I’m not sure why certain books or sayings lodge in our brains. I often say I’ve got Teflon brain because not much seems to stick; having said that, there are things that I think I remember clearly and one in particular is lodged from a first or second year French class at U of T ( University of Toronto).
We were studying La Nausee by Jean-Paul Sartre, likely the translation back in the 70’s, that imprinted on me. I recall Sartre saying that we keep objects around that we have had relationships with- that our teddy bears and even our hairbrushes speak to us. The connection between the object and our consciousness of it reasserts our identities because it connotes who we were at a particular time and in a particular place. It extends the “I think, therefore I am” of Rene Descartes, as our selves are reasserted by the toys and paraphernalia with which we engaged once upon a time. I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the great philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and others were well versed in the magic of mathematics and science, going deep beyond numbers and ciphers to contemplate an “otherness “ that stood for something more.
Think of how the word “Rosebud” and the role it played in the film “ Citizen Kane”, supposedly based on William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Interestingly the film was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre so he must have admired the connection between word to evoke a life story.
I recall a Friday night dinner at my parents when my son was a small boy. He paused peering over the edge of his chicken soup and queried, “Maybe I am just a thought in someone else’s mind. “My mother guffawed, “ Jordan, just eat your soup”.
But in terms of “rosebud,” and the precious trinkets we feel unable to pitch, I’m not referring to those who hoard like my Auntie Marion whose library was overflowing with books or magazines she was unable to discard. We had to navigate through piles of past newspapers even in her livingroom to reach a chair in her house. She recalled Dickens’ Mrs. Haversham to many of her nieces and nephews.
I am talking about those objects we keep around us that do remind us of events, people or specific times. As I sit here by my kitchen window at my computer mid- December I glance at the 10 or more cards on the granite island from my husband’s birthday (July 31) and even our last anniversary (July 2). I even spy one from past Valentine’s Day. Besides what I rationalize is an informal art arrangement, this impromptu exhibit provides colour, design and texture to a room that holds pots of orchids, my recent paintings, a corner full of my grandchildren’s pursuits such as Mad Libs, markers, puzzles and stacking bears…. Yes, I admit “clutter”.
However, my table is a place where my family gathers and where I paint and write. There used to be a birch tree outside that practically cradled the house, but recently it had to be cut down. An outsider arriving here might wonder at the carefully arranged chaos and only realize it is a kitchen because of the stove and frig.
I absolutely need these props. Birthdays, celebrations, bric-a-brac or photos that speak to my life filled with significant events that fill me with happiness and establish a barrier to the bad things that creep into my mind and torment me with worry. They are a shield, a panacea of love and establish balance.
I am an admitted worrier, although as my husband points out, worrying does no good and neither stops what might occur. Superstitiously I reflect that worrying is an amulet that will outwit bad events from unfolding. After all, Jews believe that if you give a sick person a new name, the Angel of Death will fly over him or her unrecognizable and hidden by a fresh moniker. However, I can think of many times, I did try to think good thoughts, but they failed to stave off the inevitable onslaught of trials and tribulations.
I think I am not alone in my penchant to surround myself in good vibes. Many of us cherish our photographs: usually group shots of families, vacations, trips that remind us, make us feel lighter, happier. And how many holocaust victims rudely forced from their warm beds and permitted few possessions did not grab for a photo? I once read a book about the inmates in concentration camps maybe Ravensbruck or Terezin who curried together scraps of paper, and cut into bits of leather recipes from their former lives that were resplendent with memories of warmth, love and family. Some dreamed of the aromas, felt the press of their children’s bodies or re-envisaged the smile of mother: all evoked by the words “ cream… butter…”.
I have been called a cynic but for most of my life I actually naively expected people to behave honorably, but for the most part, have been disappointed.
That is the miracle of Nelson Mandela. In spite of an excruciating hard life, separated from his family and home along with the daily punishments and bonebreaking work, he did not lose his optimism. In deed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996 where murderers, arsonists, rapists were given amnesty when they admitted their crimes was a miracle of belief in the power of forgiveness.
Films such as Cry Freedom that give voice to Steve Biko’s tortures, Dry White Freedom, or The Power of One deplore apartheid. When I developed my Post-colonial classes at Northern, these movies taught the students more than I could. Most contained montages of images that dramatized moments that were fraught and composed in the pain of the people in South Africa,1976. Imagine my delight when visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, South Africa and discovering the images in the films were the real stuff, actual saved documentation used in the production of the movies. A film is, of course, a distribution of images that can endure and together form a work of art. Fortunately someone decided these pictures were worth saving to record the past.
So I am back to my perpetual theme of art, a clutter of things that holds meaning for me-or for you. That clutter that reaffirms what we find important, what we treasure and hold close, what we maintain that encourages us to continue on, persevere.
It is however, the Nelson Mandelas who are so much more than the scraps that surround us in our daily ventures. The Nelson Mandelas who stop time, who do not allow us to linger in the past and drone on about the good, bad or particularly ugly old days. And yet, it is all paradox for without the past, the memories, the photos, the mementos that evoke a former me or you, we could not forge on, and we could not hope to change what has gone before, resurrect what has been good, human and worth preserving.