back to school

Photo by Daniel Frank on

The shift is often subtle, but never unmistaken. The nights bring its refreshing cool air which then lingers past dawn like an unwelcome overnight guest. The vital rains that quench eager garden beds arrive more often, driving chubby beach babes indoors to smear glitter paint across counters. Evening ‘lake baths’ return to the confines of the lavender-scented, bubbling tub . School registration pops into mind. Pumpkin-spiced beverages top chalk-on-blackboard coffeehouse menus.

Ordinarily, I welcome the Fall; it is my preferred season. After hot, sunny days basking on the sand, I look forward to the colder, cozy evenings on the couch. While hastily, thrown-together meals featuring fare requiring as minimal dish ware and cutlery as possible have been the norm, I revel in the smells of one-pot meals, stewing in the slow cooker. Although I am not alone in my love for simple summer days, I excite in the shift in seasons and the second restart of the year. Long-sleeves and a pristine, crisp planner herald the launch of reenergized routines branching from our long, unstructured summer days.

This year, as the Northern Hemisphere tips away from the sun, my usual eagerness for Fall’s offerings are lacking. Much has changed for all of us during these past six months and the future stretches wide in a yawning abyss of more unknowns. Our kitchen hosts strained conversations as Blake and I struggle with decisions around our children returning to school. Laden with COVID-fatigue, these discussions repeatedly lead to tears as I try shed my grief and attempt desperately to come to terms with the forever lost image of Alice and Henry, walking hand-in-hand into their first day of school. Grade 1 and JK; what an important year! Hair brushed, skin scrubbed, backpacks gleaming, excitement bubbling and normalcy prevailing. I want this so desperately for them. And for me. Yet instead, Blake and I shout across the kitchen island, agonizing over every aspect of what lays in front of us, both of us hurling angry arguments while sadness simmers beneath. Should they do online school and ‘learn’, glassy-eyed in front of a screen? Should we try to homeschool with already stretched schedules and a long, isolated winter in front of us? Should they return to in-person school knowing full well that a second wave will surely befall us? Are we making the right decisions for them? For us? Kitchen conversations that are surely repeated in homes across our country.

Greeting Henry off the bus from Kindergarten
Last year’s back to school poses 🙂

It has been six years since our move to Sioux Lookout. Me, six-months pregnant and newly graduated out of Family Medicine Residency, I was impatient to sink my teeth into my rural medicine practice. Blake, always willing to walk into the next adventure with me had been on-board, but we had had a five-year plan. Sioux Lookout, although endearing in many ways, was not to be our forever home.

Pregnant with Henry, learning to fish on Abram Lake

So last year, after many agonizing debates between us, Blake and I became the proud new owners of 34 acres of land outside of Thunder Bay; a swath of property stretched below the Norwester mountains, across a farmers field, a beaver pond fed by a snaking stream and flanked by acres and acres of densely-treed bush. It was here, we had planned, to build a home for our family.

After a year of planning, pre-COVID, we had been set to begin the construction of a passively-heated house in the Spring of 2020. Gone would be our reliance on fossil fuels to heat our home. Specialty windows to keep the solar-heated air contained without possible escape were on their way from Poland. Walls, four-feet thick to insulate against the deep cold of the North, were due to be constructed and shipped from Southern Ontario. A crew was on stand-by to assemble the pieces together like a gigantic gingerbread house. A move-in date was circled on the family calendar. By the beginning of the school year, we had been slated to kick off a new chapter for our family.

Now, as I write this, our move-in date has come and gone and only a rickety trailer holds space for our dream home.

Our family has been enormously fortuitous throughout this pandemic. Our livelihoods have not been pulled out from under us, our health has remained sound and our day-to-day lives in our remote community have been minimally affected compared to our urban neighbours. However, although Blake and I speak of our good fortunes regularly as we scroll through the CBC’s news headlines, I still sense a guilt-laden despondence over the loss of our family’s plans. Comparative suffering, however, seldom brings relief. This year was supposed to have been a big one for us and COVID has, of course, changed everything. I remind myself that it is ok to grieve. To shed tears for the bright faces that will be masked for back-to-school photos. To feel sadness over the lost hopes, best-laid plans and dreams of new adventures. As our collective community moves through this change of seasons, the cool autumn air bringing new uncertainties and fears, we can only cling to hope and lean into our resilience as the way forward. Best of luck to all in this time of transition.

Photo by Gelgas Airlangga on

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