over her.

It was a long night. I remember that we didn’t sleep very much, and yet I also recall that even then, she was able to smile and chuckle as she told me things about my great uncle.

I remember the next day: how tired I felt, and how I had such a headache. But what I remember best, what I walked away with, imprinted in me for good, was the knowledge that THIS IS LIFE. Pushed up as I was against my great uncle’s death and his spouse’s grief, this couldn’t have been clearer.

 “There is a moment, a cusp, when the sum of gathered experience is worn down by the details of living. We are never so wise as when we live in this moment.
― Paul Kalanithi, When Breath Becomes Air

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Painting by Suzanne Howard, from the series “People in search of new spaces”

I’m old enough now to live with the silent countdown of my days. It’s hard to say exactly when that shift in human awareness occurs, but for women, the biological clock probably hastens it : its ticking is too loud to ignore.

That’s okay.

My grade 1 photo
My grade 1 photo

If given the chance, I would never want to turn back time. It would feel like going back to an inferior version of myself—or maybe an emptier version is the better way to put it.

In my French classes this week, I had several of my groups finish the following phrase:

Quand je regarde mes photos d’enfance, je me sens…(= when I look at photographs from my childhood, I feel…)

This was a group of beginners, so they used their smart phones and came up with satisfying answers like: actif, vieux, détendu, souriant, …que mes souvenirs sont précieux…

(In english: active—I think maybe “energized” was the meaning sought here—old / relaxed / like smiling / that my memories are precious).

At first, I wrote “nostalgic and a bit sad”, but a more honest answer would have been that I feel that the person in the photo is a stranger. There is no sense of alienation from myself in this, but rather, there’s an awareness of ongoing transformation and adaptation through experience.

Whoever I was at 5 or 12 or 23 or even 37, I am no longer. I’ve evolved, and continue to do so, perhaps with greater will and a clearer intention because I know, as Paul Kalanithi knew, that my life doesn’t have a horizon, it has a finish line.

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These thoughts were very much with me when the phone rang on Monday morning, while I was doing preparation for the 8 groups that I teach french to. This was a terrible call. A colleague has been diagnosed with metastatic lung cancer: could I take over two of her groups?

I felt sick. I also felt…prepared for this, somehow.

Of course I took her classes that Tuesday.

Her students asked about her. They were worried about her. The first group of men told me that she has been sick for weeks. They thought she had pneumonia. They had been helping her get back to her car after class for several weeks…

One small, shy man who had arrived a few minutes early got up and wrote the day’s date and weather in french, with a red dry marker, on the white board. Very dutifully, respecting the routine she had set up with them. It was such a bittersweet gesture.

I told them nothing, other than that I would be their teacher till the end of the contract.

Presently, the “human resources” of this same corporation are being laid off and let go by the hundreds and hundreds. The company is experiencing tough times and so are its people.

One of my students this week mentioned that this work climate was like a slow poison.

Another informed me and his french class colleagues that he had received his pink slip, and would not be coming back. He is a tall, quiet Chinese immigrant with two very young children. At the end of class, he lingered a moment because there were kind things he wanted to say to me. I told him what I honestly feel: that I think he has a bright future and this tough patch will soon be over. And I smiled.

When he left, my throat caught and the tears came.

I think that in our lifetimes, we experience many deaths, but also many lives.

I will share your joy and sorrow / Till we’ve seen this journey through.”
― Paul KalanithiWhen Breath Becomes Air

 

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