Just realized why this morning is feeling emptier than usual. For the past couple of months, I’ve spent Wednesday and Thursday mornings tutoring a new neighbour in ESL, and as of Monday, she’s attending formal ESL classes, which was always the goal. My intention was only to tide her over while she waited to get into the program.
Last week, we spent Thursday morning walking and riding the bus together, so her new route to school would become familiar. The next day, I listened to The New Yorker’s fiction podcast; the February post is Junot Diaz reading Edwidge Danticat’s story “Seven.” At the story’s end, two characters, who are immigrants from Haiti, ride the bus together. The phrase that spoke to me was: trying to see through her eyes.
I spent Thursday morning trying to see through my friend’s eyes, and it seemed that although we moved through the same physical space together, what we saw and heard did not mean the same thing to both of us. I’ve been thinking about this a lot. How privilege, skin colour, gender, age, wealth, familiarity, health, past experiences alter the world as we move through it. We exist in relation to what surrounds us, and in relation to how we perceive and are perceived.
Here’s what I wrote after listening to “Seven.”
When I am with my friend, I feel as though I am almost wearing her skin, her headscarf, I feel the exposure and vulnerability of being a newcomer, unaccustomed to the weather, to the language, to what is safe and what is dangerous. As we walk along a sidewalk, I see she fears the big black dog whose owner clips its collar to a leash on our approach — she recoils as she passes the dog, politely pulled off the sidewalk by the owner, who says good morning. But she does not seem to fear the white man and woman who come toward us with dyed and shaven hair, who I fear might be skinheads. Instead, I recoil.
Later, as we arrange ourselves on the bus, it is I who stagger unsteadily to a seat, uncertain of my balance, while my friend stands braced against the stroller and a pole, concerned for me. Her face is tired. She has been in Canada for almost three months. I think suddenly, she is tough, tougher than I can guess, tougher than me. All this time, I have wanted to protect her, but as I see her now I am ashamed to have been so reductive. She has told me about the guns coming to Syria, bang bang. She has endured more than I can imagine. Even so, I recognize her anxiety as she tries to orient herself. I want to assuage it, to reassure her.
I tell her, This is the stop. I pull the line and stand. The men move out of our way to let the stroller by. I want to help her lift the stroller, but she doesn’t need my help. We begin to walk. She sounds out the letters on the building across the street: “Don McLaren Arena.” Yes, I say, ice skating. I mime ice skating. She laughs and I think she doesn’t understand so I continue to mime. She taps her head. What she’s trying to tell me is that she will remember “Don McLaren Arena” — this is her stop. Great idea! I stop ice skating and exclaim.
We walk in silence for awhile. I don’t want to fumble with my phone and Google translate in this bright sunshine. I see a man walking a big black dog, ahead, different man and dog. They are walking on a cross pass away from us. In Syria, dogs inside the house? I ask. She laughs, No! Brother, chickens, sheep, dog, she says. Outside. I tease her: Maybe someday, you will have a dog. In Canada, so many people have dogs and cats. No, no, no, she says. No dog, no cat. A bird, she says to me.
I can see her face, turned toward me, smiling, an objectively beautiful face, no makeup, clean and memorable. She is wearing a light-coloured headscarf.
A bird, I say.
A bird, she agrees. We walk past Tim Horton’s where she and her husband have come to buy coffee and roll up the rim to win. He won another coffee. She was hoping for a car, a TV. But just a coffee. No one wins the car, I tell her. She tells me that a little dog scared their daughter, who is five, who began to scream in fright, and the dog’s owner, a woman, picked up the dog and held it in her arms. It was okay? I ask. It was okay.
My friend is opening up the world to me. I see that I can’t see through her eyes, though I try, though I want to. I can only walk beside her, often in silence. Wondering what this place looks like through her eyes. Is it ugly or beautiful? Welcoming or closed? Is it safe or dangerous? Is it home? Could it be home? Everything looks both brighter and starker when I’m walking beside her. There is a clarity to the light, and a barrenness, as if the objects and structures are being stripped back to their bones.
The light is bright for February, and we are warm. Even my friend, wrapped in her black coat, always cold, admits that she is now warm. The baby starts to fuss as we near their apartment. I don’t want to say goodbye. It seems I receive as much from her friendship as she could possibly receive from mine, because I enjoy her company, because I am happy when I am with her, more curious, more alert, more aware, because even a bus ride feels purposeful, somehow, when I’m trying to see through her eyes.
Saturday morning, just as kids were gearing up for soccer tryouts (parents too, as we’re both coaching rep teams), Kevin came into the kitchen and quietly said, “The vet just called.” I could tell from his expression that the news wasn’t good. One of our beloved dogs, DJ, has a suspicious lump in her mouth, and the vet thought it might be cancer.
And it is.
And so, with tears in our eyes, we told the kids, all of them gathered around the dining room table playing a board game together, in their soccer gear. There were many tears. We don’t know what will happen next, but as F (age 11) and I walked the dogs later on that day, she had many questions, many thoughts. “DJ doesn’t deserve this!” (No one deserves this.) “Do you think DJ knows she has cancer? I don’t think she knows. Maybe it’s good that she doesn’t know.” “I don’t want DJ to feel any pain!”
We decided that we would be grateful that DJ is currently her usual self, not showing any signs of pain or distress, eating well, and enjoying her walks and naps. But it is still hard not to worry about the future.
I have no time for this post, it has been written in a hurry. But I must explain that photo at the top of this post.
The kids had the Terry Fox run at their school last week, before we had DJ’s diagnosis, and CJ (age 8) came home with a large sticker which he stuck onto our kitchen counter. It reads (and I’m correcting his spelling): “Terry ran for me. I am running for … my step-grandma and maybe my dog.” F also ran for her step-grandma.
There are too many people to run for. I’m sure you have your people too.
Sending love and hope out into the universe.
Today, I want to write about the little things. Little things that might seem unimportant because they’re not on any to-do list, they’re not responsibilities. Little things that might seem incidental in a bigger picture, not the heart of any day, but the flavour. Little things that give me a little peace. I’m knee-deep in marking and have to stay on schedule, so this is not what I should be doing, but I’m going to make a list of “little things” to mark this particular moment in time. At other moments, I might put other things on this list. But today, now, here is what’s given me a little peace recently.
Playing the piano. Either my own improvised noodling around, or sight-reading cheesy Christmas songs, or accompanying my ten-year-old during her violin practice.
Crafting. I know, weird, right? Not my usual thing. But I’ve gotten into a latch-hooking project, initiated by my ten-year-old (who loves her crafts). Same child also initiated an ornament-making craft-time this weekend, and everyone in the family got involved. My personal fave are the Trudeau ornaments, crafted by my thirteen-year-old (who has a new haircut, very stylish, if I do say so myself; I gave both my teenagers haircuts recently, which is another kind of craft, in a way, I suppose).
Walking the dogs. I’m running very little right now due to injury, but I’ve found surprising peace in walking the dogs before bedtime, or on an early weekend morning when the neighbourhood is quiet. The pace is gentle. The dogs amuse me.
Swimming. To replace the running. Monday was my first day, and I went with my swim coach, who also happens to by my thirteen-year-old daughter. She should be your swim coach too. Our session was as tough as a boot camp. She’s demanding, encouraging and kind, and smart about correcting technical flaws in my stroke. (She also coaches Kevin and her younger sister on Thursday mornings. So this is a little thing many of us in the family are enjoying right now.)
Coaching. Right now, I’m coaching my fourteen-year-old’s indoor futsal team (similar to soccer), and I’m volunteering with my ten-year-old’s soccer team, too. I love working with both groups of kids — the teenaged boys and the younger girls. I’ve been practicing my deeper coach’s voice around the house, and every practice or game is another opportunity to learn something new, or put some new concept into practice (for me, and for them). It’s the perfect activity for a person with a growth mindset outlook. We can always get better! Hurray!
Writing. I haven’t had a lot of writing time, recently, so I’ve been taking my laptop to basketball and soccer practices at which I’m not involved. Earplugs in. Sweet vanishing into another world.
Stretching. My body needs to stretch, loves to stretch. I’ve been squeezing in a few yoga classes.
Reading. A couple of days ago, I thought I had a few free minutes. Ever have those moments? When you think, how strangely wonderful that I should have nothing to do? So I sat in front of the fire devouring Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name. I was so relaxed, so blissful — so blissfully forgetting that in fact I did have something to do. This strangely wonderful moment had been brought to me by a memory lapse. I’d forgotten to pick up my youngest at school; friends had to help out; and I felt embarrassed and somewhat shamed for my parenting lack as I jogged along the sidewalk, late, late, late. Nevertheless, I can’t help but wish for more of those rare “free” minutes for daytime reading.
All for now. Please comment if you have “little things” that give you a little peace, too.
This morning, when the plumber arrived to hopefully fix our toilet before our annual scotch party this Saturday, I was on the couch by the fire with the dogs, enjoying the last minutes of my nap. I answered the door, trying to appear not to have been recently asleep. We exchanged pleasantries and I showed him the problem, then removed myself to chastise and crate the dogs, who had threatened to remove the plumber from his leg. Then I caught a glimpse of myself in the mirror. Now, I tell myself that the plumber has no idea what I ordinarily look like, so perhaps he wasn’t as frightened as I was by the sight of me.
My hair had dried funny and a sizeable clump was standing straight out over my left ear.
And I looked approximately a decade older than I actually am due to raccoon-like, circular, darkish, bruised-looking dents around my eyes. Goggle eyes!
Evidence of early morning swim. It lasts longer some mornings.
The good news is this: I got up to swim.
I’m managing to rise early every single week-day to exercise. More good news: I was able to run intervals at an indoor track yesterday. Very very slowly. When I tried out the running a couple of weeks ago, it’s possible I was going way too fast. Oops. That’s not like me at all. Ahem. But even a slow run is thrilling when it’s pain-free. Add in the daily walking at my treadmill desk, and I’m actually covering a lot of kilometres these days.
And I’m trying to meditate, just the tiniest bit. Ten minutes a day. It reminds me of swimming laps. I do a lot of counting and controlled breathing while swimming laps.
Today, AppleApple wondered why I don’t swim faster; this was not exactly a critique. Despite being a quite damning critic of the inefficient swimming styles she observes in the lanes all around us, she says my stroke actually looks like it’s being done correctly. But with such a proper-looking stroke, she thinks I should be going faster, and I agree. So perhaps there are unseen inefficiencies. Next time, on her suggestion, I’m going to try rotating my shoulders more — stretching forward on the glide like I’m making myself as long as I possibly can. (Why do I always imagine that I can improve, no matter what I’m trying to do? Is that a really irritating trait?)
The plumber has left. The dogs have calmed down.
It’s time for meditation, followed by walking and writing. Nobody will be here to see the goggle eyes or to judge the sticky-out chlorinated hair, not even me. I’ll be gone too; that’s what it feels like when I’m writing, like I’ve left the room, left this season and place and time. Away: inventing imaginary memories for imaginary people who seem so strangely real.
(Note to self: check mirror before picking up kids for piano lessons.)
I’m nearly done marking, and find myself reflecting on how better to structure my course next year, should I be invited to teach again. I’m also thinking about how I might structure a higher-level creative writing course: what elements are missing from my current curriculum that perhaps belong in a separate course altogether?
My goal for next year would be to teach grammar in a creative way, because without the tools to build complex yet clear sentences, it is virtually impossible to construct complex stories. And all stories are complex when you break them down: there are so many elements that go into storytelling, many of which become instinctive when one has practiced writing for years and years, but which are actually very tricky to manage–slippery to manage, evasive, elusive, invisible, unrecognized, subtle, and unavoidable. Setting, plot and sub-plot, voice, character-building, relationships, dialogue, mood, verb tense, movement through time, descriptive language, meaning, thematic layers, back-story, interior and exterior action, emotion, perspective. Have I touched on everything? Probably not. Beginnings and endings. Deciding when to tell what you know. Eliminating that which is extraneous, even though you love it dearly. Editing. Rewriting. Not becoming attached to any part of what you’ve made, so that you can cut it out, if necessary. (Writing is not like parenting: writing requires a ruthlessness that I would never draw on, as a parent.)
And here’s the issue: to manage all of these things, or any of them, really, you must construct sentences that support what you’re trying to do. There is real technical skill underpinning excellent writing.
So I find myself dreaming up writing exercises that would seamlessly include practice in the craft as well as the art. I think it’s possible. It’s kind of exciting to dream this stuff up, actually.
This is not what our living-room looks like at present. This is my aspirational living-room.
On another note …
Things that go well, and things that do not, and things that mysteriously fit into both categories at the very same time:
– helping children practice instruments in the morning, before school
– walking dogs to meet kids after school
– being injured and unable to run and doing an hour of daily core-strength exercises instead
Snapshot 1: “Nope. I’m not going to practice this morning. I’ll practice later! After school!” “But that doesn’t seem to work. Later never comes.” “But I don’t want to do it now!” “But it’s always now. It will be now after school.” “Well I don’t want to do it right this second!” “It’s a privilege to get to play the violin. We can’t keep having this conversation.” “Ok! I will play! But you can’t comment!”
A few minutes later …
“Why are you so excited when CJ practices, but not with me?” “CJ lets me help him.” “But you can’t help me. You never played the violin.” “Your teacher can help with the bowing, but I can help with the notes.” “I don’t want to talk about it now…”
Snapshot 2: Kids running down the sidewalk after school, excited to see dogs. “Wow, you guys are fast today. You’re the first kids I’ve seen.” Small dog in pink sweater decides to stop and produce on someone’s front lawn. I remove mittens, pull plastic bag from coat pocket, stoop to clean up. What happens next happens all at the same time. Pack of schoolchildren appears. Dog slips collar and begins trotting toward street. Neighbour girl excitedly runs to pet dog who has slipped collar, and who is not the friendly dog! I toss mittens, grab for loose dog, try to hand other dog’s leash to daughter while not dropping half-filled plastic poo-bag, and warning (in what I hope are non-frantic tones) the neighbour girl away from the (undeniably cute) dog who is not friendly. Time skips in jagged leaps. Pack of schoolchildren passes, unharmed. I see myself kneeling on the quiet snowy sidewalk, half-filled poo-bag in one hand, skittish dog in the other, trying to figure out what’s gone wrong with the collar. “Mom, you almost threw your mittens in Suzi’s poo!” “What? There’s more poo?” “It’s right there.” “This is way too much drama for me!”
Snapshot 3: The remains of supper are on the table. I’m lying on a blue yoga mat between the couch and the bookshelf that doubles as a computer desk. Kevin is perched on a stool near my knees, replying to work emails on the computer. I’m doing repeats of bridge, which I kind of hate, kind of intensely. Fooey is kneeling on the couch, leaning over the back, observing me from above. AppleApple is moving around restlessly on the beanbag chair near my head, observing me from above. Dogs arrive on scene, enormously excited at the discovery of a human trapped at the licking and sitting-upon level. Imaginary announcement over imaginary PA system: “Could all family members please report to the yoga mat behind the couch? Calling all family members…” The pay-off will be running again. And, possibly, abs of steel, and glutes that could crack a Christmas walnut. Bad image. Time to stop writing.
* title is tongue-in-cheek; but you got that, right?
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