National Gallery


Last week while I was in Ottawa staying with my daughter, we visited the National Gallery. The Gallery is an enormous, glassy structure, just up the road from the Canadian Mint. Visitors are lured into (or repulsed from) the gallery by a towering iron spider named “Mamon.” This gargantuan arachnid stands spindly-legged at the front of the gallery, an egg sac (unfortunately, filled) snug against her swollen abdomen. One lady I spoke to on a previous trip told me that many people who live in Ottawa feel a measure of affection for the land-mark spider. I could live in Ottawa for the rest of my life and I am quite sure that “affection” would never find its way into the same sentence with old Mamon and her nasty clutch of horrid eggs. Ottawa is our nation’s capitol. How about a fountain or an Inukshuk or even some kind of mildly irritating modern sculpture? Anything that doesn’t make tourists feel like a tangled up Frodo about to get the juices sucked out of him in Shelob’s lair.

Still, since Mamon was lurking there, so obviously awaiting a photo op, I tiptoed beneath her for a picture. I have a young niece and nephew, and I didn’t want to miss out on this perfect opportunity for a supreme gross-out. (They weren’t disappointed).

Once we made it past the spider, a pleasant surprise awaited us in the gallery. It was Thursday evening, and Thursday evenings are free!

We didn’t get through the whole thing before closing time. My daughter and I explored several of the galleries on the upper level. Some of the works we saw had us quietly commenting on the definition of “art” (those conversations are unavoidable in art galleries). We came upon a wall with a grouping of parallel fluorescent lights, beginning with a single one, then a pair, then a group of three…we wondered if this was simply gallery lighting, until we saw the placard, designating it as a work of art. I confess to a bit of eye-rolling here. We also saw a bedroom, fully furnished, and the bed was so angularly skewed; I could hardly look at it. One side of it was very short, and the other disproportionately long and irregular, as though someone had really messed up on the blueprint and then decided to build the thing any way. We went through an exhibition called “Don McCullin: A Retrospective”–several black and white photographs tracing this photojournalist’s journey through English landscapes and several conflict zones. “Clash: Conflict and Its Consequences” was another photography exhibit, exposing the theme of pain in war. Feeling quite sobered by this point, I found some solace in the European collection, where I happened upon four soul-reviving paintings by my old friend, Claude Monet. I stood in front of a misty seascape, with a pale peach sun casting weak reflections over the water through the mist and rain. There was another lovely one of trees along a riverbank, casting reflections in the bright water beneath. I could easily have gone back and forth between those four paintings and lost myself in them for hours. I find Monet entrancing. It’s like he paints the very air. Sometimes, when I dream, even though everything is kind of strange and odd, I have the feeling that life in the dream is more “real” than the awake world. That’s the feeling I get when I see a painting by Monet. Once I’m gazing off into one of his skies or fields or water-lilied ponds, I am reluctant to climb out again.

The National Gallery was well-worth the mad dash past the spider. I’m looking forward to the lower level next time–after I sneak off for a bit of quiet time with Claude.


Play-Dough Bunny

Next September, I’ll be back to work after my year off to write/paint/take yoga/nap frequently. My assignment is FDK, which here in Ontario means “Full Day Kindergarten.” I will be teaching approximately thirty JK and SK students, alongside an Early Childhood Educator. I taught both Junior and Senior Kindergarten at the start of my career several years ago, so this is not exactly new to me. However, there is nothing in my experience that is more trendy than education. Kindergarten today does not  have the same face it had when I was last teaching it.  If I were still watching the pendulum swing back and forth, I would probably be cross-eyed by now. Luckily, if there is one thing I have learned in my experience as a teacher, it is the importance of balance. I have never been the teacher that readily gulps down the latest educational trend, hook, line and sinker. It is prudent to look for the choicest tidbits and choose carefully before loading them onto a plate. Why toss out something that always worked, just because it doesn’t fit under a new label? On the other hand, why not try something new? The dozens of ideas for Kindergarten that I’ve pinned on Pinterest can vouch for the fact that I am excited to try new things. But, it’s the mix of the old and new that brings excitement to the whole joyful jumble.

My school was hosting an introduction to school for the newly registered Junior Kindergarten students and their caregivers this morning. I plugged in the hair straightener and dug out my school shoes and went to check it out. Several stations had been set up in the gym for the children to use–colouring, felt boards, play food, ball tosses, puppets, etc. I walked around through the stations, saying hello to the kids and waving at them–and not getting too much of a response. Having been a fish out of the little people water for several years, I found myself feeling a little uncertain. Small children and I have generally connected quite well as a rule. I “get” them. I’ve had four of my own and I well-remember being one myself. Still, I had to wonder if I’d lost my spark somewhere along the way.

As I wandered around the stations in the gym, I happened upon the play-dough table. A few little boys were sitting around it, pounding away at green pancakes of flattened play-dough. I sank down into one of the little chairs, and saying nothing, reached for a hand-full and began to roll it. Soon, I had a perfect little ball of play-dough. I took a smaller piece of dough and rolled it. As soon as I stuck the little ball on top of the larger one, three pairs of eyes lifted simultaneously, riveted on what I was doing. This lady is making something, they realized.  I had them!

“I think,” I said (to myself, they thought), “That I will make a bunny.”

The three pairs of eyes widened, and then raised up a little, so they were all looking at my face. Why, hello, kids! I thought. I smiled a little, and flattened two little sticks of dough between my fingers. I stuck them on either side of the smaller ball.

“Ears!” I announced.

They looked at me as though I had just pulled a white rabbit, five doves and a pony out of a hat.

“It needs a little nose,” I continued, rolling a tiny piece of dough between my palms and sticking it onto the bunny’s face. “There.”

I made the bunny hop across the table. “Hi,” my bunny said to a little boy. “What’s your name?”

“Mason,” he said, lowering his face a little so the rabbit could see him better.

“Hi, Mason,” the bunny said.

“Hi!” he exclaimed.

“How do you make the play-dough round like that?” asked another boy. I showed the boys how to put the piece of play-dough between their hands and roll it softly. Soon, there were three little green bunnies hopping around the table.

Small children are so eager to learn, and their imaginations are so instantly captivated. They need to be shown and then they need the opportunity to do–and the encouragement to change or modify or re-invent. If I can keep that at the front of everything, then next fall is going to be fine.

In the end, kids are going to learn–not just because of the latest trends, but in spite of them.

Now, I have to go hunt down some play-dough recipes on Pinterest.

Nooks and Crannies

When I was small, I always had an affinity to  nooks and crannies. They seemed to me like blank little worlds, just waiting to be filled with details. A little trickle gurgling along in the bottom of a ditch instantly became a river flowing through a hilly little village. I would gather stones and leaves and sticks and then crouch down near the water, trying to make paths and houses and boats, chattering away to myself as my little world took form. I remember being at school one day and finding a perfectly smooth, plump chestnut. I kept it in my desk all year, fancying that I would carve an opening into the front of it. I imagined a tiny fireplace and hearth inside, and a miniscule person sitting in front of a cheerful fire with her feet tucked contentedly under her chair. I recall  being outside and coming upon a lilac bush in the early spring, before leaves. At its bottom, where all the branches came out of the ground, there was a little hollow, just the right size for me. As spring progressed, I would duck under the branches and the fragrant purple clumps of lilac and crawl into that space. I could sit there for a while, unnoticed and out of sight, thinking, humming, peeling bark off sticks. It was the sweetest kind of solitude.

     New shoes meant new boxes with lids, and those always held a lot of potential for world-making. Crayons pressed hard made winding roads and profuse amounts of tape made paper trees and flowers stand up semi-straight. Plastic animals often found story-lines inside those worlds, but inevitably would be the wrong size—a horse that was taller than a tree could cause overwhelming dispiritedness. I wanted my worlds to be perfect, and they never were. It didn’t deter my quest.

      When I got to be ten or eleven years old, I learned that making worlds did not require nooks or crannies or shoe boxes or plastic animals or lilac bushes or chestnuts. A notebook and a pen were the only tools necessary. Years later, my tool became the keyboard on a laptop. There are still those times of dispiritedness and discouragement—sentences that don’t fit, like horses bigger than trees. Words that elude me, characters that don’t colour in the way I want them to. Sometimes, I have a world in mind and it never ends up materializing at all. By the end of the story, things are sitting there out in the open that I never even considered—like they have nothing whatsoever to do with me. For lack of a better word, it’s weird.

    I’ve come to discover that for me, writing is more about getting things out than trying to lure others in. A writer always has the opportunity to connect and to impact. From my perspective, that’s just the gravy of the experience. When I have a story to tell, writing it is first and foremost a selfish act. It is uncomfortable to keep it in, so I spit it out. Publishing would be fantastic—I won’t dumb that down. But even if I knew I would never publish a word, I would still write—even if I am the only soul who ever catches a glimpse of the strange little worlds that find form. Even if it takes years to write, cross words to my family when they interrupt me, knowing there are other things I could be doing with my time that would be more productive. Even if I have a bout of despair and am forced to acknowledge that writing is just a waste of my time. Creating worlds and stories is something that has been with me since the beginning. Why I write is a mystery to me, and I accept that it always will be. But as long as there are nooks and crannies in my mind, I will be compelled to  turn them in to stories.