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Archive for the month “May, 2015”

Stars, Emotions and What Hides Beneath the Surface

“Shabam-shibbebel-yibbam”, ( or some such expletives) shouts the Bone in The Amazing Bone by William Steig. Unexpectedly, the loathsome fox begins to shrink until he is the size of a mouse, no longer a threat to succulent Pearl the Pig whose oven was heating in wait for her. The Bone unaware how he/it had muttered the magical words, declared he did not know where he had absorbed them, maybe from living in the pocket of a witch, but who knows for sure?

When I worked on a paper for Children in Poverty in Ontario, I recall reading that what impacts most strongly on a child is having a parent, a teacher, a friend who supports that child emotionally. One person can make such a difference. Yet why is it that even some children or adults with packs of friends cannot find their way through an abyss? No magic bone appears to rescue them from their traumas. But often, there are attacks that arrive from not just outside but inside as well. This week Robin Williams took his life and I’m sure many wondered, how if a person such as Williams with all the love, concern and care from friends and family in his life could not survive the crises that plagued him, then how anyone?

Just yesterday I read Joanna Schneller in The Globe who reflected on our connection with movie stars, illusions that we extend to entwine ourselves in, imagining that we possess meaningful association with them: “… actors who come into our lives through film and tabloids whom we think we know because so much is published that we feel affinity to them.” She maintained that what we feel, our emotions, nonetheless are in deed real towards the celluloid super star and we should not dismiss or diminish how we feel. She asserted. “We are not wasting our time if we take to the internet to help us process the weight of depression that crushed Williams. We’re not even pathetic if we try to express our feelings in 140 characters or less. The feelings are real. It would be tragic not to feel them” (Aug 16, 2014.)

I disagree.

We, of course, do experience feelings for ourselves. However, we have no idea what Williams truly was , neither the deep inner thoughts of Philip Seymour Hoffman or the insights of Lauren Bacall when she was married to Humphrey Bogart. These people are mere areas for transference for us, a palimpsest that we employ to post on, then erase our thoughts and feelings. That we think we know them is perhaps saddest of all and to be given permission to grieve for them is saddest yet. The basis for our response not even real or true, often manufactured.

True enough that we don’t always own our emotions, their presence, their façade that obfuscates what lurks beneath. Providing license for grief should herald a wakeup call to look within, not without. Why listen to Jenny McCarthy when you really know so much better.?

In contrast today in The Star,( August 19), Dr. Gabor Mate, took another stance in saying that childhood conditioning can play a role in depression and that Williams was bullied as a child and found his father “ frightening”. He said “[ Williams] early in life had learned early in life to cover up his feelings, as a child does when he is emotionally alone and there is no one with whom to share”. Does this tidbit of information allow us to rationalize and psychoanalyze, pondering like Dr. Freud’s penetrating Ah-ha : that was the reason! as we smugly don our own white coats, clucking as if we knew the secret yearnings and despair that dog some members of society.

However, reading Ruth Ozecki’s book “ A Tale For the Time Being”, I could begin to understand the depth of depression a child/adolescent would face by the constant mockery by their peers. For Nao, one of the protagonists, it is life’s constant brutalities that encourages her to seek suicide as well. Fortunately for Nao, she unearths shreds of resilience and as the literature on that topic teaches, one person- a friend, a teacher, a family member can make the difference.

For Nao, it is the wisdom of her grandmother nun, the perseverance of a great uncle written in a French diary, her own purpose and project that persuade her to continue on for her own sake. Being inspired to find a glimmer of hope when all the lights are dimming is the challenge. For the heroine of Ozecki’s book, Nao may find solace;and in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, the reader is able to envision her heroine Ursula’s diverse trajectories, a plethora of alternate paths taken or not with varying outcomes.

Yet, as I stand outside a character such as Nao and peer into her soul and thoughts, make connections, and think I comprehend her pain, I am at a remove from the scorching mistreat by her classmates that reinforces she is worth less than her twisted underwear. The value of books is to bring us to the edge so we might peer over and try and empathize. At least a book gives us context and reason, words that convey reason. Our television glimpses or media-driven reports are not truths that can instruct the way into a tortured soul. Like the commercials created by Don Draper in Mad Men, they are snippets created to manipulate our emotions for a variety of reasons; most commercial.

When I worked at OCT, my research for the ethical standards revealed that several universities offered classes or courses to teach the values we hope our children will espouse and make their own: Care, Respect, Trust and Integrity. Coupled with the standards, these ethical incentives are what we all should strive towards in our daily actions : codes to guide our behaviour and interactions with others.

Williams’ death makes us stop and face our own mortality. I think that it was his sweetness, self-deprecation, laughter and crazy antics that endeared him- at least on screen and the zines that profiled him. At least that was how he portrayed himself in his film roles and comedy shticks. Too bad there were no magic words for Williams as in The Magic Bone to ward off his demons and shrink them to mouse size. Even nanoo- nanoo did not do the trick.

Family Reunions

We are not what I would consider kissin’ cousins. In fact, at the mention of family gatherings, I often grimace and forgo the pleasure.

Part of the reason has to do with my parents’ feelings transferred to me, that were intensified by my own anti-social attitude. So perhaps to rationalize, I have not attempted to keep in touch with most of my clan, adopting my parents’ resentment.

My father used to scorn those gatherings where the family was present. I recall my once favourite uncle’s wedding. My mother had purchased in Buffalo the most beautiful deep green velvet dress. She looked truly lovely; in my mind’s eye, the puffy sleeves and full skirt combined both high fashion and the look of a princess. Silly me in my fuzzy pink number had decided to fix my curly bangs and continued to savagely trim them to my hairline so those furry squirming buglike protrudents suggested a monk’s fringe with no framing wisps of hair to soften what was referred to as an intelligent forehead.

On that wedding day, my father was moving particularly slowly and seemed to be digging in his heels as my mother was growing more and more frustrated. There was some interchange between them and she was in tears. In their bedroom was a huge mirror to match their bedroom set and I could see from the small hallway, her crying, her eyes now reddened; the day ruined.

Likely my father had cause to want to avoid the family, but more than anything he had taken the day and spoiled it for her. After all, this was the family whose monthly “Kousins Klub” never gave any thought to the fact that a man on crutches might need a parking spot close to the host’s house. Never complaining openly, they would venture perilously through the high drifts of snow and ice to reach the Saturday night location.

His avoidance of family events was freely absorbed by me. He was no fan of most of the get- togethers with his own family, either ,although he eagerly anticipated time spent with his brother-in-law Sid from Windsor, yet the meetings were hardly familial. They focused on technology and music: the passion of both technologically-oriented men.

I see them in my mind’s eye, sitting together, heads inclined, laughing easily, talking privately. It seemed to me that Sid always had a new scheme, an idea, an adventure that captivated my father’s intellect. I imagine this jovial friendly side as a kind of boys’ club attitude, maybe what the old days were about, the endless rounds of good pals and gatherings before polio robbed my father of so much of himself.

And before all the friends fled, fearful of catching the virus.

In a word, Sid and Saul were friends, so much more than family. And If Sid were around, there was no need to call my father more than twice, my mother announcing” Saul, Sid’s here!” Meetings with Sid were so unlike the palpable resistance of attending the family parties, weddings, bar mitzvahs that bored him : no draw for my father. So I admit I embraced my father’s aversion to these assemblies, shying away from these people.

When I heard that the Rotman family was planning a reunion I was less than thrilled, hoping in fact not to have to attend. But my husband insisted, even strong arming the children to come and bring their children. In fairness, I actually do quite enjoy the presence of Howard’s cousins from Texas and Chicago who always, at their own expense and long distance had made it to our own celebrations in Toronto.

Howard’s mother was the youngest of seven brothers and sisters. In this group were the children of Ida, the black beehived, smoking sister from Buffalo. Imagine Marge from the Simpson with a husky voice and a cigarette always in her fingers, knitting needles at her side. She was a character but unlike my mother-in-law, on the day I was introduced to Ida, she looked me up and down and in her very American accent loudly proclaimed, “I like you Patty.” I warmed to her immediately. Her children as well were interesting people, amiable, friendly and accessible.

Old grievances die hard and even so many years later, the children of the dead brothers, Max and Nathan, were not in attendance at the Rotman reunion. ( In deed, they might have been purposely left off the invite list!) From my early entry into this family, I had always overheard gossip regarding the contentious one-legged Stella – who once berated my own mother when my mother-in-law’s wedding guest selection had not met Stella’s approval ( in fairness to the sharp-tongued Stella, my mother-in-law cherry-picked who she chose to invite in every family grouping); and the haughty Rosa who had remarried too soon after her husband died at an early age was often the topic of conversation. The legendary Max had assumed hero status as a well known community figure in Hamilton with athletic centers named for him. I’d been introduced to some of their offspring somewhere who remained a blur in my memory, their names Sylvia, Stewie, Debbie….

Howard contributed to the stories of his family as a happy, loving group and I had in my head the narratives of when the cousins were young and they were all babbling buds. Most strongly were his descriptions of the huts along Love Canal where this family congregated every holiday weekend year after year. Where dead fish washed up on the shore and lumps of greying tar matter rose up through sizzling sands under snaky hydro wires, sparkling in the hot sun; where the kids danced and played and cavorted avoiding the debris littered on the beach. My husband reminisces fondly about other trips to hear Michael Tilson Thomas ‘s symphony and the zoo in Buffalo where Ida lived, and her handsome dashing aviator husband. He revelled in the time spent with his cousins.

So he was looking forward to reuniting with his cousins, Marcia and Michael and Susan and Michael, and their children from the States.

As most things in life, there is nothing is without flaw, no perfection anywhere. Sadly my mother-in-law, the world’s favourite aunt would not be able to grace the reunion. Ironically 30 minutes away at Shalom Village, she was blithely unaware that the clan was even gathering. Her last home would be this care facility where she once volunteered. With dementia destroying her mind, she would not be present. There was no attempt to bring her to the party, for we worried that she might be confused, disoriented and frustrated, even angry at the people she once cherished.This would have been too much for her.

Yet her 91 year old twin attended, and in full command of her facilities, introducing her family table, she exchanged more pleasantries with us than she had ever done throughout her life. My mother-in-law even a year earlier would have shone, been the queen of the day, well loved by her nieces and nephews. The healthy twin ,obviously having had enough, announced, “Time to go. My sister ( my mother-in-law) was the party girl!”

I have to admit: it was fun. With close to 70 people, many we had not seen in years, it was an astounding. So many relations in one spot with their children, grandchildren and even great grandchildren in attendance. The feeling was not uncomfortable. It was an easy meet, people milling around, stopping to chat, introducing new additions or reacquainting. And always snippets of years gone by where forever memories had been established, laughter spilling forth at the foibles of youthful adventures or incredulity at now sepia coloured adventures shared as youth.

Sadly, as I rewrite and edit this 8 months later, my mother-in-law and one of the Michael cousins have died, passed to that nether world along with the dreams and memories that entwine our everyday existence: comings and goings, meetings and dissolutions.


As my mother grew older, she seemed less invested in some of her former feelings towards people or issues; this new attitude surprised me. She might shrug her shoulders, glance away and let a grievance dissipate. Formerly, and like me, she would hold on to an upset, a slight, and strongly express bitterness, and hurt. And like me, her skin was thin, and the hurt sustained, painful, festering, was not allowed to be released for some time. Whether slow encroaching dementia or just not truly caring about world wariness, I’m not sure. She just seemed to let it go.

I always felt I shared that aspect of her character, sensitive beyond necessity, experiencing the slings and arrows of life way too intensely. In fact, my father’s attitude towards me often shouted, “ Don’t be so sensitive, Pat,” as if being sensitive was reprehensible, like smelly socks not to be exhibited in public places.

But unlike her insouciance, I developed a façade of cynicism and aloofness to battle what was seething inside. Perhaps this defence system began at Forest Hill where not being one of the sheep and demonstrating individuality was a cause for ostracism. Today I might be diagnosed with social anxiety as my discomfort in groups and an inability to converse would be treatable with Paxil. But this inner shyness lead me to pretend I was invisible, particularly later in life at cocktail parties and gatherings, that way insulating myself from pain: silent wallpaper to the tittering groups who laughed and intermingled with delightful ease in the twinkling of wine glasses.

I always desired that I might go to the camps that the rich kids attended in my area. Our summer aways were car excursions, drives to some place for a week and less: what felt like a trip there and then a turn around, a stop for a historical monument or nature reserve, an overnight stay at a Howard Johnson’s hotel and if I was really lucky, a magazine at the check out : the purchase of a Calling All Girls or Jack and Jill magazine.

Many memories are overwhelmed by the smell of vomit as my sister was a poor traveller and the tedium of sitting in the car for hours. So I lusted for those summer camps, imagining they would do for me what the slipper did for Cinderella and I would become the beautiful star of the golden pumpkin, exchanging bon mots with all the other lovely ladies.

As an elementary school student my parents agreed to send me to Mr. Salmon’s ( he was the principal at West Prep in the 50’s) camp. Even then I must have fantasized that camp was a magical place. My mother arranged for two of my cousins to attend with me so I would not be alone. What I remember is this: because I loved pistachios, my parents on visiting day showered me with several pounds of the salty crunchy green treats. But the rule – and I always followed rules- was that we had to share our goods with others. So I turned my luscious pistachios into the camp office and received only three shrivelled morsels. Yes, three single pistachios! Sharing did not displace my disappointment or feelings of stupidity of how I might have savoured those tiny nuts in secret.

But even at that age, I found that camp was no panacea .One of my cousins, Rima, had an incident with ketchup and demanded her parents immediately remove her from those two weeks of torment. With the exception of being put to bed with Nancy Drew stories in my head, I deemed camp all right, but no nirvana.

It was years later when camp again assumed the illusion of a golden holiday where even the nobodies in everyday life might became special, relaxed, happy and I imagined passing through the looking glass of camp that would transform me into a socially acceptable being, complete with manageable hair, no glasses and twirling skirts.

When I was old enough I applied for a summer job at one of the coveted camps. It should have been no surprise that I did not fit. One night as I pretended to sleep I overheard my co-counsellors trash my hair, my body, my behaviour. It was as if I were in attendance at my own funeral where the guests are not your friends but people who truly hate and ridicule you venomously, with such hatred that you feel yourself charred from top to toes.

Eyes tightly clenched, I did not bob up and face them eye to eye. Most likely they surmised that I was listening to every hurtful word, winking at one another and suppressing their laughter. For me, the unraveling of me seemed to continue for hours. Nor did I confront them the next day. I merely plodded on. Every detail that I had tried so hard to make conform had been torched, observed and found wanting in their privileged midst and I would always be the outsider, not a belonger or part of the circle where talk is easy and smiles that glaze over you further amplify your self-confidence.

It was a contest of endurance that summer and although I found other outlets, even the head of the division suggested that perhaps I might prefer the sister camp for disabled kids the next summer.. One campfire night as the cool guy from London strummed his guitar, crooning from the Beatles, “Do you need anybody…?” I loudly and emphatically proclaimed, NO! The camp I had l imagined was certainly not my life raft. Did I hear a giggle close by?

A normal person might have just let the camp incidents go, but they seared my soul, branding me to myself as an outcast. I don’t think I would have gone on line as Amanda Todd did, but the feelings of rejection certainly stayed with me and coloured my actions and interactions with others for some time after. The bullying I received was not outright, subtler: the kind dropped on the naive with looks, smirks and condemnation.

The obsessiveness of my thoughts and the label, particularly from my father of sensitivity seemed to damn me further in my inability to approach or make friends and interact with others. Where I was a slightly shy toddler and friendly little girl, my experiences at school pushed me towards the edge of loneliness so that the discovery of another little girl in the lane next door to my house stood in as a convenient prop to walk with to school so at least I might appear to have a friend, even as she was as ostracized as I.

As I write this I reflect I am again making too much of this, being too sensitive, that perhaps it is only in memory that I felt myself so alone, for I can easily picture myself as a little girl fairly content, involved in art classes, going to the show on Saturdays with my cousins, hanging out with them, being my parents’ daughter. Perhaps too I am overlaying this blog with too much “ sensitivity” , standing back as an adult and sifting through moments that have arisen to enable me to review my years growing up. What do I make of the image of myself as a little girl curled up on the sofa, always troubling with a scab, quiet, not really withdrawn, but quiet and introspective. Or in the blurry photo posed with my only tall and gawky friend in the back lane?

As we recreate these narratives, as we try to piece together who we were, the fiction grows and entwines us with some truths, some imagined , some pure fabrications. Without documenting how we actually felt at a particular moment, we cannot remember every event  or thought,only conjecture the event with what we think we might have felt. Yet I do strongly remember the pistachios and the girls in my cabin. But those were single incidents, not the overall symphony of my life.And in the midst of this, my mother, too, making wise suggestions or planning events to help integrate me into groups. A not always perfect person but an insightful support who tried to smooth out the  awkwardness of growing up.

When I think of my life at this standpoint, I can see in context the rollercoaster ride of adolescent angst, one that thankfully eventually passes as you begin to comprehend the mentality of the herd, the gift of sensitivity that allows you to see deeply and intensely, and light your way to relationships of meaning. The hard part is getting past those teenage years, waiting them out and learning to accept yourself, and discover how your special qualities work or do not work with others, re-evaluating what you once believed important. As Emerson and many others once said, “ Know thyself’- even if it takes years to do so.

Where is home and how do we get there?

Like one million others last year, my daughter who lives in Pennsylvania had been without heat and power for three or more days. It’s no joke with a seven month baby.

Unable to locate a hotel room, her small family moved in with an aunt and uncle, taking over their daughter’s room. My daughter felt badly putting cousin Catharine out of her bed so they moved on, seeking another place to stay. Fortunately their wonderful babysitter offered refuge to not only my daughter’s family but also to their pets.

As disruption continued on, my girl wrote,” I had a sad realization last night that I don’t know where home is anymore—our house didn’t feel like it. Home in Toronto isn’t the same anymore…I just felt so lonely and sad—despite the fact that there are so many people who have reached out to care for us…”

This put me in mind of a question that focuses the writer’s, J.M. Coetzee’s work,

Where is home? And how do you get there?

I responded to my daughter that home is not a place, but a feeling where one knows security and love, yet I am aware that is only partly true for a house houses the minutiae that are associated with memories of who we are, where we have been and where we might go. It is a tangible extension of ourselves. And for me, connotes Jean-Paul Sartre’s thoughts on why we are unable to toss the old toys and items we grew up with when we were mere tots: having a relationship with those items provides a snapshot of ourselves- that we have a particular history- at a variety of stages in our own lives.

When I look around my own living room, I see the numerous photos that line the walls: of children and grandchildren at various points in their lives. I see objects such as a beaded horse brought back from Botswana; and the painting of purple and orange rocks and three blown pine trees that Howard commissioned for my 60th birthday. My eyes linger on us in wet suits just before we plunged into the waters of The Great Barrier Reef. I notice a smiling group of my children as young adults, smartly dressed with me at the center. I reflect on the pink walls of that room that were thought so bold but, so beautiful, and I recall that the seemingly impossible hotness of colour cured down.

I focus on our little grey nook in the kitchen with the huge uncovered windows where I sit and paint and write. My son-in-law admonishes me to cover them because we roast in the summer. I give a nod to the tiny red leatherette nook in my first childhood home when I was a curly headed child on Glengarry and imagine that the two nooks are linked to positive feelings of food and family.

I note the brown carpeted steps that connect up and downstairs in our home where children and grandchildren bounced off their bums before cautiously learning to navigate the small drops and eventually proclaim “I did it.” To our applause, of course.

A place becomes imbued with so much. And being removed from it is hard.

There is that famous question: if you had to leave your house immediately, what would you take with you? This was the fate of so many people during the holocaust. And what would YOU grab in your panic, your head spinning? Likely you might frantically locate something warm like a sweater or a coat; maybe money with which to barter, and for sure, a ring or photos of your loved ones. Book after book reminds us of the worn images tucked into a tattered shoe or secreted in a body fold that enabled a survivor to make it through dark passages and hopeless days.

Homes for writers, perhaps are a means to discover a sense of where their characters fit, where they can slump comfortably and rest and cease from their journeys or quests. The outward appearance and colours of a bedroom might suggest the inner sanctum or perpetual turmoil of their protagonists. A context substantiates clues of personality badly obfuscated.

The expression by Thomas Wolf, you can never go home again, is apt because everything changes. Although we might wish for the constants of a mother’s loving cuddle or joyous whoop of a dog as we enter through a door, these are only bits savoured and pasted into our hearts, fragments from a time before, that we may have idealized and cemented into our mind’s record book. The notion of home cannot be recaptured- only in memory can “home” remain fixed, and, thus, fantastical.

Yet, the thoughts and familiar objects we associate with home likely persist as signposts to feelings of acceptance and love, or ones we associate with belonging.

Today as I edit and rewrite this, the newspaper recounts stories of Nepal’s shattered lives due to earthquake and World Vision implores us to help; and Baltimore’s unrest shouts of unfathomable destruction and unrest in secure harbours where people can no longer return, meager habitations dashed where once they fragilely ensured respites from the day’s pains.

In our deepest and darkest of hearts, we carry the first nomads with us, the hunters and gatherers who searched for protection and safety from the elements, and our being homeless enjoins us with our primordial ancestors who knew the bitter cold, the need for fire and friendship to survive. We are terrified to encounter face to face our restless roots, fearing a return to that state of peril.

More than that, for us, there is a baby unsettled by missing the rituals of a morning schedule and his cosy crib and Dano, the massive dog, licking the baby’s chubby limbs. Yet with his mother, my daughter and his father, he must intuit the security that he is cherished, protected, held and loved in the most of unstable circumstances.

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