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Archive for the month “February, 2019”

Where is Mummy?

I write for a magazine in San Diego. It’s a glossy production with a wide range of topics that attempts to connect with the city’s diversity from holidays and theatrical shows to important political issues of the day. It’s left leaning and I like that. I am pleased to be listed on their roster of writers. And when the major Jewish holidays arise, the editor invites me to produce something on Rosh Hashana, Chanukah and Passover.

For the last four years,I have contributed articles that deal with family, but I actually worried about this year’s request. After scouring my mind, wanting to add something new, cull a deeper memory from my treasure trove of family gatherings, I felt I had reached the end. But as luck would have it, we met with a cousin of Howard’s who commented on the role of water in Passover.In our reunion, she mentioned the role of water at Passover.” Water?”, I query. “ Yes”, she retorted, surprised, amazed I hadn’t considered it before. She enumerated, “Moses was found in the water…the ten plagues where water is turned to blood…the Red Sea parting so we could escape from Egypt…travellers thirsty in the desert, that according to the Midrash, are sated by water from Miriam’s miraculous well…we dip our greens in salt water…and we wash our hands often with water during the Seder…”

I demure at her wealth of examples, for my mind had always fastened on the symbols on the Seder plate, not water. A new perspective refreshes my thoughts, uniting the past, the present and the future . For even now I reflect on the wondrous bounty of water here, especially when we returned from some spots in Africa and Asia: where in most places in North America ,one can turn in a tap, and miraculously water flows and you can drink or bathe without fear. Once you experience water that comes out of a faucet, not gathered in the street or in a rain barrel, you never again take it for granted, marvelling at the luck of feeling it stream over your body or the availability of sippping it when thirsty.

And this new thought did in deed trigger fresh ideas although the old standbys of our family gatherings, freedom, the diaspora, but especially- again- the food set me writing so I found I could in deed build an article for the magazine. Yet rereading my words, I was struck by the absence of the central figure in the holiday: my mother. My mother, dead tired from the preparation and with no help at all, still greeted us with a smile at the door, took the babies from our arms, hugged us with “ Yom Tov”, returned to the kitchen, set the table with the Rosenthal China ( used only only holidays), served, cleaned up, played with the children, mentioned her aching legs, bid us good night and dragged herself to bed. My mother the queenpin, both emotionally and physically, was not mentioned in my piece.

And I wondered why.

It has been more than five years since her passing and most days she is the angel on my shoulder, chatting with her, hearing her views, receiving her insights, both good and bad. But as we move away from the trauma of a beloved’s death in time, the picture becomes more balanced, and we see both the good and the bad of our parents. In deed I marvelled that as my mother grew older she could cast my grandmother, the unyielding matriarch, terrible and repressive to my own mother’s growing up : as a woman herself overwhelmed with caring for every landsman from Poland off the boat whom my grandfather encountered on the street and dragged home for shelter and food.

My mother’s observations of her mother had softened as she herself aged, comprehending the burdens my grandmother must have endured, torn from a position of wealth and esteem in Europe to the place of a servant here in Canada: bereft of parents, cousins, familiar cousins, with no welcoming landscape of home. Arguing to reinstate what I had experienced myself such as choice indictments as “ Send her to commercial” or her harsh disregard of a African violet on (Grand)mother’s Day and my mother’s own longing for an education, a maternal cuddle or simple word of praise, I rejected her kind words of my buby. My mother’s renewed revisionist thoughts perplexed me, but perhaps she had fashioned a vision to sustain herself.

For me, it was the opposite as although my mother had sustained and supported me in so many ways, I felt angered by her casting me as “pretty” to my sister’s “ smart”, polarizing us from our earliest days into enemy camps, both of us hungering even now for the opposite’s description: my deep need to prove I was more than my façade, yet obsessed with my outer appearance. My mother’s words dictating and describing me burned into my sense of self.

And perhaps worse yet, her passing on of humongous fears and paralyzingly worries that went beyond the Jewish stereotype of the Jewish mother. And yet I’m fully aware of her terrible life, first as an abused daughter, then the wife of a polio victim, unaided by family, who like The Little Red Hen, she often quoted, “ did it herself.”.And yes, she did it all herself- and did it incredibly well. A rooster who soothed our feathers and created a world of safety. And as I write this, I feel the guilt of betraying my mother ,for she achieved so much, always lamenting her own lack of education viewed as frivolous and stupid by her mother, considered the family’s ugly duckling, so much taken away in her own life.

And yes, as a mother, I know you never get it right: that the overhanging grapes of your past can shade and sour your soul and just as you rage at your mother, you castigate yourself for the errors, omissions, lost moments you wish you had seized or alternately let go. But as you age, you reflect on, acknowledge your life, regret or embrace, and you realize how central a role your parents, your guardians play and it is so easy to blame or alternately laud them, praising or damning them to the extreme.

And because I loved my mother so deeply and knew the central stabilizing place is not just Passover, but our broken lives, I was amazed that in my piece for the magazine she was no where to be found. This surprised and bothered me immensely. Where was mummy?

Was I finding the balanced picture, locating my resentment, rationalizing, empathizing with her as an older woman? Had I lost her in the swell of tumultuous memories?

Or maybe, more accurately, in the Passover that is coming soon, I knew in my heart of hearts, she would be absent, not present to hold it all together, to bind us by her presence, to reach out at the door and hug me close, kissing the dear heads of the children and grandchildren waiting in a knot for her welcome. And my subconscious knew what my conscious mind this year could not accept.

Educated

Bourgeois families come with certain expectations: that parents take care of their children, providing supports such as education, guidance, health , outlook, well being, especially in the 21 st century. Yet Tara Westover’s family might herald from Oz as the reader visits a world where none of that can be assumed. Like Dorothy, she is searching for home because the country she has landed in is so full of distortions, that she must find a way to unlock the doors that will lead her to real life.

Born in Idaho in Buck’s Peak at the base of a mountain she calls Princess, hers is a fundamentalist Mormon family. But added to that is a bipolar father, an obedient mother, brothers and sisters who are unceasingly dominated by their bible-shouting father, so paranoid that he rejects all medical assistance along with public schooling for his children. He stocks an underground bunker for the end of the world, truly amazed when the millennium arrives unimpeded. Tara recounts,” His disappointment in his features was so childlike, for a moment I wondered how God could deny him this.”

What fascinates the reader is that three of his children actually reach out, educate themselves and earn Ph.ds, Tara’s at exalted Cambridge. All under the brutal reprimands and descending boom of their father, Gene! He is a tyrant, whether separating iron and copper, salvaging scrap, riding and ripping apart enormous machines, setting broken machines ablaze, he expects and demands the fealty of the kids, unconcerned for their ( and his own ) safety, devoutly believing the angels will protect and it is God’s will should accidents occur. With this mesmerized attitude, he constantly puts the family in harm’s way, but miraculously when brain- shattering events occur, the family survives over and over again. And more than survive, they prosper. Originally slowed by a near fatal accident on ice, the mother continues in her work as a midwife to create and sell a line of essential oils that even a pharmaceutical company is willing to pay millions of dollars for.

At the centre of the family is Tara and her education and re- education of her sense of self. She is on paper “ home-schooled”. Her gaps in knowledge so enormous that in college, she raises her hand to ask her professor what the Holocaust was. Incredibly she had prepared for college acceptance for Brigham Young, was accepted and went on to study at both Cambridge and Harvard.

Badly taunted and besieged, especially by her older brother Shawn, also severely damaged in an accident but previously having displayed signs of cruelty, instability and violence, his berating of her as a whore, her small acts of defiance, his role as henchman all besiege and colour her mind and create a schism wherein her allegiance to her family is positioned against her setting out and away from them. And yet she is constantly drawn back, a deep abiding love for her family worming itself through her. Seen as an outcast because of her desire for a liberating education, she writes, “ I could take it all back- blame Lucifer and be given a clean slate. I imagined how esteemed I would be, as a newly cleansed vessel. How loved. All I had to do was swap my memories for theirs , and I could have my family.”

In some moments, her father appears calm, even caring as when her lilting voice is a reason to perform in community plays and Gene attends, proudly acknowledging her talent as a gift from God. After many confrontations and a serious rift, Tara is startled to hear her parents who have never left the mountain are coming to Harvard to visit. Although it might be to witness the location at Palmyra, New York, of Joseph Smith’s divine beginning of Mormonism, she realizes their trip is intended to save her soul and wrestle her from Satan.Aware of the widening schisms in their perceptions between them, she confesses that when her father observed the temple there, he saw G-d. She says, “ I saw granite.”

From this point on in her memoir, the language turns stronger, reflecting the terrible fight between herself and Gene that is tearing her apart, the back and forth of her troubling thoughts of loosing all of family, the fears, the sense of herself as bad, as lost, as prodigal child set against a growing understanding of a huge world that she seeks and wants to explore. She is on the edge of a breakdown, spiralling down into her own hell.

Interestingly even her thesis, “The Family, Morality, and Social Science in Anglo- American Co- operative Thought, 1813-1890” seeks not to undermine Mormonism but provide a place for it in the “ larger human story.” Concordantly she wishes she could replicate that fit for herself, somehow locating a compromise. She tosses,” I was losing my family, and it seemed to me that there were no stories for that — no stories about what to do when loyalty to your family was somehow in conflict with loyalty to yourself. And forgiveness. I wanted a story about forgiveness that did not conflate forgiveness with reconciliation, or did not treat reconciliation as the highest form of forgiveness.”

The voice that Tara appropriates expands towards the end of her story. Through footnotes in Educated, she questions herself, wanting to ensure she tells the truth, providing other versions of the narratives she is relating, as for example in the Shawn pallet one, unable to trust herself to be the loudest or the most truthful in explaining the threats and behaviours of the Westover brood. And although it is true that we remember in our own way, it is most telling when she questions herself over Shawn’s violence, not satisfied to rely on her own or one of his former girlfriend’s accounts because both would be damaged or biased, she acknowledges. Only when the story of the girlfriend’s account is corroborated by an impartial bystander does she accept the veracity underlining her own memories. And although she allows for several anecdotes of lovingly recounted family episodes, she does not wane nostalgically. Rather in a dispassionate voice, documented by journal entries, does she present her story, not self- pityingly but seemingly straight forward. And it is chilling.

That children in today’s world can be so brutalized and made to internalize the demons that have been set upon themselves is no less than chilling. Yet when in this time, children have been put in cages and separated from their parents, I suppose anything is possible.

A Simple Compliment

I scurry to the the centre to see if my last article has been posted in the magazine I write for. After all it’s February and after culling opinions from my nieces and daughter with possibly a photograph of my grandson, I’m excited. My piece dealt with an entrepreneur who sends thousands of books around the world free every month. But because this is the month of the Jewish Film Festival in SanDiego, the magazine contains mainly reviews of the upcoming films. I’m disappointed.

But still.I flip through its pages because maybe there’s a recipe, an op ed. Last month I learned about a special kind of sheep that apparently originated from the days of Rachel and Leah called Jacob’s flock! Then I see a letter to the editor that references my own review on Paul Auster’s 4321 and my spirits soar, my toes barely touching the ground, even an hour later in downward dog in my yoga class. Less than a paragraph and my mood has altered.

Now if you knew me, you’ld know I’m not a braggart and most would say I’m pretty humble, but like most people, a few positive words go far in lifting my heart and mind.

My mother taught me the benefit of a compliment, not by lecture but by her actions. Even out to buy her groceries in a casual interchange with a cashier or even a dog walker, a person involved in an ordinary job, she would take the time and thoughtfulness to address them, always respectful, finding something upon which to remark. (Not to everyone, of course). Always sincere, a smile, too. I think of those tiny acts a lot, trying to brighten someone else’s day. Because it does make a difference.

In my painting class in La Jolla, I observe a plethora of works that range from enchantingly awful to quite wonderful. A drawing of the model in pencil catches my eye and I note it is very good so I tell the drawer and she is pleased. Although she can see with her own eyes more than a likeness, a piece that has made more of the subject than mere representation, the drawer smiles warmly and I can tell she welcomes my comment, receptive to my words. I think of how easy it is to speak a truth and have the recipient acknowledge it. And how better to actually have your forthright compliment accepted with grace, not false pride, dismissal or embarrassment- even though I am sometimes guilty myself through embarrassment of reacting that way. But for the brief interchange between she and me, its a small sparkle of sunshine that bounces off her and warms me too. The entire conversation has lasted maybe a minute or two.

Drawing is an interesting process as you need talent, truly to do something worthwhile. For most of us it’s a kind of therapy as we leave our worries, our preoccupation with ourselves and focus on “the thing”, the model: whether it be a vase or a nude. Even with practice there is a difference between technique, even excellent technique and that splash of talent that brings together form, colour, composition so the work sings, transcending the ordinary. In many cases such as in my mundane class, most participants strive towards creating the verisimilitude that approaches the feel or even actual similarity of facial features. I watch my granddaughter move to music and know there is an inborn ability that causes her body to swing just so, not awkward or cutesy, but natural. That’s how it is with art that reaches out and beyond the” Yah, that’s good!” and the woman I praise has made her work quietly resonate, all parts coalescing into a song, not just individual sweet notes- the whole as Coleridge wrote, greater than the sum.

And even though she may be secretly pleased, it’s good to hear someone echo your own thoughts. The drawer in my class does impute, making the model somehow more, and in a gesture, or my overall perception, new information is gathered, a fresh or unique understanding is gleaned. There’s that frisson, deep new knowledge afforded by the drawer’s work. In truth, artists, drawers, students of art history have been taught how to look, how to see and comprehend, understanding what the illerati scoff at with, “Any child could do that” or, “ Haha. A polar bear in a snow storm.” However, the more time one takes to look, they really do begin to see.

When I marked student essays, I was asked , “What is the difference between an A paper and a C?” When you read enough of them, you begin to see how language can be transformed to connote more, that the inclusion of figures of speech such as hyperbole, allegory, simile, alliteration can dress even the dullest sentence with style. You notice the flow of words, the argument that tickles your mind, pushing beyond the page. It just makes more of its topic. And that’s art.

And how hard is it to note to the writer, the drawer that their work has reached out to you, the reader, the viewer, the silent audience.

So I say it. And I mean it, “ That’s a lovely drawing.”

iPad Annoyance

iPads are frustrating, especially for Boomers, those who have not grown up with the technology, not to mention those of us who never felt truly comfortable with more than pen and pencil. Perhaps that is one reason I love to draw: the sweet comfort of a piece of wood held gently against my fingers or a lovely Montblanc nestled in my hand, appreciative of its design and feel: the birthday gift of a beloved son.

This morning I push the “ reply” button on my email and the responding alphabet splits into two. I’m not sure why. In all the years I’ve commandeered the tablet, this has never occurred. Has my finger slipped? Has the tablet elf decided it’s time to add a new element or prompt the appearance of an underused feature?Are you listening to me and playing with me, machine? I feel the sheer scorn of all the Millennials and their quick- fingered ilk.

I look for a way to undo this annoyance, but the arrows that go both ways only work if I want to erase or remove entire words? I write in this irritating configuration to my husband shivering in Canada, inviting his counsel. He suggests turning the machine off and on. I move to another area of the Ipad, hoping that perhaps the dreaded overused incomprehensible machine will forget that change of alphabetic setup, return to default( does it even have a default position?),hoping this pain-in-the-ass new combination will magically disappear to allow me back to the original configuration I’ve used forever . But NO! It remains fast even having spread its infestation of trouble to other locales where I must write or communicate. I return to my email. Maybe if I jump up and down three times, wish upon a glittering star, cast omens, think pink thoughts, but it’s still there. Grrrrr.

Somehow I “ wipe” the two sections together and bravo! they coalesce but into a new formation in the middle of the page, not sitting neatly at the bottom as they once did.

When I worked at OCT and even as far back as Northern Secondary School, my colleagues suggested my

perfect job would be to make things disappear on the computer because I was really really good at that. Even my tech wizard boss would scratch his head in awe and wonder at my talent, unable to retrieve documents, programs, whatever because poof! all had vanished. I made sure I had a paper copy of my thesis, fearful that this “ skill” might unexpectedly and unbidden banish years of focused research.

What also perturbs me is the Ipad’s “ thinking” that it knows the word I intend to write, not just suggesting, but obliterating my thoughts. Sometimes it provides me with unwanted suggestions, or a variety of verbs in multiple tenses. I punch in my correct word to the sneaky little demon who would usurp my machinations, but still, it insists upon actually replacing my chosen word , causing me double effort to extricate its permutation from my own. This makes me furious. It’s as if we are playing” choose a word” and the IPad not ME is in charge, reprogramming me with some rubbish expression that has nothing to do with my context or intent. And because it’s a damn machine,I cannot yell or curse at it because some moron has programmed the first three letters of pro-, for example, to give me “protest, protesters, proactive, prototype, probable, procrastination… “whatever- that slows my thoughts and interrupts my intent.

And who too taught this jerk, this computer whiz about apostrophes, the difference between its and it’s, and that every proper name also requires an apostrophe? What lessons has the programmer forgotten from their year of failing Grade 9 English on the proper use of grammar.

And even now, having at least made those two sections come together in one swoop, I must have commandeered some other feature for as I type this, those damn bars are preventing me from seeing what I am writing . Double Grrrr.

And now – alas again-it’s a fight between me and the machine as it hides what I am writing. My only recourse is to keep typing behind the encroaching alphabet bar because it is obscuring my view, yet I refuse to stop, to bend, to give in to this annoyance, this shape shifter. I pull the bar down; it stubbornly bounces back to block my view, mocking me by refusing to move. I touch the screen gently, whispering terms of endearment, wink provocatively, suppressing the desire to smash it to smitherins ( a word with which it is unfamiliar. Only that recognizable red underline used on students forever to indicate error. Mea culpa) No improvement.

Now I notice the words, my words are emerging beneath the obscuring bar. So hello!, I see you and can make my own corrections. Brave stupid word- wherein the machine can order and rearrange my concepts, blocking or reinventing what I am trying to communicate, causing me to type and retype ( not “ restyle” the word this stupid thing just replaced, and so I must retype “ retype”).

I know I am not slick, admittedly backward in fact in technology and I acknowledge some leaps and bounds in this advance in computers and iPads afford us- from Scrabble against an invisible “intermediate” opponent , Lumosity, on line meditation and new language learning, but those are the things I trigger for myself, not the remedial restorative programs all ready living in this device sitting on my lap. I want to trigger my thoughts, not request corrections or reinterpretation from a blockhead god whose “mind” has all ready been set, set to react to a few incipient letters of a word not fully formed, prefixes of a handful of consonants and vowels. When I put something down on this ersatz paper, I don’t want it interrupted so that my consciousness must correct another’s versions of what I am going to say, arrest my flow, yes my flow of verbiage that I may decide to correct, but I want to own that privilege.

I suppose there is some way to unprogram and rebuke this expensive piece of trash that apparently knows my thoughts better than I, attempting to obliterate my writing persona. But should I turn this bad boy upside down, shake it, bang at its buttons, scream at it( totally useless), it may make everything disappear and perhaps, only perhaps I might be worse off. Of course, I could retire to my desk with luxurious pen and pencil once again, but then, aside from snail mail, how could I tell my followers about my weekly rage?

And now that we know early use and exposure to this kind of technology will in deed impede the development of young children, how too it is not raising the blood pressure of the boomers, extending a reason to delegate this invention to the closet with our old shoes and retro clothes?. A strange contraption this and yet I reluctantly admit I have become its slave as I constantly seek its company, like a friend I’ld rather drop and yet to which I am attracted by what they offer in the way of entertainment, puzzle and stimulation, enlarging my world while captivating me with its charms, an evil witch full of tricks and tribulations, bamboozling, erasing my thoughts with their own. Moving forward we are drawn back into the realm of the shamen( no Ipad, not “ shaken”), my plural for shaman. Or does no word exist for you?

More magic , less reason and razzledazzle from the creators who spawned us. What else does the future hold to control and perturb us?

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