Wednesday, June 21, 2017

both leaving and going home

After my plane took off I found myself staring out the window for a long time, looking down at the grey rock which had become so familiar, but now spotted with vibrant greenery still strange and new to me, and bordered by the recently melted Hudson Bay.

I stare and I think I may never see this place again. That thought is quickly followed by I must see this place again. My eyes water up because I know that it's true: I am going to return.

Partly this scares me, because living and teaching in the north has been so challenging. Beyond challenging it's been downright hard. Hard in a way which writing an essay-- with its stress and self doubts-- never was. Hard in a way which planting trees --with sore muscles, cold rain and blackflies-- never was. Life in the north involves true heartbreak: rage at the inequality, tears from the pit of your gut, and existential anguish at the futility of fighting social forces much more powerful than you.  But the heart is a muscle and to build muscle you need to tear it and then heal it and then tear it and then heal it.

My friend Kahn, who had been working at Innalik for nearly 20 years now once told me "Once you've lived in the north it'll never leave you", I agreed with him at the time, but it wasn't until I taking a cab from the airport in Montreal, telling myself "this is where you live now" that I realised how profoundly true it is.

Friday, February 24, 2017


I haven't written much here for a long time. Its difficult to talk about my life here directly, for various reasons, but I wrote a couple of poems this week, and I figure this is a good space to share them.


Its amazing how empty empty can get.
You feel like you've experienced nothing before,
then you're out there your dog chasing your skidoo
and stop and take in a true blank canvas.
You're overwhelmed by that jagged tree line
with so many subtle shades of green,
which, in the past, passed for nothing.
Even in Saskatchewan that wheat field
you peed on with your dog—even that
was a thousand live shifting in the wind
along the rolling hills. Now you try
to picture an emptiness which will bring to life
this sea of snow, frozen in so many waves.

You try and try but come up with nothing.


The absent h in the "ello" when you answered
became to me the focal point of my day.
Recounting my day, while you ate an avocado sandwich
the details became alive for me
only when I shared them with your absence.

You were scared the first time you saw my face
When we advanced our relationship into video chat
and I became real to you.
I was not scared yet

not until just before we met.
I hadn't been afraid of flying for years
but when the plane started down the runway
I had that familiar twist in my gut
which said that things couldn't possibly work out.

Yet I landed, and when I landed there you were,
with a piece of foie gras
And I savored the experience

flesh melting in my mouth

I guess the common theme is the bittersweetness of solitude, or understanding only through negative space. Or perhaps you can tell me some theme I'm missing out on.

Tuesday, January 10, 2017

A reflection on my excuses for my resent lack of reflections

Yesterday I returned from my vacation back south. It was a lovely trip I will write more on soon, here I'm writing to address something a surprising number of my friends and family expressed: the fact that I haven't written anything in this blog for a long time.

My unintentional hiatus could be blamed on the concussion disrupting my habits, and it could be blamed on the personal entropy which causes all good habits to give way to chaos given enough time. Another contributing factor is that I've become quite attached to another person, and my impulse when I find someone who understands me is to share all of my thoughts with that person. This in time, hopefully, corrects itself, as I calm down and remember all understanding partial, and that even when someone understands something it doesn't always mean they gain from hearing it. All this is to say, since my last post I've found someone who excites me and I've also managed to calm down about it (at least a bit).

Sunday, November 20, 2016

concussion part 2

Last week I wrote a bit about how it there can be a quality of catharsis to recovering from an ailment while dealing with an emotional shock. The body offers a distraction from the troubles of the mind, and it makes for a stretch of life novel enough that when you return to health you get the comforting feeling that life is "back to normal" even if there have been fairly drastic changes...

Ironically my staying up late to write about the feeling of recovering from my concussion exasperated my concussion and the next day the symptoms returned. All in all I missed a week of work, including the opening night of the Killer Whale Cafe (which is the project we'd been waiting--first for funds then for supplies--since I got here).

In most ways it was pretty shitty. I felt like nauseous most of the time, I was unable to concentrate for any stretch of time,I was totally drained of energy, my dog was growing restless from lack of exercise  my home was descending into chaos because I didn't have the energy to clean up after myself (I'd actually been on a steak of being fairly good about this beforehand). I missed out on what would have been my first seal carving demonstration, I missed skating and I missed the opening of the cafe. On Monday I ran into a student of mine at the grocery store. He had been relying on the schools breakfast program for most of his food, and because the school is short of English substitutes my not working meant no breakfast for my students. I bought him a sandwich, it felt like all I could do.

In a strange way, this concussion (shitty as it was) helped provide me with many of things I was seeking when I came out here. I had a desire to work on my ability to be by myself, and while this town is isolated it does not compare to a couple of days doing nothing in a dark room. Much of the time I spent sleeping, but I certainly had to face the boredom which is at the core of me.

Conversely it also showed me the extent to which I have become part of the community. Other teachers called or knocked on my door to see if there was anything they could do. They took my dog on walks. They offered me rides if I needed them. When I encountered my students they showed genuine concern for me (most of them).

It also served as a reminder that what I'm doing here is important. Sometimes, when I teach it can feel pointless, like the kids aren't learning much. This helped me focus on a whole other aspect to my job, I provide a space when my students are fed and cared about, Where they can socialise with each other without as many corrupting influences as they have outside. Also, a place where they do learn, if not always what I had intended on teaching them.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The US election from the Canadian Arctic

My experience of election night began with a common weeknight activity, listening to Joe Bowen announce the Leafs game. I often listen to the games on radio here, because the internet is too slow up here to stream the video live. I try to visualise the plays and then later I watch the highlights to see how close I get. Its surprisingly fun.

Monday had been a very hard day. I'm not sure if it was me being in a shitty mood or my class being particularly unruly, but I had come home feeling like junk. The school day on Tuesday seemed like it would turn my week around that. I mentioned earlier that the class I teach centres around the kids running their own cafe once a week. I had recently decided to experiment with expanding their serves into baking bread and treats by order for the teachers. We handed out menus to all of the teachers, and got a surprising array of orders. 4 loafs of bread, 3 dozen chocolate chip cookies, 1 dozen peanut butter cookies, 6 dozen rice crispy squares, and 8 loafs of banana bread (I later found out that one of my students tried to prank me by tallying an extra 5 loafs of banana bread... it didn't make too much sense as a prank because the cost of the ingredients came out of their profits and the labour was all theirs). So we baked all day. Everybody worked. Some worked quite marvellously and did dishes without being asked. The ones that made me happiest were the students who usually did nothing but sit in the back and complain, because on Tuesday they actually worked (at least for half of the time).
 We got most of the orders done. And about 70% of it came out pretty well, not great for a bakery, but I feel like that's a fair success rate for a first day with highschool students who don't really know how to bake.

I got home and made myself a nice dinner in time to listen to the game. I was tired, but happy from the day. The leafs had been playing well and had one 3 straight, so I was looking forward to a good hockey game. One of the nice things about listening to hockey on the radio (especially with Joe Bowen announcing) is you get 100% bias. I sometimes find myself agreeing with Joe, thinking "God another soft call on Kadri", or "the Leafs would be winning this if we had a couple less bad bounces" totally forgetting that I haven't actually seen anything that's happened. However on Tuesday the 9th of November the Leafs played with so little enthusiasm and provided so little hope that even Joe Bowen's voice grew flat before the end of the 1st period. For the first time in years I turned off a Leafs game without having any plan for the evening (the Leafs have played many awful games over the past few years, but I've always been fortunate enough to either miss the game, have a social occasion I can go to, or have lover in who's embrace I can find comfort). The final score was 7-0 Kings.

This is the context with which I turned to the 2106 US election: a low point in an emotional rollercoster I  have put myself on, dictated by the behaviour of a handful of erratic teenagers and the performance in a game by a group of young men representing, somewhat abstractly, a city I haven't lived in or near since I was an erratic teen.

I managed to find a low quality (again for the sake of the slow internet) stream of PBS's coverage of the election. Already the broadcasters sound disappointed, saying they had expected Hilary to have taken a commanding lead by this point in the evening. "The Democrats have to take the fact that this race is somewhat close as a loss." Their confidence fades as the night progresses "She may still eek by, but this election is going to be much closer than expected."
 Like Joe Bowen earlier in the evening, lustre in the broadcasters voices fade and they start talking more about the implications of a Trump victory than the possibility of a Clinton comeback

I have several Facebook conversations with friends from across Canada and the States describing our shock, our disbelief and our drinks (I have two glasses of Ameretto during the proceedings). Pundents are frequently reminded that the election has not yet been called, at first they correct themselves and restate in the "If Trump wins" form, eventually that fades and they respond to the correction with a simple "yeah". Hope grinds so slowly towards a stop.

At two AM there are still a few key states that have not been called, but they all have Trump leads. I have work the next day, so I go to bed holding on to the foolish shred of hope that they will somehow turn around. I go to bed very anxious about the future.

In the morning I check the news, what was inevitable as I was going to sleep had become actual in the morning. The market had crashed in many places around the world, acts of racial violence were apparently breaking out throughout the states. There was much to read, a lot to worry about. It felt necessary to take in all this information now--to try to understand what it all meant, in the 20 minutes after I eat my breakfast before I need to leave for work. Suddenly it was 8:30 and I needed to get to school. I rush down the stairs and start down my pathway towards the main road. Instantly I slip on the ice and land directly on my head.


That day was meant to be a pretty fun day. In the afternoon we were going skating. In the morning there was some cleaning left to do in the kitchen, but once that was finished some hunters brought in 2 large seals for the school to share. I'd heard about this custom at the school. The seals are brought in and cut up, The elders and culture teachers describe how they process seal and how all of the parts are used. The academic teachers can then use this opportunity to give a lesson about the anatomy of mammals. And then everybody eats. It has always sounded like a very beautiful and functional event. I was excited to learn and to teach and to taste, but I had to miss it, because shortly after we finished cleaning, I realised that I was nauseous and a bit disoriented.

Which Dead Seal Did You Vote For?

I went to the walk-in clinic.I had had a concussion when I hit my head on the ice. The nurse told me to take that day and the next off. The next day was the opening of the after school cafe my class is based around, I did not want to miss it. She told me that its up to me, probably knowing that I was still going to feel shit the next day. I went back home and spent most of the rest of the day in bed. Just being there feeling nauseous.

The guide said that recent research suggested that doing 15 minutes of activity every few hours was actually preferable to straight undivided bed rest. So, every couple of hours I would make a short phone call to a friend or family member. Only the subsection of people who I both felt comfortable speaking to at less than my best and I didn't feel worried about them being too worried about me.

The person who I felt it was most important to talk to was my brother, who teaches at UCLA and lives there with his family. Early in there year there had been a shooting on the UCLA campus. That shooting had happened in the building next to the one my brother works in. We talked about it this summer. "It was only a murder suicide" he said, "But its sort of crazy that I"m living in a country where you can say that, 'don't worry it was only a murder suicide' as if that's not enough." He said safety is a factor in deciding where he goes after his Post-doctorate. In that same conversation I mention the possibility of a Trump presidency, "I guess if that happens that'd be a factor too."

Talking to my brother now he says, "well it doesn't change too much for us, I mean I guess we're immigrants, but not the type that Trump really bothers...It is awful though. I've felt sick to my stomach all day. Just nauseous."

"I've been feeling nauseous too, maybe I don't have a concussion after all." We both laugh.


There's something to be said about healing physically while dealing with emotional changes. I remember when I was 18 my first girlfriend broke up with me while I was coming down with the flu.

I look at the teen romances in my class and they seem so silly, so much emotion and drama between people who seem to me to know very little about each other, but of course when I was a teenager I was exactly the same. As far as I could see back then Sammie was the only person who would ever understand me. I had built my plans (clumsy and foolish as they were) around her, even planning on staying in Toronto to continue to be with her.

Of course, since it was a young relationship based more on the idea of each other than who we actually were, we became very angry and toxic towards each other when the other was not the person you'd like them to be. So Sammie was wise and cut it off. I was left with the flu

At the time it felt terribly unfair: why was my world being torn apart at the same time my body is failing me? But of course I recovered, and as my strength returned to me so did my sense that life will continue more or less normally, different, surely, but more or less normally.

As the inner chaos that came from my brain dancing a bit inside my skull returns to order I am developing the sense that things will continue to be more or less than same. Different, yes. Worse than we had imagined, almost certainly. But more or less the same.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Treeplanting and Northern living part 1

When in a radically new situation it is natural to draw comparisons to past experiences. I seems like it'd be natural for me to compare my current situation with my experience teaching in Vietnam. After all, it is my only other teaching experience, it was teaching to second language learners in a foreign culture, far from home. Yet Vietnam mostly comes to mind as a contrast, as the life most different from the one I'm living right now. For some reason my mind drifts back continually to treeplanting.

The few direct parallels between teaching in Inukjuak and my time treeplanting in BC fall away under a little scrutiny. They are both in “the north”. But it depends on north of what. Inukjuak is much farther north in a much less temperate part of the country. Treeplanting is always in the summer, and north in the winter and north in the summer are different worlds. There I am planting trees, here I'm above the treeline.

Treeplanting is isolated. Treeplanting you may be 100km down a logging road from the nearest town, but to get here you need to fly. The isolation is of a very different nature as well. While planting you're spending long stretches of the work day totally alone, and during your free time you're spending with the same 30-50 people. Your social world is limited to those people. Here I am working with people all day and I have a theoretical pool of nearly 2000 people to choose from for my social life. But I have found the sense of isolation is more pervasive here. While I never had as many people to potentially relate to treeplanting as I do here, it is easier to relate because treeplanters mostly belong to a very narrow demographic. Nearly everyone in a planting camp is the same age range, nearly everyone has the same job. Most planters are white and middle class, most are left wing and atheists. While there are obviously a range of individuals and everyone is special unique and ect, people who plant are almost exclusively a) college students b) artists or c) ski bums. I find each of those lives easily relatable (I have never really been one for skiing but I appreciate being able to just bum around). Planting also has an added social advantage: everybody is in the same position.

There are many divides between people in Inukjuak, and while there is a lot of good work to form bridges across those divides (the community here is in many ways very warm and welcoming, more on that in another post), I also think that its important to respect the reasons they exist. Aside from the obvious sources of division, class, culture, heritage, and age (I have met very few people who are plus or minus 5 years of my age) there is a division is in how we are experiencing time. For me everything is new, the most mundane is the most fascinating. Since, every thought I have about this place feels like a brand new thought, its hard for me to know what's original and what's being rehashed (most of it is, of course, rehashed). This separates me from the Inuit who must see me as part of never ending cycle of short term teachers (I am told that the community becomes more trusting of you when you return after Christmas). It also separates me from the other Qalllant (non-Inuit, I've been told it literally means “bushy eyebrows”) who have been here for a year, since they now see the mundane as mundane.

Another distinction between me and most others is that I have an end date in mind. I need to return to school next September so I do not have the option of renewing my contract. I do have the desire to to return here after I graduate, but knowing how way leads onto is impossible to tell. Knowing that I will return to my normal life in June gives a very different feel to being here. It has the feeling of a separate life, detached from the life in Montreal. I picture life in Montreal as being rather static, I am told the fall colors are out now, but that just bares memories of the distant past. When I try to picture Montreal today I still see summer, its hard to picture my friends wearing the extra layer they must have on by now.

When I treeplanted I also had the sense that I was living a separate life from my primary life in Montreal (especially in my first few seasons), yet this feeling didn't isolate me because it was common among most treeplanters to some degree or another. They are putting a pause on their life to have this other experience (and to make money). In my first year treeplanting this detachment manifested itself sometimes when I closed my eyes before going to sleep. I would picture a map of the world and I would zoom in on the spot that I was. As I approached northern BC, in my mind, it became more and more strange to me. There was a strange sort of cognitive dissonance... It felt like it couldn't be right, my mind couldn't except the fact of me so suddenly being in this strange piece of earth so far from all of the places I'd imagined going to. Now, six years later again I find myself picturing a map: no that can't be right—but it must be.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

One person's adventure

My first week and a half here I didn't have internet, but one of the neighbours had wifi that I could sometimes steal. I remember laying down on the couch holding my phone in the air, keeping my arm as still as I can, all in order to keep reading posts on a hockey forum. At this moment I thought: someone back south is probably picturing me having a real adventure in the arctic. I guess that's how it goes.