Do You Remotely Care?

Jill Boettger

I remember the wildflower press I had as a child: a stiff stack of fibreboard, corners fastened with butterfly screws. Loosen the screws, release the tension, and slip a living flower in the space between two boards. Turn the screws, tight. Let the pressed flower rest until it’s dry and flat as a picture on a page. Then let go. Now it can be preserved forever.

Since the pandemic began, the computer screen has flattened my life. It’s as if I’ve placed my loved ones between two panes of glass and collapsed their smell (coffee bean, lavender, soap) and their touch (the softness of my mother’s hands, the fierceness of my father’s hug). Now I have a semblance of them, something I can call up again and again, but the initial comfort of their faces and voices subsides quickly. My animal instinct kicks in, seeking their whole selves, sniffing the keyboard like a bloodhound, looking for the rest of the picture, the missing dimension. But they’re not there, never all there. It’s better than nothing but perpetually dissatisfying.

In my Introduction to Poetry class we study the importance of evoking a sensory world in a poem. How do we lift words off a page and create an experience in the body? I ask my students this question through a screen; the University campus has been closed for months, the spring, summer, fall and now winter semester is being delivered remotely, and I am working with twenty five students I met briefly in a Google Meet just a few days earlier. On this Wednesday in January it’s storming. The wind rattles the window above my desk at home.

My students have their cameras off, and I speak to a grid of icons. Each circle represents one person; images and letters replace faces. I survey the grid: JP, a rainbow, KS, TF, YO, a cartoon bird, GG, a bridge, AFD, BC, a dog with antlers, TM, JH, AA. “When we rely on words to communicate,” I ask the circles, “how can we conjure the sensory world? Consider this poem,” and I begin to read Robert Macfarlane’s “Moth” when suddenly the lights go out and the circles disappear. A message pops up on my screen: Your connection has been lost. The windstorm has knocked out the power to my house, the internet is down and I am abruptly alone in a dark room, reading the poem aloud to myself.

Moth’ – this one soft word falls so far short of what the moth-world means; of moths in number birthed by dark to flock round torch and lamp and porch together thickening air to froth, thencloth, then weather.

In the introduction to his book The Lost Spells, Robert Macfarlane writes, “Here you can listen with owl ears and watch with the eyes of an oak. Here a fox might witch into your mind, or flocks of moths may lift from the page to fill the air.” I take his words as an invitation: When the lights go out, keep reading. Fill the room with a flock of moths.

And then rig your cell phone to serve as a wifi hot spot and rejoin your class.

Five minutes pass, a protracted absence, before I make a connection. When I do, the chatbox lights up. “You’re baaaaack!” “We Missed You!” “Yay!” Again, just as suddenly, I’m in the company of others. The icons have voices and the voices are happy to see me. My heart fills.

Later, I wonder what had happened when I left the class alone. What did they do? How did they handle the silence? So I search for the transcript automatically generated at the end of each meeting, and read the story of those missing five minutes.

BG admitted her loathing of pineapple on pizza.
EC said she spends too much time playing video games.
MR wrote, “I have two hairless Guinea pigs. They’re called skinny pigs.”
AH: “I ate cheesecake for breakfast.”
MM: “I ate ice cream.”
KS: “Skinny pigs?”
MR: “Yes, two.”
AA: “What kind of cheesecake?”
AH: “Chocolate.”

In the absence of me teaching the class, leading the class, a new kind of conversation had sprung up. Strangers began to share the peculiar, ordinary details of their lives and, in so doing, icons became humans: whole and odd and funny and bright, as though the pressed flower regained its dimension, its shape and smell. After reading their conversation, instead of JD or BR or cartoon bird emoji I have the smell of pizza, the taste of chocolate and the hairlessness of a skinny pig. My remote-learning students become real people to me, people I can care for.

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Jill Boettger

Jill Boettger writes poetry and nonfiction from her home in Calgary, where she lives with her husband and two kids. She teaches in the Department of English, Languages and Cultures at Mount Royal University and is a frequent contributor to Geist.


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