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Archive for the month “September, 2015”

What’s ( so) good about Rosh Hashana ( Part 2)

We were never shul goers in our family, strange in a sense since on both sides, the family were founders of both Beth Shalom and Adath Israel. In the latter, my grandfather’s steely haired and aristocratic looking brother lays claim to being one of the earliest presidents.

We lived across the street from the synagogue and my father, feeling betrayed by G- d when he lost the power of his legs to polio, refused to worship in the sanctified halls. Instead he would decry his credo and ethics as a good man, quietly instilling in us that a good person does not need to go to shul. And never was there a more honest, truthful or hardworking person than our father.

So growing up, In spite of having to attend Hebrew School three nights aweek, our true religious immersion consisted of the family celebrations of family feasts usually held at my grandparents house on Atlas, many children and grandchildren somehow fitting into a tiny dining room encircling a table that usually sat a handful now expanded to fit the needs of more than twenty, the men in hats, the women wearing bright lipstick and holding squirming babies. Only my grandmother after cooking and serving sat by herself in the kitchen, sucking chicken bones or just resting.

So perhaps it is the inheritance of family gatherings that has translated into my own enactment of the family meal:

I buy fish that is all ready chopped to craft my gefelte fish. I use a mixer to whip the whites of my eggs for my matzoh balls and I wonder at old stories of people who kept live fish fresh in their bathtubs for their appetizers, not wanting to think how that squirming fish was somehow subdued onto special holiday plates garnished with a medallion of carrot. I cook and freeze several weeks before, only leaving three days before the actual supper for the perishables such as potato kugel which must be made the day of. I ponder, truly amazed, how did they manage all of that exhausting work, standing, hucking, stirring, etc?

I love my Rosh Hashana table. It is set with heirlooms of my mother and grandmother, sparkling, glistening, light catching silver and treasures upon which I mount countless offerings. And always at the center there are purple orchids, pink roses and snowy dahlias, for me, the stars of the evening. The tablecloth is crisply linen and much like Downtown Abbey I try to align the forks and spoons, eyeballing them from the edge of the coordinating napkins.

When I was young, the grandkids would drop to the basement rec room at my grandparents as soon as possible , the oldest cousin ordering us around. And we adored him. Here at my table are only part of our brood because some live far away and others have not arrived into our earthly realm yet. My heart longs for those missing.

The day in synagogue also differs. Once members of a large synagogue, we have now departed, modern day nomads for a congregation led by a woman who can make any ragtag group feel like family. Whether a service is held in a gymnasium with basket ball nets festooned by garlands of flowers or in churches where the aleph bet cleverly hides Christian icons, she has magical ability to create community of diversity. We listen to two devor torahs that are so sensitive we want to wrap our arms around the speakers and hold them tenderly. My husband turns to me and whispers, These people are thoughtful; They are thinkers. Imagine the chutzpah to publicly interpret Sara’s treatment of Hagar as cruel or proclaim Avraham’s disobedience to G-d in sacrificing Yitzhak as his greatest moment, announcing that doubt in religion tempers fanaticism. I do not know any of the people who sit side by side with me but their greetings, their smiles are sincere and welcoming. I sometimes think I might join a study group here, but never do.

Yet my High holiday experience here brings me deeper into what I think a religion should be, with people who do not just repeat or spout paradigms, wagging their fingers and accepting without question the ways of the old and well troden.

Now I do not mind sitting longer, singing barely audible or nodding amicably to the participants here to whom I am joined. It is a happy pleasure I embrace every year. The blowing of shofar is long and sweet and I nod in delight, feeling this may in fact be a very good year.

A Rosh Hashana Reflection on sensitivity and growing up

Maybe it is called Writer’s Block, but lately although I happily edit my blogs, embroidering them or scratching out some, I am not finding too many new topics. Applause? I shutter to think that I re-edited a blog a few weeks ago that had all ready been published ( mea culpa, please forgive me!!!) Enough all ready, do you think? The topics I usually pick over have been dissected written about, and likely have gone longer than they should have. But in my own defense, themes and topics reappear over and over again and with –perhaps the exception of technology or new scientific discoveries- everything has been said, only to be rehashed, repackaged or a new perspectives provided by brighter( or lesser) eyes.

And it is not as if I don’t feel anything, or I am merely regurgitating. If anything I am overloaded with emotion these days so that it is practically dripping from me.

I read Rucsandra’s, my Pilates’ instructor, blog on gratitude and think her logical steps should make me shake off my anger or disillusionment in 90 seconds or so, freeing myself of angst or ennui. Yet it seems to have taken up residence like the Rosh Hashana tunes that will not depart my head for weeks, these overrunning my body, and at night leaking from my eyes.

I have always felt things intensely, my father frustrated at my being so sensitive, obviously a bad word. Even in early pictures, I am cuddled against a couch, small and separate, curly –haired and all ready introspective. No smile. My mother said she was worried about the effect my father’s polio, his disappearance to Riverdale Hospital might have on me as a child. I seem to have weathered it better than my sister who was unceasingly in need of his approval and love. My reaction was one of disregard, sarcasm. My own sweet personality absent replaced by bitter reaction to his absence? For always, when trying to make sense of who we are and all of our whys, we ponder nurture versus nature and likely there are equal amounts of both with likely nature putting a spin on the latter. These days, it is discussed under the term epigenics.

As an adolescent I might soar in spirits, but a subtle or even unexpected look might cause me to plummet and so I coined the expression “the bit of dust in my contact lens” to suggest that a joyful moment could be spoiled in an instant by a surprising gust of wind that interrupted or interrupted delight .And so I might be crying again. But as a teenager, I did not cut myself or act out as adolescents do today although I often chewed savagely at the inside of my cheeks.

I think I was an adolescent who felt things very very deeply. They called me Pat the Brat although my protestations were small. I laugh now to think that on returning from California at the beginning of Grade 11, my parents despaired of my change. That I tossed off words like “bitchen” and “boss” and I knew how to apply eyeliner. And that seemed to condemn me as “bad”. And my few former friends looked askance or totally ignored me for this unscrupulous behaviour. But those were the days when my cousin Allan came home to visit his girlfriend Ricky in winter, and all the family was aghast and atwitter because he dared to wear white pants in winter. My change in words and his predilection of attire sent volleys of outrage to those who preferred to condemn rather than smile, accept or extend their vision of what was appropriate: like teahats donned only at Easter parades and at bar mitzvahs.

I had supports in my adolescence: my special aunt who made me feel “sensitive” was not such a bad thing; my mucka-pucka or scribbles at art, my love of reading and my mother’s suggestion to join B’nai B’rith to socialize. I received praise from school in the realm of languages and English and so despite the horror of the social scene at Forest Hill, I did not mind going to school, even experiencing support from the Latin teacher affectionately known as “The Whip” who could reduce all the naughty confident full of themselves boys and girls to tears. How I appreciated her and the English teachers who were as strange and eccentric as I believed myself to be. My favourite was an Ichabod Crane character who wore his molars encased in a gold ring, and mesmerized us with talk of books and Broadway. Those were oases, for in the science and math classes I wished myself far far away from concepts and equations and jeers.

At university, I could wander under the arches, sit in the grassy quadrangle, flirt in the refectory. Lunch with my friends, adopt an air of insouciance, and being introverted beneath my bangs that eclipsed my eyes sheltered me so I could pretend to be sexy and knowing. There with friends and art history classes so I felt in control of my life, floating on clouds of fresh ideas and laughing chums with whom I could share. Fridays at The Coffee Mill ,the meeting place to ponder and assess the pleasure of the weekday, unconnected to the pains of the world. Except for Saturdays when I rose early because I worked in the Notions department at Eatons downtown: that was the pattern of my days. I somehow felt like the balloon that lightly drifts on the currents of soft breezes, willing to go with the streams of light and air and breath, floating, responding, just being.

It was a new and wonderful experience: to feel I belonged and to have friends at university, truly the wonder of my short life so far. I don’t know if it was the times , the hippie seventies of carefreelessness or just me. At night there were my irrelevant parents who made no demands on me and during the day there was downtown, concerts or Yorkville or parties, often achieved by hitchhiking or loading into a friend’s friend’s car, and heading off in a pack . The cold winters did not seem to bother me and in spite of spending long hours in my room usually pulling out the miscreant too kinky bits of hair, I took pleasure in my existence, encased in a bubble. What was I thinking as I pretended to study: What to wear on Saturday night? Whereto travel in the summer? What time to meet my friends?

I cannot remember every minute, just an overview of pleasurable days as I recall my memories as an almost 67 year old who can romanticize or fantasize being a girl of 18 or so. And I smile to recall the freedom, the twirl of events that spun me in a cocoon of believing that life can get better and the darkness of high school had ended.

How do we become ourselves, growing into our skins? I used to think we were rather shedding all of our extra layers, a Giacometti sculpture, stretched long and lean and somewhat scary as the bones peer through, reminding me of The Who is Afraid of the Viriginia Woolf’s scene where very affectation is torn away to reveal perhaps “the horror, the horror”, the bareness, the skinny naked self when all the illusions cannot cover the thing/you itself/yourself.

Other times I reflected instead that the illusions we wrap ourselves in become who were really are, more garments of compassion and care : MORE layers we add to that core to flesh out the essence of ourselves and insight like heavy weights that slow us into more thoughtful moves and considerations. The thoughts and insights we glean or are offered by others that add to our understanding of human nature. Like my elder daughter’s or mother’s admonishments that now make me think before I speak thoughtlessly.

I suppose in the end, it hardly matters . We are, we act, we behave and people we love accept , restrict , remonstrate and usually forgive us and we try all again, all Sysiphusians attempting to get up that damn hill, only to fall back. Trying to balance the good , the bad and the ugly every day. Sensitive, joyful, accepting, pondering: the scheme of things

Young and Foolish in Mexico

“Did that really happen?” I query. She stares at me a bit amazed. “Don’t you remember we stayed with the Colla family in Cuernavaca at the beginning? We got the connection from a friend here in Toronto?”

No, I don’t recall the family although I do remember we did start our trip in Mexico there. I’m wondering why some events have been emblazoned in my mind while others are mere shadows, misty wisps of a street or the feel of the heat in a market where flies buzzed around rotting fruit.

We’re sitting at her table and handling old photos permanently stuck in one of those old albums. I’ve tried to dislocate mine but they tear and the surrounding stickiness of the pages has turned yellow and brown with age. Yet the images captured of us as girls are clear. My black pigtails hang to my waist; her brownish pony tail is long and thick. We are young and slim, in some wearing modest bathing suits surrounded by smiling young men.

Through a series of coincidences I have stumbled back into a relationship with S, my best friend from high school: a person I have not seen in 42 years. And here we now sit in her house, chatting as if the years separating us had not occurred. We appraise one another now, more mature ladies than we once were. More wrinkles, rounder bodies. We are tentative, careful as we examine these vestiges from our past life.

She shows me a grouping of mummified bodies displayed in Guanajuato and I cannot recall visiting the actual corpses, only the macabre  candies sold outside on the street: a variety of sugar skeletons on sticks.

“And remember how we met a guy on the beach and later that night we received a note to bring his boots to the jail in Puerta Vallarta?” I cringe at the memory of two very naive young women who blithely nodded their heads yes, picking up the boots from the concierge and deciding to drop them at the jail before dinner. We spoke a little Spanish so we felt we could manage the situation. The guards flirted a little, insisting they could not pass anything to the prisoners, but we were very cute and persistent and our reservation at the café was waiting so we pressed and eventually they nodded and after all, even people thrown into jail for not covering their hotel bills should have the benefit of foot covering, we conceded.

The prison guards said they had to check the boots first: which seemed reasonable. However, when they drew out the machete that was snuggled deep in the boot, we were speechless, fixed as bugs by pins on a board.

“This is serious”, warned a guard”…smuggling contraband to an inmate. We need to get the jefe.”

Sternly, we were informed that we must now move to an inner passage that connected the front desk to the jail where the prisoners were kept. Years later when I watched Midnight Express, I recognized the exposed dark and insidious hole where men moaned, ranted and roamed on the other side of our passage way. I realized that no one knew where we were, two travellers rambling with no fixed destinations for three weeks in Mexico. We stood and we stood, only two thin wooden doors separating us from the pit on one side and safety on the other. It felt like hours as we protested louder and angrier that we were innocent, had no knowledge of knives, had just decided to do a favour for an expat on the beach, that we wanted to leave, that we had no idea there was a concealed weapon, that we were Canadian – as if that might cleanse us of any wrongdoing.

The guards laughed sardonically and sneered at us, two silly girls, through the window of the closed door as they continued to remonstrate that we must wait for the jefe to arrive.

Did we wait for hours? Was it merely a half hour, I don’t know. Eventually I began to weep and then convulsively cry. I reached out and tentatively turned the door handle and miraculously, it was not locked -so we walked, then ran past the derisive laughter of the guards.

Both S and I recalled this memory vividly, a piece of our youth, of being innocent and young and trusting in a world where maybe it was possible for keys to unlock doors that should be locked and being able to escape terrible consequences of ill thought out actions. The story reminded me of the Frog and Toad stories I later read to my children where a staunch Frog and a querulous Toad, over a cup of tea, their hands shaking, discuss their shivers. Even 42 years later, we re-experienced that good, warm feelings of friendship.

Pondering how far is the distance between connotation and denotation and confusing and conflating much else in between

The latest thing seems to be writing on gratitude- not that is a bad thing as it doesn’t hurt anyone to pause and consider the good in our lives. But like words and phrases, “ gratitude” seems to lose its meaning as people post their reflections: on Facebook, for example, and there attach them to certain notions and expressions that have become rather hackneyed or taken for granted, even twisting original notions into strange knots.

When we worked at the College, Fred M (and he was a brilliant scholar and thinker) and I used to discuss how certain phrases no longer purveyed their original intent because the “actual” meanings had been subverted and perverted as individuals put their own spin on expressions: words such as “Post-modernism” so that we often debated what was really being spoken of, what was anticipated , or morphed from the intended term.

One of my favourites was the transformation of the word “ collaborator”. During war, to be a collaborator was a bad thing in that it meant to conspire with the enemy. Now, all children are taught to collaborate with their peers- and to co-operate when they are engaged in their daily activities. Holocaust images of women who conspired, hair rudely shorn, shouts out at me as the signs hung beneath their necks publicly proclaimed them as collaborators, heads wobbling low. A bit like Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame on a recent episode of Game of Thrones. No one would want to be called a “collaborator”!

So now I ponder what it is that “gratitude” actually means and how we have spun it into another realm of meaning. My Pilates instructor initiated her blog writing on the topic of gratitude and I complimented her on her second piece that extolled water, connecting her experiences in a communal bath with friends in Morocco. It was an exceptional piece and I told her so. She segued into revealing how writing had triggered an unexpected line of events. For example, she explained that several years had passed since she had lunched at Marche downtown with her sister and a friend, F . Deciding to frequent the restaurant with another friend who was leaving town, she was aghast to run into F again: as they had not seen one another or spoken in quite some time. And I wondered is that gratitude or coincidence or a flick of fate?

I could offer a similar story. I had been at York University immersed in a course on artists’ materials and re-creating an illuminated manuscript, even applying the gold leaf bits with egg yoke as I endeavoured to imitate original techniques. I finished the piece and presented it to my sister when she graduated from medical school. Some years later, my husband and I were in London and rambling this way and that through the British Museum, with no specific plan, in the medieval section where precious pieces were housed beneath glass. Even few days, the manuscripts and treasured books were changed, pages turned or repositioned. As we strolled casually, my eyes were drawn to something that looked vaguely familiar. As we approached closer, I gasped to note that on display was the REAL manuscript- exposed there for only a few days- in the time when I chanced to pass by in my meanderings. How was that possible? How had my path crossed that of my manuscript? Was I filled with gratitude for this sighting?

My Pilates instructor says we are on paths that take us to places. Likely it is certain words that trigger our exploration and signify signposts around which we decide to allot meaning to certain events. To this I gloomily query, then we have no free will as our journeys then appear determined by something or someone, and we are perhaps like

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

They kill us for their sport.” (William Shakespeare, King Lear).

She, my Pilates person, might say no, that we are all intertwined in the cosmos, Gaia, the personification of the Earth, one of the Greek primordial deities, the great mother of all: the primal Greek Mother Goddess; creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the Universe.

But I also reflect on those three Greek goddesses whose job it was weave, measure and cut the cloth that determine our trajectories. A fatalist, I am, perhaps! Stuck in the factory of beginning and ending the lives of just so many people as throw away garments.

All words- as we were taught in school- have both connotation and denotation, as we pad them out with our own interpretations and conjecture, layering and bundling them with more than the dictionary assigned, conflating “gratitude” with something else deeper and more mysterious. More likely, this is the work of imagination or faith or belief, for should we strip all words of their associations, we would inhabit a life of bare bones without colour or possibility. However, if we cannot trust what a word really means, are we able to communicate at all?

When I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage I structured my classes with different ideas of the Beginning, referring to male and female origins as adopted by various early societies. I found in The Chalice and the Blade (Riane Eisler 1987 ) interesting theories, some also harking back to Gaia. I recall relating to my students interpretations of the story of Rapunzel where transformations from single to multiple could also be discussed in light of the earth’s beginnings of asexual and sexual reproductions… along with ideas of communities of womanhood… and even explanations of the witch not being so witchy as she sought to protect Rapunzel from a male world.

That is the beauty of these old tales that almost call for paradoxical interpretations as an invitation to debate and conceptualization. But I also think in terms of embroidering a term, blowing it up like a balloon, stretching it beyond the literal, and losing sight of the triggering denotation.

So many concepts about where we come from, where we are going, the whys, the wherefores and perhaps ultimately how we choose to describe our own limited comprehension of our miniscule place in the scheme of things. Some might venture , hey, whatever gets you through that long dark night because we cannot live with utter simplicity.Play with your words; re-invent them; however, if we cannot agree on their meaning, we have returned to Babel: confused illiterates who cannot get the meaning of worlds because we all speak different languages and so we wander in our own small worlds.

I am not completely skeptical but hold to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous quotation of the willing suspension of disbelief -for the moment, which constitutes perhaps poetic faith and fascination with the past and language. Maybe we veer here towards the Mystics as I imagine ladies in séances poring over crystal balls and Madame Blatavsky, her Theosophists influencing Kandinsky, Mondrian and Gauguin, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum. But how far have we come when a “collaborator” is the aim of our education?

But what would life be without metaphor? As well, a fundamental belief in unity leads naturally to the further belief that all things about us are but forms or manifestations of a divine life. I ponder too the Romantic poets and their landscapes in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or The World is Too Much with Us. Certainly Wordsworth and his pals placed immense importance on mysticism. Symbolism and mythology are, as it were, the language of the poet: Wordsworth staunchly trusting in an inward eye focused to visions, infinity, the boundlessness of the opening-out of the world of our normal finite experience into the transcendental.( See The Project Gutenberg EBook of Mysticism in English Literature by Caroline F. E. Spurgeon). Often artists and poetics see so deeply into a reality hidden beneath their paints and words that enables them to light their works towards another level of existence: that happily disconnects with this sad, torrid life that is crumbling by greed, politics and pollution. Even in the times of Wordsworth and Kandinsky, an inner life provided the solitude and balm to a less than perfect society. But the populace on Facebook, plagued as well by all the burdens of everyday existence appears in their posts far from poets in using language.OMG!

Maybe we have come full circle to the notion of gratitude with which I began this string of thoughts and I end with my favourite but crazed William Blake who wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (Auguries of Innocence).

With ONLY “infinity” and “eternity” open for diverse interpretation.LOL!

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