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.