Saturday, November 05, 2016

Momentarily nonplussed

You know, I don't know what to do with myself. I'm sitting at a used bookstore with no customers in it and no one to talk to, so I guess I'm going to vent on my blog.

I spent most of the last seven years, from 2009 until April 2016, with the primary goal of looking out for my mother, who had a debilitating stroke shortly before my father died (in November 2009). For awhile I tried to keep up teaching ESL full-time while taking care of her, but it wasn't always that practical, commuting all the way into Vancouver, leaving her alone in Maple Ridge most of the day, then coming home to shop and cook and help her around the house, before finally going home to my own apartment, to wake up in eight hours to go back to Vancouver and do it all over again. She didn't want to consider moving at all, and - the odd trips to casinos with friends aside - was more or less completely dependent on me for shopping, cooking, banking, making phone calls, or anything that involved dealing with the outside world - to say nothing of her desire for a friend to spend time with; she didn't have that many, had always been oriented towards being with her husband, and when he was gone, there really weren't that many close friends left (and all her surviving family, besides me, were in Quebec or, on my father's side, Nova Scotia or maybe Boston).

There are occasional moments I regret - when I yelled at her for doing something dangerous like reheating plastic containers in the convection oven, so that we had to clean up the puddles of it that hardened on the oven "floor," for instance; or when we fought over food safety stuff, when she'd try to insist I not throw away food that was long past the expiry date, say. Sometimes the glitches were actually kind of entertaining - like when I discovered her trying to cook bacon by draping the pieces of it over the rack of the stove, with a pan beneath to catch drippings; no, Mom, that is not one of the approved methods of cooking bacon. Sometimes I had to just sigh and play past it - as when she would try to "help" by reheating an entire gigantic bowl of food I had prepared, that would have been dinner for both of us for three days, but now had to be eaten that night, or given away, or thrown away - because you can't just reheat and chill and reheat and chill and reheat and chill the same food, over and over again, which knowledge didn't seem to be left in her brain post-stroke. That would get really frustrating if I had planned on maybe NOT cooking dinner the next night, if the leftovers were part of a plan I had that now had to be scrapped so I could buy her new food and cook it all up again, and sometimes I got aggravated with her, lost my patience, lost my temper, I admit - begging her to PLEASE not help, just to leave it all to me, because it was simpler that way, less chance of a misadventure. But eventually I mostly learned patience. I think, I hope. I regret moments - right down to her stay in the hospital, in the final month of her life, when I yelled at her for swallowing the mouthwash that they had given me because they were worried she would aspirate food and develop pneumonia, because they thought her swallowing was compromised. I was scrubbing her false teeth in the sink, and told her explicitly to swirl and spit, so that her mouth would be very, very clean after a meal. Instead, she swallowed it and - at that point I was sleeping in her hospital room, in a cot - I flipped out at her. I remember the hurt in her voice: "are you mad at me?" No, no Mom, I'm not mad, it's just really important that you not swallow the mouthwash, okay? We're cleaning your mouth out so you don't accidentally inhale food particles, and if you swallow the mouthwash, it kind of wrecks it, okay? Please just spit it out. I'm sorry I yelled.

But overall, I think I can say I took care of her pretty well. I don't think, between 2009 and 2016, when she died, that she went on a single grocery run on her own, for example. Occasionally when she was out with friends who had cars, if they stopped at a store, she would bring stuff home, too, but that was maybe a matter of five occasions in seven years. In terms of daily life, if she was out of milk, say, she would basically just resort to powdered non-dairy creamer until I could pick some up for her - which process would sometimes be complicated by her slightly impaired function after the stroke; she wouldn't always tell me what groceries she needed, or was going to need soon, until I was off in Vancouver trying to do my dayjob, for example, letting me know she'd run out of something when I could do nothing about it, then declining to just take a short walk to the nearest convenience store and get it herself. Maybe she did that once or twice, I guess. When she broke her salt shaker, I gave her directions - this was much later - in how to get to the nearest thrift store, where I'd taken her on walks many times - and she did go and get herself a nice pair, which I now have in the apartment I share with Erika, and use. I was proud of her for doing that, even blogged about it. But that sort of gives you an idea of how exceptional an occurrence that was.

Anyhow, that went on for a couple of years, but looking after her in one town and working in another was wiping me out, so when the opportunity surfaced sometime, I think, in 2011, to take a "voluntary lay-off" from the ESL school, which was in some turmoil, and collect EI, I did so. I supplemented my income with freelance writing, and Mom helped me out - which I figured was fair enough, because I was helping her. We got by - and between her helping me with rent and her somewhat regular casino-going, we blew through her savings over the course of about four years.

I had started seeing Erika, at that point, and the shape of things changed. For awhile that was a long-distance relationship, with me commuting to the island to be with her, leaving Mom to fend for herself for the odd weekend. It was a promising relationship, but the commute was complex, and Erika had her own desire to make plans - to have kids, a family, a house. I couldn't see any major changes in my circumstance while Mom was alive, though; I was barely getting by taking care of Mom and myself, and having kids didn't seem something I was ready to discuss. Eventually we decided to stop seeing each other, with that as the main issue. But then Erika got a job in Burnaby, relocated there, and it became a little less impractical to maintain a relationship; and I became more open to the idea of having a family. Which we still haven't managed to do, but let's set that aside for now - there are complicating factors, like, it's just not that easy to get her pregnant, but I've been trying.

Anyhow, the shape of things started to change over the last year or so. Money shortages meant going back to work, at the ESL school, which had managed to stay afloat, through a couple of major changes in owner. Working in Vancouver and spending more time in Burnaby with Erika meant that it kinda made sense to give up the apartment in Maple Ridge, and just sleep on Mom's couch when I was visiting her, which was how things worked for the final year of her life. When I was working full time, and maintaining a relationship, it meant she had to understand that I couldn't always be there, but I spent almost every weekend in Maple Ridge, from Friday night to Monday morning (or sometimes Sunday night). I kind of had the hang of looking out for her at that point, so for a short while, everything was okay.

Then it wasn't. The teachers decided to re-unionize, for one - which meant, as per any union shop, that the teachers who had been there the longest had the most security in their jobs. But negotiations didn't go so well, trying to get a contract established - so the teachers went on strike. It was an interesting experience, to say the least - but it unfortunately meshed up with some problems that I don't really want to go into with the company that had bought the school, which meant that class sizes suddenly dropped exponentially, and suddenly only the really senior teachers had anything like work. I was not among them; I had signed away over ten years of seniority when I went on voluntary lay off, previously - a bit of a raw deal, really, but at that point I didn't much think I'd ever go back. After barely a year back at the school - during which time I'd had pretty much full time work - I found myself struggling to get by on the odd substitute teaching gig, or after school conversation classes, which barely paid the bills. I managed to draw some EI again, for awhile, but that didn't last long or pay much. When Mom died, in April - there's a lot about that blogged here if you go back - I was able to extend the benefits for a short time, and I managed to expand my range as a freelancer, writing - as paid assignments dried up at the Straight - for the West Ender and BC Musician. I also got a few hours, sort of casual, doing the odd shift at a used bookstore, where I am now. But it's been almost a year since I had a stable, full-time job, and it's been half a year since Mom died. I kind of struggle to get enough money, from freelance gig to freelance gig, to get by, and I have been mostly doing so, with a few stressful moments thrown in.

But there's generally a feeling of needing SOMETHING TO DO, NEXT, and I don't know what it is.

Retail pays peanuts, and seems a bit of a waste of my time - though I'm passably good at it, don't mind doing it, and don't consider myself above it. It's not really a "career," though, as I see it.

I'm good at writing, and love doing it, and am grateful for the people who publish me and want to work with me - but it's not entirely reliable, as I've been doing it, and it's not like I'm paying into any long-term pension plan as a writer. Hell, I'm barely scraping up rent and grocery money. And it seems like the way of things is for people either to mooch free content or pay peanuts, these days. Probably there is money to be had for more commercial and technical writing, but it's not really what I want to be doing. If there is a way to make decent coin on print, these days, I haven't found it.

I'm also good at teaching, and like doing it, but I don't want to be at the bottom end of a chain of seniority at another union school, surviving off the crumbs of teachers who have been there longer. The overall experience at the school I've been at is disappointing to say the least. I put a lot of work into planning out my classes, developing stuff I could do, with my eyes on the long-term; now all my binders of material are sitting around in boxes, and it seems uncertain that student numbers will ever bounce back again sufficiently that I'll have a chance to return to regular work.

There are other schools out there, mind you, but some of the ones I've stuck my nose into seem pretty fly by night. Plus the way I understand teaching is predicated on the way things have been done at this one school I've been at, where over ten of my fifteen-plus years in and around language teaching have been spent. Maybe there are opportunities out there that I'm not aware of. I'm almost afraid to go looking, to be honest - because I don't want to discover that the situation is as bad as I'm afraid it might be.

I am momentarily non-plussed as to what to do with myself. I have a couple writing projects that should get me through Christmas, but after that - hell, what should I do?

I really, really, really do not know.

1 comment:

Karen said...

Hello. Karen formerly of PGIC here. Hate to tell you but it really is as bad as you think out there. I work a fair bit at a union school but yes, mainly crumbs. I also tutor, teach evenings at Langara when there are enough students and am at UBC a bit in the summer. With all of that i still rely on savings. And yeah, if you have mainly only taught at PGIC it can be tricky to learn the deal at other places. I also need to do something else but have no idea what. Not trying to be discouraging as i am sure some school may be hiring although maybe not toward winter. I am burned out of the industry but stuck in it. I would advise you to find the two or three union schools in Vancouver and apply there. I lucked into ubc years ago so get pretty much a guaranteed august there at least. Combining a few jobs seems to be the way to go.