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Updated : Jewish Voice( computer issues previously)

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,

Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In “Why the debate misses the mark,” Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.

Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer, discourses about Felix’s sister’s, Fanny whose contribution and actual writing of some of his music were attributed to Felix , her work diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society. Sara, their aunt, struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with so obviously an anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people. A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”

We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch, In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39, originally published in 1993)

I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Belfer too had likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists, and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario: “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Do writers need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside beyond their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements, crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their personal experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artifact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observes or reads, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Multiple voices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

Jewish voice

People are interested in reading and exploring in their own culture. In deed, when I stood in line for the Jewish Film Festival last year in San Diego and began to chat with the woman in front of me about her latest read, she offered Pumpkin Flowers by Matti Friedman, the book of the month for her Hadassah Group. And it is true , in searching for a deeper connection with my own Jewishness, I am interested in books written by fellow Jews or Jewish topics. Why else do Jews comb through libraries for information on the holocaust, settlements in the diaspora or focusing attention on the standouts in society that we claim as our own? Kevin Pillar of the Blue Jays?Jew. Mayim Bialik ? Jew. Einstein. Jew.Anne Frank.Jewish, of course.

With the volcanic eruption on cultural appropriation, particularly in Canada right now, I get the feeling, we are screaming that only people of their own ethnicity and religion should be allowed to respectfully engage in a debate regarding the propriety rights, ceremonies of said group, otherwise invoking strong reactions. Similarly, censure erupted in my own backyard recently over a display of paintings by artist Amanda PL, whose work suggests the colours and traditions of a culture not her own.

She openly acknowledged her art work is inspired by the Woodland school and Anishinaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. . Some say her paintings , now removed from viewing ,” smack of cultural appropriation “Outrage over Amanda PL’s work has renewed debate over who has the right to use and profit from specific customs.” ( The National Post, May 7, 2017). Along with the cancelling of Amanda PL’s show was the resignation of Hal Niedzviecki, editor of the Writers’ Union of Canada magazine, after triggering anger by an opinion piece entitled “Winning the Appropriation Prize” in an issue devoted to indigenous writing. Not just in Canada, this issue of cultural ownership is under fire and vehemently debated in realms where ideas and images are reused, traded and reinvented,
Yet I ponder this concept, seeming to me to have arisen from the first Post- modernists who understood culture in terms of local divisive factions instead of broad strokes. Understandably a push back to colonial suppression, victimization and only mandating the story of the victor transformed thinking to the telling of indigenous and local stories, adding a necessary perspective to world narratives. In this renewed way of thinking about history, in particular, we are now privileged to authentic and deeper understandings, light focused on places that had been darkened for too long.

In Why the debate misses the mark, Martin Reg Cohn writes, [t]o“appropriate” typically means to take exclusive possession of something that should be held in common, to annex it without authority or right. [However], a recent debate in the Atlantic reminds us that cultural appropriation means different things to different people.(The Toronto Star, Tuesday May, 2017)

I’m wondering about the discomfort we feel when a non-Jewish writer takes on a topic that has Jewish elements that are not favourably presented. Certainly there has been an uproar throughout the centuries against the depiction of Shylock in Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venus as anti- Semitic.

Recently I read Lauren Belfer’s novel And After the Fire. And although Belfer was born Jewish, her themes might provoke argument. It is a story that binds two Jewish women in time by their relationship with a manuscript retrieved from Weimar outside of Berlin in 1945. The story moves into the past to highlight anti-Jewish sentiment in Prussia in the 18th and 19th centuries. We encounter the original owner of the book , Sara Itzig Levy, a historical figure and music student of J.S. Bach’s eldest son, Wilhelm , who has bequeathed a cantata, the subject of the book, to Sara after his death.Sara is the aunt of composer and musician Felix Mendelssohn, Belfer,  explaining Fanny’s contribution and actual writing of some of his music attributed to Felix was diminished because of her role, gender and religion in Prussian society.  Sara struggles to understand why her teacher has burdened her with her teacher’s gift so obviously anti- Semitic –a work of hatred, prejudice, and violence towards Jewish people.
A Washington Independent reviewer of books, Marina Hewer writes, “ In using music as a unifying thread, Belfer shows that we are not immune to the prejudices of the past; we continue to grapple with similar moral dilemmas today…”
We learn that Bach and other composers of the day did in deed compose cantatas to be sung from Lutheran pulpits in the 1840’s. Propagandistic , the musical oratorios encouraged parishioners to drive Jews from their homes, ridding them from their communities. “Set fire to their synagogues or schools,” Martin Luther recommended in On the Jews and Their Lies. Jewish houses should “be razed and destroyed,” and Jewish “prayer books and Talmudic writings, in which such idolatry, lies, cursing, and blasphemy are taught, [should] be taken from them.” In addition, “their rabbis [should] be forbidden to teach on pain of loss of life and limb.”(See Was Luther Anti- semitic. By Eric Gritsch,In Martin Luther: The Later Years. Christian History, Issue 39,  originally published in 1993)
I found myself fascinated by Belfer’s story of mystery that drew on repressive attitudes towards Jews, recalling for me the depictions by Niall Ferguson in The House of Rothschild that substantiated the restrictive laws prohibiting Jews from holding property in Prussia, their impoverished ghetto existence along with newspaper cartoons that hideously lampooned them across Europe. Although Ferguson himself is not Jewish, he documents a historical piece of time, place and race, the contextual elements background for the rise of the famous family. But his role is an observer, a chronicler, commandeering the facts as backdrop ,now fictionalized in Belfer’s tale of real people who endured the actual laws and bias of the those days.

Yet Belfer had  likewise amplified my learning, taking me deeper into my roots as she had introduced the historical contexts as lived by Jews, Sara Itzig and her niece , representing a particular slice of life from centuries back.

Belfer uses Susanna, one of her female protagonists), and her relationship to the cantata to drive the plot. A person with weak ties to Judaism, Susanna’s involvement in pursuing the origins of the cantata serves to remind us that the future may not ever be completely disengaged from the past. As Susanna delves deeper into the history of the manuscript, she feels compelled to research her own Jewish ancestors, who lived in Germany before World War II and were likely murdered. Attempting to open up a dialogue concerning her mother’s life during the holocaust, Susanna prods, but her mother retorts. “You think the war is over, Susanna?…“It isn’t over. Don’t you understand why so many of the survivors don’t want to talk about it? Oh, yes, the fighting stopped and everybody declared peace, but the war, what it did to people, goes on and on and still hasn’t stopped and probably won’t ever stop. Look at you, seventy years later and you’re still asking questions.”( May 26, 2016).These enduring questions of ownership, of relationship, of loss underpin the search.

But because Belfer is a Jew, is she therefore permitted discourse in appropriating historical voice and culture for the sake of her novel?

 

James Oestreich in The New York Times( May 25, 2016) provides provenance for Belfer and her husband,Michael Marissen a conservative Dutch Calvinist brought up in Ontario. “Though he now declares himself an agnostic, he has put his profound knowledge of the Bible …to use in examining the sources and deeper meanings of Bach’s sacred texts, especially as regards their attitudes toward Judaism. Ms. Belfer had a liberal, minimally observant Jewish upbringing in Buffalo. No surprise, she shares many of the qualities of Susanna Kessler, whom she describes as atheist-Jewish.” Belfer and her husband belong to the widening circle of the intermarriages today, joining Jews and Christians, Jews and Muslims, intermingling races, cultures, genders among diverse parties.

Which brings us back to cultural appropriation. Because Susanna is not shown as pious, and in the end falls for the non Jewish love interest as opposed to the well heeled attractive and wealthy Jewish fellow, should we dismiss her book? Or do we give Belfer license to spin her tale half- truth, half- invention, because she is Jewish, although self described as not particularly religious. Does a writer need write only from their own lived experiences and background? Certainly the magic of the creative is to imagine stories beyond one’s own lived experience, even venturing outside their own backyards.

Do whom then does cultural information belong? Many families now meld, share, ignore or postpone examining the role of religion or cultural religious practices in their lives, separating, or even purposely reinterpreting and omitting elements,crafting to meet the needs of their audiences or themselves.

And what of Belfer’s own purpose in writing her book: information regarding the past, a personal desire to come to terms with her own roots and religion, a slant towards forgotten women musicians, a reminder of the contextual anti- Semitic days lining up with the well described and documented in Niall Ferguson’s tomes, that foreshadowed the inevitable Shoah through attitudes and restrictions -even in church services.

I certainly agree that supporting diversity must go beyond lip service and indigenous writers must speak for themselves , especially on matters that pertain directly to their experience.

But what of the rest of the writers and thinkers? How can “ culture” belong to only one group? Unlike an artefact closeted in a dusty museum drawer, culture, even of the past, must be exhumed, reviewed, comprehended: for its place as representing a piece of what it was, examining the contextual ties that helped or hindered the attitudes it appeared to convey.

But to see the past with fresh eyes awakens it freshly, reviewing the issues within for deeper contemplation, and hopefully understanding.

I think of Kent Monkman’s paintings but I suppose the critics might say because his paintings depict the subjugation of his own indigenous people, he has the right to paint them. Writers or artists writing or painting for the sole purpose of propaganda: subjugating, ridiculing, distorting a group for political and religious purposes is one thing, but silencing the entire group for artistic expression is truly another.

And as always, it is from the eye of the beholder.

The viewer or reader accepts or rejects what they see, observe or read, actually thinking, reflecting, and responding , hopefully clarifying through examination what stands before them. Mutiplevoices heard loud and clear adding to an intelligent discussion. Not silenced, but adding to the conversation, as Bahtkin dialectic would have encouraged. It is not hate or censure we approve, but the power of a to openly provoke thoughtful discussion that will ultimately, one prays, will send the slanders away and invite diverse commentary into the discussion.

Reading Swans on the Beach

We’re back in San Diego , our oasis and we are being revived: the weather of 70 plus the blue skies have mitigated the greys of Toronto and its sudden spark of unbearable heat. Although referred to as” May greys “ here, we are greeted with California brightness. 

Back to our routines almost immediately, we walk up to Bristol’s for lunch and then traverse the mall to see what new shops have been brought by construction promised to be finished by October. Well, maybe. Supper at Tender Greens reveals the harvest salad with the sunflower seeds, citrus and local offerings has been removed.☹️Still the falafel is still good, but I am disappointed. Yesterday at Solana Beach the tide is far out and the sand is perfect for walking as minuscule red crab limbs are washed up along with tiny opalescent shells. This time we can meander almost to Dog Beach but I decide I’ld rather spend my time finishing up The Swans of Fifth Avenue, the fictionalized description of Truman Capote and his fascination with Babe Paley, wife of Bill Paley, founder and magnate of CBS, in years that preceded Andy Warhol in New York. So I hurry back to my chair to read on the beach, crashing waves my backdrop to the lurid tale.

It is a mesmerizing narrative of Capote’s magnetizing force on the societal elite. In the afterward, author Melanie Benjamin reflects on her own growing up in a place far from New York.She peruses the pages of Vogue and The New Yorker, and all the celebrities pictured in an extreme unimaginable lavish lifestyle. Writing her book, her search back into Capote is very different to the image she had previously held in her head: the short pudgy myopic lisping one- that I admit I also carried with me. The creature who captured and held Babe’s attention was lithe, handsome, charming and witty – before his plummet that coincided with the publication of his In Cold Blood and The Black and White masquerade Ball he designed to out- ball all New York Balls ostensively to honour Washington Post’s Editor Kay Graham, but really to showcase his connections to the richest and most famous that selectively included Sinatra, Bacall, the Kennedys, along with the detritus of Cold Blood.

The focus of the neurotic Capote is the pursuit of beauty and recognition. Winning the trust of Babe and her famous friends, the Swans, he betrays their confidences. When unable to produce good copy, he reverts to revealing their secrets. Although foreshadowed by his irreverent game of gossip into the lives of high society others as diversion at lunch at the Ritz, he nonetheless is trusted. But Capote succumbing to alcoholism and drugs and his inability to follow up In Cold Blood, rationalizes that he is a storyteller. So what did the Swans expect him to do with their stories?

Worse he hurts Babe, the person Capote loves best. She is surface upon surface, never allowing herself to be seen without makeup, even waking before Bill to arduously apply layer upon layer of moisturizer, coverup and false teeth. Also the product of a driven mother, Babe is enchanted by Capote, opening herself to him as to no one else. She angel- like even understands and forgives Capote’s open revelations of Bill’s discretions in Capote’s piece La Cote Basque while the others openly reject him. However, she too will never speak with him again.

The relationship between Babe and Capote is the stuff of fairytales, her even sleeping chastely beside him and willing to confide her fears. While Capote values her as perfect, he also has gained entry into Bill’s inner circle as friend. Originally repelled that Bill asks him to set him up with a blonde woman he spies, Capote later decides he will procure an arrangement , afraid he will be ousted from the inner circle, rationalizing his betrayal of the one he apparently adores the most in the world. Constantly in search of his mother’s praise and acceptance, Capote can never satisfy his desire for not being accepted or as an insider to the wealthy and famous.
Like the worm that burrows deeply into the apple, Capote destroys the paradise he has been privileged to breach:

 “Truman leapt into their midst and suddenly the gossip was more delicious, the amusements were more diverse. He had sat on the beds of everyone of his swans and whispered how beautiful they were. How precious. They all knew he was saying the same thing to each one of them. They didn’t mind. Because beneath the beauty, they were all so … lonely.”

The world Benjamin reveals is of course a façade for loneliness and true commitment to love; however, it is postwar fabulous , a gem of extravagance , polished manners, excess and air kisses. Just as Capote, we are drawn in and fascinated by the players photographed as living the existence of princesses, the illusion of an exclusive life. The Swans, carefully coiffed wearing gems as big as eggs, swathed in furs, dining and drinking and laughing at 21, are eventually rendered as human as the rest of us: hung over, stringy hair, set upon by the ravages of not just age, but as Babe, set upon by a fatal illness. For one brief shining moment for Capote and the Swans it was Camelot, unmindful that eventually facades crumble, and behind it all: only the fable of the gloriousness endures.Benjamin keeps us riveted and exhumes the names that marked the days of rosebuds.

Archaeology is Poetry

On Monday my professor, a Ph.d from Harvard stated, “ Archaeology is poetry.” In other words, there are few if any verifiable facts, but many inferences and interpretations for the retrieval of artifacts.

We create stories. We look at the pieces from 3000-2920BCE and make links. The Narmer Palette shows us images and because the super- sized man on the plate is wearing both the North and the South crowns of Egypt, it is assumed that the big man is King Narmer, the first king to unite both parts of that country . We see apparently the first example of “ smiting” as this fellow with a lion’s tale, kilt and apron subjugates his enemy. Reminding me of Trojan’s Column from 129BC in Rome, both campaign victories are read in the registers or segments that circle from bottom to top- comic book style , and again recall for me Assisi stories that depict in narrative Christ’s birth.

It thrills.me that the so-called Mona Lisa of Uruk was constructed of mixed media, eyebrow once filled with bitchumen to darken, a wig now lost with only oversized eyes in alabaster gazing back at us, teasing that so many centuries ago, the ancients juxtaposed material to suggest a realistic verisimilitude. In The Palette we revisit two strange mythical animals called sepopards, part giraffe necks entwined that we have seen in a dynastic seal. An incredibly finely detailed piece referred to as The Ram in the Thickets from the city of Gilgamesh , where the biblical Abraham was born, are linked by archaeologist Sir Leonard Woolley, although the artifact predates the Bible. I search for further “ evidence” of connection as our professor does speak to a famine, like a mini Ice age that destroyed artistic evidence of the time, but appears to be documented.

  Chaim Bentorah writes,

The picture of a horned animal [ in The Ram in the Thicket] reaching for a high branch would bear out this date as this is when there was a 300 year draught in the land of Ur and goats or similar horned animals would have been reaching high on bushes to eat because such feeding in the wild was scarce due to the draught. Abraham lived or was born about 1815 BC so he would have been born during this draught and more significantly when this symbol of a horned animal reaching high on a branch to feed was a known symbol. No one really knows what the symbol represents.

The dates do not coalesce for me, but the yarn of the story is interesting and one Dvar Torah at Rosh Hashana actually spoke to the sacrifice of children to appease the gods at the time so perhaps Abrahams thinking of his pagan parents who worshipped idols and before he was a patriarch of the Jewish religion might connect the dots: of his bringing Isaac for slaughter. Bentorah’s article also says The Ram piece might portray an animal reaching for food and may just connote the animal’s desire to survive. Still it is magnificently realistic and delicately carved, but as my prof said, Woolley was an amazing showman. He further connects the story to Agatha Christie’s mystery book,Murder at Mesopotamia, and again I want to clap with delight as prehistoric and 1930’s are linked. With surprise, we ascertain that Christie’s second husband is Max Mallowan an archaeologist apprenticed to Woolley at the excavation at Ur.She reinvents the events in her mystery and puts Wooley’s wife at the centre of the mystery.

 One story unfolding onto another- much like the Giza pyramid where the architect stacked one bench- like form , mustaba, into another five for King Khufu or Cheops finally reaching 139 metres, constructed in stone but laid out without special technology or tools but humble string! This layering of bench upon bench provided the.burial chambers for the king, one of three pyramids at Giza. Yet an incredible sculpture of Khufu and his wife, portrayed equally, king and consort, requires the plinth to keep him and his Mrs. from tumbling. Obviously architecture strides were superior to free standing sculpture.

 Is the king of Egypt shown here godlike as the homely Tutankhamen was, or did he have to actually maintain an appearance of flat- stomached lean virility – as even King Djoser did in his pyramid complex where he was required to run in his underwear to demonstrate his power. Ironically this test of endurance sparks for me the trials of the poor holocaust souls made to demonstrate their fitness for work during camp selection during the Holocaust.

In a tiny article in Vogue Knitting, later verified by Atlas Obscura , we learn about in the prehistoric Bronze Age the discovery of a ball of wool, 3000 years old, only1 cm wide, found at Must Farm in Cambridgeshire, similar to Italy’s Pompei. Also discovered was a bobbin with thread still wrapped around it.

Last night I share this information with my grandsons, ages 5 and 8, one interested in the colour of the prehistoric wool. This leads to notions of a time capsule and what we would bury in it. Again, one is worried that it must be buried deeply so as not to be looted. I suggest that a family picture might be a good idea so people of the future might discern how we dressed and intuit a relationship among the gathered group. I reflect that I keep celebration pictures on my walls to remind me of the good times we have shared, how young and happy we once looked, an image bridging past and my present that continues to move into the future. In time forward, will they have replaced batteries ? Will computers and cellphones evolved to chips injected into human brains and bodies?Depictions, art and musical objects are likely to be retained. Maybe grains- grains like barley that have persisted since the Bronze Age even? Truly it is miraculous that a ball of wool persisted at Must Farm, but as I explain to the boys, if it gets cold, you need something to cover your body and protect it. So clothes can provide information on climate, unless the future world is swamped in global warming and no clothes necessary- or bodies require protection from bugs and such.

It is hard to imagine the future, especially as my neighbourhood is being overwhelmed by condos, chicken coops as my father referred to them, particularly as evidence of the shops disappears. Would our parents imagined a handheld computer, snarls in traffic, chickencoops overrunning the streets?
Will there be new stories created beyond the ones we have grown up with? What poetry will be created by the artifacts of the Boomers?

I’m thankful for the beauty of a tree or flower, refuge from a uncertain world. But I suppose all generations, even from the Bronze Age felt similarly.

Handmaid’s Tale

Back in the 90’s when I worked at Northern Secondary and we had something called OAC to replace Grade 13, one of our novels for study was Handmaid’s. Even now I shudder at the brilliance of teaching a novel so ahead of its time, a work that stood at the crossroads, linking and drawing from actual documented Totalitarian events in the past- for each storied event in the book: from the wall hangings that occurred as warnings in Auschwitz to the prescribed dress and demeanour of women covering their bodies and faces. Child stealing, Salem witch trials, even women betraying women, and male-  dominations been lived out again and again.

At the same time, the book was prophetic in terms of banning travel, allowing for toxic waste, or in our present day, the pollution of air. At the heart of the novel is the control over women’s bodies, as seen by the laws that have passed in the US, supported and driven by Vice President Pence and his sanctimonious brethren, rights to abortion at the heart of the issue.

I don’t think my students recognized the book as momentous back then, for along with Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure or Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, these were the texts that the english department had decided were important to the development of thinking, critiquing and engaging curriculum. But clearly our department head was way ahead of his time. The themes covered in these prescribed studies were the farthest reaching in terms of power structures, freedoms, approaches and interpretations of moral structures, rebellions, silence, repression…

The test of a book is its ability to transcend time, to keep it current and relevant and so the book Stoner, or the authors Orwell, the Bard, Copperfield and many others are names ever recognizable to our young populations. Interestingly as I read David Shribman’s column this morning in the Globe, he encourages Trump to read: Robert Caro on Lyndon Johnson, Tyler Anbinder on City of Dreams, Barbara Tuchman ‘s Guns of August, Buchman’s Pilgrims Progress along with presidential biographies that reflect on the difficult tasks a president must encounter. In Offred’s forced tryst with the Commander, her jaw falls open to see his walls lined with books, a commodity now burned and vanished from society for their dangerous power to assuage, critique, demonstrate and change minds. Wicked, wicked books, pen to paper that empowers. How can one not think back on the book burnings pre and during the holocaust, and revisited in Fahrenheit 451 or the destruction of the Buddhas in Bamiyan by the Taliban…as if beauty and wisdom like a viral infection will corrupt. But of course, it does.

The timeless quality to transcend has made The Handmaid’s Tale a thrilling television production with Elizabeth Moss. Perfect as Offred, she embodies the repressed but still hopeful personality of the protagonist. Her name although a prefix to the name of the commander, Fred, also suggests she is “ offered”, and of-red, the colour of the clothing she must wear as a potential bearer of children, signifying first blood or the onset of fertility.But mostly a possession, deserving no name. Standing by a window, she murmurs her own real name, longing to resume an identity of her own, untouchable by forces that would diminish her.

The society shown in the television production appears at first far fetched with its restrictions, each class of women delineated by colour.Simple freedoms such as Offred’s game of scrabble is a delight made palatable. That she is still able to resist, as she spits out the macaron offered to her by Serena Joy, the commandeer’s wife, in defiance, bolsters her/ our hope she may be able to escape. Yet almost as quickly as her spirits soar are they extinguished when she realizes her walkmate has been exchanged, or more likely silenced in a nefarious way. She is precariously perched on a tenuous tightrope of emotions twisting her as she attempts some independence where there is none.

 Along with Handmaid’s in OAC, we taught Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and. Lawrence Thornton’s Imagining Argentina that spoke to methods of resistance in terrible times. In most, it was the mind that allowed one to survive the here and now: so to live in the head, obliterating the slings and arrows set against the body provided the escape hatch. Just as Nelson Mandela somehow resisted in his 17 years in Roblen island, with a few smuggled in books such as Shakespeare as his treasured companions .Those dangerous, dangerous books that preach and teach. Mandela’s favourite poem by Henley from 1875 Invictus inspired him:

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

Hopefully we the viewers, the  population who still cares about liberties, can chant – even today- with the  mantra of the Handmaids,” Don’t let the bastards grind you down.

Homes of Circles

In order to avoid the overwhelming construction on Eglinton, I veer off onto Burton and drive through the stately leafy Forest Hill area where the mansions are eye catching. Even this street is full of trucks and cars and requires some slow down. I wonder who lives here, their families, friends… and I think back on where I grew up- also in Forest Hill but behind and above my father’s store at the furthest edges of the boundary of the borough. My parents had chosen the location for the reputation of the schools, but perhaps our mother had imagined her daughters worthy of the society embraced by the children of the rich. Although I truly believe her impetus had to do with education that she had dearly savoured for herself, I think she was fascinated by the artefacts of the wealthy too.

I never considered that my home was any less than my friends’ abodes. We had formerly lived in a house on Glengarry that my parents had designed before my father had succumbed to polio. Now their plan was to simplify life, and to combine my father’s living and working spaces. But this new building also on Eglinton that we were to inhabit had my parents’ stamp on ideas and needs marked on it, my mother insistent on a small yard for us planted with grass and demarcated by a fence at the end of the alleyway.

My parents, especially my mother took care to consider, plan and arrange our living space, always aware of my father’s meagre income. I was never aware that we were likely at the thin edge of the financial spectrum. Somehow we participated in numerous lessons , were well dressed, and to my child’s mind, the equal of our neighbours around the corner or in ” the village.”My father recalled so many horrible fights between his parents caused by the lack of money  during the Depression so there were never squabbles over money in our house. He did not want his children to grow up under that nagging, cheeriless gloom. Foremost, our food was the central concern purchased at the best stores, fish and chocolate cake almost necessities, bought where all the financially comfortable neighbours also shopped. In deed I believed my pink bedroom, I no longer had to share with my sister, was- palatial in size. It overlooked the lane but its dimensions were spacious enough for two girls until our sibling squabbling encouraged our parents to cut through the wall and give my sister her own room.

I remember my surprise when my best friend Nancy who lived near West Prep made a comment about how small my room was. I was stunned , taken aback , wondering if in deed she was describing my royal bedroom. Granted, I’ve never been great with spatial measurements but I truly believed my room magnificent, with matching furniture, shelves overloaded with books and personal possessions.

In those days I would tell my father that the house I would eventually inhabit would be round. Perhaps I intuited that like a wedding band, a circle has no beginning, no end, continuous for all time. There is a vague memory of a house I had once visited that if not perfectly round had no walls to divide up the rooms so there was a flow that carried you from space to space.

And interestingly when I began my search for a perfect wedding dress at the elegant Jean Pierce ,the most coveted dress shop on Eglinton back then, I pined for a gown that was circular. Somehow about it piqued my imagination. When the price made it be unobtainable, friend and department head at Westview Centennial in the Jane Finch corridor where I was newly teaching suggested her present to me would be an incredible French crepe and lace gown that she sewed by hand. We did fittings in the girls’ washroom. It hangs still in my closet- as fabulous now as forty- four years ago.

But this idea of the circle intrigues me and not surprisingly when my real estate friend in La Jolla shared a picture of a Mexican heritage house in the shape of circle, my heart sang out and I was again smitten. But like the dress, the price, and plus I am Canadian, were only dreaming points of awe and desire for an ideal not a possibility.

Perhaps part of the reason I admit to being unable to throw out and clean up my basement of my home resides in the fact that the items I have in my home not already purged are imbued with emotions. As I attempted to unsuccessfully clear out the art room last week, I was waylaid by the books that connote significance from different stages in my life. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse from university days consumed as a mantra when we dressed like hippies. Hesse played a rallying point for Boomers. Hesse predated Mindfulness and long before “ Journey” became a ubiquitous word, particularly in speeches regarding life and profession, we actually pondered its meaning : now I cringe when I hear someone, their gaze fixed loftily away, murmurs the word. Sadly, we can say -poor  tired “ Journey” has passed away, been depleted of meaning, overburdened with overuse.

In the basement of my home, there are books associated with my years of teaching of Postcolonial Literature and writing for the now defunct Multicultural Journal , my major contribution to Northern Secondary’s Gifted Program, but one gradually erased when I left to work at OCT. I have evidence of my student’s brilliance from those days in the format of handcrafted books, paintings, videos: beginning points to my students’ immersion into the study directed by the intrepid students themselves. These fill me with pleasure.These cherished items are artefacts of my life.

From OCT are the booklets and research, journal articles and two books I wrote, edited and collaborated on that contributed to the teaching profession, my favourite published by Sage. These concrete items, gathering dust, make me proud. Other heaping piles contain the standards and implementation strategies and presentations created for the more than 300,00 teachers in Ontario. And to think I worked with almost all the faculties of education in the province also writing their additional qualification courses for post study. Impressive, no? Although courses will change, reviewed every three to five years, the standards and ethics of the profession will remain as the values we should uphold. These tenets have been with us forever: respect, responsibility, care, compassion, collaboration, etc. Back when I started at the College, Dr. Linda Grant was the brains and insightful leader of that endeavour.

In university I studied Sartre whose La Nausee addressed why we keep items close, outgrown things like teddies or even hair brushes. It is because they demonstrate that we once had a relationship with them and they validate us in terms of who were at a variety of points in our lives. They are small houses for the machinations, emotions, goings on of who we were. And particularly as we age, we try to maintain that smart and vital image of ourselves preferring not to focus on the aging mind of body of today, recalling in stead the relationships, actions and pursuits, the exhilarating and inspiring contexts that formed and nourished us. The happy child of loving parents, the aloof adolescent or careless student, the committed professional, the caring lover: all the passages into self awareness. The so- called journey. 😉

So the importance of a house, especially a circular one brings one back to the start. In the home of my house lives memories and books and reminders, the exterior – whether on Burton or Eglinton, no matter.

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 with.my 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.

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