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Pickle Me This

January 25, 2021

On Teaching Algebra During an Insurrection

I was sitting in the kitchen when I learned about the riots at the US Capitol on January 6, alerted by an Instagram post around the same time that my daughter in the living room heard about it from this kid in her class who seems to be streaming CNN during virtual school. This kid is always first with breaking news, and that day it was their math class he interrupted to inform his teacher and his classmates that a terrifying mass of marauding thugs were storming the Capitol, and then their class went back to their regularly scheduled programming, which was algebra.

I was a wreck that day, whacked out on stress and anxiety. I took my children for a walk after virtual school was done for the day, and my youngest daughter said, “If this was a dream, it would be a bad one.” I had gotten no work done all afternoon, and I was grateful—as I often am—that I’d never gone to teacher’s college, “just to have something to fall back on” (as they say). Because this means that I will never have to teach a Grade 6 algebra class online during a global pandemic as terrorists mount an insurrection in the nation next door.

The following morning when both my children returned to class, they had their headphones on so that I could hear only their (particularly shouty) ends of the conversation, teachers apparently guiding them through discussions about what had just transpired in Washington. The Grade 2s were talking about voting and fairness and democracy, and over in Grade 6, my daughter was indignant about the latitude granted to those in the Capitol rampage when compared to police crackdowns on Black Lives Matter protesters the previous summer.

As a society, we ask our educators to carry a heavy load. This was the case even before the pandemic, staff at my children’s school forming task-forces to assist families living in poverty (collecting winter coats and boats, canvassing to furnish apartments for families moving out of refugee and domestic violence shelters) and to help students deal with skyrocketing levels of anxiety and other mental health challenges. All this is on top of the usual fare—sports teams, choirs and bands, lunchtime clubs, answering parent emails on the weekends, plus curriculum nights, and holiday concerts, which educators are expected to volunteer their time to.

For two and a half years, Ontario teachers have been serving on the front lines of our government’s reckless cuts, including reductions to minimum wage, cutting supports for the opioid crisis, cuts to social services, autism support, healthcare, housing, mental health problems, domestic violence, poverty—you name it, and never mind the cuts to education. Helping to stop up these gaps in our social fabric has become what teachers do every day in their work, in addition to teaching (which teachers do well).

And then the pandemic happened, school closures pushing working families to their limits—underlining the foundational role that schools and their staff play in the day-to-day functioning of our society, a role that so many parents had always taken for granted. When Ontario schools reopened in September, amidst so much fear and uncertainty, teachers masked up and returned to the classroom, my youngest daughter’s teacher telling me, “There is nowhere else I’d rather be.” And she was assuring me, of course, because this is what our children’s teachers do, taking on our burdens and struggles as parents, and our children’s struggles too, helping to make the load a little lighter. Teaching is about so much more than teaching reading, writing, and arithmetic, and more than ever in 2021, as we all navigate challenges that sometimes seem insurmountable.

The other morning, I got to listen in to a bit of my daughter’s Grade 6 class before she got wise to my eavesdropping and put her headphones on. Her teacher mentioning an article she’d read about people having trouble sleeping. “These are stressful times,” she said, and she surveyed the class to see if anyone else was having trouble, opening up a conversation about mental health, about anxiety. A throwaway conversation, so it seemed, but of course it wasn’t, instead a vital check-in, the kind of thing all good teachers now need to weave into their curriculum in this most unprecedented age, but so seamlessly that it is easy not to notice. 

It is so easy to underestimate what educators do, and the outsized role they play in supporting the wellbeing and prosperity of all Canadians. For some, it seems like a reflex to malign the entire profession for their good pay and holidays, as though to value the work of educating and supporting future generations was foolhardy and not instead an investment that pays out for all of us. But the events of the past year have made clear the limitations of this point of view, showing us all how essential educators really are.

This year, teachers have shown up for us, and I hope many of us will return the favour in years to come by showing up for them, electing governments that value and support their role instead of constantly undermining it.

January 22, 2021

It Was Capitalism All Along…

“It was capitalism all along…” So goes the tagline of my favourite podcast, You’re Wrong About, which I have been in love with for months now. I was the only person on earth who was calm the week of the US election in November, because I just ignored the news and listened to the episode about Gary Hart instead, which was really the same story anyway. I really love the counterintuitiveness of You’re Wrong About, and also the judgment-free perspective of the hosts. Or maybe it’s not that they’re judgment-free—that would be no fun. So many people deserve judgment, but the pod really makes you think about where you’re putting yours, that who we’ve been led to judge is what we’re wrong about after all, but they also don’t do it in a virtue-signalling sanctimonious way either (as in, they don’t call marginalized people—or anybody—”folks”).

I have been reading Braiding Sweetgrass, by Robin Wall Kimmerer, for the last month or so, slowly, upon the recommendation of everyone. She writes about gift economies, and what it would be to show up at a farmers’ market where everything was free, and how you would be encouraged by this structure to take only what you need. As opposed to capitalism, which suggests hoarding and competition. If something at capitalism farmers’ market’s on sale, you buy up as much as you can, but gifts would be different:

From the viewpoint of a private property economy, the “gift” is deemed to be “free” because we obtain it free of charge, at no cost. But in the gift economy, gifts are not free. The essence of the gift is that it creates a set of relationships. The currency of a gift economy is, at its root, reciprocity.

Robin Wall Kimmerer

A couple of weeks ago, we headed back into lockdown in Ontario, with schools closed, many things shut. And I was talking with my husband about how difficult it seemed to be for many people to comply with stay-at-home orders, how they kept complicating instructions, looking for loopholes. Trying to game the system, really. And it was my husband who connected the dots, brought it full circle, how it really was capitalism all along. How in capitalism, we’re primed to take everything we can get, even to gamble. Lockdown advisories come out and the response of so many people seems to be, “How can I get the maximum return on these guidelines?”/ “Just how far can I possibly push these limits?” There is no sense of reciprocity, or humility, or duty. Anti-vaccine sentiments are in keeping with this idea too. Public health and capitalism are so very much at odds, but of course, you’d know that already if you’ve listened to You’re Wrong About the Exploding Ford Pinto.

January 18, 2021

On Peaks and Troughs

My friend @nathaliefoy posted this image last week. It’s SO GOOD! And I’ve been thinking this week a lot about peaks and troughs. When things were overwhelming in China last February. Watching cases rise in BC last spring before they got a hold on it. By April, it was our turn in Ontario and everything was terrible. When we were feeling pretty good in August, but Melbourne was on heavy lockdown. Cases exploding in Alberta in December, but by now there is improvement.

Nothing is static, is what I mean. Even if it goes on a long time, it moves from better to worse and back again. And sometimes we’re in the eye of the storm, and other times we’re onlookers, and the only way out is through.

But it’s so hard. I remember in November and December, and experts forecasting a dark winter, and I wondered, But how much darker can things get? AND NOW WE KNOW!

But guys, people in Melbourne are going to the movies. And this is the time of year anyway when you look outside, and everything appears to be dormant, ugly, grey and unchanging, and it’s easy to look at the healthcare disaster and think this is going to be it forever. But anyone who’s ever made it to an April knows this isn’t so.

We’ve got to just keep going, even though it’s hard. Someone I follow shared a screenshot of an alarming tweet by a US researcher, that deaths are higher than ever. I sought the tweet out, because context is always always reassuring, and she’d gone on to tweet about how with so much out of control, it might be simplest just to throw up our arms and decide that nothing we do actually matters, but she had examples that show that this is not the case, that moving the dial is possible. That we will get through this.

Remember coming out into the light last summer? Progress is never a straight road to travel, but that’s no reason to lie in the ditch. Or at the very least, once you’ve been lying in the ditch for a little while, pull yourself up and keep going some more.

January 14, 2021

Celebration Wednesdays

#CelebrationWednesdays is a thing I made up yesterday as an excuse to be baking a cake with rainbow sprinkles in the middle of a roller coaster week. Roller coaster week in the pandemic sense, of course, which meant that I barely left the house, but the world has been hard and the weather is grey, and I’ve had plugged ears since Boxing Day that have only become worse since I started squirting random liquids into them in order to ameliorate the situation.

And so the answer was cake. (The answer is always cake.)

I made Smitten Kitchen’s confetti cake with butter cream icing, and it was so very delicious. And I determined that, for the duration, we’ll be celebrating something ever Wednesday, no matter what. And yesterday, that celebration was vaccines. The friends of ours who work in health care are beginning to get theirs. Our friends in New York are getting theirs too. A friend told me that school staff in Ontario will be among the Stage 2 vaccinations too, which is the best thing ever, and it all makes me so happy and is definitely reason to celebrate. It will be some time before I get the shot myself, I suspect, but seeing as I don’t get out much these days, I’m willing to be patient.

Right now I am reading Penelope Lively’s A House Unlocked, the story of her grandparents’ house in Southwest England and the role it played as a backdrop to the tumult of twentieth century. During World War Two, Lively’s family sheltered six small children evacuated from East London, and she put the story in a context I’d never considered before, having taken these evacuations for granted as part of history. But how bizarre it must have been—officials would come to rural homes and take stock of their capacity, and then inform residents of many people would be arriving. People who would stay for years (and had nits and wet the bed). Can you imagine going through that? What mass organization must have been required. And some of it was very disorganized—Lively writes of plans made for specific people to billeted in particular places, but when the time came, the London stations were so overwhelmed with passengers, they had no choice but to just put them on the first trains available, no matter where they were going.

She also writes about the national spirit in 1939, which I’ve never really thought a whole lot about. During the past year in particular, I’ve found myself wondering if my grandparents ever looked at each other and muttered, “Goddamn you, 1943,” but then of course they didn’t, because my grandfather was away at sea. But Lively writes about the very beginning of the war, about the catastrophic predictions for aerial bombardment from the Germans, which experts had been talking about throughout the 1930s. This was no 1914, “this will all be over by Christmas.” Lively writes, “Anyone alive to official anticipation of what would probably happen in the first days and weeks of war would have been expecting the end of the world they knew.”

The story of these mass evacuations was also one of extreme poverty, vast income inequality, a need “to preempt… mass panic and consequent breakdown of law and order” as attacks began.

Anyway, it all made me think about how there is nothing new under the sun… And about the strangeness of living through history, which I never experienced properly before the last five years or so. I was 22 on September 11, 2001, but for me that was too young to properly understand the implications of those events, or how I was connected to them. One day I think I will write something about how it was watching Mad Men that prepared me for the tumultuous times that we’ve been living through. The visceral way that the show presented what it was to experience the 1960s, the deaths of President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. (“WHAT IS GOING ON?”)

Anyway, the great thing about Celebration Wednesdays is that they lead to Leftover Cake Thursdays.

Whatever gets you through.

December 18, 2020

Things I Loved in 2020

Like everyone, I’ve experienced some loss this year. Plans were cancelled, funerals on Zoom, so much uncertainty and anxiety. I posted an image yesterday of some of the signs I saw as we walked up and down the streets of our neighbourhood in the first half of the year, and I think they tell a story.

But among the many lessons that 2020 taught me, it’s that things don’t always turn out for the worst (although sometimes they do). That all those cliches about darkness before dawn and clouds with silver linings and lighting single candles and “everything is going to be okay” have some truth to them. And that there is so much to be grateful for.

I have tried my best to love the gifts that this year has delivered, and these are some of the standouts.

The Weather

Spring arrived with the crisis, and brought light and reasons to go outside, and crocuses and cherry blossoms, which is not always the case in April. The summer in Ontario was pretty beautiful. And then a cool September, which meant our children returned to school and were more comfortable in their classrooms than they might have been. Followed by an autumn more glorious than we’ve experienced in years. I loved all of it.

Getaways

We’re so lucky. I’ve been repeating this phrase all year long. Even from March-June when we were stuck in the city with no access to transit, and I’d started to doubt some of my life choices. But when in June, we felt comfortable renting cars, and a summer of fun appeared, with trips to see my family, a beautiful week at a cottage we were able to rent last minute, two fantastic camping trips, and other adventures. Access to these experiences made everything so much better.

Our Walmart Pool and other Ways to Make the Best of Bad Situation

In April, we bought an 8 foot plastic backyard pool, with a sense of how the summer might go—I love swimming, we use city pools all summer usually, and have no air conditioning—and then three days later our order was cancelled. I was devastated, but Stuart found they were still in stock at Walmart and that one arrived. IT WAS THE BEST. We were nervous originally because we share our backyard and wondered if our landlord would mind us filling the pool, which was pretty large as backyard pools go. But it was amazing! Brought pool blue back into my life. Perfect for cool-downs, the kids played in it, and Stuart even rigged me up a pool tether so I could kind of actually swim. It was the very best thing.

Supporting Local Bookstores

We’ve made it this far because of all the good things that kept arriving on our doorstep, from treats and flowers, to books books books. I’ve purchased from a variety of booksellers this year (and probably bought more books than ever before, which is saying something) but Queen Books has been a mainstay, and they’ve been so good to me!

The Food We Ate

I wrote about this already, but 2020 was delicious.

Our Kids’ Teachers

From the longest March Break ever to the return of school in September, we’ve been so grateful for the support and community of our neighbourhood school, and of heroic staff who—like so many front line workers this year—have risen to the occasion and kept our kids safe at school. Worst fears about school transmission were not realized, and all that is to the credit of school staff working under extraordinary circumstances—and also to our kids, who’ve been awesome and brave, and I’m so proud of them.

My Book Launch

I was glad to launch a book during a pandemic because there was a time in the spring when I wondered if I’d launch a book at all. I am so grateful to my friends and family, to my publisher, to booksellers and readers across the country who made my launch such a rich, special and satisfying experience. And yes, especially to Hien Hoang, who made my EPIC CAKE.

My People

There’s nobody else I’d rather be stuck with for hundreds of days than these three. They’re kind, funny, understanding, fun, up for adventures, give me space, teach me things, help me out, ask good questions, and are my favourite companions. I could not love them more—and yet, I probably will tomorrow.

You

And you! For reading my work, for loving books, for loving my book, for being a good friend or neighbour, for brightening my day, for inspiring me, for making me laugh, for lending an ear, for reading my bitchy DMs, for the gossip, for the friendship, for the book recommendations, for the encouragement, for sharing parts of your life with me. I am so glad you’ve been along for the ride and I couldn’t have done it without you.

December 14, 2020

Enough

My word of the year, I have realized, is ENOUGH. Yes, of course, like, enough already. I’ve definitely had enough. We’ve all had more than enough of bad news, death and sadness, loss and heartache. Enough as in too much.

Enough as in, seriously? How much more…

*

The spot right in the middle of this photograph is me, swimming back and forth across the Ward’s Island Beach one beautiful Wednesday in late August. A day that kept threatening to storm, whose breeze almost made swimming untenable but then it was warm enough, and the lake was warm too, and I swam.

Until March, I’d been swimming daily, but then after that very little, except for our week in Haliburton in July (what a gift) and dips in our amazing 8 foot plastic pool all summer long (never has a $77 purchase from Walmart delivered more magic). And I am not complaining. To have had a holiday. A backyard. $77 to spend. We have so much more than enough.

But I still wondered, as I was swimming under that big moody sky back in August, when I would next be able to swim again?

And then the thought that crossed my mind: “But I am swimming now. And maybe that is enough.”

*

2020 has taught me everything I’ve ever known about living in the moment, about not jumping too far into an unknown future. Which is not much, to be fair. And these are lessons I needed to learn even at the best of times, and it has been somewhat edifying to realize that nobody actually knows what’s going to happen next, even the people who know the universe right down to its most essential particles. But I find that really exciting, actually. Even during the most terrifying moments I felt in March and April, it was not lost on me what it means to have impossible things become possible, how expansive and amazing that actually is.

*

To meet the moments as they come has been my intention through much of this year, a year when I grappled with anxiety attacks, so much fear and loss of control. To just breathe, and be present, and acknowledge the totality of experience. And how much enoughness and more-than-enoughness is to be found in such an experience—to have enough food, enough shelter, enough money to buy my kids shoes. Fulfilling work that we can do from home. The sustaining enoughness of our neighbours and community, of nature, of trees, and the sky. Friends and family. Artisanal cheese.

I have always been fortunate to have not just enough but also a good sense of what enoughness is—our apartment is enough, our relatively modest salaries are enough because our expenses are low. This beautiful, ordinary life is enough.

But never before has enough felt like such abundance.

Against the bleakest backdrop I’ve ever set my eyes on, I’ve spent so much time this year counting blessings, tallying up just how lucky we are.

Enough. Enough. So much enough.

Such dizzy, dazzling gratitude.

December 10, 2020

Eating Food in 2020

It all started with food, the panic. March 11, 2020. We were supposed to fly to England the following Monday, but after two days of agonizing, we’d decided to cancel our trip, speaking of unprecedented. We’d been saving up for two years and there was $5000.00 down the tubes (no small potatoes), but I knew something was very wrong, and I didn’t want to chance it. Stories of ICU doctors in Italy, how what was happening there was nothing like what they’d ever seen before. Italy was not so very far from England, was what we were thinking, before it became clear that nowhere is actually far from anywhere.

And so I went shopping. I picked up my children from school and we went to the grocery store, the last time my children were at the grocery store. “This is the panic shop,” I told them, and they were delighted, because I told them they could have anything they wanted. Our cart was laden with chips and ice cream, but also frozen vegetables, and cans of soup and beans. It was too much for me to carry home, because I hadn’t brought my shopping buggy, but I carried it anyway (there’d be no such thing as hoarding if we all had to carry it home on our backs), all the way up the road to the Bulk Barn where we bought a huge bag of mini-eggs.

“I don’t know if any of this is actually necessary,” I noted, “but at least we’ll have mini-eggs.”

A month later, it was with a sense of disbelief that we finally cracked that bag of mini-eggs open, that whatever was going on had lasted all the way until Easter—and that the mini-eggs had lasted too, but I am by nature a stockpiler of splendid things. It’s how I roll. I would rather anticipate something than eat it any day.

These days I get emails from all the grocery stores, because in mid-March I passed along my details to all of them in an effort to have groceries delivered, and it was always after I’d signed up that I was informed that the next available delivery window was never. But then somebody I followed on Instagram alerted me to a office snack supply company who’d quickly pivoted to groceries, and my first delivery arrived the next day, which included a box of 40 bags of Miss Vickie’s chips a palimpsest of the pre-pivot times.

But the chips were important. Necessary for hunkering down, and also we needed to have cake every day at 3pm, and ice cream after dinner. Treats were mandatory, and delicious, giving shape and ceremony to our otherwise humdrum days. Croissants from the Harbord Bakery, once I finally started venturing out to small shops, where I could also buy fancy cheeses and crackers, and Kawartha Dairy Ice Cream in little tiny cartons, which my children had only ever seen on television before, and called “emotional support ice cream.”

I also really got into making sourdough bread, because my friend Marissa, very presciently, had given me a starter in January, and I baked the bread regularly until it got too hot to turn the oven on. Since summer ended, I have not resumed baking the bread however, because I don’t have the time like I did before, or maybe I just can’t be bothered, but my starter is still going strong, and we use it for sourdough waffles, and the bread I order from my Mama Earth Organics is more of a sure thing anyway. (Mine frequently turned out weird.)

We have been customers of Mama Earth Organics for ten years now, and have never valued them more than when grocery stores seemed inaccessible to us in the spring and yet we had fresh fruit, vegetables, eggs and yogurt delivered weekly. They increased their product list and we began to expand our orders with them, and appreciated the chance to purchase food from so many local producers. We also started buying chocolate and coffee and vegan cheeses to make better choices for the planet, inspired by everyone’s very enviro newsletter.

And speaking of local producers, and how food delivery broke up our days, I started ordering from Spade and Spoon to receive pickles, jams, maple syrup and more, and we ordered our Easter chocolate from a local producer, and there was even a woman who delivered us popsicles, and we’d order donuts too, and it was also so delicious and lovely and fun when little else was.

But not everything was fancy, A quick trip to the convenience store on the corner for mozzarella and milk, bananas, and they had flour. FLOUR. In April 2020, this was no small thing. (I’d previously purchased 44lbs of flour from an actual MILL [artisanal, of course], but then when I was alerted to just how much flour that was, with no preservatives at that, I had to cancel. It’s been a very strange year.)

And remember in April when we made a lasagne that was featured in the New York Times?

And then there was takeout, which was performed as a public service, and we were nervous about it the first time we did it, ordering sushi because it seemed like if anyone would be conscious of food safety and hygiene, sushi was it—but after that we didn’t worry so much anymore. Though I would also routinely have mini nervous breakdowns after people on Twitter outlined their intricate processes for receiving pizza delivery in the pandemic age (“our youngest child gets the pizza, and then we hose him down and burn all his clothing in the backyard”) and rue other people’s anxiety for piling on my own.

We started ordering takeout once a week, and we had the money to do so ($5000 lost dollars aside) because we weren’t doing anything else. Making a rule to only support restaurants that were local to us which we could walk to, mostly because walking to these places gave us something to do. And so we ordered from my favourite restaurant Chadwicks, and bbq, and more sushi, and tacos, and more. And then Chadwicks started doing fried chicken on Fridays, which we’d pick up and then go to eat in the park, and soon infection rates were falling and we could have other families join us in the park (picnic blankets six feet apart) and it was take out picnics all summer long, and the greatest pleasure.

I have eaten the most wonderful food this year. Chips have returned to rare occasions, because one should be sensible in some capacity, because we continue to have cake breaks (and cake fills up a container in our children’s lunches now that they’re back at school). Croissants are also less regular, but the takeout life continues, and now that the children leave us home in the daytime, we’re free to have the spicy food they don’t appreciate as much, and I have fallen in love with the butter chicken at Elchi Chai Shop.

I am probably fatter than I was in March—I wouldn’t know because that was also the last time I was near a scale before the gym closed. And I mention this only because this seems to be the preoccupation of many people in December at the best of times, which is ridiculous, and this isn’t even the best of times, so how about we just stop it?

I am so grateful for the food we’ve enjoyed this year, and the extra time at home to make great meals (March was the last time we had our signature hot-dogs-and-edamame busy night supper), and the pleasures that eating gave us when pleasures in general were few.

PS Support your local food bank and/or food justice organization. Everyone should have access to good things to eat.

December 9, 2020

Marching and Movement

We’re coming up fast to my annual winter internet holiday (away from the internet), which I am looking forward to (the number of books I can read while not scrolling Instagram is pretty epic), and I think it’s probably time for it. While I’ve been doing well and feeling fairly calm, I’m also in a weird post-publication creative freeze where I’m itching to start something new but I don’t know what it is yet (and you can’t rush these things) and I’m lacking the focus for blogging right now too, although I keep writing rather epic Instagram posts that turn out to be blog posts in disguise. I am looking forward to my holiday to give the spinning wheels in my brain a rest, to do some deeper thinking, and for a reset that hopefully will bring me #BackToTheBlog in the New Year.

But in the meantime, I want to write a bit about politics. About how while I have always been political in the choices I make, the stories I tell, and how I live my life, actual politics makes me squeamish. I think I hate being pinned down, is part of it, and also being told what to do. I hate speaking in chorus, can’t stand crowds, and/or suffering ninnies politely, and maybe I am deeply allergic to earnestness. All of this an aversion that four years ago, I decided to work to overcome, because staying on the sidelines was now out of the question with a burgeoning fascist regime in the country just south of us, a movement whose reach went well beyond those borders. How naive I’d been to imagine that politics (in the electoral sense) didn’t exactly apply to me. I was going to take to the streets. We were going to fight.

And we did. Kind of. There were placards on the porch and we marched, both in sunny weather and in snowstorms. We rallied for refugees, and for the climate, and over and over again in support of public education. I went to meetings and organized petitions and baked cakes and muffins and I’m not saying I did anything extraordinary or even was terribly involved (I like community in theory, but people, ugh), but I showed up. I stood up. It matters that people do so, even if there aren’t a ton of them. Even if nothing changes, standing up means one more person who did.

But the pandemic changed things for me. Though I was already tired—when everything fell apart in March, we’d been through a winter of labour unrest in our public schools. Before schools closed altogether, there had been rotating strikes for two months, and the ways things were going, they would only have escalated. And of course, we stood up with our teachers, for education. We showed up. So many days standing out in the cold, but this is no real hardship. Public schools matter more, and I have a very warm coat. But it was dispiriting, is what I mean. I really missed the era when I just sent my children to school and never thought of it again. Being a parent of school aged children in Ontario since 2017 has been stressful and heartbreaking, the constant erosion of all those things we care about, denigration of people and institutions who are the bedrock of our communities.

At some point, I had to stop going to meetings. Any political action I undertook would leave me to collapse into an emotional wreck three days later. I was way too emotionally invested, to the point of being unable to function sometimes. How do other people do this?

And then the pandemic hit, and I was just fucking done. I did spend about two weeks wracked by incredible anxiety, convinced we were all going to die (this was my Crocodile Dundee phase), but even after I got over that an stopped having heart palpitations and nightmares, my appetite for politics was even smaller than it originally had been. I guess at a moment when so much was at stake, doing anything other than having people work together just seemed counter-intuitive and just irritating. The pandemic, to me, underlined how perilous was absolutely everything, like absolute threads we were all just hanging by, and everything political just seemed made up and phony. Like, nobody really knows anything, and we just made all this shit up to feel important, to provide ourselves with purpose, but it’s nonsense, all of it nonsense. I mean, of course, there is meaning in life and in the universe, but almost everything else is just a whole lot of posturing.

I didn’t want to march anymore. It was a performance. There was no end-game. I was tired and bored, and also proximity to others had become potentially fatal. Which was the reason I gave for not marching with Black Lives Matter in June, which was a month that shifted my perspective in terms of police funding (ie defund it) and kept anti-Black racism in the forefront of my mind. A moment in which the radical point of view managed to touch if not infiltrate the mainstream, and that’s amazing. Shifting the dial, and that’s something, not nothing. But still—I was thinking of the Black woman in Toronto who was killed in an encounter with the police during the same time as people were rising up in the wake of yet another police killing in the US. And my discomfort with the way this woman’s death was meant to be a symbol of everything rather than the specific thing that it was, a thing I knew almost nothing about. I didn’t feel certain enough to go marching for that. Plus there was a pandemic on, and (also) I didn’t want to march in the first place.

I am reading the book Me and White Supremacy now, and to be honest, not finding it particularly revelatory. I am also reading Caste, by Isabel Wilkerson, and it’s blowing my mind. I think the former book would be more useful for the type of person who hasn’t been following Black women on Twitter since 2014 (except she’d never buy it) because everything Me and White Supremacy is telling me, I already learned from them, women like Mikki Kendall and Tressie McMillan Cottom, and so many others. Caste, however, is making my head explode, bringing the world into shocking, bewildering clarity and I know that I am only deepening the furrows on my brow as I read it, because my expression is perpetually, “What the actual fuck???”

But one interesting thing that Me and White Supremacy has me questioning is why I didn’t go marching in June, because the pandemic, I think, was definitely mainly an excuse. (That I did absolutely nothing else during this period with large groups of people is less important than it seems.) It has me wondering why I was willing to attend climate marches (two, I think) though I would not consider myself a climate radical by any means, but would be averse to marching for racial justice jus because I didn’t agree with absolutely every single item on the agenda. I mean, I agree with racial justice, obviously. But recall my previous point about the problem of the specific case standing in for the entire problem and my discomfort with that. Why do my scruples pop up sometimes and not others?

Part of the problem is the typical white person’s problem of seeing racism as a problem that does not concern one if one happens to be white. Fearing tension too—am I welcome at this party? Maybe also not knowing enough about what was going on. (Something else I’ve become tired of re activism and social media is the idea that everybody has to be aware of every single thing that’s occurring in every single place. Like, Instagram powerpoints: Why You Should Be Paying Attention to What’s Happening in the Back Shed of a Blue House on a Road in Dayton, Ohio.)

But where are we marching to, exactly? And is this what’s going to get us there? And let me tell me, my appetite for marching diminished even further once it became the primary pastime of right-wing nut-jobs. I honestly think there is nothing I would march for in December 2020, because marching has officially jumped the shark. We’ve brought the broomsticks in from the porch, finally, and the streets belong to the anti-maskers now. I think we have to find another way, and thinking about what this is is my new challenge.

Or am I just making excuses for doing nothing at all?

Because, of course, I have a lot invested in the status quo. And I don’t say this entirely glibly. I’m not a believer in the BURN IT ALL DOWN school of politics, because what this year has taught me is that it’s all just a tinderbox, and a house of cards anyway, no matter your leanings. This year has taught me a lot about the London Blitz, which is that it was probably a shitshow, but we just forgot about that part, and everybody is rational and stoic in the historical record. But that’s not how people work. People are messy, and muddly and it’s always bananas, and every good thing that ever happens maybe only happens by the skin of our teeth. And what if progress is actually that?

October 12, 2020

What the Trees Were Doing

We called them Sad Covid Walks, but only in hindsight. At the time we were walking, they were everything we had, during those months when traffic was deserted and the only ads in the transit shelters were telling us all to stay home.

We had a circuit through and around the university campus, a walk we took once a week to track the progress of spring. Two secret copses—one at the school of mining, the other at the faculty of forestry—and then the tiny Zoo Woods beside Sidney Smith Hall. Which at first were barren of anything green, just a trillium here and there, and then the season came on like a deluge. Never have I been more grateful for spring.

A woman in my blogging course last month wrote about that waiting, and watching the naked trees with an attention she’d never experienced before. About how as the leaves fall away again, she is trying to hold onto the promise of winter trees instead of sadness as the seasons change again.

We’ve taken such comfort from trees this year. Retracing our steps today even though we really didn’t want to, even though anything that was full-on in Covid spring, we’ve developed an aversion to (except for ice cream).

But I wanted to see what those trees were doing, to give thanks for the ways they have saved us, and the ways they persist, oblivious to everything, from the sad people looking up, to the pigeons in their boughs.

To their majesty, their steadfastness, and the admirable way they keep reaching for the sun.

September 4, 2020

Why I am Still Not Freaking Out About School

Photograph of a barrel of red apples, with a sign on it that says, "Welcome back to school"

I am still not freaking out about school. There are a lot of reasons why not, and some of them include denial, but mostly it’s that me freaking out about school isn’t going to make anything better. It will be as futile as all-caps screaming at the Education Minister on Twitter, and I don’t do that anymore. (Most of the time.)

This is not to say that I have done nothing. (There is a wonderful plot of land in that space between “freaking out” and “doing nothing,” and I’ll meet you there.) A bunch of parents with smarts and agency put together an advocacy group calling on the government to put caps on class sizes, which would go far in actually applying the advice of medical experts that keeping groups small lowers risk of disease transmission.

This group is called Ontario Safe, and you should follow them, and support their initiatives, which include an email-writing campaign to the Minister and local MPPs.

I have sent the letter, I have encouraged other people to get involved. I have also emailed the Minister on my own behalf. I have thought about the importance of public education, for my own family, and also across the board. (Have you listened to Nice White Parents yet? It was fantastic and challenging in the very best way. I learned so much in ways I wasn’t expecting…)

I have also not really engaged with other parents about their own thoughts on sending their kids back to school, because in general, I just don’t care. Quite magnanimous of me, because usually I am judgey as all get-out, but the best thing about there being no perfect choice is that there is no terrible one either. Usually the idea of “choice” is totally sanctimonious (and I should know—I cloth diapered) and kind of gross, not remotely as neutral as it would like to be (don’t get me started on “school choice”) but this is a different kind of situation, or maybe I’ve just evolved since the spring (I doubt it).

You will make your choice based on your own childcare needs, and your own child’s social needs, and the health of the people who live in your home, and the size of your school, and your comfort with school and teachers in general based on previous experiences, and your child’s personality, and how well virtual schooling went in the spring, and your own level of anxiety, and infection rates in your area, and whether it’s really worth it to have the people in your family start wearing pants again.

I am sending my kids to school because local infection rates are really low; because I want to demonstrate my trust and support in the public school system which I fervently believe in as much as I believe in any system, because the government is telling us that it’s safe to do so and I also believe in trusting the government (because the government is more than just the ding dongs and because not trusting the government can turn a person into a lunatic); because public schools are the only choice that is financially possible for me; because my kids are old enough that I trust them to follow processes and direction, and be smart; because when I think about sending millions of kids into schools my head explodes BUT when I think about the fact that my children will be under the supervision of two specific teachers (I don’t know who they are, but it’s always easier to break a thing down into parts) I feel better because I know how seriously teachers take their responsibilities; because the risk of serious harm to ourselves or others is statistically lower than in many activities we partake in regularly; and because if things go wrong and we’re not comfortable/it’s not working, I can take them out of school again, as we’re flexible enough with two parents working from home that this is not a big deal—and the last six months has taught me that missing school does not mean missing education. Even if they miss that remote learning transfer window, or whatever, it will be fine. Kids are resilient. I think we parents should strive to be more so.

By which I mean we should not be freaking out, I mean. Whether you are sending your children to school or not. We all have our reasons. And other people’s reasons really shouldn’t even apply to you

There is also a plot of land I’d like to meet you in between the space where you might shrug off the pandemic as a hoax and regard mandated mask wearing as a government conspiracy and where you constantly share articles from CNN about outbreaks at Georgia high schools and wake up with night terrors at the premise of a second wave (which in news headlines always gets calls a “DREADED second wave). Another plot of land between the pandemic being a hoax AND an awareness of the fact that news outlets want you clicking on their stories all the time and keeping you anxious works to their benefit. Stories about Georgia are not necessary applicable to my situation.

In March and April, children hung rainbows in their windows with signs that said “Everything is going to be okay.” In March, for a week or so, I was convinced that we were all going to die in the coming days, and it turns out the children were more correct than I was. I have been working hard to channel their optimism ever since, and in many ways, it’s been the right path. And no, “everything” is not going to be okay, but when was it ever? In general, we have been and we will continue to find a way for ourselves through all this, and working hard to keep our responses calm and measured goes a really long way.

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