Love Letter to a Nation – Winter

Dear Canada,

Summer is easy. What’s not to love about you in summer? Character, however, is only built and revealed in adversity. So anyone wanting to know you, anyone wanting to know us, has to know winter.

The leaves and temperature fall and everyone knows it’s on its way. Summer stuff gets stored, the outside water is shut off, and the sky goes purple-gray and silent as the last of the cowardly birds betray us and go. And then comes the day, snow’s first day, when we stand at the window and watch with a child’s eyes; as for the first time. We marvel as snow too white to be real sparkles diamonds in the sun. It blankets leafless trees standing defiantly brittle amid sagging spruce and pines. And the yard becomes art.

Winter slows us down. There is no such thing as rushing out when having to first don boots and coat and hat and scarf and mitts. Thank goodness for Velcro, but a child’s snow suit still demands patience and time and then more of both when disassembled for the pee that is somehow, again, forgotten. And then there is the path to be shovelled to the car that then needs to be unburied, de-iced, and warmed.

Speed limits are for summer. All but main roads are snow-packed for months and the occasional melts turn them to pock-marked Passchendaele. Streets scoff at the oceans of salt and Sierras of sand so we bounce and creep, especially around corners with their paint-smeared telephone poles reminding us to be patient. The days shrivel. We make our way to and from work in inky darkness smudged with ghostly plumes of exhaust. Snowflakes that would be pretty were we home with a fire and a glass of hearty red are instead headlight-engorged rockets that fire mercilessly into windshields with a hideous hypnosis.

Things do not speed up upon arrival. Three feet inside every public doorway stands a momentary community holding fogged-up glasses and exchanging knowing, blurry glances. Then it’s the slow, walking strip-tease, because everywhere inside in winter is warmer than outside in summer. Work places resemble used shoe stores with wet boots on soppy mats. Everyone’s hair is the shape of their hats. We approach door knobs with dread and sometimes actually see sparks. After a while, every place smells the same – wet wool and cough drops. It isn’t exactly bad and it doesn’t really matter because with the cold we’ve all been fighting for weeks it’s hard to smell anything anyway.

Winter can sometimes stop you altogether. What is more glorious than a snow day? We hear it on the radio and we’re suddenly all children. The radio also brings reports from the city’s “Thank God it’s Monday” crowd who slide and smash into one another to get to the vertical ice cube trays where they are apparently indispensable; unaware that no one’s keeping score. The wind howls hurricanes down concrete canyons that are empty of all of but the intrepid as the city-below-the-city bustles in its high-heeled obviousness. Just a few miles away it’s all quite different.

Township and county plows tend to the main roads but it’s always a long while before they get to most streets, so there’s time for another coffee. Kids who usually fight to stay under covers burst outside with wide smiles and bright eyes and without a screen in sight. Folks are soon in driveways, leaning on shovels and speaking with neighbours who lean on theirs. Why not? Everyone knows the game. We scrape and shovel and throw it high onto piles that seem taller than last year. The plow waits until it senses we’re done and then, only then, it thunders by with three feet of plowcrete. The shovelling army mobilizes again; there’s nothing like a good minus ten-degree sweat.

Climate change’s thaws and freezes have euchred all but the most dedicated backyard rink masters, but the little bay still goes stiff. Nothing’s ever organized but somehow it always gets scraped and there is skating for all. Windswept days between snowfalls sometimes provide the magic of pick-up hockey with nets a ridiculous distance apart. It seems fittingly patriotic to finish a hundred yard breakaway on a frigid sunny afternoon in the world’s only country with a hockey player on its Bill of Rights.

Gravity games rule. What’s not to love about skiing, tobogganing, and sledding. Kids love the snow-mountains that grow beside the school parking lot. Look up every big or little hill and see somebody in a primary-coloured snowsuit sliding down. Evening walks offer the joy of the crisp boot-fall crunch and the smell of woodstoves that stir a deep and primal yearning that’s lovely in its mystery. The stars seem closer and clearer. Lungs burn, breath freezes, cheeks redden, and there is nothing more romantic than holding hands through down-filled mitts.

Muddy April is marvelous but brings fixing and raking and cleaning. The gifts left by months-worth of wandering dogs present themselves along with the recycle stuff that cycloned from blue boxes Tuesday after Tuesday. Purple crocuses pierce the last bits of crystalline snow. The magical, riotous tulips remind us that the world is not black and white after all. There is always that one last storm with snow as pretty as the first but we damn it this time and steal its power by steadfastly refusing to shovel it; there, that will teach it. We convince ourselves that it will melt soon enough, and sure enough, it does. And then there is green, oh green, glorious green.

Winter defines. Winter slows, and winter stops. Winter reminds us that we are not the boss. It ignites a humble admiration for the power and majestic beauty of the true boss. It invites community. Winter says that work can wait and time with family is the only wealth, recognition, or reward we need; everything else is by the by. Winter reminds us that, like those dark nights with gently falling snow or those bold, defiant tulips, nothing lasts forever – nothing. But it’s all good right now, and right now, that’s good enough.

Sincerely,

A friend.

Song For A Winter’s Night ©by Gordon Lightfoot

The lamp is burning low upon my table top
The snow is softly falling
The air is still in the silence of my room
I hear your voice softly calling
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The smoke is rising in the shadows overhead
My glass is almost empty
I read again between the lines upon the page
The words of love you sent me
If I could know within my heart
That you were lonely too
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
On this winter night with you

The fire is dying now, my lamp is growing dim
The shades of night are lifting
The morning light steals across my window pane
Where webs of snow are drifting
If I could only have you near
To breathe a sigh or two
I would be happy just to hold the hands I love
And to be once again with you
To be once again with you

Advertisements

Five Lessons from the First Day on the Job

The first day on the job is always hard. It offers equal scoops of excitement and fear. Two first day experiences helped shape the five lessons that I learned and now humbly share.

first day on the job

I was hired to teach History at what was then called a vocational school. It was designed for teenagers who had learning disabilities, had recently arrived in Canada from schools that left them woefully unprepared, and others who were waiting to go to jail or just out, and more who were too bored, angry, or damaged to fit in elsewhere.

On the day before classes began, I was told that I would not be teaching History but Grades 10 and 12 Mathematics. I protested that I had not studied Math in university and was awful at it in high school. I was told I’d be fine. My classroom contained two big stacks of text books; one blue, one yellow. The yellow one had stuff that looked harder so I made it the grade 12 book. I noticed that all my class lists had around 30 kids each but the room only had 26 desks. I was told not to worry, they would never all show up.

On my first day I was told to fuck off twice. The second time was in a marvelous Jamaican accent so it was actually, fuck off, mon. No matter what I did or said in one class, they just ignored me. Bob Hope and Jimmy Carter, I swear, were in another class. I had them sit together, it only seemed right. After lunch another teacher and I broke up a hallway fight. The boy I pulled off another spun and tried to kick me between the pockets – I jumped, he ran.

That evening I told my wife that I had made a terrible mistake in accepting the job and moving us to this city where we knew not a soul. We discussed options. But the next morning, I affixed another of my brand new ties, and went back into the lion’s den.

Several years and three schools later I walked into my first day at one of Canada’s premier independent boarding schools. It’s a school for kids of the upper middle class and rich who can buy their children’s peers and an education and environment that all schools, if properly funded, led, and staffed, could and should provide.

We gathered for the first morning chapel, held in the theatre because the chapel was under reconstruction. I was stopped by the athletic director and told I was the senior soccer coach. I confessed that I had never coached soccer. In fact, I had never played soccer. “Don’t worry”, I heard him say, as if it was a sixteen-year old echo, “You’ll be fine.” The first practice was that afternoon.

The school’s new academic building was also under construction and so I was among several teachers in rented, old and smelly portables. Wex and Alasdair were the first students to arrive for the first period class. They both shook my hand and welcomed me. Wow, I thought, they’re adults. Because each boy weighed well over 200 pounds, they laughed at the tiny desks. They wedged, wiggled and stuffed themselves between the chair and the tiny affixed table. As if on cue, they hopped – all four desk legs left the floor. Wow, I thought, they’re children.

The rest of the students arrived, saw the two hopping about and, of course, joined in. I soon had us lined up for a race. That did it. We were one. The chemistry was among the best of the hundreds of classes I have taught in my career.

That afternoon I was given a mesh bag of soccer balls and met my team. We began practice with a run. I stretched it out as long possible while deciding what I could possibly do next to kill the hour. I put them through a number of hockey drills until it was mercifully over. That evening I took notes as my daughter taught me how many players are on the field, the names of the positions, and the basics of the game. The next practices were marginally better. There were six teams in our league and that season we came second – second in every game we played.

Top Five First Day Lessons I Learned:

  1. It Gets Better: The most underpaid worker is the one struggling through their first day, or week, or month. Things will never get easy but they get easier. I learned to note the good moments and accept the bad as rude instruction.
  2. Character Matters: A good boss hires not a resume but a person. That person’s most important asset is character. I learned to have faith. You will pick up what you need to know soon enough but until then your character is your guide.
  3. Laughter Matters: It is important to always take the job seriously but never yourself. I learned that even the most titanic of stressful, embarrassing situations quickly shrivel to funny little stories.
  4. Client Service: Concentrate on the clients; in my case the students. Overwhelm them with your dedication to their needs. I learned that it is only by impressing clients that anyone ever impresses the boss.
  5. Don’t Water the Rocks: Every workplace has folks eager to sink a sabre into a colleague’s back for some perceived advantage. Ignore them. They trade their souls for ephemeral victories and realize too late that real grown-ups left school yard intrigues long ago and that, in the end, there’s no one keeping score. I learned to waste no time on sycophants or saboteurs.

It all sounds easy. The toughest things always do. I wish I understood the lessons on my first day back at the vocational school. It was my toughest day. I’m glad I had learned them by my first day at the independent school. It was among my best days. While I still dedicate myself and whatever talents I possess to doing the best I can, I have never let my job, title, or employer define me. Work is not life. Work is what I do to have a life. That alone makes any first day, or any day after that for that matter, what it should be, just another day at work.

“If you liked this column, please share it with others. Please consider following my blog where I post every Monday morning at johnboyko.com”