Unleashed and Trapped

The frozen capital is a hot mess.

For the last 17 days, Ottawa has been occupied by mobs and convoys of angry, honking, unlawful protesters. They are actively intimidating our citizens and occupying the centre of our city. They are breaking all kinds of laws – with impunity. They have established – with no apparent opposition – major encampments where fuel, food and who knows what else are being distributed to the protesters and their families. They have barricaded themselves into the downtown area at Parliament Hill and at our baseball stadium that ironically was the drive-through Covid assessment centre just months ago, and is now a convenient 10-minute drive from occupation headquarters.

No one has stopped them. Police stand by as hundreds of jerry cans of diesel fuel are carried into the blockade, protesters set up shelters, playgrounds, saunas and bonfires – on Parliament Hill.

In a city that literally is over-ruled by jurisdictions (federal, provincial, municipal governments, National Capital Commission, OPP, RCMP) and constantly over-administered – we now, as citizens, are at the mercy of thousands of bullies. Residents have left the downtown core fearing for their safety and sanity after weeks of all-night honking and insults and threats on the streets. Right now as I write, two convoys of trucks are honking and snaking their way through major thoroughfares holding us all captive on a Sunday morning.

Ottawa mayor declares state of emergency to deal with trucking blockade |  SaltWire

Where is the justice? Not here in Ottawa. Not right now. The most effective actions taken so far have been by citizens, filing injunctions, and by some city councilors now yelling for assistance. We have been told to just stay home – let the bullies have their space – it is a dangerous situation. This, in a city where protests by BIPOC groups of 20 or 30 have been shut down in minutes, where temporary shelters erected by the homeless are torn down – quickly, where citizens who are disturbing the peace are subdued, and in the case of Abdirahman Abdi, killed by police officers.

Is it a complicated, dangerous situation – yes, very. In the downtown encampment there are hundreds of families and children that need to be protected. There are some very, very angry protesters whom I am sure have weapons. There are cunning, opportunistic, robotic organizers whose past careers include the military, police and national intelligence. The protesters are fueled by frustration and anger and years of feeling they have not been heard. Their angry willingness to break laws has been harnessed, manipulated and sharpened into a well-oiled protest machine that is not just about vaccines. There is strong, white supremacist, international support behind all of this.

Yesterday, over a thousand of us, gathered in parkas, masks and placards to show support for Centretown and our fellow citizens. We cannot stay home anymore. We do not want to be held captive and trapped in our own community, our own city. We do not want to witness desecrations against religious and racial groups. We will not have swastikas and confederate flags flown in our capital city. Are we frustrated by the restrictions of the pandemic and living through our second winter of lockdowns? Of course we are! But not at the cost of human rights being trampled and real freedom defiled.

May be an image of 6 people, people standing, outdoors and text that says 'Bullying is not a human right MARCU 火'
Photo credit: Ken Hoffman

Where are our leaders, where are our protectors?

A fellow teacher said that it is like having a school full of every angry, acting-out grade 8 student you have ever met. Can you imagine a teacher letting a group of bullies take over a class, intimidate and insult fellow students, re-arrange and barricade the class, block the windows and do whatever the hell they want? An experienced teacher would long before pick up on and address individual anger, protect the vulnerable and develop and fortify a safe community. A real teacher/leader would not let that happen.

How did we get here – to so much anger and so much hate? We have not being paying attention and we are not taking action.

As I go to publish this, I hear that citizens are blocking the Sunday parade convoy from re-entering downtown. Might just get back into the parka and mask and head out.

Imperial cheese memories

I found the red and black container at the fifth store visited, tucked in behind the gouda. MacLaren’s Imperial Cheese. Professed to be one of Canada’s first, processed, Canadian cheddar cheeses, made in Stratford, Ontario. Orange, very orange, dense, sticky, and as advertised on its cylindrical sides, “carefully aged/vieilli avec soin”. We should all be so lucky.

Finding that little red orb of orange cheese was very important for me this Christmas. Imperial Cheese cresents were one of my mom’s Christmas staples. Her Alzheimers now is progressing with unrelenting intensity. I wanted to honour her by making some of her favorites – to remember her baking and be with her in that way this Christmas. Scottish shortbread and her famous nuts and bolts preceded.

Cheese-grape jelly mini crescents were probably popular in many ’60’s-’70’s households. Artificial enough to make it to middle class holiday platters. Flagrantly orange cheese dough curled around a plop of grape jelly baked at a high heat would fill our home with a sweet, cheesy fragrance. I remember Mom sighing and scraping any exploded jelly off the skins of the crescents, carefully sliding them onto a silver tray and tossing sidelong warnings to us kids to leave them for the guests.

The best part of the recipe was in the making. Sitting at the kitchen table watching Mom beat the butter with the cheese, using the ancient wooden spoon, seeing her slowly add the flour, constantly checking the recipe as if the directions would change, rolling out the dough with the creaky pin, banging it back and forth against waxed paper, cutting out the circles with one of our metal cookie moulds and then carefully assembling, placing the pastry on an old, uneven cookie sheet. The second best part of the recipe was the rich smell of hot cheese and sugar. If we did get to sample one of the crescents, I would have to say the third best part was the taste. After the initial heat, the cresents would take on a strange metallic quality. The joy was in the making and the smelling. The joy was temporal.

As I carefully make the crescents, my mind is with Mom – her ability to pull off a multi-dish meal for large groups in our small duplex, her abilty to laugh easily with guests once the stress of preparing and guarding food was over and the party had begun. Her insistence on wrapping all leftovers with leftover tin foil and being surprised when she found those two lone cheese crescents at the corner of the fridge months later.

This year, I used grape jelly from a friend as a filling as well as the more trendy red pepper jelly and grainy mustard. I worked with careful attention to the recipe – an unusual action on my part having not inherited my mother’s strict adherence to directions. I was making these for my family and I was making them for Mom. I had some control over the planing of the dough and incision of the fillings, unlike much of life. As I write this, my mother is in a geriatric bed at the Lakeshore General Hospital, just a few kilometres from her last, beautiful, independent home. A third fall in the shower sent her immediately from her care residence to the emergency room, with no return, and now, for us children, a search for a new home for the parent who made our home so special.

If I could capture the smell of the cresents baking I would send them to you now, Mom. Thank you for always being there for us.

Tom Thomson I

The waters dark and deep

are violet-ore, cobalt blue, white-lashed

with winds that swirl up from the trees

dark-green monikers fringing sky.


Sandy, short-lipped shores feed the pines,


sharing land with twisted-bark cedars

looking for light a light that blooms pink in the east

and sleeps purple west.


Rocky outcrop ledges reach into, out of the lake.

Lichen climb and clutch in clusters of green and black.

Deadheads and errant tree limbs simulate animal shapes

reflecting back into the dark lake.


He would perch on a sun-warmed rock, maybe anchor his feet on tree roots,

look out and find

a way to sketch and capture such rough beauty.


HS

Storm Clouds, Tom Thomson (Algonquin Park)

A morning in Ste. Genèvieve

We have been talking for a while, looking at photos and the Friday Gazette – 

weather forecasts and predictions –

36 degrees in Abu Dabai, I say – nooooo, she says.

“And how is your mother?” she asks.

Pause.
“She is fine and looking well.”

“And what school are you at now?
The third time I answer: “the Villa Maria – you know
between Decarie and the Boulevard.”
“Oh yes, I know that one”, she says, fingering her scarf.

We laugh quickly about the brown uniform I did not like.
“I will never wear brown again, I promise”, my voice lightening,
anticipating a new line and an old conversation.
“Oh, yes”, her voice trails off.

“It is almost time for your lunch, I had better go.”
I lean in.

Pause.

“ You know”, she says, “sometimes things work out for, you know,
and then, then they don’t for others, I mean.” Her fingers twitch against the cloth.
Blue eyes up, looking.

“I know, Mom, but I think life has been very good to you and me,
and you gave us so much to do well with.”

“Oh, ok”, she says. 

Pause.
“Goodbye.”

Water

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I developed a strong thirst for water

on hot Laurentian afternoons

when we would swing our tender, round feet

off the blistered dock, skimming

the cool-blue waters of Lac Major.

The sound –

the sweet-licking sound of water –

would stick with me all day, pulling me back into the lake

to fill what always felt like an unquenchable thirst.

At night, after supper, a desperate feeling drew me back into the water.

That last dive in, as our mother called from the porch, pulling,

That last hand in the canoe, compulsively cupping,

the last curled hand of water splaying water on skin.

The Long Spring: Humidity and Humility

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Summer came into the weekend with a feverish intensity. High temperatures and humidity covered the Ottawa valley and environs with a solstice vengeance.

And now, we are hot and sweaty. Today was my third day to go back into school, help for a bit with locker-belonging retrieval and finish up the purge on room 201, my second home and experimental- learning pod for a very long time. An earnest walk to the school got me steps and a whole lot of perspiration that bubbled up for the first hour in the “close”, hot classroom. Looking like “22 Minutes” Raj Binder, I sweated and rifled through all of my paper files. Most went into the recycling bin except for some student work and photos. Oh, the faces of students from 2004, 2005, 2008, and on. And my crazy ideas! Such effort and intensity and energy!

Onto the ancient “craft and game cupboard”. Good God. I should have had a tetanus shot. Rusty compasses. Plasticene, sweating in the heat, dating back to Roman times, broken pencils and Scrabble tiles everywhere. Glue guns with snouts stuck to the wooden shelves. Recycled folders with lovely remembered names: Ezra (who cried when we went to Foreign Affairs and the Palestinean flag was not hanging); Nadia (who beamed like a lighthouse as she casually lifted supplies from my desk, and gave me a “Happy Christmas Great Grandfather” thank you card); Mario, (whose drawings were like music). My sentimentality mixed with a robotic need to get it done and not leave anything  cumbersome for my colleague moving in.

More water. Eat a banana from home, now riddled with fruit flies. Teaching is such a glamorous job. I labour alone because that is what we do these days. Find copies of yearbooks I helped produce with the kids. Great, hands-on projects that meant so much. Beautiful, mature faces staring back at me. Luke, Divine, Cameron, Curtis, Sarah. Faces and stories that would launch a thousand ships. The yearbooks are kept and put on my little trolley.

Three o’clock. Time to go. My internal temperature is approaching Vesuvian records. I wheel the trolley into the empty hall, the map of Canada grazing piled-up desks and cabinets. Our old tarp used for an outdoor activity crinkling as my entourage and I get into the old elevator.

Done. One more quick trip tomorrow to hand in my keys before coming back home for class meetings and on-line games to celebrate their end of a long spring. And that is that, and that is ok. Because this is what we have to do now. And, I think of my last high school days, looking back now, so casually spent in long hours gathered around outside, gossip interspersed in intervals of heat and drags on cigarettes. I feel for all the 2020 kids who looked forward to a natural end.

Teaching is the ultimate profession of mindfulness. The joy and energy are completely in the present. And an empty classroom is the past or future.

20200622_145739

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Long Spring: Last week

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Joni Mitchell was right.

“Don’t it always seem to go that you don’t what you’ve got ’til it’s gone?”

It is the last weekend of school time, and in my case, the last weekend ever of being an employed elementary teacher. This weekend usually is a sweet spot in a teacher’s life. Report cards finally done, the frenzy of June almost done and the summer just beginning.

Your work this weekend typically is to rev up your engine and be ready with: game ideas; party plans; potluck and music lists; end-of-year cards; and a 12-inch strategic-freezie – storage plan in a school with no central AC, one working freezer and 700 students. Oh, and get the script ready and find some suitable clothes for the grade 8 leaving ceremony right smack in the middle of it all.

This last week can be very, very, very long, but am I ever missing it. I have thought about this week ever since I decided to retire – 8 months ago. What would it be like? Would I be emotional? Sentimental? Overwhelmed? Probably. But this last week is not ending school the way things usually end and I am missing it. Yes, we have activities planned for the kids, on-line parties and games, gifts for the grade 8s, and a new way to say goodbye. But not in person. And I am such a person-person.

I will miss the sharp promise of a June morning before the heat hits and soaks the building. The hurried call-outs and reminders to colleagues as we rush through the halls. The chaotic clean-ups of student work: paper, posters, shoe boxes and rolled -up art. Errant shoes and lunch bags, inevitably filled with old cheese strings and wrappers. Locker cleanouts and buckets and spilled water and unreturned forms and envelopes. “You need this, Miss? ” (IEP return form, term one). The half-hearted slosh and application of water and soap to locker insides. Shopping and garbage bags full of winter coats, locker shelves, gym clothes, papers, papers, papers. And, the groans as they descend the stairs with a year’s worth of living.

I will miss our school clap-out after the grade 8 dance in the big gym. The whole school lined up in the downstairs hall in a hot crush of excitement. The PA system blasting “Celebration” and the rush of the “big 8s” as they parade down the hall, high 5’ing the little ones and dancing. The looks of the few who feel this is the last thing they want to do. For many of our students, this walk represents the end of 10 years at one school.

I will miss the crush of bodies as the grade 7 orchestra in white shirts nervously commandeer their string instruments through the hall with calls of “careful with that bass”. The hot procession as we all head over to the high school auditorium for our leaving ceremony. The harried plans for the 7s left behind: movies, water bottles, popcorn and warm freezies. Testing of the mics and the wooden podium, adjustment of giant fans to keep us cool, all the 7s in the orchestra pit below squeezing out the last practice of “O Canada”. The 8’s and their families coming into the foyer. Young women in teetering heels and wide smiles, clutching at each other; young men, some with shirts still tucked in, lining up for the procession. Former students coming for hellos and hugs and teasing about how tall they are now. “You are so short, Miss, you STILL teaching?” Parents and families filing in, the wheeze and hit of auditorium folding seats. Rising heat, students crossing the stage, laughter when someone does a flash dance move, a few tears, the valedictory, and the hot flush of relief when the recessional starts and we have completed another ceremony.

I will miss the last day that never seems to end. Rushed coffee and treats early in the morning with colleagues who are trying to sign report cards without coffee spills, make last-minute plans for 35 – degree outdoor play, securing freezie space. The grade 8s who come to school on Thursday and don’t really know what to do with themselves and how to leave. Yearbooks traded and signed and inevitable shouts of “OMG, I hate that picture of me!” The 2 – 3 pm party with hotly-contested playlists and chips and enough cherry coke to sink a ship. Hugs. Glances. Spills and shrieks. Paper plates and napkins smashed into overflowing recycling bins. Tears, smiles, looks down, hands brushing faces. And the length of the year and the length of the day and the heat turn you into the always practical technician, directing, re-directing, reminding, nagging the crowds. And then they are gone, many not knowing how to say goodbye. This is not a Hollywood movie, this is real life. Adults rush out to the front to wave and cheer as the school buses pull out into traffic. Small faces at windows, hands waving and a rare middle finger. Then it is quiet (once the office realizes that “School’s Out for Summer” in on its 7th go-around). And empty, quiet schools are the loneliest places.

So, I will miss the last typical week of school despite the heat, fatigue and chaos.

But I will always know what I had: an incredible school that gave me the chance to teach and learn. A humbling every day.  Talented, supportive, funny colleagues. So many laughs. So many tears after 3 pm dismissal. Beautiful faces and so many, many stories. This week, faces and voices on screen. What a way to go for the grade 8 students and those of us retiring.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When I have the wherewithal to pause and review the landscape before the emotional roller coaster starts up once again

The Long Spring: (2) Teens on screens/Co-VOID -19

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It took us a while but in week 5 or was it 7 or was it November, we got into a Google Meet semi-groove. Class meetings are now scheduled after 11 am so our Teen Van Winkles can be awake and responsive. They are finally getting the sleep their bodies and brains need. And, they and their teachers are finally getting into the Google grid-groove. We are learning to show our faces (and not our Minecraft avatars) for at least two minutes to greet each other. We now know to turn off our mics when others are speaking or presenting, and have learned that sliding private notes through the very public chat line doesn’t work. We are all enjoying the smaller group meetings where people, including the adults, are more relaxed and able to converse. We are playing Balderdash and Kahoot. I still hugely miss the real-physical world mode of teaching, but I am learning a lot.

I am also laughing a lot – now. Not so much in the first few weeks of the Long Spring as we were scrambling to get tech out to families, re-engage kids and configure learning into something we hoped was manageable and compelling.

Here are some of the lessons I have learned with teens on screens (and middle-age teachers on screens):

  • No nasal shots: I now know I have to prop up my monitor so my face is at screen-level. One kid told me he could see up my nose, um, after 4 meetings
  • Frontal lobe shots: in the first few weeks, most of my students looked like the pictures my mom took of us when we were young – all forehead, no eyes, no nose, no mouth. Sit up and show your whole head
  • Overexposure: when you are learning to “Present” on screen, don’t leave the potential for your on-line chequing account to appear
  • Leave your Doritos and trail mix (at home?): crunching on an open mic is really loud and distracting
  • Lounging bed shots: propping your monitor on your stomach and attempting to rest on your parents’ bed while in a Class Meet – not great for future job practice (that was not me!)
  • Leave family out of it: calling out to your mom or brothers during the meeting? Close the door.
  • Using the screen as a mirror: we “gridsters” can all see you when you are fixing your hair or examining your face with your screen image
  • Watch your mic: whispering loudly to your hovering mom that “this sucks, how long do I have to stay on?” when your mic is on – not great for your teachers’ self-esteem
  • Background check: all might want to position themselves in neutral backgrounds. No backshot photos of teachers reclining with large glasses of wine in hand
  • In the dark: use some light to illuminate your human form or the class looks like a bad poker game, or a “B-movie” drug deal
  • vertigo on-the-go: stay in one place. Travelling with your chrome book to get a snack or reaching down for your phone while on a class meet induces nausea in the elders
  • Grid lock: take your turn speaking and no heckling, or the grid does lock and the screen starts to smoke
  • Saying hello and goodbye: However, screen-shy you are, remember, just like at “real school” to say hello and goodbye. Talking into a silent screen of avatars feels like Co-VOID for your teachers.

Teens on screens. Tune in.

The Long Spring: (1) Blank verse

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The word “screen” looks a lot like “scream” and it rhymes with quarantine, and that is No coincidence.

I love to write. I usually write frequently and easily. But that was when I used to go out. When I wore button pants. Now, I still have a lot to say but no apparent way to convey it. My brain swirls with ideas, impressions, fears and questions. I am now a teacher of, and an expert in blank verse – writing nothing for my blog, nothing to express my thoughts on these very strange times, nothing imaginative.

If my pen were a tongue it would be stuttering right now.

No, the writing I do in the on-line school world comprises cheery, mouth-straining-smiley, weekly letters to families. Tactful e-mails to parents asking whether their child has been, um, using the school board Chromebook because there is no evidence of their existence. Brief – now templated – notes to students explaining once more how to submit an assignment into Google Classroom. Requests on Classroom comments that “woop woop” and “na, I dont get this” be rephrased. Short phrases on Google Meet chat lines like “Hi there”, and “Of course!” Careful notes to kids and families I am really worried about.

Fluency is in short supply and fancy is in quarantine. All my energy goes to the screen. The Silver Screen? The Silent Screen. Like everyone else, I am trying to find a way to make virtual personal, and engage across spaces that are physical, emotional and existential. By 4 pm, I do not want to even see a screen door. I do not want to see my phone.  I do not want to write.

This is my first attempt, on a beautiful, actually-springy Sunday afternoon of the long weekend of the Longest Spring. Excuse the fumbling phrases and the lack of energy. I will try harder next time. How do I submit this?

 

Love in the time of COVID-19

Yesterday was my 60th birthday.  Born on the 19th of March in 1960, I was not unaware of the numerical coincidence.  Many plans were made beforehand: a week-long trip to Cuba; family gathering in Montreal; visits to our moms with cake; then a return to work to finish my last “trimester” of paid, full-time work. Some “treats” to compensate for the tough, labour action times this winter. All designed to mark time and observe a significant landmark. All based on the assumption that all is possible. The anticipation had a delicious energy.

And then, COVID-19 arrived in Canada. Quickly, with little planning and big consequences. Staying put and social distancing the new normal.

Image result for empty park in winter

I will admit I was in a TERRIBLE mood last Friday, the last day of school before March break. That delicious anticipation caved into dark anger and anxiety. The Cuba trip cancelled early that morning. An announcement that school would be closed for an extra two weeks. And a day of crises for students dealing with their own huge issues, and wondering how we could help them from away.  A dark, dark day.

The next day and the day after that the sun shone. On a Sunday hike in Gatineau Park we turned our faces to the warmth and March-blue sky. Chickadees and blue jays swooped among the evergreens. Streams were starting to flow under ice’s thin veneer. It was not a Caribbean beach but it was beautiful. And we were outside. For a while, I forgot myself and my anger.

As the news of COVID-19 became darker, we received our instructions. No contact and strict social distancing. All news was of rising contagion numbers, deaths and the plummet of the financial markets. No understanding of when this would end and very, very dark.  But the sun still shone.

We took to the streets like so many of our neighbours enjoying the air and freedom. Children everywhere scrambling up what’s left of snow-plowed hills, spinning on their bikes and boards in winter gravel. Neighbours we have never seen before visiting our book lending library, talking in these strange configurations of distance.  We vowed to play loud music at the end of each day – porch blasts. We delivered food to friends, planned new projects and did ridiculous, sporadic workouts in our tiny living room.

On my actual birthday, friends placed cards and gifts on the porch (one a dozen rolls of TP and a coveted, small hand sanitizer). They called from the street, left messages on the phone and scrawled well wishes on Facebook. My family made a beautiful meal, a special Tic-Toc and we celebrated what we have.

Right now,  all we know is that we know nothing. We do not know where this will go and when it will end. It is not time to make plans and reward ourselves for what has passed. It is time to listen carefully and obey. To take care of others by living carefully and prudently. To find ways to be kind. To take care of our children and their colleagues working in the health sector. To thank the people working in grocery stores, pharmacies and gas stations. Smile at delivery trucks, wave at bus drivers.

Time is still being marked but the landmarks are different. I think my most significant gift this birthday is permission, or an opportunity to get over myself. To see myself as one of many.  To understand the story will not be as planned but it is still a story.

This weekend, now spring, the waters will be flowing. Nature carries on. And so must we. My love to those who are struggling or are alone.

I would love to live
Like a river flows,
Carried by the surprise
Of its own unfolding.

~ John O’Donohue, Conamara Blues