Patterns 10/31 #SOL2021

Media Studies has heavily influenced my thinking of reading and writing; in fact, so much so that when teaching the schools of literary criticism yesterday, I found my lens in my lessons.

In my grade 12 University English class, half in person and half at home on a Google Meet, I was moving through the usual slideshow, a combination of text and image, talking through the information adding details when I had a momentary “oops” thought; I’ve been teaching them as a Structuralist. I forged ahead letting the intrusion scurry into some crevice of the mind, but it prodded me for much of the day forcing revisions to my lessons, and my thinking.

When I arrived at school this morning, on the tenth day of the March Challenge, turned on my computer, began setting myself up for the day, then preparing to write here, I thought, “I can’t do this.” And then it really hit me. This is a pattern and I’ve been here before. Last year, in fact. The evidence is on 10/31 #SOL2020. It was precisely this time last year, one third of the way into the challenge that I had given up on myself.

Not today, I thought. Not today.

Observing the patterns in poetry and nature generate a sense of the profound beauty of art and life. The patterns of action and habit are useful for survival and the rhythm of routine can be reassuring, calming. And, I think the patterns of life are worthy of examination, especially when those patterns cause harm or prevent us from flourishing.

My focus this year in bringing about equity is the work of bringing equanimity, a dismantling of inward and outward, so instead of falling for a pattern in my thinking, I’m clinging to a practice of hopeful noticing and not allowing the pattern to become action. Not today.

Chords 9/31 #SOL2021

The chord is stretched taut, frayed, but holding.

Each night since his return home, I’ve had to hear the sounds of death metal or some other form of screeching rage rock from the basement. It’s loud, but my 95 year old father is nearly deaf so it won’t bother him – even with his hearing aids in and turned on. But I hear it.

I say nothing, but think many things. I decide this: he needs time and space, so don’t judge him or his musical loves. I remember my parents being upset and challenged by my musical tastes, especially when I started going to concerts in Toronto. They listened nearly exclusively to classical music, Mozart, Vivaldi, Beethoven, and opera; it was always on, always in the background of my home. In fact, I had not heard any popular music until Olivia Newton John, and then again when my brother introduced my parents to the Beatles.

Once in high school, parties with friends revolved around music, and my listening world exploded and expanded. It was the spinning center and the chords connected us. Albums were played in full while we sat on shag carpeted floors; we would sing along, play air guitars, and exchange smiles of recognition in dimly lit basement rooms. We didn’t talk deeply or share anything other than the music.

Last night, we ate dinner as a family though I could tell my youngest son wasn’t hungry; he did it for us, for the family. Conversation flowed and I noticed deepening crevices and slight swelling under my husband’s eyes. He’s not sleeping, I think. After dishes and baking muffins, the youngest retreats to the basement and I bristle against the sounds penetrating the walls – Megadeath. I feel a old fog of ire surfacing, and do my best to push it away with rationalizations.

The music changes and I hear familiar sounds. My body softens releasing tension and I hear the chords of “2112” – Rush. Turning to my husband, I whisper, “Recognize that sound?” Despite the years, some sounds are in us deeply embedded like the vinyl grooves which carry chords of connection.

Ceylonta 8/31 #SOL2021

It all happened so fast.

We gather in a Google Meet right after class, first Amanda and me, then Tobi, then Paula. Amanda looks distraught and she tells me that she may need to leave our meeting to address the current urgency of her father-in-law’s health. She holds back a flood tears, letting only a few escape before the others arrive, then rubbing her eyes as she does when she thinks. But this motion is slower, and more sweeping, as if the intent is not to understand, but to ignore what is known. Grief knocks at both our doors, but we continue to teach and to gather in community; one picks up when anther falls.

That was Friday. This is Saturday.

A text arrives to our group chat: His dad died last night. It was quick and what he wanted.

We text our condolences. We are all somewhat numb to our collective suffering and I wonder if it is getting easier because it is becoming routine. This is what we know.

There are small moments of suffering and larger ones too, merging and overlapping into places of connection and community. Tobi and I decide to send Amanda and her family a meal. Tobi slyly finds out where Amanda likes to eat nearby and I make the call to Ceylonta, a Sri Lankan restaurant in Ottawa. I speak with Raj and he knows the family well. We plan together what to send to sustain them, and I plan to pick it up before 5pm on Sunday.

Forcing open the heavy and nearly immobile front door of the downtown restaurant, I am greeted by scents of coconut and Jasmine and spices that I cannot identify. This place has a history, and appears to be well established. A round brown-faced smiling man greets me and the bags of warm food are waiting on the counter near the front cash. He tells me that he is donating $80 of food for this “incredible family”, these “good people”, and he shares a story of a $100 tip they left. He bows to me, hands in prayer, in front – namaste. He then tells me that there is freshly made tapioca for me and Tobi – two servings, no charge.

I leave with six large warm parcels of nourishment and comfort, food prepared for ones who are suffering the loss of a life. Grief and gratitude mingle and the ripple of community continues.

Nuance and Nonsense – 7/31 #SOL2021

I’ve rewritten this sentence twenty times.

I often revel and am sustained by the incredible complexities of words taking great joy in teaching English to high school students. As lovers of books and words, teachers gather and talk and debate the merits of particular texts, own voices, whole class novels, literature circles, student choice reading, whole language, prescriptive grammar, and I could go on and on, but I won’t. Because that’s not my point.

My point involves an ethic of care about language use and a recent directive from my school board.

As teachers, as department heads, as leaders and thinkers, we deal in nuance regularly. We know that there is no meaning without context. We provide lessons on denotation and connotation of words, demonstrate the use of punctuation to invert or change the meaning of a sentence. So, I was at a loss for words when some responded with a low level of hostility (or, maybe it was just sarcasm and I read it wrong) to the directive against the use of racial slurs and epithets in the classroom. Someone mentioned “cancel culture”.

A group gathered virtually and I could tell from early posts to our Jamboard discussion that some teachers had not received the slideshow, had not read the FAQs from our Human Rights Coordinator, had not thought about our students and the trauma caused by the use of the n-word at school, in education. Ooph. I didn’t see this as a question of subtlety or nuance about the word. The evidence is clear and damning. If we really listen to our Black students and their experience with To Kill a Mockingbird or Lord of the Flies in classrooms with White teachers, if we really believe them, then we wouldn’t teach them as we have done. It’s traumatic.

The ensuing discussion was just a blur of words. My mouth felt like it would explode, but I knew it would not end well nor promote understanding, so I did not unmute. Then Matt Dotzenroth spoke in a way which provided an interesting frame for considering the merits of texts in terms of equity and oppression, beyond the simplistic lens of specific words. He asked if the use of a slur or epithet does anything in the book “to advance the conversation” regarding equity. I like this, but want to add another question; does the teaching with the slur or epithet promote liberatory education?

There is nuance in teaching, and nonsense too. I can’t imagine that a whole book can be life changing and is fundamentally necessary to be human, yet simultaneously deny the impact of the word use within that text. That seems like nonsense to me. And, even as I write these words, I know there is a gifted teacher with the ability to teach the troublesome texts generating the critical thinking skills that dismantle White supremacy. But, since the vast majority of us are White, and until the vast majority of us are able, I think we should listen to our Black, Indigenous, Asian, LGBTQ+, and other students of colour who experience the impact of slurs and epithets.

Education should liberate so I want to language to live in books and poems and words of liberation.

The Breakout Rooms 6/31 #SOL

Like many, my high school has been engaged in antiracism training this year, and this week we had the second of a series of facilitated workshops. The first had been quite a revelation for many of the staff and I think it supported more engagement in Black History Month. The second involved a close look at our own identities and privilege. This had me off balance in a way that I could not have anticipated. I mean, I’m okay with discomfort and have been really uncomfortable, really really uncomfortable, many times this year. But, this was different. This was visceral pain unearthed from the past.

I’ll explain what happened. First, we were given a series of true or false questions and we went to breakout rooms to introduce ourselves and share. We came back to the whole group for a lesson on racial identity and then we were given a handout with boxes of identity markers such as our parents’ education, our race, gender identity, socio-economic condition, etc. We were tasked with imagining our teen self having to complete the identity categories, and then used triangles to identify for areas supported and circles for areas not supported within the school environment. From here we moved into a new breakout room with other members of an 80 person staff to share. I looked at my circles and felt a wave of panic and tears forming as I imagined sharing this history with a group of people whom I barely know.

I clicked the link to the breakout room I was assigned and saw half of the eight cameras off, everyone muted. I knew this was going to be difficult, again, but terror was with me. The previous breakout discussion stuttered with no one wanting to lead or facilitate so I did what I usually do to break the extended awkward silence and spoke first. But this time, I was ready to run. My heart was racing as I felt my body physically move back from the screen. Again, there was the awkward silence as the whole group waited for a leader to emerge. But, this time, there was no way that I was going to share my circles of struggle in high school, so I unmuted my microphone and said what I was thinking.

“I don’t know about you, but for me, this is a really big ask. I’m relatively new here and you don’t really know me. This just feels like a lot.”

Another member unmuted and turned on her camera. She agreed with me but shared in general terms and also said that she didn’t want to be specific about her circles as it might make colleagues see her differently or judge her in ways that could be damaging to her career of sense of self at work. That opened a window for me to speak more generally about the place where I spent my high school years and then then pass to another teacher whose camera was off.

He began by mentioning his openness about mental health beginning with his father’s suicide in high school, his brother’s mental illness, and the hereditary concerns he manages daily. The clock was ticking on the closing of the break out room and it made me panic for him – I wanted to sit and listen respectfully allowing him the time and space for sharing such deeply personal pain. The time ended and we closed with a thank you for sharing, but it really wasn’t enough.

The breakout rooms got me thinking about the vulnerable places we ask people to go with one another. Sharing out stories takes time and a soft place to land.

Photographic memories (cont’d) 5/31 #SOL2021

(This is the third day experimenting with the writing a fictional short story.)

She sat in her housecoat reading the newspaper article taking quick, shallow breaths, her mouth open, her shoulders curled forward with her head hanging over the table where the broadsheet pages lay flat. She had left her bedroom, venturing down the stairs to the kitchen for the first time since returning home from the hospital, since waking up from the coma, since realizing there had been an accident that she could not remember.

For three…no, six long months, she thought. She was waking up to an awareness that Celia had kept her hidden with a purpose. She had told her that she needed to be “safe”, but the opposite of this was unknown so she searched through the archives outside of her for answers. She searched in photographs.

The sound of a car door brought her back into the moment, one for which she was entirely unprepared and this disoriented her. A panic grew as she heard the footsteps up the path, the door clicking open, then clumping shut, the deep sigh, and then the gasp.

Celia stood in the doorway still partially at the entrance looking like a flight risk. Her arms were still behind her caught in the sleeves of her jacket which hung partially from her shoulders and she was frozen in place facing her sister’s discovery. The newspaper story was there – published with graphic images, published without her.

Rising only slightly from the chair, she glanced down then up, then down again. “What is this story, Celia?” she pushed out of her throat.

The jacket now fell to the floor landing on the moistened carpet in the hallway. Celia crossed the threshold of the kitchen robotically, pulled off her mask, poured a coffee, and then sat across from her sister. Celia did this seemingly without her eyes.

“I’ve been trying to keep the story from you because..” She paused searching for words, thinking back to the plans she had in case she needed to tell her that it was her fault. Celia felt the groan of her empty stomach, but not as hunger so much as a vacancy. Breathing and swallowing another gulp of coffee, she rubbed her right eye to steady a spasm of the lid, a recurring tick that had regularly irritated her of late.

Then, the story emerged with urgency and now it propelled her forward unfolding honestly, or as honestly as she was able, with the limited reflection she has allowed herself. It was mostly factual, most chronological with only vague similarity to the one found in the newspaper.

“My eyes,” she whispered, “were focused on the rear view mirror. I wasn’t watching where we were going. I was looking back. It’s my fault. Your life is changed and it all my fault.”

“But, there’s more, right?”

Stories were now spoken out loud, and she knew it didn’t really matter to what lay ahead, that she wouldn’t find the answer in the photographs, in the newspaper article, but she did finally realize that everything was different and the same.

Pausing the story 4/31 #SOL

After two days of trying to write a short story, I am pausing for reflection.

Yesterday, after class, they came to see me, two of the Five Writers group that I’m supervising as extracurricular work. We’ve been writing together since the fall and the most recent prompt that they accepted was writing a short story; we looked at techniques of setting, and dialogue and talked about the complexity of taking an idea from one’s imagination and translating it to the page so your reader sees what you envisioned. As a writing teacher, I know the importance of writing alongside students, so I decided to join them as part of my own struggle to grow and wrestle with a writing life.

Both of these young women who sat, masked and distanced, are beautiful humans, complex and thoughtful intellectuals who possess a love of literature and humanities; I have taught both of them in grade 11 and, now, grade 12. We have forged a connection through words and I make a point of centering theirs. A month has passed and they are struggling with their ideas and reaching out for advice. I felt a lack in this area of the craft despite knowing the theory, and knowing how to find themes, literary devices, and apply the formulas of analysis to artistic form. But, I’ve never written a short story.

This might not be the most settled time for me to be writing a short story, since there are many personal and professional battles in my wake, but I decided to use this as the moment to gather more from the creative resources within, to mine that spirit which drives us for connection and reflection. And, so, I began to write, and the story has moved and shifted in ways that have been unpredictable. And, yes, I have a plan (sort of) and I definitely have thematic ideas that I want to convey, but the product and the process are challenging me in ways that I couldn’t understand had I not done this.

We talked about our ideas and what is happening with our writing. One fears that her vision of the story will not be understood and she has made several attempts, but her writing stutters — she feels unable to bring the story to the page. The other, too, imagines a story, plots out its parts, but can’t seem to bring it together “into a cohesive whole”. I thought about our processes of writing and wondered if a part to whole or whole to part framing of the writing might be helpful.

I shared my thematic idea:

I’m hoping to convey a message about reckoning with the past, with our own past as a way of moving forward. I was thinking about the ways that photographs can provide a sense of the past that isn’t real and yet being in the moment is so ethereal, so transient and living is like looking through the front windshield of a car while glancing back in the rearview mirror. We are trying to live forward while looking back.

I then shared the process over the past two days and the fact that the story morphed and changed as I wrote while I kept trying to keep this centre of meaning. It sparked a shared recognition and a lightness filled the room; they were both able to see themselves in what I had shared in my writing experience. Although I know that my craft is limited, I just don’t know how limited unless I try and fail and try again to reckon with this writing life.

Photographic memories (cont’d) 3/31 #SOL2021

(This is part 2 of a short story that I’ve been meaning to write.)

Speaking the words, saying it out loud makes it real and true. This is what I fear.

Celia writes these words in her notebook deciding that is enough for today. Even thinking is an awkward navigation of the mind and often she must disembark to stay on solid ground. The situation forces silence and she is muted, feeling blunted emotionally. Yet, she does this with intention and purpose so she can still get up, have a shower, travel to work, do what she does, and return home again. In one piece.

She takes her knitting with her in a handhewn bag made from recycled plastic bags, locks the front door glancing upwards to her bedroom before turning and driving away. The windshield fogs repeatedly and she turns the fan on and then off again when the way ahead is in view. “It must be damp today”, she thinks as the greyness hovers and the sky hovers low as one wanting to touch the earth.

Opening her computer, she flinches at another email request for specific details of the accident; a journalist has found her place of work and the initial violation compelled her immediately to ‘delete’. She knows this reaction would not close this connection, this seeking for the answers to the story, so she decides to open the email which contained attachments – photographs. Scrolling through words that seem to float off screen she senses a presence over her shoulder. The cubicle of space, the area that she can control and monitor with deft precision is breached and goosebumps travel across her neck, tingling and rising up to her hairline.

“Oh my God, what the hell happened there?” The words are drawn out, long and lowly whispered.

The attached photos sit squarely on the screen brutal and vivid, colourful and uncensored displaying graphically the results of Celia’s poor driving. March 2020 slammed her in the chest and she gasped for air just as she had when the airbag exploded, just as she had when the blood from her sister’s head ran across the dashboard and began spilling in her lap.

Photographic memories – 2/31 #SOL2021

(This is the beginning of a short story that I’ve been meaning to write.)

Everything was different and the same.

She could only remember the parts of life saved in snapshots, blurry images, cell phone selfies, or fading pictures shot with disposable cameras. The albums, oversized and wrapped in plastic, lined three and one half shelves of the floor to ceiling unit in her cramped old bedroom, organized chronologically since the accident and labelled along the spine with dates in black ink.

Pulling one volume from a shelf, she thumbed quickly to March 2020. Smiling she stepped back slowly lowering herself to the bed’s edge, eyes fixed on images as she created conversations from smiling mouths with words she could not hear, but instead felt deeply, assuring herself that this happened – there was a story of her.

It did happen. She repeated these words, mostly sure, but she needed the proof. Though her memory was empty and incapable of any recollection, any reconnection, she had reconstructed a past, photograph by photograph, until she felt her own history. And it was a history full of happiness and celebration – it was all there, on the pages of her photo albums, so it had to be real.

Celia challenged her every time she talked about family and experiences they apparently had shared, dismissing her characterizations of people and events with a scorn that slowly chipped away at her frame. And, even though she was blood, her older sister according to Celia, and the photos seemed to prove this, they had nothing in common, other than the one character trait that kept them arguing – the need to be right.

Opening the door, Celia leaned her head into the room.

“You’re not going to find the answers there. You know this, right? We’ve been over and over this.”

Catching a glimpse of her dark hair, she kept her eyes focused now on the bedroom window where she could see unfocused motions of the morning, cars backing out of driveways, a child on a bike waiting for an adult walking, and a greyness that comes with winter mornings in the city. The grilles of the window bothered her and felt like impediments to comprehension.

“Are you leaving now?”

Towards Reckoning – 1/31 #SOL2021

This was not the plan, not what we expected.

In a car seat, she is still strapped in after falling asleep on the drive over, now on the floor of my sister-in-law’s apartment. We have our coats off and are chatting, but there is discomfort and tension in the air which I feel as frustration.

I see her arms abruptly lift, stiff and shaking out in front, perpendicular to her body, eyes wide and staring ahead, pupils massive and black covering her pale blue iris.

“She just had a seizure” I spit into the room and disbelief fills the air, convictions of my imagination, still sleep deprived at six weeks postpartum.

“No”, I declare refusing their dismissals and when they witness it for themselves, we begin the panicked departure. Within fifteen minutes we are rushing to emergency and jumping a cue as nurses and paramedics witness the onslaught of tonic clonic distortions to this delicate new born.

The white curtains are drawn partially around the bed for protection, or comfort, or to protect others from this invasion. Phenobarbital courses through her veins from an IV drip halting the electrocutions and the drooping faces around me add to a growing disorientation. This moment begins a loss which surfaces and stays.

I return to work within four months and he takes the rest of the parental leave to be at home. I know this postponement will serve for now. Reckoning will come, eventually.