Category Archives: Slice of Life

Of Squirrels and Bees

Attachment.pngOne of the most difficult things about having a concussion is that unless you’re in the club and have had your cranial computer go haywire, it’s not something that’s easily understood. Questionable Bonus: You usually “look normal.“

It’s not like a broken leg, where people see that it must be serious, and they sign the cast as a sign of support. And a broken bone is also common enough that friends and family are familiar with your experience. Well, seeing as I’ve become something of a reluctant expert in this field — four diagnosed brain injuries, likely six in total — I thought I may as well seize this teachable moment and make something good out of it all.

Trying to think and interact with people these days is kind of like trying to concentrate with a head full of squirrels and bees.

Let’s start with the bees.

Imagine that you are standing near a bee hive, close enough to hear and nearly feel the vibration of all those tiny wings. The buzzing is a low hum — not enough to drown out anything, but enough to be distracting. So you have to work extra hard to concentrate on what you’re doing, because that low hum is taking up some of your brain bandwidth. It’s tiring, and you have to work at it, but you can mostly function around it.

The squirrels are a different story.

I quite like squirrels, but not in my head. These pesky cerebellum rodents usually turn up when I’m talking. One of the areas hardest hit in my brain (pun probably intended) is my language centre, so often I say or type one word when I mean another that sort of sounds the same or has a distantly similar meaning. (For example, pictures when I mean worksheets.)

As a result of this ding to the word bank, if I get interrupted when speaking, it’s like I suddenly have squirrels ricocheting off the inside of my skull. Red squirrels! Grey squirrels! Flying squirrels! And I stand there with absolutely no idea of what I was saying, or what I was going to say next. It happens each and every time someone breaks into my communication stream, and then I inevitably feel stupid and frustrated as I try to recover. Intellectually, I know it’s not my fault, but emotionally it’s a hard default to set.

There really isn’t a way to fix the squirrels. You can say “Please don’t interrupt me,” but that attempt at squirrel sedation usually sounds like a reprimand (especially if you’re also trying to talk over the bees), and some people’s communication styles just don’t work that way.


Healing from a concussion (mild traumatic brain injury) is exhausting. Each and every thing a human being does uses some form of brain activity. Taking a shower today knocked me on my butt and I had to sleep for two hours. (Write down each and every motion of your typical shower experience from deciding to take a shower until you are ready to walk out the door and you’ll see what I mean.)

For now, the squirrels and bees are settled down. I’m alone in a quiet room, and so my attention is focused solely on this screen and this keyboard. And it feels good to be writing — a balm for those moments when words pop out of my head like soap bubbles on thistles.

Silent September

At lunchtime today, I found myself gravitating to Lily Lake at Rockwood Park. I wasn’t expecting to feel so sad. But having just come from a deserted Staples (“It’s September 1st. Do you have all your school supplies?!”), seeing the still lake and hearing the rustle of leaves in the middle of a September weekday packed a punch.

Lily Lake is a kettle lake, formed by the glaciers of the Ice Age about 10,000 years ago. As the ice sheets retreated, enormous chunks of ice fell off. The weight of these chunks caused a depression in the earth beneath them, and as the ice melted, it filled in the depression with water, creating a lake. Perhaps the most famous example of a kettle lake is Walden Pond, in Massachusetts–

Normally in September and October, I say these words five or six times a day, rumbling down the hill on my doubledecker bus — with 70 of my newest friends — holding my microphone steady, with my arm hooked around a pole.

September and October are prime cruise ship season in my little port city, and on any given day, anywhere between 2000 and 11,000 visitors spend their day with us — and I with them. They sail in early in the morning and leave just as the locals are thinking about supper.

But not this year.

A seagull lands on top of the wrought-iron garbage bin, his razor-sharp bill stabbing at a Tim Hortons cup. Slim pickings for you too, eh?

I haven’t heard a New York City accent in person in nearly a year. I haven’t convinced anyone to try our local edible seaweed, or sung to people, confessing “I can only sing in front of people I know I will likely never see again.”

Every now and again my husband will casually mention a building as we drive by — often in the most general terms — and I’m suddenly telling him the history of the house, the family who originally lived there, how it survived the Great Saint John Fire, and to take note of the details in the woodwork surrounding the door.

I can’t help it.

I miss them. I miss the ships, and the people they bring to me. I miss my beloved Routemaster buses. I miss hearing a continent’s worth of voices in 90 minutes, and answering questions I’ve answered a thousand times or never before.

It has been so long since I have had a September to myself that I’m not quite sure what to do with it.

But we’re only twelve hours in.

I’ll figure it out.

The Early Work of Karen J. McLean

There are some days when the words just roll out of my head like smoke from a campfire, or steam from a roiling boil. And then there are evenings like this, when the words evade me, and I stare blankly at the screen.

I distinctly remember the first poem I wrote, and where and when it was written. I was in Mrs. Reece’s class, at Denis Morris Memorial School. I was one of six grade three students in a class of grade fours, and I was supposed to be learning long division. (This would be the beginning of a nearly-decade-long tradition of writing some of my best work in math class.)

Mrs. Reece was a fantastic teacher. I was terrified the day I met her (new school, no friends, and they played a bilingual version of “O Canada” which completely freaked me out because I was supposed to sing and I didn’t know the words), and then wound up with detention for talking too much. (I guess I was trying to fix the “no friends” issue.)

But within three days, I knew that I had lucked out. Mrs. Reece was like the grandmother I’d never had. Friday afternoons we were always shown slides from her various travels across Canada. Every morning we would sing songs together, with Mrs. Reece accompanying us on her autoharp. And Mrs. Reece always encouraged us to be creative, which is why I wasn’t too worried about getting caught writing a poem in math class — which, of course, I did.

“Karen? What are you writing?”

Instinct made me hide my paper; pride forced me to uncover it.

“I’ve written a poem,” I said shyly. And then I held it up, complete with illustration.

Mrs. Reece put down her chalk and walked over to look more closely. On the page was a drawing of what looked to be two sad ice cubes in a puddle.

“May I read it, just to myself?” Mrs. Reece asked.

I nodded.

As I watched her eyes scan the four short lines, I felt electric. Would she like it? Then Mrs. Reece read it again.

Unable to handle the suspense, I blurted out, “If it’s too messy, I can recite it. It’s short!”

And then, without waiting, I began:

If I were an ice cube,

An ice cube were I,

I’d weep and weep,

For soon I would die.

The room was silent. Mrs. Reece looked at me for a long moment, then slowly put the paper back down on my desk.

“That was sad, Karen,” she said, finally. “Words are sometimes just markings on paper, but sometimes they can do so much and say so much more. Poems that can make people sad are good poems.”

Then Mrs. Reece smiled at me. “You should keep writing.”  A pause for emphasis.  “After math class.”

Every Five Weeks

Every five weeks, I head up to “the Reege,” which is my way of trying to make the Regional Hospital sound cool. (Do the cool kids even say “cool” these days?) In any case, the Reege and I have regular dates, as I have a medical condition that requires monitoring. No big deal, except …

I. Hate. Needles.

The anxiety is real. I get a little woozy just thinking about it, truth be told, and if I actually see the instrument of collection — even if it’s nowhere near me — … TIMBERRRR!

However, since I am something of a frequent flier, the vamp– phlebotomists, I mean — are used to me now, and I am used to them. And, truth be told, as long as I wind up in a familiar person’s chair, things are usually pretty good.

Well, today my husband also had to have routine bloodwork done. This complicated things a little.

I craned my neck to see who was calling patients in. With everyone behind masks, it was a little hard to tell, but I recognized My Favourite’s voice right away. (The fact that he is usually the lone male narrows things down nicely.)

“Oh, good,” I said. “Jeff is here.” (Note: Not his real name. Because he has enough to deal with on a daily basis. He doesn’t need Internet fame on top of it.)

My husband looked around. “Jeff? Jeff who?”

“Jeff the Blood-Taking Guy,” I replied. “He is really good.”

My husband looked at me quizzically from behind his mask. “You know his name?”

“Of course I do.”

My husband rolled his eyes at me. “Of course you do.”

In one of the aspects of my life, I’m a tour guide. This would have been my 30th consecutive season, had COVID-19 not gone on a world tour. So between that and being a writer, it’s a running joke between us that I will talk to anyone about anything.

Another number was called, so I swung my head around. “Ah!” I said. “Tracey! She’s really good, too.”

More and more minutes went by. I hope I get Jeff … I hope I get Jeff … I hope I get Jeff … The anticipation is what really gets me. If I could just drive up to a window, stick my arm out, get stuck, and drive away, it would be so much easier. Except for that fainting thing, I suppose.

Finally I heard the magic number: “41?”

I stood up, waved bye to my husband, and followed Tracey. Through a door, past a curtain that is swung across behind me, and into the chair. And so the wooziness began.

“You okay?” Tracey asked. (That’s not her real name either, just so you know.)

I stared up at the fluorescent light fixture to keep the needle out of my line of vision, doing my best unintentional impression of a brave four-year-old. “Yup.”

Then I heard it.

My husband’s voice.

Talking with Jeff.

Ten minutes later, walking back to the car, my husband marvelled about his experience. “I didn’t feel a thing! That guy was really good!”

“Uh huh.”

I love my husband. I am glad that he had an easy time of it. But I still felt cheated somehow.

As we drove up to the parking payment booths, my husband paused. “Which one do I …?”

“The left one,” I replied without thinking. “That’s Debra.”

“Of course it is,” he replied.