In the afternoon, when I go to pick up my children from school, the wind is almost always blowing from the West. It has always been that way this time of year, for as long as I have been here. During the Winter, it is the East wind in the morning, the West wind in the afternoon. If things shift and the wind blows from the South for a day or two and then flips around and starts coming in fast from the North, prepare yourself for an especially nasty storm. I think it was the winter of 2013-2014 when I first became aware of these patterns. That winter, and the one after, were very, very cold – I remember a period of nine days in a row when it was -40 degrees (Celsius and Farenheit) when I set out in the morning, the kids bundled in snowsuits and wrapped in blankets as I carried them in my arms. I remember noticing the direction of the wind because it meant the wind was always in my face – when I walked to work after dropping the kids off in the morning, it was in my face, and when I walked back after work to pick the kids up, it was in my face. But I was grateful for this. Because it meant that when I was actually walking with the kids – from home to the school and from the school to home, the wind was always at our backs. Hard walks for me (although not so hard when I began to bundle up properly in balaclavas and, in the week of forty below, ski goggles). Easier walks for them. Fair enough.
These are things you learn by walking the same routes year after year. The direction the wind blows in different seasons. The rise and fall and flow and mood of the river. The migrations of snails across the trail. The way the sparrows sing in the hedges when they think the winter is over (as they have already been singing now, this February). I don’t remember noticing any of this while driving in cars or riding subways, skytrains, or buses. Not that I was paying much attention.
I am paying attention now, though. And now, instead of just observing the wind, I have started listening to it. Many of the old stories tell us that the wind used to speak at times to those who would listen. So I have started listening. I haven’t figured out what it is saying at this point but, if that ever changes, I’ll be sure to let you know. As I learn to listen, I have also started speaking with the Wind. I don’t say a lot – mostly just words of gratitude or praise or a bit of banter. I have been doing the same with Winter this year. Talking and laughing and saying thank you. Instead of just hunkering down and gripping and grumbling and feeling like the touch of the cold is painful or a form of suffering, I have embraced it and opened myself to feeling it and being felt by it and I have decided to be more playful with it and, I think, it has been more playful with me, too. Consequently, while my friends and neighbours have been rejoicing at the balmy spring weather we’ve had throughout February (this is usually the coldest time of year), I have felt a little sad and a little worried. What is this doing to the trees? The plants? The birds and bees and creeping things? What is happening to the world? Because, as far as I can tell, this springtime-in-February is evidence that we have changed the world in ways that will make it uninhabitable to much of life as we know it. Not that life won’t go on, not that life won’t flourish again (as it also flourished many millions of years before us), but this life, the forms of life that are living now, is passing. And I feel somewhat sad about that. Because this life is my life. I am a part of this life. I am attached to it. What did Quasimodo say when beheld the strangled body of Esmeralda and the shattered body of the man who cared for him and killed her? “Oh! All that I have ever loved!”
Doom, it turns out, doesn’t look so much like people running for bomb shelters as the sirens wail at the nuclear plant or as the drones approach. For my people, doom looks like smiles and high fives and shorts and sunglasses in the heart of the winter.
At the end of January, I realized a teacher at my daughter’s school was bullying my six year old daughter. It took me some time to realize this. My daughter, Ruby, had begun trying to come home from school because she was reporting tummy aches, but when I went to pick her up, she never presented any symptoms of being ill. She had no problem eating food or running around and playing games with me. But, practically every other day, the school office would call me to say Ruby has a tummy ache and we are wondering if you can come pick her up. After a few weeks, I suddenly realized that this wasn’t just a phase of “Ooo, I can get bonus time with dad if I pretend to be sick” but that something else had to be amiss. So I scheduled a meeting with Ruby’s teacher. As a homework assignment to prepare for the meeting, the teacher asked Ruby to draw a picture of how she felt when her tummy was sore. This is what Ruby drew.
And that’s when I began to realize what was going on (it wasn’t Ruby’s classroom teacher who was bullying her, it was her gym teacher – a teacher I had already had problems with in the past and from whom I thought Ruby was now free; but, unbeknownst to me, this teacher had been transferred from her regular class to teach Ruby’s gym class). I’ll spare you all the details, but it has taken me hours and hours of work, of raising and re-raising concerns, of pressing for answers and actions, of tracking down policies and procedures on my own because the Superintendent from the School Board would not provide them to me, of filing reports – with the Principal, with the Superintendent, with the H.R. Department, with the Trustee, with the Children’s Aid Society, with the Ontario College of Teachers – of phone calls and of meetings, to make any headway with this. I even spoke with an internationally recognized leader in research related to best practices for teaching young children – a professor in Australia – because the local School Board says it follows best practices and so I was able to get her to comment on the matter, which seemed to help. I also spoke with the police to inquire about when this would be considered a criminal matter. The police suggested I hire a civil lawyer and sue the school board. So, for a school board that claims to take a zero tolerance approach to peer-to-peer bullying, it is amazing how much an abusive teacher can get away with for how long and, even when an extensive history of reports of abuse already exists (as it does in this case), it is amazing how difficult it is to get the proper authority figures to take action when another report is made (the Superintendent regularly objected to my requests for action because, “hmmm, well, that would be difficult,” so don’t be fooled into thinking that a person rises to the position of Superintendent because that person has the proven ability to do difficult things when they are required). After all this work, I find myself a month into the process and the investigation is still ongoing and it was only due to a very sustained and strenuous advocacy process that I was able to get a safety plan in place while the investigation unfolded. This safety plan does not, in my opinion, make my daughter 100% safe but it does reduce the likelihood of her experiencing any new and serious harm. That, at least, is something.
Living as a pedestrian not only connects you with non-human members of the land – the wind, the river, the snails, the sparrows – it also connects you more intimately with your human neighbours. Two blocks from my work, the fellows always out drinking on the drive of their rooming house know me. Next door, the folks chilling on a porch under a Haudenosaunee flag also know me. I’ve filed income taxes for almost all of them. They’re good neighbourly folks and I feel privileged to be greeted by them. And, of course, everyone on my street knows my kids and I. They all wave at us when they drive by. We know which ones have dogs and some of them even bring their dogs out when we are passing by so my kids can stop and pet them awhile. The seniors sitting out on their front porches always wave and call hello and laugh at me because I’m loaded down with bags and almost always have one or the other of the kids on my shoulders. One day, a neighbour I had never met before (she lives in a house halfway up the block), stopped her car as she was pulling out of her driveway and rolled down her window and said, “You have a beautiful family. I wanted to tell you that. And I know you don’t know me but I see you walking by here almost every day with your kids and I see the way you carry them, and I see the way they laugh with you and love you, and I see the way you love them, and I want you to know that I think your kids are very lucky to have you as their dad.” And there I was, in my ripped combat boots, my leather jacket, and my winter beard, not looking like the kind of stranger a woman usually approaches (I mean, shoot, if I’m walking at night and I see a woman approaching, I’ll cross the street so that she can be as far from me as possible while passing me), and I was nearly reduced to tears of joy and gratitude right there on the sidewalk.
I like this sense of community and interconnectedness. I don’t want to give up walking. A lot of people have a lot of good reasons to complain about cars, but one of the things I dislike most about them is how lonely they make us all. Walking doesn’t just make me and my kids less alone. It also briefly punctures the loneliness and isolation of my neighbours and, when they wave from their cars, I think their smiles are genuine.
When I was talking with the H.R. Department of the school board and discussing outcomes that I wanted from the complaints process, I stated that one of the things I wanted from the teacher was for her to apologize to my daughter. And I didn’t want her to only say sorry. I wanted her to also explain to my daughter, in a way that a six year old would understand (something she should know how to do since kindergarten children are her area of expertise), why what she did was wrong and why an adult should never act that way with a child and why, if she or any other adult, ever treated Ruby in this way again, Ruby should report it to the Principal, one of her parents, or another trusted adult. She should tell Ruby it is good for a child to report this kind of thing to adults who care.
To be honest, I have found this whole situation to be quite difficult. I have felt sorrow and frustration and weariness and rage and when Mischief Brew came up in my playlist, I found myself singing along (“only shout when spoken to/ Curse your way through church and school/ And mess around with father’s power tools”) and dedicating the song to the Superintendent who has tracked with this teacher for many years and never once done anything to help children (this same Superintendent also suggested that I remove my daughter from school during the times when she would be in class with the abusive teacher and when I pointed out that this would likely be harmful to the personal, social, and academic development of my daughter – and that, furthermore, my daughter would likely interpret this as her being punished even though she didn’t do anything wrong, further reinforcing the lies the abusive teacher was telling my daughter about herself – the Superintendent responded by saying, “hey, okay, I’m just trying to suggest some solutions so you know there are options.” I responded by saying that I was looking, not just for any old solution but for good solutions that wouldn’t cause further harm to my daughter). Mostly, though, I suppressed my emotions. I didn’t shout or yell – although I pointed out that I had much better reasons for doing so than the abusive teacher who liked to do this – and I had to stop myself from breaking down at multiple points. Like when I saw tears in my daughter’s eyes when I dropped her off in the morning. Or when Ruby started forcing herself to vomit because she was so scared of being at school and had learned that “tummy aches” weren’t enough to get her sent home. A six year old girl making herself puke because she was afraid. How did I make myself not breakdown when I figured out she was doing this? My daughter had always been my brave child. Charlie was always far more shy and hesitant in new surroundings. Ruby was almost totally fearless and unconcerned. And this teacher has taken that from her (although it can be restored again and, in addition to the harm reduction plan I forced the school to adopt during the investigation period, I have initiated a wrap-around plan of care for her to try and facilitate the best possible outcome moving forward – thus, for example, a dear friend of mine whom Ruby loves is taking her on outtings as her “special auntie” over the next little while, I have scheduled some extra playdates and sleepovers for Ruby, she has started seeing a childhood art therapist, and I have started giving her special things to bring to share with her class so that she is excited to go to school in the morning). But,throughout it all, I had to stop myself from feeling so that I could keep moving and functioning. The feelings, I knew, would come eventually. I’m good at being calm (dissociating?) in order to manage crises. But I know an emotional dump always comes at some point.
Thus, when I was told that there was no guarantee that any apology or explanation would be provided in any meaningful way to my daughter, I remained calm.
A week or two ago, while walking home from school, Charlie was clambering on a snowbank a few houses ahead of Ruby and I. He slipped and fell down the side of the snowbank that was by the road (a small road made narrower by the accumulation of snow on either side). At the same moment, a van turned into the road from a side street. I yelled to Charlie to watch out and move back up and away from the road but, when he tried to move, he slipped and fell further down the snowbank. I was too far away to reach him so I yelled again for him to watch out for the van but I think he was frozen with fear and afraid of slipping more. He didn’t move. The van driver saw the whole thing and didn’t come close to hitting him (Charlie was still a few feet away from the road itself). However, both Charlie and I had been scared by the incident and afterward I talked with him about road safety and watching for cars and staying on snowbanks on the side of the sidewalk away from the road. However, I didn’t so much have a conversation with Charlie as lecture him, and point my finger at him, and talk with an angry tone and an angry expression on my face. As I did so, Charlie broke down and began to cry forlornly –because he had been scared and because he had tried to do what he was told but had been unable to do so and because I was now responding to him with anger and, immediately, I realized my mistake. I tried to comfort him. I apologized for not handling my fear better. And I carried him the rest of the way home, not on my shoulders but wrapped in my arms.
However, the next day I still felt unsettled by the incident and my behaviour and so, when I picked him up from school, we had the following conversation on our walk home.
Me: Remember what happened yesterday when we were walking home with the van and me getting angry with you?
Me: Well, I wanted to tell you that I’m really sorry that I spoke with you in an angry tone of voice. I know you were doing what you could and that you were scared and I want you to know that it was wrong of me to use that tone with you. Instead of being angry, I should have been kind and comforting. I’m sorry, Charlie.
Charlie: … You’re making me feel like crying again.
Me: Crying? Oh, no! I’m sorry! I didn’t want you to feel sad. I wanted you to know that I love you very much and that what I did yesterday was wrong, in part, because it wasn’t a loving way to talk about the situation.
Charlie: No, I mean you are making me want to cry tears of joy. It’s a whole different kind of sad. Not like the sad I felt yesterday. It’s a happy sad.
This conversation reminded me of Leanne Betasamosake Simpson’s discussion of the Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg teaching that young children, having come so recently from the spirit world, are the ones who teach adults about the most important things – things like unconditional love and care and honesty. This teaching resonated very deeply with me. I think my children along with my nephews and nieces have been my most important teachers over the last several years, and I think this conversation illustrates the teaching very well. I think it is important for me to share the conversation because, having had a father who used private apologies in order to feel good about himself as he repeatedly, over many years, abused his children, I believe apologizing to my kids also means making myself meaningfully accountable for my behaviours when I act inappropriately. I would like not to act this way again and reflecting on it publicly, where others can bear witness, will help me achieve that goal. Adults need to apologize to children when they wrong them. And they need to be accountable for what they say when they apologize. This is me trying to make the world more like the kind of place where that happens.
One year ago, I ended up standing at the bedside of a friend in the critical care unit of the hospital. He was in a coma and, ah, there were tubes coming in and out of his arms, a much larger tube down his throat, and others coming out of the vein (or artery?) in the side of his neck. His false teeth were missing, his artificial leg had been removed, and his wrists were tied to the bars at the side of his bed. He was maybe fifty years old. Once, he had been a golden gloves boxer. Always, he had been kind and gentle and considerate of others – often trying to de-escalate conflicts to stop anyone from suffering harm. One summer, he had seen me on the bus with my son and, afterwards, he always told everyone about what a wonderful dad I was and how lucky my son was to have me as a father because, he said, he could tell how deep our love was for each other just by looking at how we were together. I stood at his bedside and I stroked his arm and I said goodbye to him. I thanked him for sharing his life with me and others whom we both loved. I honoured him for who he was and for all the ways he tried, in his small way (just as we, too, are trying in our own small ways), to make the world a better place. I acknowledged his struggle and his pain. I told him it was okay to stop struggling now. I said that we would miss him very much but that we understood that now was his time to feel peace, to stop hurting, and to lay down and not have to get back up again. I wanted to rock him in my arms and kiss his face, I wanted to put him on my back and storm the gates of heaven with him – behold, you gods, what you permit the children of men to do to one another; behold, you gods, your beloved son – but I didn’t. I wouldn’t have gotten very far and, besides, the family that had abandoned him had already agreed to come and collect his corpse in the next couple of days. So I said what needed to be said and then I walked away.
Last weekend, to celebrate my birthday, Jess and I took the kids for a short hike along the boardwalk of a local bog. Due to the flooding that had followed the unseasonably high temperatures, the entrance to the parking lot was closed and locked but we parked at a nearby complex, circumnavigated the gate (“children play beyond the ‘Keep Out’ signs…”) and slid our way across the remaining ice to the opening of the trail. We were alone in the woods but signs of life were everywhere – from the deer and rabbit tracks in the slush to the call of a hawk that circled somewhere out of sight above us. The woods began to open up as we approached the pond at the end of the boardwalk and Charlie, who was leading the way, suddenly froze and softly said, “there’s a deer.” And there it was. It was grazing on the marsh grass that was growing on tufts and hillocks of earth that was only partially solid. I watched as The Wonder descended on my children and I felt it descend on Jess and I, too. Over the next several minutes, within the hush of the sacred that sometimes accompanies The Wonder, we approached the deer and the deer remained unconcerned. Even when we were only a few strides away, the deer permitted us to be together with it. Charlie hardly moved a muscle. He didn’t speak. Jess, too, hardly spoke. Ruby expressed more with her words – “wow!” and “woh!” and “can we go closer?” and so on. As for me, I said very little but I did say thank you to the deer and, I don’t know, it felt like the deer felt Charlie’s silence and Jess’ silence and Ruby’s wows and my thank you, and maybe even the Wonder and the hush of the sacred, too, and decided to take a chance on us (two other deer, further off in the woods, ran by while this encounter was taking place but the deer close to us did not turn or jump or join them). And that’s what we do when we share life together with others. We take chances on each other. The Wonder facilitates this. Because, when my emotional dump finally came in relation to the Ruby situation, as I knew it eventually would, it was not my grief or my anger or my fears that opened the floodgates for me. It was listening to the song “Saturn” by Sleeping at Last that did it for me. The beauty, the awesomeness, the wonder, the wonder, the wonder, of life burst upon me – life lived in the presence of death, life lived amidst sorrows, life beside a hospital bed, life with a daughter scared to go to school, life with a son whom I lectured instead of comforted – but life that is radiant, and glorious, and for us. And I cried, and I cried, and I cried, and as I cried I healed and I said thank you and I love you, too.