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.

1:32 AM

There is something special about being awake while the ones I love (husband, dog) are asleep beside me. In the quiet I am able to think at my own speed, to hear my own thoughts, to feel the tiny twitches as Piper chases squirrels in her sleep.

Plenty on my mind these days, with school going back in session in just three weeks. We are fortunate to not have many cases here, but I suspect that will change. As an immunocompromised substitute teacher, I am concerned about so many things — my own health, learning all the routines at various schools with the Covid-19 protocols added on top, wondering if schools will wind up closing again … The head spins.

For now I will pop in my earbuds and listen to some music, and once again send gratitude to the family members who offered us their no-longer-needed air conditioner.

My Weekend Morning Habit

I live in New Brunswick, in the Maritime Provinces of Canada.  The Maritimes are New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and Prince Edward Island.  Just to confuse things, the Atlantic Provinces are the Maritimes, plus Newfoundland and Labrador.

Anyway, if you live in the Maritimes and you listen to CBC Radio One in the early mornings on the weekend, you encounter a radio show that is quite unlike any other I’ve ever heard.

CBC Weekend Mornings runs from about 5:58 AM to either 9:00 AM (Saturdays) or 8:30 AM (Sundays).  I first stumbled across it late last October, and I got hooked.  Its tagline is “The soundtrack to your breakfast.”  That soundtrack runs the gamut from the opening strains of “O Canada,” all the way through kids’ songs, jazz, well-remembered radio jingles from the 1970s, show tunes, Acadian and Indigenous music, and so much wonderful East Coast musical talent.

But it’s so much more than that.  CBC Weekend Mornings — hosted by Bill Roach, along with Shaun Ryan, Greg from Accounting (a female cat who may or may not be real), and the oft-dinged reader of the news and weather (usually Blair Sanderson) — can best be described as “immersive,  audience-participatory performance art.”

What makes the program so special is that we listeners are a community.  Fans of “Weekendville” (as those in the know call it) rise early together, with their radios, coffee cups, Facebook devices, and telephones within reach.  During the week, the show’s answering machine captures song requests, birthday and anniversary wishes, and funny stories, and all of these find their way into the morning program.

A favourite portion of the show (AKA the bane of my existence) is the Mystery Vocalist Contest, in which one-second snippets of four songs are played.  Two or three times per show, this fierce competition is announced with a flourish of horns.  Contestants call in their guesses, chat with Bill, and hear either the cheers or “awwws” of the crowd.  The prize for a correct guess in the Mystery Vocalist Contest is the coveted East Coaster (right), a 45-RPM-resembling coaster.  (I’ve only ever seen it in photos, as I am terrible at the MVC.)

While all of this is going on, a number of listeners are typing away on the CBC Weekend Mornings Facebook page, posting photos of the view of sunrise from their kitchen tables, silly memes, asking for song titles, teasing the show personnel (“pawsonnel”?) and just generally hanging out with their friendly neighbours whom they haven’t actually met yet but share breakfast with every week.

In some ways, I feel a bit hesitant to share this little part of my life with the world.  After all, what happens in Weekendville stays in Weekendville, and the cool kids are cool because there’s some exclusivity there.  But when you can count on something to make you happy week after week, it deserves a blog post and a round of applause.

I never in my life thought I’d say this, but I love waking up at 5:58 AM on the weekends.  Starting the days with my Weekendville family  is something I look forward to all week.

If only Shaun would send some bacon and toast over this way.


Denial Ain’t Just a River in Egypt

Nope, I’m fine. I’ll be okay in a few days. Yeah, I need bubble wrap, ha ha ha…

By the time you’re 50 years old, your body starts to look and feel like a ten-year-old car. You’re still running, and you still have a lot of places to go, but you’re definitely showing your miles and any scratches and dents from along the way. I’m no different. Follow this blog and you’ll probably get a good sense of what and where those dents are over time.

On February 22, 2012, I was crossing a street when I got by a car and bounced into a truck. I sustained a complex traumatic brain injury that required lots of time, patience, rehab, humour, and professional assistance to come out the other side. It was my second officially diagnosed concussion.

Recovery wasn’t pretty: I wasn’t always my best self; I trusted the wrong people; my critical thinking was muddy; and I didn’t always make the same decisions I would have made pre-TBI. In short, 2012-2016 was probably the worst period of my life, and I’m still making peace with it.

So when I fainted last Thursday evening, bouncing my head off the hardwood floor and knocking myself out for somewhere between 15 and 30 seconds, the third thing I was desperate to establish — after Where am I? and What just happened? — was that I was okay.

(The faint was probably caused by dehydration; it’s been unusually hot and humid here, and I likely wasn’t getting enough water. That happens every so often, but I normally just get light-headed enough to remind me to grab some water.)

So I spent the next few days cracking self-deprecating jokes, insisting I would be fine in a few days, watching as the goose egg went down and the contact zone turned greenish-brown to yellow. But all the while I had a headache, occasional nausea, and constant dizziness any time I moved or sat/stood up too fast.

This morning the veil of denial fell; I realized no matter how badly I was trying to will “fineness” into being, it just wasn’t happening. So I got myself on my doctor’s cancellation list for today and waited. And as the minutes ticked by, the anxiety grew.

I DO NOT want to go back to 2012 was running through my head like a highly-caffeinated hamster on a well-greased wheel. I know I’m not as bad as I was then — I can read and write on this screen, for example, and my reflexes are still excellent, as evidenced by catching the bottle of Tylenol tumbling out of the medicine cabinet — but I definitely have done some damage. And so no matter how rational I’m trying to be about it, the anxiety has the better ammo.

But it’s not my first rodeo. I will be fine, but maybe not right away. If this were life-threatening, I’d probably already be hospitalized. I haven’t gone to the ER, not just because of the initial denial, but because it’s been my experience that unless it is life-threatening, the ER isn’t all that great with head injuries. (The day of the car incident, they didn’t even check my pupils for dilation, and I was walking around with an undiagnosed brain injury for two weeks.)

Besides, there’s not a lot that can be done. They could do a CT-scan, but really there’s nothing to actually do with the information. I’m nowhere near bad enough to need brain surgery. I just need rest and time. (And patience. Ohhhhh, so much patience.)

So hopefully I’ll get in to see my doctor tomorrow, we can document this in my chart, I’ll get some advice on the dizziness (likely “rest” and “time”), and we’ll keep following up until I’m back to who I was before Thursday evening.

In the meantime, I look forward to watching my hockey team tonight for the first time in months. (GO LEAFS!)

Note: This post is not intended as medical advice, and I am not a medical professional. (I am just well-acquainted with my own personal noggin.) If you sustain a whack — or even just a hard shake — to the head, seek swift medical assistance.

Karen J. McLean