A fine site

Cleaning Up and The Story of 9724020 

My art room is overwhelmed with paper and stuff. So thinking I would begin to declutter, I approached a shelf. I still need the paint and brushes and vases so my eyes just glazeover them but in a container I find an old essay, maybe written for McGill by my very grownup son. Rather than just trashing it, I began to read the three doublesided pages. Back I am thrown into his earliest memories, to grade school, his confirmation, friendships…  

He writes, “ Most of my earliest memories are not my own. By that I mean that I do not remember them myself, but rather, have reconstructed memories based on stories friends and family have told me…apparently my nursery school teacher confided that I told jokes that only an adult could appreciate…”Incorrectly he ascribes this anecdote to his father although I clearly recall his teacher pulling me aside to share it.

His well written, thoughtful, searching piece reminds me about what is best in him: that gentleness, creativity and even – very occasionally, the sardonic wit . In it, he reflects on hating to practice piano until he surmises that the piano might actually be fun to play popular songs.Eventually he embraces his musical soul with serious forays into the trumpet and the guitar. Will we ever forget his group , Jordan and the Jordans?

He ruminates on being sent to the principal’s office for chasing girls in the yard in Grade 2, being under-estimated by his best friend’s father, his love for the Blue Jays. Again he ponders “I had two goldfish. One was named Swimmy, and the other I never bothered to name because I assumed he would die shortly. Combined, the two fish lived for 15 years. Swimmy died first and we buried him in the backyard. The un- named fish lived alone for another three years, and then was flushed.”. A small snapshot of a boy now father, husband and man.

He delves into boyhood embarrassment .When at his bar mitzvah, recalling his loving relationship with his grandfather recently dead, he is overwhelmed by his tears and cannot finish his after lunch speech to the guests. He writes,”…the next week in school [I] withdraw from friends. Afraid they have seen too much of [me].” Too cognizant and sensitive to having exposed an inner life, he decides to” build a wall around himself so he will never again have to endure the humiliation of his thirteenth birthday.”
This is the way of  youth, hoping that a cool exterior will obscure the bounding emotions of adolescence.

Yet with the wisdom of age, he can eventually contribute in his essay that there were no lies in his speech. And “his tears said more than any words…The boy[ I was] does not know this, …it will take him years to figure it out.”

It gives one pause—and a reason to stop making order in my messy art room. How do we organize and make our lives tidy, to put into place what we deem unwanted at inauspicious times when we feel we have betrayed ourselves, but later realize what is truly important. How  long does this process take?Perhaps a lifetime.
He concludes his piece with “ I was happy and loved…”   

I’m not sure exactly who the audience was, or why he had written this, and if he was being careful to expunge any too personal details, but just the same, it was an overview of a life, a certain grappling with a sense of self and identity: that consisted of family, friends, being a middle child, being curious , funny, alert and observant as he saw himself caught in the crosshares of his mind.  It certainly caught me off guard and I was awash in feelings.What more does any parent want than to hear than his words at the conclusion?

 In a book on Mindfulness, the author, Dr.Mark Epstein, discourses on forgiving ourselves, to understand that we did the best we could do at the time, and to move on. For we are all human, exploring paths that we may regret along the way, our emotions occasionally overtaking reason. And yet, what makes us human, what touches us in a meaningful way is in deed significant and essential en route to self knowledge.

I think of myself too convulsed with emotions , grabbing away the words I would prefer to express calmly rather than with an outburst. But I suppose this is how I am, for the most part, wired more into emotions than rational thought. And although having attempted to modulate my expression, I value the truth which it connotes Accepting the uneasy combination, that what perhaps makes me most special also damns me. Yet in the end, I do prefer the intensity and honesty compared to superficiality and even blandness.
What comes to mind as I consider the alternative is written in Macbeth, ” False face  must hide what the false heart doth know.” So I prefer my sloppy emotional messiness, especially at my age. Still I hear Ralph Waldo Emerson’s warning to follow the middle way- a balance. The Buddha, too, thought this best.
I think, at least, hope, my girls would agree with their brother, the middle child’s concluding sentiments. 
Howard and I tried to expose them to the beauty of the arts in music and museums. We travelled extensively with them, forays to Europe several summers and for one extended sabbatical, staying in gites and rambling in castles and churches and tasting the local cuisine, especially in open air markets. We loved hearing the kids switch into almost perfect French in Provence and Paris, dazzling merchants as we prompted them to ask prices or enquire for directions to a monument or street, knowing our bastardized accents would give us away as tourists. I think of the pizza on Sundays at Il Castillo outside Montbuono in Italy, but also swatting flies as huge as golf balls near the ponies by the fence nearby. And Erica wildly jumping up and down on her bed, yelling Jolliflex, only to dive beneath her covers so her sibs could take the blame on those hot impossible- to- sleep nights when all three shared a room. And the birthday cake almost all heaps of glorious crema and a glinting crocheted gold top given Ariel for the celebration of her birthday by Mrs. Joseph, ex- patriot builder of our small villa.
My memories leak out as I write this.
For the sake of my own reminiscing, I descend into Howard’s office and peruse the photobooks from that trip. Charter, Ambois, Lago di Garcia, Venice, Montecarlo. It is hard to consider how quickly time has flown as I view the pictures that document my children as sweet smiling faces with the backdrop of international landscape. They certainly look happy, relaxed enjoying the sun on their faces and the artistic and architectural diversions arranged by me but  thankfully for them punctuated by trips to the beach. Jordan wisely writes in his piece, “ Can you guess what happens next?” The boy he describes at his bar mitzvah cannot . Nor could we.

From the images could I guess what the future would hold? Unlikely. And although we planned for schools and lessons and family outings, we could not know what trials and triumphs lay ahead. That all three grew up to be successful, fulfilled( I hope) in their professions and contribute to society in a positive way is reassuring that the building blocks we attempted to put in place produced a solid foundation.
But as my wise mother used to annoyingly remind us in a crackle of voice, “ You never know.” You do never know where a stick will bend, what influences will mound, warp or redirect the sapling. You might water, feed and care for your bud, but sometimes the gods will alter your plans- no matter how carefully you have sown the seeds. So it is with our offsprings. 

When I was young, we all read Kahlil Gibran, most later scoffing at the vacuous platitudes, but I seem to recall a verse on wings and roots that stated “There are two things children should get from their parents: roots and wings. …. “ And in the end, I agree.

A Simple Spring Morning

I remember from my Hebrew school days one of the first prayers we were taught. It had to do with gratitude that we had actually awoken and were being given the privilege of another day. However, on some grey days we wish we could burrow deeper beneath the covers and forgo the interactions and onslaughts that arise in everyday living. But at the early indications of spring, our hearts feel brave enough to take another chance and face the world. The sight of a tiny pink bud emerging or a patch of muddy grass is cause to sing – and even smile.

Yesterday I had lunch mother’s best and truly only friend. My mom would say if you have a friend like Mary, you don’t need anyone else. And she was right, of course. Mary was there every Tuesday evening to take her for fish and chips, supporting my mother’s faltering body up the stairs to the same restaurant that greeted them as old and valued friends.Mary no matter the weather was always there. Where I once considered Mary unsmiling and cheerless, in my infrequent lunches with her since my mother’s death, I find her laughing, charming and friendly, really delightful. She tells me she was my mother’s confidant, which of course I knew.

But as I get older, I wish more and more that I had probed deeper into my mother’s thoughts, stories and history. For now the few scraps I recall are in deed fragments, not well remembered because I was enduring not really listening to the descriptions of Poland, or family fracas, or who was married to whom. All these pieces make for a Jewish geography and in that, my place, my identity in a family tree that although specific to me, crosses branches with others in unexpected ways.  

Last week at Pusateri’s, I ran into a second or third cousin on my mother’s side, Pauline, the lovely daughter of more than 80 year old Bertha who still travels the world by herself- to India, and this spring back to her home in Paris, France where she plans to go with her grandchildren to aid them in discovering their origins. It occurs to me that both Pauline and I, Patricia, are named for the same person, her grandmother, reportedly patrician, who lost her life in the camps or the gas chamber.Her father was the nephew of my mother’s father,I think, my grandfather bringing as many landesman and kin to Canada as possible.

This information is only a casual whiff from the past and I have hardly wanted more as it seems everyone in the European shetls were somehow related and entwined with their cousins so unraveling the roots leads to maladies and conclusions one would rather not know: as in the familial tremor that afflicted both my mother and Bertha. And lately I’ve heard claims my youngest cousin in California had fallen victim to the family heirloom of “ the shakes “ as my mother called it so he can no longer practice dentistry. How she dreaded any emotional encounter that caused her head to independently bob yes when she was responding no, the recipient clearly confused.

Yet there are also positive good stories of loading up a truck ( a la Jed Clampett) and heading off to Etobicoke for Sunday picnics, the whole mishpucha.

And there is merit in unwinding some family history, particularly as one gets older – or if not merit, at least interest. Because unless you glance at your grey hairs or trip over fragile feet, you do not consciously think of yourself as aging. The sweet flowers outside my window are still the same, whether encountered by a seven or seventeen or seventy year old. The pleasure they offer remains neutral , but as the mystic artist Blake was aware one can” … see a world in a grain of sand “, the eyes continue( hopefully) to perceive them anew each spring, perhaps first as harbingers of new commencements, and later, as we make associations with other springs, imbuing them with memories, good or bad, happy or sad . But outright, they signal the possibility of fresh opportunities.

Perhaps that is why I’ve come to love California where every day flowers such as birds of paradise or lilies continually lend promise to the saddest of moods, keeping us in a persistent state of beginning. As Tennyson surmised a lotus land. Here in Canada, it is the spring that fools us, tempting with peeks of purple and yellow that life will renew. In any case, I wish I had listened and questioned my mother more, noting how and what she focused on as she aged, her world changing and how she pereceived herself in that transformation.

Too often I did not want to hear the family stories, shielding myself from the pain, hurt and anger at her treatment by the family, particularly their disregard once my father came down with polio. Even as I write this, I feel myself bristle. She would proudly relate with a tiny chuckle the story of  The Little Red Hen who eventually did it all by herself. And that was what she accomplished so her own little family of husband and two daughters could endure. And so she bravely soldiered on.

 But her meta thoughts… I should have opened myself to them, not pushed them away with a yawn. How did my mother process and think about her thinking about the twists and upheavals in her life? I think she could have stood at one or several removes, philosophically taking it all in at an impartial distance: that she did with my cruel grandmother who tore books from her hands and continued to berate her. Older, my mother would extol her mother’s acceptance of relatives who descended upon her- uninvited by my grandfather- for whom she shopped, cleaned, cooked, gave sanctuary, even making her own children sleep nose to toe. My mother seemed to project another, a softer picture of her mother, once beautiful, an immigrant with few choices but who had become hard and hardened, much like a server or hidden downstairs maid to the overflow of encroaching relatives. In my unforgiving mind, I recall a small purple African violet offered to my grandmother on Mother’s Day harshly pushed away and the chant to my mother, “ Send her to commercial. She can be a secretary.” Which thankfully my mother did not do. I would have been interested in how my mother saw the spring flowers, how they spoke to her.

As I age I do comprehend better. My mother confided that music had helped her so much , especially as she aged although she continually lamented that her operatic voice had been squelched by her mother. I think music had become her Mindfulness meditation , lifting her from her confounding drudge , her growing infirmities of age. She explained it had transported her away from daily depressing thoughts and rigours of her life. It renewed her hope, obliterating much else.

I truly believe that for baby boomers, especially getting older is a shock. We foolishly never believe we will be taking a back seat and become weary. Sudden or chronic pains persist in surprising in spite of the fact that even a washing machine rarely endures more than a few decades, and its parts are/were- metal that will inevitably wear or rust or disintegrate.

Part of our disillusionment comes from turning our eyes to the world ,as our parents and grandparents did, still plagued by war, famine, poverty, pollution , corruption terrible, terrible strife that even now threatens to expunge us from its midst and an idiot as master of the so- called free world. It is enough to encourage us to crawl back beneath the covers and turn away from the spring flowers, shattering our innocence forever.

And yet… soon other blooms may join those first flowers of spring , and heavy coats being shed, ,we can swing our arms and walk freely in the sunlight, pretending there is promise in the awakening spring.


To lend our hearts and spirits wholly

To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;

To muse and brood and live again in memory,

With those old faces of our infancy

Heap’d over with a mound of grass,

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos- eaters

Dances with the Piano

She walks in glorious, head held high, a shimmering gown with a slit to the thigh even though it’s noon.She looks the part of the diva. And my god, she is. Her name is Rosinna Grieco and I’m here for the noontime concerts at the Richard Bradshaw amphitheatre. On the program is a Bach Toccata and a Liszt Sonata and this young woman immediately takes charge. Usually I will close my eyes, removing myself to a personal reverie , my own mindfulness where the music overtakes my head and I am transported somewhere beyond sight and touch. But I cannot take my eyes off Rosinna. She commands and is a commanding presence.  
Immediately I am astounded by the space around her that becomes charged as if she is an extension of the piano, or the other way around. The surrounding negative space, the backdrop to her presence becomes alive, the air that encloses her vibrant as her fingers prancing on the keyboard create precise shapes moving up and down the piano. I do not want to close my eyes because I am witnessing a performance of music in which the pianist is deepening and extending understanding , echoing Yeats’ poem of the impossibility of separating the dancer from the dance in “Among School Children.” And in taking in this moment, I cannot look away, mesmerized. As audience, we are is all fixated.

When the Liszt is preformed, I become even more aware of the relationship between player and played. She seems to be singing or talking to her instrument, her face radiating reaction to the music. In the quiet moments, she seems to coo, to encourage her fingers gliding, coaxing the tones to the shades and diversity of the lightness of the piece, but equally, she practically jumps off her stool during the passionate chords that resound darkly, ravenously, thundering sections where ominous clouds gather. The contrasts between light and dark, gentle and intrusive are made explicit as the performer herself is the vehicle uniting music and emotion. We are breathless, happily depleted at the conclusion, no one wanting to move and disturb the enchantment.

I think too of earlier in my week when Cathy Tile presented her lecture on Julian Barnes The Noise of Time. Here the music of Shostakovich is the subject  that frames the story, a three part concerto. Barnes’ narrator reflects that a soul can be betrayed three ways: what others do to us; what others make us do to ourselves; and what we voluntarily do .His narrative presents the musician at the beck and call of Power, as directed by Stalin.Fearing for his life and his family’s , Shostakovich regretfully composes nostalgic, comforting, sentimental works for “ the common man.”

I think of Madeleine Thein’s book Do Not Tell Us That We Have Nothing , and her take on two musicians in China and their conflict between party loyalty and the need to create original music…and the betrayal that accompanies being made to conform to the dictates of megalomania in oppressive regimes. Hitler too, like Mao and Stalin, rejected innovative music, the first inmates in Dachau being those dissident musicians who dared to transgress by performing jazz.

At first I can empathize with Shostakovich, his guilt, neuroses, and his fear and consider that the average person has no choice but to lower their eyes to the ground, shuffle on , but my moral meter, my husband reminds me that Shostakovich wasn’t the “ordinary man” and DO remember Nureyev and Baryshnikov and Solzhenitsyn who did leave, people so openly recognized as brilliant and talented that they could control and continue their artistic lives away from Mother Russia. At Tile’s lecture, someone suggested that Shostakovich was too Russian to defect and so he stayed, worked, suffered tremendous guilt and produced art that conformed to the dictator’s taste.
So our judgment, at the very edge of our sensibility, is held just there, not condemning him. Barnes writes perhaps rationalizing ,” …to be a coward required pertinacity, persistence, a refusal to change- which made it, in a way, a kind of courage….” To endure is in deed courage, to bear witness, to continue on when there is no or little hope – yes, for the common person. However when one is outstanding, one with options, and a recognized artist who bends to power, we have to question. For if a great composer, one granted amnesty in his transgressions , allowed the perks of his position and even sent off to the United States on tour, is unable to speak out, how can there be hope for the common person? 

Today, the passion of Rosinna Grieco inspired me, changing my grey day to one full of possibility. And it made me think of all the brave souls , small souls, speaking out, protesting against Donald Trump and his restrictive measures that tighten the noose for women, minorities, immigrants… How can one not be impressed by them, these tiny Davids willing to take on the Goliaths of the swamp. As great as Shostakovich was and his music, perhaps he might have been broken musical barriers and instead of betraying his colleagues, Stravinsky and Prokofiev and Khachaturian , encouraged lesser lights to sway to their own music.

Reminder to son: Get those piano keys fixed!


Displacement and City Issues

I’ve been home barely a week but fitting back seems more difficult this year. And although I am older, it has felt different. Which surprises me because the two past years have followed almost exactly the same patterns: from location to classes and exercise- with the exception of extending my friendship circles and adding a book group, this year has repeated the last two in San Diego. 

Coming home, I feel that my house space expand from one floor to three and I feel almost lost. Of course the weather and skies that fill me with gratitude and warmth in San Diego are grey, overcast and shivery here so instead of popping out on my morning walk, I now unlock my car door and re- establish the daily routines- of exercise and such . Today 10 cm of snow so sidewalks are slick, glazed with ice. Even the robins have found shelter today.

The cynicism and revulsion I experienced nightly as I watched Lester Holt and Scott Pelly discourse on Trump are personalized now . When I go to review scholarship applications at Artbarn and have to navigate behind barriers— barriers for Metrolinx that will be in place for four years – yes, at least four years-while the neighbourhood is destroyed, I am shocked by the chaos created by the goal to improve road and thoroughfare access. Several stores are all ready vacant as their businesses are ruined, and unavailable to customers. Where is the vibrant shopping community that featured Miele appliances and upbeat clothes and Chinese dining and colourful flowers?

Trying to gain entry to any store along Eglinton is a quest behind and through barriers as work slowly proceeds – progenitors of this action oblivious and uncaring that the incomes of the owners have been jeopardized or totally lost. Not to mention the stagnation of traffic. Where a month of inaction due to disruption would be a cause for outcry, four years is a death sentence. I wondering if our council people fought hard, but obviously they lost the battle.

I ponder the similar mess on St. Clair which at the end did NOT improve traffic flow. I wonder how those small shops endured, as many did. Is it any wonder that Gap can remain rooted while a mom and pop grocery cannot. Was there no other way to work with the neighbourhood or parcel out construction in the name of saving the neighbourhood activity? Like Trump on climate, the baby is throw out with the bath water. It is the 21 st Century with strategies that recall the Middle Ages.

I wonder if this construction and ruin is merely a Machiavellian ploy so that more condos can replace the shops that once drew people to this area. Eglinton and Avenue and Eglinton and Yonge with its schools and boutiques and streets upon which to walk are being eaten up by condos in the area , no single owner establishment able to pay rent-.Is this work intrusion into the area a lingering payback to the old old days when this borough was separate and garbage was collected at back doors? Is some bureaucrat , silent guffawing at dismantling this part of town? Or more likely, developers ,salivating, winking and planning for their takeover.

 And on my walks over the last few years whether south on Yonge or north on Avenue, I have observed the encroachment of those condos. I surmise that as businesses dwindle on Eglinton, they will be replaced by condos that like the construction blocking Artbarn, first disrupts , making access difficult or impossible and even dangerous , and results in the understandable necessity of the evacuation by the owners- relinquishing the space, parks, close subway access , community centre, the well located walk ways to the slobbering condo corporations.

Lying through their teeth that there will be more accessible and living space to replace single house lodging, the condos will offer at unbelievably inflated prices what my father used to call “ chicken coops”. And will only be available to those who can afford the exorbitant prices in what was once prime real estate- in part due to the great little shops. Just today I was told of the thinness of walls in new condos just north of St.Clair at Bathurst, but a wise first time owner, not wanting to share secrets with the condo next door, turned it over for a cool 300,000 over what she had paid. Who could blame her? So I imagine that our city planners and government deciders are destroying first, businesses, driving out and eliminating the diversity of the area-, levelling the ground for those damn condos whose construction merits will vary greatly.. It infuriates and raises my blood pressure.

So much makes me angry.I notice in the butcher shop near Artbarn, the rearrangement of cabinets, wisely away from the door that opens onto construction, and instead of the feel good welcome, I intuit something else here and I wonder if shoppers have in deed begun to go elsewhere. I had intended to head towards the vegetable store on the other side of Avenue Road, even my aunt deceased almost twenty years used to purchase her greens here, but I am unsure if there is a path that is not blocked by machines and construction workers. All is turmoil as I ironically note that in the middle of the street a worker’s car is parked ( where shoppers, should any persist, of course would be towed) and there under the loom of giant machines even for home owners two blocks away experience the shaking of the once stable bedrock of homes.

True California is LALA Land and I am a visitor there but also a part time resident, also annoyed by the noise and disruption of new screens outside my door. But there I can wander out- into the sunny shade, ramble a bit and see the reason and the order for the intrusion. Here I cannot.

Spring must be on its way here as I watch a plump robin on my fence. But sadly too I note the two toned squirrels digging for the bulbs planted in the burnished fall in my garden, digging deeply, as the ground is now partially cleared of snow. Will the raccoons lumber by too soon, nocturnal animals so out of sync, that they do not differentiate between day and night. Suddenly Hunger Games flashes into my head, the mottled fur of the squirrel recalling the outrageous costumes of inhabitants against the rubble and hunger of the destroyed cities. Doesn’t it begin by dismantling roadways?

It takes a while to re-orient oneself back home without being able to plug back into professional work. Gradually we reinvent ourselves, loosening the rituals of the day to renew our interests that once organized our lives.. This is the good and bad of retirement, but as in few matters, we are never fully in control of our lives, conforming to the predilections, spaces and times of others. And so I gradually re- engage myself, accommodating my days to my activities.

I write to express my pleasure and displeasure at myself in my world. But this morning, it is the grey skies and my disrupted neighbourhood that prompts my litany of complaints. How sad the world has become.

Naming and Food 

My new granddaughter’s name in Hebrew is :Tova Shoshanna. The first name “ Tova” means good and the second, Shoshanna ,connotes for my daughter a happy memory of a beloved Hebrew school teacher who showered her students with delicious delicacies, thereby making after school learning sweeter.

I like the idea that Jews are, in a sense, double agents, in that they have public names, but also private secret ones in a foreign language, Hebrew, as if a secret code ring will only reveal their true identity to the persons who know the covert language.

People play fast and loose with the naming, some insisting that the letter of the English and Hebrew be the same so for example, the” J” in the English one Jordan and the Hebrew one Joseph ( actually Yosef) be related by the first letter of each. When I named my children, I wanted the meaning of the names to coalesce so that Jordan’s second name Bryan, strong, warrior, and meant the same as the name Israel,  ( written in Hebrew or Yiddish -Ysrul, for the person named) .

Yet totally unrelated, my grandfather’s name in English was Sam, no doubt , someone assigning the Jewish monikers, Sam and Sarah, to all Jews, even though my zaida had arrived from Romania early in the 20 th century, not post war. What connection had Sam to Ysrul- a name my daughterinlaw insists does not exist at all !(curious and curiouser, says Alice).

And because the vowels in Hebrew are added at the bottom of the letters in Hebrew, Ithought I would again play with the interchange between the English and Hebrew names so that I changed my grandmother’s name Molly to Amanda for my elder daughter, Ariel’s second name, (which for some reason she deplores) and which means well loved. But Sam/Ysrul’s wife was Molly, Malka, or queen in Hebrew (someone more than a hundred years ago following the first letter “M” rule) so I figured in my own strange logic that since there are no real vowels in Hebrew, I could transliterate and add the” A” to Molly’s” M “and make it Amanda. Besides queens such as Purim’s Queen Esther were extremely well loved as in Amanda.

And similarly , my husband Howard’s Hebrew name is El Channon, the El disappearing into the first consonant “H” for Howard so his mother must have figured likewise. In the end, the child winds up having two separate names, usually only being called the secret one in a Hebrew Schoolroom when he or she is called formally to the Torah.
Or to confuse even more, if the English name given is actually a Hebrew one such as  Orly or Shira , it stands in both languages.

I like the idea too that Shoshanna is associated with a delightful food experience for my daughter. When I taught English at Northern Secondary, twins Helen and Mia, who worked at Phipps bakery were given the cakes that did not sell after two days. Over German chocolate cake or peach pie, we would discuss Shakespeare or Atwood’s The Handmaids Tale, lessons made more palatable by an atmosphere that included coffee and cake. The entire tone of the classes changed. Instead of bleary sleep-filled eyes and lax limbs, students perked up in their early morning class, providing powerful insights to discussions. I too looked forward to the excellent bakery’s leftover treats that could feature foamy meringue, streams of bursting blueberries, and gooey moist caramel embedded in their baked goods. I am forever a patron of the bakery restaurant pondering which to select for my family’s birthdays, such as The Celebration Cake or Dad’s Special, their offerings as delicious as they were twenty years ago.

As well, sharing a desert or a meal seems to me an important feature of bonding to Jewish families. Marc Chagall wife’s memoir,Burning Lights from her life in Vitesbek, Russia, evoked for me the holiday meal, of a clan gathering and being together so many years ago. And for secularized Jews who may go light on the services, meeting for the family meal to inaugurate the beginning of a new year( Rosh Hashanah), or commemorate a biblical tale or triumph over slavery such as Passover , is based on our coming together to eat symbolic foods.There is the lamb shrank, the bitter herbs and the all time favourite of Chorosets, which is a mixture of apples, nuts and wine to commemorate the mortar Jews were forced to make for their bricks in Egypt under Pharaoh.

My favourite story concerns one of my grandsons on Passover. Thinking it great fun to dip fingers into the wine glass when reiterating the Passover Plagues, but not comprehending the Hebrew words, he enquired what were the words we were singing out, associated with dipping his fingers. Solemnly explained, they were the plagues of grasshoppers, darkness, frogs, locusts… death of the first born, he stopped and open mouthed, eyes huge, announced , “Those are not good things.” Indeed, they are not.

But the connections with food and love do continue. And I think fondly of finding something especially delicious to greet my grandsons when I get them at school. When the elder was at daycare, he developed a passion for macaroons, then just becoming popular. The tiny pastel- coloured gems were his delight for awhile. His brother, a chocolate addict is wild for the golden coins, Lindt bunnies and an entire wide range of anything sweet and chocolate. Tonight for their pickup, I made a special trip to the Chocolate Messenger to purchase the chocolate marshmallow treats adorned with multicoloured sprinkles. Their interest in cupcakes, even from Bakes and Goods, that uses Belgian chocolate and to my mind, the best bar none in the city, wanes and waxes. The occasional bag of sun chips or cheesies may suffice although I much prefer something homemade..

This is all to say that my daughter in naming her child reached deep into her store of memories that included a beloved teacher’s name, one that was fused with food. On Friday nights, my mother prepared her fricassee, chicken soup and roasted chicken, but her fricassee was outstanding. When asked what was the special ingredient she used, her answer was always the same: love.

Leaving San Diego 

As my sojourn in San Diego is coming to an end, I am reflecting on what makes this place a home for three months. Years ago I would watch Survivor and one of the finale shows would glimpse a participant traversing the island, pausing to review or recount an event, a person , an emotion experienced in haste but reflected on in leisure, as if sampling a sweet or meaningful food that had lodged in their consciousness, but in the quiet of being mindful, the thought re- emerged for consumption.

So here too are my thoughts on my refuge from the bruising Canadian winters. Above all is the clear cerulean sky that is the backdrop to trees and walks in this city. There is almost an aural clarity to that sky, the picture perfect backdrop I associate with Giorgione paintings in Italy, the limitless of space that theNorthern Italian painters created in the looming expanse above their heads. In Joshua Tree National Park, it was the same- emitting that refreshing blueness: that if you stare too long, you will be turned to stone. I have noticed hummingbirds recklessly dart into those orange flowers with their extended necks, crows play with the currents, allowing the wind to swoop them higher to soar on inclement puffs of wind and flocks of gulls move together over the breaking waves on the beach. In the Galapagos, it is different as the colours of vegetation and wildlife contrast in their setting, dazzling red crabs and the naughty turquoise footed boobies strongly observable against the black and grey rocks, but here, it is all one, meshing and coalescing indivisible , perhaps a total mindfulness of setting.

How often Howard and I remark on our location here because we never imagined that within 10-20 minutes, all necessities of life could be gleaned: from food to book groups to exercise to windowshopping. With my sturdy feet, a bottle of water and sun visor, I set off for yoga or pilates, secure in knowing the level of instruction is confident, attentive and challenging. There is no judgment in classes, but careful teaching provides for variation in exercise, attuned to “ mature” bodies whose necks, shoulders or backs might not be as limber as in youthful arrogance and ignorance when all is accepted as functioning and moving gracefully. The Community Centre not only welcomes all, but offers a plethora of programs to educate mind, spirit and limbs. It is here too that a friendly face is always willing to acknowledge an outsider, making them feel welcome.

I engage in yoga here, twisting and grunting and extending, but never properly balancing (as in the tree, pose), fascinated by the names of poses such as happy baby who grabs the soles of the feet or, two and three, feet arranged for battle. What always comes to mind is Maxine Hong Kingston’s book Warrior Woman whose battles, I recall, had to do with her paths through and into life. I find it strange that a non competitive exercise commandeers the name of “warrior” for a stance. Before the classroom mirror, do I look fierce, ready to battle? No, for my arms and legs, each wanting to wander off and sit with the the bougevvilla or sift the sand stands at the ready.

At home my Pilates person will endeavour to realign my parts, correcting my errant head and re-aligning my hips. But for the meantime, there has been no pain, only the reawakening ache of new muscles, different from my routines at home. The reformer instructor at a private establishment is young and when I enquire that I think my zoas muscle is protesting when I go up or down a hill, she dismisses my query by responding, there are lots of muscles in that area. It is a group class that meets on Sundays and I recognize the Pilates exercises but with arms outstretched, legs rotating, head bobbing up and down, my co- ordination most times is lacking. She comes to correct and last week when I feared placing my feet on the movable bar might cause me to tumble, she gently reorganized my trembling parts into safe and correct positions. I may be the oldest of the eight people on the reformers, a few slightly younger, but mainly the women are in their 30’s and this is a level one class! I challenge myself and feel proud as my shaking legs practically knock against the walls when thankfully, the 55 minutes have been completed.

And my California friends. Yesterday I met a former Canadian for coffee. We began by attacking Trump, totally in sync. And somehow we veered into guffaws and laughter that shook us from the inside out. My other passel of amigas feels genuine- even having known them for such a short time. Yesterday one reached over to warmly touch my arm, conspiratorial in her understanding of a shared confidence. Our former condo owners are like guardian angels always checking in,, offering insight , warmth, care and camaraderie. I can pop up stairs or call for a favor. Like a steady current, they ensure my security, as friends known a lifetime. And the newest friend is a kindred spirit. She, like my Wednesday lunch companion, discusses books, family, reminisces about our prior lives and we share a deep connection. This is a kaleidoscope of varied personalities.I am mindful of the Le Petit Prince and the fox whose regular meetings bound them in spirt. But truly, what could be more delightful than expressing one’s thoughts under a brier of twisted branches beneath that fabulous sky?

As an added sprinkle to my cupcake are my cousins who live in Laguna Beach and LA, the very people who began my enchantment with this state when I was young. Meeting with them reawakens my original delight that helped ensure an awkward 15 year old could build confidence and procure enduring friendships. I return to those memories of my cousins, embracing them time and again as the backbone of my writing. The recollections and renewed conversations refresh me.

As an added perk, my writing is more often published here- first in magazines, then in journals. I will have two pieces on Celebrations and Passover in The Jewish Journal. The editor wrote in an email that my pieces always make her cry. I was touched. I feel a connection built through our exchanges, and next year hope to meet her face to face. Several years ago, I was contacted by a travel magazine to travel with “ real” writers to Nevada. I imagined this was the kickstart to a new career, but it did not happen so this little surge of articles tickles me immensely: small publications here and there occurred, but here it has been closer to a little flurry.Pleasing.

So with a heavy heart, I leave but am anxious to meet my.brand new granddaughter,Georgia Parker, and return to my wonderful Toronto friends, my cosy house and lovely children and grandchildren.

Always I am in awe that these three months are due to my mother’s careful saving who like the elves turning straw to gold, provided us with the means to extend our path into the California climes.

What’s for breakfast?

The newspaper juxtaposes a buttertart and a donut: Which do you choose? Although I am a fan of chocolate or chocolate dipped, the glazed donut gets my vote. It’s not that I reject butter tarts and I do recall a perfectly wonderful one in Halliburton, but maybe it is the tart- thing being all beige and bumpy brown that causes me to prefer the glistening glaze and the perfect circle of the former. That one is only 190 calories and the other-although it likely features gooey raisins or crunchy nuts-is almost double in calories does not stop my predilections for the later that possesses a hole in the middle.

Funny about the foods we prefer and why.

I am lately bored by my breakfasts. Mostly each morning in California, I have tasty mixed grains usually augmented with grower fresh berries and then topped with yogurt- dipped raisins along with a wallop of assorted nuts. This later combo of mixed nuts and fruits has become my 4 o’clock snack as well as I ferret out a treat that I assume will get me to dinner, assuage my hunger and provide a mid day boredom escape for something textural on my tongue and not spoil the impact of a 6 or 7 o’clock supper.At home, green tea was the ticket, but although I am not a sugar fan, here that space between lunch and dinner feels it needs a touch of sweet along with something tooth- munching.

But what to do about breakfast boredom? I have substituted granolas and sampled other healthy cereals, but even as I appreciate variety in my Pilates instruction so, too, do I long for breakfast difference. This week I decide a leftover cherry hamentashen will work and although I endured some guilt from ingesting a pastry so early in the day, it does suffice. Yet , I’m not sure why the dough needed to be so thick and well! doughy—- but the inside pocket of jammy- like contents was flavourful and possessed an interesting texture.

I’ve been doing this more lately: finding breakfast substitutes.

Several weeks ago, I chanced upon a croissant at a small French restaurant. I was delighted and decided the almond might serve as a perfect treat so I indulged and purchased two: one for morning coffee and one for my afternoon snack indiscretion. It was slightly crispy , but airily layered and flakey and buttery for midday , but suffered in the morning as the separating sections condensed in the plastic baggie I believed would maintain its freshness. Adding a scrape of butter to an indulgence all ready conceived with butter seemed an overindulgence so I simply brushed on a stain of jam. That helped to moisten the surface, but I missed the feathery lightness of the bread fresh from the oven, my finger tips barely coated with butter.
Even the unevenness of the paste of almonds,  both quartered and halved did not reignite my tastebuds a day later. Still I much preferred it to the boredom of cereal.

I have considered this problem of day old and in an attempt to be proactive, I have purchased muffins that appear moist in the baked goods section of our upscale grocery. But also mindful that a day should begin with something healthy, I ignore the tempting chocolate chip or even chocolate muffins , averting my eyes, and perusing the bran, bran- raisin, banana, banana- walnut varieties. Even cranberry- orange promises some better choice although I know there must be sugar and flour and other devilments within all. So I sigh, the voices in my head arguing the pros and cons of muffin ingredients although I know of course, they are a baked good, not a healthy breakfast choice. However, determined to avoid cereal and too lazy to grind frozen berries into a drink or even crack the shells of eggs, I select a flaxseed and berries muffin, pretending that flax will definitely augment my health and of course  th boast of “mixed berries “could mean those blueberries that boast innumerable benefits. Plus from experience, I know these muffins will maintain their moistness housed in a plastic baggie over night. 
And yes, next morning with a strong cup of coffee, most often Peets, this product will kickstart my day with a little delight for which I search: I attempt to explain this to those rampant internal voices in my head. I am very aware this path, not well traveled, to the soft and delicious cannot become a regular pattern, just an occasional morning diversion.

Fortunately for me, this morning, there is leftover challah from last night’s fricasse dipping, so I am sated by toasting it lightly, and barely slathering it in butter and strawberry preserves.
It is only breakfast that causes this angst to arise, the rest of the day’s meals a cornucopia of contrasts. But breakfast continues to challenge me. 

Palm Springs and Environs

Being in San Diego is great , but one tends to develop certain rituals in everyday life especially of living separately for three months, so when Howard returns for a visit, he shakes things up a bit and that adds to the chaos, but also the fun.

So we decided we would drive 2 hours towards Palm Springs. And because friends weigh in on what to do and see, we follow suggestions. It’s hard to imagine a much more majestic vista than Joshua Tree National Park. Immediately the formations of huge granite rock ,that look like sandstone but are 250 million years old and predate the dinosaurs , remind me of Ayers Rock in Australia. We are in Hidden Valley and Jumbo Rocks Area. Interestingly, rock climber learners are attempting to scale the fairly smooth surfaces, planting their ropes and wires into the ledges, cautiously ferreting out spots to plant their feet.

The formations are incredible, sone resembling dolphins and whales, others faces, and the most incredible piles upon piles of boulders, all sizes. Against a clear blue sky, they are awe- inspiring and one can really imagine how immense dinosaurs were in contrast to these stony mountains. Paths lead into “ these exhibits” as they are listed from the road and the Joshua trees are ubiquitous. I learn they are not cactus, but a part of the agave family, some even with tight white blooms resembling faded hydrangeas. Because their innards are fibrous, Joshua trees are hard to date although a typical lifespan would be 150 years. Mormons believed the arms of the trees resembled Joshua leading the the faithful to the promised land.

There are picnic areas in the park and in spite of this being desert, it is pretty chilly late February and we are up high. But the air quality is could easily spend a day exploring.

We drive to a viewing ledge called Keys View where the San Andreas fault, Indio Hills, Coachella Valley, Salton Sea and San Bernardino Mountains are visible amidst the point where the Mohave and Colorado deserts merge. Again, a breath- taking view with very different textured hills, scrubby green to smooth grey against a cerulean blue sky partly eclipsed by streams of fluffy clumping clouds.People perch on the overhanging cliffs and gaze.

However, one wonders why the tourist information centres are outside of the park. In deed when we stop for a coffee at the official visitor centre located at the base, the café door – where we likely would have purchased a box lunch before entering the park, is not only closed, but the people sitting on chairs outside of it are rudely informed to go somewhere else because the Café is now closed. It’s about 2 o’clock.

No one would expect , especially since there are overnight ( not to exceed 14 nights!) camping sites, that the information is OUTSIDE the park itself. In any case, we had warm clothes, beautiful sights and although I would have liked to visit the cactus garden, we will return- ether packing our own tasty sandwiches or arriving early enough to avoid the ire of the café lady.

On the next day, we walk El Paseo in Palm Desert, not to be confused with Palm Springs. As Howard wears his Blue Jay shirt proudly we are constantly stopped by other Canadians. They are here from Brampton, Winnipeg and London,Ontario. It is a gorgeous walk of high class shops beneath palm trees that stretch to the skies with many hidden passages of more fancy shops for the rich elite. It’s before noon but only the Canadian visitors are prowling the streets, enjoying the sunshine and the snow capped mountains that frame the scene .

For something completely different after walking the poor cousin strip of Palm Springs, we do a self tour of the movie star homes, of old Hollywood. Although the guy behind the counter of Ace hotel has marked the must- sees, we follow the entire map. Not surprisingly, many are behind blockades of trees: Dean Martin’s practically on the street seems pretty ordinary and Frank Sinatra’s place actually looks pretty run down; Bing Crosby’s also looks as if it needs some ( actually a lot of)  work. Howard, a Sinatra buff, wonders where is the enclave Sinatra constructed for JFK but never lived in. According to the biography, JFK’s father felt Sinatra had too many mafia connections and persuaded Jack not to accept the generosity of his host. Sinatra was more than miffed. Yet we see no evidence of another house.

Marilyn Monroe’s resembles a cottage, kinda cute with awnings and curlicues above doors in white and black and I think I may have seen scenes of this house, perhaps of her overdosing here. The only house that is not completely or partially obscured is Elvis and Priscilla’s,   an overhanging gable in orange hangs out over the lush lawn and a running fountain descends besides their love nest. It is impressive. If you peer over the tree edge, Ron and Nancy Reagan’s looks very Mexican in style and quite lovely. One can almost imagine Nancy swishing through siena tiled floors as she her high heels, likely red, clapp against the ceramic floors. Leonardo di Carprio’s is partly obscured although it is fantastically landscaped with a great carefully shaped tree mid-entrance. This was Dinah Shore’s estate previously. We smirk as there is a garage for three cars for this energy conscious star. Because there are only service vehicles and no other rubes in this secluded area today, we can gawk and peer, imagining the stars, cigarettes dangling from their mouths, slightly tipsy from alchol or drugs, their hubbub of former irreverent days in these quiet winding streets.

Having enquired of our Uber driver what he suggests we should see within our limited time, he recommends Sunnylands Center and Gardens. Nine and a half acres with paths to wander are covered with fantastic gardens. There is aloe vera, ocotillo, palo verde, Texas ebony, mesquite, milkwood, golden barrel, lady slipper plants and cacti all meticulously arranged and perfect for rambling or meditation. In a performance circle, a performer in blue becomes a living sculpture. Indoors we pause at a display of Steuben glass delicately incised with diverse designs submitted from around the world. Unfortunately we have not purchased( online) tickets for the Annenberg house although a documentary film has wowed us with the family residence that includes recognizable paintings by Gauguin, Renoir and Van Gogh. The Annenbergs, originally from Philadelphia, hosted numerous presidents and their home considered equal to Camp David. Most recently Barack Obama rambled the gardens withthe president of China, Nixon as well, a friend and guest. Both husband and wife worked as US ambassadors. I’m surprised to learn that Annenberg was the publisher of TV guide and Seventeen magazine, but interestingly but perhaps not surprisingly, the documentary film shares that Annenberg’s father went to jail for tax fraud, no doubt, the seed money for the wealth and eventual philanthropy. 

A work of Modernism, the house was created in three short years, huge windows allowing for the outside to enter the premises, with indoor pools and sculptures appearing to naturally coalesce. Modernism Week has just passed in Palm Springs and I had noted there was a tour of the house during that time, so I’m a bit disappointed we’ve bypassed that opportunity. However , I’m quite sure we will return-here and to Joshua Tree National Park: these are places that call you back.

Add delicious dinners at Copleys and Spencer’s, perfect weather and you have a sense of our time in Palm Springs.

In the midst of all this, our baby granddaughter arrived in Philadelphia: Georgia on my mind, and always associated with the beauty of Palm Springs.

A Little Life

At least four people warned me that they had put down this book because it was so depressing. But undaunted by a challenge, I persevered. The topic seemed interesting as the blurb foretold a story about the inner life of four male friends.So often authors dig deeply into thoughts and relationships of women, but a story concerning males will most times move outwards towards their professions, sports or activities rather than explore their longings, aspirations or reflections. Brigid Delaney in The Guardian reminds us that “characters’ friendships represent the type of love known as agape, described by CS Lewis in The Four Loves as the highest level of love known to humanity: “A selfless love, a love that was passionately committed to the wellbeing of the other”…[ for example] Mark Twain’s bond between Huck and Tom in The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. So in our society where it is fine for foot ball players to smack each other’s bums, and now for married gay men to openly kiss, a story of non- sexual love among men is a fresh exploration of how men communicate their emotions. 

The novel did not disappoint as a portrayal of an enduring relationship among four young men who meet at a fancy New England College , develop a lifelong commitment while moving on to diverse life experiences in Manhattan. The author follows them for 30-40 years so the reader has a sense of the trajectory of boys who grow into men.

Early on, we have a sense of their strong personalities: JB is brought up in a loving adoring family where there is no father. He is a Haitian- American with avant- garde or unconventional leanings such as in his early work covering spoons with human hair. Malcom is the biracial scion of wealthy parents from the Upper East Side in New York. Like JB, he is a creative, continually fashioning intricate paper boxes ; he will be the architect. Both the thinking of these two men is fascinating because they are artistic souls who are not confined to societal perceptions usually associated with males; they think “ outside of the box”, and are not governed by the wolves of Wall Street stereotypes, competitive and ruthless. Willem is the kind and caring one whose stoic Swedish parents working an unproductive farm in Wyoming have all ready lost two children, the remaining one Hemming is unable to communicate, and is confined to his wheelchair. A compassionate brother, Willem responds to him, taking responsibility for his needs. At one point Willem works at a camp for disabled children, but he veers towards acting: and that becomes his life’s work where he excels.

Only snippets of the final fourth character, Jude, are grudgingly revealed although we discover almost from the start that he has been abandoned as a baby in a trash can in South Dakota, no record of him existing. It is Jude’s story that the author unwinds, the pivotal point of the friendships that sustain the novel.

This is a story of four men , complimented by two more enduring male characters who play essential roles in the story. There is Andy, a med student who becomes Jude’s long suffering physician never reporting nor insisting Jude’s emotional or physical injuries hospitalize him; and Harold Stein, Jude’s mentor, law professor and adoptive father: two incredibly supportive caring companions who come into Jude’s life. Women are peripheral, his social worker Ana dying almost at the outset, Julia, an extension of Harold, and a passel of women attaching themselves to the main players: some stay; others leave, none exerting any real impact on the narrative.

But it is Jude whose background is made mysterious, hints here and there and Jude himself forever deflecting attention when he is questioned about his origins. “Whenever Harold asked him questions about himself, he always felt something cold move across him, as if he were being iced from the inside, his organs and nerves being protected by a sheath of frost.” One critic refers to the process of revealing Jude’s background as a “ striptease”, as tantalizing fragments are suggestive and alluring, but only small pieces are reluctantly tossed towards the reader.

Jude is handsome, hard working and extremely intelligent, taking a masters in pure math while studying law. His interest is in the moral impact as well as in the philosophical and abstract in his studies. He is an attractive man, but never truly involves himself with other individuals . Even with his room mates, and another artist, Richard and the Henry Youngs, he seems to inhabit space much like a lamp or piece of furniture. We have no real sense of who Jude is, his like: only his overwhelming dislike: himself.

There is a quietness, a looming aloneness that sets Jude apart. We do not learn much about him, past or present in his interchanges or his activities, save for the fact that he swims and while his body permits him, he enjoys long walks in the neighbourhood, usually on Sundays. And almost from the outset, we discover when Willem must deliver Jude to Andy because there is excessive bleeding on the bathroom floor: that he cuts himself, his razors hidden in special places in the bathroom. Taught to assuage pain as a child by Brother Luke, one of the monks at the home where he spent his early years, the reader observes that “[Jude has] long ago run out of blank skin on his forearms, and he now recuts over old cuts, using the edge of the razor to saw through the tough, webby scar tissue: when the new cuts heal, they do so in warty furrows, and he is disgusted and dismayed and fascinated all at once by how severely he has deformed himself.” This revulsion and self loathing are evident from the outset and lend to the secrets that Jude hides, along with his limp,, suggesting a previous life of pain.

The reader although interested in discovering some about Jude’s background and the reason for his behaviour and demeanour also intuits not to go too deeply in order to unravel the intricacies of Jude’s life. Perhaps like his roommates who do not push , we are relieved not to pry open Jude’s life, fearful that what we will learn will not rest easy with a lifestyle that is fun and fast and gratifying, that which the author has ushered us into at the outset of her novel. The roommates lead a glamourous life, fancy universities, parties, laughter, swish galleries, “ as a catalog of the incremental accumulations that, almost without [ them] noticing it, become the stuff of [ their] lives: the jobs and apartments, the one-night stands and friendships and grudges, the furniture and clothes, lovers and spouses and houses.”This is the good life, the promise of the American Dream, work hard and the future will unfold with all the blessings available to the best and the brightest.Jude appears to live the part. But it is Willem who continually attempts to dislodge some facts about Jude’s life prior to their  college days.  Yet , only after an almost fatal suicide attempt late in the novel ( of more than 700 pages!) does Jude confide some of the horrors of his forced sexual profligacy.

Jude’s background, especially, his self destructive cutting is a recurrent motif that underpins and does pique the reader’s desire to ferret out more about the central character. Besides Jude’s negative stance, occasionally the  author reveals “…as an adult, Jude ‘became obsessed in spells with trying to identify the exact moment in which things had started going so wrong, . . . but really, he would know: It was when he walked into the greenhouse that afternoon. It was when he allowed himself to be escorted in, when he gave up everything to follow Brother Luke. That had been the moment. And after that, it had never been right  again.'”  

There is a foreboding that his story, although Jude has accomplished much to be in his present life, the successful litigator in a top firm , that the novel will not be a Cinderella one that promises more happy endings, forgiveness and resurrections. Much more a Grimm’s tale, the monsters will continue to roam in the garden of the protagonist.

At the best of times, the men are forever entrenched in one another’s lives. Malcolm designs Jude’s apartments and eventually his incredible dream house, opening windows that overlook forest and sand.  And JB after searching for his art niche, follows his friends around, photographing them and painting their interconnectedness in a photorealistic style: these works catapult him to fame. At the centre of the paintings always is Jude, trying to obscure himself , erase himself from the picture, yet kept in play by the supportive loving web of these friendships that do not pry where Jude does not want them to go. 

But as time goes on,  Yanagihara writes, that Willem and Jude “knew why they kept attending  ..these parties: because they had become one of the few opportunities the four of them had to be together, and at times they seemed to be their only opportunity to create memories the four of them could share, keeping their friendship alive by dropping bundles of kindling onto a barely smoldering black smudge of fire. It was their way of pretending everything was the same.” They hang together the way childhood friends sometimes do, for having enjoyed parallel experiences in the same locations, their sense of self with one another, having built endearing images that reassures them – even as time goes by, and their paths separating them- that they had had a real connection, that their last vest had had meaning.

At a dinner party where the friends discuss what their legacy will be, Malcolm ponders whether not having children was a mistake. Wide eyed Willem responds that making people happy and having been a friend is sufficient as a reason for existence, reinforcing that pact of friendship as enough, as a raison d’ Etre, a goal to be upheld and cherished. For Willem and Jude, that objective is fulfilled- if short lived. However, the author, dramatizes that the memory of that relationship once Willem disappears from the scene is not nearly enough to ensure her main character’s respite from his childhood demons.

Yet like the inevitable train wreck from which we are unable to avert our eyes, we continue on reading. In deed towards the end when Willem enumerates all of Jude’s fine points as a friend, a good listener, etc., I wondered if I had missed all that, and except for his obsessive cooking such as creating amazing cookies for Julia’s fete or a splendid conversation with Lawrence and Gillian at the Steins, we only experience his nervous shell, for  Jude’s trepidation was that his life would unravel or someone near him would find out about his early life and disparage or even stop him. When JB imitates Jude’s lopsided walk and Jude sees this performance, we can comprehend his shame and resentment of the mockery. Although JB, strung out on drugs, apologizes and truly regrets his actions, this distorted mimicry cannot be forgiven by Jude. To Jude’s credit, he has struggled on to achieve that good life,however he has never been able to escape the terrible ghosts of victimhood.

The author Yanagihara’s question in the novel concerns the impact of damage of Jude’s youth. Abused, prostituted, betrayed, run over, lied to, can a person with all this baggage be saved?
 Her answer resoundingly is No! 

Jude’s early years have been the stuff of fairytale evil. And, even though she attempts to balances the rest of his life ( with the exception of Jude’s brutal relationship with Caleb- who hurlsJude along with his wheelchair down flights of stairs) with love, success, endearing friends and kind adoptive parents who only want to recreate Jude’s world and have him emerge as peaceful and happy, like Sysiphus, he is doomed, forever chased and tormented by his coyotes, threatening him with past and forgotten images that tear him asunder. Not surprisingly, his cutting attempts push him into suicidal episodes. He is so unable to trust that when Harold takes his head in his lap to console and comfort him, Jude surmises that even his father wants sexual favours. 

Jude is aware of the crowding menaces in his head and even as he lashes out, impugns or rejects all those who have stood by him; he is a divided soul. However, after the final incident with Willem, Jude’s behaviour goes way way beyond the reader tolerance. Likely even the most compassionate reader will not condone Jude’s behaviour, no matter his childhood scarring. At age 51, and in spite of all the support afforded him, he gives into childish tantrums , hurling a cheese sandwich at Harold, and ranting. Yanagihara is showing us Jude is far beyond redemption and he will not or cannot rally.

Or perhaps, she teases us by showing us the behaviour of a child Jude has never been able to inhabit, taunting the reader to speculate that if he could regress and be that child, would he cast off that damaged persona and emerge again, a new Jude. However, Should the optimistic reader aspire for new beginnings, Yanagihara demonstrates that the traumas are irreparable and there is no possibility of repair. Love will not triumph.

 Daniel Mendelssohn, New York review of books, writes “Jude is a pill, and one cannot get emotionally involved with him in the first place, let alone be affected by his demise Mendelssohn continues, ” Sometimes I wondered whether even Yanagihara liked him. There is something punitive in the contrived and unredeemed quality of Jude’s endless sufferings; it sometimes feels as if the author is working off a private emotion of her own.” And truthfully, the reader is not given much about J.B, Malcolm or even Willem to offset the dirge of pain, only the unrelentless telescoping on Jude.

Chris Lorentzen from the London Review of Books also describes Jude :”At college he was a maths whiz, and his readily provided assistance with calculus assignments [ which] may explain his friends’ loyalty, because he’s a vacuum of charisma.”

With conflicted debate about this book, Yanagihara told The Guardian: “One of the things my editor and I did fight about is the idea of how much a reader can take,” and you’ll find it hard to find another mainstream literary fiction that equals the most egregious ‘misery memoir’ for its plotlines.” As the New Yorker pointed out, “Vladimir Nabokov’s Lolita and Emma Donoghue’s Room let the worst abuses appear off stage. Not so here. Not tantalizing or overly descriptive, the recollections are told matter of factly, with no emotion. “ Jude has taught himself how to detach himself from the sexual encounters he has had to endure. In deed, the title 0f the novel comes from Brother Luke responding to Jude’s distancing himself from the horrendous invasions of his body. He is told to show, “ a little life” to the truck drivers, salesman, disgustingly fat men who buy his body. Ironically, Jude even in his secure successful life is unable to show any life at all. So that by the completion of his tale, we are glad for the end of his little life. 

In spite of its numerous short  falls, Jude persisted in my head after I closed the final page. Maybe like his room mates, I too had been transfixed by the damaged beauty and promise -that like the butterfly secured by a pin -will never fly.


Fanny, A Real Hero

In San Diego this week, the Jewish Film Festival is offering an incredible number of films. Some target coming of age or sports or history and war. I selected three because of location and time, but of course first perused the content of the offering.


So there I stood at Claremont last Sunday noon, wondering if Fanny’s Journey would deepen my understanding of the holocaust. Years ago I had taught Eli Weisel’s Night to Grade 11 students, a few insisting that it was only a story, denying that the holocaust had ever taken place. Any many many years earlier I had sunk into the leather couch at the library, eager to read more and more about plight of children during that time.

Like other films based on the events of history such as Amistad, John Adams, Victoria, or Queen of Katwe for example, the film maker fills in details, in some ways making them more vivid than in a book or script, by adding a physicality to the presentation. In Fanny’s Journey, we may have known the story of Jewish children secreted in foster homes or institutions throughout France to save them from the Nazis, but the faces of the no nonsense Fanny, the nightly cries of her sister Erika and the innocence of the eyes of Georgette sear your mind with the palpable terrors of children caught in a drama we can hardly imagine.

Fanny is fourteen and all ready responsible not just for her sisters but for a gaggle of others who must depart their safe haven when reported by a local cleric. When their most recent lodging in Italy becomes a threat, they must endeavour to reach Switzerland. Fanny and Eli, a kitchen worker, are responsible to lead the children to safety,, but when Eli bolts at the train station, Fanny must navigate by herself.

Based on Fanny Ben-Ami’s autobiography, we move with Fanny’s harrowing journey through forests, shacks, dangerous situations and chance meetings that result in lucky moments that preclude the children’s arrest. We hold our breath as the Nazi commandant approaches the shed where the children have rested, relieved that abruptly another officer calls him away at the very last second to attend to an official matter.As the terrified children, eyes huge and tongues frozen in terror, holding their breathe, acknowledge the moment of capture has passed, their bodies soften, and so too do ours.. Similarly when a recluse takes them in for only a night and explains the red berries the young children have eaten are not poison, we gulp and wonder if in deed, they will make it through to safety.

Director Lola Doillon has retained, in spite of the dire circumstances, a lapse into childhood fun. When Maurice’s money flies from his pouch, the children chase the floating notes as if they were butterflies, giggling, jumping delightedly as if there were no harm surrounding their every turn. When they chance upon a creek with water, they engage in water fights, splashing one another, just a passel of ordinary kids, fooling around. This balance of childhood behaviour balances the extreme tension of the seriousness Life and death situations in the film. Will the dolly given by the lady with the baby herald disaster.? Will the children provide their new names when questioned by police? Who is a friend and who is a traitor? These are issues that Fanny, the leader of the children, must discern. She is the Pied Piper, the hardheaded combatant of the group.

We are in awe that an adolescent manoeuvres the group to safety. Towards the end of the film, when she willfully decides to return to danger for the safety of one child fallen behind, we gasp, cogitating with her, weighing her own freedom against another’s. Would we, each one of us, be so brave in dangerous circumstances o recross a no man’s land? I fear not.

The movie although set in wartime is connected to the plight of refugees, especially today. We have only to recall the scathing photos of the 3 year old Syrian boy fleeing with his family, lying lifeless on a Turkish beach. The children, the future of our world , chess pawns by ruthless governments is a deadly game.

At the conclusion of  Fanny’s Journey, the film reveals the real life Fanny. She is a marvel, magically alive, vital and beautiful, presented relaxed and smiling. We are in awe.

The story is true, the heroine has survived and one person has changed history , especially for the others she has saved.

We as audience have shared a moment, a promise that humanity can be better, that people are courageous, that children are invested with the power to make the world better. In deed, we wish for a world where children can engage in tea parties, play with their stuffies, eat sweets, roll on the grass and be children. For children of war, their innocence is stolen, their days as carefree impossible. To keep them safe and unaware of the travesties of horror should be the mission of all.

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