Sometimes, when my heart or my head have raced so far ahead of my body that I can no longer tell if I am getting enough oxygen, I take a cube of ice from the freezer and clutch it until the sharp edges dig into the soft centre of my palm, until my fingers go cold, then numb. I close my eyes and feel every bit of the ice in my hand. I cling to it as my body’s warmth softens its sharp edges, as my animal heat grows and pushes against the coldness, until every bit of me – my cells, my blood, my breath – responds to this challenge and water, cold and clear, seeps through the cracks between my fingers. When I can breathe again, I let it go.
I am looking for the story equivalent of that ice cube, a cold hard undeniable centre that grounds me, but I’m having trouble finding it.
Protesters currently occupy Ottawa. I’ve lived in the capital cities of three different countries, so I’m familiar with protests. This one, though, this one is wearing me down. You can read about the protests on your favourite news site – but the long and the short of it is that there are trucks blocking our streets and honking honking honking. This despite the fact that there are few (no?) politicians currently in Ottawa. These protesters are mostly affecting residents, causing small businesses – already struggling from Covid restrictions – to close, along with public libraries, an elementary school (for one day), the local mall, city service centres, a vaccination clinic, a Sikh temple and more. People can’t think for the noise; the blocked streets prevent elderly people from getting their food delivered. Some of the people involved in the protest have behaved badly and their demands are unclear.
Monday morning, I tweeted about sending my child to school through the protesters. Monday evening, I spent hours hiding truly hateful responses – some threatening – and blocking accounts. The work was deeply unsettling and exhausting.
I foolishly tried to lead a “discussion” with my classes – because this protest is affecting students, too, and because it’s a great example of how different news sources report different things and shape our thinking via diction, selection and omission – but I was in no way able to model critical thinking. I was too tired and too angry. I even shared a piece of “news” that turned out to be false. I should have done better, but I did what I could.
Meanwhile, sexual harassment lurks in the hallways and corners of our school. Children who have learned largely online or in interrupted spurts are behaving badly. Some profess astonishment when teachers talk about truths: that sending unwanted pictures of body parts is harassment; that even “compliments” are often unwelcome when they are comments on people’s appearance. Others are angry that their requests for help are going unheard. Some of our students have told us about assault. Their stories are unsettling.
In the school, lines of communication feel broken. There is no time to talk. We’ve moved from a shooting threat to winter break to online school, then through a snowstorm and straight into the end of the semester. Tomorrow – a “catch up” day for students – is overflowing with meetings as staff members scramble to connect with one another, to find ways to cram months of desperately needed conversation into the hours that we desperately need to mark student work and begin writing report cards. Thursday, we will return to our pre-Covid school schedule (four classes per day) and call it “normal” even though half of our students have never experienced it. We have no time to plan for this. We will pretend this is ok.
In one of my circles of teacher friends, we no longer ask each other if we cried today; we ask if we cried in public or in private. Our sleep is restless or hard to find. We are exhausted.
Meanwhile, the pandemic rages on. In Canada, Wednesday saw the highest number of deaths from Covid so far. Wednesday.
In school, I endlessly repeat, “put your mask over your nose,” heed the recent notice that we should not open our classroom windows, pretend that it’s normal to have five, six, seven students away from each class.
I remind myself that endemic is not synonymous with mild and nevertheless hope for endemic.
What is my cold hard truth? What can I feel so deeply that it transforms? Today, it is Mary Oliver’s poem “Wild Geese.” Here, feel the pressure of its hard edges, then let her words melt between your fingers until you can breathe again.
You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
for a hundred miles through the desert repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
Love what it loves.
Tell me about despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting –
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.