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Archive for the month “January, 2016”

Fates and Furies

It seemed that everywhere I turned, someone was reading or talking about Fates and Furies. So I too began the book, but was soon put off, feeling it resembled light porn – or what I imagined “ light porn” to be. I complained to my friend Anne who lectures to a book group in Rosedale . Anne my dearest friend whose earlier career demonstrated that she could enchant the dullest student with her classes in literature. So if Anne found merit in the book, I too would persevere, grin and bear it as the couplings continued- on sweaty breasts, on exposed bums in uncomfortable locales, in closets,well you get the idea. So I continued and admit in the end,I did enjoy it.

In a NPR interview with Terry Gross, critic Maureen Corrigan suggests that Lotto and Mathilde , the dual parts of the marriage in Fates and Furies are “ not fully realized”. And although I admit that I eventually found the book a page turner, I stood at the doorway, and detachedly observed them through a windowpane or a mirror perhaps, their liveliness refracted, distorted. Only when Anne sent me this quotation regarding the writing did I relax and NOT expect them to be“ real”.  

Anne wrote ,

            “….except from the NYTimes review which attracted me ( Anne) to the novel in the first place:

Groff — — displays an exquisite sense of how best to use literary (and other) traditions and ­predecessors. Not only does she prominently rely on the classical concepts of the Fates and the Furies…”

And so the romp with Lotto and Mathilde became something very differently than first anticipated from the initial encounters of flesh and blood characters . The story of the Satterwhite marriage from each member’s perspectives becomes a created piece where first, the husband, the golden boy , the quester, destined for greatness, even the presidency, has been foretold in the stars– or at least by his father, Gawain. He begins the narration in Fates. Eventually the wife, Mathilde, reveals her part in the relationship. Groff foreshadows that the marriage will be the real story here: 

 …He imagined a lifetime of making love on the beach until they were one of those ancient pairs speed-walking in the morning, skin like lacquered walnut meat…. Between his skin and hers, there was the smallest of spaces, barely enough for air, for the slick of sweat, now chilling. Even still, a third person, their marriage, had slid in.

Lotto’s thoughts of a future, love, sex and a sense of the romantic work towards understanding his idealized view, even as the couple will harden into little nuts intertwined in a marriage that will be more than a thought, but an actual living presence that maintains them as a couple for decades.Endowed with the stereotypical characteristics of the hero, Lotto, short for Lancelot, our Prince Charming, is taller exceeding 6 foot, and more charming than most mortals, heir to a fortune, excelling in sports and academics as an adolescent. He stands above the crowd, especially women,who are drawn to him like fireflies; he shines. 

He has the feel of Jay from The Great Gatsby, ripe for the American Dream to propel him into greatness .Made rich by his father bottling Florida’s water, even the metaphor works for Lotto himself who is perhaps more package than essence.Yet, soon he is disinherited by his mother who does not approve of his marriage. Riches to rags, Lotto is forced to find his own path to success. With the grand support of his wife, they live on barely nothing, church mice who make do with crumbs but are buoyed by their love, their marriage. 

Although mediocre as an actor and often depressed, Lotto apparently excels as a playwright, drawing on his own Tennessee Williams’ background of overstuffed “ Muvva” as fodder for his brilliance. Entitled The Springs, his first play connotes for images of freshness or beginnings along with hints from Alexander Pope’s Essay on Man, 

Hope springs eternal in the human breast; 

Man never is, but always to be blessed

 Cliché meets cliché. To the depiction of Lotto depicted as “ loud and full of light”, my response catapults to Macbeth’s line 

…a poor player upon the stage

That struts and frets his hour upon the stage

And then is heard no more: it is a tale

Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,

Signifying nothing.

Although harsh in my reflections, nonetheless my mind sketches in the looming presence of the charismatic dramatist whose bright largeness hides gaps, particularly when he cannot actually substantiate the completion of his first ground- breaking play; as if the elves had come in the night to transform it, he acknowledges that he cannot remember, for dozing off from a drunken stupor. 

And yet, our boisterous hero rises.  

Supported by the startling Mathilde who appears to sacrifice herself for the brilliance of her hubby,washing, scrubbing toilets, supporting him in a very un- feminist manner, happy to be in love, she seems a cipher of self sacrifice. Much like Little Dorrit or Oliver Twist, Mathilde has an background of occluded abuse and alienation in society. Without explanation only a maudlin innuendo of a past and obscured by Lotto’s fame, Mathilde is merely backdrop. Occasionally, she retreats, appears passively aggressive as she sulks, but always returns to the side of her man. A tabula rasa, perhaps, but we let it pass because we don’t feel passionate enough about the so- called ice queen, often dressed in white, to stop and ponder. Besides which, Lotto drinks up all the light. 

However, throughout their telling of their tale, one feels caught in a fascinating web of narrative  much like the plot driven Iliad or the rise and fall of a Dickensian plot. Susanna Rustin calks Groff , “ a manipulator of information”. We silly mesmerized mortals trust and float on and above Lotto’s words, not questioning his manner of relating his triumphs because he is so obviously a narcissist, a man who does not ever cheat on his wife and who maintains loyalty to his friends.  

The story speeds on throughout his life, the reader barely able to remember the names, the places, even his well received plays that are responsible for his success. Throughout the trajectory of his good fortune, he remains unbelievably loyal to his gal, never straying. To him, she is the purest of the pure . To us, Mathilde is a pretty or interesting wallflower, easily overlooked. 

In the beginning of the novel, Mathilde is associated with sexual acts, a willing partners in the abundance of sex that becomes tedious: she, at first, remaining pure before actually committing to the act, prior to their marriage. Only when Lotto literally falls (or was he pushed?) from an airplane, does the book thankfully depart from that lightweight genre and veer into more interesting tracks. 

Although sex is pervasive throughout, it becomes more than one note after our hero’s plunge. Sex has been established as constant motif throughout Fates and Furies and naturally in marriage, its presence plays a major role. Lotto’s first real sexual encounter with Gwennie in the shadows of a fire! albeit overladen with drugs and alcohol is the reason he is dispatched to a cold New England boarding school where his life is made miserable. Even here, sexual comfort is provided by his drama teacher: a random act that perplexes our lad. 

Later with Mathilde when the continuous sex of the early days falters somewhat, the intimacy of their love continues to bolster and keeps them together much as glue that underpins badly matched parts. Their friends throughout take bets on whether the marriage will endure. It does. That the sex does not produce children wrinkles Lotto’s broad forehead, but Mathilde easily dismisses it. Explained away as a matter of luck and timing, we also accept Lotto’s buoyant delusions. 

Throughout we are aware of the meddling of gods, the Fates, who manipulate Lotto for their sport and he continues to claim the American Dream accoutrements of fame, fortune, personality cult. Hubris lays in wait. Inside the story Lotto himself commandeers the tragedies and mythologies of the Greeks, perhaps openly challenging them,even calling on Telegony and Telemachus, openly appropriating the names of the gods and their victims,and citing them as sources for his genius. His masterpiece based on Antigone will be called Antigonad. Leo, Lottos’s personal muse, and Lotto jokingly refer to their heroine as “Go”. 

Groff boldly juggles literary traditions both in and out of the narratives  and plot lines. Along with illusion, confusion, deception, disguise, misappropriation of identity that recall Shakespeare, she preloads the telling of her protagonists’ takes with the advent of irony. However, it is the stormy vacillating fickleness of the Fates that control the roller coaster ride.The presence as well of the Greek chorus in parentheses who comment for example when Lotto considers suicide, “[ True. It was not his time] “does not surprise as we have been attuned to the multiple voices, within and out  of this book. And much like the Greek chorus , we have been watchful of Lotto’s hamartia, blinding trust, awaiting the fall of our victims dangling from Groff’s pen.

And in deed, the serpents in the nest reveal themselves to be those closest and most trusted by Lotto: Chollie, brother of dead Gwennie; and the beloved wife, Mathilde. Lotto’s relationship with Chollie from Lotto’s early years stands as the gargoyle to the prince, we often wondering why the closeness endures once boys become men and the travesties of the past are quieted by Lotto’s brilliant life of international success. Consistently described in repulsive terms of behaviour, clothing, demeanour, Chollie might have slipped away to return later to deliver his horrifying revelations to Lotto. Instead he steadfastly  clings to Lotto’s side.  

The one other “ true” friend is Leo Sen, the young genius, compelling, but strange. He too will disillusion Lotto. Wounded by Sen’s misunderstanding of the music to be set to Lotto’s opera, Lotto retreats to drink and ponder. When Lotto reveals to Leo that the music is all wrong, Leo is shattered. He leaves. He dies. Lotto returns to the arms of Mathilde for comfort. When Chollie confides Mathilde’s terrible past, the Fates smile their terrible smiles and we, readers, await the final blow to their hero who purged of his illusions must comply with his fate and die. 

The second part of the book, Furies, gives us ‘Mathilde’s ( born Aurelie) life, truly an ugly fairytale. At her core, she is ice, responsible for inflicting pain and possibly death. I even wondered if she had wrecked vengeance on poor Leo for disappointing Lotto. Like Moll Flanders and many other hapless heroines such as Julia Roberts in Pretty woman before her, she prostitutes herself in order to go to Vasar. A witch, a siren, never an innocent, she is surprised by the true passion and love that wrench her heart for Lotto. She can rationalize that she has not lied to her love, just never filled in the holes of her entire story. 

Yet when Chollie reveals to her that he finally unburdened himself to Lotto about her position as sexual protégé with Ariel,  her twice over employer who funded her education, she is furious, vengeful. Lotto is dead but she hates that he has died, the blinders having been removed from his eyes, their dream of a perfect marriage dispelled. She has become a hermit, ragged, rude, only leaving the house to engage in sexual acts with strangers. Again pervasive sex is at the heart of the theme that winds in and out of this marriage. When Mathilde hires an attractive private detective to discern how Chollie has so quickly amassed his fortune so she can ruin him, Groff’s description foreshadows that a sexual encounter between them will occur. 

In a not very convincing manner, Mathilde’s desire to ruin Chollie for destroying Lotto’s sense of their perfect marriage dissipates: and again the Greek Oedipus fate of sleeping with both one’s spouse and child is evoked as the reason for appeasement. That the person’s name is Land feels about the same as someone whose name is lotto, all connotations begging to be acknowledged. 

For me, this book was obviously not believable, but fun to read. Like Romeo and Juliet, these “star- crossed lovers” have a marriage that was far from ideal. The disparity between reality and illusion is vast,yet isn’t that where love lives?:in our illusions ( likely and hopefully not as vast as in our protagonists’).Here it is the blindfold obscuring both fate and furies, allowing for a marriage that has endured and must have provided succour, keeping them together during the better and worse parts of their vows. Had our Lancelot lived, we wonder if the marriage would have endured now that his illusion of perfection had been pierced? And would discovering that he had a son made a difference? Unlikely . For the gods must have their due. Perhaps swallowed in a dreamy stupor, or afflicted with an( other) injury to his head, the story might have rambled into Lotto erecting a new castle.  

But Groff’s story  must culminate with the death of our hero.

It’s a fun read. Just get past the beginning sex! 

Post-literates who read 

Last week I read this quote from Russell Smith, “We are all finely attuned to the conversations in our own rooms.” On Thursday January 14 , he was writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on David Bowie and the people who were familiar with him and upon whom Bowie had had an impact, but he also addressed the fact that because we move in our own circles, we do not often hear other voices.

The same week, the Dean at Welland University in Ontario described us as a “post- literate” society, that although many of us do read to our babies and young children, few are readers themselves, not modelling that joy and interest of books beyond babyhood.Leah McLaren as well in her column decried the sanitized children’s books where original stories had been turned saccharine so as not to upset the fragile little ones and give them the illusion that everything will in deed turn out right in their world. What occurred to me was Bruno Bettleheim’s work on The Uses of Enchantment : that we do need the witches, the shivers, the scaries for multiple reasons.All these probing discussions on books cheered me and I enjoyed reading the diverse voices, albeit all coming from pretty much the same orbit. 

When I introduced my post-colonial class at Northern Secondary School, I did endeavour to elicit those “other “voices. I required the students to interview a grandparent or immigrant who had come from another country: so as to share experiences from another time and place. Because adolescents are so insular, they rarely go beyond their own head space except for videos or their headphones or their buds so they also tend to communicate within their own group. More than twenty years ago, books from Africa, India or even South America were akin to falling off the edge of the world and entering a dark hole. One parent shockingly referred to this study as “ primitive”, scolding me for this program that would not aid her daughter in university.But even then I was mindful that our world does not end at the boundaries of our local neighbourhoods. 

When teaching back then, I encountered wonderful narratives from students who actually dialogued with the old lady in the corner, the distant cousin from Scotland, the Auschwitz survivor, enquiring not only about their roots, but learning about new contexts. Separating the oldies from the wallpaper cast their progenitors in new lights as the true purpose of the exercise was to discover how similar we are to others, kin or not:how we all share in the human condition, our fears, our joys, our funny quirks that often pass from generation to generation.  

Of course, we also read the indigenous voices from Africa and India and South America. Speaking from your own tongue is so different from a Hollywood filmmaker or screenwriter who thinks they are transcribing the indigenous words of the original speaker. We did, I will admit, view Out of Africa and Cry Freedom from the sympathetic white (wo) man’s perspective. Yet I did recognize the need to listen and truly hear the language and message of the writers  themselves : Chinua Achebe, Marquez…And when books from those “ other” countries became sexy and desirable literature, I applauded that.

Interestingly, how popular even Downton Abbey has become now: a different time, set and divided classes, but spirited people in textured settings that promulgate information, apparently highly and accurately researched, extending our knowledge of the concerns, anxieties, lives lived many generations ago,but perhaps we have always envied the rich who float on a cloud of servants much like a fairytale.  And did not Moll Flanders and Becky Thatcher not tickle us as well?

And yes, it is our own circle who is watching the soon to end beautiful production that makes us voyeurs to an impossible lifestyle unless you were an aristocrat, born or married wealthy , now a tech genius, winner of the Powerball… We chortle with our friends who  set the clock for Sunday’s  production to observe the antics of the cast that engrossed us so we can mull it over with them on Monday. Still it charges our imaginations , and after Carson’s wedding to Mrs. Hughes, we all smiled sweetly in our sleep : that even the servants can have a beautiful wedding. Ahhh- in spite of Lady Mary’s insistence on celebrating her way, quiet, prim, determined Mrs. Hughes managed the wedding she wanted. 

Today video and television and Internet transports us , but a book remains for me primarily a treasure, a magic carpet.  

In terms of Leah McLaren’s point, I think of the stories I’ve shared with all of my grandchildren. Benny Bakes a Cake is a book I begin to tell them at 18 months. It is a very simple narrative.On Benny’s birthday ,he and his mother bake a cake to honour the day. However, Ralph the dog with his lolling roiling tongue, has been sitting at Benny’s feet during the entire process and when Momma removes her apron for a walk, Ralph dislodges the cake from the table. Poor Benny, for he cries and cries and cries and cannot stop.  

When I first present the story, the kids enjoy the simplicity, the few words, the clear drawings and they recognize “ birthday” and “ cake” and they join in the birthday song when Benny’s father arrives with a store bought cake to save the day. However, as they deepen their understanding , mature, get older, they begin to comprehend the catastrophe in the narrative. I will never forget the look of horror on my grandson Carter’s face when he realized that Ralph had destroyed the cake and there it lay in a disheveled mess on the floor. That moment of insight was explicit in Carter’s eyes, an epiphany that life can go wrong -even with one’s beloved dog on the most special of days. 

McLaren also examines the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day . It is in deed a very bad day , for little Alexander, one of three brothers, narrates his sad tale of his mother forgetting to put a desert in his lunch, his teachers’ criticism of his artwork,the dentist finding a cavity and Alexander having to purchase all white running shoes when his brothers dance about and taunt him in their lively striped ones. This is another book I have shared with the grandkids.  

When I read it to Aaron, Carter’s younger brother, he followed and was very perturbed. He got the individual fragments and the overall theme: of the very bad day. But he implored me to put the book away, his face, too, revealing a connection to a child’s life ( Aaron at 4 years of age) that can be unsettling and troubling. He did not however, understand that there will be days like this and good days will follow the bad. So we will read it again when he is older and make sense of the entire tale.These moments that pierce the child’s ego are important: that the story is NOT occurring in their own lives, but it is recognizable: buildings bridges to a familiar reality. As they snuggle in close to the person who can reassure them, they are learning that yes, bad things happen but good days will follow. We cannot erase the bad from life -which will occur no matter how much cotton padding we use to muffle it, but the lesson to be embraced is that we can find ways to cope and move on, discovering solutions, good sunny things that can cause us to break out into song; or decide not to abandon all hope and move to Australia. 

Loved ones reading to their kids, cuddling close or preparing them for sleepy time are likely reliving their own delight in sharing something significant as they,too ,recapture a moment of love transmitted from their own weary parents at day’s end. I think that is why books like Babar and Madeleine and her appendix operation( talk about terrifying)and silly Curious George have endured forever.They remain part of a song of golden babyhood where love prevailed and engendered precious relationships. Besides which, the child under quilts and coverlets, exhausted from a day of raucous play presents themselves as relaxed, affable and not ready to bound on to the next activity.And if fresh from the tub, s/he also smells that delightful child smell. Warmly fastened in bed and surrounded by a circle of stuffed toys, they appear the picture of Hallmark card of perfect childhood. 

I hope that we don’t settle into a truly post literate world, for a book offers so much- to adults as well as to developing children. Plus one hopes that the memories created by this special time will surface to spark the adult to rekindle their own desire to engage with new voices and be transported back or forward into new worlds of wonder. I think Tennyson said it best in Ulysses, 

       Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

  Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades 

 For ever and for ever when I move. (19–21)

On Nervousness

My mother always ruminated on her nervousness. She had a condition , noticeable in a number of people in her family- likely from intermarriage in the Polish shetl. She referred to it as Familial Tremor. She shook, sometimes worse at times than other, apologizing that it was her nerves that exacerbated the uncontrollable motions. She could laugh when a clerk might ask her if she wanted anything more. She would lower her eyes, smile ,,self reproach, and say no, but her head would bob up and down yes, leaving clerks very confused and my mother embarrassed.

Often she said she preferred not to go out because of how she felt herself perceived and misunderstood, and yet I never knew her not to take the opportunity to meet, greet or be with people. She would always be upset that her body betrayed her and truly she could not control what was made worse by her “ nerves”. Often I did observe “ her shakes” as she referred to them, but we love our mothers for their sagging jowls, rambling words, knitted brows: in other words, it is their essence, not their appearance. The shakes did not bother me, but they were the bane of my mother’s existence. My mother felt plagued by her condition, a mouse caught in a spider’s web that wrapped its web around her.

Although I do not thankfully share her shakes, I do own that feeling of nervousness that sends blood pounding to my ears and causing my frigid fingers to tremble. I experience internal quivers. Just this morning when a lunch date was moved to a new location, I felt that inner queasiness. Yes, I goggled the location, and it is not far, but the terror of being lost, out on a limb somehow terrifies me.  

As a girl, meandering to school, I would select new routes , content to be lost, gathering pretty flowers from front gardens that I bestowed on my teachers. Not caring if I were late for class, always on the look out for a fresh way to avoid the boring walk to and from school. I was interested in the search, the ramble , anticipating the surprising and adventurous.  

At university, I worked two jobs so I could travel in Europe for the summer. A person with no sense of north-south, east- west, I was happy to board at t rain, using a eurail pass and embark and disembark wherever, carefree. I had a loose schedule knowing what countries and what cities I might choose on whim to visit. I had a return ticket that I bought at SAC at University of Toronto for $100 in 1970. But the rest was freedom. So foolhardy was I that I hitch hiked by myself – in a racing car in Italy, on a boat in the Rhine and in a huge truck in Spain. I rambled on dark streets at night by myself, always moving, exploring, unperturbed.  

However, the wings of a guardian angel must have protected me because no harm ever crossed my path, maybe the odd scare, but no serious damage.I had no sense that I might be putting myself in danger. Even now, I am aghast in my advanced age that I travelled in such a ramshackle manner, my parents, aware of my lack of spatial awareness, must have wondered if indeed I would return from three months of traveling this way or that.  

People say it was safer then. Maybe. But perhaps I was – thankfully- lucky. Now I chortle, “ I’m just not good in space!”

But since those days past, my husband would describe me as a worrier, who sees the glass half empty not full. I may demure that attitude is a stance or an amulet against the bad in the world, but that would not be totally true. Because truthfully at present, I admit to being at heart, a scaredy cat. Perhaps I am now overly conscious of actions and repercussions: of A leading to B and oh no! to dreadful C. And it is true, I do overthink. 

 The world seems full of so much evil. At Yonge and Wesley in Toronto, my friend’s cousin was knifed for no reason. My husband tells me someone with a machete jumped passersby in his building, a tourist area near the Blue Mosque in Turkey is attacked, 10 are killed. And so it goes. The availability of guns, the more disenfranchised sad lost people, the homeless…were there always, so many. Or is it the media that delightedly enhances, blood dripping from their teeth, while reporting the onslaught of terror and happenstance, making the global village a place to shiver and shake. Sometimes the focus on my breath from the meditations helps to stall the images that corrode my brains. Perhaps the Oliver Sacks brain damaged man who lived just in the moment did not have to deal with the nervousness of life. The more we are aware and sensitized, the more traumatized we become, the media extolling another hideous event that shakes our bones- or in my mother’s case, her fragile head.  

What we need is more beauty  ( and it goes without saying, less availability to guns) in our world ,a desertion from the ugly: to assuage the bad and ugly. As a girl I was drawn to the variance of flowers.Even now I notice on Facebook, people post these incredible pictures of the multicoloured plumage of birds and for some reason, find the antics of cats amusing. I am reminded of Pascal from Les Pensees who explained it is the chase, the diversion, the pursuit the process, the journey( that over over used expression) upon which we focus, not the arrival, the destination. For the end is stasis until we begin our search again. 

But sadly we cannot hide from our fears forever. In small ways, we must go out and confront the challenge. My mother did. We should, I suppose, strive to be the still point of the ever turning wheel, comprehending that nervousness will pass, and fall away like the leaves on the trees, that all people are like us, vulnerable, afraid sometimes, placated and satisfied at others.

Maybe I’ll even find that restaurant at lunch the first time. 

Being Mindful

 “ Not you,” my Pilates teacher said.” I never would have expected you to meditate”. And I almost never did. Well, sort of. Years ago, mindfulness was suggested as a way to calm my bouts of crying at the dissolution of my job and the tyranny of my boss I had so loved. But perhaps at that point in my life, I was not ready. Yet even almost ten years ago, I recall doing a perfunctory search and the times and locations did not really work for me, so I passed it by.Besides which, the furthest I had ever pursued any self help was a book that boasted it could build sister relationships.

But with the thought that a regular planned meeting meeting with an old friend could  restart our friendship,we decided to pursue a class together. However, she in all seriousness decided to opt for a three hour Mindfulness class with a shrink on Fridays ( when I paint); and I found a “ little” program at the North Y for 1 ½ hours. Truthfully, three hours seemed to be a tremendous commitment: just sitting for that extended length of time I feared daunting. 

And my little class has surprised me. I, whose idea of self-help was a cynical read of loving your sister better by a Montreal author who herself had been able to cement relations with her own sib!That had been the extent of my psychic journey, in spite of both my daughters suggesting that perhaps my outbursts of emotions could use some taming. 

The little group meets in a silent space of a room and best of all, its glass windows face a wooded hill where there are trees and squirrels and grass. It is the perfect backdrop when we close our eyes and practice the John Kabot- Zinn mountain meditation. We might almost be on a retreat in the forest, not just north of Steeles Avenue.The instructor’s voice guides us through a contrast of seasons, from streams of sudden showers to shining flowers and we sit still, listening to her voice penetrating deeper into ourselves who have become the mountain. 

Meditative body scans commence at our feet, reminding them to breath as we climb upwards towards our skulls, and eventually outwards to our world of sounds. I am a visual person so when we speak of paying attention when we are out walking, it is not a far trip , for I am always caught up in the sound of the birds hidden somewhere close, the skin on the silent stream, the unexpected duck who is chaperoning her one little duckling on the pond. I notice the withering grey of the wilting foliage and the dogs who bound ahead of their owners, off their leashes. Fortunately, there is a hidden path that winds through North Toronto : perfect for an after class ramble. Best of all, there are few journeyers, safe for the odd bounding animal and other grey- haired older ladies in coats buttoned high up their necks. 

 I reflect that my little class has, as our teacher has explained ,provided us with a variety of strategies to calm, to elevate and focus our thoughts deeper. Her explanation of external meditation makes me aware that when I am caught up in the mystery of music at a concert and I gently close my eyes and am transported beyond my physical space to the seamless unity of mind and intense body sensation of sound, I am in deed, practicing mindfulness… I straighten my back and make all the other attending patrons and distractions disappear.Only me and the music, absorbing and soothing, curling around and into my ears as I’m drawn closer or pushed further in my reverie. 

It has almost been the same for visual art as I dissolve and am swallowed into the paint , emerging refreshed and renewed, aghast that I have hands and eyes. However, instead of being surrounded in serenity and relaxation, I experience extreme wakefulness, energizing excitement as my intellect challenges me and brings to the surface learned art information , classes, critiques and criticism so that I am fully interacting and engaged with the art work.  I feel alive in the present, charged.

Now it occurs to me that there are two reactions: one involves my mind; the other involving sensations, viscerally, melting and melding . That is why the Abstract Impressionists grab me -directly by my emotions so I sink into Morris Louis’s unprimed canvas or Mark Rothko’s layers of paint. Rather than intellectualizing over the reason and technique of Da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, I am able to sweep away intruding thoughts, memories, making the screen before my eyes blank, calming my head, body, nerves, just feeling and immersing myself into the image ( or lack of same) before me. 

However, even when I have lost myself, my ego in the fullness of music or paint, my oneness must sadly dissipate. And I yearn for it, much like the Tibetan bell that signals the end of the meditation in my instructor’s room. Of course, such experiences cannot endure forever. And I am in awe that my good friend Barbara meditates a full hour a day, unlike my 10 paltry minutes that seem to leap with gladness when the voice on the internet suggests we now slowly wiggle our fingers and toes and return to the outside world. 

Once our teacher whose name( real name?) Felicity entreated us to focus on the sound of the ringing of the Tibetan bowl and I felt as if I were suspended in between the golden rungs of the bowl, shimmering and expanding out into the air. It also connoted for me biblical images as goats and sheep might be summoned by their masters in so many days passed by old weary bearded prophets or shepherds hitting a small gong. 

Mindfulness is in the news, perhaps the latest trend that has been around forever, but has finally emerged into the public vocabulary, a cute buzz word,now made legitimate rather than a Beatle fascination on the 60’s when the mop tops followed their personal gurus to India. I anticipate its meaning will be skewed as it passes into the ambiguous public domain.

Even The Baycrest Hospital in their literature proclaim mindfulness as a technique that may aid depressed and chronic pain people. Another new item addresses the topic via a headband called the Muse that will gather and focus one’s thoughts. Didn’t we all once believe we could levitate objects and power up our thoughts? From laughable kooky to money- maker, a seriousness now accompanies a product loosely based on being mindful. How ironic, I must, demure. Yet, I ruminate that perhaps meditation does calm me, and another word “ neuroplasticity” has legitimized unbelievers justifying what Tibetan monks knew so long ago. 

I converse with my friend who is a psychoanalyst and he reminds me mindfulness comes from the Buddhists who , unlike the Americans set on their ridiculous golden dream of power and finances, understood that life is about enduring and suffering and for women, it is birth, childbirth, aging and dying that form the cornerstones of existence.He comments that the documentary Queen of Versailles underlined that the accumulation of wealth does not produce the comfort and ease of living happily.We both chortle a little as living in the now may be unreasonable :as my questioning Felicity about not confronting a pain or conflict when it actually  arises, but instead walking away, calming oneself before addressing the issue actually dismisses the NOW. My friend the shrink relates an example from the recently dead psychiatrist,Oliver Sacks , whose brain- damaged patient continued to repeat the sequences of raising a cup to his lips, putting it down, questioning had he drunk-and routinely and systematically repeating the actions, never moving beyond the now. This is not what what we yearn for.

 What I enjoy about my friend Sandy the shrink is that we explore contexts, both big and small, sane and insane, tipping and tilting the picture so that we can discuss ideas from many, many perspectives. Perhaps this why his patients adore him.As always there is the paradox, the near and the far, what works , what does not. And again I am pleased that my mindfulness teacher has provided our group with diverse ways to think and cope and consider, encouraging thoughtful discussion while presenting her understanding according to her own teachers.

A few times I have thought of T.S. Elliot’s  The Wasteland, a poem, we were once required to study for our Grade 13 provincial exams so long ago. The concept of time that figured so strongly in Eliot stayed with me , along with the last line Shantil, shantil, shantil,: the peace that passeth understanding. I think this is truly the aim of mindfulness. 

They say, nothing is new under the sun. But perhaps, rather there are times when we actually hear what has been said to us time and time again, and we were not ready to listen. For some reason, unexpectedly, we hear the tap on the bowl and it calls us. 

Channukah story

When I was a girl, my mother knit hot red angora mittens and caps for my cousins for Channukah. She would sit at night, after long hours of slavish work for us and bounding upstairs, downstairs and in and out of our store, never stopping, certainly never taking a moment for herself except when overcome with exhaustion might snap at us. Perhaps it was the colour of that red- orange or maybe the soft balls of yarn that ressembled little kittens asleep that drew my lust for her knitting. I thought them the most lovely, tantalizing gifts ever and hoped I too might be given a set.

I, too, would save dimes from my allowance and puruse the shops on Eglinton during my meandering stroll to school, considering gifts for my parents. My father would always insist that Channukah was only for kids, but this tickled me as I would pull out his present, usually a beautiful ( and to my mind at $10.00) a very expensive tie, usually gray or blue. Day after day, his sole colour of shirt and pants was gray with the occasional white shirt for some family event. Never did I observe him in green, dark blue and certainly not pastels, checks or patterns. He would make a fuss over my gift and display delight at my very conservative choice which he would in deed wear. I beamed with happiness that I had pleased him. For my mother one year, I spied a small figurine in the window of a Hardware store. I became fascinated by the smiling little figure of a girl, swinging skirts and yellow hair. It was a breath- taking price of $9.99. My mother kept it forever and after her passing, I put it in my kitchen near the family photo of her 90th birthday. Except now the place where the plastic foliage grew there is a round of pebbles to replace the greenery.

Truthfully, I don’t recall what my parents gave my sister and myself, most likely ” gelt”. As I shivered at the bus stop at school, I would eavesdrop on the girls boasting of their new subscriptions to Vogue or trips to sunny places: Channukah gifts for the rich, at least at my school. One day, I reflected, I, too, will cekebrate with gifts on all eight days.

Occasionally my eccentric Auntie Marion would host a Channukah party, usually to my parents, especially to my father’s grumblings, “Do we have to go? ” Once she dressed up, overcome with her own laughter, at her Channukah candle decoration on her head. She possessed a sense of humour often hidden in her layers of affectation, but to me, she was very special. She handed out small gifts and droned on at length about some treat she had laboriously made that took days and days of planning. None, I do recall, ever tasted particularly great, but I played along. She was for me, my patron of the arts,who doted on me where all others found me lacking and rather dull. We were both cursed by being interested in the arts, especially visual art, a common predeliction for the bizarre when it was science, and music that were designated as the standard of and for excellence in our family.

I will never forget my mother’s face when our family arrived one Sunday unannounced at my Aunt’s home and my cousin Carol closed the door, checked with her mother and then barred us, sending us away. I once heard that my grandmother as well who had lived to see her daughter’s rise from bare existence in Sudbury with her abusive husband to comfort in Forest Hill was also only permitted by invitation. Yet should I alone arrive unexpectedly at my Aunt’s door, she greeted me warmly, inviting me in for tea, into our own private soiree where art shows from New York or recent literature from Europe might be discussed. She lovingly purchased my first set of oil paints from which I made nothing, complete with a posable figure. She encouraged me to submit my poor drawings of movie stars to Camp Interlochen for scholarship. Surely she would have known the quality, technique and subject matter unworthy, but she seemed- for some reason- to believe I had potential. Or maybe she identified with me as the family underdog. She was over the moon about our cousin Jon, a brillant medical student.

Today this is the norm:one doesn’t just drop by. One must be issued an invitation to appear at someone’s door. Perhaps, my Aunt was just ahead of her time. The days of the sheitel wherein cousins, parents, children, second cousins moved from house to house, invading and possessing one another is some grand amorphous body now disappeared, locks and privacy in its stead.

But Channukah especially for non-Jews is a confusing holiday. Mainly because it shares the month of December with Christmas. But for us, it is not a high holiday or truly a big deal. Yet, the concept of Judah Maccabee overturning the Seleucid ruler Antiochus was no mean feat. Since 175 BCE had Jewish religious practices been forbidden. Maccabee purified the defiled Temple of Jerusalem and on the 25th of Kislev (December 14, 164 BCE) restored the service in the Temple. The reconsecration of the Temple became a permanent Jewish holiday and is still celebrated annually. So in an important resurrection of rights and freedoms, this holiday is mighty significant.

Yet for Jews it is the others, Rosh Hashana,Yom Kippur and Passover that figure more strongly. In comparison to the wars fought on the battlegrounds and in and out of the temples, these holidays are quieter- stories from the Torah, words, prayers, meditations, not uprisings, blood and miracles: except if you consider that Jews have actually endured into the 21st Century and have always been at peril, never it seems unmolested, bombed, attacked…

And why does one wonder ” gelt”. Both Chabad and Wikapedia explain, “…widespread custom of giving Chanukah gelt enabled the poor to get the money they needed for candles without feeling shame…[ As well] the Hebrew word Chanukah shares the same root as chinuch, “education.” The occupying Greek forces were determined to force Hellenism upon the Jewish population, at the expense of the ideals and commandments of the Torah…After the Greeks were defeated, it was necessary to re-educate the Jews—to reintroduce a large part of the population to Torah values. Appropriately, during Chanukah it is customary to give gelt to children as a rewards for Torah study.6…

“The Greeks did not rob the Jewish people; they attempted to infuse their possessions with Greek ideals, so that they be used for egotistical and ungodly purposes, rather than for holy pursuits. Chanukah gelt celebrates the freedom and mandate to channel material wealth toward spiritual ends.7”

Finally, to celebrate their freedom, the Hasmoneans minted national coins.[2] It may also have begun in 18th-century Eastern Europe as a token of gratitude toward religious teachers, similar to the custom of tipping service people on Christmas.[2] Wikipedia. Eventually it became customary to give coins to the children as well to encourage their Jewish studies.

For me, because the eight days usually resides in December, the time of my birthday and the occasion for all my children and grandchildren to gather at our home for dinner from parts far away, we celebrate Channukah on the 25 th. No matter if Channukah has not arrived or recently passed, we stand by the brightly glowing candles, chant our prayers, and I overwhelm the children with chocolate gelt and gifts. I think of myself as a Channukah Harry clone, bringing underwear, socks, necessary but also frivolous items to my family.

My mind returns too to Marc Chagall’s wife’s autobiography in which she describes the family meal where all have united for the holiday. The family warm, safe, together, fed and relaxed in one another’s company brought together to cekebrate the holiday, the day marked bynthe lighting of eight candles.

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