Ice

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.

11 thoughts on “Ice

  1. This piece was powerful, Amanda. Although the struggles of teaching (and life) may look a little bit different in my school and community, I can empathize with this level of exhaustion that seems to be never ending.  These lines really spoke to me, “In one of my circles of teacher friends, we no longer ask each other if we cried today… Our sleep is restless or hard to find. We are exhausted.” Yes, we are exhausted. May you find rest and rejuvenation. 

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I ache for all my teacher friends and family during this difficult time. And your current situation does nothing but add fuel to the fire. I hope you’ll squeeze in a word or two with colleagues. Hugs!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I absolutely love how you open this piece with a descriptive and sensory experience of ice, the need to numb the pain of witnessing, of experiencing. And then you bring it back to the wisdom of Mary Oliver, that deep understanding, encapsulating the essence of life. How often do we return to the echos of this poem, “Wild Geese”? It feels as if the poem returns in seasons just like the birds and then, when it comes, it feels like spring. How did she do this? How do you do what you do so often? I love this post.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Oh. Just oh. Just a soft, thorough exhaling: ohhhhh.
    Thank you. For what you write, for what you do, for showing up, for listening and speaking out, for crying.
    You are a gift. I am so thankful I get to spend time with you.

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  5. Wow. This was a potent entry. I’m sorry you’re having to deal with all of this. There are so many problems on so many fronts. A sad truth or silver lining is that some beautiful writing has come out of your struggle. I love the Mary Oliver poem. That harsh but exciting line is one that, like your ice images at the beginning will stick with ‘em the next time I see the geese flying overhead or the ice cube melting in my hand. There’s also something I this entry that reminds me of the Yeats poem Easter 1916. The terrible beauty. This will sound a little like Pollyanna, but at least you have your writing to try to make sense of this. I think others may just feel anger or sadness without any meaning (or attempt at meaning).
    Hoping for better times in the spring

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  6. This is such a wrenching post, Amanda. I am always awed by how you manage to convey so much, so powerfully, in your writing. That perfectly rendered image of you grasping the ice cube will stay with me, as will the layers of pain and exhaustion that reverberate here. Thank you for sharing that Mary Oliver poem and for sharing yourself so fully and honestly as well.

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  7. I hear you. You are in an uncontrollable situation. It’s hard to keep grounded and move. It’s admirable how you show resilience. You know yourself and your sources of strength, as is visible form here and your insta photos.

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