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Grappling

With the advent of my birthday celebration in Palm Springs, I’m trying to compose a little speech, but all that comes to mind are the usual platitudes: I’ve lived a good life, pretty well done whatever I desired, travelled, had an excellent marriage, and am exceedingly proud of my offspring; and what matters most is my family, the love I feel for them. Although timeless and true, pretty boring stuff.!The people at my dinner, I hope, will all ready know that I express these truths in my own unique way.

When my elder daughter had her bat mitzvah, I could discourse on her talents and how like a seedling that is cared for, offered environments, opportunities, nutrients and love, she had blossomed. When my son was married, I used the metaphor of a string of pearls-that there are the momentous times that stand out like the gleaming lustrous gems that draw attention, for example, the day you fall in love or are married-but the strands that hold the necklace together, the everyday events are likewise significant, and we need both to keep the necklace together. Perhaps my best oratory was my mother’s eulogy in which I surveyed her life as an immigrant girl chased down the streets with the incantation,” green horn, tin can, five cents apiece” to her fortitude when my dad succumbed to polio along with her roasted chicken loving prepared on Friday nights. After the funeral, someone told me he had heard JFK debate, and my little speech only came second to his remembrance. Incredible praise. The attending rabbi who tried to calm me before I spoke, nonetheless at my conclusion demurred,” You’ve done this before, haven’t you?”

My work at OCT involved presentations and I worked extremely hard to craft them, some lasting two days . I drew on a variety of techniques to engage my participants: from examples of paintings to closed eye visualization and response writing to direct talk. And although I am a shy, reticent and a somewhat withdrawn personality, I could perform like an actor turning on , heightening, even dramatizing key issues, with an aim always of engaging my audiences in my presentations. I could tell by the way I held their eyes whether I had been successful or not. If I am boastful, I can attest that my work at the College, particularly in working with the faculties was well done. And I am proud of those days: prompting them to make a connection with their own experiences, encouraging their reflections and offering new information for their consideration, as well as interactive activities in which they could relate new information. It was exhausting but stimulating work. In New Brunswick once, a government official remarked how different my private and public personas were.

Hardly surprising, I recoil from attending holiday functions , for I do not know how to make cocktail chatter chatter, and should an unfortunate guest decide to converse with me, I will not move away from their side, stuck like glue, babbling away, just to avoid not having to begin the process all over again.My mind flies back to those lunchtime tea dances in junior high, a single wallflower unable to vacate my spot in the gym, totally exposed in embarrassment as a misfit.

But at my tiny birthday soirée, I will ,of course , I hope be familiar to my small guest list, delighted to be with those I cherish most on this planet so I shouldn’t worry about a speech. , to pass on wisdom?, to say something they will recall when I am gone😳.In deed as it is being held in a restaurant, it might be too noisy for a few words to be heard anyway . Yet, there is a need to express in a memorable way something of import, as words whether written or used in my professional life, speak to the essence of who I am, and who I have been. Yet, perhaps because what I feel is so deep, I am unable to dislodge the entrapping emotions and put them out into the light of day. Still I fret for providing a way of sharing in speech and elevating it to suggest my heartfelt meaning.But likely, my contribution will be limited to A nod, a hug, a glance, a smile, a way to convey what is at the core of me that frankly eludes me in my imagined speech.

I am reminded of my parents’ childhood admonishments, “You don’t have to say EVERYTHING you know, Pat,” particularly when I divulged family secrets.” Think before you speak,”I was reminded often- as if my loose lips could sink ships. Ironically my work was to commandeer words to my students, and later at OCT in the formation of policy and the development of the standards into clear, concise language with words that ultimately conveyed meaning. And now as I write my blog, I describe events that as a boomer I continue to note on an ongoing basis.

Still, I am bereft of words for my own special occasion, and maybe that is the way it should be, for I hope I am more than just words, good or bad, some thoughtless , I admit. but a being who has tried to touch the lives of those who have granted me access to their souls here and there, allowing me to share their space, their dreams, their thoughts. No words can approximate.

In the end, love takes multiple shapes.

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Times- are they a- changing?

When my cousin was a young man, he came back to Toronto from California to visit his girlfriend. The family was beside themselves because he wore white pants in winter, obviously contravening the unbreachable rule that white could not be worn after labour day. It was the cause célèbre back then, all shaking their heads at that affront to civilized society. We should have know he was a trail blazer.

When I read that Prince Harry was marrying his divorced sweetheart, I thought of poor Princess Margaret, the Queen’s harassed sister prevented from marrying her heart’s delight, Peter Townsend, because he had been previously married. Later Prince Charles and Camilla both sheared of former loves were eventually allowed to marry, the first royals allowed to divorce, Henry viii and Anne of Cleves in 1540. Perhaps for to grab at a few vestiges of prior days, Meghan Markle who attended a Catholic high school will actually submit to baptism in the Church of England.

How things change over time. From clothes to technology and mores . And what of the shame and disgrace brought on to a family should a child be conceived out of wedlock. In deed women years back were not even allowed to teach school if they were in the family way. And early paintings hid the improper condition by the empire line dress that allowed for the fabric to billow over the stomach disguising the body shape.

Michael Adams the president of the Environics that surveys, researches and consults with leading thinkers on public opinion, demographics, and trends, spoke in a forum for University of Toronto’s continuing education classes, addressing how Canada has changed as well :perhaps as a response to the country’s population that is now compromised of 40 percent of first and second generation newcomers to Canada. He postulates that around 1970, with the rise of Quebec Nationalism, Canada gradually began to embrace a new ideology of integrating foreigners into our society : one that still had considered Sunday as the Lord’s Day and hence no Sunday shopping- until 1992. How well I recall my mother telling me she, a newcomer to Canada, had been chased down the street with taunts of “tin can, popcorn, five cents a piece.” From our imperial traditions of moose, Mounties and maple syrup and the tight lipped British, we too have altered our attitudes over time. Jews recall the attitude of None is Too Many, the turning back of the ship of refugees on the St. Louis , eventually contrasting it to the acceptance of 60,000 boat people from Viet Nam years later. And ironically too,we learn that most Christmas songs were penned by Jews, reinforcing idealized traditions that never were, as they fled Russia, Poland for America, that mythic land of equality.

What a difference a day, a month or a year makes…

Adams listed our Canadian values of tolerance, respect, the desire for gender equality and acceptance of paying taxes because we trust in government to better our lives. As well, our country has, two official languages.My children in the 70’s attended a duo school that taught both French and English, but many French Immersion schools sprung up over the city. Our thinking was guided by a sense of a broader world space and although Canadian children, unlike their American counterparts, tended to return home after their college educations. But with the purposely widening of a cosmopolitan outlook and view towards the world, we foresaw that our children might permanently leave the nest and locate their futures in places where French might be spoken. I’ve often told the story of our own children’s ease in Paris where they effortlessly slipped into conversations with locals, being accepted as competent speakers of French, worthy of a dialogue. And in fact, a former childhood friend of theirs eventually became a foreign correspondent in Morocco. In considering how we differ from the United States, Adams cited , as well our healthcare and an educational system pretty well equal across the country, again unlike that great gap between public schools in Massachusetts and Mississippi. Ironically to possess the American Dream, one must come to Canada, we believing government in its power to ameliorate our lives. The Americans still debating health care, demonize ours lauding theirs. Yet just last fall, we waited for almost four hours to be seen in Emergency in California.

Maybe because I am almost 70, I can take the long view, comparing life then and life now. It is a truism that people are people and for the most part, we are still built the same with skin, bones and emotions, but we are set, as our ancestors were into changing times, lingering prejudices and a requirement to adapt. Unlike our grandchildren, we did not grow up with iPhones and IPad. Years ago when we visited Disneyland’s Futureland, the question was posed : if you could augment your knowledge with a computer chip placed in your brain, would you? I imagine soon we will.

Cars that drive themselves may appear on the roadways before boomers die. We all ready have vacuums by Dyson who replace Molly Maids. Sadly, kindles replace paper books yet paper proliferates.And the internet through email speeds messaging. New developments and greater research have increased life span. Just read the obits to see how many lives have been prolonged have into the 90’s.

Exposure of male abuse of colleagues is openly condemned, the hypocrisy of it previously known but allowed to persist, an open secret. Pushed into the light of day prior assaults are now being contributed by victims. And truthfully, I believe almost every woman has experienced some form of inappropriate behaviour . I remember arguing with one of my girls about a top I felt too provocative and she asserting, even 20 years ago, she had a right to wear what she wanted. Because I anticipated the impact of said top, I countered her sense of emerging self , but as raging adolescents will do, she prevailed. Years later with more experience of the world, she understood the need to modulate her clothing to avoid those lascivious looks, calls or grabs.. .( obviously not her fault) .Ironically Trump’s own words of pussy- grabbing did not stop his election to the position wherein exemplary behaviour for the nation should be modelled.

Here also, we support the battlecry of the abused, note our radio celebrity Jian Ghomeshi, accused but released for his unwanted predator behaviour. Unlike his brothers in the US, his case could not be proven, and he has slinked away from society. And although there is the condemnation and chastisement for Lindsay Shepherd, a lecturer at Laurier University reprimanded for showing a video debate on the use of sexist pronouns by a U of T professor. As Alice might murmur, life gets stranger and stranger. We seem to push and pull away and towards, unable to find as Ralph Waldo Emerson and many others preached, “the middle road.” But even as I watch Outlanders and protagonist Claire’s return to 300 years earlier in Scotland, and her knowledge of who will succeed and who will fail, I am caught as we all by the evolution and its backward thrust of society that steadfastly maintains people in its maw, twisting and turning them as the world responds to the wisdom or folly of those making and enforcing the rules of civility.

Turning 70:Gasp!

I’m thinking about turning 70 and the changes in my my lifetime.

I was born on Christmas Day, a perfect day for a contrary girl to enter the world. I arrived at Womens College Hospital heralded by two women, Drs. Marion Kerr and Marion Hilliard. Women’s College was the home to women not allowed to practice with the august men in the profession. One of Dr. Hilliard’s greatest desires was to have Women’s College Hospital become a teaching hospital. She was involved with the negotiations that eventually led to the hospital becoming affiliated with the University of Toronto’s department of obstetrics and gynecology. In its early days it was located on Rusholme Road. I felt a connection to the hospital for many years soI had my three kids there, attended in the 80’s by male doctors allowed to contribute their own expertise to the women on staff.

The kindly Dr Kerr assured my mother she would return after she delivered her Christmas presents . And so she did. My mother reported that she so appreciated her doctor’s kindness and care, staying in a private room for a week. Since then periods of stay have been much shortened.

About a year and half after my birth, my father who worked installing radios in ambulances succumbed to polio. That Labour Day weekend, he mowed the lawn and collapsed. That gossip was that Sunnyside Pool was the source for the epidemic although I doubt they had taken me near the vicinity of the pool and his contact to the disease would have been second hand. He spent the next excruciating nine months at Riverdale Hospital where all the polio victims were housed. He told of being able to watch executions at the Don jail through his window.

Before the Salk and Sabin vaccine, so many people were left with twisted or useless limbs or had to spend their lives in iron lungs to perform the job of breathing. He would not have survived in an iron lung because of his asthma. He came out of that hospital fully braced, disillusioned, but with a family to support. With my mother’s immense help, fortitude and courage, he did, gracing the electronics industry with his genius. The advent of the polio vaccine made the world safer and yet now stupid people refute the miraculous discovery. When I’ve gone to concerts and watched Itzhak Perlman navigate the stage swinging his lifeless legs, I’ve often thought of my father, the immense struggles of climbing stairs or even kerbs, but like Perlman, my father’s avocation revolved around his hands and his head . My mother used to compare our plight to the Little Red Hen who learned that she had to do it herself. And so she did.

Growing up, I knew one set of grandparents had left Poland in hopes of a better life, fearful of the extinction and war. There were stories of cousins having abandoned first wives and papering their walls with money to avoid deportation. I heard of my grandfather encountering his landesmen on the street in Toronto and bringing them home to provide them with a meal or even a bed, children sleeping nose to toes in overcrowded rooms. There was this aura of antisemitism my mother carried with her, one that infected me so as to not to want to identify myself as Jewish, as if I might be betrayed like Anne Frank or hustled off to an interment camp. At the library I poured over books trying to discover the details in the scary war stories.To this day, I recall in some paperback a Nazi so taken with the beautiful turquoise eyes of a child in the ghetto that he gouged them out to set them as centrepieces in gold rings, furious they had lost their lustre.

And although my parents rarely discussed politics, I recall our family being hunched around the television during the Bay of Pigs incident as they fretted about Russia and US going head to head. They worried about a nuclear war, and feared an atomic bomb destroy the world. My aunt and uncle tried to be proactive and joined organizations such as the World Federalists and Voice of Women. Yet most preferred to keep a low profile, aware that ” Jews and dogs were not allowed”.

We worried that my American cousin would go to the Vietnam Nam war and he did. There were sit ins at the universities, against Napalm and Agent Orange and public displays of support for draft dodgers fleeing the US. I did not know my husband then but we actually attended the same university, UC at U of T in the same years, he at the centre of controversies, me chatting up guys in the grassy quadrangle. He and his friend Bob Rae organized the festival Perception 67 that invited Timothy Leary and The Fugs to the campus. I remember the black folk singers who sang about freedom and resistance, and spaghetti used to recreate the experience of being on LSD in a darkened hall. ? We were exhorted to turn on. Leary although detained with his banned speech, wrote,”

Yes, young people of Canada, I’m telling you that you must drop out of school. Your education system is a narcotic, addictive process paid for by old men and women to teach you to become Romans like them selves. You must drop out of school. The aim of Canadian education, like American education, is to narrow your mind, contract your consciousness, get you to accept this reality, the ridiculous game of the television prop scenario of Canadian industrial urban life today. You must drop out.”

I also huddled close to the television to watch the first walk on the moon and hear Neil Armstrong’s words. And we were all distraught by Kennedy’s assassination, everyone remembering where they first heard the news. I was exiting a History exam in Grade 11. We lamented the fall of Camelot, his words “ Ich bin ein Berliner, “and the glamourous life of him and Jackie felled by the tangled inexplicable shooting by Oswald and the Jack Ruby cover up, as dramatized by Oliver Stone. For dreamy adolescents The Peace Corp, hope for a better, finer world were all dashed.

Television was our main means of communication as we observed the fall of the Berlin Wall so far away. And instead of the Internet and email was the telephone, should a classmate call to ask for a date for Saturday night. There was the occasional Sunday meal out should my parents find a kosher restaurant nearby and Sunday drives to the outreaches of the city, such as the wooded Unionville , to get an ice cream cone. And I remember how deliciously forbidden a Big Mac and chocolate shake were when I visited my California cousins at the end of Grade 10 in the 60’s. Hermosa Beach in my yellow pockadot bikini was heaven.

Over time clothes changed too, white being ridiculed should it be worn after Labor Day. Girls wore skirts to school. Living at the edge of Forest Hill behind our store, we were very careful about money, although both my sister and I had ballet, piano and Hebrew lessons: the last two I would have been delighted to do without. So we travelled to Buffalo where a crisp white Susan Van Husen shirt could be purchased for $1.98 and there were great sales. But on the odd Saturday, I was overcome with shame to be standing at the corner of Bathurst and Eglinton with Honest ED bags containing underwear. I insisted my mother turn those bags inside out for fear a schoolmate might see me.Fast forward to years where jeans with tears and holes, and kids bought pounds of clothes at Good Will, mixing and matching.But for me back then, I wished I could disappear into the sidewalk.

Memories come as a jumble: a few from childhood such as the strains of “ Today’s the day, the teddy bears have their picnic…”, the first time I heard the music of the Beatles at a school dance, lunch time tea dances in junior high , a wallflower earnestly praying someone might ask me to dance; lovely days at university and summers hitchhiking to view the art I initially encountered in darkened classrooms; falling in love and committing to one person, the arrival of my children and becoming a family; my post- colonial literature classes and contributing to the development of the Standards and Ethics at OCT- important, valuable and thoughtful work. I have been lucky.

But the years somehow go by so quickly and as I gaze back, many of the same scenarios pop out, over and over again while more are lost in the bank of time. You wonder. : what has made me ME, and you realize it is not just one or even a few things, the happiness and travaux that raise us up and wears us down, experiences ground as fine as dust. You draw back and through the vortex of time, you observe yourself, and can only know that each person is the same, that we all arrive at the same point, maybe wiser for the journey. But not necessarily so.

Last Week in Washington

Although it was freezing cold wandering the streets in Georgetown, one cannot help but be inspired by Washington, obvious in its fantastic architecture, cobbled streets, parks and historical sites. Best of all for me were the free museums on the Mall. At least the city’s poor have access to the cultural benefits, not worrying that the cost might mean less food, clothes or necessities for families. In Toronto, the AGO, Aga Khan, Science Centre and even the ROM preclude a wander after 4 pm when most parents are struggling after a long day’s work, contemplating what’s for supper or how to get the kids to do their homework. It certainly drives me crazy that the advantages of dawdling in a gallery is not available because of the prohibitive price point.

In Washington, we asked taxi cab drivers if they had noticed a change since Trump had become president, an incomprehensible affront to this great city. Most only volunteered that it was more expensive to live and work there now. So fortunately- so far- these institutions of culture and learning are still possible retreats for anyone who chooses. And in deed the fabulous newly opened National African- American Museum of Culture and History was filled with families, sitting, chatting and viewing the powerful exhibitions.

Interestingly at the Hirschhorn Museum, we were able to view Ai Weiwei’s “Trace, “an exhibition of 176 portraits of prisoners of conscience, activists and dissenters. Constructed by hundreds of volunteers in Lego bricks, the entire installation was originally housed at Alcatraz Prisoner in their New Industries Building where prisoners once worked washing off-shore laundry and making cargo nets for the navy, among other jobs for a few cents per hour or timeoff their sentences.

So, unlike Washington’s solo presentation of “Trace”, Alcatraz’s the first room of the installation at Alcatraz housed “With Wind” which contained an enormous colourful and traditional flying Chinese dragon. Formed from smaller kites, the airy sculpture loomed from the ceiling, filling the enormous space. As well, scattered throughout the room were representations of birds and flowers. Contradictions between the freedom of the art and the building that was once used for prison labor and now hosts a bird habitat are obvious. In an adjacent room “Trace” was shown. And finally, the third part of the exhibit “Refaction” was constructed to be peered at through windows.Here Weiwei located a huge wing spread structure resembling an enormous truncated bird, feathers replaced with reflective metal panels originally used on Tibetan solar cookers.

This reminded me of British Columbia’s Brian Jungen’s work in which he arranges golf bags, broken plastic chairs ,Nike running shoes and contemporary items to suggest the sacred elements of Canada’s native peoples. Like Jungen, Weiwei highlights cultures that have been used and abused by governments, and in the actual Weiwei location for ” Trace”, the impact of capitalism and slave labor to produce goods, all addressing concerns of freedom and the loss thereof.The scale of the Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, the island itself being 22 miles ,has detained everyone from the Hopi to Al Capone to “hard-case” military prisoners; therefore, because of the prison’s mammoth size , it is no surprise that the Hirschhorn is representing only a segment of the entire production.

Yet, the Washington Post art critic Philip Kennicott has criticized the exhibit saying it was “ blunt and provocative”, also suggesting it could be taken in at a glance.At the Hirschhorn’s entrance is a wall of decorative design, actually wallpaper, that could easily be a print for a Hermes scarf as the clarity of objects and even the bronze colour scheme appear well drawn, nicely laid out , and well! pretty. Looking closer, the viewer recognizes these depicted symbols are instruments of oppression such as observation cameras and handcuffs that in Weiwei’s hands are refigured, overlapped and lose their menacing intent as restricting forces by authoritarian governments.The repetitive recognizable bird in the wallpaper is symbolized by the Tweet, and evenly interspersed with these other means of repression, making clear that Weiwei’s active protests, is his voice in his tweets : impossible to ignore worldwide. And much like Marcel Duchamp in 1917, his “Readymades”, in particular the urinal or “ Fountain” focus on ordinary objects that have been liberated from their commonplace surroundings, changing and neutralizing their impact on the audience, here isolating the intrusive objects that spy and pry, removing their claws. The Surrealists knew that dislocating an object from its home context did just that: rendering the ordinary extraordinary and altering the intent and purpose of the object.

Yet walking through the rooms of the Hirschhorn, if form, function and content can combine, they do so here, for the simple Lego brick, ubiquitous, stands for outrage all over the world, of the abrogation of human rights, straight forward, simple. It is not a message that requires much unpacking. The process of identifying the prisoners took six months and each Lego portrait required about 10,000 blocks, the design process also complicated by Weiwei’s being detained in China.And although one might walk through the installation in a half hour or so, the faces not realistic are the purposely blurred images associated with subjugation, mugshots for dossiers.

The grandmothers who marched daily for the release of their children and grandchildren in Argentina’s Plaza de Mayo also stood as a crowd of indistinguishable faces too, chanting with one demand. Here Weiwei gives these people in the “Trace” Lego portraits , most names previously unknown, voice. In the Alcatraz catalogue, @ Aiweialcatraz, Weiwei comments on the relationship of the individual to the collective, one person subsumed by their community, long championed by the Chinese. And so, whether in captivity or freedom, the artistic knife cuts both ways, attesting to the need for global support for the individual, and the importance of putting a single name, a separate portrait to the community of dissidents presented here who are hidden, locked away, banished or disappeared forever. The intent of the installation exhorts and communicates the importance of communicating this message to both individuals and groups, by twitter, exhibitions, social media, whatever in order to change , stop and shut down suppressive act by authoritarian governments , their spies and agencies.

I’m sensitive to Kennicott’s criticism as I think of flashing neon art by Tracy Emin, or most art that is perceived at an obvious level, but deeper analyses engages the mind further. For example Sol Le Wit, Judy Chicago, or even Rothko’s tonal paintings. As well the 48,000 handmade pieces that comprised the Aids Memorial Quilt or All Hands on Deck by activists Davis and Scolnik are stark and forthright, the message uncomplicated as art is used as protest for societal issues.That “Trace” was originally shown “ “With Wind” and “Refaction” at Alcatraz does bolster the metaphor and makes for more interesting connections to the realms of the artistic and aesthetic And similarly, Soleil Levant, Weiwei’s exhibit of 3500 salvaged life jackets of the 8,000 refuges who died or disappeared en route to the Greek Island of Lesbos speaks to the human desire to be free, the dangerous failed attempts and inclement sanctuaries. This exhibit observable from the street in Copenhagen’s Nyhavn Harbour was mounted for World Refugee day, and “Trace” continues to maintain dialogues that revolve around and are centred on loss and deprivation of human rights.The purpose is- after all- to commandeer art to attack, protest and change attitudes.

From this blog entry, it is obvious how charged I felt about Weiwei and Kennicott’s criticism. Above all, a backdrop of fantastic Washington with its strange president felt an affront to artistic sensibilities. But, in spite of the critic’s right to express his personal views,and exert his freedom of speech, at least art of protest can be displayed and shown here, even inhabiting a federal penitentiary ! Perhaps small comfort to those incarcerated around the world, but an acknowledgement of the struggle that has cost lives and an active attempt to put pressure on governments to respond. Thanks too to Amnesty International who compiled the list to Weiwei that continues to be the world’s watchdog.

But even in ” Trace”, we witness disparities, for Aung San Suu Kyi is memorialized as an advocate of human rights ( portrait created before the world knew of the Rohingya deportation) along side Nelson Mandela, Rwanda’s Agnes Uwimana Nkusi who alleged corruption in the 2010 election, Omid Kokanee , 2014 Sakharov Prize winner, whose family was threatened unless he contribute to Iran’s development of Nuclear program….and so many many more….

And I think of the interview in Washington with Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg who commented on her lifelong friendship with now passed Anthony Scalia, explaining they were working towards the same objective, withholding the constitution, different views but one purpose.

At least , the children of Washington are free to look and think and enter museums and cultural institutions and reflect on the stories, the history and narratives compiled by artists like Weiwei whose protests sprouted long long ago, providing artists a means to counter the workings of their systems that would strip the rights and freedoms of citizens worldwide.

From an interview with Douglas Gillies, December, 1994, he quoted Diogenes who said,

“The most beautiful thing in the world is free speech.”Gilles continued,”…for me, free speech is not a tactic, not something to win for political…free speech something that represents the very dignity of what a human being is….that’s what marks us from the stones and the stars…It is the thing that marks us as just below the angels.”

A Sobering Blog offering

When I write my blog, believe or not, I try to be upbeat and positive- in spite of my children’s comments of ‘ oh mom” as I somehow continually revert back to my halcyon baby boomer days ( hey, the title is of the blog is blogging BOOMER!) of shaking my love beads, chatting in UC’s grassy quadrangle or reflecting on some aspects that tend to focus on the march of time. Last week stymied by their criticisms, I figured I would not deal with the overwhelming thoughts that have dominated these last few days. Yet, Sandra Martin’s presentation at U of T’s lecture series about a good death seemed an apropos jumping off spot and so I gave in and could not resist my penchant towards a glass half full, or perhaps in this case, one might say, one emptied all together.

After describing how Canada has approached a new and lack of clear fulfillment towards physician assisted dying, Sandra Martin invited the assembled to talk with their friends and family about how and when they would choose to end their lives. She proposed for herself a Victorian styled farewell surrounded by loved ones in a cosy bed, a fireplace and maybe even a cat brushing her knees. Her thoughts concerned what had been considered a” good death” triggered by her own mother’s passing, but upon deeper reflection she attested to too many years her mother spent suffering and an end that came with rasping breaths and frequent moans of pain in a hospital bed. Juxtaposing this struggle to choosing our own finalities, she cited Oregon, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Quebec where people thoughtfully cogitate and make that difficult decision. Stipulating the progress of Canada’s law with the Kay Carter law, Sue Rodriguez cases and others she spoke patiently, identifying Malcolm Gladwell’s notion of the tipping point , and when the implausible can and does become real. It was a serious and engaging lecture, particularly as the audience attending are moving not away but towards this final frontier.So it matters muchly, even for those of us who can at the moment move freely with merely achey limbs and appear to have thoughts and memories if waning, still more or less with the exception of the forgotten name or misplaced link in a conversation, in tact.

It is a sobering thought to ruminate on our final moments.Supportive of palliatives care and the fine work of health care professionals who ease patients into the next stage, Martin nonetheless proposed we should have control over our bodies. And why should we not?

I thought of my good friend’s husband this week and her note, telling me, we lost X tonight.” He passed very peacefully”, she wrote. She, as another friend last winter, never expected their partners would not return home after a successful operation or procedure. But complications from degenerative diseases seemed to combine, deepen and override any success of recovery. And so, these women returned home by themselves to sort through their beloveds’ things, replan their lives and plod along without their dear ones who had accompanied them, raised their children with, grown old with and like worn but comfortable shoes, had walked with through their days, both sad and happy.

AND then there was Doc Halladay’s untimely death as he plunged into the Gulf of Mexico. Only 40, a true hero with not only exemplary work habits, prodigious skill as a pitcher for the Jays, but also a true heart that was demonstrated in his charity work for sick kids.He too was waylaid by Death. So terribly unfair to lose the good guys, our heroes big and small, and a reminder we were headed towards Remembrance Day overloaded with the dead in Flanders Field. How well we know that Death spares no person and we all must go to our graves. Not a sports fan, I cried for Halladay, a” gitta neshema” as Jews would say : “ a good soul”.

Sometimes such as in Halladay’s death, it is inexplicable why, an exemplar to all, is snatched from life. We like trusting children want to believe in some kindly Power who protects the just, but even my friends’ husbands, hard workers, fathers and grandfathers, who might have lived at least 10-15 years longer met their final destination. Authors toy with the idea of an afterlife, fantasizing green hills and angels, and religions of course propose – or not- where we might wander in bliss after the years of living are terminated here on this inscrutable planet. But in spite of the glowing light some have reported at the beckon of the long tunnel or the cloud of butterflies that descends or follows mourners, we simply cannot know if we will be greeted on the other side . But more likely, it is a dreamless forever sleep. It is in deed the last frontier from which few ever return.

In the obits last week too, in The Star’s Birth and Death notices, someone had written, “On November 6, a date of her own choosing, Ronni had ended a five- year struggle with Multiple System Atrophy.” I was struck by that introductory phase “ of her own choosing” asserting it was her choice. This weekend with a battery of lawyers, I was also informed that nurses too aid in assisting the process.

As Sandra Martin said, “ Encourage the communication. Talk about what you would like and how you desire to finish off your days, especially while you are lucid enough to make the decisions.” Although these are not the talks we relish, they are necessary ones: in order to maintain control over our bodies.

So although this may not have been an uplifting blog, it nonetheless speaks to an issue raised last week and exemplified by Halladay’s, my friends’ husbands and all who went to fight and die in war, their choice or not.

Welcoming del Toro’s Monsters

An artist’s mind is a treasure trove. One wonders why certain ideas or images alight there, hibernate, gestate and grow. Visiting Guillermo del Toro’s At Home with Monsters makes the visitor entertain these thoughts. The exhibit sounded interesting ,with more than 500 photos, movie props, art objects, costumes, sculptures and books and because my elder daughter is an affectionado, I decided we would go . Years ago, I had found del Toro’s film, Pan’s Labyrinth, magical, frightening, even beautiful, yet I had not responded to his Hellboy.

But having the opportunity to visit segments of his reconstructed house at the AGO provided an experience that went far beyond the films and explored the sources from which the filmmaker’s genius arises. This traveling exhibit that resembles an immersion into the red recesses of his brain certainly enhances the process of penetrating sources of creativity. Divided into sections entitled Victoriana, Magic, Alchemy, Outsiders, Death and Afterlife, for example, lures the viewer into a unique consciousness, inklings from where artistic inspiration has sprung.

My favourite of the dark crimson settings was the Rain Room, the perpetual sound of rain hitting the windows deepening the feeling of mystery and provoking the opening line,” It was a dark and scary night…” in which ( the Halloween I attended)a group of students huddled at the feet of their teacher and extended the feeling of being huddled in a cosy environment where outside the weather rages, secure from Heathcliffe beating on the windows, and we are held safe and dry by the fireplace. To deepen the eeriness of contributing sensations actual playing of moody sonatas on a real grand piano in another room underscored the spooky experience.

Here is a plethora of works from etchings by Goya, drawings by Ensor and paintings by Tissot as well as bronze sculptures, masks and maquettes and movie props from del Toro’s oeuvre, many beyond life size. As we enter, the amphibian man who sat before a bounteous feast in Pan’s Labyrinth , skin hanging like drapery from his limbs and eyeballs in his searching elongated palms, greets us. It is creepy. Later, Pan’s fawn stands tall and del Toro’s narrative explains how the creature has aged backwards in the movie, a combination of menacing and friendly, but I’m focused on the roots at his feet and the cloven hood that recall Narnia’s centaur.

 A Frankenstein sculpture sits besides his bride, another distorted! Frankenstein head hangs overhead. It is suspended long as if squeezed between the jaws of an anvil and , another more recognizable icon has welcomed us into this environment for the misunderstood and feared by society. In a corner are the Tod Brown’s Freaks from his 1932 film beside photographs of circus performers such as the bearded lady and snake charmer, most smiling. Del Toro speaks to society’s perception of outsiders and misfits, but identifies their audiences as the ones with ugliness within who would judge and alienate these “ freaks” from society. Del Toro’s so- called  monsters  have lost their ability to terrify or frighten here. Instead they now fascinate as they project the extent, compassion and insights of the inner workings of the filmmaker’s mind. They are as friendly as my grandson’s oh-oh  bear. As a child, an outsider himself, del Toro, comprehended the visceral loneliness, the plight of those who do not belong. He writes he hopes “ [to] find beauty in the profane. To elevate the banal”. In spite of the overload of the oddities and unusual here, one feels a kind of kinship and comfort, relaxing before the works of this horror- fantasy auteur who has shared his diverse collection of inspiration.: what he identifies as beautiful. All is normalized in this place, only the trappings of rain and moody music creating a backdrop of suspicion.

On the cell phone guide and with numerous signs, the exhibit describes the artist’s fascination with this transformation of insects and bugs,Disney’s dark side, the impact of Victorian times, especially the lacy darkness of the Gothic, the never far away impact of his grandmother’s repressive Catholicism and his Mexican ancestry that proclaims that we live with death and it is not the end. Although signs are informative, the viewer is reading rather than looking and like me, no doubt, missing the impact of some of the visual by the necessary detraction of the written word. This is always a balance for the curator, providing important information to unravel the art works while not allowing the interpretation to overtake what is being displayed. However, everywhere we look, from curiosity cabinets to shelves and walls , there are objects to contemplate and intrigue. Long knobbly legged insects find a parallel in a costume worn by a sculpture, whose sleeves suggest butterfly wings and the possibility of changing form. I’m thinking of Opelia in Pan’s Labyrinth and the fairies that emerge from her initial encounter with bits of wood that resemble flying grasshoppers.
And how Pinocchio ‘s nose grows into a twig : indicative perhaps of the possibility of an idea overtaking  essence of matter and transforming into something completely different. Even a glimmer of fear will cause a body to shake like a bowl full jello on a plate or a beam of light transform into a thesis on evolution.

My favourite , that Rain Room, room is filled with del Toro’s  well read and colourfully bound books, an unending resource that reaches from ceiling to floor,  all he has stored and read,  leaning side by side: from H.P.Lovecraft to Ruskin and HGWells to Stephen King and Edgar Allan Poe to Bald Mountain and the Nibelungen. Other walls display drawings by Arthur Rackham, Edward Gorey, Moebius, Robert Crumb, and del Toro’s own, and more : fodder for the curious mind. As well, all the versions, images and publications one might imagine of Frankenstein are displayed here , and still another wall is covered completely with comic books. The exhibit indeed proclaims the strength of these as the seeds for the artist’s imagination, for they are indispensable to del Toro’s artistic growth of o relapping visions.  

And still much of the exhibit is a tribute to childhood with memorabilia that fascinates and terrifies. Del Toro explains how formative the first six years of a child’s life are. At Disney, Bambi loses a mother, the dark foreboding castles appropriated from Europe by Disney, the dragons and scary uninvited hag who casts her spell on Sleeping Beauty are memories locked in intractable images in every child’s head. And I recall Bruno Bettelheim on Fairytales reminding us we need both the dark and the light, horrifying gremlins to reflect the darkness of our souls along with shining princesses and their magic wands of goodness and forgiveness.

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I think of the recent threat to close art schools in Toronto and the lack of understanding of the power of art on children and adolescents- and adults in technology, filmmaking, art- making, And for our developing students  at school how art invites a bridge from sad, alienated lives to acceptance of selves and delight in the creative. Eliot Eisner wrote ceaselessly on this transformation. On Friday this week too in The Globe, Russell Smith’s article ,A Picture is worth 1,000 meaningless words, dismisses artspeak as research.Think of our public spaces without art, what art communicates and how it can lighten the mind and spirit, how art teaches problem solving, how art excites the brain and the hands, how art connects with ourselves and others. But this is my old saw.
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Even the strange and wonder- ful art of Guillermo del Toro, that may initially repulse some, has the power to fascinate, to tell a story of the misunderstood other, to withstand oppression. Watch Pan’s Labyrinth and you will  understand what I mean.

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The Meaning of Life

Here I sit at the Bloor Cinema( still a dump) awaiting my lecture. As part of a continuing education class, the program offers a range of topics: from bootlegging( yes, Hamilton had their own little mafia ) to parenting by the Royals so there’s little commitment but to arrive on time and listen, and hopefully glean some new information.

On the heels of a return from San Diego and still in the throes of three hour jet lag, I head for today’s topic: the meaning of life. Instead of a lumpy Einstein or wizened sophisticated Georgia O’Keefe, on stage struts a lovely young thing in a pencil skirt with luxurious dark hair. It’s not that the young cannot be insightful and sensitive, but the first few waves at the audience make me wish I had taken an afternoon snooze. She speaks directly to the assembled, most recognizable before class as they stop at Starbucks or Aroma for a pre class chat with friends. Some, like me, seek out deals at the dollar store, others merely meander slowly towards the class. Many  stride strongly with purpose, not wanting to be late for the lunchtime presentations. We are recognizable. The boomers, the oldsters, wearing comfortable relaxed clothes, greyed or dyed hair, faces that reflect numerous years of living. The point is that we have a wealth of experience, stories, encounters, lives lived- most I would venture teeming with meaning.

But I try not to judge as our presenter attempts to engage her listeners: as I did my classes once upon a time- at high schools, at universities, at conventions. She poses her question directly and asks what experience in our lives stands out most dramatically. Good question and an important one, but unlike my talks, the listeners here have not been softened up, invited to participate in a” get to know you game”, or even been provided with a reason to share significant facts from their lives. She expects a response, but not one single hand in the sea of participants goes up. Beside me, a frazzled white haired oldie engages me briefly, and I whisper,” I’m not about to reveal myself here.” She nods and then adds”, My memory was awakening up after a suicide attempt” .I visualize magenta blood pumping furiously through her wrists against a hospital bed of white sheets.

 I’m not about to contribute that I was thinking of my glossy wedding day more than forty four years previous. I’m not sure what to say to a stranger who has decided to share this life- changing moment, but I smile weakly and tun my eyes back to the lithe young thing prancing about on the stage.
She has no prepared slides or PowerPoint , but merely an outline on several crumbled sheets on her podium. Apparently negative or bad memories  were the answers she was seeking to her initial prompt so I’m not sure which my seat mate’s would qualify for: she did afterall, wake up! I close my notebook where I usually make notes as I’m pretty sure little will merit being recorded. She begins her ramble while ceaselessly moving back and forth along the edge of the theatre, referring to the famous names of Maslow, Victor Frankl, short and long studies from Romania and Australia, most published as pop news over the years and well known I would expect by this august group. But she bounces from topic to topic, creating, spinning, unwinding her own” I believes” and it’s a tumble from hunter- gathers to women’s fear of rejection to percentages of reclusive populations to unconscious minds to why many in the audience dream of their teeth falling out. I’m not impressed as she navigates the length of the stage; while walking, she appears to be structuring an argument.

 

This recalls for me my son’s frantic call from university in his very first year when his literature prof stipulated that the essays they were required to write must possess NO thesis. I could not help him.

 

Throughout this woman’s loosely structured ramble, I am aware that the emperor does not wear clothes, and were we sitting side by side in a university common room, I would be challenging the ideas she is contemplating, presenting the rational, the flip- side, the antithesis, the common sense, pointing out the ludicrous arguments she is proposing.Or more likely, I would be stifling a yawn or a disparaging look. Hers is a naivety of a student whose thoughts are roughly plumbed. The question, the absurdity of a young person addressing this huge talk is ridiculous. 
Not that

A. Youth cannot pose ( and answer or even address) significant questions

B. These questions should not be discussed

C. That an attempt to untangle even a millisecond of this conjecture is not important. But the person addressing them seems so light, so lacking in world vision and experience, and so underestimating her audience( first question to consider: who is your audience) .

Truly, I had half expected an unsanctimonious diatribe, something irreverent, funny at least to make me laugh; or conversely- something wildly thoughtful.
I do recall that I did guffaw when I noted the name of the talk, but anticipated some enlightenment or at least a serious attempt.Stuck here much like a butterfly at the edge of a pin, I am unable to navigate over the knees and feet of the crowd in my row, resenting the presenter’s lack of depth, a put together( for her other wide eyed students,perhaps? ), her mere sport of such an immense question.

So I do not think it is mere jet lag or even bias towards a young person that is making me fidget in my seat. It is the ease with which her topic is handled in spite of the back and forth sashay at the front. It is the lack of piercing analysis replaced by studies that are flaunted and left to dry on a rack as if name dropping bestows validity to any talk She is stabbing at a theme that gnaws at you as you age: Why am I here? Have my years been worthwhile? How do I stand accountable to myself? To my peers? What does it all mean? The topic is not just a ramble where a traveller traverses, picks up a few blueberries from the bush or scatters breadcrumbs along the path. It is a momentous question that dogs and slows the feet of certainly, this aging group. And might I  add great minds over time.  

 
Did others react as I did? I cannot know as even those at the very edge of the theatre did not rise to leave and there were actually questions at the 40 minute conclusion. Finally I propel myself over the outstretched limbs to depart. Maybe as an afternoon out, the others had found morsels upon which to chew or heard something fresh and did not respond as I did, hoping for probing thoughts to take away or even jot down. Worse yet as I return to my car, I discover a yellow ticket tucked beneath window as I had parked in a taxi stand. Perhaps my car knew more than I, waiting for a quick drop off and hop back in. 

But I am still grumbling: Did she offer a philosophical grounding like Tikkun Olam( Hebrew repair the world. See Mishna), as novelist Nicole Krauss does in her Forest Dark? Her thoughts on the infinite and the finite, filling void with presence, the give and take, the ying and yang, the emptying out and filling up in a desire to recreate what has been lost?Thoughts about time as TSEliot ( Do I dare to eat a peach?) or even a passing glance at Rene Descartes or Steven Hawking. Often literature, science will make meaning…  

When I pondered later, I realized why the lecture, if I can call it that, why it had so angered me. And I knew: I had been that girl, at a different time, carefree, merely toying at the big questions, charmingly taunting and dabbling, eyes large, but only poking here and there without real and deep concerns.No Blake’s Book of Thel , not even a serious student back then, unless you consider daydreaming in UC’s quad with illusions of romance and travel qualifies for broaching the big questions or writing a major thesis paper for a bespectacled prof. Yes ( and my daughter is thinking this if she is reading this,” Not again, mom”. I wore the love beads, but was superficial in my thoughts, not to mention my actions in making the world a better place, unless you discount welfare rep in high school. But more humble, I never imagined that a tossed salad of ideas might qualify as a lecture, particularly to those who had tasted meaning in a real sense.

Sitting there in that darkened room,  a boomer no longer young, this topic  was no longer passing conjecture, or unbridled trajectory. Years of living with no acceptable answers rattled and shook me as I recalled myself at that age, unshackled by the burden of years wherein all innocence is lost. So maybe I grieved and judged because the presenter had once been me, stepping lightly, twirling attractively, touching lightly on the very essence of things.
The meaning of things with little meaning. 

Ridiculous Things

This morning , Tuesday October 16, in The Toronto Star, in preparation for Halloween, they display on the front page “the Anne Frank costume”, complete with a charming green beret, little girl coat and a destination tag at the neck. You have to guffaw at the bad taste, and as editor Emma Teitel comments, the cute model smiling might be a girl celebrating her bat mitzvah at Casa Loma. Truly absurd. But much today , it seems to me, lives in bad taste, thoughtless display, ignorance or ridicule of the past. With a similar thought, we observed the memorial for the dead in Berlin used as a backdrop for baby pictures or a labyrinth for adolescent hide and seek : as the tortured ghosts of the dead hovered above. By the way, I am not suggesting that adoration for Robert E. Lee or proponents of racism, colonialists, etc. be maintained. My quarrel here is with inappropriate appropriation of injustice, not the victimizers.

I’ve always wondered about the crossing of the line into taboo. Lenny Bruce did it. He did not accept society’s margins nor political correctness and by speaking ethnic stereotypes out loud, he forged a way to deal with bias and discrimination. Humour as social critic and commentary can go far in dealing with phobias and prejudice. Yet I do not find the misogyny dished out by certain comics the least bit funny at all. Yet it seems in my headspace that analyzes social issues there is a way to attack that goes beyond educating into ridicule or pain: for the comic’s own misogyny or racism delight. Larry David recently , irreverent always, tackled the fatwa, and made me laugh at him and by extension, ponder the extent to which a governing body will go. Truly he takes taunts and terrors to an absurdist perspective, perhaps making us wonder if we are sitting on the bench, also perpetually waiting for Godot. 

But the Anne Frank costume prompts an analysis of how and why anyone deems any aspect of her holocaust story might be acceptable for children pranking. The detailing of the felt tag is particularly hilarious: is there a choice of Auschwitz? Bergen Belsen, or Terezin, where 15,000 children passed, and the home of I Never Saw Another Butterfly.  

Ok, maybe, it reminds us of a scary story of war where little children can be lost, butchered and murdered. Pretty, pretty funny stuff. But of course, Halloween is not for the sake of laughter, except if you are so scared, you might laugh as a nervous reaction. So maybe after all, it does fit in the same way: prisoners in striped uniforms or the crushed skulls of the dead and skeletons are also resurrected for the night. They can terrify. My goodness, even a misshapen paper mâché head of Big Bird can be haunting. 
However, Halloween originated from an ancient Celtic festival where people lit bonfires and wore costumes to ward off ghosts. So ironically Anne Frank is cast by the business community as a bad and scary ghost to be kept away, only allowed to prowl on the 31st, like other unwanted and unnecessary Jews as believed by the Nazis. So unless you concur that little girls and Jews are terrifying, she is an aberration. Similarly if she is a character to scare away ghosts, a child with a pen and a book, looking adorable in her beret, little Anne doesn’t really fill the bill either. I suppose she must exist in an space between the reality of cruelty and death in war and persecution while still being commemorated in plays and books as an unbloomed flower and an icon of innocence.

In the eighth century, Pope Gregory III designated November 1 as a time to honor all saints. Eventually the evening before was called All Hallows Eve, and later Halloween. Over time, Halloween evolved into trick-or-treating and carving jack-o-lanterns. Well, an Anne in the concentration camp might need beg for food or bits of candy. Not so sure about the pumpkin carving though as those activities were not part of her confinement back then.

Yet exploiting the death of an innocent appears to be a cheap way to sell merchandise although I suppose it is done all the time. It’s not too far from torn jeans that the poor have had to wear because they cannot afford new clothes, accepting the handmedowns of sibs and cousins and thrift stores so threadbare that their skinny limbs protruded. Years ago, a friend remarked that this was the first time in history that we’ve tried to emulate the poor, turn our eyes downward rather than upwards towards the finery of the rich. But as marketing will do, those torn, ragged jeans are paired with designer labels on the ass or carefully placed decoration to entice the buyer. Not exactly Anne Frank although one wonders if a line of holocaust dolls or little girl clothing is too far behind this offering. Complete with those funny destination tags. Maybe a board game too? 

The whole notion of the costume is interesting. The idea of the pirate or ghost easily constructed with an eyepatch or a sheet. The concept of princess, now disparaged as a fitting role for little girls, remains no doubt an expensive and still well sought out Disney product. Incredibly, even after the lambast of role choice, the National Retail Federation reports 2.9 million will dress as princesses this year. Transformers, pop culture, little heroes popular, but according to the NRF, 2.2 million will also be animals. Cute. Gentle. And as I write this, 13 days to the holiday.

Still the insensitivity of the Anne Frank costume sticks in my mind as a symbol of a society that is out of touch with certain values. I conclude I’ve gone like the costume beyond absurdity to unravel the possible meaning of said costume. But really, not only the creator, but the designer, manufacturer, stores on line and beyond accepted Anne Frank as part of their merchandising inventory. It does boggle the mind.

And if not, that’s really scary.

Horrendous Things

While having lunch with my friend, I mentioned a few of the podcasts I had heard en route to see our daughter in Philadelphia.One of them had left an indelible image in my head, one I wished I had never heard. A producer or editor of This American Life, an NPR show, had related that one of her and her peer’s earliest fears was being taken to the The Black Wax Museum in Baltimore, a terrifying wax museum that documented the atrocities and outrages visited on black people from slave holds to lynchings to the one that has uncomfortably lodged in my head- of the brutal treatment of Nat Turner, the leader of a slave rebellion in the 1830’s and even worse, his pregnant wife: so as not to impart this indelible crime I will not share it here. But rest assured, you would not want the details to permeate your consciousness.

As a segue, my friend mentioned Transparent, saying she had endured only fifteen minutes of it, and I agreed, that the people on the Emmy winning show by Jill Solway can be unbearable, but like a train wreck, once hooked , viewers stand amazed, perplexed and cannot look away. But as I knit while watching and only half consume television shows, I remarked that although I hadn’t seen the Nat Turner horror, the power of a word somehow more strongly imprints on me. Interesting observation- as foremost, I am a visual person who responds to sights. But in our conversation, I mentioned as well a scene of torture from Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentine, a book I had taught to my students maybe twenty years ago. And she agreed, nodding her head and affirming, we both immediately recalling the same scene from the book.

Watching Ken Burns’ documentary Viet Nam is an 18 hour visual immersion into the horror and stupidity of war, a topic almost normalized as Trump struts and threatens and preens like some obnoxious rooster before pecking the ground. Marc Maron on his WTH interview with Ken Burns and Lynn Novick, the creators of the documentary, present a 360 of views , stories and tragedies, framed as they both attested to the “ goalposts” or the chronology of dates of when the war began and when it finally ended; rather than a so- called theme or story that shaped the documentary. For baby boomers growing up in Canada, at least for ones like me , the war was backdrop to the first excitement of university , folk singers at The Riverboat in Yorkville, student protests, draft dodgers to the city, sit- ins, newspaper articles on napalm, and that haunting picture of the naked young girl running and screaming in the street. In other words, a mixture of amazement, righteousness, ignorance, dread and relief that we were living safely in Canada. The filmmakers of Viet Nam, with the advantage of years passed , archival information and the wisdom of the survivors, sought a multiplicity of views from civilians, policy makers, veterans, protesters. They underlined in the Maron interview that they purposely did not interview on tape the well known proponents and objectors such as Jane Fonda, John McCain, the recognizable voices usually associated with the war.

On a personal note, a cousin of mine, actually a Canadian having been relocated to California with his family, came back to Toronto to contemplate whether he should return to the States and participate in the war. Strange, as I often overheard how as a high school student there, he had refused to put his hand over his heart and swear allegiance to the flag every day so his previous twelve years as a Canadian must have been deep in his mind. But he did return home to Culver City and went to war. So we worried and my mother poured over his letters, coveting them as signs of his survival in a war Canadians particularly did not understand or support.Burns and Novick include the tapes between Nixon and Johnson, the deals, the treason, the wastage of young men who perished , or returned home with PTSD and missing limbs.

And I could not help but think of our visit to Saigon several years back, sitting in the Caravelle bar overlooking the city where once the military gabbed over drinks, plotting their strategies of devastation. Now western business, capitalism, the way of life, for which soldiers on both sides fought and died has overtaken the bustling, dangerous streets of Saigon with Gap, Louis Vuitton and Coach. Needless stupid suffering and earth so all that crap from the West is available. Business overtaking ideology. And at what cost?That’s what Burns film screams at me.

No doubt part of Burns and Novick’s ‘s incentive for the documentary resided in the contrast between their earlier documentary , The War that dealt with WWII, associated with a certain heroism and sentimentality whereas Viet Nam represented a failure and shamed those associated with it. They said they knew while working on the one, they had to do the other.

My friend says politicians fight for ideals, a way of life. I say it is power grabbing and grubbing, the film, Viet Nam, even documenting that the children of the top brass of communists were sent away to foreign schools to keep them safe from fighting. Hardly one for all and all for one. Congruently my friend, my husband and I have all been reading The Sympathizer by Viet Thanh Nguyen, the 2016 Nobel Prize winner, the story of a split narrator, a traitor, a spy, a misfit, a sympathizer, an outsider during the Viet Nam timeline. The unnamed protagonist arrested by the Communists is the illegitimate son of a Vietnamese woman and a priest, his loyalties twisted, as his friendships with two of his classmates appear to be the only straight forward and clear relationships he possesses, along with his enduring love of his positive mother. He is a multi faced actor.

Apparently supportive of the America exploits and invasion of his country, in truth the narrator is a North Vietnamese spy reporting all American plans to reconquest his country in his invisible ink letters to his “ Aunt” in France.At the heart of the story is the narrator’s own unhappiness, his search for identity and inability to discover where he can belong and feel safe. On his back are the years of French colonial conquest in Viet Nam, his hatred, his cynicism and deep feelings of rejection: common to many terrorists.There is an arrogance, a smugness, perhaps because he knows he is bright, assuming he can help inject a sense of his country into a film ( resembling Apocalypse Now). This attempt affords him some satisfaction because he ironically demands truth in the movie describing the war: he strongly suggests real Viet Namese actors be employed in stead of ciphers and stereotypes. And in truth he manages to provide some of his countrymen with work, his belief being to portray or create as truthful a verisimilitude as possible. However, film and especially an American film made by Americans are little concerned for the true emotions of the pawns or enemies in their film. When an explosion lands the wounded narrator in the hospital it is a symbolic and total rejection of both him and his views.

And just as in The Black Wax Museum and the Thornton book, the author’s description of those attempting to leave Saigon in its last days , climbing on top of one another, the political bribes and money for passage out, the pressing bodies, the screams, the push and tear of flesh, the despair, the exploding planes, the carnage of bodies torn apart and especially the destruction of his friend’s wife and baby have seared my brain in indelible images. The word. Again, the words that make us( me) create pictures deeply into our imaginations. Coupled with Burns and Novick’s film, especially in Segment 8 The hideous My Lai Massacre, The Sympathizer has carved horrendous events into my mind never to be forgotten.

The brilliance of the documentary is the completeness of here and there, home and away: fresh soldiers in the field, their stories of being prisoners of war and eating a commander’s cat, their realization that a peasant’s hut where there is enough rice to feed six must hide Viet Cong, the Tet offensive, explosions if Agent Orange, crumpled dead…. are juxtaposed with the events back in the States such as the Chicago convention, the brutality of the police on the heads of the idealistic youth, the music of Clearance Clearwater, the burgeoning role of women, civil rights abrogation, films that began to protest the war. It is a panorama of years through which I blithely lived and for which I now feel like weeping.  

My cousin posted on Facebook that it was fifty years ago that he had gone to Viet Nam, never really having openly discussed it when he was home. No doubt the public attitude, the derision heaped on the vets when they returned from the war that lingered on and on, unwinnable and untenable, caused many to rethink why they had not left the country or refused on some moral ground that they would not be manipulated. But most were young, untried, many not focused on a life path between those idyllic years having finished high school, loosely finding themselves and their paths, perhaps trusting their leaders knew what was right and in truth, there was little choice but to go.But they did not repatriate as heroes. Burns’ war speaks to those vets, uplifting them by explaining in a nonjudgmental way, these are your valuable and significant stories, the true history of those days- on both sides, of brilliant young men just like you. And this was the situation- the terrible, terrible situation, but we honour you. We see you at the blaze of experience, fresh, willing, wondrous in a new place with the dream of heroism and moral good in your pockets, too naïve to know you were sacrificial lambs to party votes and politics, maybe believing the American way would be best for all folks- even those in a sweaty, swampy land whose language and traditions you could not fathom. Besides your birthday number was called and maybe it was just fate that recruited you as you sat with your friends around the television set, frozen and waiting to hear how the dice had rolled out and likely ruined your future.

Scary stuff. War stuff. Horrendous stuff.

Visits to the Graveyard

Between Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, one usually visits one’s ancestors at the cemetery. And so this past Sunday we found ourselves in both Hamilton and Toronto, wandering in the heat to say prayers to those who had lived and were now lost to us. 
The journey to the Beth Jacob cemetery or Gates of Heaven in Hamilton is about a 50 minute drive, eventually snaking over Snake Road, driving over a one car bridge that beneath houses a train track. The place itself edges on a mountain. Here we find much of my husband’s family, most lined up in almost straight formation and called to attention by their surnames.

Some visitors are overwhelmed by emotion. Sadly but neutrally I view my mother- in-law’s name in a double final resting plot, sharing it with her husband, Labol. I never knew my husband’s father who passed away at 42, but I imagine my husband’s finely tuned moral sense and art of the negotiator are derived from the man I’ve only seen in photos. In a bit of a mishmash on her grave is carved the wording, a marble marker that stands in place of the person. There is no suggestion of who she really was, her characteristics, personality or talents, the great affection she spurred in her nieces and nephews. Only the words “wife, mother, grandmother and great grandmother” .

Death is certainly the great leveller. Although there are a variety of stone types and shapes, manner of inscriptions and the odd quote here, there is an overall uniformity, perhaps reminiscent of the congregants at City Shul during these holy days . But in truth, I am dry- eyed, feeling little here. She is more in my thoughts and head when I attempt gefelte fish or am reminded of a shower she once hosted for her niece also long dead more than forty- four years ago. I recall she wore white and shone over the proceedings of cake and conversation. A butterfly, in deed.
Later in the day, it is the Toronto cemetery, Beth Tzedec, perfectly maintained and with a greater sense of symmetry than Beth Jacob as there is less choice between size and decoration and inscription here on markers: rules that the mourners will respect. Yet in spite of that, the graveyard is more of a park and one might imagine youths slowly wandering through the paths here, then meandering, stopping on a bench to reflect, gaze inward and connect with their thoughts. Even the flowers decorating graves are stipulated, not a hodgepodge, but a stately collected gathering chosen for memorials , for the eye and leg of those who frequent even as rarely as we do. As is the custom, we place a stone to signify we have come to visit. My husband reads the prayers, and it is done. I am reminded of Emily Dickinson’s poem( See below).

Hoping to come and go fairly quickly on this day, we arrive around 4 but spot a graveside funeral that is occurring so close to my parents’ stone that some of the mourners are actually leaning against it, the burial exactly in front. So we make a short pilgrimage to my aunt and uncle’s resting place which is easily locatable because their marker is surrounded by overgrown bushes.

But the funeral lags on, a group under large black and white umbrellas to shelter them from the scorchingly intense heat of early fall weather. We must continue to wait, bearing witness to the passing of a woman we did not know, but unable to move towards reciting our prayers and certainly not wanting to interrupt the sanctity of another’s passing. Finally when we are able to approach, I am- again- not feeling much, perhaps drained by the sun or the frequenting ghosts have flown further skyward to also escape the heat. I read the deeply engraved words on my parents’ stone , noting the familiar design I created of menorah and star particularly for them on the stone.
My parents have been abstracted in this moment, when they should have been most near, as usually in this place, I do conjure them with love, missing them strongly, but their faces or even a sense of them does not come to me; I cannot feel them near.  

The rabbi from the funeral reaches out and takes my hands and I am overwhelmed. As he reaches over the gravesite and our hands clasp over it, I experience a oneness with place, persons, a breaching of time. His is a warm thoughtful, action that extends beyond words as if to echo the “ Heneni” we heard discussed in the Dvar Torah. In a moment, all combines, a Mindfulness moment, “I am here, mummy and daddy.” The rabbi , looking tired, makes the visit real in a sense as the pressure of his hands and mine responding seem to affirm that we are both alive, sentient, reflecting and responding in the place of death. A strange compilation of longing for the dead, standing amidst compressed memories of my growing up life with them but also a bit like Robert Herrick’s Gather he rosebuds while ye may. Talk about T.S. Eliot’s time past, time present, time future! Only later here, I analyze. There, it is the sensation , the pressure of emotion, that is outstanding. Body not mind at all. How ironic as my parents’ bodies are no more, only dust.

Perhaps for the rabbi, it is a means to provide comfort for the mourners, perhaps to him as well, a verification that he stands in the realm of the living when his service that day is to walk among the dead, move as an agent of G-d to dispense comfort, reassurance that life will continue on. The hand holding moves into another dimension for me, the squeezing, the warmth even on a day so hot that flowers wilt . It seems to attest to the ability to be able to draw breath, move in this dimension of life, at least until we no longer are able. I ruminate at the simplicity of the gesture, no elaborate words, no soulful looks, mere touch that supersedes all else in that moment. It connotes kindness, respect and care. I appreciate it, especially as I am bereft of tears.

I’m reminded of the military gravestones in San Diego, all in strict accordance for markers of service people, small rectangulars standing at attention, much like a frozen wall of waves that stretches on and on, indistinguishable, one from the other. Yet even here on this Sunday, we in this place, must hunt a bit among the dead to scout out our loved ones.

Some people visit cemeteries as in the ones in Paris like Pere Lachaise that is home to famous writers and writers. Occasionally we have also veered off the beaten track of cities to also honour the dead. As in Buenas Aires to see Evita Peron’s family tomb- where she may or not be contained. There unending sculptures of angels in pink marble, some the size of tiny houses. The rich are celebrated in death as they did in life.

In New Orleans, St. Louis cemetery in the French Quarter, showcases an interesting arrangements “ a city of the dead” because of the high water level, so corpses are baked in their family graves- the dust of generations mingling as family member after family member share the same final resting spot.Ashes to ashes..all shattered urns…

In Prague, the magnificent 14 th century surviving Jewish cemetery where the intermingling of rural and urban traditions coalesced. Usually there is no human depiction in Judaism as the Bible forbids “ images”; however here, if my memory serves me, we view depicted on the angled surviving almost toppled tombstones the profession of the one buried: a baker with his bread, for example, not just detruncated blessing hands or a flame, or menorah marking the spot, deemed acceptable by the faith.

Years back there were benevolent societies that were set aside for Jewish burials. Immigrant and even resident Jews formed groups to assist their kin: no doubt spurred in by the antisemitism they encountered at work, school and university quotas and restrictive practices and attitudes of their neighbours. Their aim in building a better society resulted in the Mount Sinai and Western hospitals in Toronto. My father once told me that his mother sold bricks to raise money for the later. Near my house, on Roselawn, precious real estate space was once the outreaches of the city, far from Kensington Market and so here far from city core was the resting place for Jews. I visit my progenitors, Molly and Sam, this week, taking with me implements to tidy their graves. Maybe once , I had visited the graves when my mother was in her middle years although on the passing of my father, I stood outside the gates and called in through my tears, “Buby Molly, do you know? Your son has died.”

There is a taboo of graveyards as if the dead will pull you in and mark your days so even the recitation of Kaddish or prayers for the dead at the conclusion of services at synagogue incites the gong that ushers those with living parents quickly out of the congregation. We wash our hands as we leave the cemetery too, water taps installed within the gates, metaphorical again perhaps.

Although we do not ruminate on the dead, during our high holidays, the visits to cemeteries stimulate sobering thoughts reminding us to put life in perspective.

Emily Dickinson’s “ Because I could not stop for Death”,

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

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