Family Lines

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Tag: Ryerson University

Swimming again

Mist rises in the cold air at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

Mist rises in the cold air at the Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.

I used to be a competitive swimmer for Ryerson University. Swimming is great exercise and the water always feels like home to me. It’s because no matter where I am, pool water never changes. It’s always wet in South Korea, The Gambia, Fort Smith and Calgary. Since I just moved to Edmonton, I thought I’d head to something familiar in this unfamiliar place.

I decided to go to an outdoor pool. Even though it hasn’t been that warm here, the pool remained open up until yesterday. I walked to the pool in the cold rain and cursed myself for not wearing mittens (it really was that cold) or bringing a tuque for the stroll home. I started hemming and hawing about continuing.

“It’s raining and it’s cold,” I said to myself, “why are you doing this to yourself?”

Really, there was no argument. I knew why I was going. I wanted some exercise and I wanted to do something regular – routine, in a day that had started differently from the last seven years in Calgary. I wanted to focus on my breathing and stroke count and seeing if I could beat my 100 freestyle (four laps of a 25 metre pool) time from last month. I didn’t want to think about unpacking and what went where and what didn’t fit there. I wanted a break from new spaces and spots and streets with strange numbers.

Despite the icy rain, the gate to the pool was wide open. As I walked onto the deck, the chlorine struck my nostrils. I took a deep breath in. Ahhhh! (I liked it.) That strong chemical smell of the water never changes either. The wisps of fog swimming over the pool didn’t make it look inviting. I shivered in the mist and then picked up a flutter board.

I headed to the edge of the pool. There was someone in the lane already splashing up and down the 25 metres. I jumped in beside him and said hello when he surfaced for air at the end of the lane.

“Hi,” he said before disappearing under a wave.

I pulled on my googles. The water was warm on my skin. Not at all cold, like the air around me. I pushed off the wall and struck out for the other side. Something I’ve done over and over again in a few different places.

Firsts and forgets

Dr. Conley and I in Halifax.I love seeing people’s “first day of school” photos (especially those of my niece and nephew). While I was home in Nova Scotia last week, Acadia University students were moving into residence, some for the first time.

It has been more than 20 years since I was a student at Acadia, set on changing the world. I was going to be a foreign correspondent who would fly herself (in her own plane) to troubled regions and report the news. I would spread the word about terrible atrocities and make the world understand that it needed to help right away. I would force people to wake up and start caring. Yep, that was my plan.

I was reminded of these naïve aspirations a couple of weeks ago while visiting a professor / mentor in Halifax. Dr. Marshall Conley is a globetrotting human rights expert whom I first met when I was in his introductory political science class at Acadia. He also spearheaded a youth international internship program that paired volunteers under 30 with human rights non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as well as governments. In 1998, I was one of Dr. Conley’s interns.

After finishing my degree at Acadia and then the journalism program at Ryerson University in Toronto, I was sent to the African Centre for Democracy and Human Right Studies in The Gambia as a publications officer. During my recent trip back to Nova Scotia, Dr. Conley (I still can’t call him by his first name even though we’ve been friends for years) invited my husband and I to his lovely home for lunch. When we arrived, I saw he had set out a photograph of the 16 interns he had sent around the world the year I went to The Gambia.

I blinked at the picture of young adults lined up in two rows. I had always thought that I would never forget the people in my intern cohort but here I was, blanking. While I remembered their faces, I couldn’t remember many of their names. It worried me. If I let these fine details escape from my brain, how many other things am I forgetting?

Dr. Conley came over and once he said who each person was, a light bulb went on inside my head.

“Oh, yes,” my brain said. “I remember now.”

I do remember. I remember tidbits about each person too. I remember where they all went, one to Estonia, one to Paris, two to Bangladesh, two to The Gambia (one was me), etc. I remember the excitement we all had when we were about to take off to exotic and strange locations. I remember the nervousness of heading into the unknown. I also remember trying to find a mosquito net in Halifax long before Mountain Equipment Co-op was a thing. I remember booking my flight that took me from Nova Scotia, to Iceland, to London and then to Africa. (Björk was on my plane from Reykjavik to London. She wore a white butcher’s apron as a dress and flip-flops with socks. The whole ensemble looked uncomfortable.)

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

Miriama from theAfrican Centre for Democracy and Human Rights Studies.

I remember thinking that this internship would lay the foundation for my career as a foreign correspondent. In Gambia, I would get experience in human rights, NGOs, politics and policy and be introduced to new ideas and ways of life. With all these tools and insight, I would jump to an exciting and fulfilling journalism career.

I did learn a lot about human rights and statecraft and met all sorts of people from all walks of life in The Gambia. I also learned how to barter (my roommate was better, though), how to find my way through sandy streets and that unripe mangos make a tasty mango crisp. All these lessons and moments added up to a truly life-changing experience. I was on my way to making my goal a reality.

Then the real world got in the way.

When I returned home from my many months aboard, I needed a job. I got one in Calgary working as a news writer for a television station. I didn’t like working in TV and three years later, I left to be a pilot. Flying my own plane was the second piece to my world reporting aspirations. However, 9/11 happened and people were afraid to fly and the demand for pilots dropped. I did get my private licence but didn’t go on any further. I got a job at Mount Allison University and somewhere throughout the years, my dreams of being the flying foreign correspondent drifted away like clouds I flew through in my Cessna.

I'm flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

I’m flying a Cessna over Acadia University.

Last week while looking at the picture of the interns, I realized I hadn’t thought about my first life goal in a long, long time. It wasn’t that I had forgotten about it, I just needed a reminder about that “first.” But that’s why it was a first, because life isn’t linear and lots of other goals came after it. I’d still like to say thanks to Dr. Conley for giving me a step up on my way to changing the world. Because we all have in some way. While attending a pan-African human rights conference in Gambia, someone said, “’If you think you are too small to make a difference, try sleeping with a mosquito in the room.” (That quote has also been attributed to the Dalai Lama but I heard it attributed to an African proverb.) It’s true. We’re all making a difference.

Okay

I went to Ryerson University in Toronto for my journalism degree. I was taking a course on non-fiction writing and one of our assignments was to write about a recent experience. The following is a story I wrote about an evening in 1995.

 Okay

I was sitting on the subway. Feeling fat, loveless and cranky. On Feb.14.

It was late at night, around 10:30. A woman and a little girl got on the train. I wondered what the girl was doing up so late on a school night.

People were scattered everywhere in the car. There was a man with big glasses sitting across from me. My roommate reading a book beside me. The mom and girl sitting a couple of rows down. But I didn’t turn to look at anyone. I didn’t want to see them.

I was drowning in the hum of the subway and the problems of the world. With me in it. How the ozone layer is dying. How children are starving. How humans are killing each other. How Valentine’s Day is just one more day to make money out of something that I can’t even get for free. How far away I feel from home. My real home in Nova Scotia with a dog and cats and warmth and family and friends. How cold the bright lights of the underground are. Making everything harsh. Making the blemishes stand out clearly. The red pimple on my roommate’s nose, the greasiness of that guy’s big glasses, dirt and grime and grossness.

Then I heard someone singing. And I turned around.

All I could see was the top of a beret further down the train. I stood up. Looked.

A woman, sitting alone, was singing. She was singing “Everything’s going to be okay. Everything’s going to be all right.”

I recognized the tune; a Bob Marley song. Other heads turned. The woman with the child smiled. The man with the glasses picked up his head. My roommate put down her book.

For a moment, the world stood still and I actually believed the minstrel. For moment, I believed everything was okay. Everything was all right. For a moment, everybody listened and everyone heard.

Golden moment

two dogs.

Two of my family dogs: Jasper, the golden retriever grandpa, with Kola, a cute fuzzy and energetic puppy.

It was 1996 and I was going to Ryerson University. I was in the Journalism for Graduates program and I had to write a non-fiction story for my course Magazine Fundamentals. The class was taught by writer David Hayes and he asked us to write about a “golden moment.” I wrote about my family dog, Jasper. He died not soon after I wrote this piece. I’m glad to have these memories of my old friend.

He walks crookedly. And he is big and red and he loves me. It’s just me and my dog. We chase Sasquatches and bears and run away from bees. We like to go fishing and swimming and diving for rocks. We used to go on bike rides and he would follow me everywhere. But now he’s too old.

Sometimes he’s bad. He once ran away from home for a whole week. It was a very long week. I called his name and looked up and down the lake and searched the cow corn fields. The morning he dragged himself down the driveway, hurt and scared and hungry was a blue sky day. For the next few weeks he had to wear big casts on his front legs. He looked silly. He looked like he was wearing oversized sports socks.

We watch TV together. He lies on the floor and I put my head on his stomach. I can hear him breathing. I always try to match my breath to his but he is always slower.

He can’t see well anymore. He won’t go through the kitchen to get to the music room. I think the glare of the floor tile is too bright for his eyes. I put him on a mat and drag him into the next room. He thinks it’s a lot of fun. He thinks he’s surfing.

When we go cross-country skiing he messes up my trail. I break two perfectly narrow tracks in the deep snow. Perfect so I’ll be able to go faster on the way back. He gets lazy and walks right in the middle of my hard work. His feet get balls of snow tangled in the fur and so he lies down in front of my swishing skis. As he chews off the snow, I have to wait.

I saw him kill a rabbit. He was savage and he scared me. He bit the rabbit’s neck and spit on its fur and looked crazy. I tried to save the rabbit. I put it in a wood barrel but it started to convulse and scream and its eyes rolled up into its brain.

Jasper thought it was funny. I saw him laugh. I know when he laughs. His lip curls up on one side. He does this especially when I’m around and he’s happy to see me.

Jasper is all my golden moments. When I think of my dog I can see the woods we walk through, the streams we wade through, the snow we trudge through, the stars that fall, the flames that wave to the sky and my best friend.

Floppy disc discovery

floppy disc.

Floppy disc driving at the Calgary Public Library.

While home for the holidays in Nova Scotia, I found a treasure trove: some old, old floppy discs. Not those round ones that look like records but the hard square ones. I brought them back to Calgary and wondered how to get the data off them. Who has a computer with a floppy disc drive anymore? The Calgary Public Library.

I went to the third floor and asked for a floppy disc drive and plugged it into a port. Then I popped the first disc into the drive and it spat and whirred like an ancient engine being turned on for the first time in 100 years. The noise was loud and I was hoping no one was going to “Shhhs” me. It is a library. You’re supposed to be quiet.

I found a lot of photos I had scanned and put on disc in 2003. I also uncovered stories and homework assignments I had written at Ryerson University in 2006. The following is a piece I wrote when I lived in residence only steps away from the core of Toronto. I had a room (that I called The Coffin because it was tiny) in a four bedroom apartment. Each unit in Pitman was designed the same way. I had three roommates (women) and we lived on a co-ed floor. Here’s a vignette from 20 years ago. (Really?)

Noise. A man’s laugh is projected from one bedroom. Haunting pagan music follows from another. The sounds mix and float out of the hallway, pooling in the living room. Sarah and De sit in a circle amidst it, making their own noises.

Sarah’s arm drags across paper. Making a swishing sound as she writes. Bright purple socks sticking out of brown cords and pushed into brown boots is Sarah. De’s making clicking sounds. She’s an interior design student and she’s crouched on the floor and tediously gluing tiny, straight sticks together to make a giant octahedron. Click. She’s gluing the sticks into triangles. Click. She’s building the complex design slowly in case it collapses. De has one leg tucked under her. It’s as if she is trying to create the same symmetry in her design. Sarah walks over to help. Swish. Her cords make a rough noise like her arm on the paper. She sits the same way as De.

Pitman Hall.

Common room at Pitman Hall.

Two shadows are thrown over De and Sarah. The white wall outlines a couple. Two people in a slow dance. The shadows move together and then apart.

Swish. John comes out of the shadows. He’s carrying a plant. “Look,” he says, “it’s real.”

He gives the plant to Maura, who has also come out of the shadows. Bang. John slams the door. Maura takes a seat beside Sarah.

The room fills up with chatter. Talking, talking and talking. The conversation is light and easy. Meringue on lemon pie. Chitchat about classes and octahedrons. Nattering about New York and Chicago. Dirty dishes.

“There is no volume to it.” De mutters to her creation.

Crack. Maura’s knees break as she bends to show De pictures. Her knees sound like octahedron sticks snapping half. But De keeps going with the glue gun. “Psst,” it says. The glue gun wants to tell a secret.

“Psst, come here.”

Rustling paper. Sarah returns her focus to her writing. Maura looks out the window. Not much talk now. A few expletives from the glue gun lady. Maybe she’ll shoot someone. Psst, psst and pssssstttt!

Then smooth silence. A few strains of music escape from the room down the hall. Phone rings. Thud. Everyone jumps up. Pattering feet. Who’s it for? The circle is broken. Everyone has left and so must I.

Cooking up dreams

Marché Mövenpick in Toronto.

Marché Mövenpick in Toronto.

Walking past a downtown Calgary restaurant the other day I smelled something good. What wafted through a restaurant door, hitting my nostrils on the cool winter day, was a mixture of inviting and warm comfort food: tomatoes, fresh bread and a hint of cinnamon. Maybe not something you might think of together but for me it combined into a memory of the Marché Mövenpick in Toronto.

The Marché was just off Yonge Street and near Front Street, close to Lake Ontario. The restaurant was where my friends and I would go on chilly December Saturdays or freezing February evenings after dancing the night away in the late nineties. We were young and going to Ryerson University, taking demanding second degrees in fields like journalism and landscape architecture. We had the world by the throat. Ready to go once the gates of academia opened, letting us out to pursue anything and everything like ravenous monsters with wide-open jaws.

We were hungry. Hungry for life and hungry for a good, hearty (and cheap) meal. That’s what we would get at the Mövenpick. It was cafeteria-type place with lots of food stations so we could each get our fix of whatever we wanted to eat. From bruschetta to steak to waffles, it was there for the feasting. The three of us – me, Mo and R – would stash our mittens and heavy winter coats at a hard-to-get table and then go our separate ways in search of what would make us smile.

I truly can’t remember what I ate. Just that it was delicious. It was the atmosphere of the place I recall best. It was always a bit dark in the restaurant, dim, and with the low lighting it was dream-like for me. We were hovering in a different world, one that helped us escape the realities of school life for an hour or two.

It was always warm and cozy in the Marché. We abandoned our scarves and extra sweaters and toques in the tropical, lively restaurant, almost floating around we were so light. Unused to being weightless without all our winter gear holding us down to earth.

apartment.

Saying “hello” to a former apartment in Toronto. I lived here for a time during my Ryerson years.

Once back at our table, each with a different meal, our conversation would continue from 20 minutes before. Picking up from where we had left off before we sat down. We talked about boys, our classes, boys in our classes and eventually, our future careers. For me I would be a newspaper reporter, hopefully a foreign correspondent. Little did I know then that journalism would eventually seize up and stall. Forcing me to find another future. But at the time, the time at the Marché, everything was wide open. There were no limits. Everything was blue sky ahead.

The Mövenpick was where life was fresh and dreams were cooked along with the tomatoes and bread. When I smelled that familiar Marché smell the other day, many years and restaurants later, it sent me back to that time. I thought about how some of my dreams from then had come true, while others hadn’t. But life has turned out just the way I wanted.

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