Today in my class we were talking about meaning – finding it, recognizing it, and putting it in our writing. I talked a lot of how we can find certain symbols and images that speak to our personal consciousness. I’m certainly not lacking for examples. But one is coming up like gangbusters tonight: Watching the first game of the hockey finals in Detroit (at which my daughter is cheering and my sister working), I keep seeing ‘mood’ shots of the Detroit skyline as it sits on the Detroit River. That river is part of me. And part of my family. My father worked on that river most of his adult life. He has a much more intimate relationship with it than I do. But I grew up with those waters framing the west side of my town. And the north side of the city we lived in later. I crossed that river every day to go to work for three years. I walked by that river nightly, many, many a night. I’m reminded of this old journal entry from 2003, and one of those walks:

18 July 2003

Tonight I’m walking down by the river, enjoying the sight of it in its blackness, dappled with the city lights from either side. Romance is all around me, and I pass a dozen different stories, conversations coming in and out of earshot – I feel like I’m a walking movie camera, catching only the bits of action that are ten feet within my realm. Reminds me of the movie “Slackers”.

I get downtown as far as the blues festival, and just as I am going to turn and walk back home, I see a freighter coming up the river, and I stop and watch it as it approaches, gliding on the water without sound. I’m struck by all the action going on in the two cities on either side of the river, and this vessel sliding silently between. I think about my dad, about how life on these waters formed his whole perspective, his existence. My dad. I know him so well; and his job factored so large in our own lives, yet this part of him, sliding silently on the black waters, I’ll never really share. I’m standing on the shore watching, with the busy festival behind me, the romances going on all around me, and thinking about the crew on that silent microcosm gliding by in the water. Thinking about my dad on a tug on a lake when I was 10 and at home in my bedroom. And I think about how life on the water formed my dad, and how, consequently, that formed me, even as I sat in my room reading my books and listening to my little transistor radio, a million miles away. I start to walk with the freighter, thinking I can keep pace with it. It pulls on ahead of me, so I start to jog to keep up. On it sails past the two cities, the blues festival, the couples strolling on the path. And me.


Welcome, O Life! I go to encounter for the millionth time the reality of experience and to forge in the smithy of my soul the uncreated conscience of my race.

– James Joyce, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man

crazy like a diamond

26 May 2009

Last Sunday, Mom and I enjoy our first outside meal of the season with Mia and Sam on their back deck.  Most of the conversation is centred on springtime, and things like lilacs and herbs and lilies of the valley and peonies and raspberries and soil and tomatoes and warm sun.

After our dinner of fish tacos and spinach and arugula salad and white wine, I become enchanted with a tree several hundred feet beyond Mia’s back fence, the leaves on which are glittering as light plays on them.  It’s as if thousands of diamonds are dancing in and amongst those branches.  In May, the air is still clear, and the sunlight filters through and leaves a translucent shimmer on everything it kisses.  Like that tree. 

Closer in, the diamonds rest quieter on Mia’s rosebush, and as the sun begins to sink in the sky, the diamonds disappear, one by one.  I watch until the last one goes.


Last night I’m walking down Kingston Road on my way home, and coming toward me a block or so up is a man, doing a theatrical Gene Kelly imitation all over the sidewalk, as graceful as his seventy-five-ish and so-not-Gene-Kelly limbs can manage.  My initial reaction is instinctive: “Oh gawd, the crazies always find me!”  But as we approach one another I realise Gene Kelly is just expressing happy, and we both chuckle at his marvellous silliness and he dances on by.  

Anyway, it’s May, and that’s enough to give you diamonds on the souls of your shoes.

One of the internal “snapshots” I carry around with me is the picture of me at around ten, in my grade five class with the other kids and our teacher, Mrs. Chavis, dancing to “Joy to the World” (Jeremiah was a Bullfrog).  We had a dance in our classroom for an hour or so every Friday afternoon.  Sometimes we square danced; sometimes we’d pick songs from the stacks of 45s some kids brought in.  The kids with the afros had the biggest and best stacks of records, mostly Motown; most of us just had a few.  But our favourite song to dance to was Jeremiah was a Bullfrog.

Vivian Chavis approached learning with a strong combination of creativity and discipline.  She was no softie – nobody got away with nonsense in her class.  But she also had a well placed sense of humour, and us kids knew it.  To this day I can hear her hearty, high pitched, musical laugh. 

Mrs. Chavis taught us to be aware, through strict daily attention to current events and history.  Four years later on my first day of high school, I was the only person in my history class who knew that Mao Tse Tung had recently died.  I was the only one who knew who Mao Tse Tung was, in fact, and I’m sure I must have sat there in that Grade 9 history class and thought of learning about the Chinese Cultural Revolution in Mrs. Chavis’s class and the big dragon “float” we made to parade around the school on Chinese New Year.

Mrs. Chavis always let us propose creative ways to express our learning.  Once, Helen, Patty and I created a “Game Show” to practice question drills, during which we tried to give one good natured kid a whipped cream pie in the face.  Another time we did a history project that we presented on a home-made television set, made out of a box and a roll of brown paper.  Along with dancing, we had weekly choir singing, where we sang Harry Belafonte songs and old African American spirituals. 

Mrs. Chavis, nearing retirement, had hair that was fast turning white, offset with thick, black rimmed glasses.  She wore heavy, plain polyester dresses every day.  With those she wore sensible walking shoes and thick, taupe coloured nylons, which didn’t exactly match her African American skin.  My Mom, who was also a teacher at our school, said she would go into Mrs. Chavis’s classroom after school and find her colleague reclined in her chair with her feet up on her desk, laughing about some grade five related fiasco or other.  My Mom said she begged her not to retire until my youngest sister reached Grade 5 and could have her as a teacher.  Jane did end up having her, and Mrs. Chavis retired not long after that.  She died only a few years after that.  My Mom who later learned of the health problems Mrs. Chavis was having at that time, always felt guilty for begging her to stay on. 

Vivian Chavis gave me many things; most importantly my ability to think and learn creatively.  30 years later she arose in my own studies in education, and I looked to her as a model when writing my own teaching philosophy.  She is no doubt behind my continued desire to know, and my lifelong interest in news and current events.  She got me interested in the big beautiful world, and what history teaches us. 

And she forever lives on in that internal snapshot of the sixty-something, grey haired, polyester clad lady with a big laugh dancing to Jeremiah was a Bullfrog with a bunch of ten year olds in a classroom on a Friday afternoon.

This morning on the bus I’m reading one of the several books on personal writing and memoir I’m carrying around for inspiration in planning lessons for my class.  A kid in his late teens sits next to me – he’s not unlike one you typically see on that bus route bordering Scarborough, dressed in a bright red basketball shirt, matching his hat and expensive looking runners, and an i-pod in the pocket of his baggy jeans which is likely filled with hip hop and rap music. 

I can tell he’s reading the pages of my book, and eventually he asks me in a soft spoken voice what kind of “exercises” the book is referring to.  I tell him it’s a book about creative writing, and then I tell him about this particular kind of writing.  And then I tell him about my class, and the kinds of things we do in it and why.  He likes the idea that doing creative play and exercises can help one to get the story down onto the page, and he’s impressed that one of my students this semester is 92 years old and taking classes.

After a short while he gets up to leave and says it was nice talking to me.  I return with same, and watch him walk down the street, appreciating his curious and open mind.  I wonder if he’s had the slightest inspiration to tell a story.  I hope so.  That would be really cool.