Poem: Lilies and Onions

Lilies and Onions

They’re of the same ilk,
snobbish cousins,
the golden-haired child and the black sheep
who parted ways after adolescence,
who deliberately forget to send Christmas cards.

 
One decided in favour of pungency.
A source of dutiful tears
Breaded and deep fried with ketchup
Relegated to the cold cellar
To Saturday afternoon barbeques
To thick, alkaline wedges among lettuce leaves
To hang on a lover’s breath
and in the kitchen curtains.

 
The other made only carefully-calculated public appearances
On altars
Freckled, but majestic
Sensual orange and scarlet
Bowing before blushing brides
Spreading lacy fingers among trellises.

 
One should be so lucky
as to be appreciated layer by layer
to have world’s beneath one’s skin
exposed,
to be devoured to one’s core.
Fools, we dream of expounding our importance.
Petal by frivolous petal,
we trade stoutness and semi-permanence
for two weeks of frantic glow.

 

Copyright Amy Leask 2021

The Grounded Pilgrim

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No one’s 100% sure who said it, but it translates into “It is solved by walking.” It acknowledges the profound effect of going places, of travelling, of movement. There are a lot of us who have chronically itchy feet, who think better, learn more, and feel more like ourselves when the scenery changes.

Thinker Rupert Sheldrake has much to say about pilgrimages. He speaks of the journeys we make to sacred places, for all kinds of reasons. We journey to places of significance to soak them in, to find meaning and clarity that we can’t find in our everyday surroundings,  to feel the residual energy of the many who’ve visited there before. The journey alone is an experience, the elation of putting one foot in front of the other, knowing that there’s a purpose to it, something significant at the end. Pilgrimages aren’t always long and arduous. They aren’t necessarily religious in nature. They do, however, always leave an indelible mark on the one undertakes them.

Up to about a year ago, I was a consummate pilgrim. I’ve journeyed to see works of art that shook me. Sometimes it was to be where someone I admired had been, to touch something they had touched. If I’m honest, I’ve gone on pilgrimages that revolved around food. In every case, I loved getting there, and I really loved being there. There was clarity in it, inspiration, connection. I came back a little bit different. Great chunks of who I am have been built on these trips.

There haven’t been that many (or any) pilgrimages this past year. The means to get around, to explore other places, are designated for emergency use only.  The far away wonders feel like they might as well be on the other side of the universe. The ones nearby are closed. I take the dogs for a walk, sometimes even on a scenic route, but I’m just as much on a leash as they are. These days, I do my pilgrimages on Pinterest, amidst the sound of groceries being delivered and email notifications.

I wonder what pilgrimages will look like when the world opens up a little. I’ve been stewing in my own wanderlust for more than a year. When the time comes, will I hastily pack a bag and bolt for the door, or will I be like one of those elephants who’s been chained to a post so long that they don’t know what to do when someone lets them go? I’ve been travelling by air since I was an infant, but I find myself wondering if I’ll ever trust the space inside a plane again. Will I confront my aversion to long car rides? Can I still trust the journey?

And what about the destination? Will I care about seeing the same things, soaking in the same sights? Will the same monuments feel significant, the historic figures worthy of admiration? Will the pictures and the souvenirs hold the same place of esteem?

Here’s how I cope with this particular fuzzy end of the proverbial lollipop: I remind myself that part of what I love about being a pilgrim, what many love about it, is the palpable sensation that I am treading where many before me have tread. The places and things I long to see are also monuments to posterity. They’re still there to see and experience because humans, despite our many flaws, know how to hang in there for long periods of time. Many of them were built during tough times.

And here we are, trying to persist in the face of something awful, just like pretty much every batch of humans who’ve gone before.

In the past, getting to the end of a pilgrimage had a particular feeling. I wore my journeys like a sash full of girl guide badges, with pride and nostalgia. They affirmed to me, and anyone else who happened to notice, that I was unafraid of putting in the effort to get somewhere. A pilgrimage suggests patience and determination. It means you recognize that some things are worth persevering for, that the end sometimes justifies the means, and that you can put up with some hardship, even learn from it, if it means you’ll get someplace wonderful later.

This is, by far, the longest pilgrimage I’ve ever been on. I have no idea when it will end, or even what I’m aiming to see when it’s over. But I have to think that the endless walks around the neighbourhood, the mad dashes to the post office, the quick trips to drop off groceries, are all part of a journey so long and so slow that I sometimes forget I’m still moving. More importantly, I need to believe, like every good pilgrim does, that it will end in somewhere amazing, and that I will be a little better for it. I have faith that much will be solved by walking.

Poem: A Memo From Camus

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Dearest Sisyphus,
I am writing to inform you that I have
inadvertently misrepresented you
and your situation.
As it so happens, it is not you who is rolling
the rock
but rather the rock that is rolling you
selfishly barring you from floating away
drifting
aimless balloon that you are.
Furthermore,
the rock is not in fact a rock
but rather an enormous dung ball
and one that has grown wiser
than the lowly scarab
that moves it.
Thought you should know.
Regards.

Just A Little Bit Angry

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I heard a great line while binging “The Queen’s Gambit” this week:

“Anger is a potent spice. A pinch wakes you up. Too much dulls your senses.”

Anger has been my seasoning of choice for at least a few months now, and I don’t think I need to go into a whole lot of detail as to why. There’s this pandemic thing, for starters, coupled with  a heaping helping of political unrest. I’m angry at the changes I’ve had to make in my life, in the lives of my family, for all of the parts of ourselves that we’ve had to put on ice. I’m angry on behalf of all of those who are really struggling right now, who don’t have security, or even their health.

But this isn’t a post about COVID19, or the state of the world, or human rights. We hear a lot about those things, and presently, I don’t have much to add to the discussion. I am decidedly against the first, very concerned about the second, and passionately in favour of the third. That’s about it for now.

What I do want to do is come to the defense of anger. I keep hearing that anger is poison, that it pollutes and deteriorates. Perhaps, this far into the pandemic and all its trappings, I should be at peace, in a zen state, accepting of what’s happening. But I’m not. And I’m cool with that.

Feeling angry isn’t the same as feeling helpless. Even with our present set of restrictions, I feel strangely empowered. There are plenty of things I can do and change. There aren’t enough hours in the day for me to do them all.

Angry doesn’t equal ungrateful either. There isn’t a day that goes by that I don’t feel lucky to be safe and healthy and loved. There is so much good still in the world, and I recognize that I’ve had more of my share of it. I want it for others too.

Angry doesn’t negate happy either or hopeful. As I go about my daily business, I generally have a smile of my face, and a joke or two to tell. I just also happen to have a tiny, invisible flame dancing atop my head. In the right light, you can see the smoke.

Anger turns helplessness into purpose. Gratitude mixed with anger is a catalyst for change. Happiness combined with anger sparks passion and maybe even optimism. I’ve never been zen. Not even close. Trying to settle into peace feels about as uncomfortable as a pair of pointy-toed stilettos that are two sizes to small. If the past year has taught me anything, it’s that I need to stop trying to accept what is unacceptable. I can’t be at peace with it.

My anger is not main dish, but more like a condiment. My anger is a dollop of ketchup or a squeeze of lemon. It’s a teaspoon of festive red sprinkles.

“A pinch wakes you up.”

Poem: Knitting

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Knitting

My grandmothers made it look effortless.
They played double
-dutch in miniature
while watching the evening news
and sweaters, scarves, thick afghans
flowed
like ticker tape readings,
strands of wool looping over index fingers
with the familiarity of their own veins.
Their eyes never bent below their noses.
What does it say for me,
the tangled messes I’ve made of their structures,
their smooth, steady morse code
turned to urban graffiti in my anxious paws?
My dropped stitches are like scars, form into awkward, misshapen lace
and I am forever picking up extra stitches
causing bulges here
ripples there,
so many more loops to account for.
My palms sweat, and the wool pills and unravels
before ever becoming anything
And I successfully knit my brow.

Copyright Amy Leask, 2021

Once Around the Fridge in 2021

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When my daughter was little, I used to read her “Something From Nothing”. It’s a story of a boy whose grandfather, a tailor, makes him a coat. When the coat wears out, he turns it into a vest. When the vest is past its peak, it becomes a tie. As time and the story march along, the tie becomes a handkerchief, and eventually, a button. It is the ultimate story about making the most of the resources at hand, about being clever and persistent.

I had a grandmother who was blessed with the gift of making “something from nothing”. She sewed useful things from scraps, knit countless toys from bits of leftover yarn, and fashioned sweet bouquets from stubborn weeds, but what sticks in my mind is her ability to make dinner from what seemed like random odds and sods. The cupboard could appear bare to the untrained eye, the bits in the fridge were assumed to be lost causes, and yet there would still be food on the table. She relied on a tried and true “once around the fridge” method of cooking. She simply took stock of what was there, sized up the resources available to her, saw possibilities, and got to work. There was nothing fancy about her cuisine, but it was tasty and filling, and nothing went to waste (heaven help anyone who didn’t clear their plate and help her avoid leftovers).

I can’t even begin to count the things that have disappeared in the past 10 months, the aspects of life as we knew it that just aren’t there anymore. I’ve been lucky in that I’m fed, healthy, safe, and employed, but I have to admit that it’s been tempting to slump into a “cupboard is bare” kind of mindset. It’s really, really easy to get stuck in that.

I never imagined I’d see the world grind to a halt at the behest of a virus, but I also didn’t think I’d see people pulling things together the way they have. There’s so much we used to assume was impossible: government assistance programs don’t get put together in a manner of weeks, vaccines take years, not months to develop, education and the arts can’t function online, and we can’t stay connected to others unless we’re in the same space as them.

Before you make puke noises and roll your eyes at me, let me acknowledge that none of this has been particularly pretty or refined. There are long-term costs to all of these things we’ve patched together in haste. I’m not at all impressed that we had to make these sudden changes (I am, in fact, mad as hell about them), but I am inspired that we could. What we’ve done, in essence, is a “once around the fridge” maneuver. We’ve collectively scraped together what we could find, and made something useful from it.

I’ve tried to mirror this in my own life over the past year. Okay, I don’t get to celebrate holidays in a typical way, or go fun places, or get together with people I care about. I’m not free to roam as I please and even small, everyday actions are covered in an extra, heavy layer of planning. I’m an extrovert with monkey brain and chronic wanderlust. Everything about this situation smarts, but I do still have resources at my disposal, things that might have otherwise been not worthy of note. I’m developing a much better sense of what I’ve neglected, and I’ve tried to connect that to my drive to just get things done.

I also have things to give others, ways to help, even from a distance. I can cobble together solutions for problems outside of my own small bubble, and that has been gratifying. As was the case in my grandmother’s kitchen, there’s nothing that can’t be used, no room for leftovers.

What I’m seeing in 2021, what my grandmother, and the tailor in my daughter’s book could see, are possibilities. There are things to be done, people to do them, and tools we can use, all of which have probably been there all along. Maybe it’s true that nothing comes from nothing, but we still have something. We still have lots of somethings, and maybe the clarity and drive to make good use of them.

How I Managed to Do A New Book in the Midst of a Pandemic

Okay, so 2020 hasn’t been the most creatively productive year. I’m not being hard on myself, or lamenting, just stating a fact. Very few of us have uttered statements like “Yay! The world outside is germy and dangerous! I’m gonna scratch everything off my to do list and produce magnum opus after magnum opus.” People who say things like that tend to have voodoo dolls made in their likeness.

Nope, for me, and for many, many others, it’s been a year of staring at a blank screen, doing the mechanical, easy stuff that needs to be done, and eating our feelings. It’s not a permanent state, I’m sure, but still frustrating.

I am, however, finishing off this rashy armpit of a year with something cool.

In days of yore (at least before COVID), I had an idea for a book about a kid who decides the world requires and upgrade, and proceeds to 3D print a new one. It would be witty, charming, and would have all kinds of ties to tech and STEM learning. Go cross-curricular! I wrote a rough manuscript, and the main character, a perceptive little girl with a get-r-done state of mind, told me her name was Mildred. And for a while, that was as far as it went.

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This spring/summer, the world really was in a bit of a state. Between being chased by a microscopic bully, worrying about the well being of our ecosystems, watching centuries-old racial tensions bubble, and generally slapping our foreheads over world politics, things got real. Fast.

Mildred tapped on my brain. She’d been sitting patiently and politely for a while, but she wasn’t having any more of that. She was a “just fix it” kind of kid, and in my memory, there had never been more that needed fixing. She told me it was time, and that she didn’t need anything gimmicky like a 3D printer to get things done. I partnered up with an illustrator I’d worked with before (Maria Jose Hurtado), a new photographer (Rod Heinz), and a bunch of very creative kids. This past week, we launched Mildred into the world in book form, and in the next month, she’ll be going digital.

In the book, Mildred rebuilds the world with a critical eye to what’s important, not just to her, but to everyone. She doesn’t balk at the task, but gathers her glitter glue and pipe cleaners and gets to it. I’ll admit that some (maybe all) of the kids’ characters I write represent a bit of wishful thinking. Mildred is certainly no exception.

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One indie kids’ book doesn’t fix the world. It might not fix anything, really, but Mildred does stand as a reminder to me that even in the middle of a mess, our responsibilities to and our connection with others don’t just disappear, nor does our power.

As always, I am so grateful to the team that helped make this germ of an idea into an actual thing. I’m also grateful to Mildred for replenishing the spot in my mind that had gone a little gummy over the past 8 months. I’m getting out my proverbial stickers and construction paper, and revving up to fix what I can in 2021. I hope she does the same for others.

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The Me Behind the Mask

This isn’t a debate about masks. Let me just say that I think they’re really important, and if you can wear one, you should. I can, so I do. There. ‘Nuff said about that.

What’s occurred to me over the past few months, as I’ve been sporting my little spittle traps around town, is that I’m kind of in the process of reinventing myself a little. You see, in the words of my favourite holiday elf character, “I like smiling. Smiling’s my favourite.” I’m no Pollyanna, but I am a reasonably happy person, and I’m inclined to at least smirk or grin on a regular basis. That’s just who I am. Stop making gag noises. 🙂

Wearing a mask hasn’t stopped me from smiling (although the pandemic has definitely put a slight dent in it). It has, however, made me very aware that my usual calling card is, for the time being, hidden. Out of commission. Pretty much useless in public places. Covering up has led me to re-evaluate how I communicate with others, how I greet people, make connections, and show gratitude. I’m finding that I crack more jokes than usual, giggle a little more readily, and speak louder and slower. I use my eyes and brows as props, and if it’s possible, I gesticulate even more than I used to.excite

None of these are bad things. They’ve made up for my lack of smile, but they’ve also stepped in and helped me deal with not being able to hug people, or shake hands. I’m re-evaluating how I say hello and goodbye, how I congratulate someone, and how I show excitement and respect.

Wearing a mask has also made me realize how much seeing or not seeing full faces can impact some. For those with difficulties reading social cues, does it simplify things to have smiles taken out of the equation, or does it bring the challenge of having to learn other signals? If you can’t hear someone speak, and you can’t see their lips moving, how can they help? If you’re someone who’s always covered their face in public, how does the world look now? If you’re someone for whom wearing a mask is likely to arouse suspicion in others, how do you deal with being told that you must wear one? Mask wearing has made me much more aware of the politics surrounding our faces, and although I may not have answers, it feels much more important to ask these questions, to open up discussion.

We’re in the process of learning to relate to each other with one facial feature tied behind our backs, and it’s tricky, to say the least. If a small scrap of fabric with elastic loops can spark a response like it has, then maybe it’s an indication that there were issues just begging to be brought out into the open, challenges that we’ve been “masking” for far too long. I have no intention of dampening my smile while I wait for the air around us to clear, but I still welcome the opportunity to flex some other muscles while I reach out any way I can.

 

 

 

So Simple, Even My Kid Could Question It

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I live by this idea, both in my personal and my professional life. Maybe I’m hopelessly unrefined, and I need things to be broken down for me, or maybe I just think that ideas belong to everyone, and should be treated as such. Either way, I really like it when something complicated can be conveyed simply, in a way that both clicks and sticks.

We grown-ups tend to make things bigger than they should be. We like things to seem fancy, and complicated, even when they aren’t. Nine times out of ten, the mountains on which we pride ourselves would be just as effective if they were mole hills. We really, really, really need some sort of check point every so often that requires us to give the simpler version, to make sure we haven’t got too caught up in the big-shiny-fanciness of an idea. We need to make sure we still understand the small nugget at the centre of it.

So I’d like to challenge all of the grown-ups out there to sit down with a kid and explain something important. In light of current circumstances, I think it should be racism. Go ahead, lay out, in very simple, clear language, why it’s justified to differentiate between human beings on the basis of skin tone. Take a few minutes to get your thoughts together.

Your explanation has to be logical. It has to make sense. That little thinker in front of you will see right through any artifice or fancy-talk you throw at them. They’ll suddenly have to pee, or get hungry, or become unmanageable and fidgety. If they see a hole in your explanation, they’ll use it as a hula hoop, and then proceed to trip you with it. They’re pretty astute like that.

Okay, once you’ve broken down racism into basic terms, keep going with some other isms- sexism, speciesism, sizeism, ageism, ableism, classism. Then you can go throw in a couple of phobias- xenophobia, homophobia. Again, the kid in front of you will crawl all over you until you break it down for them.

At some point in the conversation, even if you’ve explained the evils of all these things, your wee inquisitors will likely ask you why these were ever things to begin with. They’ll want to know why people have held onto them as long as they have, why they continue to hold onto them. If they’re as hurtful and senseless as they seem, then why are they still there? Again, you’ll have to provide a simple, logical answer. Even with all your attempts at clarity, they’ll likely still meet you with “That’s silly.” or “I still don’t get it.”

And they’ll be right. They’ll be appropriately baffled by the monolithic structures we’ve built on top of such utter nonsense. They’ll be justifiably disgusted by the damage we’ve done. They’ll stare at you with the worst brand of stank-eye, arms tightly folded in front of them, feet kicking the legs of their chair. They won’t get it, because you don’t get it, and neither of you should get it. Because it doesn’t really make sense.

I propose we extend Einstein’s quote a little, at least for things like ‘isms and phobias:

If you can’t explain it to a six year old, you don’t get to keep it. 

 

A Note To My Students, Past and Present

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I’ve had this rose for almost 20 years. It’s blue craft foam with a florist wire stem, both artfully twisted into something much greater than the sum of its parts. One of my high school students gave it to me, just because. Over the years, it’s followed me from house to house, carefully packed away with all the fragile treasures, and I’ve always had it on display in my home office. I’d be devastated if anything ever happened to it.

The student who crafted this for me wasn’t particularly academic, nor did she think much of herself. She was artistically talented, had a great sense of humour, and was a loyal, caring friend, but declined any and all compliments. Even when she presented me with this thoughtful gift, and I marveled at it, she insisted “It was nothing.” All these years later, I can remember her name, her face, her voice, and all kinds of stories she told me. I sometimes look at this lovely rose, and wonder if that student has any idea that I still think about her, years and years later.

After 20 years as an educator, my head still swims with snippets of memories of all kinds of students. I remember the one whose home was bombed when he was three, and he didn’t speak for almost a year afterward. I remember the one who protested in Tiananmen Square. There was one who couldn’t write her final exam because she had joyfully welcomed a baby the week before, and another who had been in a film with Jackie Chan as a child. Some of them really liked me, and a few of them (hopefully not too many) hated my guts. A handful of them have reached out to me via social media over the years, now busy with full, adult lives. But they’re all still in there somewhere.

Lately, this little rose has been a potent reminder of the situation we’re in, and not in a bad way. This semester, my students and I had to jump online three quarters of the way through our course, and we did our best to squeeze our conversations through WiFi. The rose was in the background as we got through our lessons, and now that our course is finished, it makes me think of the people in our class this semester. It makes me hope that they know that I’m still thinking about them, especially with all that’s going on in the world at the moment.

I feel pangs of something I can’t quite name for my own little thinker too, who very badly wants to go back to school. The rose has reminded me to assure her that her teachers are thinking about her, and that they share her wishes. I try to explain to her that she probably still occupies space in the heads of teachers from years before, and not just because she’s a memorable character.

That’s just the way teaching works, you see. No matter how well the semester or year goes, students don’t just filter in and out of classrooms without leaving a mark on the folks who are educating them. They sneak into conversations, challenge us to do things differently, maybe better, and occasionally, they spark worry. Whether you love your teaching job, or can’t stand it, whether the year goes swimmingly, or is a hot mess, your students wedge themselves into your brain.

For any parents who are reading this, please be assured that your kid’s teacher took something of them home when they packed up and headed indoors. Know that they think about all of their students every day, and that when they look at pandemic stats, or hear that there’s at least another month or two where they won’t be face to face with their classes, a little bit of them crinkles up and aches. And no, the fact that your kid was part of their class when this big, horrible thing happened won’t overshadow anything. Their teachers’ memories of the class of 2020 will include the kid who likes to eat purple crayons, or the one who sings the national anthem the loudest, or the one who insists on feeding the class fish. Please make sure your kid knows this too, that they’ve made an impression that’s likely to be there for a long, long time.

I’d give an awful lot to tell these things to the student who made me this rose.