It is a damp, grey day early in November. I am feeling rushed with a big to-do list and not enough time. The kids are coming back from their week at their Dad’s after school today, and soon I will be on full solo parenting duty again. Homework. Trumpet practice. Lunches. Laundry. Cooking. Piano lessons. Play dates. Ballet lessons. Recital practice. 2 Soccer games and 4 practices this week alone. It is a blur of hugs and sibling rivalry, laughter and dog fur. I adore every second. But, I don’t tend to get as much of my “work” done when they are with me.
The kids came by with their Dad before school this morning to pick up some particular clothes that Elvie had been asking for, for school today. Standing by the front door, minutes away from the first school bell, both kids ask me, “Are you coming today?” “Coming? Coming to what?” I say. “The Assembly” “What Assembly?” This is the first I have heard of it. “The Remembrance Day Ceremony” Cosmo says, his voice serious, hopeful and tinged with a tiny, vulnerable shyness peeking out from under his sweeping cool-kid haircut. “Are you coming? It starts at 10:50 and goes until 12. I have been working hard on our performance with my class. I want you to come.” Then Elvie, “Me, too Mama, we’ve been working on a really important song. Please come!” There goes my work day, I think to myself. Deeply, achingly aware of the gift it is to be wanted, loved, needed and included in invitations like this. Aware of how lucky I am to live a life free enough to even be in a position to make such a choice. The gratitude though, is mingling uncomfortably with the growing feeling I have been having lately of being consumed by life - this sense that I am drowning in a life that does not seem to have enough time for all of the things, not least of which me. Assemblies. Halloween Costume Parades. Field Trips. Fall recitals. Ice Cream Socials and Themed Hot dog lunches on the school grounds. Parents didn’t participate in all this stuff when I was a kid, did they?
I spent 20 minutes churning through her already upside down bedroom, under sketchbooks and piles of mint coloured linen and crinoline doll clothes, ballet uniforms, and other 8 year old treasures until finally I put my hands on her favourite softly-ribbed, cream-coloured knit shirt and the specific pair of stiff, black denim pants she wanted. Elvie’s class is closing the ceremony today and her teacher gave her instructions to wear black pants and red and white tops, for impact. Spoiler alert: it wasn’t the clothes that did it.
I got there right at 10:50 and found a seat on the first row earmarked for the parents at the back. There was hardly anyone else there. I wondered if I had made a mistake. Did my kids invite me to something parents weren’t invited to? Was I crashing the Remembrance Day Ceremony? The kids began to file in, a little quieter than usual; that muted giddiness they do when they don’t quite yet know how to comport themselves. An outer door out front must have opened because all of a sudden there was a steady stream of parents filing in, a surprising number of whom attended this very school when they were kids.
300 kids, 25 teachers and aides and about 80 parents, wet raincoats and squeaky shoes, packed into the gymnasium - a room that has probably not changed much since the 1950s when this school was built. The lacquered wood floors. The tiny stage with its rickety stairs on wheels. The droopy heavy black curtains. The wooden church pew style benches lining the walls. The steady hum of the yellow fluorescent lights. How many thousands of kids have trooped through here over the years, all being taught the same things?
Everyone had made their way to their seats. A teacher somewhere said “shush’. We were about to begin.
I knew I was going to cry. I always cry.
The new music teacher I had been hearing all about (who is also apparently a member of the Canadian Armed Forces judging by her marching band uniform) stomped a shiny black boot loudly on the floor. A more serious hush fell over the room. She guides the 12 or so kids that make up the school choir to the front of the room, they climb up onto the metal stairs, and open the ceremony with a song.
Next, the grade 6’s awkwardly take to the front of the room, nervously passing the microphone to each other as they offer us a reading of In Flanders Fields. Still no tears. Huh, interesting. Maybe I have finally reached some kind of limit with my heart always breaking at this stuff. Another song and then, projected up on one of those ancient pull down white projector screens - the kind that always has a dirty, frayed string dangling from the metal handle - a video called Highway of Heroes begins to play. Footage of fallen soldiers being repatriated via the big airbase in Ontario. Enormous military aircraft open their bellies to release coffin after coffin swaddled in flags, a twisted backwards ritual of lifeless babies being brought into a grateful world. Onlookers hold signs with messages of love and gratitude as the coffins are gently placed in hearses for their final journey along Canada’s Highway of Heroes, the stretch of highway that runs between the airbase at CFB Trenton to the coroner’s office in Toronto.
This is when the tears start. Maybe it is the universal mother in me who viscerally feels the pain with these invisible mothers for a moment. Maybe it is another, more selfish part that cannot imagine if one of my own children felt the call to service, or worse were ever forced into fighting in a war. I try to imagine the anguish the of the mothers of these people, whose bodies I am watching being unloaded into hearses from a gym in suburban Canada. Of course I can’t. But I am still devastated. My face is wet. My eyes are burning. I feel the uneasy side eye of the dad sitting beside me who hasn’t stopped checking his phone since we got here. Maybe he is uncomfortable with the sudden eruption of emotion beside him, I don’t know. I breathe into the wave of feelings, quietly relieved that I have not gone numb to it all. I compose myself. The video ends.
Then there is a shadow play (Cosmo is in this one). Somewhere backstage a light is turned on to illuminate the white screen that has been propped up between the dusty curtains. There is the sweet rustling of kids taking their places. A snare drum suddenly bangs, once and then again and again, the shots of sound lining up with the stream of silhouettes saluting the air before dramatically dropping to the ground. 11 year olds are goofy. But something about their posture, even through the screen, tells me they are trying to be serious, still, there is something oddly comical about how they fling themselves to the ground. A tittering of laughter flutters around the room for a moment. The grade two teacher reaches over to shhhhh the loudest in her class. There is a palpable softening in the room. Laughter. Inappropriate. Necessary. Wise. Now, through the screen we watch the dark outlines of our small people carrying the cartoon-like caskets they constructed over the past days in their happy, noisy classrooms using the remains of cardboard boxes that only last week delivered the neighbourhood’s Amazon orders; halloween costumes, Christmas presents, snowboard equipment. It was haunting. I wanted to clap. I wanted to weep. I was crying again. We we were asked to hold our applause.
Out of nowhere, a group of slightly younger kids appear. Taking their places at the front of the room each holding a gauzy, translucent silk scarf in alternating in blues and oranges. Holding the colourful fabric squares in their small, outstretched arms, they staggered themselves apart from one another in rows. I couldn’t tell if they reminded me of more of prayer flags or a chess board. Our 12 year old student MC announced the song we were about to hear was called Salaam Shalom, which means “Hello" in both Arabaic and in Hebrew.
Salaam shalom, salaam shalom side by side, we live salaam shalom
Salaam shalom, salaam shalom side by side, we sing salaam shalom
Children of Israel, children of Palestine
all want a place to live, a time to shine.
Now in this ancient sand, holy land
Time for the pain to heal, a time to mend and understand.
Sister brother, mother father
Learn a new dance, sing a new song, walk a new path,
Make a circle where we all belong.
The choreography for this song ended with the children moving from their chessboard formation into a circle where they sat crosslegged, facing each other, smiling. Definitely prayer flags.
AS my own children stand smiling on a safe, warm stage, twirling colourful swaths of fabric, innocently singing hopeful songs of oneness, kindness and inclusion, war rages on in Ukraine, Gaza and Israel and beyond. Children just like them are enduring unimaginable, impossible violence right this very minute.
I am now full on sobbing, the sleeves of my fleece soaked through. My eyes hot and red. My heart aches for the babies, sisters, brothers, mothers, fathers, grandparents and cousins. The knot of emotion that has been worriedly working its way throughout my system trying to find a place to rest, settles in my throat. The guy beside me is still on his phone.
It is unbearable.
My daughter’s class was last. They evenly made their way to the front and arranged themselves carefully on the stairs of the stage, joining the choir. The room quieted once more:
We are love, we are one
We are how we treat each other when the day is done
We are peace, we are war
We are how we treat each other and nothing more
And tell me what it is that you see
A world that's full of endless possibilities
And heroes don't look like they used to
They look like you do
Sobbing. I locked eyes with Elvie. I saw through my own raw, wet eyes a soft, heartbreaking look on her face. Confusion. Concern. Sadness. Understanding. Love. Compassion. I think somehow she already knows both how horrific life can be, and the truer truth under that, the truth she and all babies are were born knowing, the truth of our oneness. Via our seamless psychic connection, or maybe I am projecting, I feel her own heart asking, “But why? How can we keep getting it so wrong?” I know full well she doesn’t even yet know how just much we are getting wrong.
Walking home I was lost in thought and emotion. I stepped carefully around the cratered pavement of the tennis court behind the school, lonely puddles now overflowing with murky rainwater. I made my way through the soft, mossy sanctuary of the impossibly magical little forest that connects the school to the end of my beautiful tree lined street, I kept turning the question over in my head: how can we simultaneously “get it” and also “keep missing it?” I know the answer is complicated. Bigger than any number of words could lay out or explain. But it is also very simple. It is because of fear.
We have been taught to be scared. We have been taught to favour the rational mind to solve problems and in order to do so, we have submerged the soft, radiant, knowingness of love deep within us. It has caused us to become perilously lost in fear, isolation, violence, mental & physical illness. Humanity, as I so often say, is Glitching because of this. And make no mistake, we are in a downward spiral. We might not actually make it as a civilization.
There is an alive, wise, benevolent, ineffable intelligence, running the entire universe. It breathes our bodies, writes poems, builds airplanes. It guides us with desires and gut feelings and middle-of-the-night ideas. It speaks to us in dreams. It forgives and loves and keeps creating regardless of it all. It may be invisible and unknowable, but I know you don’t need me to convince you that it exists. You might call it Love, Creativity, the Universe, or God. It doesn’t matter anymore. We have believed for too long that this thing is outside of us and have forgotten how to let it lead us from the inside.
Until we learn (or more accurately remember) to navigate life referencing this thing in us, this intelligence that makes us truly greater than the sum of our separate selves, we will always perceive a void - that is this thing’s way of making sure we never forget it. And the system seems to work, we seem to stop at nothing in attempt to resolve the void, it’s why I find myself sitting in a flickery 75 year old elementary school gymnasium, remembering other people’s dead babies today. But we have been looking in the wrong place.
While most of the world churns and jostles, spitting and choking, frantically swallowing as much stuff as it can, elbowing each other out of the way in a mad pursuit to finally find and own the thing that will make the void go away…..if you are paying attention you’ll see that there is a quiet but magnificent movement beginning. A rising. Creativity herself is returning to run the show. To guide us. The other way didn’t work. The void is the love. It has been pointing us home all along.
The infinite, wordless thing that beats your heart and grows your hair and burns in the stars you gaze at, as you stand on grass it is growing for you as it gently touches your face with its breeze, has a voice. It has never stopped speaking to you. It has the answers you seek. The alive treasures you most fervently desire. You can’t receive any of these gifts until you learn how to communicate with it. You must learn its language now. It is time.
Heroes don’t look like they used to.
They look like you do.