May 28, 2021 Message to Members
Side by Each
So, Ariana Grande got married. I may be assuming a great deal, believing our readers know who she is. A quick Google tells us that she is a wealthy American singer and actress. I only know that she recently married because I regularly watch news programs, and I don’t mean Entertainment Tonight. This crucial piece of pop culture news was delivered with enthusiasm during a Canadian news broadcast. At the risk of sounding ‘judgy’, this is what passes for news in our times, slow day or not. And while I appreciate celebrity gossip as much as the next middle-aged educator, I was puzzled and disappointed by this story’s placement amidst the news of the day.
On the day of Ariana’s nuptials, the conflict between Gaza and Israel had claimed more than 200 lives, 61 of them children. In fact, this tragic story immediately preceded the wedding in the program line-up; it was this juxtaposition which struck me. When teaching English 12, this was one of my favourite words: juxtaposition – things placed side by side to compare or contrast or create an interesting effect. It is an important sounding word, and my students would use it generously when analyzing literature. It’s a grown-up word, and sounds so intelligent. Funny that it often reveals absurdity, such as the absurd juxtaposition of wealth and poverty on Vancouver streets.
Living in the city has brought me face to face with this issue in ways I never experienced in my rural home. One morning in the week following Ariana’s wedding, my early morning fitness class went for a short warm-up run in the Kitsilano neighbourhood. The sun was up, but there was still a chill in the air. It seems many of my classmates are professionals in Vancouver, working in education, medicine, or health care. The fact that we belong to a gym located in Kitsilano probably sums up the circumstances well: we could, in a number of ways, afford this early morning jog through some of the most expensive real estate in the province. As we were running, we came upon a man whose presence introduced a striking and troubling contrast.
This man was alone, walking along the sidewalk. He was naked from his waist up, and was carrying modest belongings. It was only six a.m., and it was clear he had risen with the sun to start his day. Admittedly, I made assumptions and concluded this man’s home may be makeshift, constructed nearby with cardboard or tarpaulin. Once again, the contrast of privilege with suffering left me unsettled. It seems absurd that an entertainer can amass a fortune of $180 million and that urban professionals will pay for a morning jog in the same world where bombs fall on children and men awake half naked and exposed in the cool sunrise. And then the man on the street deepened my discomfort.
We ran in single file, passing within a few metres of the man. He must have heard us approaching and turned in our direction. He noticed that running among us was a man of colour. Suddenly, the quiet morning was filled with racial slurs and profanity, very clearly directed at our running partner. No one broke cadence or looked around; we each continued running our loop, looking straight ahead. What was I to do with this now? Seconds before, I was moved to compassion for this man and his plight, feeling the weight of my privilege in the face of his struggles. Should his own prejudice and overt racism cancel out my compassion? How do I hold both care and condemnation for him? I finished the warm-up lap along with the other members of the class; no one spoke of the man or his words. I felt a sense of failure for not having done or said anything. Were my running mates disappointed with their own silence, our inaction juxtaposed against Anti-Racism Week? Was our Black friend disappointed with us all?
Our COVID experience is ripe with the ‘interesting effects’ of juxtaposition. Many are living each day with competing emotions that sit tightly side by side. On the one hand, we struggle with an impulse to turtle, fold in, and withdraw from a world which feels threatening; but on the other hand, we are anxious to burst forth and break free of restrictions. We harbour levels of fear tucked right up against our hopes. News and promise of emerging from this pandemic sit alongside guidance and direction to stay the course. Celebrations of milestones and all the ceremony of June will share the stage with hard choices and disappointment and, for some, with grief.
In her book Calm Within the Storm, Dr. Robyne Hanley-Dafoe notes that the “same life that is hard is also wondrous and beautiful.” In her discussion of the common barriers to a resilient approach to living, she shares her observation that “we constantly coexist with competing experiences… and in the wins and the losses, if we choose to, we can see lessons. We learn. We change. We adapt. We become.” And as a wise Principal shared in metaphor this week: while a twig may be brittle and break when stressed, a number of them, bound together alongside one another, are stronger and will endure. Stronger together, side by each.