Time and Place

We had arrived up North late, the night before in late November. A five and a half hour coach journey, not dissimilar to the ones I took from Fredericton to Halifax. Halifax, that’s where I was again, but this time, Halifax, UK. My partner, a Northerner, (from Leeds) felt strongly that I, a Haligonian, should visit this Halifax. At the time, it was our first weekend away as a couple, and my partner, the eternal explorer, was keen to show me his neck of the woods. Although we woke up in Halifax, it was actually Hebden Bridge he was keen to show me. A small town, recently gentrified, once the home of old mills, like it was in his childhood. We stepped off the train to this sleepy place, a stark contrast to the boisterous match day atmosphere on the train carriage we had just left. I was led over the rushing river on a stone bridge, the rising sun creating long shadows as we strolled into town in search of breakfast.

Although we had reached Hebden Bridge, there was still further to travel. I followed my partner’s confident lead, catching a tiny, local bus that slowly trudged up a steep hill, higher and higher, until it truly felt we were on top of the world. Heptonstall (another H-named place). My partner guided me along a stone path, to a small church and cemetery. I’m sure I don’t need to tell you, but England is full of churchyards and cemeteries. Everywhere. Before me stood two buildings, almost replicas of one another. Except, one a functioning church, stood in opposition to the other, a skeletal frame of a building that used to be a church. Ruins. Again, another common fixture here in the U.K. However, I stood transfixed. Old, old, old gravestones stood, leaned and laid before me. The still early morning sun beginning to warm these worn stones.

I was led to a further, additional cemetery, a newer one, ones I was more familiar with, but certainly not as prettier as its older, separated section. We wandered all the way to a stone with a familiar name. Syliva Plath Hughes, with the Hughes heavily scratched off, with what looked like hundreds of pens stuck into her grave, like explorational flags, fans of her work, pilgrimaging to their fallen god. This grave was the reason my partner brought me here. He assumed that as an English teacher, I knew a lot about her, that I was invested in her storyline. Truth be told, at the time I knew little of Sylvia Plath (other than the Bell Jar) and nothing about why the Hughes part of her name was so controversial.

I am and have always been drawn to cemeteries- but only old ones. Which may seem odd as I am deeply, deeply terrified and preoccupied by death. Newer cemeteries seem so sterile, the recent indentations, the dirt, the pain, all so fresh. They make death feel too close, which I of course in my lived experience know is true and imminent. Old ones, strangely, feel much more removed, the graves worn, nature that has reclaimed what people forgot was always theirs. The families that mourned them, themselves gone and buried. Far away enough to give perspective. In these old places I feel able to observe death as a foreign spectator.

We stood overlooking the Hebden Bridge Valley, where as if on cue, it began to snow. The bright sun flecked glittering flakes, slowly accumulating into a glistening blanket resting delicately against these heavy stones. I was struck with both the ethereal and heaviness of life on that winter morning.  

A few years later my partner and I went to Manchester for a summer holiday. His parents had grown up there and wanted to show us their old stomping grounds. I could listen endlessly about the places people speak about that are/were important to them. Their old corner store, where they used to catch a bus, the location of their first kiss, where they learned how to ride a bike, you get the idea. I loved hearing and seeing the places that were important to them, carried over to us, who would look at these places differently, to carry the memories of locations and their importance. Our earthly connections to places, people and things. To say to others that this place matters, but I understand after me, it may not matter to anyone else and maybe sharing it with you makes it matter a little longer. 

It was during this trip that my partner wanted to go to various locations outside of the city to take photographs of buildings. Which if you know my partner is of no surprise. He loves photography. He loves buildings. Normally, I don’t mind being a travel companion on these photographic and architectural excursions, but as we were back North, I had only one place on my mind.

“How far is Heptonstall?” I asked him.

In the years since we visited the first time, I thought often about returning. Was this place as precious as I romanticised it in my memory? I know a lot of people would want to leave a memory as they remember it for fear of ruining it. For me, revisiting places is an important form of self trust. Are places actually that beautiful, or are they beautiful because of the feelings and people I associate with them? How the places changed? How have I changed? How do these intersect?

I was thrilled to take this trek back to Heptonstall on my own. However, this day could not have been in greater contrast to its former. I took an afternoon train, deserted and empty. The warm summer rain pounding heavily against the window. I eventually stepped off onto Hebden Bridge, learning that I could actually take the tiny bus directly from the station. The unrelenting rain challenged this same tiny bus chugging up the same steep hill, onto this tiny secret of a place.

Slung around my shoulder was the Nikon camera my partner had bought for me. His endless belief in my artistic endeavours even though my commitment level to the hobby is sporadic at best. His ongoing faith that every time I go out, I should bring my camera- just in case, in fact, most of the time, he kindly slung my camera around his shoulder waiting on the rare occasion I did want it, he would have it at the ready to any passing whims of wanting to capture moments other than just in my own mind.

Sylvia Plath had drawn me more immediately this time. Into the sadder, newer, removed part of the cemetery. The controversial name Hughes on her headstone had been recut and polished, people’s rebellion wiped away for the time being. How often did this happen? I stood looking at her tidied up headstone. Since the last visit I had feverishly researched the lives and relationship of both Sylvia Plath and Ted Hughes. I bought Ted Hughes’ poetry book ‘Birthday Letters’, an anthology of incredibly personal and devastating poems he wrote over a thirty year period, to process the tragic suicide of a very young Plath. One that was only published after his own death as an aged man many, many years after Plath’s death. Plath was an American who died in England. Why was Plath here and Hughes wasn’t? Why were his ashes scattered in some remote location in Dartmoor? It was Hughes who was from Heptonstall. Hughes had decided on this location to bury Plath because he remembered this as the last place the two of them were truly happy together before they had separated. For all of their controversy, and feelings people have regarding his treatment of her while alive, I was struck by this sentiment. It made me sad to think of her alone here and sad that the question of where to bury her was an unthinkable burden of his to make. As I wandered back over to the older section, I couldn’t help but reflect on my own awayness like that of Plath’s. Of being a Canadian likely to die in England (hopefully later rather than sooner). Where would I end up? Who would know I was here?

I suppose when I imagine being buried (as morbid as this seems), I always imagined being buried behind the cemetery of the house I grew up in. I spoke of this cemetery in a previous post The Nature of Things. Similar to Heptonstall, a small cemetery that is also tucked away. There is no outside sign noting the cemetery. I only know it because I was shown. This place I visited on a sometimes, monthly, weekly or daily basis in the 18 years I had lived on Prospect Road. I had not seen this sacred place in person in over 20 years. That secret place that (still) feels strangely mine. Last summer, while visiting Halifax, Canada, I asked my childhood best friend if we could stop by there on our way back from Peggy’s Cove. This place I had visited, and revisited over the years in my mind. It felt strange to share this private moment with him, his two dogs and my partner. We parked over by the now abandoned church, two houses down from my childhood home. I remembered vividly the October afternoon of 20 years ago standing inside, the only time I had ever been inside this building that had been so nearby, attending the funeral of a dear friend’s mother, with the same childhood friend beside me as if we were both still 18 year olds. The light hitting the same angle I remember it did through the orangey/yellow stained glass window, stood in the back of the congregation, the organ music guiding us. As if time had not passed, the house between the church and my childhood home was still owned by the same (even were then) elderly couple that occupied it during my childhood. They had stayed the same, older, but the same.

However, I soon learned that the path had very, very much not. I felt a deep sense of shock as the once clear and gravelled path had now completely disappeared, the moss and grass had reclaimed it, fallen trees created repeated barriers, re-testing my commitment to seeing this place of remembrance. We clambered over each hurdle, like some strange video game we had to conquer with the addition of deep wood Canadian insect infestation as an additional deterrent. When we had finally arrived, further surprisingly, the cemetery, which used to be more enclosed and private, was now wide open, with the long, scorched remains of August grass. This was not as I had remembered it. Perhaps I should have come in Autumn? Where the forest surrounding might have been kinder to my memory? It would have allowed me the space to have taken the time to explore as opposed to being made to feel forced out by the feasting insects, relieved to see anything new come along this long forgotten path, eventually I was saddened to be so relieved to be out of it. This place that had once been so sacred, a place I often imagined spending eternity, was now both logistically but also emotionally out of the question. I was also relieved that I had gone back, that at least I knew it was different now.

A different kind of relief met me that previous summer day when I revisited Heptonstall. Relieved that the once glimmering image of snow that first day was now replaced with the shimmering image of rain on that second day. The same stones, vertical, horizontal, slanted, continued to reflect at different angles, like shards of an enormous mirror shattered over the old church yard, which I hadn’t really noticed that first day. The meditative sound of the rain showers rapping repeatedly against the deeply lush green leaves, soon to be met with the comforting sound of organ practice, proclaiming proudly from the small church. I was immensely grateful for the camera my partner insisted I bring that day- just in case. It occurred to me with each attempt to capture light I was also capturing memories, with all of their fleeting impermanence. It was this that made them precious.


Freud and Magritte

In high school, a friend unknowingly exposed me to the arts in a way that I wouldn’t (and couldn’t) fully appreciate until almost two decades later. Shelly, (an incredibly gifted artist themselves) was a close friend at the time who showed me a huge coffee table book full of famous paintings during a sleep over. I sat completely engrossed, pouring over image after image of famous paintings I had never seen or heard of. She told me to put sticky notes on the ones I loved most, later colour printing them onto expensive photo paper handing them over to me the next morning when I went home. I remember gasping at holding the gorgeous glossy paper, the luxury of being able to take these images away with me, every detail of these impossibly faraway paintings, I studied over and over, putting them up in my bedroom, overwhelmed that I could have something so beautiful so close to me. Although the physical images now long gone over the many moves over the years, one image in particular is etched in my mind: The Empire of Light by Rene Magritte. The evening intimacy of street lighting amongst the protective trees should have been creepy to me, but my eyes repeatedly roved over the empty streets unsure of what I was looking for.

As a child, our family did not visit art galleries, although I’m not sure if many of my friends or their families did where I grew up. While my family visited museums and libraries, art seemed irrelevant to our lives. We were not a house that had artwork up on the walls, we didn’t discuss art, there was no awareness. It’s not that I didn’t create art, or that we didn’t have an appreciation for notable pieces of art we saw in passing, just that my expansion of understanding art was non-existent in my family home. As I discussed in a previous post, my early childhood was quite full of my own creations of art, but not so much being exposed to art, other than working for a local artist as an early teen.

The only time I visibly remember visiting an art gallery as a child was once on an elementary school trip. It was at the Nova Scotia Art Gallery that I vividly remember the first piece of art that really moved me. There, in the main entrance of the gallery stood an enormous imposing painting: a night sky with the faint silhouette of what I later learned was the Star of David, below were piles of ash. I stood as a young child, absolutely transfixed on this image. I had no idea what it was, or what it meant, I just understood that I couldn’t move past it. So much so, that I had fallen behind my peers, with an adult ( I cannot remember who ) came back to retrieve me. ‘That’s the Holocaust’ they told me, as if I already understood the historical and cultural relevance of that painting, it wasn’t until I asked my father to explain the word to me when I later went home. In that moment I had no knowledge of these factors, I only understood how that painting made me feel, how it completely absorbed me, how I could not look away.

I don’t think I set foot in another gallery until University. Beaverbrook Art Gallery laid at the bottom of the hill in Fredericton and I wouldn’t have stepped foot within it if I wasn’t assigned to as part of a theatre project. During this time the gallery had a controversial exhibit aptly named ‘Art in Dispute’ where paintings at the Beaverbook were now in legal proceedings between the gallery and Lord Beaverbrook’s family arguing over whether these very famous and thus coveted pieces of art were a gift or on loan. The paintings, ones that had surely been there for many forgotten years were suddenly the talk of the town. My theatre professor at the time, Ilkay, organised a guided tour of the gallery for one of our theatre classes, instead of going to lesson, we were to head to the gallery. When we were finished the tour we were to choose a painting from the gallery to correspond with the plays we were studying, we were to then perform these scenes in front of said painting to a public audience. These paintings that I might never have had reason to see, or know about, I might have remained oblivious to, are now such a vivid reminder of that class and that time. I visited the gallery several more times after that performance, aching to see Salvador Dali’s imposing Saint James the Great but it is Lucien Freud’s ‘Hotel Bedroom’ which still greatly affects me even when I recall it now, the excruciatingly worn faces of two people, lovers, who show all the exhaustion of a couple who tried to stay in love but failed.

I am somewhat ashamed to admit that after university and even in my early years of living in London, I started going to art galleries regularly for all of the wrong reasons. As I come to unpack a lot in my own relationships with the arts over the years, although my early interest in the arts might have been more innocent and pure, it is undeniably the case that later on this was due to the appearance of how I looked to others while engaging with the arts. There is no secret that the arts are heavily linked to class politics and I went to galleries because it was the ‘cultured’ thing to do, also galleries being free in London meant that no money, only time might have been wasted. I realise how ridiculous this may sound, and how privileged I now am, having all of these things I was supposed to appreciate within arms length but so much of that time feels like a blur. I wandered aimlessly through galleries, and instead of looking at art, I looked at visitors wondering if their reasons for being there were purer than mine. Were they there to look at the art or to appear as if they were looking at art?

My partner is a person that goes to look at art. I didn’t really clue into this at first. Weekend after weekend, we went to gallery after gallery. He went to see specific things. He was completely immersed. He was inspired. Not because of how he looked looking at it but because he loves art. He makes art in his every waking spare hour. Not for others to look at, not because he is talented, but just to create. Just to do art. Shockingly, his family is like this too, both parents incredibly talented and dedicated artists. They did and do art for the sake of doing art. My partner’s mother did her art degree after raising two children, she went to art school just after my partner did. My partner’s father has kept a visual journal for 40 years, sketching or painting an image from everyday of his life. He did not go to art school. He just loves to create. They regularly go to galleries to look, to learn, to appreciate. It was like someone lit a match within me, that I now suddenly had to look. Like words, and melodies, there were endless images out there for me to absorb. Like a secret now unearthed, I felt like I now had permission to seek out as many as I could find.

The first artist I remember more recently really being taken by was Jenny Saville. My partner and I were visiting the Edinburgh National Gallery of Modern Art. Her paintings are immense, grotesque, consuming. One painting can take up an entire huge room at a gallery, and there they were, room after room. Bigger than any other painting I had ever seen, even Dali’s ‘Saint James the Great’ seemed to pale in comparison. She painted fat people, like me, so unabashedly, bodies like mine, on repeat were taking unimaginable aesthetic space rooms upon room upon rooms. I had never seen or felt anything like it in my entire life. I felt like that little girl that day at the Nova Scotia Gallery. I was a moth to a flame, I couldn’t look away. This time I was the one immersed, inspired.

A few years later, I saw a advertisement for a Lucien Freud exhibit hanging across the Royal Academy of Arts. The only reason I knew this name was of course from my time in university. I knew nothing else by the artist but I was intrigued. I saw immediately work similar to that of Jenny Saville, the same kinds of bodies, bodies like mine, painted again and again but different. I had always knew that artists inspired other artists, but it was the first time I had seen it so blatantly and so effectively. The influence Freud had on Saville, their realism. I wandered around, taking in so many of his own self-portraits, so many other portraits until- there it was. I have to admit that when I saw the name Lucien Freud, I hoped beyond seemingly impossible measure that ‘Hotel Bedroom’ would be there. I was then quick to remind myself of how far away Fredericton was, silly to hope for something so implausible. Yet, there it was, their worn faces right in front of me. I stood overcome, at this painting transported from another time and space. As much as things change over the years, it was so, so comforting to have something remain the way I remembered it. It hadn’t occurred to me until this moment, that there was a high likelihood that I may never have seen that painting ever again, but there it was.

More recently, we visited the Royal Museums of Fine Arts in Brussels. It is a grand and enormous museum. Unbeknownst to me at the time, I had COVID, and I do not exaggerate when I say I suffered for art that day. The gallery is a shocking 7 stories full of incredible work after incredible work. When we finally arrived in the Magritte section, which is situated a inside maze away from the regular gallery, I looked left and right, again hoping for something that was unlikely. So many famous paintings as I knew from the Lucien Freud painting are on loan, or are situated away from their similarly famous counterparts, owned as singular pieces by other galleries around the world. My partner, also ill, sat back on a bench, unable to continue on our journey, I pressed forward, searching, arriving at the final little room, ready to turn back empty handed. However, lightning struck twice, because there it was. I was alone in that little room. I had the whole painting to myself. I could take as long as I wanted to look at it, to study it. I stared at every inch of that painting, getting as close as I could without some alarm sounding or some security guard interfering. I stood. I looked. I absorbed. Each time I went to leave, the painting pulled me back, reminding myself that I may never ever see it again. I remembered Shelly and that same image that she had given to me on that glossy paper. How could either of us have known that twenty years later, I see would see ‘The Empire of Light’ by Rene Magritte before me, this time in person, once again struck by the quiet intimacy of that illuminated street.

(New) Scotland

Recently, I’ve spoken a lot about home and what that means. About missing places and things. But also, equally about exploration. The pull and push (both personal and circumstantial) of what moves us to move (or not). It seems reasonable in a time where our movement is restricted to consider what we did when we used to move and what we’ll do when we’re able to move around again. 

I often wonder about what my ancestors thought when they first moved to North America. With both Irish and Scottish ancestry, I can imagine (and have learned about) the pretty grim realities that faced some of them. That leaving was the only option. Although, I do wonder if they had other  individual reasons for leaving, or who was not coming with them. I wonder what their journeys were like, their first impressions as they got off the boat. After such an inconceivably long voyage to arrive on land that was almost interchangeable to what they had just left behind. Were they disappointed? Relieved? Or both? 

I knew little of their geographical similarities growing up. When hearing Nova Scotia, (nova meaning new), I understood my province’s namesake as a colonial claiming of ‘newly discovered’ land. Of marking their territory, so to speak. The inverted flags, the crests, the tartans, the family names, speaking of gaelic, the bagpipes. Bringing Scotland to the other side. However, when I visited the Hebrides in 2019, it occurred to me that the name Nova Scotia was not only a title, but was perhaps a way of identifying the remarkably identical similarity in landscape. Finding again what you thought you had left behind. 

When I was doing my teaching degree, one of my instructors spoke about taking a small boat to Grand Manan with a local fisherman to see the puffins there. He told us this story about being in that tiny boat in the vast Atlantic, his first time on the east coast. I sat listening, comforted as he told us about how they bobbed along the water, but then his voice had changed tone. There came a point where the fog had rolled in so thickly, the fisherman had to stop his boat because he could no longer see ahead. My instructor spoke of the deep, intense fear he had at this moment in contrast to the calm of this fisherman. Fear. Fear? It was here where I became utterly confused. It had never occurred to me until listening to his story that fog could be something to fear. I love fog. I know that probably sounds crazy, but I really, truly, utterly do. I love the dewy, all consuming, heavy air. The fog that consumed my community almost every morning. I, often in the passenger seat of my father’s car as we drove down the narrow, winding but oh so familiar routes in the thick grey air and never once did I worry. He knew those roads. Fear really is about the unknown.

Or sometimes, it’s not. Sometimes, fear is about re-visiting places you have reasons to be afraid of, or worry about. I had bid (what I thought was) a permanent farewell to Nova Scotia in 2003 when I left for university. While many of my friends stayed with no plans of leaving, I left almost immediately after high school graduation. I was eager to live elsewhere, at that point it could have been anywhere. As mentioned in other posts, I lived in a few other places in Canada and never, ever was Nova Scotia a re-consideration. Even if there were economic opportunities, which there were not, to me, it was scorched earth. Until 2015. In July of that year, my living in the UK seemed to be in jeopardy because of clerical errors with my second visa application. My first visa had ended, I was no longer able to be in the country. I had to go home. At a minimum I was to be in Nova Scotia for a month and and at a maximum, indefinitely. This was not the plan. I was forced to go back. I was afraid. 

For a time that was truly terrifying in one way, it ended up being such an unbelievably beautiful homecoming in another. It’s funny how sometimes you can really come to appreciate something when you have to sit with it a while. For the first time, maybe ever, I had allowed myself the space to admit what I had loved and missed about Nova Scotia. I missed my mother, my dearest and oldest friends, the water (we’re spoiled for choice really, ocean, lakes, rivers), real autumn, the easy warmth of Bluenosers, having memories in each place you drive by and of course, the fog. I really could go on. My friend has recently moved to Halifax and hearing/watching his new discoveries of a place I know so well, I do admit that I miss Nova Scotia in a way I never knew I could admit to. That when my second visa was eventually sorted 4 months later, as I hugged my mother good-bye in the airport, I no longer wanted to run away from Nova Scotia. For the first time in my life, Nova Scotia seemed as golden an option as the UK. That loving one place didn’t have to diminish my love for another. Even though I still preferred the unfamiliar to the familiar, it was nice to know that the familiar existed should I ever want to return. 

Or sometimes as I’ve learned, the familiar is in the unfamiliar. As I mentioned earlier, we had ventured to the Hebrides, this very remote part of the UK that is quite an expedition, even by modern travel standards. From London to Glasgow to Stornoway, with each plane and each airport diminishing in size. After an overnight journey, we finally stepped off this tiny, tiny plane through the rain storm into the also tiny, tiny airport. As weary travellers we piled into our rental car to first visit the Isle of Lewis where with bleary, sleep deprived eyes we saw the Callanish Stone Circle, Bosta Iron Age Houses,and Highland cattle who meandered across the road, paying no mind to the drivers waiting behind them. We stopped to get groceries amongst the locals before we made the hour journey to our rural, rented house in the Isle of Harris. As we drove along the unfamiliar roads with Google Maps navigating our route, my head resting against the window, with the pounding rain and fog (along with my eyelids) getting heavier and heavier, it felt achingly familiar.

It baffles me how grey is so often associated with being muted. London grey really is extraordinarily different to ocean grey and it feels deeply misguided to confuse them. Anyone who has ever lived by the ocean knows that the colour grey is what appears when the sea and air are at their most alive. Where the wind and water slap you like a newborn. The movement that comes with the colour grey. We, winding our way through the Hebrides, the wet rain and wind whipping against us. The others hoped for better weather for the week. I prayed for the opposite. This was as good as it ever gets. When nature takes you by the shoulders and shakes you awake. 

I awoke as the car pulled into our interim home. I climbed out of the car, I climbed up one of the barnacled rocks, pulling my hood down so I could absorb the heavy, foggy air. I panned 360 degrees, over the bleak, treeless landscape, to the many coves that hugged the reluctantly smoothed down prehistoric rocks. I breathed in, deeply, the familiar air, the mirror image of Nova Scotia and its coastal communities. I was home again. (New) Scotland.

Gord Downie

I am now a permanent resident of the U.K. It was always my intention to move here ‘permanently’ back in 2013. I felt quite strongly as I packed up things in Canada that it was a closed chapter, that the U.K. was the place I wanted to put down roots. Immediately upon moving here, I was met with a large Canadian community, whose feelings about being here were mixed. Some like me, wanted to stay indefinitely, some were counting down the days until they were back on Canadian soil and others weren’t sure where they fit, going elsewhere or leaving or staying in the U.K. by accident, wishing they were in the other place again. 

You do become divided when you move somewhere else and I don’t just mean abroad. You become divided for all sorts of reasons, like geographical horcruxes. Even from being a Nova Scotian to a New Brunswicker, small differences, but differences they were. A Maritimer to an Ontarian, the assumed peripheral to the assumed centre. An Easterner to a Westerner, traditionally ‘have not’ provinces. A North American to a European, the ‘new’ world versus the ‘old’. These environments you long to be a part of, to explore, to observe. The more you move the more you realise how the same and not the same you are in comparison to others. The constant wondering whether staying in one place longing for other places is more or less agonising than moving and missing what you’ve already experienced. It’s an ongoing struggle.

I realise that no matter how long I live here, that I will always be an outsider. That as soon as I open my mouth that I will not be one of them. That I will be reminded of Canada, that people will be curious about Canada, that I will have to explain over and over again why I left or rather, what I was gravitating towards. On some days this is harder to justify than others. On others, it is clear as day. To have to explain to people what my tiny, tiny, tiny experience of Canada is like, feels ingenuine, and yet, it also is more of a feeling than anything I can put into words. 

My partner, when reading my blog for the first time when we started dating, said that my writing voice was just so ‘North American’. He means this as a compliment. I ask him to explain what exactly he means by this but he can’t really explain it. Somehow, strangely, I understand what he meant though, or I think I do. A friend and I were trying to define ‘Canadian Literature’, which seemed all at once futile, narrow, problematic and yet necessary when trying to define how the literature we teach is different to the literature we grew up with. I say this with an awareness of some of the deeply damaging issues regarding nationalism, but as an outsider, it is comforting to be able to speak about some common reference points such as places, food, people and events that others also know and understand. It’s something you can take for granted when you live around people who can share in this with you all of the time.

When my ex and I first moved to Saskatchewan, he bought a new car and had created a car challenge of only listening to Canadian artists. My own music had largely, already, fit this bill. Sarah Harmer, Jenn Grant, Fiest, The Stars, Michael Buble, I could go on. These were the people I already knew before moving to Saskatchewan, the CDs I already had. The new car was then christened with Gord Downie. My then beloved’s beloved. Even before the car, I knew how he loved Gord Downie with such a devoted and profound reverence, and although I admired it, I didn’t fully understand it. I’m going to be honest here and say that up until that point, my only familiarity with The Hip was Ahead by a Century and Bobcaygeon. Even with this embarrassingly insufficient selection, his voice did resonate with me, I just never thought to explore him further. Out of all the many albums of theirs my ex could have bought he chose We are the Same. We listened to the album over and over again as we explored the prairies. I never tired of it. Every time we listened, him singing along with every fiber of his being, I began to understand his love for Gord.

When I left Canada I didn’t bring any music with me. My CDs were left in my ex-boyfriend’s car, and after our break-up, I forgot they existed, forgot to ask for them back and by the time I remembered them, it didn’t seem to make sense to have them if I was getting rid of most of what I owned anyway. When I moved here, I was so wrapped up in trying to adapt, trying to get my head around this new culture that the only music I listened to was music that was on in the background, music that was introduced to me or just nothing. Music had fallen off my radar. It wasn’t until many months later that I played these familiar voices from these abandoned CDs. The lyrics to songs I knew so well because they were played at such pivotal moments of my life. For the life of me now, I cannot remember any new music or lyrics. But those songs, I remember every word, every note, and even the order in which they play on their respective albums. They hold a sacred place in my mind. However, I did not play Gord Downie. For a lot of reasons, I suppose. Firstly, I’m sorry to say, but I genuinely forgot. Secondly, he never really felt like mine. Thirdly, he reminded me of a complicated time with someone who I loved but was relieved to be far away from.

The summer of 2016, Gord Downie played his last concert with The Tragically Hip, in Kingston, a place I had also lived. Gord was dying. My fellow Canadians and I all met at our friends’ house, staying up late, waiting, because of the time difference. Again, I have to confess, I still felt something of a fake, this one album I had listened to, could I really call myself a Gord Downie fan? Did I really understand the significance of this concert? To mourn the death of a man who was not yet dead but was close. To see that with the little strength this man had left, he poured it out for all of us to bask in. To watch his unapologetic eccentricities, that we were relieved hadn’t been lost, even after he had lost so much. His vulnerability. It was then that I understood why my ex had loved him the way he did. The night of that concert was a preemptive wake, his own funeral of sorts. To have had the bravery in admitting his own death. To go out the way he wanted. I sat around that room of other Canadians and we wept in a shared understanding.

Not too long afterwards, Gord Downie died. It was shortly after that I played the album for the first time since having left Canada. Enough time had passed. I still listen to it on the rare occasion. The most recent time, my partner asking, if this is one of those Canadian artists? I am shocked that he doesn’t understand the absurdity of his question. How would he? We didn’t share it. 

We are the Same. The permanence and irony of that title. After all the different moves, all the different people. I am reminded that yes, in so many ways, we are the same. While simultaneously, for so many other reasons and in so many other ways, we are not.

One Long Snow Day

Winter has come, stayed briefly and then has seemingly left again. I’ll say this for a U.K. Winter, if it was a house guest, they’d be that person who you never quite see enough, brings a tiny overnight bag, cleans up after themselves, disappearing quietly before you wake, leaving you wanting more. This is of course in stark contrast to Canadian winters, where if it were a house guest, it would be comparable to a person that is lovely at first but brings huge suitcases, quickly dominating your space, with no real plan on when they’re leaving. And if they do leave, you can’t be sure they won’t be coming back. There’s this almost superstitious quietness about even mentioning snow in Canada, the mere thought or desire of warm weather is enough to loudly beckon winter back in, where as in England, it’s as if winter is an over attended to cat, if you want it too much, it just won’t come to you.

I have always lived with winter before moving to the U.K. I moved to the U.K. for its more temperate climate, I was never a fan of the winter or summer in equal parts. I was looking for something as close as to an eternal autumn as I could get close to, and in all honesty for all of the rain London boasts to have, it’s still never quite enough for my liking. When people said the winters were mild here, I thought they meant a light and short winter, not no winter at all. The word winter is something the Brits still swear they have in Southern England just as the Saskatchewanians swear they have autumn. To both of these groups I strongly disagree. To me, autumn is a long good-bye to summer, its own rightful quarter of the year where layers gradually pile on easing into the big blanket of snow that inevitably awaits. Whereas to Saskatchewanians, autumn is a concept (a week perhaps) of sweltering summer almost immediately followed by a blizzard that starts the annual, six months of winter. To the Southern Brits, winter is the wearing of the same jackets they wore in autumn all the way through to Spring. The Novemerish rain, that to some feels never ending but still welcomes football matches to continue all year round. No, my friends, that is not winter. To explain winter to people who think they know winter, who don’t really understand winter seems like an obnoxiously Canadian and somewhat condescending thing to do. How do you explain winter to the winterless?

Lockdown, for me, has felt like one long, exaggerated winter. I feel equal parts cozy and grateful to be indoors and the temporary pause in time, while, simultaneously, experiencing cabin fever  and wanting to be able to move freely outside of my home. I am familiar with this feeling. I have experienced this feeling regularly for most of my life before moving here. I think what Lockdown has revealed to me about England is that people here aren’t used to having their mobility limited. We’re talking about the land of easily accessible planes, trains and automobiles, and walking to boot. Whatever you desire is within grasp, whenever you want. The idea of grocery shopping once a week was the first obstacle my partner faced in the first lockdown. Hunkering down was not a concept he or many people here were familiar with. It felt oppressive. To have your movement controlled and dictated by a huge force of nature. In a time where many people have so much control over who they talk to, what they watch, and what they listen to, I am reminded of the importance of patience and humility. That sometimes, waiting something out is sometimes your only choice and more importantly, how you wait it out, is sometimes the ultimate choice.

Although I grew up with winter in Nova Scotia, when I think of winter, I often think of Fredericton. I think it’s because it was the first time in my life where I was living in a place as a pedestrian facing the elements on my own. It’s not that I didn’t know what cold was growing up but living rurally where you get everywhere by car is a different world to having to walk to and from bus stops as a university student in a -30 cold snap with snow up to my waist. I learned to exist within the unforgiving elements. It was not uncommon to wear your outdoor gear indoors, to be shivering while the heat poured out of the poorly insulated walls, despite your best efforts in trying to blow dry plastic around each window hoping to contain any heat and/or money. This was especially true at 352 York Street. This terribly insulated (both in winter and summer) apartment, which I utterly adored on the corner of York and Aberdeen Street. On one side of the house sat a Lebansese restaurant where I spent many an early morning observing while shivering in our office. On the other side of the house was the old Hartford shoe factory with a large tree hanging over it. I used to watch as the icicles glistened under the street light, the snow swirling around, like tossed glitter. This too done, while shivering on the couch.

It is this apartment I equate with Lockdown so strongly because one of these winters our university faculty went on strike. I don’t remember extensive details of that time other than time felt like a bit of a blur but also that it stretched on. We were basically in the house 24/7. One, because it was a particularly cold winter during a three week cold snap. Two, we didn’t really have anywhere else to go. Three, we didn’t really have any money to go anywhere to. We turned the heat up, we got some Gilmore Box Sets and we did some Sudoku. It was an extortionately expensive month with very little to show for it. My roommates and I adored each other but we grew tired of our scenery and the conversation. We missed the outdoors. We missed other people. Like one big snowstorm that wouldn’t quite go away. I hadn’t really even remembered that time and I probably wouldn’t have if it wasn’t for Lockdown. 

Last week, magically, it snowed for maybe the second time in my 8 years of living here. The comedically light snowfall that had everyone not been in Lockdown it would have created a kind of lockdown anyway. Snow was uncharacteristically on every surface. I wanted to go for a late night walk in this temporary wonderland. Frantically, I searched my house high and low for my hat and mittens. How could I go walking in winter without these things? They were nowhere to be found. I braced myself, strangely afraid of this now foreign cold. I should have remembered my friend Kristin’s wise observation, that in winter temperatures, snow equals warm. What a hilariously astute observation from someone who grew up in the Bahamas. I didn’t need the hat and mittens. Secondly, I forgot the absolute silence snow brings. On this same walk I brought along my audiobook to keep me company along the carpet of freshly fallen (and soon to be evaporated) snow. I forgot how quiet snow shushes everything. I put the audiobook away, I wanted to be consumed by this rare silence. As I walked I remembered back to the first annual snowfall as I sat in James Dunn Hall, watching the International Students who saw snow for the first time. The awe and wonder of snow. This thing they would eventually come to both love and hate. The temperature dropped to a whopping -6, I became even more of a coward to the winter. I found my hat and my mittens. I forgot how crisp the air felt, how alive you can feel. I forgot how much I loved my rosy cheeks thawing once coming in from the outdoors. Grinning at how much I appreciated both the outdoors and indoors again. These seemingly small things, these things that at once seemed all consuming, constant, I had forgotten. How could I have forgotten just how beautiful winter is?

There are things that at the time you swear you won’t forget, or that you feel are just too palpable to fade. However, time has a funny habit of playing tricks with one’s mind. Here I am, ten years later forced back indoors in a place where I felt quite certain that would never happen again. Indoors with another two other people I really adore. We miss the outdoors. We miss other people. Like one big snow day that won’t go away. It occurs to me that if 28 years worth of winters can be whittled down to a few moments and memories, ones I had swore I wouldn’t forget but did, and ones I didn’t think memorable but surprisingly, were. It makes me wonder what will I remember about this year or two of Lockdown. What will I and won’t I forget?

A Change of Tune

Bus Replacement Service.

If you’re living in a place where trains aren’t a major method of transportation this may mean nothing to you. If you do, then you know as well as I do, the mere painful mention is enough to elicit the heaviest of sighs. What’s so bad about a bus you wonder? It’s not even that the bus is particularly bad, in fact, sometimes it’s even a coach, which given the slight boost in comfort should make up for the lack of train service- but it doesn’t. When you’re used to life in the fast lane on the rail, the legal limit of the road can feel like a lethargic crawl home. To make matters worse it’s usually on a Sunday, which for a teacher who  already feels guilty for not doing something work related on a Sunday, you’re even more behind and the week hasn’t even begun. That carefree fun version of yourself quickly disappears as you chastise yourself on the extra long road home. 

There’s also a shared atmospheric camaraderie of regret on these buses. People become strangely territorial on buses. On trains there are so many carriages, the leg room- endless, promises of warm beverages and snacks, scenery off the beaten path, people are relaxed.  On a bus, as you lug your overpacked suitcases onto what is essentially one carriage, it quickly feels like the school bus scene from Forrest Gump. People cannot contain their disappointment: with you, with themselves, with everything. If being on a train is like having roommates, being on a bus is like sharing a too small room with your sibling and not in a nostalgic way. 

This was me on Sunday crammed into a seat with my nearly 7 foot tall boyfriend. 

Now to be fair, I knew ahead of time this journey was going to be a Bus Replacement Service when I booked my ticket, which, strangely, makes me one of the fortunate ones. To the others (and we’ve all been there), rocking up to the station, the platform eerily quiet, the silent row of buses stretched before you with makeshift paper signs lazily taped up in the windows, the bus drivers glaring. It sinks your heart in a way few things can. Normally, I don’t have any problems with bus drivers (or any other drivers of any other transport) but Bus Replacement Bus drivers ooze bitterness. Maybe that’s just us projecting our disappointment onto these moving messengers but they certainly don’t improve matters. This has been particularly true during COVID. You can’t even fake a smile as you get onto the bus to pretend like it’s fine, who’s going to see it behind your sad mask? Misery loves company. So you can imagine my surprise when my bus driver leapt onto the bus maskless with an air of arrogance, I was not prepared for this annoying peppy change in tone, nor was I impressed. This guy was not my cup of tea. 

We rode in sullen silence (which is pretty average) along the soulless motorway losing all sense of time. Had it been 10 minutes? An hour? Did it matter anymore? I was lost in my non-bus day dreaming when I heard a low melody. At first, I was irritated, in true bus style, at a fellow passenger playing his music too loud, as if I was a crotechty neighbour. But then- I heard his voice- unmistakable- a Mr. Phil Collins. It’s was not coming from around me but from above like some heavenly proclamation 

“How could you just walk away from me?”

I was entranced. 

It didn’t stop there. The oh so familiar hits kept coming, increasing in volume, one after another, like a beloved radio station, like the days of yore. In a day and age of being able to curate and select my own music all the time, I had missed the random nature of pleasant and safe unpredictably. Songs that had genuinely not entered my ears in at least a decade but that I knew every word to as if I had written them myself. By about the fourth song there was a small group of passengers joyfully singing along as if we were in a shared karaoke. It wasn’t until I heard the beginning and prompt switching past Spice Girls’ ‘Wanna be’ that I realised that this was no radio station. This was the driver’s personal playlist. Beneath my masked face spread a grin, that’s why this driver was so arrogant, he knew he was going to turn (not literally) this bus around. 

On the hilariously random topic of Spice Girls ‘Wanna Be’, the last time I heard this song was no joke, coincidentally on another coach in recent memory. Now when I say coach I mean a Tour Coach which although the exact same kind of vehicle, the vibe is its polar opposite. A holiday coach is one of laughter, napping, and is really the height of luxury. The driver is beloved, the bestower of knowledge, heavily re-bestowed with tips. Again, I repeat, the same kind of coach. On that particular coach, we were journeying through Ireland, soothed with Irish harps, fiddles and gaelic lullabies as the sun set. As we neared Dublin, the end of our journey, our bus driver bizarrely switched musical lanes over to

 ‘“Soooo I’ll tell you what I want what I really, really want”

To which his sleepy passengers were jolted awake, not unhappily I might add. The 70ish year old set of Italian couples across from me whooping and clapping loudly as if we were all heading to the club. These same people who had insisted on loudly shouting Italian phrases at the bus driver (who could not speak Italian)  the whole 12 hours earlier with no knowledge of English, inexplicably knew every single word to the song. I could not hold back my genuine laughter and then tried to explain to my deaf mother what was so funny about this change in tone although the loud clapping by the elderly Italians gave her some idea. 

All this bus and Spice Girl talk to say that sometimes, even in this time, maybe even particularly so, there are still some lovely aspects of unpredictability. That sometimes it’s nice to not be in control. Especially the musical kind.

The Need to Read Part 2

Here we are again. Two years later and I’m still not the reader I want to be.

I know I’ve said this before, but as an English teacher you feel a real pressure to be reading all the time. Your students expect it, your colleagues expect it and even you, yourself expect it. In this world of tempestuous TV and the allure of social media (to which I fully indulge), I often feel the responsibility to keep book culture alive (and thriving). However, if I can’t be bothered to read, and literature literally pays my bills, then really, who else can be bothered?

In January 2015, I made a New Year’s Resolution to read more. I put forward a challenge to my classes that I was going to partake in my own ’20 Book Challenge’ from January to the end of the school year in July. Now, this was met with various reactions which I’m sure will be of no shock to you:

“Uh…do we have to do it?”

“What if our books are toolong?”

“What happens if we don’t read 20?”

And so on and so forth.

To which I essentially explained that the challenge was a challenge, not a punishment, not a threat, just something to put forward and see where we got to. Considering I was reading zero books (aside from books I read with my classes of course), ANYTHING would be considered a win, for them and for me. So we began. I put charts up on the wall with all of their names. They put stickers when they had completed a book. I checked and chatted with my students about their books everyday, gave them targets to read towards, encouraged them to continue, to allow them to give up and find something else if they wanted.

I think there’s also an expectation (certainly among my students) that if you’re a lover of books, you’re a lover of all books. That because I’m a reader I’ll read anything that’s around, ( I mean I would if I had zero options) and while I would defend all books and their right to exist, I don’t love all books. I think you can split readers into the ‘finishers’ and ‘quitters’ when it comes to a books that are difficult to get through. I’m self-admittedly a ‘quitter’ and while I think I’m quite determined in other aspects of my life, I believe deeply that life is too short to read books I don’t enjoy. I shared this openly with my class of students who thought me a ‘finisher’; to be honest even the most apathetic reader was shocked. I, Miss Drysdale was a book ‘quitter’.

Now that’s another thing, I’m trying to make ‘book talk’ cool in my middle school classroom. Reading is not cool at my school because I live in a community where reading is seen as a ‘posh’ or ‘educated'(in a bad way) it means people don’t want to be perceived as thinking they’re somehow better than others, or that they’re trying to change themselves. Not only do I have to combat the allure of the world of social media that makes reading seem boring, but a culture where socio-economic factors make people afraid to read.

“You’ll never get me to read Miss, I hate all books, all books are boring.”

“Okay, first of all, that’s not true, you loved ‘Of Mice and Men’, you said you never knew you could love a book before you read that”.

“Yeah, but that was different.”

The difference is that we read it together. I forget sometimes that I’m responsible for creating the magic of book loving in my own classroom, like my own English teachers did with me. How did they transfer that magic to get me to read and love books on own? I wrack my brain often thinking about it.

I’ve learned that some of the deterrents are people’s confidence, people are afraid. My colleague, a Math teacher confessed to me that she was a ‘bad reader’, and that she could never finish reading 20 books before July. She had almost written herself off as hopeless. It was this all too real moment for me, thinking of my own childhood experiences with Maths, that I had labeled and still label myself ‘bad at Math’. And sometimes, in rare moments, you’ll remember that they’re just that, labels, that can be peeled off, and tossed away. My colleague did just that, she decided to partake in the 20 book challenge. My heart fluttered. The world gained another reader because she seeks to imagine a self beyond her own.

Just today, while I was on duty in the library, I saw a student standing at the adult section of the library. Now, when a student stands in that section, it’s either a.) a mistake, or b.) because he’s been sent there by a teacher to find a specific book. I approached him asking what book he was looking for, he said he didn’t know. This is pretty common, students are at a loss when looking for books and often need help finding something. But this was different. He said he was looking for ‘surreal fiction’. Wanted to read the classic Russian authors. He was looking for a book just to read. Because he wanted to. Not because he had to, but because he wanted to read something beautiful. My heart swelled. Again, the world gained another reader because he seeks to understand a place beyond his own.

Fear motivates so many of our decisions, and it’s easy to understand why. But that doesn’t mean we should give into it. We should be afraid not to read. Particularly when the world is fast becoming a heartbreaking place, a place I struggle to understand (did I ever?). It is at this time that books offer so much. Remembering history so we don’t repeat it; understanding others’ perspectives’; seeking refuge from the harshness this world currently presents; finding ways to better ourselves, to care; and so many other countless reasons. Even if you don’t believe in books for love’s sake, then why not for the benefit of making people better communicators and more empathetic? Words, knowing their nuances, impact and possibilities creates for us societies full of people who are eager to understand and be understood. Readers are people who can change the world around them because to read a book is to commit to deeply listening, without speaking. And in times likes these, it could the most powerful and necessary communication of all.

At the beginning of my teaching career here in England, I wrote a blog post about reading entitled ‘The Need to Read’ which you can find here:

The Nature of Things

Out of all the words that I would use to describe myself, ‘outdoorsy’ wouldn’t be one of them.

Now, just to be clear, I was not a city kid who never understood nor experienced nature. I lived in a place called “Goodwood” for heaven’s sake. My father was an avid outdoorsman. He considered the woods an extension of himself, something I wish that I shared with him. When I speak to others about where they grew up, I know I was a fortunate child to have grown up in a house outside of the city, with an expansive forest behind it. Looking back it was incredible, trees on three sides of the house, it should have been a child’s dream.

I wanted absolutely nothing to do with it.

My sister, keen to explore, would always be begging me to go outside with her, to which I would flippantly turn down. Why would I go outside, when I had a whole world to explore inside (where it was either cozy and warm in winter, or cool and shaded in summer)? Sometimes my mother would be so flabbergasted she would implement a no indoor afternoon, to which she would ceremoniously lock us out, (well let’s be honest, me out) so that my incredibly pale skin had any chance to see the sun. My sister I’m sure would always be thrilled that finally we’d get to play outside together. However, locked out or not, I’d always make sure I’d quickly grab a book during my temporary banishment and seek shelter under the largest tree I could find. I’d sit there smugly, feeling like I had fooled my mother. Essentially, I had found the indoors of the outdoors. In hindsight, it would have been kinder for me to have played some make believe in the woods with my sister, and it probably wouldn’t have hurt my shockingly pale skin to get some Vitamin D, but alas, hindsight is 20/20.

Now don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the outdoors. I’m not one of those people who hate the outside. I’ve had many, many positive experiences. As I said, my father has a deep love and appreciation for the outdoors, and would take us on beautiful hikes where I’d see the most unseemingly gorgeous places, that were literally in my back yard. I was a Girl Guide that didn’t shy away from camping in any weather or season, and enjoyed the camaraderie that being in the great outdoors allows in a group of people. I have attended many camps, outdoors camps, with insects galore, dutifully putting on the deet to head outdoors, rain or shine gleefully participating in any activity that was asked of me.

There was one defining moment though that brought me over to the nature loving side, even only for a brief moment.

In fifth grade our class went on an over night class trip. It for three nights and four days outside Lunenberg in Nova Scotia. I mean obviously, I was excited about the trip because what kid isn’t excited to go away with their friends on a trip where they get to hang out for days on end? Being a teacher now, I understand that excitement even more, it’s really the beginning of independence, kids having a fun time away from home that doesn’t involve their family. It’s an ongoing coming of age story, really. Anyways, I knew in advance that this trip was going to involve nature in a big way, which was the part I was the least thrilled about, considering the name of the trip was called “Earthkeepers”. We arrived off of our school buses and I was struck at the beauty of the place, it was across the street from the ocean and the land around was endless.

Now, I don’t remember the trip in great detail, primarily because it was 20 years ago.  What I do remember was being enthralled with the outdoors. There was so many diverse areas in such a contained region. The part that I was particularly taken with was this place that was an old saw mill. It was this expansive field that was completely filled with sawdust. What’s more, is that walking on it felt like what I imagine walking on the moon to feel like. We as students were asked to look at our surroundings in a completely new way that I have never considered before. I had turned a temporary new leaf. When we returned back from our trip we were given additional assignments that we had to do at our own houses. One of these activities included going into a wooded area behind our house and picking an area to explore throughly giving it a name and describing it in great depth.

One autumn afternoon shortly after the trip, I trekked out behind my house. Now a word about my backyard: behind my house is a path that leads down to a cemetery. Even though my childhood house was off of a main highway, the entrance to the cemetery was not obvious to naked eye. In the grove of some overhanging trees between the house of mine and my neighbour’s, was a wooded path that felt hopelessly romantic (it was later gravelled, which now makes the road significantly easier to drive on but makes it feel far less secret). When you got down to the end of the road, it was not yet clear there was anything important there. When taking a left, and heading down a slight clearing, there was one of the most beautiful cemeteries I have ever yet to see. I know beautiful is a strange word to describe a graveyard, but it really was. It was nestled in what felt like a forgotten patch of land quietly tucked away. Nature had reclaimed most of the gravestones within the plots. The graves weren’t orderly like in most cemeteries I have ever visited, they were scattered, making it feel almost personalised for each person laid to rest there. It’s was an intimately small cemetery, and I think the last time someone had been buried there was ten years before. As a person who is intensely disturbed and petrified of death, for some reason, I did not fear that place. Instead, I found it to be a peaceful hideaway where I could get my young thoughts together.

Beyond it, was a small path that led down to a tall tree with a ladder leading up to a small seat at the top. Despite my fear of heights, I climbed up the tree valiantly, reaching the top, sitting and overseeing the treetops. I was gobsmacked that someone had built this treehouse that allowed me the opportunity to see the forest in a completely different way. (I later learned from my parents that this ‘treehouse’ was a hunting blind that belonged to my neighbours, which I have to admit slightly tarnished my first memories). Down from the ‘treehouse’ was this fairly large area that was almost completely covered in moss, which I referred to as “The Emerald City”, as an homage to my second favourite film, “The Wizard of Oz”.

I note now that even with the loving tone in which I refer to my childhood walkabouts, I still don’t embrace the idea of being outdoorsy. Even though, I would lying to you if I told you I didn’t head out to that place as a way of momentarily escaping from a crowded too small house containing five people that all needed more space. Nature kindly enough, provided that space for me.

In September, I was walking home from school along the paved road that eventually, very eventually, leads to my house. On previous occasions, I was curious about the opening of a wooded path on the other side of the road, but passed along it, eager to be home. One day, I instead decided to walk down it. It was the beginning of autumn, there was plenty of daylight left, it was the beginning of the school year and I inhabitually had some time to spare, so why not? I crossed the desolate street and decided to venture in. Almost immediately upon entering, I breathed in the familiar scent that is September on the cusp of October. There are few smells that I love more, I could cry of happiness thinking of it. How can the smell of decaying leaves represent such sadness, newness, and somehow joy, simultaneously? Memories of my childhood flooding back making me feel the same age as I was in my memories. I walked along a well worn path towards a destination that is completely unknown until I come to an opening clearing in the woods. I then see this:

IMG_0536IMG_0538To say I felt like Alice in Wonderland was an understatement. And then I saw this:

IMG_0537Then I suddenly felt a little afraid. Where exactly was this going to go?  I imagined a beautiful little brook and a humble meadow waiting patiently for me through the other side. So I walked through, and I’m pretty sure I held my breath the entire time. I hurried through to the other side, and felt myself faced with a sunnier side of the forest. I continued walking and came out of the path. It was neither the brook nor field that I envisioned. It was instead pavement, along with a string of houses, and here’s where it gets better. I am looking at the school I work at.

That’s right, I took a cute little detour in the woods, just to bring me back to exactly where I just came from, just minutes before. With a shake of my head I turn around and head back to where I just came from. However this slight disappointment does not ruin my overall romanticisation of this adorable little path I found, and on the way back, it was even more cute, if that’s even possible.

IMG_0542I mean look at it. Look at those adorable leafy stairs.

When my colleague and I walked home from school, I enthusiastically showed her this lovely little find, to which she told me she was already aware of it. Here’s where the story gets a little sad, apparently it’s where our students do their smoking and other badass activities that are done by teens in wooded areas. Suddenly this quaint little nook in the woods showed me its cigarette butts, graffiti and copious amount of litter.

[Insert a heavy sigh here.]

Months later, I was reminded of this place, the other rainy morning as my cab passed along the paved road with the string of little houses along it, the path unbeknown to anyone who doesn’t already know it’s there because it blends in with its’ surroundings. I saw a student, walking towards the path, and hour before school started, saddened that I knew where he was going with a pretty good idea of why.

In my teacher mindset, this upset me. However, in my human mindset, I completely understood him. Many years later, even if the needs it served us are different, the woods continues to give space freely to anyone who needs it, where maybe they too can get their young thoughts together.

Sometimes I do this thing where I choose to do the hardest things first. When first learning how to drive (I know this is a continuing journey) with my friend Graham, I insisted on wanting to learn how to drive a standard before I learned how to drive an automatic. I’ve always figured why not? If I do the absolute hardest thing first, then everything else would seem simpler in comparison. If you’re already gathering up the gumption to do something new, (which is in itself difficult) why not just muster all that energy to do the hardest thing right off the bat?

I guess you could say that I applied this logic when it came to my decision to teach in England.

A year and a half ago, I made the decision to move to England. One of the reasons I decided to move here was because well, who are we kidding? It’s ENGLAND.

However, my bigger reason for moving overseas was so that I could finally become a full-time classroom teacher. I had finished my Bachelor of Education degree in 2010 and had made a go of it substitute teaching in New Brunswick and Saskatchewan. During that time, I had a consistent, ongoing, honest-to-God fear of being a teacher. As indecisive as I tend to be, I was even worse when I kept going back and forth about whether I should even be a teacher. I knew I liked working with youth, but was I good enough to be a teacher? My friends and family reassured me, they seemed to have zero hesitation about my ability to be a good teacher. I however, was terrified, what if I singlehandedly ruined the educational year of a group of young impressionable students? It was a tremendous responsibility that wore heavy on my mind.

Then I bit the bullet.

I decided that substitute teaching didn’t make sense if I wasn’t even sure if I wanted to be a teacher. So I decided to get my feet real wet by jumping into the deep end of the pool. I decided that I was going to teach full-time so I could decide once and for all, if I was supposed to be a teacher. Anyone in most parts of Canada knows how difficult it is to obtain a full-time teaching gig, so I looked abroad. I decided that England was where I was going to make a go of it for the academic year of 2013-2014.

The world needs teachers. In terms of global flexibility, teaching is a profession that is well in demand. Most of the teaching positions that are available overseas are in non-English speaking countries. Many of these schools are private and many of the students in these schools tend to be from higher socio-ecnomic backgrounds. As lovely as those students might be, I got into teaching because I wanted to work with students from lower socio-economic backgrounds who had a difficult time in school. Cue England. The thing that attracted me to teaching in England was that it was a difficult place to teach. My friends who taught in England would tell me horror stories, and my ears would perk up with interest. 50% of teachers quit within the first 5 years here because the teaching climate is so demanding. I was incredibly intrigued. I thought that if I could survive in one of the most difficult teaching environments in the world (I’ve heard teaching here referred to as “the trenches”), then I could really teach anywhere. So I packed my bags, said goodbye to my loved ones and set off across the ocean to see what I was made of.

Settling into England, relatively speaking was a piece of cake. Settling into my school was also relatively easy that first week, with no students. When my recruiting agency put me with my school, they assured me that they were really welcoming to their staff, and they were right. I was incredibly lucky to be working at my particular school this year. First of all, roughly 10% of the teaching staff is international, so I was in good company. Secondly, I was in an extremely nurturing department that was used to people from Canada coming over to teach. Thirdly, I was surrounded by an incredibly amiable and supportive overall staff.

That was the good news.

Here was the bad:

1.) Teaching in England is a monumental culture shock.

2.) Teaching is the hardest thing I’ve ever done.

I’m not going to mince words here, I’m an almost thirty year old woman, I’m no stranger to hard work, normally I thrive in brand new situations, but I almost quit, and I don’t quit easily. It’s also difficult because there’s your first year of teaching, which in any culture is going to separate the weak from the strong. Then there’s doing your first year teaching abroad, where you’re never quite sure if teaching is that hard, or if teaching in that particular culture is that hard. I’m going to sum it up to teaching is difficult but teaching in England is incredibly difficult.

Anyone who knows me, knows that I’m an unfailing optimist. I can take even the most crappiest of situations and find some kind of silver lining, to the point where it’s annoying. This year I met my match. I met my Everest of circumstances I couldn’t just slide my rose coloured glasses and stride through. Oh God no. The first half of this school year was ugly, and I was ugly in it. It…was not good.

I can summarise my struggles in three categories:

1.) The Students are Tougher

It took about two weeks before my first student told me to eff off. It took me a month before I realised that I could actually send kids out of my class for misbehaviour. It took me a month and a half before I finally bawled in a cupboard after my class verbally ganged up on me. Kids are kids all over the world. A teenager with raging hormones and half a developed brain tend to act similarly no matter where they’re from, to a point. In my experience, kids are mouthier here, and respect for teachers is not automatic. As a teacher, my style was described as “Calm and Assertive”, things I came to admire about myself, and that benefited me  in my previous work and teaching experiences. In the beginning, it did not serve me well here. My students saw it as me not being assertive enough, as me being passive teacher. Furthermore, as an chronically indecisive person who tends to see the shades of grey in everything, I was a serious target for my students. To be fair that trait would have been unhelpful no matter what system I taught in, but that trait was particularly bad here. Throughout this year, I’ve become the most polarised I’ve ever been. Individually, with each student, I can be as shades of grey as I like, but in a classroom full of middle school students that are just screaming for boundaries (literally and figuratively) I grew a serious backbone. The thing that I didn’t really think about enough was that I was the leader of my classroom. Normally, I tend to be very communal in terms of leadership and like things to evolve organically. That is not leader enough for my kids, they needed a ruler that say the yeses and the nos, firmly with no over-analysis. Which, let’s face it, does not come easily to me. Let’s not forget, I teach middle school kids who need to understand the profound differences between appropriate/inappropriate, acceptable/not acceptable, on task/not on task, ready for learning/not ready for learning and I’m the one who needs to define and enforce it for them. I never understood the expression “iron fist with a velvet glove” so clearly before this year.

Another thing I really came to understand is that Uniforms Matter. The first day you see a large moving sea of children in uniform, little suits, blazers, ties, skirts, black shoes from 11 year olds to 16 year olds is a jarring sight. Previous to moving here, I was so anti-uniform because it was so foreign to my upbringing. In the beginning, I’m going to be honest, I didn’t give any cares about uniforms. That was my first crucial mistake. Kids wearing their uniforms properly is a sign of respect. I know it sounds crazy, but it really is. When students show up to your class, before they’re allowed into your classroom, they are supposed to be in perfect uniform. Which means they have to have their shirts tucked in, top button done, and their ties or skirts at an appropriate length. Again, I know a Canadian is likely reading this entry and are thinking “really?” Yes. If a student isn’t going to do up their top button for you, then it’s pretty likely they aren’t going to follow any other instruction you’re going to give. Being in perfect uniform is so engrained socially with them being ready to learn. “Sort your uniform out” was one of my most uttered phrases this year, much to my own shock. As the year went on, and the tougher I became on uniforms, the better the kids behaved. Obviously there are other correlations here, but trust me when I say (as a previously huge skeptic) uniforms matter.

The Workload is Tougher

In England, pretty much every single piece of paper that a student writes on needs to be marked by a teacher. To anyone who is not a teacher, this might not sound like it’s a big deal, but let me emphasise that it is in fact a big deal. Especially for an English teacher. Anyone who teaches English knows the pains of correcting work. You’re correcting the ideas in addition to the actual structure they’re using to express said idea. Usually in Canada, the kind of work you’re correcting is the kind of work that students take a little more care in.  Students usually pass in assignments, tests, exams and projects; those are typically the things that a teacher marks to give a student a grade. At my school students are given notebooks that all of the things they write down go into. So imagine the notes that students take during class, that’s the kind of work you also need to mark. They don’t carry their own binders or work, the teacher keeps and corrects it all. Not only do teachers correct it, but their corrections are looked at by their supervisors, which then can be looked at by the Ministry of Education (OFSTED). Essentially, OFSTED could walk into your classroom, pick up your books and if your books are not up to standard, or don’t show a student’s progress, you could be in a lot of trouble. In addition, students also write an actual assessment at the end of the six modules, which are also corrected. This is of course in addition to the other many things a teacher does in the run of a day like teach, lesson plan, manage behaviour, go to meetings, call parents, etc.

The System is Tougher

I knew England was standardised before I moved here, I did my research. What I did not know was how difficult it was going to be for me to adjust to that. I don’t know why I didn’t know, it should have been pretty obvious to me that I spent a great many years in university greatly contesting and fighting against the standardisation of education. Yet, here I was willingly putting myself right in the middle of it. It wasn’t easy, but as they say “When in Rome…”

The schooling here is very traditional. Standardisation is still very much a defining feature of the education system here. Things are heavily, heavily standardised. The Ministry of Education (OFSTED) is a group of people whose job it is to ensure that all children in the UK are receiving a similar quality of education. They come down very hard on schools that are not providing that high quality of education in something called “Special Measures” where basically, the school is completely overhauled. New staff are brought in to manage and teach at the school, and then the school is consistently monitored over a three year period. The school that I work at had recently come out of this procedure, and has worked very hard to ensure that they are following a very strict educational procedure because they want to maintain the extensive progress they’ve made during and since Special Measures. Speaking of progress, that is how everything is measured here, it’s the magic word. Teachers are observed several times a year, and during these lesson plans you need to ensure that every single student in your classroom is making some kind of progress in your lesson. OFSTED considers ‘progress” to be some kind of real evidence that a child knows new knowledge and has gained a new skill at the end of your lesson that they did not know at the beginning of your lesson. You need to be able to demonstrate this clearly. Even if one child is not making progress during your lesson, then technically you’re not doing your job in making sure each of your students are making overall progress. This is an immense amount of pressure, and it has certainly been daunting. During this year, as I’ve struggled with the idea of standardisation, I’ve come to some kind of peace in knowing that OFSTED is taking great care in ensuring that that the education of every single child is held to some kind of standard and that educational institutions and teachers are held to a very high accountability to ensure this happens. In Canada, the accountability is very much student focused, students are responsible for showing up, wanting to learn,wanting to do well, doing the work. In Britain the accountability is very much teacher focused, even for your most difficult students your expectation is to convince them, and ensure that they’re doing the highest quality of work possible, and if they don’t, that comes down to some kind of problem with the way you teach or conduct your classroom. It’s definitely a game changer and to be honest it was something I really struggled with at the beginning of the year.

Exploring the differences between one culture and another, educationally, is a very tricky balance, as I’m sure anyone teaching overseas can share. On the one hand, for the most part, people are typically exclusively educated in one country or system. Even post-secondarily, a system reflects its’ primary and secondary school. So when that same system trains you to be an educator, it’s an interesting shift when those skills take you abroad. On the one hand, you’re invited to teach because your skills and education are recognised as being valuable for the new system you’re teaching in. On the other hand, this system may be completely foreign, so it’s sometimes difficult to figure out the balance of who you are innately as an educator and person, and what you need to be and are expected to be as a professional. It’s something that I’ve spent the last year in deep thought about whenever I had a spare second to contemplate the meaning and reasons as to why I’m here.

I’m here because I wanted to figure out if I could be a teacher or not. It turns out I can teach.

I’m here because I wanted to figure out if I wanted to be a teacher or not. It turns out I want to be a teacher.

I’m here to figure out if I could teach in one of the challenging education systems globally. It turns out that after stumbling and fumbling through the earlier parts of the year, that with a lot of support, encouragement and determination, that I can teach in a challenging education system, and not only come out on the other side relatively unscathed, but sign up for another round to see what else I’m made of.

Maybe there is some kind of method to my madness?

While living in Saskatchewan I became a huge fan of the show, “Gordon Ramsay’s Best Restaurant”  on Netflix. Although I wasn’t initially a huge Gordon Ramsay fan, I was very quickly won over by him on this show. The premise of the show is that diners from all over the UK submitted votes about their top local restaurants within the UK. The show broke up the restaurants into different categories:

Best English: The West House (http://www.thewesthouserestaurant.co.uk) and The Milestone (http://www.the-milestone.co.uk )

Best Chinese: Kai (http://www.kaimayfair.co.uk/kai/kaihome.html ) and Yu and You (http://www.yuandyou.com)

Best French: Winteringham Fields (https://www.winteringhamfields.co.uk ) and La Garrigue (http://www.lagarrigue.co.uk) Best

Spanish: Fino (http://finorestaurant.com/about/) and El Pirata Detapas ( http://www.elpiratadetapas.co.uk)

Best Thai: Mango Tree (http://www.mangotree.org.uk) and Nahm-Jim (http://nahm-jim.co.uk)

Best Indian: Brilliant (http://www.brilliantrestaurant.com) and Prashad (http://www.prashad.co.uk)

Best North African: Azou (http://www.azou.co.uk) and Momo (http://www.momoresto.com/restaurant/london/momo/)

Best Italian: Casamia (http://www.casamiarestaurant.co.uk) and Mennula (http://www.mennula.com)

In each category there are two restaurants competing against each other top title in their food genre, those restaurants then go onto a semi-finals round, then finals. What I really like about the show is that Ramsay judges each of the restaurants through three different categories. The first is that he surprises each restaurant with a drop in crowd of thirty diners who will be ordering starters, a main meal and dessert all within a two hour time period to test their abilities when working under a high level of pressure. The second test is that they send a undercover food critic to test the level of service and food quality when they aren’t expecting visitors. The third, is a test where Ramsay brings in the two head chefs from each of the restuarants to his Flagship restaurant in London to cook their best meal in their genre for a group of people who are highly knowledgable about their dishes.

The show does a really great job of showing each restaurant’s strength and weaknesses through the three rounds, particularly when focusing on service as well as the food itself. It really humanises these chefs and other working staff within the establishements. For some of these restaurants even being voted into the top 16, gives them an important title that would put some of these restaurants on the map. I also like that it educates viewers on the different types of dining experiences that are available throughout the UK. Obviously when I was watching the show I was very close to the time where I was actually moving to England; while watching the show it was not lost on me that I could soon be potentially eating at these places. However, after a quick initial mapping out of the restaurants over the UK, I quickly realised that only about half of them were actually going to be close to where I was going to be living. Aside from the London restaurants, the only  restaurant that was going to be on my turf was The West House restaurant. Once I actually started living here, I realised that Kent is a much bigger area than I initially thought, and also that it’s pretty rural in places. So I put my hopes to visit The West House on hold.

At the end of the 4th Module in April, I was off to my first British wedding. My boss Bernie was getting married and our department was off to Maidstone to celebrate in the festivities. I primarily spend my time in three places: school, home and London. I really had very little knowledge of how to get to Maidstone or any other parts of Kent for that matter, luckily, I was in the great care of my co-worker Nadia. We left at about noon on a Sunday afternoon, planning to take our time through the British country side, stopping for a bite to eat, finding our hotel room and getting ready for a night of celebrating.

As per usual, it was raining when we left my house. As we drove along the highway, I got to see a scene outside of Dartford and London, a rare occurrence. We decided to stop by this little town to take a little walk along this beautiful cliff overlooking the countryside. One of the reasons I decided to move to England was because of the gorgeous countryside featured in classic British films that I used to watch wistfully. Even though day to day I spend next to zero time in said countryside, being able to drive through them on that day continues to cement all of reasons why England is a perfect place for me to live. Nadia being very familiar with the area and having a vehicle was very kind to point out lovely sights of misty waters, and vast plots of land.

With an already pretty lovely start, it got even better. Nadia and I were walking around the city of Maidstone trying to figure out where to go for lunch. We were discussing great restaurants when I brought up the show Gordon Ramsay’s Top Best Restaurant, and more specifically, The West House as a topic of conversation. Miraculously, Nadia knew exactly what I was talking about. After jumping up and down and gushing about our mutual love for the show, she decided to take action. She found their number, called and  made a reservation for 40 minutes later. After figuring out that it was a 30 minute drive, we sprinted out of Maidstone city centre and made our way to The West House. On our way through the quaint country roads we continued discussing how wonderful the show was. While waiting for lunch, we explored the possibility of visiting more of the restaurants on the show.  Our meal was INCREDIBLE. So incredible in fact that it deserves its’ own post. If you want to read my review, you can read it here: (*link to soon follow). After our mind blowing experience for lunch, we decided that we were going to visit every single restaurant on that list.

The West House 

After lunch we drove through twisted country paths with wooden fences and trees that hugged over the road. It was blissfully quaint and even though I knew we had a gorgeous wedding to go to, I didn’t think the day’s limit to seeing beautiful things could be surpassed.

We then pulled up to this sign:




I, having no idea where we were, or what we were up to next, was immediately taken by what I saw of the grounds. We then saw this:


Chilston Day


Excitedly, I assumed that we were going to walk along the grounds and perhaps go in for afternoon tea. When Nadia got out of the car, she went to the trunk to get our stuff out of the trunk. I was confused,

“What do we need our bags for?”

“Lill, this is where we’re staying”, she said laughing.

This is where we were staying.

To say I squealed with delight would be an understatement. Nadia then explained that this is where Bernie’s wedding was going to be taking place and that we’d also be staying there. All of a sudden I felt like I was on set for the film “Four Weddings and a Funeral”. Walking down the hallway we walked into this foyer and walked up the staircase:

. View of Staircase


Put a skeleton key into our doorway and was introduced to our bedroom:


Our Room 2

It all felt so unapologetically (and wonderfully) English.

What was really evident about this hotel room was that it hadn’t changed a whole lot since olden times. There were an incredible amount of cupboards that I could only imagine people unpacking their huge trunks for their month long stay after getting out of their carriage. There were these beautiful window sills, where I imagined someone sitting looking out onto the back gardens, writing a letter to their loved ones who were waiting impatiently for a letter that would arrive three weeks later. The room was magical. We gussied ourselves up, and walked down the Beauty and the Beast staircase to meet our boss on her special day. We walked into a room with a beautiful grand piano, meeting her family and friends. We assembled as an English department in the library (fittingly) and took hilarious pictures together as a group. We danced our faces off, and later assembled outside to watch the bride throw her bouquet. As I walked back in, the sound of my heels on the gravel, thoughts of joy filled me as I witnessed Bernie’s profound happiness at marrying the love of her life. I saw this same beautiful building lit up, under the moonlight, with crickets chirping in the background.

Chilston Night

I sighed at my own happiness, looking back at the scene of guests milling around the fountain. Rain, countryside, a delicious lunch, great friends, a beautiful bride, and a whole night of dancing. England, I really love you.