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Visits to the Graveyard

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Because I could not stop for Death –

He kindly stopped for me –

The Carriage held but just Ourselves –

And Immortality.

We slowly drove – He knew no haste

And I had put away

My labor and my leisure too,

For His Civility –

We passed the School, where Children strove

At Recess – in the Ring –

We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain –

We passed the Setting Sun –

Or rather – He passed Us –

The Dews drew quivering and Chill –

For only Gossamer, my Gown –

My Tippet – only Tulle –

We paused before a House that seemed

A Swelling of the Ground –

The Roof was scarcely visible –

The Cornice – in the Ground –

Since then – ’tis Centuries – and yet

Feels shorter than the Day

I first surmised the Horses’ Heads

Were toward Eternity –

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.Hauntings

In Richard Wagamese’s novel, Ragged Company, he presents his characters who are aware of the dead, passed spirits who are somehow present- by the side of the road, or even present at movie theatres. The four protagonists in the story accept them , acknowledging them without a second thought.
How do we feel about things or places imbued by those we once knew but who no longer inhabit this earthly realm? Yesterday as I walked out in the rare sunshine we’ve had this summer, for a second or so, I thought I recognized a few people on the street, but upon reflection, realized theyhad passed away. When someone dies, these spottings happen frequently, as a certain gait, the flutter of a scarf or even a body shape seems familiar and makes us want to rush over and greet them, grab their arm and say hi. Suddenly we are caught up by the realization that it’s not the person we thought it was, someone different and we feel kind of silly, but also duped or tricked by our maginations.
One friend engulfed by a storm of butterflies and another continually visited by a cloud of blue Jays insisted it was their dead husbands who wanted their presence felt. My  daughter reminisced  of a storm of hummingbirds that surrounded the casket of an adolescent whom she had treated, an ingenue too soon gone, but whose devotion to these tiny birds was well known.

Sometimes I wish I could feel my mother’s presence, encounter her on the street or have her come to me in a dream. I fear she harboured feelings of resentment before she died because I would not, could not remove her from the hospital at the end of her life. There was her suppressed rage, her seething anger and truly, I did not know how to handle it. I turned cold and she, she too was a separate frigid island, so different to the person who had guided and ensured my growing up . In deed my lingering memories are of her refusing to talk to me, more upsetting as we  had shared a warm and loving relationship throughout her entire life, she my constant support and later, my treasured friend. When she died , I felt as if the final words of companionship had not been uttered, her blaze of indignity and my helplessness in the situation unresolved.
In contrast, my sister was there when a passing rabbi entered her room to blow the shofar the eve of Rosh Hashana and I believe they experienced the warmth of the moment together. Later Wendy fed her spoonfuls of chicken soup. Then she was gone, vanished forever. As all must. Her words for me missing, caught somewhere, hanging, never released in the warmth of a smile, a touch I knew so well.
If I believed in an afterlife, I would have called out in the forty days, some say where the spirit circles, sending a caress  to her cheek or apologizing for my own standoffish manner in those final days. Perhaps because a hospital domain is my sister’s habitat, she knew how to ease her patient’s pain, make her comfortable, assuage her wants. But like my mother who dreaded and avoided hospitals at all costs, I withdrew. She had often recalled being an immigrant child coldly examined by indifferent doctors like some migrant specimen, and then with my father’s confinement at Riverdale when he had polio, she would lament that she had had “ her belly full of doctors”, their misdiagnoses, their pronouncements, their callousness, their unfeelingness to her emotional angst. With my cereal, I ingested her attitude, fear and resentment of the profession, myself demonstrating the “ white coat syndrome” of ridiculously high blood pressure when having to be seen, even by the kindest docs. Interestingly my sister embraced and not surprisingly, I retreated from doctors.
If I knew she hovered above, or wherever the dead persist, if they do, in deed, I would have entreated her to intercede in one particular family issue, but then, maybe the dead are only observers, witnesses to how life folds and unfolds from the unseen domaine of the spirits. But why should I harbour illusions of their power? From the tales of my friends and daughter, I want to believe they can turn themselves into a clump of butterflies or leave me a message in my dreams, but in the three years she has been gone, I have not experienced either.
Wagamese in Ragged Company suggests they are voices in our heads and maybe this is true, and rather than a ruminating superego who constantly warns us against crossing the street against the lights or running with scissors, they like Casper the Friendly Ghost provide safeguards for us. He, an Ojibway writer, reflects the world of his ancestors. I’m unsure what the Polish shtetl had to bequeath about the dead.  The year my mother and Jordan, early graduated from high school, were to share a grandmother- grandson trip to Las Vegas, she was hit by a car crossing the road near the corner of her apartment. She swore my father had instructed her to pull in her legs- or they would have been crushed. A concussion, blackened eyes, badly  bruised, she never traveled after that incident, another event we would hear her relate.
Wagamese through his protagonist the homeless tender Amelia One Sky also explains that when something sad happens in some place with some people, we leave a part of ourselves there, apart that wanted or needed hints to come out differently, a part that got separated from itself, a shadow of ourselves. Likely, I hunger for a resolution at my mother’s bedside, awaiting a final word of blessing or love, something that would crystallize decades of caring and constant love between us.

 

Says Amelia or her street name, One for the Dead, “If we never get right with it and we’re asked to move to the spirit world , that shadow stays here, revisiting those places and those people, hoping maybe that it can reclaim the part that got lost. By watching us learn to deal with our hurt, our losses, and reach out to life again. It tells them we’re okay. That they don’t need to patrol, revisit, or haunt those places anymore.”( p.213)

For me, I suppose I have not reconciled those final days, smiting myself for not finding some softness within to draw her to me and exterminate her anger. How ironic that in my father’s passing, she facilitated a last meeting where my father softened and was able to express love for me as I rubbed his feet, and yet there was no final resolution here at her bedside.
Mindfulness teaches to forgive ourselves past experiences, to permit an acknowledgement that we did the best we could at the time- and move on.

Were it so easy, I would. 

But as yet, I am trapped in a place where there are no butterflies or blue Jays, just empty space and the whiff of chicken soup.

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.

Trains

Observing myself,  I should be returning to Mindfulness, maybe listening to those Sam Harris meditations that my friend introduced me to, however something about his voice sounds a bit commanding, authoritarian, although some are actually quite short and neat so my thoughts can’t wander too much. But instead, I am playing “Trains.” For those of you unfamiliar with “Trains”, it is one of the games in the Lumosity program, part of a variety of math, brain switching, fill the coffee cup, follow the trajectory of the pinball, count the fish, divide the stones… Somehow I am at 14 in Trains which seems to be the end program of switching multicoloured trains from track to track.
 To play Trains, you must safely direct your train to its stationhouse identified by its matching colour. You create circuits of a sort so that purple train can return to its purple station house while the orange, green, white, etc. trains are all quickly emerging and also need to find the correct paths on a variety of tracks and there is no surprise that because I am on level 14, there are14 trains, all quickly departing the one main station house, to direct! Every configuration is different and you must quickly switch and arrange the tracks so that your train arrives at the right station.
 Sometimes when I see the tangle of tracks on the screen I think, I wonder which one most accurately reflects the pathways in my brain that must be switched, closed, altered for my behaviours that arise or the subsequent emotions that will accompany or prelude my actions. Most likely my brain patterns are reflected by the multicoloured mixup of tangled yarns I knot with -that can be straightened out by either carefully unwinding strands or just breaking them, but in this game, the trains if not properly sorted will find their end in the wrong houses: useless for scoring points. As well, a defeated, angry or frustrated noise is released by the player, me.
 But as there is a lesson to be learned from all endeavours, or so they say, even though the gambler or game addict most often returns in hopes of winning and being successfully to demonstrate she can beat the system and retire as champion, what I have learned from this is that if I am calm, I have a pretty good chance of being successful in this game. However the moment one train arrives at the incorrect location, I lose my concentration, my cool and shout out, become flustered and inevitably lose the opportunity to get the next two trains to their colour-coded stations: until I can take a breath. At this point, I know the pursuit is really over so instead of the excitement of the adrenalin win, I retire to a state of –maybe just finish this off… and try again.
 But this pattern is not new for me. I am an emotional person whose feeling overrun my behaviours. I am aware of the bubbling core that composes me but even as I ascertained this in my work place, as a trembling voice at an interview or an angry look at a colleague belied a smooth carefully planned countenanceas. I am victim to the emotions that are barely hidden beneath my skin’s surface. It is as if there has been a battle between the rational and emotional sectors in my body with my silly brain deciding to champion those unruly messy parts, my ego and superego battling and one or the other attempting to actually trip me up. In my head, I can see the cheerleaders in their fuzzy red sweaters jumping wildly around, encouraging the spurters and screamers and crazy types who run wildly in circles, encouraging the floods that are coursing through body, causing my face to redden and my knees to quake. In my head I command this cheerleader squad to return to the bench for a breather, move on, sit by the sidelines, quiet down, but a tiny voice murmurs to this wild and inflammable crew of miscreants with a chortle, just watch this girl be swamped by her feelings and screw up. So I consciously and serenely must assert, oh no, you won’t. I’m able to be in charge here. Well, sometimes…

In Trains, the combinations move too quickly for this fight, but the result of a misplaced train triggers those real messy emotions, the flashes of anger and then eventual resignation, chin tipped downward in despair and defeat, for the game is all ready lost.
I wonder why is that battle present at all: between my emotions and my rational being who evidently roots for my undoing by my unruly surging emotions. Is it the rational part of me taunting me, “ Give in, these are the principal residents in you: that is who you are; so let them roam and jump and scurry over the top and main floor of your head; we rational thoughts with pencils tucked neatly behind our ears in gray flannel suits are quite happy following recipes, making phone calls and adding sums?
For so much of my life, the emotions ( “Pat,” admonishes my father, “You are too sensitive,” as the tears begin to drip on my cheeks as he is attempting for the umpteenth time, to explain chemistry to me; or “Pat, pay attention to the road when you drive.”; Of course, it is sensible not silly to watch the road when you are learning to drive) did run ram shod over me.
So that is what occurs in my head, the dueling factions, but even my body seems out to be out to trick me. Last night, nicely dressed and put together, as we went to our seats in a restaurant, my new boots slid on the floor and had I not grabbed the back of another’s seat, I would have fallen hard: tripping is also one of my specialties as I forget that I have feet that must be co-ordinated. In fact my mother started me at ballet because my feet appeared to be encased in cement and even then I was hitting rocks and curbs with my sad little knees. My husband as we take our seats, turns around once I’ve stabilized my errant boots and says, “There is a 60% chance that you are always going down.” Then looking thoughtful, he says, “Strange- as you can contort your body in Pilates and you are flexible for over an hour at class, but you can’t ever seem to walk a straight line.” But there most often, my bum is the centre of gravity and all ready on the ground and I do not have to contend with hips, knees, ankles or rowdy toes.
I think of the recent almost trips again, just yesterday :over raised seams on cement sidewalks and this last potentially fatal one as my new boots slid across the cement floor. As we ate our supper for 2 ½ hours, no one else, in boots, flip flops or oxfords even appeared to lose a millisecond of balance. And yet for me, a tiny hillock, an uneven pavement, a floor of varying material can cause my literal downfall. At one vineyard wedding, one guest discretely whispered, “You fell so elegantly” and fortunately my purple knees matched my purple dress.
After years of falling down ( not to mention the curb walks home from elementary school that I thought might stand in for tight rope wires and always resulted in scabs and blood trickling down to my socks,) I have finally accepted that bumbling part of me. I know one leg is slightly shorter than the other, as is the case with almost everyone on the planet, but mine has a disposition to go its own way, saying to its partner, “So long chum, I’m setting off now, so take care.” And so I have concluded that inevitably, the confrontations between my body and gravity and surfaces beneath are truly not my fault.
In terms of my emotions overrunning my demeanour, now retired, I am not concerned should my expressive face give me away, for a sudden tear or a shaking pencil will not impact on my delivery. Back when I did work at my profession, the efficacy of my work, my research, my professionalism did happily overrule the messy parts. In deed, I knew how to draw on emotional effect for purposeful manipulation ; and eventually even my well rehearsed and memorized presentations became performances that could be altered like a knowledgeable thespian because I had an excellent script to play off and my emotions were tamed, governable. But no longer is there that need.
Still I wonder at my brain, my mind that like the control tower still sends bad or conflicting thoughts, even in Pilates, when it whispers, you will topple and I silently respond, “Be quiet you; NO, I won’t.” I wonder at the tangle of train tracks, and the routes that require straightening, reconnecting and aligning to get me from one destination to another. I wonder at the voices in my head, my parents, my teachers, my own fears that try to trick me up so I have to reassert myself or find better solutions. I wonder at my feet that often seem totally unconnected to my body and want to go off on their own routes. And I consider that I am a mess and mass of electrical wires, circuitry and connections- much as my father used to rearrange on every cake box when I was young.
I suppose that is all we are, except for those damn emotions that light our faces, make us giggle, cast us into doom, tickle our imaginations and make us special. At 68, I am who I am, having learnt I must attempt to balance on a tightrope whenever something truly important chugs up to my door.
 

Taking Stock

I turned 68 recently. By 68, my father was dead. My husband’s father lived to half that age, but both of our mothers endured to over 90. A birthday that recalls one’s parents is an obvious site for reflection so it is not surprising that even as I blew out my candles surrounded by my family, as the candles flickered, I thought of what my father had missed by passing so young.

 Yet, in surveying my days, I am grateful for all I have experienced. Not too long ago, a friend said that she wouldn’t want to do “it” all over again. I was surprised. She had had many careers and I thought of her as a contemporary renaissance woman. She had a loving family, grandchildren, security. Without pondering, I immediately thought, I would definitely do it all again.

 I would.  

 Maybe with the insights of maturity, I would alter a few of the moments that still bristle with decisions made too quickly or unkindly. Several have to do with my kids, the others with students. For the most part, I think my decisions were sage, hopefully made with kindness and not too much because of anger. But I suppose if we started fresh, we would not own the knowledge of our mistakes, and thereby incur new ones, and growing up in different times, all would change.

 There is so much in a life, the good and bad, the high and the low. Not a startling revelation but it caused me to think of the meditation I’d heard in my Mind-Body Class ,( perhaps a second cousin to Mindfulness). I never thought of myself as the self-help kind of girl, but the time and the price were right and the topic would serve as rebuilding a bridge between my resurrected friend of 42 years, and so I engaged.

 The week I pondered engaging in this endeavor, even the Baycrest Hospital dispersed articles that linked mindfulness to neuroplasticity and John Kabat-Zinn, the guru of the movement, known by a greater number of people than I would have imagined.

 So I had located a class at the community centre and opened my head to what is becoming a trend and “ mindfulness”: a word bantered around by curious seekers. In one particular session, the instructor provided a meditation that suggests one visualizes, then inhabits, then becomes a mountain. The gist has to do with the changes of the seasons, the variety of animals that pass over the mountain, the onslaught of clouds and sunshine, and still, the mountain stays rooted, observing, unchanging, always watchful. Something felt good about that.

 Once the class finished, I tried to continue with meditations: on the internet, podcasts for 10 minutes or so, but I must admit the immediacy of having someone right beside you in the dark, focused on the voice that is guiding you, really is more powerful than the words on a machine.

 This mountain meditation made me think of Rose, the more than 80 year old from my figure drawing class. Although now suffering from disc issues, Rose pauses before she struggles up the two flights of stairs to the class on Thursdays. She says at her age, her ailments could be worse so she doesn’t complain although one can read the pain in her face. Her sparse hair is coloured and coiffed, her eyes are discretely drawn in brown pencil along with a light red lipstick that outlines her lips. She is no pushover, she smiles. She is the one who manages the models and makes the calls for the group. She exudes strength.

 One day, she confided in me that her son died at 50 and also her husband passed away quite young, and she was very depressed. But, she said, she had a choice and she decided to go on, to be happy. She said she has made a list and all the good things outweigh the bad. She says that continuing to live afforded her opportunities she had never anticipated and that she has had a good life, beamingly proud of her children and grandchildren ( all professionals, she quietly boasts with a smile). She lives alone although it is increasingly difficult, particularly the stairs, but she says they are her exercise and she attempts to maintain her mobility by climbing them daily, even pausing as she does en route to the art class. She also says she’s ready to depart this world when the time is right.

 I think of my parents, my father so young; my husband’s father so much younger: what they have missed. With both my parents, I wish I had the conversations I reflect on now- to gather their ideas, to hear and compare them to my own. Just today I read of Anderson Cooper and his mother, Gloria Vanderbelt. The famous pair are recommending that parents and children ask one another questions about their lives, before it is too late. Both a book,The Rainbow Comes and Goes: A Mother and Son on Life, Loss and Love and a documentary, Nothing Left Unsaid, will record their sessions. No doubt some revelations will be universal, others bizarre or beyond our daily realm.

  In San Diego, Howard and I did an art tour on the college campus. Rarely have we felt so ancient, for that world is populated by the very young and we were cast back to ourselves more than forty years ago on the U of T campus. We fretted , how has the time gone by so quickly. Once we were carefree, arrogant, making choices, setting on our paths- that have lead us here to this grassy spot. It is an overwhelming thought : to have passed so many years and to have arrived at this juncture.

 I imagine these are the thoughts of most baby boomers my age who truly believed they would never be old.

 

 

 

Letting in Other Voices

I’ve always been a fiction girl. From my early days with B is for Betsy, Babar and the Ramona books, many suggested by the lovely librarian at West Prep, but also fostered by my mother reading to me at night. Over the years, I dabbled in a limited way with the odd mystery a few biographies, certainly with journal articles for work related research, but truly I was never too interested in sci- fi, self- help, New Age. I suppose that is keeping with my concept of myself as meat and potatoes in which everything is compartmentalized and sits on the plate not touching, to be eaten in a specific sequence.

Not that I am a total slave to routines. In fact I find them boring. And what is wonderful about my Pilates classes here and at home : they are variations on a theme so that the instructor never repeats him/herself in what exercises or areas of the body are targeted. The element of surprise works to alienate the tedium of the same gongs of the bell and makes it lively – at least for me, themes that relate but do not disrupt the whole.  

But this year my reading list has varied. Stimulated by a friend who had read Niall Ferguson’s biographies,almost 1000 pages each, I decided to plunge into Part One of the Rothschilds. I think the way historical books are presently written has changed over time. Not dry or dull in spite of an objective narration, details of context are included to enliven the writing and make sense of the actions and words of the people. Perhaps this was always so, but having never indulged in this genre, I cannot say. Although I do know that there has been a shift from the heroes and conquerors to the victims, particularly in school texts. And that is a very good thing.  

Ferguson, author of the recent Kissinger and many other biographies, wields a light hand. Afraid The Rothschilds would be hampered ( for me) in the heaviness of financial dealings which must be part of the story as it is essential to the family’s amassing of their immense power and fortune,I was delighted to discover the narrative very interesting, highlighted by the descriptions of Jewish oppression in Europe: from early days on the Judengasses in Stuttgart and the airless unsanitary conditions to defaming cartoons in France that insultingly targeted not just Jews but Scots and Brits. Context is often everything. 

Ferguson also includes the family’s subjugation of women in the family, to be without money or any inheritance, because they were women. Paradoxically for me, the manipulation and build up of the Rothschilds’ fortunes felt somewhat convoluted as the support of governments, the “ rentes”, the stocks, the mergers were grand and sweepingly explained: to my liking, yet leaving me with only a sense of their machinations. Typically we cannot have it both ways, too much detail leaves us confused and bored; and not enough causes us to desire a deeper comprehension. But yes, I read and enjoyed my first 1000 pages.  

Similarly I immersed myself in Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WAzVEJoxN8).. It is a very readable book that moves among three voices. There is the author’s own warm, friendly probing stance as he investigates himself, relating his personal progress in order to make sense of his own aloneness and difference; there are the stories or accessible tales, exemplars or guides from the life of the Buddha; and finally Epstein the therapist, connecting his own medical background as a psychiatrist to Buddhism. References to other standout theorists and influential gurus are thoughtfully entwined, primarily , the work of Donald Winnicott on the essential relationship of the mother to the child.  

Much resonates- in terms of treating oneself lovingly as in the mother- child paradigm. And although I concur with importance, wisdom, support and unrelenting love of the duo, Epstein builds his argument on the death of Buddha’s mother seven days after his birth, locating much if not all Buddha’s search on this deprivation- in spite of a second wife/ mother stepping in to most likely to shower , nurture and love the child. It is distressing to all parents and adopted children to imagine, it is only the biological mother who can rear the child in security. That this connection is so innate, that the search might propel a child on his/ her journey of relational knowing is distressing. This recalls for me a recent Margaret Wente column in the Globe where she told her readers it is not necessary to read to your kids because their in- born intelligence will dictate their futures- in spite of whatever doting parents do. 

Epstein recalls an old diagram from medical school of arrows connecting the world with the receiver, as we make the world through our perceptions. Our knowing it, creates it. He explains as well that more than the actual trauma, is our relation to the event. I reflected too on Epstein’s two- prolonged approach to compassion: that we should forgive ourselves our troubling behaviours from the past; along with the compassion we might understand of the present day self who is still struggling with those tormenting narratives. His description of Jack Kornfield’s Vietnam’s nightmares illuminated the possibility of meditation’s healing. From this example, I comprehended that we really do not/ should not just live in the present , that we consolidate past traumas into the present day and allow them to co- exist with the good, bad and ugly: all grist for contemplation. They are part of who we are, and they can foster a new experience that need not retraumatize when those miseries resurface. In this way, Kornfield could remember the blue skies and warm beaches of Vietnam, before the atrocities he had witnessed. 

I realized from reading the book that my initial understanding of letting go of the past constitutes only part of Mindfulness. Epstein iterates that we must go “through”our traumas in order to emerge from them, that emotions are not to be cut off, but examined as part of the process, that the focus on breathing in Mindfulness training is a place to focus in order to separate ego and disaffected or repressed parts of self. We should be able to stand outside of ourselves tenderly looking inward. 

Eventually I will read John Kabot Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. But for now Epstein’s book is a gentle touchstone towards the topic. Not preachy or overloaded with medical terms and most importantly, the tone is warm and somewhat searching in itself as he grapples with his own anxieties. 

But again it is the voice , not the old omniscient know-all that speaks down to the reader. Epstein, although knowledgeable, does not laud with scholarly information but offers his own probings as he makes those connections among the personal, historical and medical. He is the best of teachers who is able to awaken in his readers ( patients) those bridges that make sense of narratives, that strive for the insight: the epiphany of the Ah- ha moment, when life is rearranged freshly. Like a good piece of art, the work will speak to diverse viewers in multiple ways.  

Critics say that about Sol Lewitt’s constructions and that is the reason I am a fan of the Abstract Impressions. You can intuit the pain in Mark Rothko’s paintings, layer upon layer of resonating reds, for example. Morris Louis’s paint that sinks into an unprimed canvas and runs in rivulets off the page or Jackson Pollock’s mounding pebbles and lumps of paint that can enclose you into a moment.You must look deeply, be open to the conversation,piercing ( going through perhaps) the canvas to generate something of yourself to yourself. And if you can go far enough, something new and unknown or unfelt may appear. I was interested to read Epstein’s reference to Marcel Duchamp in which Duchamp refers to the deep implicit relationship of a work of art that can make meaning to the viewer through their own personal narrative. 

As I sit doing my 10 minute body scan meditations every morning after coffee, my meta- brain is still floundering en route to witness whatever disassociated everyday traumas I am hoping to disclose to myself. Letting other voices in such as Ferguson and Epstein’s has extended my thinking beyond fiction, these narratives involving the personal to make facts and theories come alive. 

But Alas, at heart, I must confess that I am still that girl who revels in fiction.Having just finished Fates and Furies, I am looking forward to Franzen’s Purity.

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