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Archive for the month “March, 2019”


Ok, I admit it. I’m hopeless when it comes to purging my drawers and cupboards.

Having returned this week from my three month sojourn in San Diego in my neat little condo( sigh), I face my house here with the thought, “ what a lot of stuff I have”.So today I decide it’s time to declutter in the kitchen and get rid of unnecessary accumulated items that I have stuffed in drawers although it seems to me in a dark memory, that I did in fact, reduce some clutter a few months ago when my friend Anne counselled me to do just 20 minutes a day of cleanup.

But when I pry open the kitchen drawer where I’ve stored so many significant pieces of my life ( why, you may wonder, the kitchen drawers???? another space to fill, I guess) ) I am awash in memories. There I observe in a tangle not only my kids’ grade five report cards offering a glimpse into who they would become, but the commencement booklets in which -in a leap that consumed ten years or so- they had fulfilled their teachers’ promises to garner outstanding achievements and student awards.

Unpacking the mess, I’m thinking that my son’s sons might get a giggle from descriptions of their dad at their present ages with comments regarding his almost illegible handwriting, his commitment to task, his improvements. So too, to add to his trajectory from boy to adult, I find a piece called Passages that I wrote the night after his wedding at the King George Hotel, and shoved into the drawer.

I had observed,

“I thought I would be cool at the wedding. I didn’t even carry a hanky! Yet when my husband and I paused midway down the aisle to greet our son, I experienced emotions I had never known. What began as a fluttering in my chest grew and grew, threatening to explode and consume my body. My sole awareness was my throbbing heart that had overtaken all of my senses, shrinking my limbs and head to leave only the sensation of pounding…

next came my two girls, stunning in cranberry gowns. But rather than a release from my throbbing heart, I felt it intensify. As a captive of my emotions, I was truly servant to them, awash in terrible, raw emotion. Minutes had stretched and elongated, binding time, place and persons into a sticky, unrelenting concoction of feeling…”

So glad am I that I did not pitch that piece from an earlier attempt to cleanup.

Now, it is true I might not still need the map of South Africa from a trip Howard and I took about 8 years ago, my certificate of teacher qualifications from 1970, or birthday and anniversary cards, handmade and store bought, both funny and sincere, some with actual photos secreted in the creases, almost all with scribbled comments, but truly, these are artifacts that document my life and pinpoint my important comings and going : the liminal exits and entrances in our family.

Along with these treasures are unpublished pieces, a most recent one on Lawren Harris, (OK, maybe two years ago), a schema for drawing the human head, some carefully bound candlesticks in bubble wrap from Israel, a balloon inflater, multicoloured pipecleaners…and a letter from William Whitehead on writer Timothy Findley’s passing, 2002. This in its envelope I note, for I had taught Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage in the 90’s, the irreverent retelling of Noah and the ark in which Lucy/ Lucifer, the crossdressing angel plays the hero to a maniacal god in the tale. So ahead of the times, so clever and compelling, Findley was, devilishly so. In response to my note, Whitehead had responded,

“ Dear Patricia

Many thanks for your warm letter, and for sharing with me your response to teaching Not Wanted on the Voyage. It was a continuing source of wonder and satisfaction to him( Findley) that the book seemed to have such an effect on young people…”

These pieces of my past illuminate my activities as a mom, a teacher, a person, and how I lead my life- one in hindsight that has fled awfully quickly. I see myself as an interesting, provocative teacher who held my students’ attention, engaging them with smiles, their intellect and curiosity peaked and their learning enhanced because of challenging literature and their thoughtful interaction with carefully posed questions and contemplations.

No doubt, one day a bulldozer will level my house of memories and beside, it is perhaps only I who cares for these amulets, my own kids totally uninterested in old projects I proffer, compiled in Grade three, or their teachers’ comments. They say, “Mom, just pitch them.”

But really I cannot, for it would be as if I had severed a foot.

I did keep journals ( these housed in bedroom drawers) when it became the fashion, but rereading those words in worn notebooks, I am cast back into gloom as I had recorded anger, outrage, sadness, the dark side of my being; or the flip side, the mere noting or listing of the tedium of daily events .The ordinariness of those entries does not interest me at present. The banal home for Facebook comments now, the personal made public : such as a funny spotted dog performing a backward leap ; or a visit to a grocery store where there were twelve kinds of olives ( oh my) ; or an important bit about how Mary borrowed my skirt and did not return it, tsk, tsk, or what to serve cousins coming for dinner, blah, blah, blah. The trivia of life. In deed, the contrast of extreme, perhaps.

My kitchen drawers’ actual pieces although many replete with emotions of pride and connection somehow feel more objective than journal entries. The clutter of papers I have collected in these drawers I am unable to disregard, the occasional thoughtful note, not effusive or hot blathering all over the page is evidence of I wrote, therefore I was, apologies to Descartes.There is distance in these writings because they are the edited product of my head and heart , a controlled closeness, not a gush of freerange consciousness, these ramblings organized and tempered because of the format; or alternatively, not by my hand at all, but collected, written by another, not me , as in graduation booklets or report cards. I can stand aside and revisit a moment I had deemed important. In deed at the time of my keeping some cherished artifact, I felt it must be stored in that kitchen drawer- the heart of my home- too precious to be tossed.

Now, I have no saw with stream of consciousness or journal writing as I believe it provides an outlet, but my issue has to do with its public publication ,and for me, the resurgence of pain it promotes that I would rather leave behind than reliving it. In contrast, this collection of memorabilia invites a revisit, a pause, a spurt of happiness.

I suppose I could be more judicious, for truly, does every luminous wrapping ribbon, whether emblazoned with the word Lindt or not, need to be saved and recycled, and what’s with the three tiny grimacing plastic chickens still in package with the heading “ Chickenrun” that my husband refused the grandkids ? Not to mention the single envelopes and shutterfly calendars whose months are described by the smiling faces of my grandchildren and their earliest forays. Long passed.

Yesterday my sister told me of a person who comes to your house and divides up “ your stuff” into piles of five, explaining one should hold an old piece of clothing and listen to hear if it speaks to you. If it does, keep it.

Well, that’s my answer, I suppose, because I still hear voices loud and clear, some even chortling with laughter.

The Sisters of the Winter Wood

I’m not a fan of fantasy and truthfully when I read the blurb of The Sisters of the Winter Wood, I wondered why I had added it to my list and who had recommended it to me.

But because we are all glued to Game of Thrones and witnessed strange transformations there and Kafka’s cockroach has survived many generations and yiddishkeit holds a fascination for me, not to mention any story about European shtetls and persecution of Jews, I began the story of Liba and Layla, daughters of the Rebbe Berman in Dubossary, a town between Moldavia and the Ukraine. Dubossary conjured for me the pictorial landscape of Marc Chagall’s Russian hometown of Vitebsk in Russia with Chassidim, travellers, farm animals and lovers.

The sisters, temporarily abandoned by Mami and Tati, as occurs in many coming- of- age novels, must fend for themselves, while the parents deal with pressing familial obligations in Kupel nearby. However before departing, Mami imparts strange information to her very different daughters, Liba, tall, dark and big-boned, and Laya, graceful and long- limbed: Liba is part bear like her father and Layla is part swan. This unsettling knowledge complicates the lives of the almost 18 and 16 year old adolescents.

With many authors, we might guffaw and stop the read immediately, but in the hands of Rossner,in spite of this being her debut novel, she has tweaked our interest and curiosity in the plight of the sisters, living at the edge of the forest, all ready not totally accepted by the town yentahs : because Mami is a convert to Judaism, not always covering her hair.

The story is told from the dual perspectives of the girls who know themselves to be Jews. They are aware of their lineage from the Berre Rebbe and the lore that has marked them as special; Tati insists that the young men in the village are not to be considered suitable marriage prospects. But in most tales of becoming, love plays a major role. Laya is enchanted by Fedir, a “ goy ” who along with his handsome brothers travel from town to town, selling fruit; their origins Rossner tells us in an Afterward, is derived from Christine Rossetti’s Goblin Market wherein the protagonists’ names also happen to be Laura and Lizzie.

Liba, too, experiences her first sexual awakenings with Dovid Meisel, the local butcher’s son, whose entire family reaches out to her. Aware and perplexed by her difference, Liba reflects, “I feel his breath on my neck and I think, we breath the same air. We are not as different as we seem…we believe in the same god, practice the same religion, like the same food, laugh at the same jokes. I want a normal family and a home where I don’t need to fear the woods around me.”

In parallel stories, the girls face infatuation and love. But along with this comes anti- semitism aroused by Fedir and the townsfolk. Based on actual events that occurred in Dubossary in March in 1903 , two non- Jewish victims were discovered drained of blood, one in a fruit garden. Often to explain terrible events in times passed, Jews were harassed, slandered, and their blame attributed to the myth that Jews baked matzoh with the blood of non- Jews. In Rossner’s novel as in the real life event, the Jews of Dubossary organized, fought back and prevented a progrom. But overhanging antisemitism was and continues to be real.

In both the truth and fiction, Jews in nearby villages were not so lucky. Five hundred in the Kishinev area were murdered, hundreds injured, their stores and homes destroyed. Between 1880-1920 there were over 1300 pogroms in the Ukraine. And in 1940, back again in Dubossary , the Nazis rounded up 600 Jews in the synagogue and burnt them. The remaining 6,000 were lead into the nearby woods and shot. Not surprisingly, Rossner dreamed of the ghosts of the town, personally effected, as her lineage comes from Dubossary , fortunately a great uncle having escaped to America years earlier.

Rossner was raised with Chassidic tales such as the Shpoler Zeiyde, Russian superheroes such as “ bogatyrs”, fairytales such as Snow White and Rose Red, and Jane Yolen’s Holocaust retelling of Briar Rose, later she was influenced by Jonathan Foer Safran’s Everything Is Illuminated and others. To sweeten the dark violence of these tales in her recreation of the events in The Sisters of the Winter Wood, Rossner includes the sweetness of her own Romanian grandmother’s expressions so that every few pages underlines her background: with Yiddish evocations such as “ zichrono livracha (May her/ his memory be a blessing)… shidduch (arranged marriage)…niggunem (melodies)…shaynah madele( lovely girl)…oyam ( world).” When dreaming of varenikes, Liba speculates, “ They are soft and plump and the onions and gribenes she serves them with are always so crispy. Her ( a neighbour) borscht is thick and creamy and she never skimps on the marrow bones that flavour it. There will be sweet wine, too, and Mami already brought over some of her flakiest rugelach. I lick my lips in anticipation.”The melding of Yiddish and the description of Jewish foods works to augment the warmth of a strong tradition in a village where Jews are not trusted, merely tolerated, yet there is vibrancy in their presence that recalls our sense of shetl life before the wars. The novel is an echo of significant influences that have shaped both Jewish life and Rossner’s growing up.

When Laya disappears with Fedir, Liba attempts to rescue her from the enchantment that has turned trees to fruit- bearing, overloaded with sweet succulent peaches, pears, plums, pomegranates, apricots … dizzying in their smell, touch, lure. Yet their roots have encumbered Laya’s movement, for she is held captive, but a willing one because of love she imagines for her green eyed suitor. For Laya, being in love has altered the faces of Fedir and his brothers. Soon she will realize her mistake and like the veils in Blake’s Book of Thel and other poems, stories of maturation, she eventually sees clearly, understanding the forest for what it is.

Libya’s comprehension of love and life is less dreamy, as she learns how to arrest her transformation to avenging bear: by calming herself, focusing on water, ensuring she does not respond emotionally.That knowledge will come to Laya later so the girls can learn to command their metamorphoses.

However, what is most difficult to accept is the girls’ transformation to bear and swan. But even Libya’s awareness of this strangeness mirrors our own as readers when she murmurs, “It’s a dream…it must be a dream. A fairytale coming to life in my head, nothing more…maybe I’m sleeping…” When she observes her own powerful muscles and paws with claws, she marvels, “ None of what I am, what we are, makes any sense at all.”

Yet one might consider the many Russian folktales about bear- men and women the traditional donning of brown fur cloaks at the time worn to celebrate the new year and chase away malignant spirits. So too, Chassidic tales of Tati’s great grandfather’s kindness of averting persecution of other Jews as the Shpoler Zeiyde, as the retelling of his dancing with a bear in a contest to win the freedom of destitute Jews forced to pay rent and taxes on time. Liba explains, “ My mother once told me that my great grandfather became a bear because of great need…we can all become what we need to be in a time of danger.” And so we recall modern stories in which a mother somehow lifts a car off the body of her child pinned beneath or other extraordinary measures to save a loved one.

And in a similar moment of amazement, we might recall the mother of dragons in The Game of Thrones calling her babes home. And although we might not accept Zeus changing himself into a swan, or magical raindrops to impregnate Danae, we do not doubt him as a god of power. Or even the ability of Captain Marvel to propel herself into space or transform her arms to efficient attack machines. And what do we make of Spider-Man or Batman possessed by the power of transformation in times of greatest need? Magic is magic, and the possibility of transforming to another form, ice to water to gas, or human to superhero or animal is- at the very least- provocative. So we watch, read, transfixed.

Metaphors and similes in our language also allow for comparisons between the mundane and the exceptional so we accept that we might be as hungry as a bear or as sly as a cat, ready to trick or outwit our opponents. The woods around us can be internalized or external, alternatively inviting or threatening, suggestive that there are forces, spirits that await in the darkness. Why else do children insist on nightlights at bedtime?: to prevent witches or goblins from dragging them away. This is Coleridge’s willing suspension of disbelief that permits our leap to imagine and to engage in other realms.

The notion of transformation as presently witnessed in the films based in Stan Lee’s comics is welcomed by audiences, perhaps as an anecdote to the craziness of life. And even today as congresswomen cast aspersions on our people, or riots in Charlottesville where even the U.S. president does not disparage or condemn the white suprematists, terribly, antisemitism has not disappeared. Not in the bear dancing contests, the attack of blood letting for matzoh, or being pushed to the edge of forests, whether real or imaginary, it has endured. Sadly, that image of Chagall’s diaspora Jew emerges as I write this, the outcast traveller’s pekkalah on his shoulder, searching for a place to live freely without harassment. Liba’s statement comes to mind, “ Being a Jew means always changing- staying true to what you are, but adapting to your surroundings.”

Rossner gives us a fairytale that is underpinned with history and the reality of Jewish discrimination we continue to face. Would that we were like the sisters able to transform and learn how to defeat the biases that continue to confound us .


Also see The Globe and Mail (Ontario Edition), Canada Mar 16, 2019 O8 French journalist and novelist latest book Hate: The Rising Tide of Anti-Semitism in France (and What It Means for Us) by MARC WEITZMANN

She said, He said

He said. She said.

SNC- Lavalin drama has devolved into he said, she said, coming pretty close to be told as a gender debate. With Jody Wilson-Raybould as the female, hearing instructions from her bosses as directive, as inappropriate. With the resigned Gerald Butts countering with measured comments on balanced appropriateness, taking counsel, turning over every issue in care, composed, assured. Wilson- Raybould’s professional legal training and experience downplayed, careful listening, making reasoned decisions, she has become the woman who has over reacted to a highly demanding situation.

I love Konrad Yakabuski ( Thursday’s Globe and Mail) comparison of Butt’s amiable, even joke- cracking demeanour with Marc Antony’s takedown of Julius Caesar by sweetly damning Caesar as an ” honourable man”. In spite of Wilson-Raybould not exploding on the scene, receiving direction from her own lawyers and acting in a reserved, quiet way befitting her position as a respected and valued cabinet manner, she becomes the archetypical woman, scorned by her demotion in her position: crying out in revenge. It’s the old wink- wink because she’s a woman; she’s unbalanced, emotional, untrustworthy, time of the month slurs. Even though she took notes, documenting events, was measured in her performance, good reputation prior and during her tenure, but ultimately retorting, No, I will not go along with you, I will think for myself, and act accordingly: that has pushed the players into the corner, crying out there was no “ inappropriate pressure!” How ludicrous, how embarrassing that that gender card is being played. The affable thoughtful Butts versus the shrew. Because the shrew did not do the womanly thing of acquiescing, backing down when the more powerful stared her down. And when she refused, her position of attorney- general was the price to be paid, the unfaithful woman punished and removed to a position of less authority. Get her out of here.

Following up this idea, Martha Hall Findlay in the Globe( Friday) says, “ Suggesting, as some are now doing, that more principled behaviour is ‘normal’ for women, which implies that it is to be expected of women more than of men, takes away some of the power of their actions. Doing so also, perversely, sets higher, purely gender-based expectations for other women.” I’m not sure that follows that women as a group, then, must strive to uphold principles that men are allowed to ignore. And it is true, not all women in positions of power act nobly.

It’s the 21st Century and as Kit Harrington ( Jon Snow from Game of Thrones) suggested on Stephen Colbert last night, some governments just don’t change, and so we see- nor do politicians, sunk in with employing the race card, the gender card… How tiring it is not to be able to separate truth and hype, acknowledging what is good, bad, slander, slur and lies. But if words are viewed in certain ways with overlays of intensity, innuendo, anger, manipulation they can no longer speak for themselves. And that’s how we hear them, for what we see, and who speaks them colours and distorts the innocence of what is right or wrong. And that is terrifying.

Laugh or smile or smirk and you undermine the actual intent of a message. Yell the words or hide them in deep meaning and they are twisted. We know this, and films shot from diverse perspectives that showcase the same incident from various points of view, each transformed by the personality of the seer demonstrate this. Everyone thinks they know the actual event. I understand that, yet at the heart of a tale there is , or at least be clarity, some agreement, some facts. And I suppose even here at SNC- Lavalin there is.

But surrounding it all is political dishonesty because there is much to lose, and even a government may fall. So the principles of truth, interference are essential to the telling of the story. But likewise, politics most often obscures for the purpose of saving face, averting national emergencies, protecting the people, keeping the players in their places. Sadly the rules of the patriarchy protecting their own, deciding on the basis of need to know, or as the Republicans have demonstrated, maintaining a government of lunacy.

How horror full to be slicing life into these dualities of he said, she said, gender rather than truth and falsehood. Like political correctness that refuses to admit the emperor has no clothes, it is disheartening to have parties besmirch their own for votes. Understandable, some would maintain, when there’s so much to lose, but in terms of the human condition, depressing and deplorable.

Hall Findlay concludes, “We …all [can] benefit because the different experiences and different perspectives [ of both men and women] they bring permit better, broader analysis and decision-making.”

Yup, both men and women.

Those Damn Emotions

Why do we react as we do and why are we wired in certain ways? I do find this aspect of existence interesting, but more so, perplexing. Like many others, I play Lumosity and I am addicted to those games in which I can achieve well, wracking up high scores, trying to better myself each time. Games such as Trains and Trouble Brewing are my favs, and although at the outer reaches of both, I cannot seem to extend my wins.

What I’ve discovered is that the coolest I can be, the better I do.

Beginning positively, ready to better my numbers , I imagine myself improved from last day, even achieving a higher score, but as soon as I falter on one trial, I feel a heat, an emotional disruption and I lose my way, a domino effect of one mistake pushing down the next, my cool lost in the sudden rush of anger, annoyance, regret while I attempt to replace the calm, gain control and participate in the game again. In the meantime my emotion, my spurt of annoyance at losing has overturned my applecart, and my spirits plummet as I know my numbers will not be good until I can regain my composure and banish my anger. Undaunted but bristling beneath the surface, I do eventually reclaim my positive attitude and if I haven’t decided to quit or start the game fresh, I continue on, knowing my score will have suffered even a momentary disruption.Grrrr.

This moment of flaw, of weakening makes me wonder at my past successes or failures in school or writing exams. How well I remember my grade 11 history exam in which I read the question requiring a response for The Tudors, not the Stuarts- as I imagined it would -and I wrote a brilliant paper on the former, so sure THAT was the question, so I did not pay attention to the actual words on the page.

Feeling wonderfully pumped, I left the exam, buoyed , only on my walk back home, did I revisit the exam question in my head, so delighted I was with my response: but suddenly, stopped in my reverie,, I actually revisited the questions on the exam with the name of the royal household of the Stuarts imprinted on the paper, I disbelieving but not believing, realized my mistake. And like a balloon instantly deflated, I tripped, my feet flying out from beneath my amazed body.And I fell, my tights ripped to hanging shreds at the knee, gushing blood streaming from my bruised knees.

These moments of emotion have confounded me throughout my entire life, even recently as we discovered that in our condo, both a faucet and a shower door required replacing. I, in discussion in the bathroom with a salesman explaining that the glass surface could resemble rivulets of rain, and my husband, attentive to the water escaping and flooding the kitchen floor. He in concert with the plumber. As he entered my domain to explain the kitchen dilemma, I observed his face annoyed, frozen. Instantaneously reading his troubled look, I intuited the fix would be costly and I reacted to his chagrin by losing my words, unable to communicate to my salesman, my tongue refusing to utter syllables, only unintelligible sounds. Not an earth shattering event as my Tudor-Stuart was, and yet I was inextricably seized by my emotions who impacted on both my limbs and my voice, actually knocking the wind out of me on both times so that I landed in an emotional heap, imprisoned by my frozen body.

Of course my father had always chastised me, labeling me as overly sensitive from his mentoring, trying to teach me how to drive or the wonders of chemistry wherein my response to him and my frustration was to cry. He, scratching his head, wide eyed in his appraisal that something so simple ( to him) should not be accessible to me, and more so yet ,incredulous that I should behave in this manner, rather than grimly nodding, accepting or attempting to comprehend better. But the tears once bidden refused to halt, eclipsing him and a world that made no sense to me.

These were not reasoned, manipulative behaviours for me, they were/are me. I learned to scorn and hate myself, ashamed upon the eruption of those tears that refused to stay hidden and overwhelmed the rational me, blurring my eyes as my body chose to react in this fashion.

Sometimes I rationalized by retorting that these messy emotions were the best part of me as one could read immediately my reactions and know my thoughts. No subterfuge or “False face doth know what false heart doth know” mantras from the Bard. And yet, something that so interrupts one’s ability to speak, to achieve, to literally see clearly, to advance, to make your case clearly and succinctly when you possess the tools, makes you wonder why some of us are wired to react in this manner, as if the robot parts have been splashed with water and the circuits cut. If you are a robot, you wait till you are reprogrammed, but if you are a human, you can try myriad ways to avoid this annoyance, but deep, deep down, you might be able to bite your lip, smile sardonically, conjure your mantra, but once the trickle bursts forth from the dam, it’s almost impossible to cut off the flood. Or conversely stand frozen.

These Lumosity games make me query how many times these sudden reactions have lead me astray onto a dark path where I should have been able to prevail and succeed not deterred momentarily.ha! Or longer. In deed, what role have my emotions played in warding off people, causing myself injury or deepening regrets, or allowing my mind to wallow in negativity?I’m not unhappy with how my life has turned out for the most part- but I cannot help but wonder, had I been able to hold back or stop those messy emotions or control them, what more might I have attained.

At this point in the game, there is acceptance of self and those who truly know me, for we have learned to live with our foibles, not exactly as friends, but acknowledging they are part, not all of who we are.

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