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Leaving San Diego 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Revisiting The Little Prince

“Taming means more than the literal act of domesticating an animal; it’s about experiencing , be it romantic or platonic, and the perils and rewards that come with it. Once you grow close to someone else, you risk experiencing loss, “How the National Ballet brought Le Petit Prince to life. “Globe June 4, p 1.

The widespread attention to Antoine de Saint- Exupery’s novella seems to have burst everywhere this spring- from movies to games and ballets. Martha Schabas’ criticism in The Globe and Mail of the performance suggested a commercialism as opposed to a focus on the ballet, akin perhaps to the National Ballet’s production of Alice in Wonderland ( also  revived everywhere in film and theatre) which there was an emphasis on entertainment, surprise contraptions rather than highlighting the pas- de- deux. Setting and costume were lauded, dancing as well, but this season I cannot know.The ticket prices soared to $175 for Prince and the actual availability was sparse, so I will have to await responses from friends fortunate enough to have seen the production to speculate.

***

I do know and cherish the book. It was a mantra that caused me untold happiness because it was introduced to me by my first real friends at university.It fortified an emotional girl often ridiculed for being “ too sensitive”: that only with the heart that one sees correctly. It designated that one must meet on a regular basis to truly engage in the process of knowing someone else, setting out specific parameters and demands. It disparaged the pursuits, ignorance and arrogance of diverse classes of people; and it encapsulated what I had always believed,cementing my philosophical view on life. I had read Machiavelli, agreed with Pascal’s Pensees, even been enamoured by St. Augustus; however, the simplicity of The Little Prince, seared my soul in a way that no other had. It was my cadre’s secret book in the 60’s a guide against the rich and snobbish.mIt just cut through so directly to what I recognized to be wisdom. 

Much like coveted books,there are those phrases and sentences we make our own through reading, or possibly bon mots from films, and we keep them close, sharing them when they are suggested by events or scenes in our life; they resonate and actually echo in our heads, enlivening and enhancing the moments that stand alone and provide pause.The lovely Philip Roth sentence regarding surface is one , my husband treasures.  

That is the way with poetry too. As elementary school students, poetry was intended to test our memories so, in grade 4, we had to accumulate a certain number of lines by the end of the year, practicing out loud in front of the class, allowed to select long passages or several rhyming couplets as long as we fulfilled the magic number. To this day when I see a grey squirrel, the image that jumps at me originates from those days and reminds me that the grey squirrel is like a teapot, ( although he is NOT).. Similarly a loud noise evokes Vachel Lindsay’s”Boomlay, boomlay,boomlay,boom…”. And the sweet delicacy of Louis MacNeice’s “spit the pips” from his poem Snow are the bits that flutter into my consciousness,totally unbidden. 

When I had to select a poem to teach as a beginning teacher I had vague memories of Henry Reed’s Naming of Parts and the contrasts of the recruit enchanted by flowers in the midst of having to memorize the names and functions of gun parts. In my mind’s eye, I envisioned the lank and gawky body of a languid boy gazing at japonica outside his window on a spring day. Reed laces killing and procreation as the juxtaposition of bees and swivels, slings, bolts and safety- catches, underlining the contradictions to be faced by the youth. 

Throughout life, William Butler Yeats’ lost love of Maude Gonne and Pied Beauty  by Gerard Manley Hopkins have been my companions reinforcing some of life’s lessons: beauty in difference ; we will not always be loved back by those we desire; and there is an intrinsic beauty between form and function . Poets and artist give us the handles, providing us and expressing our emotions bigger and best than we mere mortals could.They wrestle with to commandeer the words to describe and symbolize what we hint at and feel, making them loom larger and helping us put outside our mere selves the ideas. I never thought while daydreaming in those stodgy leafy classrooms that I would be so imprinted by images that have become my walking companions. They have spoken for me, held me up, given me a place to hear what often were tangled, confused and painful emotions. 

Alternately they have been a way to sing out, a catalogue of people and observations, a stream of delight. Best of all, I loved Walt Whitman’s words”Do I contradict myself? Very well,I contradict myself…” for, as we are all full of opposing views,contrary notions, complicated cares, thoughts and emotions that do not coalesce, we often do not make wrongs into a right.So if I contradict myself, well, so be it. 

As the years flow by, we stand on the shores surveying what we have collected over time. The possessions that have contributed to our sense of self, taught and reassured us- often as we have stood against a popular tide. Once we looked to the books that lined our shelves that reflected where we had gone and what had contributed to our growth. Today those tomes are dwindled as Kobo and Kindle give us a page that disappears once our eyes have passed over it. The evidence rests in our hearts and minds and if we want to revisit, we must search on Google, should we be able to pinpoint the phrase, the word, the idea.  

Life changes, but the longing to hold a book in one’s hand and escape somewhere new or different does not. I assume Gatsby also yearned for the multicoloured backdrop of books, even though his were covers with blank pages. I suppose he felt they attested to his character. Perhaps now the reverse is true; however, coming upon a line that has demarcated in an old book or noting a comment beside a sentence brings one back to a time and a place we might have truly forgotten. I think that making a mark is important , the actual act of stopping, considering and responding before the thought has slipped away meaningful.Perhaps that is why I love art. Making the mark records and connects a person to something else and that connection can spark a revelation. 

For me, I will always treasure the words of the The Little Prince- and welcome its journey back from the shelves where it was not lost, but hiding. 

Of princesses and presidents: brushes with the Royal and Famous

I think everyone at one time or another in their lives has crossed paths with a movie star, politician, someone notable or notorious. Just yesterday a cousin referred to a comment uttered by Carlos Santana overheard as she sat closeby in a restaurant. Andy Warhol is credited with saying that we all will experience 15 minutes of fame. I’m not sure if that includes close brushes, or being thrust directly into the news with the rich and famous. For us, it was a princess and a president.

Back when Bob Rae was Premier of this province, we were invited to dine on The Grand Britannia when Charles and the then very vibrant Diana visited Toronto. The year was October, 1991.

Receiving a phone call, we were queried, “Will you attend?”, before a formal invitation would be sent: a small dinner for a select few with the Royals seemed the stuff of society mags or daydreams. The glitterati would include Norman Jewison, Cido Gaston, Lincoln Alexander, John Tory, Howard and myself, a gaggle of ladies in waiting and others. The protocol included dress length, curtsies and information on how to behave when confronted by the Queen or her family. At first we giggled, believing we were being set up for a wild prank or ruse, someone thinking we were so gullible to actually believe we might be asked to break bread with the prince and princess. But in the end, it was, in fact, a real invitation.

On a stormy night by the harbor, our car magically disappearing into the hands of men in red, we were whisked beneath huge umbrellas onto the ship and then formally welcomed. I remember the ship feeling very British with Currier and Ives prints, slightly frayed carpets and a long stairway that lead upwards. The atmosphere was warm and welcoming: we might have been in the living room of an aged aunt’s who could care less about impressing. A smiling Captain at the doorway greeted us as if we were old friends, his comments easing the tension of the idea that we might soon might feel the press of a Royal handshake. Almost immediately, we imagined we were regulars at Court, accustomed to the low key fanfare, the quiet swish of servants preparing an evening for guests.

There was silent milling around, but no music in the background, just a sense of expectation or brightness on that dreary fall evening during thundering storm. Eventually a receiving line formed, our names announced as if we were debutants emerging in ball gowns to be introduced into society. A relaxed Prince Charles appeared charismatic and charming, even handsome: conclusions that I would never had drawn until I stood so near that one arm’s reach could have poked him in the royal ribs. More than appearances, his warmth of interaction, his ability to focus, listen and respond, no doubt polished and perfected throughout his public life, impressed me. He spoke with Howard about the architecture of Osgoode Hall and was knowledgeable and passionate on the subject. Although he must have been prepped on our bios; and his handlers would have connected pertinent aspects of our backgrounds to real interests of the Prince, his interest in architecture was not feigned, and for 3-5 minutes, a lively conversation occurred. Then, perfectly choreographed, our chat seamlessly concluded without a feeling of abruptness, slight or boredom ( on his part); the next in line commencing a new discussion, ushering in their own few minutes of fame.

I became Cinderella that night. I had had to rent a long velvet skirt because the protocol was such. Although I later noted that Dixie Jewison flaunted the rule by wearing a dress shorter than required. And when my husband’s secretary had murmured, “You’re not going with that curly hair are you?”, I decided to have my hair done up so I felt beautiful and charmed that evening. Perhaps a fairy godmother had touched her wand to my head and transformed me from an ordinary teacher- that I was back then- to one of the few chosen to dine with the most famous couple in the world at that time. I felt the magic dust adhere that entire evening: until our coats magically reappeared and we were standing in the rain on the ship’s deck, listening to the band discharge its salute.

That night I looked for souvenirs on the ship: a copy of the menu, soap, something tangible as a keepsake, but place settings and even the posted menu were whisked from our hands by smiling ship’s table attendants. The three course meal had been brought from England so as to avoid any tampering- as in the Borgias- as was the wine that was artfully and perfectly paired with the perfectly seasoned dishes. I sat just three places from the Prince and was fascinated by an evening in which the person on your right engaged you in conversation for one-half the meal; and then like a programmed dance, your seat partner turned to his companion on your left for the remainder of the meal. A seated ballet where the participants were all ready cognizant and well practiced in the steps. When the Prince and Princess finished their meals, ours were likewise removed. The ballet concluded.

Immediately after, men were ushered into one room for cigars and ladies into another. Swift, smooth, effortless: the dance coming to an end as it had done so many times before in so many locations, flawlessly executed, no rattled cutlery, not even a sneeze or suppressed cough to destroy the fairytale quality of the evening, no cue missed.

For me the diva of the night was Princess Diana. She was a quiet withdrawn diva, not one who cast herself into the spotlight by choice, but one created by her role. I say “diva” respectfully as there was a quality of quietness, or aloneness of her being pushed into the center of activity and knowing she must- if not perform, hold her presence on stage for a certain amount of time before she could retire.

Clearly star struck, I was surprised how majestically tall she was. That night she wore black and the most gorgeous huge pearl earrings, I had ever seen, hung from her ears. I reflected then –on the solitude that also hung on her, and that she really didn’t seem to want to be there. I felt that isolating loneliness that encircled her even as she was encircled by polite but overtly interested guests. With a certain weariness in her eyes, she was conveying ( at least in my mind) that she was putting up with another laid-on rubber chicken dinner (an expression! – as the food was delicious and flawless). She seemed withdrawn, fulfilling her expected role, but clearly not smiling nor enjoying the company as her husband appeared to be. I witnessed no relationship between them although one could not expect sexy or knowing looks, winks or some such behavior at this kind of event- even between spouses. Simply two unattached people in a room of strangers who were likewise strangers to one another.

Yet, there was a moment when Diana did come to life and it was with her adored boys.

She was doggedly enduring, waiting until Wills and Harry emerged with their nanny. When she saw them, she dropped to her knees, threw open her arms and they came running to her –delightedly throwing themselves into her adoring arms. She swept them up and the rest of the stuffy, suffocating crowd ceased to exist. She dropped her cold royal tinsel and was transformed into a loving mother, like any mother in the world who is crazy in love with her children. That was the magic moment in the evening for me.

And when she instructed them on how to shake hands in the receiving line, she was again transformed, just like you or me, a mom preparing her children for grownup life and the proper ways in greeting and meeting. She was a revelation.

Likewise, it was the same humanity I experienced when I saw President Clinton ( in the next blog), respond in a natural thoughtful way to my ten year son in Martha’s Vineyards: the extraordinary made ordinary.

There are always people who put on airs because they think their money or position singles them out for special attention or favors. I learned that as a kid at Forest Hill, my former school mates, the girls with pearls and golf club memberships, assuming that society has blessed them to be viewed as society’s elite and thus deserve better, more…

What mattered for me then and now is the inner person, that Little Prince mantra, that what is essential is invisible to the eye- that the one who drops pretense and acts as a human, displaying true care, love and just being a mensch is truly the person upon whom light shines.

For all of Diana’s flaws and faults and so-sad end to her unhappy life, she was someone who let all of the façade drop on the Royal Britannia as she gathered her boys to her in a way that proclaimed her essence. Perhaps what makes the rich and famous so special is that they are just like us in our best moments.

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