Pandemic Journal 11/1/21: a retiree remembers classrooms students hallways colleagues gardens mentors

Sheena and I (May Day, 2019)

Two years after retirement she finds this five-year-old journal entry —
Sept 5, 2015: the serendipity of today

Such a beautiful first class day. Two courses began – and I returned home to pass out in a deeply pleasurable nap of sheer exhaustion at how intense these initial encounters can be – enjoying the moments that expend all of my performative energy.

In one class, a number of students stayed afterwards to share their enthusiasm that spilled over. One mature student talked about how he could imagine his writing pushed into new forms in response to our readings. He was remapping in front of my eyes a long manuscript he had laboured over. And he was excited by this new prospect.

I discovered several of my wonderful colleagues had sent a group of students to my class. They arrived with their whole being thrilled by the prospect of a year writing together – exploring and experimenting with methods that allow them to combine diverse narrative threads. One student was keen to investigate how to work with political and personal material, weaving it together using the mosaic or collage form. Another talked about how inspired she was by the writing work as she reimagined intergenerational histories of complicated suffering and joy. These young women spoke with such confidence and commitment. That’s what they learned in my colleagues’ classrooms. My work as a teacher is enriched by these gifts – gifted by association. Thank you Keavy Martin and Christine Stewart – much admired and beloved teachers, writers, scholars.

And on the way out of the building heading home I bumped into the talented Katherine Koller who just won the Alberta prize for her play about the discovery of oil at Leduc. Congratulations to her on making Alberta’s up and down oil history part of our ambivalent cultural memory.

And while I headed towards the stairwell, Sarah Krotz invited me into her office to chat about our teaching, our work, our mothering, the healing power of the canoe, what matters to us and makes the human subject whole (enough).

I began the day with an engaged Sheena Wilson conversation, a morning ritual. Our friendship allows for the shorthand of mothering, research, writing, politics, life conversations to buttonhole a moment in the midst of a too full schedule.

And earlier between classes in lieu of lunch, I spent a chatty half hour in front of the beautiful Japanese garden and pond at the Humanities Centre sharing summer stories of writing and travelling – conferencing work and time for reflection – with other colleagues – Carolyn Sale, Terri Tomsky, and Eddy Kent.

One of the great advantages of having worked for decades at this university is the renewal of our classrooms with such intellectually engaged, passionate, amusing, committed and generous teachers, writers, scholars.

Aging has its distinct benefits – I’m working on becoming a philosophical rabble rouser: the government may be rat shit, but when there has been funding over the years we’ve managed to find terrific new friends and colleagues. Our department thrives beyond the miserly scrutiny and contempt of Alberta’s political sphere and their snuffling twitching whiskered rodent noses. Down with the rat shit. Up with spirited intellectual life! Courage!

a final note

A sad loss this September 5, 2015. But beautiful memories: A beloved favourite Uncle Bob Byron died today – a wonderful man who was my neighbour and friend throughout my childhood. He and his wife, beloved aunt Peg, and their children Robin and Barbara were my extended family.

Robert Wallace Byron, a crafty advertising man, had a long career at McKim’s, Canada’s oldest advertising firm established in 1889. A lifelong Progressive Conservative, he would later become Prime Minister Brian Mulroney’s long-term ad man. My youth was partially spent demonstrating against Mulroney’s North American Free Trade Agreement that was anaethma to many Canadians. Once upon a time I published a cheeky portrait called “Mila’s Bangs” in the Canadian Forum. The essay’s naughty refrain echoed

snip snip
bang bang

Mila’s Bangs

Shortly after publication and at Aunt Peggy’s after dinner invitation, I read the back-page essay aloud to the families who gathered that Christmas. When I concluded my reading, Bob simply nodded and smiled at me while one of the guests railed against my rudeness. Oblivious to criticism, I brushed it off. Uncle Bob and I never discussed politics.

Like my parents, Bob and Peggy were Manitobans transplanted to rural Pickering just outside of Toronto. They lived in a tall brick century home on what was then Highway 2 formerly Kingston Road that ran from Toronto to Kingston in the nineteenth-century. The impressive home was blessed with mysterious bricked-up windows that led to a passageway and servants quarters at the back of the house. Local lore (or was it Uncle Bob’s fabulation) claimed this was the hideout of the Kingston Robbers, thieves of settlers and stage coaches during an earlier time.

Like my father, Bob grew up in Brandon. He married my father’s best school friend. When I was a young girl, Bob’s prairie Icelandic dry wit provided me with a towering stash of New Yorker‘s stored in his basement that gave me a sense of how humour and politics mattered. And for a prairie girl growing up in rural fields on the edge of an expanding metropolis, urbane wit was like a drug. New York and Paris beckoned. Simone de Beauvoir and Dorothy Parker became my bedside table companions. The eros of radical play and good conversation fuelled my dreams.

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