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Archive for the tag “Gabriel Garcia Marquez”

The Girl Who Smiled Beads

When I taught my post colonial literature course, we sought out indigenous writers from what had been originally, referred to as “ third world countries.” When I took over the course, I immediately banished that epithet, attempting to remove the moniker of competitive ranking of worlds, peoples, countries and situations. The voices we offered our students in that gifted class such as China Achebe, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez, for example, were unique and played no second fiddle to lauded Americans or others who wrote about the trajectories of their own countries. Still, places like South America, the Caribbean and Africa brought with them their own special and recurring issues: civil wars, clan warfare, colonization and terrors.

From the Caribbean- born but UK educated V.S. Naipaul, I changed one book to Canadian Rohinton Mistry’s Such A Long Journey, the story of a Parsi family whose problems resembled most families worldwide: daughter falling ill; a son who wants to go his own way in opposition to his parents’ wishes, hard working parents, etc. The tone and narrative were accessible to Canadian youth and the novel imparted a way of life few of my middle class students had even imagined.

When I shared my interest in The Girl Who Smiled Beads, a friend disagreed and called out the protagonist, particularly for her attitude. The true life recount concerns the Rwandan genocide in 1994, and the writer’s, Clemantine Wamariya , long journey as a homeless refugee. At age 6, she and her older sister, Claire, fled their grandmother’s home near the Burundi border, travelled through seven African countries to avoid killers, from refugee camps to slums to satellite settlements and eventually on to middle class white America, where she found herself to be “a curiosity, an emissary from suffering’s far edge.” Clinging to Claire, Clemantine appears to prosper, adapt and thrive in her new country, even showcased in a showstopping reunion in 2006 with her parents, once believed massacred, on Oprah Winfrey’s television show.

The book documents the difficulties of a perilous existence with fluctuating means of surviving extreme situations , but somehow she and Claire maintain their dignity and emerge from life threatening situations. Sister Claire appears the tougher, more resilient, who keeps her head down and participates in the world of hard knocks. She marries, gets beaten, has babies, negotiates small businesses, and keeps on, no time for tenderness. To support Claire, Clementine, the author is the bulwark, forced to grow up too quickly, becoming an ersatz mother to her niece, Mariette, before she herself enters puberty. Her backpack in which she keeps a few moments, provides a kind of lifeline to herself as a person with needs. It’s her one talisman.

The story is not told in a voice of gratefulness or triumph.Rather, it is one of resentment, particularly as Clemantine observes herself in the States, Illinois, in a home of welcoming and supportive foster parents: as resentful. She does well in school, plays basketball, is even a cheerleader. She believes her classmates view her as exotic and when she does reveal the horrors of her life, she is rebuffed, told by teachers not to be so sharp, so outspoken, so intense.

My friend with whom I shared the book expressed that the girl should have felt lucky : to have landed securely in a new life, given advantages such as a special prep school so she could qualify for Yale, a loving family who sought her emotional repair. She’s even wins scholarships and is recognized as an activist, intelligentsia of a sort. Yes and no.

We want to hear the gratitude that goes along with opportunities, especially those never possible from previous lives. We expect those who pull themselves up by their boot straps to at least thank those providing the boots. In stead, here, there is acknowledgment of a different way of life, but the dominant pervading emotion is a grudging acknowledgement , a focus of remaining “ the other” in spite of acceptance into a cleaner, safer, healthier, more stable, better world of advantage.

In many ways, ,Clemantine ‘s portrayal is cerebral, not that all of the gritty, messy, life threatening details are glossed over, witnessed or endured by the writer and reader. We learn that even constant foot washing will not eliminate the bugs and insects that have burrowed deep between toes that ever cease to itch, that nits are a pervasive never ending issue; that in a refugee camp, “others were invested in your suffering…their jobs and self-worth depended on your continued abasement, on your commitment to residing in a social stratum below them, the same old neocolonial scheme.” It’s an existence of fighting off disease, fighting for shelter, fighting for a place to exist, and always being on the look out for those who would use and abuse you.

Remembering as an adult, what she had observed as a child may ,perhaps, be understood as a stratification of survival and selfishness. Clemantine sees and relives her lost childhood from the consciousness of an intelligent educated woman, trying to make sense of a world that is incomprehensible to the child she once was, the descent from a world of nannies and brilliant flowers to malaria, dysentery, paper tents, scrounging for food, and an acquiescence of bare existence.

Constantly, she returns to Eli Wiesel’s hellish description in Night when he tells of his forced march from his holocaust concentration camp, ashamed to reveal the burden of his labouring father, and his desire for food: not the image of the suffering son whose only goal is to keep his father alive. He writes, and she echoes,“I was fascinated by Wiesel’s determination to view himself without pity, shame or sentimentality, to spell out the horrors he lived through and place himself in the fallen world.” Wiesel gives her language, words that communicate her response to being a child in the worst of situations. She says in conversation , “My name is Clemantine… I don’t want to be called the genocide survivor anymore. No. It’s a label. I am human.”

She reads vivaciously; Austerlitz by W.G. Sebald encourages her to go deeply into her memories.Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye also aids her to make sense of the dualities in life. Morrison’s tale is told with bitterness and regret from the purview of a once child as well.

In her essay, Objects of Memory, that drew Oprah’s attention, Clementine wrote in conclusion,”

It should be better by now. It looks better by now. But if I’ve learned anything in my life, it’s that surfaces often deceive. I can play the part; I can wear the bracelets I make, drink tea with friends, lounge in the sun on the pretty grass in the park. But I am still stringing the beads together, still working on creating a life out of lost memories and scrambled time. I know, now, that to feel complete I need joy and peace. Those are the pieces that will make me feel whole.

When we see the images of children in refuge camps, at the Mexican walls, the long marches from Guatemala or El Salvador or even look into the wrinkled faces of holocaust survivors, we should hope their lives were or will be balanced with love, security and joy. The human condition endures, but at what cost?

Sharing my friend’s thoughts with my husband, we wonder if our reactions are in deed bound up with our own countries’ philosophy , especially towards immigrants and refugees. My friend lives in the States, communicating the message of how lucky to live here, stop your moaning, look at the opportunities you’ve been given: from nothing , you now have something! And in Clemantine’s life, it is something very special.

But, we as Canadians perhaps tend to see a larger picture, less jingoistic, more understanding of a life before life, willing to share our freedoms, but mindful of a past, a background that is not so easily erased: what we used to refer to as “the mosaic,” not the melting pot mentality.

Yet, truly, there is a need, even a responsibility to oneself, not to stay mired in the past, to move on and be able to claim the joys that do in deed make one feel whole.

Even Clemantine wrote that.

Memes and Quid Pro Quo

I’ve always loved reading. Not a big surprise that a former English teacher admits it. I’ve found it interesting to hear new (really old words) or expressions revived, somehow finding their way into common day usage today. Especially as my eyebrows rise as words or entire sayings are being morphed to their essential bits or just plain ( not plane) letters.LOL, BTW.

My theory is that there is an elite unit or governing body that wishes to destroy our use of writing, hereby being able to control us, returning us to the dark ages of illiteracy and pre writing. Communicating in truncated letters in texts is not much more than the vernacular of grunts or the base fragments of words undressed to bare minimum. No need to cover those naughty vowels! Avoiding correct spelling, of which I am terrible, or due to sheer laziness, people delight in acronyms or scruffy bits of reduced words. In truth, z’s and s’s have also made me wonder: which is which. Not which is witch? Although I suppose a which could really be a witch. But isn’t that the fun, the untangling of homophones such as bear and bare, not homonyms such as to, two or too, and certainly not homophobes – which is something totally different all together.🤣 Language opens up a way to play, express, confound, confuse and dazzle. Just ask a politician or a comic how they entwine, pun, draw on metaphorical language: to manipulate their audiences to respond in guffaws, wildly cheer, jump to their feet or erupt into applause.

However, both the Quid Pro Quo example and memes reminded me of stories from my life. Of course, “quid pro quo” is Latin and I adored my Latin classes, even being elected president of the Latin class in the terrible days of high school:the role of president which actually no one wanted because everyone thought Latin incredibly dull and the responsibility was not cheerleading, fund raising or welcoming new students; it consisted of taking over lessons should the teacher be late or absent.

I thought of Latin as a game. Most decried its uselessness as a dead language and unless, they quipped, it was only necessary if you had decided to go to work in the church. Not something that 99.9% of Jews at Forest Hill contemplated as a profession. But for me, it was a hoot, playing with declinations, even the names of ”ablative, accusative, genitive, dative.. “ were a tickle to my mind. Much like English grammar, but more confusing, you had to prethink, parse, create. I wondered how Virgil and Ovid had managed a fluid sentence when every word had to be parsed differently.

And who could not love the first introductory expression we learned upon stumbling into our Grade 10 class , over which we giggled ourselves silly : semper ubi sub ubi. Or always wisely, always wear under wear. So Latin was not only a code language, it was hilarious. In Latin, I shone, recognized, in spite of my awkwardness and curly hair, as a star. But truly, who wanted to be a star in a dead language that most in that class would not have chosen if it had not been a required course. For after all, our school motto emblazoned over the auditorium was Non Nobis Solum which when I just checked meant “ Not for ourselves alone” although I had recalled it as something about reaching for the stars, Per aspera per astra: as most of the overachievers did at that school. Like spices to the soup, Latin sparked up the conversation or added a hint of mystery. Although, who ever dreamed of lowering their eyes and fluttering Latin bon mots seductively to their suitors.

The recent reference to the word “ memes” also awoke a memory. I never really understood the words “meme,” or even how to pronounce it properly . I did seek dictionaries, but like the difference in east and west coast time changes and/ or some mathematical equations, I don’t get them, believing there is a faulty wire in my head that refuses to ignite the synapse that makes meaning in those departments. Back in the 90’s when I taught at Northern Secondary, not only was Atwood’s Handmaids Tale ( not tail) on the curriculum, One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was the choice for Grade 12 Gifted. It is the truth is stranger than fiction kind of book that follows seven generations of the Buendia Family in a series of repetitions amidst real and terrible events that actually occurred and are documented in South America, but are transferred to the fictional Macondo, a city of mirrors. Even names such as Arcadio and Aureliano, for boys or Ursula, Amarante and Remedios for girls are used over and over again throughout.

I’m ashamed to recount that the when I taught the book, I did not focus on Renata Remedios’ nickname which was Meme: one aspect of the brilliance of Marquez’s genius escaping me in the meaning and tautological cleverness!True, I think I did a pretty good job of pointing out the iterations, reoccurences,etc except for the attention to Meme’s name. I most definitely recall an assignment that allowed students play to explain a particular theme, likely the recycling or repetition of an idea. I remember one girl, maybe Kristen, baking copious amounts of pale sugar cookies to explain the proliferation of fecundity of the seasons as even the animals at the Buendias could not stop reproducing. David, I think- it’s been since the 1990’s- diagrammed reoccurring waves of abundance and scarcity in physics, linking a mathematical equation to explain the rise and fall of the fortunes of the family.

In all the discussions, I did not address the meaning of Meme and why it was so well chosen and woven into the surreal story. Mea culpa. ( see how useful Latin is. Even avoiding regret sounds loftier in Latin) , but again this expression has made its way into our daily usage too. Funny that. But these days, as I hear the words, no doubt correctly pronounced and used over and over. With the current focus on “memes”, I again returned to sources, and re- examined both pronunciation and meaning.

A formal definition states,

“’ Meme’ was coined by the often controversial evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his 1976 book, The Selfish Gene. In it, he states the following: We need a name for the new replicator, a noun that conveys the idea of a unit of cultural transmission, or a unit of imitation”.(Jun 25, 2012).

On the Internet, I found Today I found out: Feed your brain, the writer almost reflects my confusion, when they say,

In its early days, “meme”, which incidentally is often mispronounced as “me-me” or “meh-meh”, but in fact should be pronounced “meem”, primarily was only known and used by certain academics, but today this neologism is beginning to reach widespread use thanks to describing the viral spread of jokes, ideas, etc. via the internet.

So ah- ha, the Internet has contributed to the spread of viral memes, BTW, viral’s etymology associated with virus – which is not a good thing at all.

For me, I give myself numerous lashings and apologize to all of my former students for not pointing out the connection between Meme, Remedios and all the repetitions in that wonderful book.



Time Lapses

Watching This Is Us this week triggered some emotional residue that concerned my family.In this particular segment of the show, hospitals play a pivotal role. Kate confined after Jack’s precipitous birth, ministers to her underweight premie, However, the underlying focus is Rebecca, Kate’s mother who not only keeps watch on the infant but is revisited as a patient: once as a young mom in a car accident, her body broken but also her mind slowed by meds; then at the conclusion of the episode, her hands fidgeting , her eyes blank, likely beset by Alzheimers. The children now grown and grey- haired gather, perhaps for the final goodbye.

The juxtaposition of Rebecca’s hospital scenes of young and old combine for a curious and sudden effect, the immediate ellipsis of foreshadowing an event, a mind under attack, with its eventual outcomes. And within less than an hour of the viewers’ time, we observe Rebecca grow, interact, age, decline: the cycle of life as if captured in one of those National Geographic photographic speed ups of a seed planted, blooming, blossoming and dying. For a flower, it’s startling ;for a beloved human, it’s painful because we know that this is our fate as well, and for the inevitable trajectories of those we love.

As a child yourself, perception and time is skewed. Summer vacations of sun and redolent sand of a few months seem to stretch forever, oases from dreaded pounding school. Teachers, in reality young and perky in their twenties, even kind ones appear to be ancient, so so old. Proceeding through middle and high schools, life accelerates soon, shorter vacations, an awareness that more closely conforms to truth. But eventually before you are even aware, the reverse sets in and months seamlessly turn into days as you mark out holidays, milestones, plans for weekends, next month, next year, checking them off in red on your calendar as quickly as they appear. It’s Groundhog Day in reverse.

Even if you are ignoring or not noting your own changes, your children are the physical markers of the days as they first crawl, then walk, then leap to adulthood, all ready making plans for future endeavours and love relationships. In your own head, you’re still the same, but your mirror records the alterations on your face, your back, your walking gait, that shrink you each year, reminding me of Marquez ‘s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude, both in confusion and imagery of shoes or clothes enormously large for bodies that have become the size of dolls. Still you collect treasured precious moments in photographic books or digitally, in which you’ve frozen the frozen perfect marriages, celebrations that slowed the days, making them memorable and retrievable of a good life you created for your family.

In the flow of time, I think too of my parents and their last days in hospital, and I don’t want to think of them. My mother ,who like me hated hospitals, demanded to go home, turned her face away in anger, and my own response of self protection and little acquiescence; my father enclosed in his hospitable bed, the victim of doctor ignorance, then in a coma when only a few days prior I had been rubbing his feet and he assuring me, “ Of course, I loved you Pat.” He 68, younger than I am now. I think both would have preferred to drift into sleep at home, never to return. Or my mother-in-law’s agitation, her final days as a patient in an institution where she once, warmly welcomed, was a volunteer.

Rebecca’s leap from active to passive, the dramatic speed up of time, ephemeral time was what caught me off guard. Even in my doctoral thesis, I had quoted TS Eliot in the Four Quartets, so fascinated have I always been by the seconds, minutes, hours and years that can lapse, meander, speed by, confound and heal. Eliot once wrote,

“Time present and time past

Are both perhaps present in time future,

And time future contained in time past.

If all time is eternally present

All time is unredeemable.”

And so watching the combination of “ time” in Rebecca’s life in This Is Us exerted a profound effect on me. Perhaps more than ever, it’s my own age as I struggle to accept I’m no longer young, for the belief of the baby boomers was that, unlike their parents, they would endure fresh, active and able forever, time posing no barrier. Unlike our dodgy parents who toiled, wore white gloves only in the summer, obeyed rules and conventions, we would dance at dawn, free. If you are a boomer, you know exactly what I mean.

Now there is an incredulity that accompanies what slows us down now, amazed at our selves. Strangely, what we wore, our clothes, tie dyed,high waisted have been reverted, unlike us, persisting, now lauded and reissued as retro and our rock groups of Jagger and Lightfoot and Fleetwood Mac make last gasp tours as their boyish( and girlish) charms and talents have faded. But even they must know time has marched on. And we finally acknowledge what our parents knew and tried to impart to our stubborn refuting heads.

As above, the poets said it best as in Tennyson’s lament by Ulysses,

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remain…

Ironic words for Tennyson was 24 when he wrote the poem in 1833.

In one of Tara Brach’s meditation, she soothes by quoting Tilopa,

Let go of what has passed.

Let go of what may come.

Let go of what is happening now.

Don’t try to figure anything out.

Don’t try to make anything happen.

Relax, right now, and rest.

At present, this is my mantra.

Thoughts on books, war, retirement : my week ( early winter 2014)

Why would anyone be interested in my week?

After all it is my week, a week of a boomer now retired and finally accustomed to a life that differs greatly to the hectic, crazy and wonderful workplaces I once inhabited. In teaching, there was always nightly preparation, on-going relationships and building community with the most volatile of humans, students; at OCT, it was the thrill of creating new policy, determining pathways for the more than 300,000 teachers in the province. And now instead of dashing off in traffic to be bright and perky in my office by 8:30, I sit by my window in the kitchen, watching the dark and cold day hopefully brighten.

This has been a hard winter, too early begun with a crippling ice storm during the Christmas break and temperatures that have made me feel much like the bear who wants only to sleep or find comfort food in order to wrap herself deeper and burrow
away from the chill of venturing out of my doors. Brrrr.

Yet, my spirits preternaturally down have found some solace. I returned to a painting class with Martha. She is a somewhat wacky teacher whose lunch, by the way, consists of those baked orange goldfish used to augment a salad and a cup of tea. Recently she exhibited her wire installations of an albatross across Canada. Why I continue to return every few years to Martha’s class is her attitude. She is not a bouncy, over the top kind of woman; however, she can bring together any group. She makes collaboration a reality in a way few can manage. When we practice critique of our artworks at the end of three hours, she will find something insightful to say about absolutely everyone’s work. She is able to create a coterie of like minded but also wildly diverse people and make them feel comfortable- at least that’s what she does for me. None of us will be great artists but the time spent exercising our paintbrushes feels relaxing and fulfilling. The rest of the world disappears.

More than that, if I have a comment, Martha listens. Really listens. In many classes, although I may contribute analysis based on my art history background, I can easily spot, the ho-hum, ignore this one and move on attitude of the instructor. Martha uses my words as springboards to engage others and deepen understandings of the work that is evolving in class. It feels good to have someone value and really hear me. People used to in my professional life. Really.

Thinking of books, I find a correlation – as always- in art. In The Goldfinch, the protagonist finds a resting place for his soul away from life in his pursuit of art and; likewise I hear a comment in a little interview on Q with Viggo Mortensen yesterday. Mortensen addressed art as keeping us from pondering the big questions, for example: when will I die? He reflected that art is the diversion, the distraction that keeps us moving forward. His conversation with Jian Ghomeshi made me think of having studied Pascal in university and the need for the chase. Art is the good chase, an important one to enliven our souls and make the world more beautiful, less corrupt and less broken by self-serving politics. It turns us away from the ugliness of daily events by people whose ethics, although they use them as a shield, are weak, wrong– and our fear of our own mortality. During the interview Mortensen disclosed, “When I was a little boy, my first question every morning was “ ‘When will I die?’”. I am reminded of my little girl whose life’s work has been to watch and comprehend the dying: listening, observing, unraveling their stories to allow an opening between the worlds of today and tomorrow.

Punctuating the week was a lecture by Cathy Tile at her Living Literature class. Yesterday it was The Watch by Joydeep Roy-Bhattacharya. I had gobbled up the book too quickly as the story dealt with a legless woman in Afghanistan, the story echoing Antigone’s plea to bury her brother. And although I immediately found the writing good, not boring or pedantic, I really did not want to engage with the subject matter: too dark. Tile has covered quite a number of war-themed books. I did respond positively to Toby Room’s by Pat Barker as the protagonists were artists, so an easy connection for me. And many years ago, Barker’s Regeneration Trio opened up an understanding of war on a personal level that rendered it less heroic and more devastatingly human with the depravations of a plethora of portrayals. However, The Watch, besides the centerpiece of a stranded woman who is determined to bury her brother’s body did not really attract me.

Yes, I was drawn in by the multiple perspectives of the soldiers from various places across the US whose experiences and attitudes differed towards the plight of the woman, but rather than being able to escape from the hardships and major conflicts in life, this book threw me deeper into the mire of this terrible world, preventing an escape into my thoughts, fantasies, whatever. I admit that I finished the book in an a detached witness-kind of manner, not allowing myself to be yoked to the events.

My rational mind attempted to keep me apart so that Tile’s lecture and its detailing would make sense- all in an intellectual vein. Superficially I could comprehend and process her comments as she deepened my understanding of Roy-Bhattacharya and his thorough research of visiting American service men after writing his first draft. His first hand exposure to the real feelings and thoughts of military people humanized the story, riddling with holes the entire propaganda of why America engagesin wars such as Viet Nam and Iraq. Tile’s book talk provided context, thoughtfulness concerning his approach to developing his art.

Usually I seek out historical or contemporary fiction as a springboard to hide from the big questions or confront the major issues that plaque us: the paradox of learning more but being shielded by the words that do open our eyes to new realities; and if they are well told, will reach into our times and troubles, intensifying how and why we comprehend. Perhaps this is the ultimate irony: that being shielded by language, we gain experience and pierce the theory-practice divide by empathizing with the emotions and vulnerabilities of others. Often literature removes us from or softens the edges, romanticizing, making more distant or punctuating stories with dreamscapes. The Watch is not like that. You feel the woman’s anguish. The strong, tough, enduring hard little pit of a protagonist that refuses to move or be moved.

This adamant act of courage by Nasim in the book is giant. Placed literally in the centre of the yard, she maintains her stance in spite of pain, danger, anger and wins the compassion of the soldiers surrounding her. It is a great story, Sophocles’story, that has endured even into present times. It made me remember why we must study the classics; as they truly form the back story for all significant writing.

The Watch provided a perfect teaching moment. By grounding the story in Antigone, the author reinforces the importance of the Greek myths and Joseph Campbell’s studies that underline the importance of trying, trying even as we know it will end in failure: because we are not gods, only fragile humans with limited abilities and possibilities. That the old stories, the myths have so much to give us for contemplating who we are, what we do and what we value is a triumph in writing.

As well, Tile engaged me personally regarding a few comments I had offered on Shani Boijanii’s The People of Forever are Not Afraid, a coming of age story of three young women in the Israeli army. (I think I described having heard Boijanii being interviewed by David Bezmozgis in an earlier blog.)She enquired, “Did you like the book?” Caught off guard, I did not really think when I responded, so I later shot off an email, relating the book to Coetzee’s questions of where is home and how do I get there, connecting this underlying theme to Boijanii’s ordinary Israeli girls in extraordinary times.

It took me almost 5 years to feel ok about not working. I always loved art and writing and reading, but it is very different when they are the borders not the substance of your life, when you must find time to push them from the edges to the core of your life. When you work, you fly- you are mother, teacher, daughter,wife, employee, housekeeper, driver, all powerful, crunching so much together. You command, you are powerful and at the end of your day, as you drop into the couch, you proudly, while eyes drooping, exclaim, wow! how did I do so much. There is exhausted pride in accomplishments of so much squeezed into so few hours. Retired people are the powerful Oz reduced to a squeak.

But once retired, the opposite is true. The hours are long and you eventually discover events, classes, friends to fill the day along with the reacquaintance of things you once loved and hope to rediscover meaning in. The reversal is hard, particularly when your partner still dashes and smashes about with important matters that, as you once did, effects many.

However, life whether you want it to or not, changes. Lingering over a newspaper, lunch with a friend, little things become bigger. Life just changes and events expand to fill the hours that once contained multitudes of responsibilities.

Yet this week and particularly Tile’s lecture revived my soul- a bit. It reminded me of larger matters than just cramming a day full of activities: the important questions we minimize when we work, the bigger issues that underpin and mobilize our society. Like many good moments, her lecture was a surprise, to peer through the fog, the bad weather, the noise of times gone by, and reflect on what is germane.

As I edit this last year’s blog, I am sad to link it to this week’s attack on Parliament Hill and the murder of Nathan Cirillo at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. Here it is a real war story on our own land. No words. Just grief. Sadly, another war story from which we cannot turn.

Where stories take us

We begin to tell stories at an early age. At first they are a story
about self, the me, the ego of our lives as we fancy ourselves the center of the universe and so we are, the focus of our parents’ lives. We are dressed and fed and cared for and loved. So it makes much sense that our first tomes revolve around us. We are the subject of every plot whether in pursuit of crayons or finding the perfect marionette or chasing a ball into the corner and being trapped by a big dog or an insurmountable piece of furniture.

Gradually our world widens, and our stories allow in more people and maybe mom, dad, grandpa, or teasing brother is a figure in our narrative where adoring faces play a role. We think in stories as we explain and recant our lives to ourselves, speculating on where we fit, who fits with us and where our stories have occurred and grown.

Not surprisingly we are always egotistical, the first person narrator presiding as we move beyond our fingers and toes towards those at the footposts of our houses: the nannas and ooh-ooh bears who have cuddled us, but pushed us outwards exceeding the confines that have kept us safe. Bruno Bettleheim’s Uses of Enchantment explains why children are so fascinated by witches and dark deeds.

Further, in The Edge of the Precipice: Why Read Literature in the Digital Age, the author writes,

Humans, strange creatures that we are, make sense of our lives by telling stories. In the space between each day and the next, we refresh our minds by concocting the most fantastic and elaborate fictions. We spend roughly a third of our lives thus, re-arranging our scattered experiences into stories…That we do it at all is bizarre and inexplicable. But as long as we do it, we will crave stories – human stories, stories that speak to us – in our waking life. The Internet, powerful as it is, cannot change that …
(Peter Swirski in The Globe and Mail, December 21, 2013)

Those of us who are readers lust for new books that will entertain, intrigue, disturb and delight us, particularly with elements from worlds with which we are comfortable. In “What I Loved” by Siri Hustvedt (surprisingly married to Paul Aster!), she surrounds her characters who are artists or art historians in a world familiar to me. With every reference to Manet or Modilgilani I feel at home, intrigued and fascinated by the tale of two boys, the lifelong friendship of their fathers and ensuing destructive relationships. Art is integral to the story, a metaphor for real life distortions with its intricacies, shadows, personages behind and beyond the constricting frames of paintings described. Performance art in the story reminds me of Alan Kaprow and Christo’s mammoth installations such as wrapping the Reichstag in Berlin or the canopy of yellow umbrellas in California and blue umbrellas in Japan at the same time. Memories from my youth and older. So the story,for me, became a touchstone to connect with matters that matter to me.

My husband loves biographies of presidents and countries. He thinks in terms of politics, the rise, the fall, the conundrums of people who play powerful roles. For relief, he also reads fiction. He likes Wayne Johnston-unlike me, perhaps a mixture of both worlds. His interests more eclectic and wide sweeping than mine.

But art like literature if we allow it to, encourages us to transform what we know: to see things differently, from fresh eyes, as Picasso said, “To see with the eye of a child”, and perhaps, if we gaze longer, linger more thoughtfully, and dismiss what we have been told to think, we might deepen our comprehension of ourselves. AS my second grandson would chirp, ” I do it mine own self”. Baudelaire is reported to have also exclaimed, “A child sees everything in a state of newness.”

Years ago when I taught Magic Realism in my Post-colonial Literature course at Northern Secondary, Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude did that for my students. They were encouraged to look once again as a child might, imagining beyond the literal.

For example, magical events in One Hundred Years continue to multiply with such events as people literally shrinking when they age so that their shoes and hats fall off doll-sized body parts; blood flows down streets where violence has occurred; young girls levitate themselves into the heavens: multiple points of inspiration where real documented actual events have occurred and impossible, fantastical happenings are intertwined. South America’s intrigues, assassinations, takeovers are represented along with the countries’ three civil wars and the infamous Banana Massacre(1929). I lingered on the steps of the actual ”United Fruit Company “ in South America, incredulous it still stood, but renamed. Marquez’s overriding theme in the book is that no imagined event can be as fantastical as those lived out in the atrocities of war and abrogation of individual rights.

In their class presentations, one student convincingly linked mathematical symbols to the structure of the novel, diagramming and explaining the metaphysical on two levels; another student concocted a series of pictures that reflected the disintegration of the Buendia(the family protagonists) house; another tied his hands together to become a visual metaphor for repression in the novel. Yet another to represent the fecundity of a couple that resulted in the proliferation of farm animals baked copious sugar cookies in the shape of pigs and horses.

Before teaching the novel I had read it and found it difficult to follow. Imagine one sentence that unwinds beyond a full page, and the density of ideas in the novel thickly translated from its original Spanish; however, working with my students back then and sharing their excitement at the miraculous wonderfully unbelievable fairytale quality of the story- based in political and social reality in South America- re-energized me to find delight and embrace the book myself. My understanding was further enhanced by the students’ work that emerged. In deed, my students taught me, often, I will admit, more than I originally knew. One of my cherished possessions remains a child’s book of pull-outs, flip-ups, colour changes and animation that four talented students gave me after their introduction in an incredible presentation.

For my students, taking their own initiatives to extend the meaning of the novel even propelled them outside of the classroom. Some contacted Amnesty International who came to our class with two representatives: one speaking quietly in Spanish explaining the perils of the para-military in Colombia, Gabriel Garcia’s birthplace. Others became involved with Street Kids International and went to Ottawa on behalf of the Colombia’s displaced and victimized youth. Thus, the book that confounds and blurs the verisimilitude of actual facts much like a fairytale had sparked a seed: a Jack and the Beanstock seed that sprouted in unlikely places breaching the confines of our classroom.

Paolo Freire a South American philosopher and educator was a leading advocate of critical pedagogy. He is best known for his influential work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed. He worked with the poor, talked about “ co-creating” so that workers might have a stake and take responsibility for changing their own lives rather than accepting the theories and narratives of others. Nonetheless, he encouraged the downtrodden to see from new perspectives, tell their owns stories, extend traditional boundaries and attempt new venues to promote change. To create their own NEW stories.

Just yesterday as I again struggled with the translation of Javier Marias’ The Infatuations, I was struck by the conversation of the observer-story teller, Maria and a friend. She reflects at length in her head about absolutely everything which is sometimes pretty tedious. Yet several ideas stick with me profoundly,

…once you’ve finished a novel, what happened in it is of little importance and soon forgotten. What matters are the possibilities and ideas that the novel’s imaginary plot communicates to us and infuses us with…( Vintage,2013,p.132).

From my very first year of teaching in the Jane-Finch corridor, in a Grade 12 class when we were studying Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Pied Beauty”, a young woman had offered,

“Maybe a weed isn’t a weed to nature, maybe it’s a flower”.

That is what a good story does, it sticks in your imagination and grows upwards, outwards, entangling and blooming unexpectedly, becoming part and parcel of your own trajectory, a thorn that pricks you, embeds in your head until, a fresh blossom erupts.

A simple story that begins and ends with you.

From letter to blog: a rant on MI in education

Weekends are lazy times to sort through newspapers and just enjoy perusing the columns. Yet barely into my ritual, I find an article that makes me burst into flames. It prompted a response to the editor.

 Sunday’s Star “Educational fads not helpful” should have made me toss the page when I read that the so-called education writer, Sacherin Maraharaj was directing his ridicule towards Howard Gardner. My thesis, “The usefulness of art in education: in and out of the classroom” called on John Dewey, Elliot Eisner and Howard Gardner as support for the importance of the visual in education. During my doctoral defence at OISE, one of the examiners referred to these three theoreticians as my educational gurus. They were and still are. Dewey’s understanding of experience, both in life and in education, is incredibly applicable and as fresh today as it was in the early 20th Century; Elliot Eisner associated with the Getty Institute and his approach to art-based (DBAE) education continues to resonate; and Howard Gardner’s research into seven multiple intelligences has provided a needed focus on individual differences. He has identified the intelligences as Visual-Spatial, Bodily-kinesthetic, Musical, Interpersonal, Intrapersonal, Linguistic, and Logical –Mathematical.

Initially outraged by Maraharaj’s statements and conjectures that Gardner’s “ multiple intelligences “ were a fad, an unsubstantiated method with little research and that all children could benefit from the same pedagogy,” I wrote in my email to the editor,

“I’m wondering what he proposes: all well-dressed children sitting with their hands folded in neat rows, all heads turned towards their teacher in a suit?”

Maraharaj maintains that Gardner himself was backtracking on his research and recanting his numerous journal studies. Incredulous, I went to The Washington Post to read for myself what Gardner was querying.

Not surprisingly, Gardner addressed the criteria and actual meaning / definition of  “learning style ” and how one “recognizes, assesses or exploits that notion”.  Gardner was actually encouraging teachers  “ (to) (i)ndividualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead (my emphasis) of ‘one size fits all,’ learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively”(The Washington Post, October 16, 2013).

Some “backtrack”!

 I can recall my best classes, particularly in Post-colonial Literature ( see earlier blogs), where I provided a topic and the students found their own touchstones to make the subject come alive. I cherish from those teaching days several three- dimensional books carefully and beautifully crafted that document the pivotal moments of South America’s history: as a back story for Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude, given to me as gifts from delighted students. As well, I treasure the memory of students who wrote their own dialogues, assuming the personas of characters in Rohinton Mistry’s novel, Such a Long Journey, and walked in their shoes, no longer  “others” looking in on the lives of people from India.

 I remember thinking how wonderful: that one young man had translated in a chemistry chart the frequencies of the rise and fall of a displaced family from a novel we were studying, comprehending in his own way the trajectories of fate and fortune. And I recall the brilliance of the group who decided to use the metaphor of a poker game to dramatize the Portuguese, Germans, Belgians, English and French’s use of the countries of Africa as chips in a bidding war. And with feelings of pride for student insight, even 20 years later, I reflect on a collaborative project that investigated female mutilation in Somalia and its connections in Toronto. Wow.

 Although I did teach, prepare and provide students with subject information and required assignments to satisfy curriculum expectations, each student played a part in his/her own deepening of the topic. That is the beauty of multiple intelligences: it honours that we are all unique and learn in a plethora of ways that makes sense to us. In classrooms where the mantra is collaboration, a varied approach to absorbing knowledge ensures that students enrich their understanding by looking from new eyes and respecting that diversity in perspectives can enhance learning. The openness of Bahtkin’s building dialectics ( in the previous blog) requires that people really hear their colleagues’ voices so that they can critic, contemplate and make  conversations/learning grow in interesting and unexpected ways. Those new revelations precipitate those “ ah-ha” moments when epiphanies erupt.

 Perhaps that is what I also love about art. If you stand in front of a painting and really look, the art begins to act on you. You will see a colour, a form, something that will begin to pique or resonate with you. Stand there longer and your conversation with the piece continues to grow. Voices in your head, your own and others, suggest a memory, a thought, a response that you did not know you had. Even the so-called polar bear in the snowstorm may make you shiver and you will imagine snowflakes conglomerating to cover the snarly bear. Or…  

 I will always regret the study during my Masters days of a museum-related class. Mini- exams were administered every Friday for 8 weeks, each in an identical format. A roister of professors presented lectures that concentrated on the decorative arts in silver, wood, glass, metal, glass and pottery, etc. What followed was a test based on 10 broken bits or shards. Our task was to identify the provenance, explain the composition of components, why they had broken, and the shattered artifacts’ usage.

 One professor thought it fair to trick us- as in presenting a replica of a 14th Century rural chair from Quebec and expecting that we neophytes would know it was an impostor. So we studied hard, or at least I did, got my A and to this day do not remember a morsel of what I had learned. 

In contrast, I have stored in my head and can recall the research I did in the same class on Cast Iron Toys ( banks, stove samples and Noah’s arks) in the early 20th century in Ontario. Maybe some of my fellow students can still identify pottery from Orange county in Ontario, its clay composition, the method of its production and why its colour distinguishes it as a breakfast bowl. I sure can’t.

 Cramming for the test obviously did not appeal to my particular “ style” of absorbing and retaining information. Fortunately I can still compare banks (some: replicas of buildings) in Ontario to those in America’s Golden Age of Toys ( some: racism in the form of animation) and even offer a few insights from my visits to a collector in Ottawa who kindly shared his information on his stash of toys with me.

 Sacharin Maraharaj considers himself an educational critic. How embarrassing he makes the mistake that many of my high students did: they quote out of context. They extract one piece of a puzzle to support their own diatribes.

Not surprisingly my letter(see below) that pointed out the flaws in Maraharaj’s analysis was not published. How ironic in the continuing wake of the Rob Ford scandal, and The Star’s constant attack, that simply misleading is allowed to persist by a newspaper high-handedly championing investigative journalism. Moral hogwash. Talk about hypocrisy-and believe me, I cannot tolerate even hearing the name of the buffoon who was voted mayor.

 Daily, we read about the efficacy of early kindergarten and the loss of its intellectual impacts by Grade 3.  I wonder if Maraharaj’s real topic was a political one to align himself or garner favour with those who support tests, scream about needless costs and lampoon creativity in education? Whether multiple choice tests reveal or substantiate “knowledge” or not, MI offers benefits for children. People who decry the expense only put the cost somewhere else- remedial and societal support programs because those who cannot read, or feel unaccepted in society may act out or on the society that has failed to educate or prepare them properly for life…I am not suggesting that early full day kindergarten will repair all of society’s issues: however, it damn well provides an excellent start upon which to build a healthier society.

We see MI theory at work in every kindergarten across the province in play centers and the play-based learning as the framework for early learning in our schools. This approach encourages children to stick their muddy little fingers into a variety of learning methods, They are engaged in an “experience” in Deweyian terms (for sure) through a multiplicity of sensual responses and intellectual stimulations in positive, practical environments supported by well trained professionals. Perhaps Maraharaj might scorn this as merely first rate daycare for people who otherwise might have dropped the kid at the neighbours. I’ld rather my kid interact than stare at the television or be tossed a video game. But again that’s me. Or forgive me if I am taking his argument out of its original context. 😉

I  truly don’t know where his argument comes from or why he more than tinkered with the meaning of The Washington Post’s meaning. As an educator, he does not do service to his readers. As a writer myself, I consider how twisting facts might grow into plagiarism or a total disregard for the validity of the work of others. For me, it’s a moral question: of how we use the ideas of others.

 When I taught, I always felt it was not so much what you taught but how you taught: that stimulating children so they want to learn and excite their interest and desire would enable them to stay curious, continue on and eventually discover what they were passionate about. Knowing the basics of reading and counting opens the doors of lifelong learning and a thirst for education. With these tools, children could go anywhere.

My grandson has been in English and French kindergartens and I have picked him up in both classrooms where at 5 o’clock there is still so much going on, that kids do not want to leave. Yesterday I walked in on pancake making for Channukah, noted kids constructing with enormous blocks, observed windows decorated with all the holidays, heard laughter, and witnessed engagement: the feel that any teacher will recognize of an excellent environment for children. I was literally knee deep in learning through play: new skills, collaboration, social adjustment, co-operation, respect for teachers and environment. What I saw, at least superficially, were well-adjusted children from diverse cultures, playing and learning.

This moment brought to mind a story that Stephen Lewis tells of his visits to Africa and how every single child he encountered has a desperate dream to go to school. This is the school I would envisage for all children, one that instigates the beginning of a lifelong process that fortifies the young and strengthens communities. We want all of our children to know they are the threads in our social tapestry, and that school is good, safe and rewarding.

If you look carefully at schools in Ontario, you will see these programs are built on Gardner’s MI theories; and truly- theory that lives in practice.



The Letter to the Editor at The Star



Sunday’s Star Educational fads not helpful should have made me toss the page when I read that Maraharaj was directing his ridicule towards Howard Gardner. I’m wondering what he proposes: all well-dressed children sitting with their hands folded in neat rows turned towards their teacher in a suit?


 Incredulous that Gardner would backtrack on his research and recant from his numerous journal studies, I went to The Washing Post to read for myself what Gardner was actually querying.


 Not surprisingly, Gardner speaks to the criteria and actual meaning / definition of  “learning style ” and how one “recognizes, assesses or exploits that notion”.  What Gardner actually says to teachers is “Individualize your teaching as much as possible. Instead ( my emphasis) of ‘one size fits all,’ learn as much as you can about each student, and teach each person in ways that they find comfortable and learn effectively.”(October 16, 2013)


Anyone who has taught knows this to be true.


Sacharin Maharaj makes the mistake that many of my high students did: they quote out of context. They give you only one piece of a puzzle to support their own diatribes.


To call MI an educational fad is a disservice to The Star’s readers.



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