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Telling a Story of Illusions

We had nothing planned for Saturday night but glimpsed an ad in The Globe, that there was seating availability for Streetcar Named Desire at the Four Seasons Opera Hall. We had missed ballet with our trips to San Diego, and I was hopeful we might procure tickets. Interrupting his Pilates session, Howard managed to get us two Rush tickets for the evening.

Of course we are familiar with Tennessee Williams, but as we tried to untangle the stories of Streetcar and Glass Menagerie , we realized that they shared quite a few elements: the family plantation in ruins, two sisters, illusions of a past life, promiscuity, a failure to adapt, and the presence of memory. We were fortunate that Sonia Rodriguez and Guillaume Cote were dancing Blanche and Stanley. So different to a classical ballet with pas de deux and reverie( French for jumps!!!), this production was story- based and moved along by the graceful interactions of the entire ballet corps. I felt I had entered a painting created in the first act in pastels, organza skirts ruffling, shuttered doors opening and closing against the softly draped arcades of the disintegrating family home, Belle Reve. Themes of wedding, homosexual attraction and self- doubt emerged from the tableau. Through it all, Blanche fluttered and preened , the centre of the tale in John Neumeier’s 1983 adaptation.Still black lace ghosts grounded the background, deathly personifications, and psychological overhangs of the doomed South.

In the next act, a stark contrast as we watch the French Quarter in New Orleans come to life in the 50’s, postWWIi: a Stuart Davis painting as the figures snapped their fingers, jerked up their shoulders, their movements angular but in tune with a life juxtaposed to the graceful decaying south, the music by Scnittje Symphony I, loaded and overlaid with contrasts.. Here Stanley Kowalski, Brando’s nemesis, is the rough, sexual, chest pounding guy, powerful and ignorant, a true stereotype, unable to tolerate Blanche’s posing and her deceptions, in particular her affectations, even covering a raw light bulb with a paper fixture to soften the harshness of the light she cannot tolerate.Their confrontations, of the faded ruined past and the stark too bright present is on the inevitable collision course as Blanche attempts to reconcile both in a relationship with Stanley’s friend Mitch.

 Asserting his American male dominance, Stanley must crush and painfully destroy Blanche, raping her. This segment in the ballet is incredibly conceived, Stanley’s red pyjamas, his muscular legs intertwined, straight as arrows, overpowering the fluttery birdlike legs of the aging debutant. His legs are the scissors, severing all ties with the past. For several moments we are unable to breath as Stanley inflicts his punishment on Blanche, for her attempt to drag Mitch from his world into hers. Beyond revenge, it is Stanley’s delight, his raisin d’être to punch, destroy and erase beauty: the machine age personified. His brash flashy green silk jacket, the fighter’s trophy that easily taunts and tramples the flowered bedsheets and fluttery robes with which Blanche had attempted to soften Her version of life,. Her loss of everything she has clung to( home, youth, notions of tradition) is torn away mercilessly, his prowess dominating is brutally danced out, trounced in terror and physicality that brings ballet into another realm – so much more than overloaded cream puffs that one drama head at Westview Centennial used to describe ballet..

Although the main characters have their moments, Streetcar Named Desire is truly an ensemble piece as the smaller roles, even the sailors on beds taunting names, the asylum keepers, the organza- draped bridesmaids and jazz dancers in their sequins contribute immeasurably to create the story of loss. There is so much to look at. The seduction dance between Blanche’s first husband and lover , dressed in black and white suits, as they attempt to come to terms with their feelings is standout, the inevitable outcome of Blanche’s illusory attraction foreshadowed by his reticence, teasing and magnetic desire to overcome societal inhibitions. Without a word spoken( ok, a few call out slanders) and even with no music in segments of the Prokofiev score in Act 0ne, we enter the world of the Deep South and we know it through dance.

Similarly although we do not hear the cacophonous blaring horns of New York, the squarish moves, the tumult of crowds, demonstrations and the fight ring pushes the 50’s into our laps.

The overall vision is imaginative, honest to its times and artfully depicted. We mourn the loss of Beau Reve along with Blanche’s illusions but know that a new era, one perhaps in league with the roughness of a Trump, is not far away

Alo

It’s Tuesday, not a dining out night but as a belated birthday present, my son has procured a dinner reservation at Alo. It’s been a muggy rainy on and off day but the skies now clear.
 I imagine a speakeasy or a New York resto tucked away innocuously- in a downscale neighbourhood. At the bottom of the stairs is a tiny elevator operated by an employee. We know the magic password so we are allowed entrance. Service, welcome, greeting pleasantly opens up to contrast the confines of that stifling elevator box. You don’t really absorb the flair of the entrance till you use the washrooms later and pass through a lively bar setting on the edge of a kitchen. There seems to be another eating area too but we are on leather upholstered couches facing large windows on lower Spadina.

Throughout the evening, whether sommelier, servers or waiters, you get the impression that these people are just as happy to be there as you ar: smiles appear genuine, not forced. 

The menu is set with three real choices, appetizer, main and desert in the course of seven .Dinner begins and the first starters that appear will foreshadow the rest of the meal: tiny perfect jewels of food that look too beautiful to devour. Stunningly assembled eatable pieces of art that both externally and inwardly showcase incredible talent. First there is toro, coconut and coriander and tuna loin, avocado and finger lime. Again they are almost too precious to eat and recall to my mind the pint size chocolates you might see at Nadege’s or an artful truffle shop in a hidden lane. 

I choose Hokkaido sea scallop, sudachi crème fraiche, daikon and ice lettuce for my starter. The freshness and melange of flavours is delectable but combines as a well played instrument in an orchestra of food. There is a sprinkle of something resembling a bit of carbon you hold momentarily on your tongue that gently evaporates, enhancing the total treat. My husband has the 30 year aged beef ribeye tartar,quail egg, brown sauce, Tete de Moine.How many ways can you say amazing? At each offering, I emit a noise: mmmm…. 

The pain au lait has been raved about in many other reviews so I won’t elaborate except to say it could also be one’s guilty pleasure. 

Two of our party vote the morel mushrooms in a lobster bisque, iberico loom garnished with eatable nasturtiums as their favourite, speaking to the surprise sensations of crunchy and soft, delicate and bold in this one dish. 

The other two diners go with the agnolotti of Beaufort cheese, the superb perfectly green English peas garnished with slivers of duck prosciutto as their fav.Mmmm…mmm … We eat with our eyes as well as our pallets and these offerings are tiny abstract paintings where the shapes and colours exact an additional observation as we’ve now come to expect – in this perfectly paced journey of food, textures bright, fresh, incredibly well chosen and always unique in themselves but carefully combined to produce a satiny elegance on the tastebud This artistry of presentation has been studied to evoke a strong aesthetic response from the diner. 

Striped bass, artichokes, mousseron mushrooms in a clam emulsion is a prelude to the choice of mains of veal ribeye and Quebec pork loin, Only here do the veal eaters comment: with such small ( thankfully) portions, the presence of tiny fissures of fat and a too too rare cooking mar an assemblage that includes young green asparagus, porcini mushrooms and ramps.  

There are three delectable deserts and an added surprise of a tiny chocolate ganache birthday cake with a candle that I imagine in a doll’s house. But of the three, we all laud the burst of the mandarin orange, honeymilk , with again that magnificent contrast set off by the flake of honeycomb. Small is definitely big here. 

Words of course do not provide insight into the diversity of tastes, and what can occur when one ingredient sidles up against another to create an unexpected pop or hint of the unexpected.

This has been an incredible night. The food and Italian wine have perfectly coalesced. The conversation engaging and fun, but certainly the food was the star.

Labels and Such

Last week I met a friend at AGO with the purpose of seeing the Georgia O’Keefe Exhibition. O’Keefe has been known for her association with erotic flowers that contest the phallic imagery of towers and trees. A female Maplethorpe perhaps. Interestingly the explanations at the side of the paintings dispute those associations. Furthermore, O’Keefe balked at her art being thrown in with the Surrealists. However, with her dislocation and contrasts of size, colour and idea, it is hard not to immediately view her work as being part of the Surrealism surge of that day. 

However, as I am curious, anxious and unsupportive of words that categorize, I can understand how O’Keefe wanted to be seen as a force herself and not lumped in with a trend that categorized her as abstractionist, or realist or landscape painter. Yet, standing up close to one’s art is very different from taking a few steps back and viewing it from the context of Time as we consider artistic waves into which we slot artists, such as Manet as Impressionist or Van Gogh as Expressionist: a disservice to the education, reflection, camaraderie and individual genius of those whose work has risen to the foam at the top of Art, to be labelled the stuff of critical examination.

Although Marcel Duchamp must have shared a huge guffaw with his peers when his Readymades, especially The Urinal was elevated to the status of high art, the thinking behind it is, of course, brilliant, ridiculing the difference between high and low art, poking at the elevation and placement of simple things that have been transformed by the noughts of the critics .And besides a new way of seeing -superficially perhaps, opening the door to ordinary objects removed from their context to be viewed for their own sake in term of shape, texture, colour, design, etc. The driving force behind the Bauhaus that comprehended the intrinsic beauty of functional items that showcased design features that were not merely decorative or extraneous.

Signage at the AGO for O’Keefe showed her as part of photographer Stieglitz ‘s bunch, the brightest and bravest of the day, gathered in New York to paint. Although Stieglitz’ s photographs of O’Keefe ( Torso 1918-19, his portraits) were beautiful, she is depersonalized as long willowy hands and an exquisite body, truncated if admirable parts, not declared as an artist, but just as someone else’s muse. I barely let my eyes slide over those tonal tributes, as they were soft, evocative, rather than the strong artist that O’Keefe was portraying herself to be through her oeuvre. In fact, in five years, Stieglitz had shown over two hundred of her paintings( 1925-29), drawing attention to her talent, and making her a public figure.No doubt, fascinated by her strong separate talent, but no doubt desirous of not being overshadowed by his upstart companion. Subject, not object- this intrepid woman- no matter the subservient beauty.

At one point, again the signage has her rebuffing a quotation that she is the best female artist of the day.She bristles and responds the word ” The men liked to put me down as the best woman painter. I think I’m one of the best painters, clearly underlining, I am an artist so don’t categorize me as a woman first that downplays me in the arena of all people, men or women, who make art. Bold and beautiful as documented in her work.

The erotic and mortal associations she also refutes, explaining she painted what she wanted, whether eggplants, flowers, doors. Suddenly spying a flower that appealed, she popped it next to the elongated horse skull that caught her interest in Horse Skulls with Pink Rose, 1931, exclaiming that it “ looked pretty fine” as a spontaneous arrangement. O’Keefe continued to deny all sexual or metaphysical associations, strongly retorting she painted what she saw( See Georgia O’Keefe.: In the West by Doris Bry and  Nicholas Galloway, 1989).The Freudian theory that her flower paintings were actually close studies of the female vulva were first put forward in 1919 by hubby Stieglitz. Achim Borchardt-Hume, the Tate Modern’s director of exhibitions, said a key reason for hosting the retrospective last year was to offer O’Keeffe the “multiple readings” she had been denied in the past as a female artist.( See Hanna Ellis- Petersen,, Flowers or vaginas? Georgia O’Keeffe( sic) Tate show to challenge sexual cliches, March 2016)
As well, although Black Hills with Cedar, 1941, has been interpreted as a woman’s lower body, O’Keefe explains there were places that drew her in in New Mexico because of their “ lonely feeling” that she returned to over and over again in a range of weathers, valued for their shapes and sense of distance. This is what an artist does, inspired or challenged by something that speaks out to their sensibilities. Ironically, the titillation of sexual metaphors raised the appeal of her art, crowds intuiting something O’Keefe did not envisage in her paintings, but obviously others saw. Long before O’Keefe returned back to the Southwest to paint the siena- coloured houses and flat spaces of sand, artists and writers had been attracted to Taos and Santa Fe in New Mexico. Eventually the distinctive culture and clime would appeal to other artists such as Stuart Davis and Edward Hopper.

Very early in her career ( Music- Pink & Blue No 1, 1918) she foreshadows the pelvis bones that are associated with her painting. The 1918 ones apparently reflected sound waves for O’ Keefe, suggesting undulating forms like notes in a musical composition of tendons, bones and holes.Later Pelvis, 1944 revisits the forms, the play of what is called positive and negative space.
Her palette as well reoccurs with the soft blues and pastels one tends to think of as her colour. Yet the later abstracted doors and strong rectilinear shapes in Black Door with Red, 1954 resonate with the Color Field Artists and connote for me Kenneth Noland or Jules Olitski. But again, to pinpoint O’ Keene as representative of a particular group is to tie a butterfly down as a specimen to a particular genus as opposed to observing its flights among flowers against a dazzling sky. In the same way, Picasso’s passage through a variety of “ styles” do not pinpoint him as either this or that.

My interest in the exhibit also focused on Purple Hills, 1935 because I knew that Lawren Harris had moved close to Abiquiu, New Mexico to be near to O’Keefe and one of her paintings here in the AGO exhibit was very similar to his. This image of purple hills connotes primordial monsters ready to rise up. How wonderful it would have been to be privy to their discussions.
With thoughts to the recent AGO exhibit, I’m not sure about its overall impact as presenting OKeefe fully. Examining it from the end, later pieces, to front, her early works, helped me identify the symbols and abstraction O’Keefe used over time. Somehow the show did not hang together in the same way that Lawren Harris’s did- for me.I wasn’t moved or caught up in the artist’s mind. Perhaps like O’Keefe, who described herself as “ an outsider”, we are kept away from really knowing the artist. I suppose that surface interest of the poppies, the skulls and skies may be enough to consider O’Keefe as accomplished in her own right. The bare facts of her life, her locations described at the edge of the paintings do frame the works- which ultimately must be judged on its own merits. However, the AGO reinforces her isolation rather than expanding her beyond. For many, they will come away from their the exhibit, persisting in their thinking that Okeefes painting is about vaginas.Too bad.

I’ll take another look next month before you  the show closes- aware that the labels that have trapped her should be avoided.

Snapshot

I read in the obits two weeks ago of the passing of a girl I knew. It seemed to me she was part of a snapshot of my youth.  

There were three girls who lived behind their stores, each adjacent to the other. The fathers’ stores reflected a range of professions: one a pharmacist, the other an upholsterer, and my father, the hi fi guru. People from all over the city came to ask him the really tough tough questions regarding electronics, the next wave of music or particularly to probe the depth of my father’s intellect. Whether Bay Bloor or Clairtone, their head hanchos would make their way to our store on Eglinton. But this tale is not about my father, but the girls who lived on either side of our shop, Tele Sound.

In each of the girls’ families, there were two children, perhaps in accordance with the times and the parents of boomers who having survived the fear of an atomic bomb anticipated better secure days for their families cautiously hoping for safer futures. All were hard working, my mother and the upholsterer’s wife supporting their husbands while. working with customers in their stores. They were intense dedicated women with tall and handsome husbands.

The upholster and pharmacist had each, an older child a son and their daughter who were, closer to my age and these girls played together in the lane behind our stores.

 Three is not a comfortable number, “ a crowd, “ some would say, so my relationship, particularly with H., the pharmacist’s daughter was more of convenience. Living at the very edge of the borough, We walked to school together, and she, of course, had access to great amounts of chocolate bars and comic books sold in her father’s store so with the after school anticipation of candy and reading material just next store, I posed as her friend. Because we lived behind our stores, we were not considered equal to the rich girls who went to posh summer camps or lounged at the pools at their country clubs so we tended to hang together in solidarity.

The daughter of the upholster was a year ahead of us and at school moved in another circle, but after school or early evening when kids played till dusk fell, she and H. could be found bouncing balls, skipping or darkly chatting in the lane. Often I would observe them from my pink bedroom that overlooked the lane, forced to bed early, sometimes before the stars were out twinkling.

Interestingly all three of us became teachers. H ‘s parents being the most traditional felt pharmacy was the right path for their son. So he unwillingly pursued that path- at least until his future wife motivated him to follow his heart into medicine, where he flourished as a cancer doctor. My parents encouraged my brilliant sister into medicine . My friend’ss parents were intent that rather than following her dream of going to university, that she marry young. Someone’s cousin from the States arrived to fill the bill-although I recall H, days before her marriage grieving he was not “ the one”, but the die had been cast and she felt she had no choice but to marry, barely over 21 years of age. I was off traveling the summer she asked would I be a bridesmaid. With no remorse or particular affection, I packed up my bags and headed off for California.

Back in the 60’s, one might take a year to attend Teachers’ College and viola, you were pronounced ready to teach in an elementary classroom. Poor H, not an exemplary student, pined for higher learning. But a mere female and a gentle compliant soul went along with her parents’ plan..

 In the upholsterer’s home,, both daughter and son did go to university, both thriving, although the son veered from his love of athletics to buy a day camp. The daughter became a history teacher, married ,had children and grandchildren. I never saw her again.

I was unsure what path I would follow. Although I had a passion for art. I was never really sufficiently talented to follow that route and my parents had their eyes set on university for me to widen my horizons. I thought I might be a social worker, but took the path of least resistance and also became a teacher. As my interest in art persisted I completed a Masters in Art History. Thinking I might make changes to the educational system if I possessed more degrees, I wrote a doctoral thesis that combined both art and education, believing as I still do: that the visual marries well with all studies, providing a tantalizing perspective to studies that may be dry or heavily pedantic. I married, had three kids and grandkids.

Some time ago through my mother, I heard H and her husband had split up and she had returned to Toronto, to find a way to study teaching at university. We met briefly, and I noted she had gained a great deal of weight, her face looking lost in her body. And years later, my mother received a distraught call from her. Eventually I hear snippets of hormonal imbalance and emotional issues and prolonged stays in mental health facilities. I never saw her again, but I assume she lives- and hopefully well. At heart, she was a good and kind person with lofty aspirations.

From what I surmise , both the upholsterer’s daughter and I have had lead successful lives.

Brought up in a good area by a mother and a father, we fulfilled our roles in society. We went to school, were involved in a helping profession and added to the gene pool. We were typical role models perhaps for our generation. Interestingly, we all considered and engaged in teaching the profession, perhaps unsophisticated enough to veer towards others. We did not live with our spouses before marriage and all were married in a synagogue, although none of us did more than attend high holiday services. As our parents, we were all hard workers, not slackers although the gossip regarding H entwined her with a need for money to subsist as her desire to end the marriage did not provide her with alimony.

Reading the obituary of the upholsterer’s daughter caught me off guard. A small paragraph reduces a life to a handful of sentences that outline 70 or a bit more years.Truly I barely knew those facts , except for my memories that she often was reading, had dark hair and what I considered “airs” back when I was a girl growing up behind a store.

It shook me that people of my generation, ones who had lived closed by, were dying although there had a few surprises earlier – like my first real male friend in high school, Billy Novak , a talented , writer who had gone to New York -along with the names of one or two other classmates. But these moments of epiphany appearing trite ( everyone dies, of course) call into focus the days of our youth, our similarities and our differences, our luck or misfortunes, with those with whom we have shared experiences. They reveal our ordinariness, our conformity ( more perhaps in the post war days), our trajectories, our accomplishments that a demographic alludes to. They are not bad, not good. They just are. That middle class girls of a specific time and place did what unexceptional girls of the time did. In the end, it is the measure of happiness and contentment and even security that speaks to a life fulfilled or not: facts known only to an inner circle of family or friends  who truly knew the deceased.

I cannot say about poor H, whether her life was finally acceptable and pleasing to her. In contrast the sketchy details of he upholsterer’s girl suggests- at least outwardly, that she was. And for me, I too, have few complaints.

Some of us are fortunate to ride the ashes of our parents’ exhausting work, to know the unflinching love of the people who raised and cared for us, dreaming a better world for their offspring. But as a parent and grandparent myself these days, I’ve learned not all of our desires are compatible with our children’s, and there are uncontrollable events that can hinder the course. Our lives, our pursuits, our dearest relationships are fragile, gossamer, at the whim of chance and fortune. Here today and whisked away tomorrow. Rest in peace Faygie. I hope your life was sweet, full of happiness, and rewards…

Updated : Jewish Voice( computer issues previously)

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,

Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In “Why the debate misses the mark,” Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.

Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer, discourses about Felix’s sister’s, Fanny whose contribution and actual writing of some of his music were attributed to Felix , her work diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society. Sara, their aunt, struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with so obviously an anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people. A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”

We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch, In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39, originally published in 1993)

I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Belfer too had likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists, and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario: “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Do writers need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside beyond their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements, crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their personal experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artifact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observes or reads, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Multiple voices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

Jewish voice

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,
Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In Why the debate misses the mark, Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer,  explaining Fanny’s contribution and actual writing of some of his music attributed to Felix was diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society.  Sara struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with her teacher’s gift so obviously anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people.
A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”
We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch,In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39,  originally published in 1993)
I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Yet Belfer had  likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists), and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 

James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario. “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Does a writer need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements,crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artefact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observe or read, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Mutiplevoices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power of a to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, will send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

Reading Swans on the Beach

We’re back in San Diego , our oasis and we are being revived: the weather of 70 plus the blue skies have mitigated the greys of Toronto and its sudden spark of unbearable heat. Although referred to as” May greys “ here, we are greeted with California brightness. 

Back to our routines almost immediately, we walk up to Bristol’s for lunch and then traverse the mall to see what new shops have been brought by construction promised to be finished by October. Well, maybe. Supper at Tender Greens reveals the harvest salad with the sunflower seeds, citrus and local offerings has been removed.☹️Still the falafel is still good, but I am disappointed. Yesterday at Solana Beach the tide is far out and the sand is perfect for walking as minuscule red crab limbs are washed up along with tiny opalescent shells. This time we can meander almost to Dog Beach but I decide I’ld rather spend my time finishing up The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the fictionalized description of Truman Capote and his fascination with Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, founder and magnate of CBS, in years that preceded Andy Warhol in New York. So I hurry back to my chair to read on the beach, crashing waves my backdrop to the lurid tale.

It is a mesmerizing narrative of Capote’s magnetizing force on the societal elite. In the afterward, author Melanie Benjamin reflects on her own growing up in a place far from New York.She peruses the pages of Vogue and The New Yorker, and all the celebrities pictured in an extreme unimaginable lavish lifestyle. Writing her book, her search back into Capote is very different to the image she had previously held in her head: the short pudgy myopic lisping one- that I admit I also carried with me. The creature who captured and held Babe’s attention was lithe, handsome, charming and witty – before his plummet that coincided with the publication of his In Cold Blood and The Black and White masquerade Ball he designed to out- ball all New York Balls ostensively to honour Washington Post’s Editor Kay Graham, but really to showcase his connections to the richest and most famous that selectively included Sinatra, Bacall, the Kennedys, along with the detritus of Cold Blood.

The focus of the neurotic Capote is the pursuit of beauty and recognition. Winning the trust of Babe and her famous friends, the Swans, he betrays their confidences. When unable to produce good copy, he reverts to revealing their secrets. Although foreshadowed by his irreverent game of gossip into the lives of high society others as diversion at lunch at the Ritz, he nonetheless is trusted. But Capote succumbing to alcoholism and drugs and his inability to follow up In Cold Blood, rationalizes that he is a storyteller. So what did the Swans expect him to do with their stories?

Worse he hurts Babe, the person Capote loves best. She is surface upon surface, never allowing herself to be seen without makeup, even waking before Bill to arduously apply layer upon layer of moisturizer, coverup and false teeth. Also the product of a driven mother, Babe is enchanted by Capote, opening herself to him as to no one else. She angel- like even understands and forgives Capote’s open revelations of Bill’s discretions in Capote’s piece La Cote Basque while the others openly reject him. However, she too will never speak with him again.

The relationship between Babe and Capote is the stuff of fairytales, her even sleeping chastely beside him and willing to confide her fears. While Capote values her as perfect, he also has gained entry into Bill’s inner circle as friend. Originally repelled that Bill asks him to set him up with a blonde woman he spies, Capote later decides he will procure an arrangement , afraid he will be ousted from the inner circle, rationalizing his betrayal of the one he apparently adores the most in the world. Constantly in search of his mother’s praise and acceptance, Capote can never satisfy his desire for not being accepted or as an insider to the wealthy and famous.
Like the worm that burrows deeply into the apple, Capote destroys the paradise he has been privileged to breach:

 “Truman leapt into their midst and suddenly the gossip was more delicious, the amusements were more diverse. He had sat on the beds of everyone of his swans and whispered how beautiful they were. How precious. They all knew he was saying the same thing to each one of them. They didn’t mind. Because beneath the beauty, they were all so … lonely.”

The world Benjamin reveals is of course a façade for loneliness and true commitment to love; however, it is postwar fabulous , a gem of extravagance , polished manners, excess and air kisses. Just as Capote, we are drawn in and fascinated by the players photographed as living the existence of princesses, the illusion of an exclusive life. The Swans, carefully coiffed wearing gems as big as eggs, swathed in furs, dining and drinking and laughing at 21, are eventually rendered as human as the rest of us: hung over, stringy hair, set upon by the ravages of not just age, but as Babe, set upon by a fatal illness. For one brief shining moment for Capote and the Swans it was Camelot, unmindful that eventually facades crumble, and behind it all: only the fable of the gloriousness endures.Benjamin keeps us riveted and exhumes the names that marked the days of rosebuds.

Archaeology is Poetry

On Monday my professor, a Ph.d from Harvard stated, “ Archaeology is poetry.” In other words, there are few if any verifiable facts, but many inferences and interpretations for the retrieval of artifacts.

We create stories. We look at the pieces from 3000-2920BCE and make links. The Narmer Palette shows us images and because the super- sized man on the plate is wearing both the North and the South crowns of Egypt, it is assumed that the big man is King Narmer, the first king to unite both parts of that country . We see apparently the first example of “ smiting” as this fellow with a lion’s tale, kilt and apron subjugates his enemy. Reminding me of Trojan’s Column from 129BC in Rome, both campaign victories are read in the registers or segments that circle from bottom to top- comic book style , and again recall for me Assisi stories that depict in narrative Christ’s birth.

It thrills.me that the so-called Mona Lisa of Uruk was constructed of mixed media, eyebrow once filled with bitchumen to darken, a wig now lost with only oversized eyes in alabaster gazing back at us, teasing that so many centuries ago, the ancients juxtaposed material to suggest a realistic verisimilitude. In The Palette we revisit two strange mythical animals called sepopards, part giraffe necks entwined that we have seen in a dynastic seal. An incredibly finely detailed piece referred to as The Ram in the Thickets from the city of Gilgamesh , where the biblical Abraham was born, are linked by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, although the artifact predates the Bible. I search for further “ evidence” of connection as our professor does speak to a famine, like a mini Ice age that destroyed artistic evidence of the time, but appears to be documented.

  Chaim Bentorah writes,

The picture of a horned animal [ in The Ram in the Thicket] reaching for a high branch would bear out this date as this is when there was a 300 year draught in the land of Ur and goats or similar horned animals would have been reaching high on bushes to eat because such feeding in the wild was scarce due to the draught. Abraham lived or was born about 1815 BC so he would have been born during this draught and more significantly when this symbol of a horned animal reaching high on a branch to feed was a known symbol. No one really knows what the symbol represents.

The dates do not coalesce for me, but the yarn of the story is interesting and one Dvar Torah at Rosh Hashana actually spoke to the sacrifice of children to appease the gods at the time so perhaps Abrahams thinking of his pagan parents who worshipped idols and before he was a patriarch of the Jewish religion might connect the dots: of his bringing Isaac for slaughter. Bentorah’s article also says The Ram piece might portray an animal reaching for food and may just connote the animal’s desire to survive. Still it is magnificently realistic and delicately carved, but as my prof said, Woolley was an amazing showman. He further connects the story to Agatha Christie’s mystery book,Murder at Mesopotamia, and again I want to clap with delight as prehistoric and 1930’s are linked. With surprise, we ascertain that Christie’s second husband is Max Mallowan an archaeologist apprenticed to Woolley at the excavation at Ur.She reinvents the events in her mystery and puts Wooley’s wife at the centre of the mystery.

 One story unfolding onto another- much like the Giza pyramid where the architect stacked one bench- like form , mustaba, into another five for King Khufu or Cheops finally reaching 139 metres, constructed in stone but laid out without special technology or tools but humble string! This layering of bench upon bench provided the.burial chambers for the king, one of three pyramids at Giza. Yet an incredible sculpture of Khufu and his wife, portrayed equally, king and consort, requires the plinth to keep him and his Mrs. from tumbling. Obviously architecture strides were superior to free standing sculpture.

 Is the king of Egypt shown here godlike as the homely Tutankhamen was, or did he have to actually maintain an appearance of flat- stomached lean virility – as even King Djoser did in his pyramid complex where he was required to run in his underwear to demonstrate his power. Ironically this test of endurance sparks for me the trials of the poor holocaust souls made to demonstrate their fitness for work during camp selection during the Holocaust.

In a tiny article in Vogue Knitting, later verified by Atlas Obscura , we learn about in the prehistoric Bronze Age the discovery of a ball of wool, 3000 years old, only1 cm wide, found at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, similar to Italy’s Pompei. Also discovered was a bobbin with thread still wrapped around it.

Last night I share this information with my grandsons, ages 5 and 8, one interested in the colour of the prehistoric wool. This leads to notions of a time capsule and what we would bury in it. Again, one is worried that it must be buried deeply so as not to be looted. I suggest that a family picture might be a good idea so people of the future might discern how we dressed and intuit a relationship among the gathered group. I reflect that I keep celebration pictures on my walls to remind me of the good times we have shared, how young and happy we once looked, an image bridging past and my present that continues to move into the future. In time forward, will they have replaced batteries ? Will computers and cellphones evolved to chips injected into human brains and bodies?Depictions, art and musical objects are likely to be retained. Maybe grains- grains like barley that have persisted since the Bronze Age even? Truly it is miraculous that a ball of wool persisted at Must Farm, but as I explain to the boys, if it gets cold, you need something to cover your body and protect it. So clothes can provide information on climate, unless the future world is swamped in global warming and no clothes necessary- or bodies require protection from bugs and such.

It is hard to imagine the future, especially as my neighbourhood is being overwhelmed by condos, chicken coops as my father referred to them, particularly as evidence of the shops disappears. Would our parents imagined a handheld computer, snarls in traffic, chickencoops overrunning the streets?
Will there be new stories created beyond the ones we have grown up with? What poetry will be created by the artifacts of the Boomers?

I’m thankful for the beauty of a tree or flower, refuge from a uncertain world. But I suppose all generations, even from the Bronze Age felt similarly.

Handmaid’s Tale

Back in the 90’s when I worked at Northern Secondary and we had something called OAC to replace Grade 13, one of our novels for study was Handmaid’s. Even now I shudder at the brilliance of teaching a novel so ahead of its time, a work that stood at the crossroads, linking and drawing from actual documented Totalitarian events in the past- for each storied event in the book: from the wall hangings that occurred as warnings in Auschwitz to the prescribed dress and demeanour of women covering their bodies and faces. Child stealing, Salem witch trials, even women betraying women, and male-  dominations been lived out again and again.

At the same time, the book was prophetic in terms of banning travel, allowing for toxic waste, or in our present day, the pollution of air. At the heart of the novel is the control over women’s bodies, as seen by the laws that have passed in the US, supported and driven by Vice President Pence and his sanctimonious brethren, rights to abortion at the heart of the issue.

I don’t think my students recognized the book as momentous back then, for along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, these were the texts that the english department had decided were important to the development of thinking, critiquing and engaging curriculum. But clearly our department head was way ahead of his time. The themes covered in these prescribed studies were the farthest reaching in terms of power structures, freedoms, approaches and interpretations of moral structures, rebellions, silence, repression…

The test of a book is its ability to transcend time, to keep it current and relevant and so the book Stoner, or the authors Orwell, the Bard, Copperfield and many others are names ever recognizable to our young populations. Interestingly as I read David Shribman’s column this morning in the Globe, he encourages Trump to read: Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Tyler Anbinder on City of Dreams, Barbara Tuchman ‘s Guns of August, Buchman’s Pilgrims Progress along with presidential biographies that reflect on the difficult tasks a president must encounter. In Offred’s forced tryst with the Commander, her jaw falls open to see his walls lined with books, a commodity now burned and vanished from society for their dangerous power to assuage, critique, demonstrate and change minds. Wicked, wicked books, pen to paper that empowers. How can one not think back on the book burnings pre and during the holocaust, and revisited in Fahrenheit 451 or the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban…as if beauty and wisdom like a viral infection will corrupt. But of course, it does.

The timeless quality to transcend has made The Handmaid’s Tale a thrilling television production with Elizabeth Moss. Perfect as Offred, she embodies the repressed but still hopeful personality of the protagonist. Her name although a prefix to the name of the commander, Fred, also suggests she is “ offered”, and of-red, the colour of the clothing she must wear as a potential bearer of children, signifying first blood or the onset of fertility.But mostly a possession, deserving no name. Standing by a window, she murmurs her own real name, longing to resume an identity of her own, untouchable by forces that would diminish her.

The society shown in the television production appears at first far fetched with its restrictions, each class of women delineated by colour.Simple freedoms such as Offred’s game of scrabble is a delight made palatable. That she is still able to resist, as she spits out the macaron offered to her by Serena Joy, the commandeer’s wife, in defiance, bolsters her/ our hope she may be able to escape. Yet almost as quickly as her spirits soar are they extinguished when she realizes her walkmate has been exchanged, or more likely silenced in a nefarious way. She is precariously perched on a tenuous tightrope of emotions twisting her as she attempts some independence where there is none.

 Along with Handmaid’s in OAC, we taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and. Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina that spoke to methods of resistance in terrible times. In most, it was the mind that allowed one to survive the here and now: so to live in the head, obliterating the slings and arrows set against the body provided the escape hatch. Just as Nelson Mandela somehow resisted in his 17 years in Roblen island, with a few smuggled in books such as Shakespeare as his treasured companions .Those dangerous, dangerous books that preach and teach. Mandela’s favourite poem by Henley from 1875 Invictus inspired him:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Hopefully we the viewers, the  population who still cares about liberties, can chant – even today- with the  mantra of the Handmaids,” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Homes of Circles

In order to avoid the overwhelming construction on Eglinton, I veer off onto Burton and drive through the stately leafy Forest Hill area where the mansions are eye catching. Even this street is full of trucks and cars and requires some slow down. I wonder who lives here, their families, friends… and I think back on where I grew up- also in Forest Hill but behind and above my father’s store at the furthest edges of the boundary of the borough. My parents had chosen the location for the reputation of the schools, but perhaps our mother had imagined her daughters worthy of the society embraced by the children of the rich. Although I truly believe her impetus had to do with education that she had dearly savoured for herself, I think she was fascinated by the artefacts of the wealthy too.

I never considered that my home was any less than my friends’ abodes. We had formerly lived in a house on Glengarry that my parents had designed before my father had succumbed to polio. Now their plan was to simplify life, and to combine my father’s living and working spaces. But this new building also on Eglinton that we were to inhabit had my parents’ stamp on ideas and needs marked on it, my mother insistent on a small yard for us planted with grass and demarcated by a fence at the end of the alleyway.

My parents, especially my mother took care to consider, plan and arrange our living space, always aware of my father’s meagre income. I was never aware that we were likely at the thin edge of the financial spectrum. Somehow we participated in numerous lessons , were well dressed, and to my child’s mind, the equal of our neighbours around the corner or in ” the village.”My father recalled so many horrible fights between his parents caused by the lack of money  during the Depression so there were never squabbles over money in our house. He did not want his children to grow up under that nagging, cheeriless gloom. Foremost, our food was the central concern purchased at the best stores, fish and chocolate cake almost necessities, bought where all the financially comfortable neighbours also shopped. In deed I believed my pink bedroom, I no longer had to share with my sister, was- palatial in size. It overlooked the lane but its dimensions were spacious enough for two girls until our sibling squabbling encouraged our parents to cut through the wall and give my sister her own room.

I remember my surprise when my best friend Nancy who lived near West Prep made a comment about how small my room was. I was stunned , taken aback , wondering if in deed she was describing my royal bedroom. Granted, I’ve never been great with spatial measurements but I truly believed my room magnificent, with matching furniture, shelves overloaded with books and personal possessions.

In those days I would tell my father that the house I would eventually inhabit would be round. Perhaps I intuited that like a wedding band, a circle has no beginning, no end, continuous for all time. There is a vague memory of a house I had once visited that if not perfectly round had no walls to divide up the rooms so there was a flow that carried you from space to space.

And interestingly when I began my search for a perfect wedding dress at the elegant Jean Pierce ,the most coveted dress shop on Eglinton back then, I pined for a gown that was circular. Somehow about it piqued my imagination. When the price made it be unobtainable, friend and department head at Westview Centennial in the Jane Finch corridor where I was newly teaching suggested her present to me would be an incredible French crepe and lace gown that she sewed by hand. We did fittings in the girls’ washroom. It hangs still in my closet- as fabulous now as forty- four years ago.

But this idea of the circle intrigues me and not surprisingly when my real estate friend in La Jolla shared a picture of a Mexican heritage house in the shape of circle, my heart sang out and I was again smitten. But like the dress, the price, and plus I am Canadian, were only dreaming points of awe and desire for an ideal not a possibility.

Perhaps part of the reason I admit to being unable to throw out and clean up my basement of my home resides in the fact that the items I have in my home not already purged are imbued with emotions. As I attempted to unsuccessfully clear out the art room last week, I was waylaid by the books that connote significance from different stages in my life. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse from university days consumed as a mantra when we dressed like hippies. Hesse played a rallying point for Boomers. Hesse predated Mindfulness and long before “ Journey” became a ubiquitous word, particularly in speeches regarding life and profession, we actually pondered its meaning : now I cringe when I hear someone, their gaze fixed loftily away, murmurs the word. Sadly, we can say -poor  tired “ Journey” has passed away, been depleted of meaning, overburdened with overuse.

In the basement of my home, there are books associated with my years of teaching of Postcolonial Literature and writing for the now defunct Multicultural Journal , my major contribution to Northern Secondary’s Gifted Program, but one gradually erased when I left to work at OCT. I have evidence of my student’s brilliance from those days in the format of handcrafted books, paintings, videos: beginning points to my students’ immersion into the study directed by the intrepid students themselves. These fill me with pleasure.These cherished items are artefacts of my life.

From OCT are the booklets and research, journal articles and two books I wrote, edited and collaborated on that contributed to the teaching profession, my favourite published by Sage. These concrete items, gathering dust, make me proud. Other heaping piles contain the standards and implementation strategies and presentations created for the more than 300,00 teachers in Ontario. And to think I worked with almost all the faculties of education in the province also writing their additional qualification courses for post study. Impressive, no? Although courses will change, reviewed every three to five years, the standards and ethics of the profession will remain as the values we should uphold. These tenets have been with us forever: respect, responsibility, care, compassion, collaboration, etc. Back when I started at the College, Dr. Linda Grant was the brains and insightful leader of that endeavour.

In university I studied Sartre whose La Nausee addressed why we keep items close, outgrown things like teddies or even hair brushes. It is because they demonstrate that we once had a relationship with them and they validate us in terms of who were at a variety of points in our lives. They are small houses for the machinations, emotions, goings on of who we were. And particularly as we age, we try to maintain that smart and vital image of ourselves preferring not to focus on the aging mind of body of today, recalling in stead the relationships, actions and pursuits, the exhilarating and inspiring contexts that formed and nourished us. The happy child of loving parents, the aloof adolescent or careless student, the committed professional, the caring lover: all the passages into self awareness. The so- called journey. 😉

So the importance of a house, especially a circular one brings one back to the start. In the home of my house lives memories and books and reminders, the exterior – whether on Burton or Eglinton, no matter.

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