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Last Week in Washington

Although it was freezing cold wandering the streets in Georgetown, one cannot help but be inspired by Washington, obvious in its fantastic architecture, cobbled streets, parks and historical sites. Best of all for me were the free museums on the Mall. At least the city’s poor have access to the cultural benefits, not worrying that the cost might mean less food, clothes or necessities for families. In Toronto, the AGO, Aga Khan, Science Centre and even the ROM preclude a wander after 4 pm when most parents are struggling after a long day’s work, contemplating what’s for supper or how to get the kids to do their homework. It certainly drives me crazy that the advantages of dawdling in a gallery is not available because of the prohibitive price point.

In Washington, we asked taxi cab drivers if they had noticed a change since Trump had become president, an incomprehensible affront to this great city. Most only volunteered that it was more expensive to live and work there now. So fortunately- so far- these institutions of culture and learning are still possible retreats for anyone who chooses. And in deed the fabulous newly opened National African- American Museum of Culture and History was filled with families, sitting, chatting and viewing the powerful exhibitions.

Interestingly at the Hirschhorn Museum, we were able to view Ai Weiwei’s “Trace, “an exhibition of 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience, activists and dissenters. Constructed by hundreds of volunteers in Lego bricks, the entire installation was originally housed at Alcatraz Prisoner in their New Industries Building where prisoners once worked washing off-shore laundry and making cargo nets for the navy, among other jobs for a few cents per hour or timeoff their sentences.

So, unlike Washington’s solo presentation of “Trace”, Alcatraz’s the first room of the installation at Alcatraz housed “With Wind” which contained an enormous colourful and traditional flying Chinese dragon. Formed from smaller kites, the airy sculpture loomed from the ceiling, filling the enormous space. As well, scattered throughout the room were representations of birds and flowers. Contradictions between the freedom of the art and the building that was once used for prison labor and now hosts a bird habitat are obvious. In an adjacent room “Trace” was shown. And finally, the third part of the exhibit “Refaction” was constructed to be peered at through windows.Here Weiwei located a huge wing spread structure resembling an enormous truncated bird, feathers replaced with reflective metal panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers.

This reminded me of British Columbia’s Brian Jungen’s work in which he arranges golf bags, broken plastic chairs ,Nike running shoes and contemporary items to suggest the sacred elements of Canada’s native peoples. Like Jungen, Weiwei highlights cultures that have been used and abused by governments, and in the actual Weiwei location for ” Trace”, the impact of capitalism and slave labor to produce goods, all addressing concerns of freedom and the loss thereof.The scale of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the island itself being 22 miles ,has detained everyone from the Hopi to Al Capone to “hard-case” military prisoners; therefore, because of the prison’s mammoth size , it is no surprise that the Hirschhorn is representing only a segment of the entire production.

Yet, the Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott has criticized the exhibit saying it was “ blunt and provocative”, also suggesting it could be taken in at a glance.At the Hirschhorn’s entrance is a wall of decorative design, actually wallpaper, that could easily be a print for a Hermes scarf as the clarity of objects and even the bronze colour scheme appear well drawn, nicely laid out , and well! pretty. Looking closer, the viewer recognizes these depicted symbols are instruments of oppression such as observation cameras and handcuffs that in Weiwei’s hands are refigured, overlapped and lose their menacing intent as restricting forces by authoritarian governments.The repetitive recognizable bird in the wallpaper is symbolized by the Tweet, and evenly interspersed with these other means of repression, making clear that Weiwei’s active protests, is his voice in his tweets : impossible to ignore worldwide. And much like Marcel Duchamp in 1917, his “Readymades”, in particular the urinal or “ Fountain” focus on ordinary objects that have been liberated from their commonplace surroundings, changing and neutralizing their impact on the audience, here isolating the intrusive objects that spy and pry, removing their claws. The Surrealists knew that dislocating an object from its home context did just that: rendering the ordinary extraordinary and altering the intent and purpose of the object.

Yet walking through the rooms of the Hirschhorn, if form, function and content can combine, they do so here, for the simple Lego brick, ubiquitous, stands for outrage all over the world, of the abrogation of human rights, straight forward, simple. It is not a message that requires much unpacking. The process of identifying the prisoners took six months and each Lego portrait required about 10,000 blocks, the design process also complicated by Weiwei’s being detained in China.And although one might walk through the installation in a half hour or so, the faces not realistic are the purposely blurred images associated with subjugation, mugshots for dossiers.

The grandmothers who marched daily for the release of their children and grandchildren in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo also stood as a crowd of indistinguishable faces too, chanting with one demand. Here Weiwei gives these people in the “Trace” Lego portraits , most names previously unknown, voice. In the Alcatraz catalogue, @ Aiweialcatraz, Weiwei comments on the relationship of the individual to the collective, one person subsumed by their community, long championed by the Chinese. And so, whether in captivity or freedom, the artistic knife cuts both ways, attesting to the need for global support for the individual, and the importance of putting a single name, a separate portrait to the community of dissidents presented here who are hidden, locked away, banished or disappeared forever. The intent of the installation exhorts and communicates the importance of communicating this message to both individuals and groups, by twitter, exhibitions, social media, whatever in order to change , stop and shut down suppressive act by authoritarian governments , their spies and agencies.

I’m sensitive to Kennicott’s criticism as I think of flashing neon art by Tracy Emin, or most art that is perceived at an obvious level, but deeper analyses engages the mind further. For example Sol Le Wit, Judy Chicago, or even Rothko’s tonal paintings. As well the 48,000 handmade pieces that comprised the Aids Memorial Quilt or All Hands on Deck by activists Davis and Scolnik are stark and forthright, the message uncomplicated as art is used as protest for societal issues.That “Trace” was originally shown “ “With Wind” and “Refaction” at Alcatraz does bolster the metaphor and makes for more interesting connections to the realms of the artistic and aesthetic And similarly, Soleil Levant, Weiwei’s exhibit of 3500 salvaged life jackets of the 8,000 refuges who died or disappeared en route to the Greek Island of Lesbos speaks to the human desire to be free, the dangerous failed attempts and inclement sanctuaries. This exhibit observable from the street in Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Harbour was mounted for World Refugee day, and “Trace” continues to maintain dialogues that revolve around and are centred on loss and deprivation of human rights.The purpose is- after all- to commandeer art to attack, protest and change attitudes.

From this blog entry, it is obvious how charged I felt about Weiwei and Kennicott’s criticism. Above all, a backdrop of fantastic Washington with its strange president felt an affront to artistic sensibilities. But, in spite of the critic’s right to express his personal views,and exert his freedom of speech, at least art of protest can be displayed and shown here, even inhabiting a federal penitentiary ! Perhaps small comfort to those incarcerated around the world, but an acknowledgement of the struggle that has cost lives and an active attempt to put pressure on governments to respond. Thanks too to Amnesty International who compiled the list to Weiwei that continues to be the world’s watchdog.

But even in ” Trace”, we witness disparities, for Aung San Suu Kyi is memorialized as an advocate of human rights ( portrait created before the world knew of the Rohingya deportation) along side Nelson Mandela, Rwanda’s Agnes Uwimana Nkusi who alleged corruption in the 2010 election, Omid Kokanee , 2014 Sakharov Prize winner, whose family was threatened unless he contribute to Iran’s development of Nuclear program….and so many many more….

And I think of the interview in Washington with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who commented on her lifelong friendship with now passed Anthony Scalia, explaining they were working towards the same objective, withholding the constitution, different views but one purpose.

At least , the children of Washington are free to look and think and enter museums and cultural institutions and reflect on the stories, the history and narratives compiled by artists like Weiwei whose protests sprouted long long ago, providing artists a means to counter the workings of their systems that would strip the rights and freedoms of citizens worldwide.

From an interview with Douglas Gillies, December, 1994, he quoted Diogenes who said,

“The most beautiful thing in the world is free speech.”Gilles continued,”…for me, free speech is not a tactic, not something to win for political…free speech something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is….that’s what marks us from the stones and the stars…It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”

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A Sobering Blog offering

When I write my blog, believe or not, I try to be upbeat and positive- in spite of my children’s comments of ‘ oh mom” as I somehow continually revert back to my halcyon baby boomer days ( hey, the title is of the blog is blogging BOOMER!) of shaking my love beads, chatting in UC’s grassy quadrangle or reflecting on some aspects that tend to focus on the march of time. Last week stymied by their criticisms, I figured I would not deal with the overwhelming thoughts that have dominated these last few days. Yet, Sandra Martin’s presentation at U of T’s lecture series about a good death seemed an apropos jumping off spot and so I gave in and could not resist my penchant towards a glass half full, or perhaps in this case, one might say, one emptied all together.

After describing how Canada has approached a new and lack of clear fulfillment towards physician assisted dying, Sandra Martin invited the assembled to talk with their friends and family about how and when they would choose to end their lives. She proposed for herself a Victorian styled farewell surrounded by loved ones in a cosy bed, a fireplace and maybe even a cat brushing her knees. Her thoughts concerned what had been considered a” good death” triggered by her own mother’s passing, but upon deeper reflection she attested to too many years her mother spent suffering and an end that came with rasping breaths and frequent moans of pain in a hospital bed. Juxtaposing this struggle to choosing our own finalities, she cited Oregon, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Quebec where people thoughtfully cogitate and make that difficult decision. Stipulating the progress of Canada’s law with the Kay Carter law, Sue Rodriguez cases and others she spoke patiently, identifying Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of the tipping point , and when the implausible can and does become real. It was a serious and engaging lecture, particularly as the audience attending are moving not away but towards this final frontier.So it matters muchly, even for those of us who can at the moment move freely with merely achey limbs and appear to have thoughts and memories if waning, still more or less with the exception of the forgotten name or misplaced link in a conversation, in tact.

It is a sobering thought to ruminate on our final moments.Supportive of palliatives care and the fine work of health care professionals who ease patients into the next stage, Martin nonetheless proposed we should have control over our bodies. And why should we not?

I thought of my good friend’s husband this week and her note, telling me, we lost X tonight.” He passed very peacefully”, she wrote. She, as another friend last winter, never expected their partners would not return home after a successful operation or procedure. But complications from degenerative diseases seemed to combine, deepen and override any success of recovery. And so, these women returned home by themselves to sort through their beloveds’ things, replan their lives and plod along without their dear ones who had accompanied them, raised their children with, grown old with and like worn but comfortable shoes, had walked with through their days, both sad and happy.

AND then there was Doc Halladay’s untimely death as he plunged into the Gulf of Mexico. Only 40, a true hero with not only exemplary work habits, prodigious skill as a pitcher for the Jays, but also a true heart that was demonstrated in his charity work for sick kids.He too was waylaid by Death. So terribly unfair to lose the good guys, our heroes big and small, and a reminder we were headed towards Remembrance Day overloaded with the dead in Flanders Field. How well we know that Death spares no person and we all must go to our graves. Not a sports fan, I cried for Halladay, a” gitta neshema” as Jews would say : “ a good soul”.

Sometimes such as in Halladay’s death, it is inexplicable why, an exemplar to all, is snatched from life. We like trusting children want to believe in some kindly Power who protects the just, but even my friends’ husbands, hard workers, fathers and grandfathers, who might have lived at least 10-15 years longer met their final destination. Authors toy with the idea of an afterlife, fantasizing green hills and angels, and religions of course propose – or not- where we might wander in bliss after the years of living are terminated here on this inscrutable planet. But in spite of the glowing light some have reported at the beckon of the long tunnel or the cloud of butterflies that descends or follows mourners, we simply cannot know if we will be greeted on the other side . But more likely, it is a dreamless forever sleep. It is in deed the last frontier from which few ever return.

In the obits last week too, in The Star’s Birth and Death notices, someone had written, “On November 6, a date of her own choosing, Ronni had ended a five- year struggle with Multiple System Atrophy.” I was struck by that introductory phase “ of her own choosing” asserting it was her choice. This weekend with a battery of lawyers, I was also informed that nurses too aid in assisting the process.

As Sandra Martin said, “ Encourage the communication. Talk about what you would like and how you desire to finish off your days, especially while you are lucid enough to make the decisions.” Although these are not the talks we relish, they are necessary ones: in order to maintain control over our bodies.

So although this may not have been an uplifting blog, it nonetheless speaks to an issue raised last week and exemplified by Halladay’s, my friends’ husbands and all who went to fight and die in war, their choice or not.

Welcoming del Toro’s Monsters

An artist’s mind is a treasure trove. One wonders why certain ideas or images alight there, hibernate, gestate and grow. Visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters makes the visitor entertain these thoughts. The exhibit sounded interesting ,with more than 500 photos, movie props, art objects, costumes, sculptures and books and because my elder daughter is an affectionado, I decided we would go . Years ago, I had found del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, magical, frightening, even beautiful, yet I had not responded to his Hellboy.

But having the opportunity to visit segments of his reconstructed house at the AGO provided an experience that went far beyond the films and explored the sources from which the filmmaker’s genius arises. This traveling exhibit that resembles an immersion into the red recesses of his brain certainly enhances the process of penetrating sources of creativity. Divided into sections entitled Victoriana, Magic, Alchemy, Outsiders, Death and Afterlife, for example, lures the viewer into a unique consciousness, inklings from where artistic inspiration has sprung.

My favourite of the dark crimson settings was the Rain Room, the perpetual sound of rain hitting the windows deepening the feeling of mystery and provoking the opening line,” It was a dark and scary night…” in which ( the Halloween I attended)a group of students huddled at the feet of their teacher and extended the feeling of being huddled in a cosy environment where outside the weather rages, secure from Heathcliffe beating on the windows, and we are held safe and dry by the fireplace. To deepen the eeriness of contributing sensations actual playing of moody sonatas on a real grand piano in another room underscored the spooky experience.

Here is a plethora of works from etchings by Goya, drawings by Ensor and paintings by Tissot as well as bronze sculptures, masks and maquettes and movie props from del Toro’s oeuvre, many beyond life size. As we enter, the amphibian man who sat before a bounteous feast in Pan’s Labyrinth , skin hanging like drapery from his limbs and eyeballs in his searching elongated palms, greets us. It is creepy. Later, Pan’s fawn stands tall and del Toro’s narrative explains how the creature has aged backwards in the movie, a combination of menacing and friendly, but I’m focused on the roots at his feet and the cloven hood that recall Narnia’s centaur.

 A Frankenstein sculpture sits besides his bride, another distorted! Frankenstein head hangs overhead. It is suspended long as if squeezed between the jaws of an anvil and , another more recognizable icon has welcomed us into this environment for the misunderstood and feared by society. In a corner are the Tod Brown’s Freaks from his 1932 film beside photographs of circus performers such as the bearded lady and snake charmer, most smiling. Del Toro speaks to society’s perception of outsiders and misfits, but identifies their audiences as the ones with ugliness within who would judge and alienate these “ freaks” from society. Del Toro’s so- called  monsters  have lost their ability to terrify or frighten here. Instead they now fascinate as they project the extent, compassion and insights of the inner workings of the filmmaker’s mind. They are as friendly as my grandson’s oh-oh  bear. As a child, an outsider himself, del Toro, comprehended the visceral loneliness, the plight of those who do not belong. He writes he hopes “ [to] find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal”. In spite of the overload of the oddities and unusual here, one feels a kind of kinship and comfort, relaxing before the works of this horror- fantasy auteur who has shared his diverse collection of inspiration.: what he identifies as beautiful. All is normalized in this place, only the trappings of rain and moody music creating a backdrop of suspicion.

On the cell phone guide and with numerous signs, the exhibit describes the artist’s fascination with this transformation of insects and bugs,Disney’s dark side, the impact of Victorian times, especially the lacy darkness of the Gothic, the never far away impact of his grandmother’s repressive Catholicism and his Mexican ancestry that proclaims that we live with death and it is not the end. Although signs are informative, the viewer is reading rather than looking and like me, no doubt, missing the impact of some of the visual by the necessary detraction of the written word. This is always a balance for the curator, providing important information to unravel the art works while not allowing the interpretation to overtake what is being displayed. However, everywhere we look, from curiosity cabinets to shelves and walls , there are objects to contemplate and intrigue. Long knobbly legged insects find a parallel in a costume worn by a sculpture, whose sleeves suggest butterfly wings and the possibility of changing form. I’m thinking of Opelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fairies that emerge from her initial encounter with bits of wood that resemble flying grasshoppers.
And how Pinocchio ‘s nose grows into a twig : indicative perhaps of the possibility of an idea overtaking  essence of matter and transforming into something completely different. Even a glimmer of fear will cause a body to shake like a bowl full jello on a plate or a beam of light transform into a thesis on evolution.

My favourite , that Rain Room, room is filled with del Toro’s  well read and colourfully bound books, an unending resource that reaches from ceiling to floor,  all he has stored and read,  leaning side by side: from H.P.Lovecraft to Ruskin and HGWells to Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Bald Mountain and the Nibelungen. Other walls display drawings by Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Robert Crumb, and del Toro’s own, and more : fodder for the curious mind. As well, all the versions, images and publications one might imagine of Frankenstein are displayed here , and still another wall is covered completely with comic books. The exhibit indeed proclaims the strength of these as the seeds for the artist’s imagination, for they are indispensable to del Toro’s artistic growth of o relapping visions.  

And still much of the exhibit is a tribute to childhood with memorabilia that fascinates and terrifies. Del Toro explains how formative the first six years of a child’s life are. At Disney, Bambi loses a mother, the dark foreboding castles appropriated from Europe by Disney, the dragons and scary uninvited hag who casts her spell on Sleeping Beauty are memories locked in intractable images in every child’s head. And I recall Bruno Bettelheim on Fairytales reminding us we need both the dark and the light, horrifying gremlins to reflect the darkness of our souls along with shining princesses and their magic wands of goodness and forgiveness.

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I think of the recent threat to close art schools in Toronto and the lack of understanding of the power of art on children and adolescents- and adults in technology, filmmaking, art- making, And for our developing students  at school how art invites a bridge from sad, alienated lives to acceptance of selves and delight in the creative. Eliot Eisner wrote ceaselessly on this transformation. On Friday this week too in The Globe, Russell Smith’s article ,A Picture is worth 1,000 meaningless words, dismisses artspeak as research.Think of our public spaces without art, what art communicates and how it can lighten the mind and spirit, how art teaches problem solving, how art excites the brain and the hands, how art connects with ourselves and others. But this is my old saw.
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Even the strange and wonder- ful art of Guillermo del Toro, that may initially repulse some, has the power to fascinate, to tell a story of the misunderstood other, to withstand oppression. Watch Pan’s Labyrinth and you will  understand what I mean.

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The Meaning of Life

Here I sit at the Bloor Cinema( still a dump) awaiting my lecture. As part of a continuing education class, the program offers a range of topics: from bootlegging( yes, Hamilton had their own little mafia ) to parenting by the Royals so there’s little commitment but to arrive on time and listen, and hopefully glean some new information.

On the heels of a return from San Diego and still in the throes of three hour jet lag, I head for today’s topic: the meaning of life. Instead of a lumpy Einstein or wizened sophisticated Georgia O’Keefe, on stage struts a lovely young thing in a pencil skirt with luxurious dark hair. It’s not that the young cannot be insightful and sensitive, but the first few waves at the audience make me wish I had taken an afternoon snooze. She speaks directly to the assembled, most recognizable before class as they stop at Starbucks or Aroma for a pre class chat with friends. Some, like me, seek out deals at the dollar store, others merely meander slowly towards the class. Many  stride strongly with purpose, not wanting to be late for the lunchtime presentations. We are recognizable. The boomers, the oldsters, wearing comfortable relaxed clothes, greyed or dyed hair, faces that reflect numerous years of living. The point is that we have a wealth of experience, stories, encounters, lives lived- most I would venture teeming with meaning.

But I try not to judge as our presenter attempts to engage her listeners: as I did my classes once upon a time- at high schools, at universities, at conventions. She poses her question directly and asks what experience in our lives stands out most dramatically. Good question and an important one, but unlike my talks, the listeners here have not been softened up, invited to participate in a” get to know you game”, or even been provided with a reason to share significant facts from their lives. She expects a response, but not one single hand in the sea of participants goes up. Beside me, a frazzled white haired oldie engages me briefly, and I whisper,” I’m not about to reveal myself here.” She nods and then adds”, My memory was awakening up after a suicide attempt” .I visualize magenta blood pumping furiously through her wrists against a hospital bed of white sheets.

 I’m not about to contribute that I was thinking of my glossy wedding day more than forty four years previous. I’m not sure what to say to a stranger who has decided to share this life- changing moment, but I smile weakly and tun my eyes back to the lithe young thing prancing about on the stage.
She has no prepared slides or PowerPoint , but merely an outline on several crumbled sheets on her podium. Apparently negative or bad memories  were the answers she was seeking to her initial prompt so I’m not sure which my seat mate’s would qualify for: she did afterall, wake up! I close my notebook where I usually make notes as I’m pretty sure little will merit being recorded. She begins her ramble while ceaselessly moving back and forth along the edge of the theatre, referring to the famous names of Maslow, Victor Frankl, short and long studies from Romania and Australia, most published as pop news over the years and well known I would expect by this august group. But she bounces from topic to topic, creating, spinning, unwinding her own” I believes” and it’s a tumble from hunter- gathers to women’s fear of rejection to percentages of reclusive populations to unconscious minds to why many in the audience dream of their teeth falling out. I’m not impressed as she navigates the length of the stage; while walking, she appears to be structuring an argument.

 

This recalls for me my son’s frantic call from university in his very first year when his literature prof stipulated that the essays they were required to write must possess NO thesis. I could not help him.

 

Throughout this woman’s loosely structured ramble, I am aware that the emperor does not wear clothes, and were we sitting side by side in a university common room, I would be challenging the ideas she is contemplating, presenting the rational, the flip- side, the antithesis, the common sense, pointing out the ludicrous arguments she is proposing.Or more likely, I would be stifling a yawn or a disparaging look. Hers is a naivety of a student whose thoughts are roughly plumbed. The question, the absurdity of a young person addressing this huge talk is ridiculous. 
Not that

A. Youth cannot pose ( and answer or even address) significant questions

B. These questions should not be discussed

C. That an attempt to untangle even a millisecond of this conjecture is not important. But the person addressing them seems so light, so lacking in world vision and experience, and so underestimating her audience( first question to consider: who is your audience) .

Truly, I had half expected an unsanctimonious diatribe, something irreverent, funny at least to make me laugh; or conversely- something wildly thoughtful.
I do recall that I did guffaw when I noted the name of the talk, but anticipated some enlightenment or at least a serious attempt.Stuck here much like a butterfly at the edge of a pin, I am unable to navigate over the knees and feet of the crowd in my row, resenting the presenter’s lack of depth, a put together( for her other wide eyed students,perhaps? ), her mere sport of such an immense question.

So I do not think it is mere jet lag or even bias towards a young person that is making me fidget in my seat. It is the ease with which her topic is handled in spite of the back and forth sashay at the front. It is the lack of piercing analysis replaced by studies that are flaunted and left to dry on a rack as if name dropping bestows validity to any talk She is stabbing at a theme that gnaws at you as you age: Why am I here? Have my years been worthwhile? How do I stand accountable to myself? To my peers? What does it all mean? The topic is not just a ramble where a traveller traverses, picks up a few blueberries from the bush or scatters breadcrumbs along the path. It is a momentous question that dogs and slows the feet of certainly, this aging group. And might I  add great minds over time.  

 
Did others react as I did? I cannot know as even those at the very edge of the theatre did not rise to leave and there were actually questions at the 40 minute conclusion. Finally I propel myself over the outstretched limbs to depart. Maybe as an afternoon out, the others had found morsels upon which to chew or heard something fresh and did not respond as I did, hoping for probing thoughts to take away or even jot down. Worse yet as I return to my car, I discover a yellow ticket tucked beneath window as I had parked in a taxi stand. Perhaps my car knew more than I, waiting for a quick drop off and hop back in. 

But I am still grumbling: Did she offer a philosophical grounding like Tikkun Olam( Hebrew repair the world. See Mishna), as novelist Nicole Krauss does in her Forest Dark? Her thoughts on the infinite and the finite, filling void with presence, the give and take, the ying and yang, the emptying out and filling up in a desire to recreate what has been lost?Thoughts about time as TSEliot ( Do I dare to eat a peach?) or even a passing glance at Rene Descartes or Steven Hawking. Often literature, science will make meaning…  

When I pondered later, I realized why the lecture, if I can call it that, why it had so angered me. And I knew: I had been that girl, at a different time, carefree, merely toying at the big questions, charmingly taunting and dabbling, eyes large, but only poking here and there without real and deep concerns.No Blake’s Book of Thel , not even a serious student back then, unless you consider daydreaming in UC’s quad with illusions of romance and travel qualifies for broaching the big questions or writing a major thesis paper for a bespectacled prof. Yes ( and my daughter is thinking this if she is reading this,” Not again, mom”. I wore the love beads, but was superficial in my thoughts, not to mention my actions in making the world a better place, unless you discount welfare rep in high school. But more humble, I never imagined that a tossed salad of ideas might qualify as a lecture, particularly to those who had tasted meaning in a real sense.

Sitting there in that darkened room,  a boomer no longer young, this topic  was no longer passing conjecture, or unbridled trajectory. Years of living with no acceptable answers rattled and shook me as I recalled myself at that age, unshackled by the burden of years wherein all innocence is lost. So maybe I grieved and judged because the presenter had once been me, stepping lightly, twirling attractively, touching lightly on the very essence of things.
The meaning of things with little meaning. 

Ridiculous Things

This morning , Tuesday October 16, in The Toronto Star, in preparation for Halloween, they display on the front page “the Anne Frank costume”, complete with a charming green beret, little girl coat and a destination tag at the neck. You have to guffaw at the bad taste, and as editor Emma Teitel comments, the cute model smiling might be a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah at Casa Loma. Truly absurd. But much today , it seems to me, lives in bad taste, thoughtless display, ignorance or ridicule of the past. With a similar thought, we observed the memorial for the dead in Berlin used as a backdrop for baby pictures or a labyrinth for adolescent hide and seek : as the tortured ghosts of the dead hovered above. By the way, I am not suggesting that adoration for Robert E. Lee or proponents of racism, colonialists, etc. be maintained. My quarrel here is with inappropriate appropriation of injustice, not the victimizers.

I’ve always wondered about the crossing of the line into taboo. Lenny Bruce did it. He did not accept society’s margins nor political correctness and by speaking ethnic stereotypes out loud, he forged a way to deal with bias and discrimination. Humour as social critic and commentary can go far in dealing with phobias and prejudice. Yet I do not find the misogyny dished out by certain comics the least bit funny at all. Yet it seems in my headspace that analyzes social issues there is a way to attack that goes beyond educating into ridicule or pain: for the comic’s own misogyny or racism delight. Larry David recently , irreverent always, tackled the fatwa, and made me laugh at him and by extension, ponder the extent to which a governing body will go. Truly he takes taunts and terrors to an absurdist perspective, perhaps making us wonder if we are sitting on the bench, also perpetually waiting for Godot. 

But the Anne Frank costume prompts an analysis of how and why anyone deems any aspect of her holocaust story might be acceptable for children pranking. The detailing of the felt tag is particularly hilarious: is there a choice of Auschwitz? Bergen Belsen, or Terezin, where 15,000 children passed, and the home of I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  

Ok, maybe, it reminds us of a scary story of war where little children can be lost, butchered and murdered. Pretty, pretty funny stuff. But of course, Halloween is not for the sake of laughter, except if you are so scared, you might laugh as a nervous reaction. So maybe after all, it does fit in the same way: prisoners in striped uniforms or the crushed skulls of the dead and skeletons are also resurrected for the night. They can terrify. My goodness, even a misshapen paper mâché head of Big Bird can be haunting. 
However, Halloween originated from an ancient Celtic festival where people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. So ironically Anne Frank is cast by the business community as a bad and scary ghost to be kept away, only allowed to prowl on the 31st, like other unwanted and unnecessary Jews as believed by the Nazis. So unless you concur that little girls and Jews are terrifying, she is an aberration. Similarly if she is a character to scare away ghosts, a child with a pen and a book, looking adorable in her beret, little Anne doesn’t really fill the bill either. I suppose she must exist in an space between the reality of cruelty and death in war and persecution while still being commemorated in plays and books as an unbloomed flower and an icon of innocence.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Eventually the evening before was called All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns. Well, an Anne in the concentration camp might need beg for food or bits of candy. Not so sure about the pumpkin carving though as those activities were not part of her confinement back then.

Yet exploiting the death of an innocent appears to be a cheap way to sell merchandise although I suppose it is done all the time. It’s not too far from torn jeans that the poor have had to wear because they cannot afford new clothes, accepting the handmedowns of sibs and cousins and thrift stores so threadbare that their skinny limbs protruded. Years ago, a friend remarked that this was the first time in history that we’ve tried to emulate the poor, turn our eyes downward rather than upwards towards the finery of the rich. But as marketing will do, those torn, ragged jeans are paired with designer labels on the ass or carefully placed decoration to entice the buyer. Not exactly Anne Frank although one wonders if a line of holocaust dolls or little girl clothing is too far behind this offering. Complete with those funny destination tags. Maybe a board game too? 

The whole notion of the costume is interesting. The idea of the pirate or ghost easily constructed with an eyepatch or a sheet. The concept of princess, now disparaged as a fitting role for little girls, remains no doubt an expensive and still well sought out Disney product. Incredibly, even after the lambast of role choice, the National Retail Federation reports 2.9 million will dress as princesses this year. Transformers, pop culture, little heroes popular, but according to the NRF, 2.2 million will also be animals. Cute. Gentle. And as I write this, 13 days to the holiday.

Still the insensitivity of the Anne Frank costume sticks in my mind as a symbol of a society that is out of touch with certain values. I conclude I’ve gone like the costume beyond absurdity to unravel the possible meaning of said costume. But really, not only the creator, but the designer, manufacturer, stores on line and beyond accepted Anne Frank as part of their merchandising inventory. It does boggle the mind.

And if not, that’s really scary.

Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

Visits to the Graveyard

Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one usually visits one’s ancestors at the cemetery. And so this past Sunday we found ourselves in both Hamilton and Toronto, wandering in the heat to say prayers to those who had lived and were now lost to us. 
The journey to the Beth Jacob cemetery or Gates of Heaven in Hamilton is about a 50 minute drive, eventually snaking over Snake Road, driving over a one car bridge that beneath houses a train track. The place itself edges on a mountain. Here we find much of my husband’s family, most lined up in almost straight formation and called to attention by their surnames.

Some visitors are overwhelmed by emotion. Sadly but neutrally I view my mother- in-law’s name in a double final resting plot, sharing it with her husband, Labol. I never knew my husband’s father who passed away at 42, but I imagine my husband’s finely tuned moral sense and art of the negotiator are derived from the man I’ve only seen in photos. In a bit of a mishmash on her grave is carved the wording, a marble marker that stands in place of the person. There is no suggestion of who she really was, her characteristics, personality or talents, the great affection she spurred in her nieces and nephews. Only the words “wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother” .

Death is certainly the great leveller. Although there are a variety of stone types and shapes, manner of inscriptions and the odd quote here, there is an overall uniformity, perhaps reminiscent of the congregants at City Shul during these holy days . But in truth, I am dry- eyed, feeling little here. She is more in my thoughts and head when I attempt gefelte fish or am reminded of a shower she once hosted for her niece also long dead more than forty- four years ago. I recall she wore white and shone over the proceedings of cake and conversation. A butterfly, in deed.
Later in the day, it is the Toronto cemetery, Beth Tzedec, perfectly maintained and with a greater sense of symmetry than Beth Jacob as there is less choice between size and decoration and inscription here on markers: rules that the mourners will respect. Yet in spite of that, the graveyard is more of a park and one might imagine youths slowly wandering through the paths here, then meandering, stopping on a bench to reflect, gaze inward and connect with their thoughts. Even the flowers decorating graves are stipulated, not a hodgepodge, but a stately collected gathering chosen for memorials , for the eye and leg of those who frequent even as rarely as we do. As is the custom, we place a stone to signify we have come to visit. My husband reads the prayers, and it is done. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem( See below).

Hoping to come and go fairly quickly on this day, we arrive around 4 but spot a graveside funeral that is occurring so close to my parents’ stone that some of the mourners are actually leaning against it, the burial exactly in front. So we make a short pilgrimage to my aunt and uncle’s resting place which is easily locatable because their marker is surrounded by overgrown bushes.

But the funeral lags on, a group under large black and white umbrellas to shelter them from the scorchingly intense heat of early fall weather. We must continue to wait, bearing witness to the passing of a woman we did not know, but unable to move towards reciting our prayers and certainly not wanting to interrupt the sanctity of another’s passing. Finally when we are able to approach, I am- again- not feeling much, perhaps drained by the sun or the frequenting ghosts have flown further skyward to also escape the heat. I read the deeply engraved words on my parents’ stone , noting the familiar design I created of menorah and star particularly for them on the stone.
My parents have been abstracted in this moment, when they should have been most near, as usually in this place, I do conjure them with love, missing them strongly, but their faces or even a sense of them does not come to me; I cannot feel them near.  

The rabbi from the funeral reaches out and takes my hands and I am overwhelmed. As he reaches over the gravesite and our hands clasp over it, I experience a oneness with place, persons, a breaching of time. His is a warm thoughtful, action that extends beyond words as if to echo the “ Heneni” we heard discussed in the Dvar Torah. In a moment, all combines, a Mindfulness moment, “I am here, mummy and daddy.” The rabbi , looking tired, makes the visit real in a sense as the pressure of his hands and mine responding seem to affirm that we are both alive, sentient, reflecting and responding in the place of death. A strange compilation of longing for the dead, standing amidst compressed memories of my growing up life with them but also a bit like Robert Herrick’s Gather he rosebuds while ye may. Talk about T.S. Eliot’s time past, time present, time future! Only later here, I analyze. There, it is the sensation , the pressure of emotion, that is outstanding. Body not mind at all. How ironic as my parents’ bodies are no more, only dust.

Perhaps for the rabbi, it is a means to provide comfort for the mourners, perhaps to him as well, a verification that he stands in the realm of the living when his service that day is to walk among the dead, move as an agent of G-d to dispense comfort, reassurance that life will continue on. The hand holding moves into another dimension for me, the squeezing, the warmth even on a day so hot that flowers wilt . It seems to attest to the ability to be able to draw breath, move in this dimension of life, at least until we no longer are able. I ruminate at the simplicity of the gesture, no elaborate words, no soulful looks, mere touch that supersedes all else in that moment. It connotes kindness, respect and care. I appreciate it, especially as I am bereft of tears.

I’m reminded of the military gravestones in San Diego, all in strict accordance for markers of service people, small rectangulars standing at attention, much like a frozen wall of waves that stretches on and on, indistinguishable, one from the other. Yet even here on this Sunday, we in this place, must hunt a bit among the dead to scout out our loved ones.

Some people visit cemeteries as in the ones in Paris like Pere Lachaise that is home to famous writers and writers. Occasionally we have also veered off the beaten track of cities to also honour the dead. As in Buenas Aires to see Evita Peron’s family tomb- where she may or not be contained. There unending sculptures of angels in pink marble, some the size of tiny houses. The rich are celebrated in death as they did in life.

In New Orleans, St. Louis cemetery in the French Quarter, showcases an interesting arrangements “ a city of the dead” because of the high water level, so corpses are baked in their family graves- the dust of generations mingling as family member after family member share the same final resting spot.Ashes to ashes..all shattered urns…

In Prague, the magnificent 14 th century surviving Jewish cemetery where the intermingling of rural and urban traditions coalesced. Usually there is no human depiction in Judaism as the Bible forbids “ images”; however here, if my memory serves me, we view depicted on the angled surviving almost toppled tombstones the profession of the one buried: a baker with his bread, for example, not just detruncated blessing hands or a flame, or menorah marking the spot, deemed acceptable by the faith.

Years back there were benevolent societies that were set aside for Jewish burials. Immigrant and even resident Jews formed groups to assist their kin: no doubt spurred in by the antisemitism they encountered at work, school and university quotas and restrictive practices and attitudes of their neighbours. Their aim in building a better society resulted in the Mount Sinai and Western hospitals in Toronto. My father once told me that his mother sold bricks to raise money for the later. Near my house, on Roselawn, precious real estate space was once the outreaches of the city, far from Kensington Market and so here far from city core was the resting place for Jews. I visit my progenitors, Molly and Sam, this week, taking with me implements to tidy their graves. Maybe once , I had visited the graves when my mother was in her middle years although on the passing of my father, I stood outside the gates and called in through my tears, “Buby Molly, do you know? Your son has died.”

There is a taboo of graveyards as if the dead will pull you in and mark your days so even the recitation of Kaddish or prayers for the dead at the conclusion of services at synagogue incites the gong that ushers those with living parents quickly out of the congregation. We wash our hands as we leave the cemetery too, water taps installed within the gates, metaphorical again perhaps.

Although we do not ruminate on the dead, during our high holidays, the visits to cemeteries stimulate sobering thoughts reminding us to put life in perspective.

Emily Dickinson’s “ Because I could not stop for Death”,

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

Good People

It is in these days of “awe” that we ponder being good so we can be written into the “Book of Life”. As early as Hebrew kindergarten, our teachers drew mammoth books that sprawled across the green chalk boards and pointed to the pages wherein our names might be inscribed. Of course, there were rules that permitted us entry: prayer , good deeds, atonement, confession. And so the high holidays are the few days of attendance at synagogue where there is almost a full contingent of worshippers hoping that their presence will besiege G- d to grant them if not long life, at least another year on this earth. I think the dark and ominous Hebrew school image pervades the minds of many. However, for others as we discussed yesterday at my sister-in- law’s after shul lunch, there is a sense of community fostered in places of worship, especially at the thought of momentous events: an opportunity by choice to congregate with those related by religion or choice of religion.  
 

I’ve said it before : that Elyse Goldstein, the rabbi, who recasts a church on Bloor Street into a place of Jewish worship is able to flawlessly create that community, to welcome all who would like to come , gather, pray, attend and enable them to feel they are part of something bigger than just themselves. Having departed a more organized Conservative synagogue years ago, we have followed her throughout the city, when basketball hoops were adorned with flowers and purple convention centres made room for the overflowing mass of attendees.

 Surprisingly on the first day of the High Holidays, the Dvar Torah which is a commentary on the Torah reading was for the first time in my years of attendance -disappointing. Usually the speaker will reflect on an idea, even a personal experience and move from the self outward towards a scholarly or universal comment, spurred on by the portion of the day from the Torah. This time, the speaker focused on and about himself, forgetting his responsibility to the community to broaden , to enlighten, to move outward. I’m quite sure he felt others would see his story as emblematic , even iconic. Instead it was thin, self- serving. Instead of fast attention to new insights, people fidgeted, looked away, were disappointed. At least, we were even annoyed, as he had used the wise and painful words of a former speaker in years past to introduce his talk. So instead of a probing search that introduced a connection to inspire, we were given something that was not in the same class, even ballpark, as previous heartfelt messages.

But also, fortunately, yesterday on the poorly attended second day( people must feel one day will suffice to secure their life in earth), the second Dvar Torah  presenter played on the meaning of Heneni,  meaning Here I am, the words used by Abraham when G- d bids him take his son to slaughter. (In a provocative way, Jonathan Safran Foyer has used the expression in his novel, playing off this exclamation that suddenly initiated a cessation of all activities ,causing Abraham to stand rock still ,listen and become accountable for his actions.). As well,at Goldstein’s place of worship, a rabbinical student provided a riveting story, worthy of Ira Glass’s NPR entitled, “ I walked into San Quentin jail.” Lenzner( spelling apologizes) addressed “ the torah within” as he recounted the “ Torah stories” shared by people he met en route to the jail, their special sparks, and godlike qualities. Removed from the vagaries and daily concerns, we were reminded of youth as the torch- bearers into issues of social justice, thoughtfulness and reflection.
Yet,  in this era of cell phones, people are primarily concerned with themselves and have to be told to turn off  the damn things. As I  ruminate on the contrasting speeches, I think  of Transparent whose ground breaking work in television showcases trans people and  I experienced dislike for the characters in the show. I never responded to the Seinfeld people either,  judging them selfish, self- centred types whose own reoccupations with themselves  most often  overtook the interests or concerns of others. Yet in their defence, usually they were a funny outrageous lot. Yet Transparent’s people continually wound , hurt and disregard the feelings of others. The topic ,of course, is serious stuff so as a spectator to their unravelling lives, I have empathized,  considered and felt myself open to their inactions. But I have noted Maura insisting on a Kaddish at the end of an inspiring community havdalah that turns the end of the Sabbath into a dirge- even as the rabbi tries unsuccessfully to stop him. In this case, I don’t disagree on his insistence of wanting to honour the dead, but woefully, it is the time and place , forcing her own desires on everyone else, asserting them over any one else’s, ignoring the rabbi’s voice, deaf to the pleas entreating, “Please stop!” We see this time and again in Transparent where individual needs impact painfully on others, no one apparently self- reflective enough to put another first.
Here I am not being critical of this community as Seinfeld’s and people we meet every day share in this me- first attitude. Sadly, it is these aspects of human behaviour that rear their unkindly heads.

I was taught somewhere that Hillel, the sage was asked to teach the entire Torah while standing on one leg. Non- plussed, he replied: “That which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of the Torah, The rest is commentary. Go forth and study.” I like the wisdom and the simplicity of the statement. But I suppose that means to think before acting, contemplate, be mindful, reflect.

For my parents  on these high holidays, they sought the community of one another. They did not attend synagogue, even as both sets of grandparents had been the founders of two established synagogues in Toronto when immigrants arrived. My father felt betrayed by G-d by his polio so he found his own way of praying as he still considered himself a Jew. He and my mother would spend the two days in Agawa Canyon or some other beautiful place in Northern Ontario, appreciating the fall weather, riding a train into the landscape, participating in their own way in the coming of the new year. They did not work on that day, as Sandy  Koufax refused to play the World Series game. They chose to be part, yet apart from the larger Jewish community. And I have no problem with that.

My father demonstrated that to be a good Jew meant to be a good person and he lived that mantra in his speech, interactions, behaviour and decorum. The essence, I believe, of Rosh Hashanah and the days of awe leading up to Yom Kippur, with the ritual cleansing by fast. For him, his life was humble, exemplar. Without fancy dress, elaborate words, over bearing presence and certainly no public declaration of “ his goodness”, he did what he did. So too, do numerous people who do not use the pulpit for self- aggrandizement. And worse yet, many do not even realize they do. As the first speaker at the pulpit for the Dvar Torah did.

Yet at City Shul, it is also community and the weird connection that is sustained by everyone reading the same words , whether in San Diego, Berlin or Jerusalem, at the same time, coming together for the same purpose: to greet another year with thoughts of the past year and how we might atone, go forth, improve ourselves by our actions.
In truth, humanity is expressed by simple gestures. Last week I received a note from a fellow who had worked with my father in 1950, a note that opened a river of emotions and allowed me insight into my father that I had forgotten. Instead of parents and protectors, my hardworking good parents were warm, bubbling , reserved but friendly people: a perspective we tend to overlook or forget as the years go by, solidifying  them into stereotypes and moments that have come to be frozen in our heads. Harry( Harold) gave my sister and me a precious gift, a renewed way to remember them. His kind gesture meant the world to us. It is in this way, that kindness, remembrance, renewed thoughts and feelings can occur in the new year: to trigger by reflection a way to move ahead.
As it is written,

Our origin is dust,

and dust is our end,

Each of us is a shattered urn,

a grass that must wither.

a flower that will fade, 

a shadow moving on, 

a cloud passing by,

a particle of dust floating in the wind,

a dream soon forgotten.

Holiday Food

It happens every September: the holidays.

Yet, somehow preparation seems less this year, Rosh Hashanah always providing an opportunity to try out new recipes, but I’m feeling laid back and so in contemplating deserts, the end rather than the kickoff to the meal, I revert to a low fat chocolate cake. Truthfully, it is sweets more often than the savouries that entrap me. The Canadian Jewish News presents, as always, an tempting array of apple cakes in multiple ways so I decide to combine two recipes. But one delectable desert offering will never suffice as my eaters will groan, but actually anticipate at least a second or even a third. My friend a thespian from Stratford, a superlative chef once made a plum cake, explaining the purple- blue plums are only available at this time of year. So instead of the Silver Palates’ great apple pies, I take the road less travelled by and hope that doesn’t result in lesser taste: even though the firmness of peaches this year calls out for a home in a pie. I’m excited to see if Joe’s plum tart is as delicious as I remembered it to be. I do worry that freezing may play with the flavours, but I have no choice but to shuffle down to the basement where our discarded unit lives besides the Whirlpools. 

However my continuing motto is to have more than just one happy ending and so, if fruit is not to your taste, or if the result is less than anticipated, there’s that backup chocolate although I’m not sure how different kinds of sugar renders it “low fat” as decreed by its title. I seem to recall this recipe was also clipped from the newspaper when Mike Harris tightened and destroyed our economy . Something ironic like a play on Marie Antoinette’s Let them eat cake, I conjure. But I know at least that this concoction , in spite of its labelling , is tasty, tried and true.

The starters are typical for a traditional meal: gefelte fish, never a choice for my son in law. Maybe it is the naked look of poached palish yellowish fish that turns him off. And of course, the menu must contain chicken soup- which reminds me I need to make another set of matzoh balls as mine from the Lillian Kaplan recipe book were so light that I fear they will disintegrate into greyish globs in the soup. Maybe the peaks of the frothy egg whites painstakingly separated deserved more time at the mismatched prongs of the mixer.

 

Gefelte fish is the true challenge. Although I’ve attempted it for years now, it does not resemble my mother-in- law’s in spite of her bequeathing her recipe. I recall quizzing her about a stage in the process because I was afraid the balls would glom together as they cooked. Her response was“ You’ll see. They won’t.”
I do order the finest freshest chopped fish although she would always comment that the fish were kept really fresh in her family’s bathroom tub in Hamilton. My fish shop may wonder why I only appear at their store only once a year, but no matter, as the exorbitant cost results from hand chopping of several varieties of white fish and pickerel and a touch of salmon, bloodied heads and bones included in a separate plastic bag. But my issue revolves around the flavouring as I tend to go light on spice, afraid of overwhelming taste buds. When I first attempted it, I despised the smell. Over the years, I’ve learned to embrace the aroma, feeling it impregnates with the sweet smell of the fish gently poaching in the shallow pot for two or more hours. Although the smell is long gone by the time my guests come to the table, perhaps it is this imagined odour that causes my son- in- law’s lips to curl.

I am aware that the latest fashion is to purchase a gefelte fish loaf and cook it in the oven but, I am a hard- nosed purist, wanting to know exactly what is in the product. Except for my children’s insistence on Kraft Dinner, I have always cooked from scratch. I followed Adele Davis when they were young, so aware of preparing their baby food from vegetables and meats purchased only hours before to preserve their ingredients.

 And in truth, many of those loaves are delicious although none meets the standards of my mother-in- law’s fish, now passed away.Alough she does not people my thoughts on a regular basis, her ghost frequents on Rosh Hashanah. Similarly, it is Friday nights with which I associate my mother, jumping from the table to fetch and serve, her fricasse and simple roasted chicken the stars that teased our drooling mouths. Good on Friday, but so delicious on Saturday as the leftover carcass and potatoes allowed to deepen their flavours over night.How she completed an entire meal was astounding as the oven door never closed completely and she knew not to even try to bake as customers to our hi fidelity store, situated in front of our living quarters, would inevitably appear at the crucial time of removing the cake from the oven. But the memories, naturally, differ between my mother and my mother-in- law, my mother, a gentle hovering spirit surrounding the meal with her presence.

My chicken soup I admit is divine. A concoction of carrots, celery, onion, parsley and parsnips passed through cheesecloth is based somewhat on that supreme dowager of Jewish cooking Lillian Kaplan.For some reason she suggests adding and then removing an eggshell, which often I do, rosemary and tomato paste and accent, which I don’t. I make the soup the day before so all, well at least, most of the congealed fat, can be skimmed from the surface in a hard piece, where it has risen after a night in the downstairs refrigerator. Into fine teacup shaped soup bowls of the finest porcelain that once belonged to my mother’s mother, I will spoon a matzo ball, egg noodles, sliced carrots confiscated from the soup and possibly a chicken kreplach. One of my forever guests nibbles only at the kreplach, the one store bought commodity of the meal and apparently the only part of the meal she finds appealing. I note this but do not enquire why. But I notice her plate rearranged to suggest eating.

As we move to the main course, it is a beautiful turkey stuffed with a combo of freshly made cornbread and shitaki mushrooms. My mother combined rice and button mushrooms and it too was very pleasing , but my husband’s concoction from the Frog Cookbook is the best, a lovely combination of slight crunch from the cornbread and velvety smoothness from the mushrooms. Herbs of course are purchased fresh, not dispensed from a container or jar. I believe they enhance with their pungent flavours. I do a combination of cranberries and oranges for the sauce although again I note many eaters go for the canned variety. The Frog salad has also become a staple although the croutons, first cut then baked in the oven, then sautéed in loads of butter with fresh thyme, salt and pepper are only one of the several ingredients in this assemblage of romaine, artichoke hearts and cherry tomatoes. Often time I serve it in a bowl my aunt Marion once gifted me so her presence also hovers near.

Most Jewish people I know opt for brisket, but something about the stringiness of the meat puts me off. I’ve overheard people say that either marinating it or cooking it in Coca-Cola makes a fantastic dish although most prefer hours of slow cooking. I’m unaware of where my aversion to brisket is derived. I don’t recall my mother cooking or overcooking it. And even I have glimpsed its presence in the showcases of butcher shops,  where truly it looks quite nice and entreats me to give it a chance in my menu. I ignore its pleas.

In years passed, my son’s friends from Vancouver would also come to our house. One year I made as many pancakes as I could find recipes for: zucchini, potato, yams, whatever vegetable was available. We laughed at the mounds of colours, shapes and sizes that were continually pouring out of the kitchen. In other years, chicken wings, various kugels, raw Brussels sprout salads, chicken wings, carrot and raisin combos and an attempt at stuffed knishes: whatever caught my eye in a magazine or cook book. Now with the addition of Harvard beets, the dinner is scaled back to fish, soup, two kugels, salad, turkey, stuffing and the deserts.

Perhaps the original concept of the huge supper had to do with a long journey into a new year where one should be fortified for the trials of the excursion by food that would support long walks to the market, through the shetl and on to see the mischpuka. As well, I’m sure it was Jews who lauded the notion of brain food- schmaltz greasing the wheels of cognition. As well, Marc Chagall wife’, Bella’s memoir Burning Lights is never far from my thoughts as she described the family suppers that punctuated the seasons with family arriving in Vitebsk, Russia, with  pekalah of food on their backs, days of walking in order to join family in supper prayers for the new year.

So it is that I prepare for the supper, a gathering to herald a year that we all pray will be kind , peaceful and prosperous in many ways. Best of all is to have the family all together, though longing for my grandchildren in Philadelphia to be present at the ritual dinner, to be able to romp with their cousins, laugh at the misshapen matzoh balls, wrinkle their noses at gefelte fish, chomp done on turkey. Yet, I am blessed to be able to provide food, company and support to those who come, welcoming the others away to the entourage in my head : reminders of what is truly important in the times to come. 

Brushes with the rich and famous:Diana

With the arrival of TIFF, Lady Gaga and Jessica Chastain, Andre Leon Talley in the city, I think about some of “the stars” , one in particular whose memory was conjured by her passing twenty years ago last week. Pictures and media reminders of Princess Diana sparked a memory of my own, one that along with a dinner sitting practically adjacent Bill Clinton in Martha’s Vineyard Black Dog, reminded me of chance encounters in our lives. 

Back when Bob Rae was premier, we were invited to the yacht Britannia with the Royals for a supper on board. When an invitation arrived, we believed it a hoax perpetrated by someone with a deliciously wicked sense of humour. But when it was followed up a day or so later by a thickly- accented attaché on the the telephone, we knew we would be in for an adventure.Instructions followed on proper protocol as we were instructed on bows and curtsies , dress lengths and no touching of the bodies of the Prince or the Princess, should I decide to greet them both in great bear hug. As the day approached, I fretted over velvet or taffeta and hair- dos, curly or straight, manners and behaviours that were deemed appropriate and proper for the event.

The night was rainy and dark. We stopped our car in line, told to wait until a uniformed person with a huge umbrella escorted us towards the boat and our car disappeared. The captain formally met us at the door, smoothly welcoming us on board as if we had known him for ages. I marvelled at his ease of making tinkling conversation, relaxing and settling us into light and charming conversation. I glimpsed Norman Jewison, Cito Gaston, John Tory,Lincoln Alexander, a few others of the chosen gathered for the opportunity to gawk at the monarchy at close range.

We heard all food and drink had been brought from England, thus dispelling the worry of anyone attempting to poison his and her highnesses. Years ahead of Games of Thrones, the attendants on the royal yacht were not taking any chances that the wines, each perfectly aligned to food courses, might be laced with more than vintage wine.

We searched with our eyes to find some prized trinket, engraved soap, list of seating arrangements for visitors to take home, discreetly removed while we supped, but sadly nothing lay about to testify to our presence there that night in 1991 : only our memories would survive the few scheduled hours.

Greeted by Prince Charles, I was surprised by his warmth, his knowledge of architecture pertaining to Ontario and especially Osgoode Hall, his learned ability to chat, converse, even raise knowledgeable insights. He had memorized our bios well, poised and attentive, providing us with several pleasant minutes. All stylized and customized, but mesmerizing. I even found him attractive unlike his newspaper pictures.

But interrupting this choreographed reception entered Diana- regally tall, exuding a presence of aloneness and no desire at all to be present. I noted her stunning black dress and her huge pearl earrings , the like I have never seen before or since. Enclosed in her self- contained circle momentarily, she seemed to rebuff any interaction with the invited on board.But suddenly the spell was broken as her boys, William and Harry, appeared. She ran towards them. She swooped towards them , gathering them into her outspread arms, and pulled them close. No longer, the unapproachable distant icon, she was transformed into the adoring mother, a person who was smitten by her children, instructing them to shake hands and nod to the visitors. In that instant, she became human, the ice melting around her. The Currier and Ives photos, the slightly frayed rug, the others in attendance all vanished. The emotion of love eclipsing all else, dispelling the Cinderella myth for the reality of pure parental adoration. Not the pretence of royalty, but the simple pleasure of a mother with her children.

She never spoke to us, inclined her head, or even managed a smile during dinner- once her boys had been taken back to their suites. No doubt where she longed to tuck them into bed and read them a story. Without even a passing look between Charles and Diana, they were obviously two very distant constellations.

So many years later and especially last weekend when she was chased to her death by the paparazzi, I think of that evening, but especially of Diana. And as it has been reported and retold, she was so much more than her position, the people’s princess.

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