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.

Philosophy Ain’t What It Used to Be. Thank Goodness.

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I would give an awful lot for us to not be in the situation we’re currently in. I have no wish to see children out of school, people out of work, and our physical well-being threatened. Like many people, I’m doing what I can to help, and I wake up every morning wishing I had the smarts or the ability to make it all just go away. I’m profoundly sorry this is all happening, and I’m even more sorry that there are so many suffering because of it.

But I’m not sorry that so much will change because of it. I’m not at all upset at the idea of a “new normal”, although I’ve never been a fan of the word “normal” per se. Quite a lot of stuff hasn’t really worked for a long time, and we’ve become pretty comfortable with it not working. Long before we were told to stay put in our houses and wash our hands thoroughly and frequently, there were a lot of things that were long overdue for an overhaul.

And philosophy was one of them.

Perhaps the fact that philosophy is thousands (or tens of thousands) of years old somewhat excuses the fact that it got kind of…stuck. History is lousy with stories of people doing things out of habit, because they were comfortable with status quo. But philosophy is supposed to be better than that. Doing things a certain way, for a prolonged period of time, “just because” is considered a major philosophical no-no. Philosophers are supposed to bristle at the notions of comfort and habit. We’re supposed to relish change, or at least be open to it.

So, here are handful of things about philosophy that I hope to see re-envisioned, as everything else is likely to be in the not-so-distant future:

  • It needs to be accessible to everyone, because now more than ever, everyone needs it. I know philosophers say that it’s for everyone, but a lot of the time, that’s just lip service. We don’t always communicate and share things in a way that everyone can understand. We don’t go out of our way to include everyone. We don’t always embrace philosophical thinking in children, and we don’t bolster it in adults. Philosophy empowers, consoles, enlightens, connects, and everyone needs that, especially now.
  • It needs to be practical and applied. I’m all for ideas-for-the-sake-of-ideas…sometimes. That kind of approach has its place and its value, but it’s just not enough anymore. I’d go so far as to challenge any philosopher, studying in any branch of philosophy, to find an everyday use for whatever they happen to study. Go out on your front porch, watch strangers pass by on the street, and ask yourself “How would this make their lives better, right now?” If philosophy can’t help solve problems, then what are we doing?
  • We need to start looking for it everywhere. It’s not like it wasn’t already in movies, books, cartoons, music, food, theatre, sports, and all over the place. Philosophy needs to become just another part of our culture, something we just do all the time, in every part of our lives. We need to point out what’s there, and stir it into all kinds of new things too.
  • Philosophy needs to make friends with tech and new media. There are some thinkers who’ve made the leap, and who are constantly experimenting with ways to make dialogue and inquiry work online. There has also been a whole lot of resistance. Getting philosophy to go digital isn’t an easy ask, by any means, but our choice at this point is do it through tech, or do it alone. Beyond this, there’s a lot that philosophy can contribute to the tech world, and to digital literacy.
  • We need to take pleasure in asking questions, instead of being afraid of them. A non-trivial part of the mess we’re in right now stems from the fact that humans don’t turn over enough proverbial rocks, because we’re afraid of what might scurry out from under them. As philosophers, we have to model the joy of thinking, and nurture it in others.

There’s been a lot of talk lately about how COVID19 has effectively sent the lot of us to our rooms, so that we can think about what we’ve done. Anyone who has the privilege of being able to shelter in place probably has a lot more time to do just that- think. What an incredible wasted opportunity this would be if we didn’t take advantage of that, to sharpen our skills and re-evaluate the way we’ve been unjustifiably resting on our laurels, to come up with solutions needed by those who aren’t so lucky, so privileged.

For as long as I can remember, philosophers have been asking why we don’t get the attention and respect we deserve. We’ve bemoaned the fact that we aren’t always seen as useful or relevant. Well my friends, this “‘new normal” that will supposedly be waiting for us when the dust settles isn’t going to magically appear on its own. It’s going to require deep thinking, the asking of difficult and uncomfortable questions, the very things that philosophers claim to specialize in. This isn’t the opportunity we were planning (or hoping) for, but it is an opportunity, nonetheless, to help ourselves grow as thinkers and as a community, but also to help others find their sea legs in the midst of a terrible storm.

Anyone up for a change?

Poem: Frida’s Brow


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Frida’s Brow

An uncomfortable recess

lay between past and present

mother and father

adoration and infidelity

 

Greater still was the chasm

Yawning

between agony and ecstasy

cleft in two

at the point of a metal rod

 

Even the paintings

methodically dissociated from themselves

“acid and tender”

shattered mirrors of  love and life bisected.

 

Only a sharp, thick, glossy bar of ebony

to unite warring factions

connect the dots

between a being of two minds

and two spirits.

 

Channeling Dorothy Amidst COVID19

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If my grandmother were alive, today would be her 100th birthday.

Her name was Dorothy, and she lived through the great depression, World War 2, and a bunch of other stuff. I’m not sure if it was just her nature, or all of the awful nurture going on in her formative years, but she was tough. Dorothy was practical, stubborn, driven, and hard-working. Her mornings never began with a cup of coffee and a reading of the paper, but with a diligent survey of all the tasks that needed to be completed before the sun went down. I don’t think I ever saw her sit for an entire meal. She was up doing the dishes before anyone else had a chance to get to dessert.  She could make an entire meal out of the fuzzy things at the back of the freezer, and I once saw her scrape ants off a birthday cake and proceed to serve it (don’t ask). She broke her arm in her late 80s while throwing around cinder blocks in the yard, and on occasion, greeted visitors in the driveway with an axe slung over her shoulder.

Dorothy had no time for laziness, or complaints, or wastefulness. She was all business. The fact that it’s her birthday today is reason enough for me to bring her to mind, but with everything that’s been going on in the world this week, she’s been front and centre. She would have kicked ass at a time like this. True, she would have been royally peeved at being told what to do and what not to do, and there wouldn’t have been any camp fire kumbaya to discuss feelings, but things would have gotten done.

As it turns out, when faced with a major crisis (knock on wood, I haven’t had a lot of them in my life), I channel Dorothy. Unlike my grandmother, I’m not opposed to being reflective or discussing emotions. This past week or two have been riddled with uncertainty and fear for everyone. There’s a lot of loneliness and worry, and I’m absolutely down with sharing and caring. But like my grandmother, I’m not paralyzed by any of that. Like Dorothy, I’ve just been trying to get things done. I couldn’t care less about the state of my actual house, but my proverbial house is being set in order. I’ve cleaned up a lot in the past week, and I don’t see an end in sight.

Dorothy didn’t teach me to do my hair, or bake cookies, or any other softer stuff that grandmothers are sometimes expected to teach. She did, however, convey the relief that can be found in constant forward momentum, the pride one can have in standing one’s ground in the face of adversity. She was all about being useful and productive, and she cherished the good, tired feeling one has at the end of a busy day. These are lessons that I’ve been taking to heart lately. I’ve been feeling her presence as I ask, over and over again, “What can I do?” and then rolling up my sleeves and doing it.

I think people cross paths for a reason. In most ways, Dorothy and I were completely different people, and although I know she was proud of me, the life I lead probably seemed strange to her. But being faced with our opposites can be useful, even crucial to our development. Maybe this is the nugget of wisdom we were meant to share, the wee bit of extra strength a sloppy, sentimental type like me might need in times like these. I think the best way I can honour this wisdom is to take a cue from Dorothy, and put it to good use. Right away.

So…what do we need to do today?

My First Online Story Time Reading

In trying times like this, we need to take stock of the skills and knowledge we have and see how we might use them to help. I’m a writer and an educator, and what I have to offer is a story or two. So I set up a makeshift studio in my office, and I recorded one of my stories.

I hope it makes a few people smile, think, and talk to each other, but more than that, I hope it keeps wee kiddos busy while they hunker down in their houses and wait for schools (and the rest of the world) to reopen.

Please enjoy.

Sartre and Seclusion

In one of his plays, our existentialist friend Jean-Paul Sartre wrote “Hell is other people.” Just for clarification, he didn’t mean that human beings suck and we should be ashamed of being one of them. He, and others of this school of thought just took notice of the fact that we’re kind of stuck with one another, responsible for one another, and at the same time, we’re constantly watching each other, judging and taking note of one other. Long story short: this self-other business is complicated.

Less than a week into COVID19 seclusion, this particular self is missing all those others. I’m an extrovert, a chatterbox, a hugger, a student of human nature, and most definitely not a home body. I love visiting crowded, stinky, noisy cities and diving into a mob. I thrive on sharing a good meal, chatting about big ideas, blaring music and singing off key together. Yeah, I’m connected online, and I’m most grateful for that, but it’s just not the same. There’s only so much that I can suppress with compulsive baking and folding laundry, you know?

I have faith that we’ll eventually crawl out of our hobbit holes and back into the sun, and life will go on. Maybe it won’t quite be life as we knew it, but still…

Being removed from others, at least in an immediate, physical sense, has got me thinking about “otherness” in general. Human beings seem to have this habit of sorting people into “me”, “us”, “them” and “those guys waaaaaay over there”. We’ve gotten a little too comfortable with distance (both actual and theoretical), and that’s part of what’s gotten us into this mess in the first place. Stuff like this is supposed to happen to others, not to us. Until it happens to us.

To this virus, this microbe with a raging case of wanderlust, we aren’t others. It doesn’t see this person, or that person. There is no “us vs. them” to a bug like this. We’re all just a free ride and a meal ticket. Pandemics don’t give a tinker’s fart about existentialist philosophy.

Ironically, being separated from most humans, unable to shake hands, or embrace, or even pass around a plate of cookies, I am feeling much less like an “other” than before. The phone ringing is no longer a pain in the neck, it’s an “OOOOh, I wonder who that could be?” I’ve been welling up while watching videos of the quarantined singing to each other from balconies, of toddlers doing traditional healing dances. I’m noticing every hopeful soul out for a walk with their dog, every kid cautiously orbiting their house on roller blades. I’m wilting at the thought of the elderly being alone and woefully under-engaged. Absence is making my heart grow fonder.

I’m also more sensitive to those who think that precautions don’t apply to them, who insist on doing whatever they want, who are stubbornly clinging to their “otherness”. This separation thing is a hard habit to break. We like to feel special, like individuals, even when we need each other. And sometimes when our specialness is questioned, and we’re called to rejoin the herd…well, we do things like hoard toilet paper.

What I’ve been reminded of these past couple of weeks is just what Sartre floated out there: we aren’t on our own. For better or for worse, we’re tethered to one another. What we do, even the little stuff, wiggles its way through so many other lives. This makes me feel like a very small jellybean in a very large jar, but it also reinforces that even one jellybean matters. Right now there are seven and a half billion jelly beans squished together, and most of us are trying not to tip the jar.

It’s not that I don’t want to matter. I’m still me, and I still like being unique. I just want all of us to matter. If there is a silver lining to this situation, it’s that we have an opportunity to reevaluate and reset when the dust settles (and it will). Can we see our communities in a different light? Can we have more support for our education system? Can we have an economy that values our togetherness more than our separation? Can we elect leaders who can put “otherness” on the back burner? Can we knock down dividing walls between genders and races? Can we start valuing arts, social sciences, the humanities, and other pursuits that seek to explore our connections? Can we extend our newfound appreciation of non-otherness to non-human selves as well?

Besides their highlighting of this self-other tension, existentialists were also very keen to talk about responsibility. Sartre and his contemporaries insisted that every free choice we make serves as an example of what a human being should be. We should all be behaving as if all the other “others” out there are watching, because they kind of are, and not always in a bad way. In the weeks to come, I hope we take this to heart, and continue to rise to the occasion.

Stay safe, happy and healthy, everyone.

 

 

A Poem: God of Spare Change

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God of Spare Change

He makes the offerings

among the rolled up socks

sandwiched between couch cushions,

among the dregs of last week’s junk mail

Tiny copper eyes

not unlike his own

that wink reassurance

from table tops and kitchen drawers

in amongst the paper clips and thumbtacks.

He peppers the floor with silver

a cold, flat trail of breadcrumbs

a small bite against the soles of bare feet

a musical rattle in the vacuum canister

a nickel-pebbled path that leads the way

from room to room

to and from work

a homing beacon from the car’s cup holder.

He utters a prayer

a mantra in tiny metallic disks

a fortune that lies in small denominations

a harvest of minute treasures

the gathering of which brings patience

and mindfulness of blessings earned

one cent at a time.

Copyright Amy Leask, 2020