Saturday, November 19, 2016


I always think of writing when I experience a sense of loss.  A week and a half ago I was stunned when Hilary Clinton lost the American election.  I just couldn't believe that Donald Trump was going to be president.   I still can't.  Then I found out Leonard Cohen died, whose poetry and music seemed such a part of my university days.

Then of course it is November and somehow November has these deadly connotations.  I mean it begins with All Souls Day, the Day of the Dead, then we move onto Remembrance Day.  It gets dark earlier and earlier.  Leaves have deserted tree branches, the colours become muted.  And in Vancouver a good day seems to be when it doesn't rain.

But more personally, this week I went to two memorial services, both for people with whom I had worked.  One was at probably our most elegant church, Christ Church Cathedral.   The other was  in  a lounge that can be rented for events.  I must admit I kind of liked the second where I could grab a glass of wine as soon as I entered, although there is  beauty and comfort in a  familiar service.  The events were really as different as the people.

The first was for a man who too briefly was my principal.  The second was for someone with whom I worked for five years and became a good friend.  Both at the same school and for awhile in the same time frame.

They were both similar in some ways and different in many others, but both very special people, people who really cared.

I think it is really hard to describe teaching to someone who isn't a teacher.  it is intense. Each year a special journey.   The school where I worked with both these people was the biggest elementary school in the city and we had many challenges but the staff was quite amazing and generally I just loved teaching there.  It was definitely not always easy but for me, rewarding.

I was impressed by Dave because when he came to Moberly as our principal  my third year there, he was committed to doing  a really good job.  He put his heart and soul into it.  He came to soccer games in the rain, entertained the staff at his home, and treated everyone-staff, students, parents  with respect but still had a sense of humour. He celebrated learning.   Unfortunately in one year, he had pneumonia, his wife died suddenly so he was left a single parent with three teenagers, and then he had a stroke and wasn't able to continue as an administrator.  He would rebuild his life, become a grandparent, travel, but later lose his second wife and step son to illness. I would run into him from time to time and always have a nice conversation.   At only 68, he died from Leukemia.

Steve was someone who came into teaching later after being a renovator and a traveller.  He was a committed environmentalist, a practical dreamer, a builder, an explorer.  We came to Moberly at the same time and he was there my first five years.   He taught my science.  I taught his class creative writing and French and we worked on other projects together.  He and his wife became good friends although I hadn't seen them as much in recent years.  He  retired three years ago, the same time I did,  and then two years ago he and his wife and son, who was in seventh grade, took a year to travel the world and he developed diabetes and had to come home early, but that didn't seem to slow him down.  He died  this year from a heart attack while happily on a group bike ride, a shock to everyone.   Such a loss especially to his wife and son.

I wrote an earlier post about having to learn to let go.  And also I think of regret.  For instance, I am still not sure why I didn't try to hire Steve to deal with my falling down garage.

But where there is loss there is gratitude. I am grateful  that I  had the pleasure of knowing both those gentleman.  In teaching it makes such a difference when you have people who give you support, people who you can laugh with, people you respect, and with whom you share a vision of how things should be.

And November is when I start to see the beauty of tree limbs, when I can see all the way to Grouse Mountain, and actually see the sun rise without trees blocking my view.  And my own week included ocean walks, water colour painting, reading with first graders, and yes, celebrating lives well lived.  And to echo Leonard Cohen...Hallelujah

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

On being a refugee...

As a teacher I often tried to find novels for my students that would increase their understanding, enable them to be more empathetic.  I think it is often hard to really comprehend world events that we are not directly involved in.

As someone whose ancestors lived in Canada for many generations, the idea of having to leave your home country with only what you can carry with you, and fearing for your life if you stay, is a little out of my experience.  The biggest move I have ever made was from Montreal to Vancouver.

This summer I read two books that were about that experience of being a refugee.  One book takes place at the end of the second world war, the other more recently.  I found both fascinating.

When The Moon Is Low by Nadia Hashimi is about an Afghani family who flee Afghanistan after the father is arrested and is killed by the Taliban.  I have read quite a few novels set in Afghanistan but this was one I couldn't stop reading.  We watch as their comfortable life gets more and more difficult until the only option seems to be to leave  and embark on a dangerous and unpredictable journey with only forged papers.  Their goal is to get to England where they have relatives.

I can watch the news and read about the refugee crisis but a novel helps you feel what it is like.  We see how the family has to adapt to the hard situations they find themselves in along the way.  I have read about what it is like for refugees in Athens and in Patras but here I could really feel the uncertainty.  It is heartbreaking when the family becomes separated as well.

A friend told me how frightening was waiting for the ferry to England and watching how refugees tried to get into the back of trucks to smuggle into England but here I really had a picture of what it would be like to be one of those people living in the camp  in Calais ready to take desperate measures to get to the other side of the channel.

I am currently somewhat obsessed by the American election.  I really wish Trump supporters would read this book.

As I was writing this review I was reminded of another novel I recently read The Burgess Boys by Elizabeth Strout.  I have to admit I had no idea that there was a significant Somali population in Maine. I grew up close to Maine in the Eastern Townships of Quebec and have spent time there but am obviously not up to date.  Lewiston, Maine, the second largest city in Maine in 2011 had 35000 people of whom 3000 were Somali!  This novel's pivotal event is when a young man throws a pig's head into the local mosque.  This incident precipitates his two uncles, both lawyers, return from New York City  to town to help with his defence.  The central story is more about the Burgess family but the secondary story of what happens after the incident and the picture into the Somali community there was really fascinating to me.  I think it is fascinating how someone who has come as a refugee to escape violence chooses to handle a situation like this.  Again it is gratifying to see how some really want to understand a different community and how understanding can develop.
Another very good book

Refugees are not a recent phenomenon.  I love books that teach me something new.  I like to get my history in fiction form.  I went to an excellent session at the International Literacy Association Annual Convention this summer with authors of historical young adult fiction.  My main reason for going was I wanted to hear Ruth Septys.  I had really enjoyed her novel set in New Orleans , Out of the Big Easy.  If I like a book I find it fascinating to get a chance to hear the author speak about her writing.

Her latest book,Salt to the Sea, is about a group of refugees fleeing from East Prussia as the Russians march on Germany at the end of the Second World War.  She tells the story from four points of view, that of a Polish young woman, an East Prussian young man, a Lithuanian young woman and a German soldier.  The three refugees are trying to make it to a ship to escape but that ship has its own issues.

I found the scenes so strong in this novel.  I will never forget the scene where they seek a respite in the abandoned home of an East Prussian landowner.

Each refugee has a secret story as well that unravels as the novel progresses.  For that matter so does the soldier.

Ruth was inspired to write this story because of her father who was a Lithuanian refugee from the Stalin regime and by her aunt who was trapped in East Prussia.  Until I read this novel I don't think I had much awareness of East Prussia which is on the Baltic and borders Poland and Lithuania.

It also made me wonder about the story of my parents' friends who were like an aunt and an uncle to me in my childhood.  He was Estonian and she was German and all I really knew was they came to Sherbrooke after the war.  I don't think anyone was all that interested in what their story really was.  I wish now I had the opportunity to ask them a few questions.

I should also add that Ruth Septys also wanted to focus on the current plight of refugees as well.

Two good books and to some extent a third that help you understand a bit of what it is like to be a refugee...

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Gardener

My friend Carolyn died last week and I have wanted to write about her and have found it so hard.  I  wanted to write her something before she died but I didn't, almost couldn't, as it seemed as if it would acknowledge how near the end was.   I tried to be a good friend through the 16 months when she was first diagnosed too late with breast cancer that had already spread until she died.  I hope I was a good friend before then as well.

As I write this I try to think of what was the essence of Carolyn.  I first met her, 14 years ago, training for the Sun Run, an annual event in Vancouver.  I had done it the previous year training on my own using the little handbook they provide and I did complete the 10 K run although I am sure I walked part of it.  A friend had done the formal training program the year before and wanted to do so again so I decided to do it with her.  And that is how I met Carolyn as she and Connie had done the program together that previous year.

From January to April three of us, sometimes four of us, would train two nights a week plus join the big group training on Sundays.  It gave lots of talking opportunities and that is how I got to know Carolyn. We only lived a few blocks apart and seemed to have lots in common.  I love flowers, she loved growing things and was an avid gardener.  My gardening is far more haphazard.  We loved taking pictures, she still using her SLR camera that took real film, me generally more lazily using a digital camera.  And we both had lived in Montreal at the same time although we hadn't known each other then.  We liked to travel etc etc.

I admired Carolyn in many ways.  Her garden amazed me.  She grew flowers and vegetables.  Her garden was a thing of beauty.  Gardening was her passion.  She was also an excellent cook, making everything from scratch and often using her garden produce.  She didn't even have a microwave and only ate what was organic. She was a regular at the Trout Lake Farmers' market.  When Carolyn had a tea party or a dinner party not only was the food delicious, the presentation was also a work of art.

She had beautiful china and silver, some inherited, some carefully chosen.  Carolyn was a careful chooser.  Her house was a heritage home, an old house by Vancouver standards, and had been lovingly  restored.  I think I could say Carolyn was a perfectionist but she didn't like things to be too perfect.  For instance her garden was a bit jumbled and thus beautiful.

I always remember her saying how the only time she really sat down during the day was when she had lunch.  She was always busy.  In addition to running a perfect home and taking care of that garden, she volunteered at the UBC Botanical Gardens.  For many years she was the stationery buyer for the gift shop where she also worked one day a week.  She also worked in the vegetable garden there in the summer harvesting etc. etc.  If I needed to know anything about gardening she was the person I asked.

She loved to walk and exercise.  She also loved early music and classical concerts and the art gallery.  Every year she and her husband, Christopher, would travel to Europe once or twice a year to visit his parents and to explore many areas although Paris was always a favourite.  Of course those trips had to be in fall after the garden was basically put to bed and in the winter before her planting took place.

Carolyn grew up in Seattle but lived in  Montreal, Vancouver,  London, and then back in Vancouver.

And she was a mother of two daughters and always wishing the very best for them and appreciative of their accomplishments and talents.

Those are a few of the facts.

As a person, she was kind and thoughtful and self disciplined.    And funny…Those qualities got her through the last 16 months I think.  I have now followed several friends' journeys through cancer, and I am struck by how incredibly brave they are and how well they each handle an unbelievably difficult time.

For Carolyn, I think, the initial diagnosis and then the first round of chemo was very hard but she adjusted.  She adjusted to not being able to do so much of what she used to do but was cheered when she was able to do some of her favourite things.  She loved tea and lunch out with friends.  She was able to go to some concerts.  She even made it back to the gym encouraged by her daughter, Be.  She was able to keep up the garden with help from her daughter, Anna.  Other things she had to let go but she did.  Amazingly she put together a beautiful Christmas dinner.  It was lovely.

But from June on you could see it was getting harder.  We went out for lunch with Connie ( our running training partner)  and she was definitely in pain.  After that she was back on chemo.  It seemed to take more and more out of her.  I took her to a chemo treatment on her birthday near the end of July and by then walking two blocks was a lot for her.  She was still positive and upbeat and not feeling the least bit sorry for herself.  But she was becoming more and more tired.  She was excited that Be was in Porto in Portugal and would be visiting again at the end of August.  And when Be came they managed to go to the Picasso exhibit and have lunch at a favourite of ours, the Reflections Lounge at the Georgia Hotel.

She was getting weaker and weaker.  It is hard to know what to do but I tried to put together little care packages every week and I emailed every day and she would email back.  If I didn't hear from her for a couple of days I would get alarmed and check in with Anna.  Once she had an email password problem, another time she was just too week to email but did enjoy the photos I sent Anna had shown her.

Almost two weeks ago she emailed me that she was very tired but enjoying the sun.  I sent her a photo of the watercolour I had been working on in my art class that morning and she wrote, "That water colour is wonderful.  It looks like an official botanical drawing and it's lovely".

The next morning I dropped off a little care package and I think I enclosed a card that said how she inspired me in so many ways.

I didn't hear from her again and I knew this was not a good sign.  I have a feeling I almost didn't want to know.  Connie and I had lunch on Monday and we talked about her apparently worsening condition.  Tuesday morning a friend and I went off to Ucluelet for a couple of nights on Vancouver Island.  Wednesday I was actually at Wickaninnish Beach when I read Anna's email that she had died on Sunday having been in hospice two and a half days.  Carolyn had wanted to email her friends but was too weak.  She didn't want any memorial service.

I simply sat down on a log on the beach and cried.  It seemed ironic to receive such sad news in such a beautiful place but also fitting in that Pacific Rim National Park was an area that Carolyn had loved.

A good friendship is a true gift and I am so glad that I got to know Carolyn.  I know that when someone dies they do live on in your memory.  My house is filled with thoughtful gifts from Carolyn.  I think I have kept all of her beautiful photo cards.  I can pour tea from a teapot she gave me.  A lovely plaque she gave me is in my kitchen.  The foldable bag in my purse is one from her.   And certainly yesterday working in my garden I thought of her as I have plants she gave me, and she was always so encouraging in my efforts.  In Steveston yesterday, I would see something and think how she would like it.  Saturday I had lunch at Tacofino's in Gastown, another favourite of hers, and I thought of walks we had taken in that area.

Carolyn had a gift for friendship as she was always kind and a careful listener with a fine sense of humour.  She had the ability to truly be happy for her friends.  She had a smile that lit up a room as well as a personal elegance.  I really believe that we really benefit from friendships with people that are different than we are and although in many ways we were kindred spirits i was in awe of Carolyn as she was the kind of perfectionist I could never be.  She was a hard worker and she worked hard to make the world a truly more beautiful place.

A few years ago I went to a conference and went to a session with a wonderful writer and her talented husband, an artist, and I gave her a book she had written and he had illustrated, The Gardener by Sarah Stewart and David Small.  it is about a little girl who lives on a farm and loves to garden but is sent to live with her uncle in the city in the depression and creates a garden there as well.  I just found a video of this book that I am going to share.

She loved it and said that that was her, someone who always wanted to be a gardener.  She gave  the book back to me to share with children, which I certainly have, and now I will always tell them about my friend.

Above all else, Carolyn was a gardener, someone who planted carefully, nurtured and created beauty wherever she went.