It’s turned into a tire-fire

I was on a fun Zoom call on Friday night, because that’s what passes for Friday night beers in our new COVID 19 social distancing world, and one of the pictures I chose for a background was a small kite flying in a bright blue sky. I remember that day of flying well. I was staying with my New Zealand family in a bach at Mataikona just after Christmas 2017. We went to Castlepoint beach for the day and I taught my eldest niece to fly my kite. It’s a pretty easy one to fly – it’s only 1.4m across and has no rigid parts so as long as it’s breezy it floats up very quick and as long as it doesn’t crash so hard a pocket bursts there’s really not much can go wrong with it (unlike the bigger one which has lifted me off my feet and dragged me across the sand!). She was very nervous to start with – it was a breezy day and it’s a zippy little number – but once she understood the basics she got the same thrill at feeling the power of the wind in her hands as I do (I used to sail years ago too and that takes the thrill to whole a new level).

I find myself out on the vast flat prairie lands of Canada and it was my intention to bring this kite with me – there’s got to be somewhere here to fly it right? I didn’t bring it when I moved over in January though. I came with 4 bags on the plane and 3 boxes via DHL and gave priority for things to make my new flat a home, and warm clothes with which to survive the first few months. The warm clothes were prescient. It dropped to -40C in the the first week I was here and I walked to the first day of my new job in -28C wearing full thermals. As it turns out, the things I brought to make my new flat a comfortable home were also a good move.

The other thing I came with was a return ticket to go back in April and fetch things for spring and summer. The world has been a very small place for the last decade or more. I’ve been to New Zealand 10 times in that period and stopped off in Canada several times on the return leg. It was a big mental comfort to me to think of this move as temporary, and to know I was going home in 12 weeks. That’s all I had to get through to start. 12 weeks. Home was only a 9 hour flight away. If it was terrible I could run away (not really, but it’s a nice story to tell yourself when you’re freaking out). That’s all changed now of course. I’ve spent the last week cancelling flights, and cancelling plans with friends and family. I’m in Canada on a work visa and with the current border closures if I leave, I can’t come back in. This all assumes I could actually find a plane to leave on of course. I suspect I maybe could for another week or so, but after that….

Yesterday and today I also had the calls I never wanted to have; the ones about what we do if people get sick. I’m not going home, because I’m safer here. That’s the promise I’ve made my mum at her insistence. I also spoke with my ex about how we’re both handling this. We always had each other in this world, and this is the first time we’ve both had to deal with something big on our own. I’m forever grateful that we can still have these conversations.

So, here I am. In Canada. And the world has breathed in and out and gotten very big again.

I’ve never appreciated the technology we have at our disposal these days more. I wake each day to messages from friends back in the UK, I can listen to old and new friends from across the world on the radio, I can have a dance party in my kitchen as I cook good food, I can share a beer and chat with friends not too far away. I can also still keep doing my job.

And my job? This wasn’t the week 10 I expected. It’s been a steep learning curve all the way. The Deputy Provost role at Athabasca is a new one, so there’s no template to follow. I’m feeling my way into a new role in a relatively new management team. 2 shutdowns, waves of industrial action, and more critical IT infrastructure incidents than I care to mention in 18 years at Edinburgh have left me with some experience to call on. I certainly know how to keep a handle on the panic, how to make decisions in the face of uncertainty, how to keep moving forward, how to take a group of people with me, and how to make space for self-care (including getting my thoughts down like this). Athabasca is an online university so my challenges have been different. Making arrangements to replace face to face exams; supporting students to complete final assessments so that they can graduate at other universities; supporting students who are now home working and juggling childcare; supporting health sciences students who are largely working in the frontline of the response. I think one of the biggest things we’ve done has been to put in place a 2 month no questions asked course extension process. My Assistant Registrar calls it giving our students the gift of time, and I think at this point it’s probably the biggest support we could give to many of our students immediate mental health, as well as their longer term chances to successfully complete their studies.

We’ve also been working on how to turn a place-based admin workforce based across 3 locations into virtual teams. We’re still working on that, but we’ve made great progress. All my teams in Calgary and Edmonton are now fully remote working and we’re close to being able to flip the switch at Athabasca. I can’t speak highly enough of my own teams, or our IT team and our CIO Jennifer Schaeffer who have truly swung into action and built an enormous fleet of laptops ready for home working (a feature of Athabasca is the number of kick-ass ladies in senior leadership positions).

Next week will include all sort of interesting challenges I’m sure. It will also include a video call with my ex back in the UK and he’ll take me through my cupboards and we’ll put together another couple of boxes of stuff to be shipped out to me here, including that kite.

A dear friend has suggested a couple of times that they hope I might stay in Canada for the long term. Yesterday, for the first time and in full knowledge of my actions, I typed the words “tire-fire”. This might just happen…


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