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Archive for the month “April, 2016”

Passing thoughts on Passover

This weekend marks the beginning of Passover ( written last week ), but when my mind ruminates over the week, it is peppered by certain landmines. There is the unexpected passing of purple Prince and my sister’s mother-in-law, yet also the Queen’s 90th birthday and how we will be remembered. Watching the queen age over time from the slim attractive spritely ingénue to the well turned out dowager, I chortle at the formal portrait eclipsed by her granddaughter holding her purse. “ Granny, can I please hold your purse?” Time works its ravages. Yet Elizabeth II endures to oversee children and grandchildren. Can anyone ask for more?

My children feel I am lately maudlin and depressing, particularly in my blogs, but it is difficult to stand at this point in my life and view all that has unfolded behind, me as the protagonist in a landscape that has been so altered in almost 70 years of living. We, the boomers who would always gyrate or sway to the songs of our youth, flowers in our hair, beads jangling at our waists who would never fall to the ways of our own parents. But of course, we did and do, as time is the great leveler.

 I was always fascinated by TS. Eliot. As early as high school, we studied The Wasteland and later, it was these words in Burnt Norton of The Four Quartets that informed many papers I wrote,

Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.


The subject of time pondered by poets and prophets and philosophers. It moves like a thief: we do not see it, but feel its impact on all things human and constructed. In ways, it softens the edges of grief and helps us endure the hard times. We say, If we can only get through this day, then…It also provides us with the support of memories that endure as bulwarks , for example, of Passovers past.

Passover, the food and the grand seder meal all combine to resurrect memories. When my son, Jordan, was little, he politely confronted my father, asking if we might do the seder in English. My father in his rust-coloured sweater pondered for maybe a minute before saying, “No”. It would proceed as always. Today we use both languages, sometimes whipping through the program, but still pausing in the parts that are central: as we spill the wine for the 10 plagues; or loudly proclaiming” Daienyu- it’s enough all ready”, we proclaim together. Let the troubles end, we’ve sustained enough. Just move on-


As a child I remember the service going on interminably as I waited to be released to play and tumble with my cousins after dinner. The best was a dun-coloured raisin wine concocted by my grandmother in her basement for the event. She sat in the kitchen while we ate, sucking on chicken bones, her duties that began and concluded with the food. No Cuisinart or freezing, just lots of chopping/hucking, mincing, preparing that no doubt fostered her desire to sit quietly by herself outside the voices that rose and fell over the eternal service. No welcoming smile or loving hand, a person enclosed in herself. As I do Rosh Hashana dinner, and even with the advent of all the modern technologies to aid in cooking the meal, I now comprehend her exhaustion and desire to just decompress with her aching bones in a chair.


Yet my own mother, dead on her feet, was always present at these celebrations, a smart scarf at her neck and attempt made to “ dress up.” And she did not complain of the laborious hours spent – so that my sister and I would find something trivial to complain about until my father would eventually bark, “ Can’t you two ever get along?’


Only at the first seder after my father’s  death, was my mother seated, a guest at the seder, quiet, alone, in the sea of voices. My younger daughter for some reason that night stood to hauntingly sing “Somewhere over the Rainbow” and my son whispered, “ I miss him so much”. We were all stuck in her erry voice connected through time to my father’s missing presence.


As well at my mother’s last seder, my older daughter warmly and comfortingly curved to my mother, explaining where we were in the service, an interchange with Baba that evoked a slow smile from her precious face. These snippets of memories during those times together are set in my consciousness as I recreate and visualize my family, the ambiance of those nights.


Over the years, I heard of people at Passover who created tents in their living rooms to pretend they were traveling in the desert. Others insisted on placing something like an orange on the seder plate: one of these things is not like the others- to underline difference. Above all, the Passover story is about freedoms. I lovingly laugh at the play my grandson created for his playmates in which a mouse refuses to continue to be oppressed. He proclaims to his fellow mouselets, they can kill us, but at least we will be free. Echoes of Sunday morning Hebrew school perhaps?


This put me in mind of my teaching of the Post-colonial literature course and the book I sometimes taught “Imagining Argentina,” an award-winning novel by Lawrence Thornton. It dramatizes the Dirty War in 1970s Buenos Aires, Argentina, where the military government abducted anyone who opposed its tyrannical rule. We talked about the March of the Grandmothers in Plaza del Mayo and I showed my students the heartbreaking film, The Official Story. I used much the same line as my grandson. Stories are the same, no matter the culture, the place, the time.


Life is so much a mix of opposites with the bittersweet reminisces that remain and enliven our lives. As I look out towards my yard, it is gray and gloomy and raining and yet a robin just flew towards my window and the ducks who visit every year made a brief appearance yesterday: omens that spring is not far. So hopefully I can soon regain my sunnier outlook. Mea culpa, kids.

The coming of spring and beginnings

Sitting before me in a white clay pot is an- about- to- bud hyacinth, moss surrounding the emerging leaves. It is the promise of spring and although purchased as a small gift, I cannot part with it. It is so precious, a cone opening with its pointed green leaves that are sheltering a nest of compacted buds. I wonder what colour will eventually erupt. Purple or white are my favourites, but blue or pink will also be fine.
I’m not sure if it the advent of a new beginning with the burst of the colours of flowers, the renewal of the feeling of the sun on my shoulders and the dropping of my winter coats to the back of the cupboard, or whether it is spiritual, emotional or physical reclamation: likely all. How can one simple plant make such a difference?
This week my daughter made a difference. The online video is attached here .She and three other women spoke out in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania against the anti-abortion law. Then she followed up in a written article in The Elephant Journal. Addressing the issues through her own personal story, her public disclosures had to have cost her as they resurrected her loss, sad and terrible, one that she lives with constantly. However, she was determined to voice her perspective, honestly, earnestly with the hope that other mothers would at least be afforded the option she had. And her voice made a diffetence: as the governor did not support the bill. “This legislation would be a step back for women,” Wolf said at the press conference. “This legislation would be a huge step back for Pennsylvania. If this legislation reaches my desk, I will veto it.”

How do we get through the traumas of life?

First, we must breath. In and out, mechanically and take a step. Not simple.
I remember when my father died and I was torn by two opposing options. One to scrub him from my memory because thinking of him opened me to the fact he was gone and we could never address issues that had piqued me, such as my being too sensitive, that he favoured my sister, etc., etc…The other was to saturate myself with remembering the good times we did share, to relive the love that had passed between us on special times. Immerse myself in memories or banish them completely. One direction as painful as the other.
So I was stuck. To not move is also a decision, proclaim our Existential friends. None of this is easy. We think too much, we bury what we cannot confront. A friend whose parents were holocaust survivors explained the heavy burden she carried on her back. Tormented, she finally found that witnessing the stories of others whose experiences coalesced with her own helped. She said she didn’t know when, but suddenly she felt lighter, her backpack of pain lifted, and she could move on. And it is true, our emotions can be stones that weigh down our bodies, impacting what we do and how we behave.

The Mark Epstein book, The Trauma of Everyday Life, says we must first move through them. We are as Tennyson’s Ulysses reflected,

 …a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’
Gleams that untravell’d world…

Apart and part of all we have been, building into our psyches details, events, traumas and more so it is no surprise that our souls are filled, our human outlines fleshed out by all the accumulating phenomenon that sticks or becomes stuck to us.

I often joke, I am a bit like Teflon pot, some things sticking, others sliding away. And why is it that some sear us, other bounce and slide off our personal frying pans. In the matters of the heart, in terms of caring deeply, we do not easily slough off the arrows, the darts, the burning sensations with which life often provokes and brands us.
We are a cooked dish of flavours that is triggered by our senses: a piquant smell, the colour of a rose in bloom, the touch of fabric- all eliciting and triggering something we believed buried, bridging us in our contemporary setting to unfulfilled dreams, dark caves and unexpected memories of the soul. Although one’s mind cannot be in two places at once, we do layer experience upon experience and wrap ourselves in the past, good, bad or indifferent: for those events that have somehow pierced us and remain in our heads and hearts, although locked away, they may resurrect themselves unbidden and unexpectedly. I wonder, why this and not that? Why do I remember losing my mother’s hand in Eaton’s? And not my father gathering me to him in hug very often?

Our selective minds are usually reinforced by the happiest or saddest moments in our lives. It would be impossible to carry all the days in our heads equally. Perhaps it is a good thing that we cannot consciously carry it all around with us, and only the high and low give us pause to recount our days.


Taking Stock

I turned 68 recently. By 68, my father was dead. My husband’s father lived to half that age, but both of our mothers endured to over 90. A birthday that recalls one’s parents is an obvious site for reflection so it is not surprising that even as I blew out my candles surrounded by my family, as the candles flickered, I thought of what my father had missed by passing so young.

 Yet, in surveying my days, I am grateful for all I have experienced. Not too long ago, a friend said that she wouldn’t want to do “it” all over again. I was surprised. She had had many careers and I thought of her as a contemporary renaissance woman. She had a loving family, grandchildren, security. Without pondering, I immediately thought, I would definitely do it all again.

 I would.  

 Maybe with the insights of maturity, I would alter a few of the moments that still bristle with decisions made too quickly or unkindly. Several have to do with my kids, the others with students. For the most part, I think my decisions were sage, hopefully made with kindness and not too much because of anger. But I suppose if we started fresh, we would not own the knowledge of our mistakes, and thereby incur new ones, and growing up in different times, all would change.

 There is so much in a life, the good and bad, the high and the low. Not a startling revelation but it caused me to think of the meditation I’d heard in my Mind-Body Class ,( perhaps a second cousin to Mindfulness). I never thought of myself as the self-help kind of girl, but the time and the price were right and the topic would serve as rebuilding a bridge between my resurrected friend of 42 years, and so I engaged.

 The week I pondered engaging in this endeavor, even the Baycrest Hospital dispersed articles that linked mindfulness to neuroplasticity and John Kabat-Zinn, the guru of the movement, known by a greater number of people than I would have imagined.

 So I had located a class at the community centre and opened my head to what is becoming a trend and “ mindfulness”: a word bantered around by curious seekers. In one particular session, the instructor provided a meditation that suggests one visualizes, then inhabits, then becomes a mountain. The gist has to do with the changes of the seasons, the variety of animals that pass over the mountain, the onslaught of clouds and sunshine, and still, the mountain stays rooted, observing, unchanging, always watchful. Something felt good about that.

 Once the class finished, I tried to continue with meditations: on the internet, podcasts for 10 minutes or so, but I must admit the immediacy of having someone right beside you in the dark, focused on the voice that is guiding you, really is more powerful than the words on a machine.

 This mountain meditation made me think of Rose, the more than 80 year old from my figure drawing class. Although now suffering from disc issues, Rose pauses before she struggles up the two flights of stairs to the class on Thursdays. She says at her age, her ailments could be worse so she doesn’t complain although one can read the pain in her face. Her sparse hair is coloured and coiffed, her eyes are discretely drawn in brown pencil along with a light red lipstick that outlines her lips. She is no pushover, she smiles. She is the one who manages the models and makes the calls for the group. She exudes strength.

 One day, she confided in me that her son died at 50 and also her husband passed away quite young, and she was very depressed. But, she said, she had a choice and she decided to go on, to be happy. She said she has made a list and all the good things outweigh the bad. She says that continuing to live afforded her opportunities she had never anticipated and that she has had a good life, beamingly proud of her children and grandchildren ( all professionals, she quietly boasts with a smile). She lives alone although it is increasingly difficult, particularly the stairs, but she says they are her exercise and she attempts to maintain her mobility by climbing them daily, even pausing as she does en route to the art class. She also says she’s ready to depart this world when the time is right.

 I think of my parents, my father so young; my husband’s father so much younger: what they have missed. With both my parents, I wish I had the conversations I reflect on now- to gather their ideas, to hear and compare them to my own. Just today I read of Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbelt. The famous pair are recommending that parents and children ask one another questions about their lives, before it is too late. Both a book,The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Loss and Love and a documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid, will record their sessions. No doubt some revelations will be universal, others bizarre or beyond our daily realm.

  In San Diego, Howard and I did an art tour on the college campus. Rarely have we felt so ancient, for that world is populated by the very young and we were cast back to ourselves more than forty years ago on the U of T campus. We fretted , how has the time gone by so quickly. Once we were carefree, arrogant, making choices, setting on our paths- that have lead us here to this grassy spot. It is an overwhelming thought : to have passed so many years and to have arrived at this juncture.

 I imagine these are the thoughts of most baby boomers my age who truly believed they would never be old.




My Mother’s Fricassee

Reading my husband’s cousin’s review of recipes of those dead but dear to her reminded me of my own mother’s fricassee. Not a particularly great cook, my mother would lament that the stove that never closed properly or the store bell that would perpetually summon her just five minutes before the completion of cookies caused the ruination of her culinary prowess.
In truth she never claimed that she rivaled Julia Child or even the Galloping Gourmet, but then I imagine she was often just too tired to even to try to discover new food concoctions. What purpose would there be to experiment, especially when a long winded client might enter our store and keep her listening when she knew something might be burning in her dilapidated oven.

Yet she could often be caught in reverie or awe over her mother-in-law’s stuffed peppers or the perfect apple pies that my father so savoured from his boyhood. And the famed family chocolate was always a topic of discussion when the tetchy aunts gathered.

But food at our house, for the most part, consisted of a rather tough overcooked thinly sliced liver on Mondays with canned peas and boiled potatoes, a salad with no dressing (doesn’t need it, informed my father); hamburger on Tuesdays, but occasionally a can of Bravo tomato sauce transformed that lowly boring mess into a coveted spaghetti dinner for all but my father. My sister and I almost danced with joy. On Wednesday, a chop with more canned peas and potatoes again and the same listless salad with no dressing. The routine continued with fish on Thursdays, either halibut or white fish with The Green Giant’s peas, the potatoes and yes, the same salad. On this day, she would bounce onto the bus and head for the Penguin Fish store at Avenue Road and Eglinton , and then decide on whether she would purchase the large ( $1.10) or small ( 90 cents) chocolate cake at Margo’s cake store. Packages in hand, she would jump back on the bus and be home before noon to make my father his lunch.

Sometimes, she did something with a pressure cooker and steam thrust itself out of a hole on top of the pot, but results were not enjoyable and rather soft and brown – looking. Even my father would complain and my sister and I would scrunch our faces into distorted frowns, totally ignoring my mother’s exhaustion as she had unsuccessfully peppered our diet with something besides the repeated parade of bland foods acceptable to our father.

But- Fridays and Saturdays soared- as first, our noses detected the savoury delicious smells from the kitchen because on Friday, our mother’s secularized Shabbath, she managed to transform her ingredients- in spite of popping in and out of the store- into wonders. Her chicken soup was more than passable and treat of treats, contained little prized eggies along with lochsen/noodles. Her chicken roasted in the dark blue pan was a queen squired by carrots and potatoes glazed by Heinz’s tomato sauce. The first night was pretty good, but the leftovers still ensconced in the pot on Saturday were very, very tasty.
However, her fricassee was sublime. She said the recipe had come down to her from my father’s mother. She hand grated onions and carrots into a sauce with ketchup, adding bits of chicken parts, a quarter cup of brown sugar and water and when it bubbled, she dropped little meatballs into the mixture. Slowly cooked over several hours, the resulting taste only required soft braided yellow challa to absorb the juices.

I mentioned the fricassee to my aunt once who chortled a little and admitted that when family recipes were handed down, especially to daughter in-laws like my mother, it was not surprising for an ingredient to be kept secret, purposefully omitted, and in this case, it was the squeezes of fresh lemon to create a slightly sweet and spicy flavour, very good in cabbage rolls too, she demurred.

My mother always said the magic ingredient was not the lemon which she scoffed; it was love. So like her to say such a thing! Why was it then, that only the weekends offered food that we ate slowly and carefully and thoughtfully to pull out all the enmeshed flavours?

A relative who also reflected on her own mother’s recipes mentioned how the handwriting of her mother provided insight into her demeanour at a variety of stages in her life, the younger she was, the letters drawn firmly, confidently as she had lived. Later, the script shaky suggesting an unsure hand.

 So it was with my mother, as well, embarrassed that her perfect letters had begun to knock into one another so that a “g” might actually be a “p” or a”y”. Although not a vain woman, my mother seemed to write less and less, so annoyed that her ciphers no longer kept their integrity as individual soldiers, increasingly laxly appearing as an entire brigade at rest lolling and shifting.
I liked to imagine my mother bouncing up while we all slept soundly in our warm toasty beds to cook a chicken for a trip somewhere, usually to the States, ensuring the contents in that blue pan were well cooked before wrapping it in several layers of blankets to keep it warm on the road. The melding of the simple vegetables that just grazed the sides of the roasted chicken were celebrated under the dappled shade by the side of the road. She never complained and we never thanked her either.
We were family of set patterns, expecting without concern of the weight and responsibility it took to manage a home, store and family when our father was handicapped by polio. We thought ourselves, at least superficially, the equal of the fine girls in the rich Forest Hill houses with their country clubs and synagogues and accoutrements. We never considered that our frail, fragile mother kept us together like a spider’s web on skinny threads by her energy, devotion and nervous energy. We had no idea of the cost of those actions, and truly cared only for ourselves as girls, youths pampered by her attentions, “ her treasures”, as she referred to us.
Only as we age and mature do we pause to consider the  behaviour of our parents, our body rhythms slowing, our extremities reminding us and protesting their years of use and dis-use. Only then can we empathize and recall our upbringings as children and troubled adolescents whose interests veer far from the worries of their mothers and fathers.
Too late to enter into a discussion or smile a thank you, I suppose the acknowledgement that we had grown as they had hoped, healthy, moral, headed for a future that would be brighter than their own sufficed. My parents did not seek thanks, their desire was not for back-slapping or public declarations of the high costs of raising us as admirable humans; we were enough. Yet as I age, I wish I had had an opportunity to express or reminisce more about my mother’s tasty tomato sauce that made Tuesdays so much better, or kiss her unwrinkled face more often in silent appreciation of her sacrifices- that I believed my right, not her extreme effort: a strand of a noodle to the entire repast.


Poetry Collectives and Such

Last week I received a glorified chain letter, but with a difference. It was entitled poetry collective.Annoyed, I reflected I would not participate but I did not delete it from my machine. A few days later, coming across it again, I thought it might be a neat idea to receive a poem or two.

Now- I am not a poetry person, rather my solace is fiction and prose and narratives. Yet in my head are stored bits and pieces of poetry that rise to the surface occasionally. “Such as home is the place…”, the haunting Robert Frost poem that emerges whenever my plane lands in Toronto; or the mantra I uttered to my kids for years as we pulled into the drive way. I giggle to recall one of my courting love notes to my husband when we were seriously dating, an. e. e.cumming’s line about” I like my body when it’s with your body…”

It is a nuisance to engage in writing chain letters, but angered by my day’s events yesterday and looking for an outlet, I pounded on my computer. What poem, I ruminated , shall I send out into the world? Oppressive weather, lost earrings, changed appointment dates? A return to the slings and arrows of life in Toronto prompted William Butler Yeats’ The Second Coming. Heavy, dark and forbidding. And how perfect for angst of Easter, but truly in tune with my mindset, I remembered from my university years “ …turning and turning, the centre cannot hold”.

Was I ready to explode too?

Yup, I was feeling torn apart, angry, twisting with frustration. So I clicked on the first name in the list and sent off the poem, a bit embarrassed not to be sharing rosebuds but gloom and doom that “ the centre will not hold”. I felt heavy, my imagination clothing me in the cloak of a grim reaper, my scythe ready to slice through the encroaching darkness.

But quickly, a response returned to express :the receiver loved the poem. I thought I recognized her name and to be of my vintage so I imagined she too might have been  introduced to Yeats back at university 40 years ago. Perhaps  her awareness of stodgy intellectual love- driven Yeats was accompanied by thoughts of U of T’s grassy quadrangle, and being young and wistful and dreaming of a happy future, maybe even in a  classroom.

The next step, however was to blind copy 20 people with the request to also send out poems. I chuckled to include my list of friends from Vienna to Los Angeles, contemplating a worldwide circuit that might travel around the world spreading poetry. So maybe this wasn’t such a bad idea and my mood began to lighten, especially when I was forwarded this,”It’s a green speckle time/ my favourite time of the year/ when all the trees begin to bud/ and summertime is near”. Joyously, some qother participant, had decided to play along with his best shot, his of a burst of spring.

Alas, my damn computer refused to co- operate and I had wasted almost an hour tracking down correct configurations of email addresses. Anger rising again, I reduced the size of my list, anticipating I would bcc in smaller bits, but again, my damn computer would only send one bcc at a time. So I sent 5, thinking, maybe I’ll do this later, but almost immediately two of my respondents emailed with thanks, but no thanks, I don’t do chain letters.

 I completely understood but the idea of poetry circling the globe like children of many colours dancing was morphing into a fleeting wisp of a thought.

Just back from three months in San Diego, the incomplete chain letter fell to the back of the closet in my mind.The crashing ice storm, the appointments put off, the reassemble of one’s life back home forced itself into my head space.

Where waking up to the blue cerulean sky had awakened a positive spirit in San Diego,the grey of Toronto had reminded me of more cold bitter days until we limp in to spring -in maybe two more months or more.The enjoyable colours of birds of paradise springing wildly by the walkways en route to yoga class were replaced by rustling squirrels and one very confused robin caught in an icy downpour here.The desirability of walking out to meet the day in shirtsleeves had returned to the grumble of dashing into the car buried to the chin in multilayered beneath my winter coat and turned my smile upside down.

Double humbug. I’ld even stopped the uplifting morning meditations and felt myself the tight brown shell of a small nut. And now even poetry would not go out into the world to shake some snow from tree limbs.

I should be happy: warm, secure in my lovely house, finally reuniting with my gracious grandsons here at home. But I am yearning for the sun- not sweating by a beach, but striding out in the fresh air, feeling alive and grateful for the day.

I’m not a supporter of things American and the name Donald Trump or Ted Cruz raises my ire and makes me rage with anger that so many people can be so stupid to support these crazies. I soothe myself that our fellow Justin Trudeau although not his father’s prodigy of brilliance is,at least, demonstrating the right moves towards diversity and environment,espousing a better world. But I must wonder at opportunities in the US, and why in 3 months, five of my writing articles were accepted in a variety of publications while here in Canada, no one is interested.

And why in California, people are welcoming and smile at you, often strangers initiating conversations with no ulterior motives, and why, too, does the service industry really try to satisfy -even should you sound or look weird?I love Canada and even when my husband was offered opportunities to move or study in the states, he refused. Whenever I can, I laud our healthcare, our innovations, our society, the Eldoas.

But maybe as the tail of winter is wending through my mind and I am experiencing shadows not sunlight, I feel down, yearning for the pink buildings of La Jolla and the outside cafes for leisurely lunches with my friend Peggy. Like frog and toad, I know spring will come again, but right now as the gloomy brown day envelops my yard and the perplexed robin stands perplexed on the soggy lawn, I yearn for the purple bougenvilla at  the side of our condo.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939)       THE SECOND COMING
    Turning and turning in the widening gyre

    The falcon cannot hear the falconer;

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity.
    Surely some revelation is at hand;

    Surely the Second Coming is at hand.

    The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out

    When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi

    Troubles my sight: a waste of desert sand;

    A shape with lion body and the head of a man,

    A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,

    Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it

    Wind shadows of the indignant desert birds.
    The darkness drops again but now I know

    That twenty centuries of stony sleep

    Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,

    And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,

    Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

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