Nonfiction from Rachel Laverdiere
For the Love of (Dis)Order
“We adore chaos because we love to produce order.” – M.C. Escher
I sandwich the pillows that were yours between the bed and the wall, inhale the scent of freshly laundered sheets and wait for sleep to descend. Eventually, I stare out the window. Attempt to decipher patterns amongst the stars, but all I see is the possibility of something more. The promise of glittering gems.
In my dream, two-dimensional faces blur into geometric shapes. Oval faces contain round eyes, triangular noses, rectangular mouths. I stifle a yawn and continue my review of basic geometric terms.
“Madaa-aame, why do we have to learn this?” Though I can’t see him, I recognize the voice of an unruly kid from a decade ago. His spirit was much like my son’s.
Rather than admit I’m as bewildered by the question as he is, I respond, “Geometry is important. Pay attention and you’ll see shapes everywhere!” My false enthusiasm makes me cringe.
Poof! A map appears on the dusty chalkboard. “Notice that Saskatchewan is in the shape of a trapezoid. Repeat: tra-pa-zoid.” The students obey robotically.
“We live in a geometric shape. Pretty cool, hey?” Circular arcs form beneath scalene triangles. I wonder if they see a crescent moon smile above my cylindrical neck. If they understand that I’m incongruent with the geometric principles I spew.
On the walls beyond the students, art projects hang askew. Rows of desks bend into theatrical arches. The only lines that are straight and sharp in my beloved Saskatchewan are those created by cartographers. Yet I hold my tongue.
I don’t rebel. Don’t throw the Mathématiques 7 text out the window or declare that the angle of the clock’s hands indicates it’s time for Phys. Ed. Instead, my mind transitions to the coulees and valleys of my youth. To the rolling hills and towering rock piles that lay toward the northern boundary of my childhood pasture.
I wake drenched in sweat, the anvil of regret crushing my chest. I quit teaching Grade 7 years ago. Maybe these dreams are penance for not protecting my students while I could. I should have warned them to trust based on actions rather than words.
In my dream, I was trapped in a classroom in which I no longer belong, teaching concepts I no longer hold valid. Like the airless cage of my marriage.
Perhaps I impose order to make up for my tendency toward chaos. I was as unruly as the prairie wind before teaching and marriage shackled me.
“What I give form to in daylight is only one per cent of what I have seen in darkness.” – M.C. Escher
The projector drenches my students in an icy LED glow. I click through aerial photographs of the pristine native terrain of northern and central Saskatchewan.
As I shuffle toward the lower third of our province, where human manipulation grows more evident, my heart pangs. I yearn to tell the kids, “From a bird’s eye view, it’s shocking to see how humans have transformed the more ‘desirable’ sections of Saskatchewan into a grid. Like the pioneers before us, we continue to impose straight lines on nature, on our cities. Our rectangular yards are sprawling into the countryside.” Instead, I clear my throat and say, “If a prairie falcon were to pass over southern Saskatchewan, its shadow would cut across a patchwork of perpendiculars that divide our rolling grasslands into tidy parcels. But the falcon ignores the right angles the cartographers etched into the landscape. It finds its way home by scanning the coulees and sloughs.”
As the classroom’s theatrical rows transform into parallel lines, I jerk awake. Outside my open bedroom window, a family of magpies chatters. A trapezoid of sunlight splays across my quilt.
If I could re-enter the past, I’d tell those kids that nature ignores perpendiculars. I’d teach them the importance of following their hearts rather than their minds. Logic doesn’t always lead to happiness. Just because a man is your father doesn’t mean he has good intentions. The same goes for husbands who, after you sign the dotted line, spread their clutter around your tidy home and life. Another person’s dysfunction is not your responsibility.
I learned best from the lessons I taught.
“My work is a game, a very serious game.” – M.C. Escher
I’m teaching in my sleep again. This time, I dream up a game that uncloaks the predicament Saskatchewan’s native flora and fauna face. In large block letters, I scrawl the names of endangered species on photocopy paper. Fauna on pale green sheets, flora on yellow. Eventually, even those I leave out will perish, but I struggle to choose which to sacrifice for the sake of this game.
Slipper (locally extinct),
Canada Thistle, Sand
Cryptantha, Hairy Prairie-
Ear Cress, Paper Birch,
Western Red Lily, Jack
Pine, Trembling Aspen,
Caribou, Western Moose,
Arctic Fox, Snowshoe
Hare, Red-backed Vole,
White-tailed Deer, Silver-
haired Bat, Northern Flying
Gopher, American Badger,
Black-tailed Prairie Dog,
American White Pelican,
Northern Pike, Lake
I randomly pin labels to the backs of students’ shirts. Otherwise, the boys will fight over the mightiest beasts, and the girls will bicker over the most delicate flowers. I pin the already locally extinct “Small White Lady’s Slipper” to a boy whose acne rages across his angular features. Tapping his shoulder, I whisper, “You’re ‘it’!” Then I flee.
The remaining label—mine—reads “White-tailed Deer.” Caught in the cartographer’s gridlines, I freeze. The playground transforms, and I’m tangled in the fuzzy blue blanket of my childhood bedroom, trapped in a nightmare I can’t bear to relive.
My heart pummels my ribs until I wake safe. Clusters of stars wink at me through my window—and I’m relieved they still refuse to form patterns. I extract myself from my snarl of sheets.
I’ve punished myself long enough. Poking my feet into my slippers, I descend to the kitchen. With a flourish, I sign the divorce papers. Then I wander out the backdoor and consider the vastness of the universe. I twirl beneath the moonlight until the stars spin around me like disco lights.
“Science and art sometimes can touch one another, like two pieces of the jigsaw puzzle which is our human life, and that contact may be made across the borderline between the two respective domains.” – M.C. Escher
Before I crawl into bed, I read about the glaciers that smoothed the prairies during the Quaternary period. I learn that six noteworthy meteorites and comets pummelled and shaped our terrain.
My dream begins in the hallway outside Room 7L where a few students are transforming butcher paper into an almost-perfect trapezoid. The remainder of my crew removes artwork from our colourful bulletin boards. I shoulder tap the most mature and send them to the corner store for balloons. I send the least unruly to fetch supplies from the art room—popsicle sticks, pipe cleaners, crepe paper, tissue paper, paint, plasticine, chalk pastels and magazines—from which we’ll create a collage replica of Saskatchewan’s geological features.
Afterward, I re-parcel the class into six sub-sections, hand each a balloon and say, “Fill these with something that could rearrange our map. There’s going to be a meteor shower!”
Poof! A large sheet of poly shields the floor as the athletes slam-dunk their red balloon into the northern forests. Sand flies everywhere. The nature lovers hurl their blue balloon and it bursts, dousing the north with water that carves rivulets into the sand. Two groups of geniuses count to three before they toss their balloons. The yellow balloon lands left of centre and oozes goopy white glue as the green balloon rains glass beads over the southern grasslands. The pacifists have filled their balloon with air, so it drifts and finally adheres to the Manitoba border at Flin Flon. Finally, the emo kids slouch forward, dyed black hair hanging over kohl-lined eyes. They drop their black balloon smack-dab in the middle of Saskatchewan. Glitter and silver pins glisten over everything.
“See kids?” I say, my heart catching. “Natural disasters lead to beautiful things. Like potash and diamond mines. Like basins and lakes, valleys and gravel pits.”
I wake to sunlight playing peek-a-boo with my curtain. My heart soars. Buried beneath the rubble of my past, there are gemstones.
Rachel Laverdiere writes, pots and teaches in Saskatoon. She is CNF co-editor at Barren Magazine and the creator of Hone & Polish Your Writing. Find Rachel’s essays in journals such as Lunch Ticket, The Common, CutBank and Pithead Chapel. In 2020, her CNF was shortlisted for CutBank‘s Big Sky, Small Prose Flash Contest, made The Wigleaf Top 50 and was nominated for Best of the Net. For more, visit www.rachellaverdiere.com.
Beautiful words to describe Saskatchewan. I would have loved to be a student of yours especially with the balloons for teaching about landscaping of the prairie land. Geography was one of made favourite correspondence courses I took in grade 9. I had loaded up on extra classes that year. Have no idea why now ? I think I was hoping to finish high school sooner. I don’t get it because I loved school.
I love reading what you write, keep it coming.
Your godmother is proud of the woman you have become,Rachel.
Like the airless cage of my marriage. Wow.
Although I’ve never been to Saskatchewan, I can see her in your words. Beautiful. And the children were blessed to have you as their teacher.