I’ve had a lot on my mind this week. I have so many ideas (for new stories, poems, and plays) that I can’t even sleep properly. I end up waking up by 5am–after a horribly fragmented sleep–and writing, or reading, and then going down to Lake Ramsey to walk my dog. It’s only when I get down in amidst the trees and alongside the shoreline that I feel I can breathe again and sort out what’s happening in my mind. I have been doing Zumba with excessive force, too. I know this about myself: when my brain is too busy, because I’m an introvert, a creative, and a cerebral kind of person, I need to be more physically active. I lose my appetite, can’t sleep, and just need to move physically. (It’s busy in my head. Always has been. That can be a blessing if you’re a writer, but also a curse, I think. These last few weeks, it’s been a bit of both, depending on the day or the situation.) It’s funny enough that, when I speak to my principal at work, suggesting new ideas, I often finish (as I did today) with “Um, so yeah…I think that’s all I have to talk with you about…what’s in my head right now, anyway.” And then he laughs (as he did today) and asks, “Are you sure there’s nothing else in there, Kim?” And then I just shake my head and say, “Um, yeah, you know…it’s busy in there. I have a lot of thoughts.” I think, sometimes, they seem to build up and come out all at once and then, well, I don’t have a filter (never have!) so I’m sure being on the receiving end of one of my chats can overwhelm the most well rounded and intelligent of souls.
These past couple of months, at school, my students have wanted to talk about what’s happening in American politics. I took American history way back in high school. That was a long time ago. I do read a lot, though, so I try my best. Usually, I steer them towards trying to define and identify what makes us ‘Canadian’ and which values we espouse as a nation. They are, at times, different philosophies than American ones…even if we share a physical continent with our neighbours to the south. (Just think of different philosophies on gun control and violence, as well as education and health care. I’m sure that’s only just the surface, but enough of an example to start you thinking.)
Teaching a Grade 11 First Nations, Metis and Inuit Contemporary Voices in Literature course this semester at work, for the first time, has made me more aware of the overarching ideas of identity, relationships, challenges, and sovereignty, as they are embedded in literature written by First Nations writers in Canada. We’ve spent four and a half months talking about how we choose to define ourselves, and how others view and define us. Then we’ve talked, in class, about how these notions and ideas arise in the literature we study together. One of the most helpful pieces that has anchored the course has been a TEDTalk that I found via a teaching colleague. “The Danger of A Single Story” speaks to the idea of how listening to just one interpretation of history, or of any story, really, is damning in so many ways. You can watch it here. (Trust me when I say it’s worth the time it will take.)
It’s been the touchstone piece that I’ve used to anchor my interpretation of the course. My students are all girls (as I teach at Marymount Academy, which is the only all-girls’ school north of Toronto). When the American election occurred, so many of my students wanted to react with fear. I spoke to them, though, about the choices we have as humans. “We can,” I said, “either choose to act out of fear or love. Which is most beneficial, for us, as individuals, and as a society?” If you avoid things in life, because you’re afraid, then you end up not growing and changing. If you take some risks, with the idea of being open and living with a loving heart, then you’ll be hopeful and positive in your approach to life. It’s more of a risk, to speak and act out of love, but it seems to me that there is no other choice if you want to grow and develop. (How boring would life be, otherwise, if we all just stayed inside our respective homes and avoided things that might challenge our views and previous life experiences? We may get hurt by walking through life with open hearts, but I think it’s worth it. I hope my kids think so, too, at the end of the five months I spend with them.)
This week has been hard on them, and it’s been hard on me to see them struggling. I worry about them. I don’t have kids of my own, so these girls are my kids. I deal mostly with Grade 11 and 12 students, all ranging from 15-17 years old. They are under such pressure in the senior grades, especially at this time of the year, trying to figure out what they want to do with the rest of their lives. (I’m in my forties and I still don’t know what I want to do with my life….other than just write my heart out!)
One student this week came to talk to me during my Student Success period and she just wanted to talk about courses and where she was heading after high school. I just listened and asked questions. (This is, as you’ll know if you’ve read my blog before, a skill my dad had…and which has, somehow, miraculously even, been passed on to me. It comes in handy in teaching, let me tell you!) After hearing her out, I just stopped and said, “Well, it seems as if you have already made your decision. You know the pros and the cons, and you’ve just talked them through while I listened.” So she looked at me, with a sort of wistful smile, and said, “But, Miss, I just want someone to tell me that I’m making the right decision.” I laughed. “What’s the ‘right’ decision? I wish I could have someone help me with my decisions, too, sister, and I’m an adult. There is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ when it comes to your life, is there? Nothing is a final decision, and you can always go back and change it, or just start off on a new path. A decision that was right three months ago might not be the right one now. It’s a journey, and the road isn’t always straight. You can’t always see where you’re going.” She asked me how I make decisions in life. “I worry it out, and overthink it, probably more intensely than I should. When you live alone with two dogs, you do a lot of thinking and deciding on your own, so you hone the skill. Mostly, though, I think it out and reason it through. Then, after all is said and done, though, I follow my heart. After all, you carry your heart with you through life.” She smiled and said, “Right, Miss, but that applies to you, too, with your writing?” My breath caught a bit, then. “Yes, absolutely. I’ve been practicing with following my heart. It takes work.” Some days, I find, these kids are wiser than the wisest elders. They teach me.
Today, after a discussion about the Joseph Boyden controversy, and an examination of news articles on the subject from different points of view, the girls moved to talking about issues of cultural identity and one student raised her hand. She was frustrated. “But, Miss….I don’t understand. We know better, right, as humans? We know about residential schools now, and we want things to be more equal for all races and genders, but racism and segregation still happens.” She sighed. “I don’t get it. Why is that still happening, when we know better? We all bleed the same colour of blood.” Then we had a class discussion about how we manage in a world that can seem–this week, especially–a bit scary and overwhelming and racist. We talked about what happens at inaugurations, and what that means historically for Americans, and also what it means for Canadians and other people around the world this time around. I brought them back to the ‘fear vs. love’ question and that helped. The Trump thing has been hovering in class for a while. They’re all bright girls. They worry, too, because they’re bright and well read. They know life, the world, isn’t simple.
I was thinking, tonight, about the role that poetry plays in American inaugurations. I loved Maya Angelou’s “On the Pulse of Morning” (for Clinton’s inauguration), and I’m also terribly fond of Richard Blanco’s “One Day” (for Obama’s swearing in at the beginning of his second term). I love poets. That sounds weird, because I am one, but I mean to say (and convey) that poets have a role in the history of the world. The bardic tradition goes back farther than we probably even know.
Maya Angelou has always been someone whose work I admire. There is so much scope for positivity in her words. She saw that, even in the darkest parts of the world, there was good…and then somehow she was so incredibly gifted that she could convey that good, that hope, that potential for positive change, in the majority of her pieces. I love, love, love, the rhythm of her poems. She was pure music and magic, especially in the way that she read. She spoke of how all races and religions are one. (I still miss her being on the planet…cried when she died.) You can listen to the beauty and hope that is conveyed in her poem here:
In the face of the worry and fear, there’s still something beautiful about America, too, though. When we speak of change, it’s too easy to say that things are “bad” and “good,” or “white” and “black,” or “right” and “wrong.” These are all polar opposites, or binary opposites. It’s reductionist, I think, to imagine that we can interpret the world, and human beings, in such a basic and simple way. There’s something beautiful about America, despite the fear that surrounds the new president who will be sworn in on Friday. It’s a country that has survived through difficult times before, and it will do so again.
In class today, when someone asked me what I thought about Friday, I took a minute: “I think that life will go on. I think that democracy is a blessing. And, I think that we have a choice….whether to move forward while thinking, speaking, and acting…out of love, or out of fear.”
I’m hoping that most of us, even those of us who aren’t American, but who have American friends and relatives, can be mindful and set the intention to move forward with love and not fear. After all, what are our alternatives?