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Handmaid’s Tale

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Out of the night that covers me,

Black as the Pit from pole to pole,

I thank whatever gods may be

For my unconquerable soul.

In the fell clutch of circumstance

I have not winced nor cried aloud.

Under the bludgeonings of chance

My head is bloody, but unbowed.

Beyond this place of wrath and tears

Looms but the Horror of the shade,

And yet the menace of the years

Finds, and shall find, me unafraid.

It matters not how strait the gate,

How charged with punishments the scroll.

I am the master of my fate:

I am the captain of my soul.

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

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Eli Wiesel and Stories

As been noted by many newspapers, Eli Wiesel, was a very special human being. He felt that having survived Shoah, that he had a profound responsibility to speak out for all those who did not. He broadened his insights from Jews to all those oppressed. Interestingly Rick Salutin in The Star newspaper last week presented another opinion, in spite of Wiesel’s Nobel Laureate award, an unflattering observation of an aging man whose views did not champion all people or nations.

At Northern Secondary,our enlightened department head, Harold Lass, put into place an incredible curriculum of literature even before Margaret Atwood became a house hold name. In OAC( Ontario Academic Credit for graduating students in the 90’s), our students studied the imposition of tyranny on women’s bodies via The Handmaid’s Tale and Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage that examined the Noah story from the bible.

In Grade 11, ours students studied Night, the autobiographical time captured in Wiesel’s novella, describing the holocaust victims’ marches wherein mates had to bargain, or steal bits of bread, where beloved parents were either dragged or laid down by the roadside, where random individuals were executed by brutal guards. Anyone who has vicariously endured the torments of the camps through Wiesel’s adolescent eyes will never forget them. In my years of teaching, many moments persist: one being a young girl who insisted Night, like most books, was only a story and that it was made up, just a story. It did not touch her. No matter what was taught or explained, she and some of her North Toronto classmates vigorously refused to accept Night as actual events. I don’t recall any expression of horror or even surprise, but continual affirmation that books tell stories that are conceived in the heads of writers, and therefore, are untrue. Maybe because they were teens, they rejected everything or maybe they felt the incidents so bizarre, too painful to be possible.

As adults, we understand that a tale may be shaped or conceived in the imagination; however, there may be , and in historical fiction especially, remnants or morsels of truth to be shared with readers. My students’ responses were problematic in several ways: Yes, It was Wiesel’s story and a story by definition is filtered through the mind of the teller. It is unverifiable. We cannot observe it first hand with our own eyes, and every second hand narrative may be circumspect, particularly in a cynical society; however, the darker issue resides in the refutation of genocides and fascist events that have plagued individuals and negators such as the Jim Keegstras of the world who actually taught that the holocaust did not occur and that Jewish conspiracy controls world events, his hate mongering harking back to The Protocols of the Elders of Zion.

Needless to mention, even the filming of hideous events such as the Nice murders or Turkey coup are passed through media in the hands of the camera person whose eye lights upon the tragedy of the horrendous scenes. Yet, we do accept the veracity of these unfolding events.

But my student, the strong denier who forthrightly rejected the holocaust as/ is in deed troubling. As years lengthen from the heinous event, grandparents or aged friends who lived through the wars or worse, and even our own children are distanced, obviously not experiencing the same horror we did growing up in a post- war environment. The survivors who can still relate the atrocities are dwindling, and more criticism is heaped on March of the Living. My own father born in Canada felt it not a wise thing to visit the gas chambers, explaining there is enough misery in the world without burdening our children with images that cannot be erased and will form intrinsic signposts in their lives.

In the 70’s I travelled by myself in Europe and my experiences in Austria and Germany were all good, even crashing in a bed in some dorm when I flew in at 3 am, offered up by a kindly passenger. Or walking with a map in Munchen, a man in a long black coat with no other motives but to help me find my location insisted on accompanying me by streetcar and subway safely to my destination. So my memories even before the Berlin Wall came down caused me to ponder this society that was unfailingly helpful, kind and even raucous in the beer halls. ( Remember I was in my early 20’s)

I had planned on visiting Dachau , but was shocked to observe the immaculate camplike bunks and neat unadorned walls. Except for a horizontal sculpture of twisted bodies at the entrance,, there was little evidence that this camp selected gypsies, Jews, music aficionados, homosexuals, politicos who disagreed with party policy silenced by deportation.This was the very first of the camps. But as I recall it, there were no statements to the flogging, the hangings, the sadism , brutality, death marches or the deprivation of humanity that consumed its inmates.

Americans visiting that day I heard kept demurring, “ It’s not so bad”. And truthfully had I not been fascinated with stories of Nazis gouging out luminous eyes of little girls or dogs set on prisoners tearing them apart like turkey legs, I, too, might have cast my eyes on the whitewashed walls and nodded in agreement. Many many years later,I reflected on Yad Vashem’s Memorial that tenderly and painfully evoked the loss of life through The Children’s Memorial in Jerusalem or the heaped mountains of shoes in the Holocaust Museum in Washington.

And Yes, resting on a park bench back in 1970 at the schloss in Heidelberg, I did overhear some kerchiefed women mutter,” Ah, if the fuhrer were only alive…”

Even as we welcomed the Vietnamese boat people and admitted war torn Syrians to our own borders, the Canadian government was not kind or generous to Jews during those terrible war years of 1933-48 as documented by Irving Abella and Harold Troper’s None Is too Many. In Toronto, Centre Island boasted signs comparing dogs and Jews and quotas for Jewish entrance to universities and the professions were tightly reined in.

Watching Eye in the Sky last night brought  home the value of a single person. Helen Mirren as the colonel must decide on whether to fudge a percentage   point to to save possible catastrophic explosions. The image of the lovely young girl innocent of war and crime and mathematical magical calculations twirls in her hoopla hoop. She is at the centre of a dilemma. The Talmud states,”, Whoever destroys a soul, it is considered as if he destroyed an entire world. And whoever saves a life, it is considered as if he saved an entire world.”

(Mishnah Sanhedrin 4:5; Yerushalmi Talmud 4:9, Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 37a.)

In these days of terrors, we think of Wiesel, Dachau, Nice, Turkey and wherever souls are destroyed. How troubling that wars continue to plague us, and people continue to deny that we are locked into a pattern that never seems to end.

Around a Round Table

Years ago when I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, we talked about physical structures that resemble certain ideologies. For example, a tall skyscraper usually contained the office of the most important CEO : at the top with the best views that overlooked the city below. Lofty, in the sky, above, imposing: all associated with being at the tippy top of the ferris wheel . Similarly a circular seating arrangement where all sit equally around a table connotes co-operation, looking people directly in their eyes, not down on them. Collaboration versus coercion, perhaps.

Thinking about that shape reminded me of our dinner table when the kids were young. It was a loud and boisterous place, each one vying for their chance to be heard, to argue, to explain or expound on an idea, or just to relate the day’s happenings at school. It was raucous and understandably rather intimidating to their friends who might drop in for dinner, their heads swinging from speaker to speaker who had seized the moment to proclaim his or her views.

When I visited my cousins in Los Angeles some summers when I was young, there was no definite time for supper where we all gathered. We grabbed something from the frig, found a spot , often with friends or siblings and “hung out”. I delighted in munching bags of chips in my oldest cousin’s room, a cubbyhole at the front of the house, The Smothers Brothers a backdrop to our chats. It was “ cas(ual)”, no one requiring attendance at a particular time or spot. As a teenager, I didn’t mind as lessening of rules and protocols fit nicely with my explorations as a burgeoning adolescent.

One woman I knew had her kids in so many activities that supper time occurred in the car, driving around in circles, dropping off or picking up kids. The story followed that the children had to be awoken at 4 am to do their homework as the preponderance of after school enrichment classes left no time for formal eating. She reported that they ingested so much lettuce that their skin actually moved towards that sickly shade- until she augmented with carrots. Might I add this woman who was at the cutting edge of most trends was a bit!!!!compulsive and obsessive; but I suppose she felt a supper in the car with all the kids was better than not gathering them all together.

But for me, there is something wonderful about gathering at a table for a meal. Sitting at the table, exchanging thoughts, listening to one another, offering conjecture promotes thoughtful dialogue and teaches respect. Where else is there a place to share the problems of the day : that someone had gotten under your skin; or conversely, to express the excitement at learning a new skill: a recognition of a talent; help, support, an encouraging nod; or simply a smile. To sit quietly and observe the fleeting expressions that glaze over your children’s eyes or notice a new habit or meme. The table is a spot for observation and interaction and response to those you love as you push away the rigours of everyday work.

The rise of cooking shows suggests a return to delight in contemplating, preparing, sharing and consuming a meal with others. Although often focused on competitions such as in Chopped or Master Chef, the end result, nonetheless, is an edible treat composed and created for the pleasure of someone or self: in design and taste and texture. As well, the attention to foods that have been overlooked, forgotten or smothered in sauces is illuminating. Not to mention the attention given to expanding the knowledge of our taste buds as cultural accents and spices are infused to augment the routine into extraordinary.

When I was young and pregnant, I followed Adele Davis who was an early guru for healthy eating. Later, when I was married and entertained, I drew upon Julia Child’s recipes, especially her wondrous coco vin which required easily a day of finding the special required ingredients and preparing every element just so. Course upon course was created and balanced in accordance with the recipe and I recall being exhausted by the time the evening was done, but feeling triumphantly proud at the results. And usually the kitchen smells that laced our apartment prolonged the sensibilities of Saturday night guests. Great satisfaction for the cost, work and attention to detail!

At holidays or birthday celebrations, there is nothing so wonderful as the combined presence of family around a table set with my grandmother’s china and silver, bright flowers centring the chaos of children talking, eating, demonstrating the latest school song or dance routine in the midst of serving course number three or four. The food in a sense becomes redundant as the family sits together and communicates and gossips and jokes with one another, recalling for me the days of their childhood so many years ago. Grievances, laughter, squabbles all combine into the symphony where the food is only the backdrop, the occasion for purposefully coming together.It is no wonder that Joseph Campbell lauded the need for rituals that mark significant moments in our lives. Here too exists the paradox of the mundane establishing a corner stone for something greater than itself.

Although I must now always apologize for a not perfectly seasoned dish, a slightly askew pie, the bitterness of a vegetable, it matters little. The purpose has been served and I imagine all the dinners where lit by candlelight or electric light bulb, my relations also came together and conversed over a meal. As a child, I did not know that the meal was merely a prelude to play with my cousins whom I adored, especially the older boys who knew how to tumble and yell and avoid the scourge of parents and grandparents upstairs. We were forging pleasurable memories that lit up my childhood and dug  deep feelings of love for some of my cousins.

As a grandmother now, at my birthday table, I savour these moments with my children and grandchildren, wanting the feeling to last like chewing as long as possible on some delicious morsel so it will not disappear down my gullet. I want to take it all in, enlarge it and hold on to it tightly – as they all go their separate ways, only reuniting for a meal now and then.

Art and Arbitration

For me, art is the refuge, the respite. I recall concurring with the diatribe explained at length in The Goldfinch: it’s the illusion that makes life bearable. I think in art, truth is revealed, put out for examination.

At the Denver Art Museum recently, I viewed paintings of the North American Indian by Fritz Schroder. They are bold and terrible, addressing the stereotypical images portrayed and memorialized by early photographers such as Edward Sheriff Curtis ( between 1907 and 1930) whose intent it was to record traditional Indian cultures. His opinion of Indians as “primitive ” reflected a majority American viewpoint, promoting a “myth of a vanishing race, with the notion that Indians are historical features of an American landscape, not functioning members in a modern society”. [See Beck, “The Myth of the Vanishing Race”, in Edward S. Curtis in Context].

In Schroder’s paintings, piles of viscera a la Francis Bacon, dead bodies, ravenous dogs and unhappy looks express an alternate reality. At least in Denver’s 21st century exhibit, the victim’s story is in evidence. And perhaps as importantly, national museums are not afraid to display a reversal of public thinking, accepting the blame that has been incurred on our first nations.

Earlier that day, I sat as an observer in a mock arbitration where the topic for resolution dealt with the dismissal of a teacher. Based on the famous 1925 Scopes- Monkey trial financed by the American Civil Liberties Union, lawyers Clarence Darrow and William Jennings Bryan argued Modernist and Fundamentalist perspectives based on the accusation of a teacher’s teaching the Theory of Evolution in the classroom.

Fast forward to 2015 where this arbitration would flip the test by pronouncing the Theory of Creationism as the tempest in the teapot. Here Mrs. Betty Scopes is impugned by a confused 10 year old. The mother reports a change in the child’s behaviour along with nightmares that include being descended from an ape. This is the basis of a complaint that results in Scopes’ dismissal.

Although the teacher clearly states that she did not teach religion, as she might at her church, she did expose her students to her view of Creationism. However, she explains that, as well and significantly, she provided a forum for all students to discuss their ethnic and religious backgrounds, even citing aboriginal peoples’ beliefs in transformative animals and The Great Spirit.

Certainly she did not expect her students to parrot her views: no test or exam had in fact been given so no grades had been assigned to attest to the bias of the accused. Indeed, Scopes’ classroom forum to express diversity was the means towards developing critical thinking skills in her students, as attested by Scopes herself. The mother lampoons that Scopes was only paying “ lip-service” to this approach.

From my own educator’s pedagogical insights, it made sense that this thoughtful teacher was incorporating creative and cogent collaborative student narratives into her curriculum presentation, relying and including them as means to enhance and extend her teaching in an appropriate fashion. Boards of education and teacher education programs all promote a child-centered approach to learning.

Never had there been a complaint against Betty Scopes, and no one had ever requested her daybook, notes, or her teaching tools. Nor had anyone, teacher, principal, parent or board member set foot in her classroom to substantiate the words of the mother, or distressed Benny, a boy described as one who preferred to “be told how to think.” In fact Scopes had been recruited by the same school board where she had taught previously, lauded for her teaching.

At the conclusion of the first day of mock arbitration, one arbitrator queried if a ten year old was capable of critical thinking? I smiled because I reflected, this man understood what should be central to his rendering a decision:

How do we educate in the preponderance of social media? How do we learn how to listen to the stories of others? To respectfully question and ask why? How do we learn not to just accept, but to think, to search for truth, to evaluate and separate fact from argument, slander from pander and false rhetoric?

As guardians of children in this Post post- modern world, how do we, as teachers and parents, aid in making meaning for future generations, avoiding the mantle of the Modernists whose belief in hierarchy, order, master narratives and centralized control( see http://www19.homepage.villanova.edu) dictated what, where and how to instruct and indoctrinate, trampling individual truths in the midst of heavy chauvinistic slogans of country, religion, majority thinking, etc. No doubt the original Scopes’ trial raised issues that debated which theory of creation or evolution would overpower and corrupt knowledge in a democratic society. I believe the Post-Modernists addressed these issues in their strong backlash to the former’s world view.

When all four arbitrators, both Canadian and American, supported Scopes’ dismissal, I was shocked. Ironically I could hear the voice of William Jennings Bryan surmise that ridicule ( and worse) had been cast on everybody who believes in Bible. Ironically, here the reversal of the Scopes’ trial, an attack on the teaching of religion, not evolution, but in a time when religion is not the panacea but the culprit.

Much like the Salem witch trials and as in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, slanderous gossip results in death: death here to the individual ‘s freedom to not only express, not “ indoctrinate” ( the word used to castigate her ) with her own religion, but to enable her students to glean diverse knowledge of other worlds of creation and to think critically about them.

And for this teacher, as well, a death to her livelihood and likely a blackballing of her professional life.

When I taught high school English almost twenty years ago, our novel of senior study by Timothy Findley was Not Wanted on the Voyage, a twisted retelling of Noah and the Great Flood: where the hero/ heroine on the voyage is a transvestite and Noah and God are power mad. Not grounding this particular book in the Bible would have made no sense, but along with the Bible, we also discussed other stories of creation.

Would my own particular religion have also been called into question and the reason for firing me had a student reported my instruction to the school board? Even back then, parents sometimes complained about our Feminist-based curriculum and they were offered alternatives for their children. I never heard that our public board of education took extreme measures to censure or release any of my colleagues. Particularly with no hard evidence.

I wondered had any of these arbitrators, all easily over 60 years of age, been in a real school lately ? They might object that I had been working with senior students, not pre-adolescents as our Benny is.

But, had they not even noticed the eyes of babies glued to Ipads, imbibing the confusion of truth and untruth that comes their way. What tool, except critical thinking, even as young as kindergarten could provide for a toddler to make decisions or simply prevent herself /himself from being brainwashed, passively accepting and not knowing where advertisements ended and their shows began.

Were we not then perpetuating a generation to be easily led and manipulated by the Modernists we once lambasted? Our arbitrators had only to try and pry an iPad or computer from the hands of some toddler blissfully involved with the animation and machinations of a cleverly made show? Their parents ( grandparents?) believing the child was learning how to sort shapes, learn alphabet, dance with Mickey or sing with The Wiggles. Or so they hoped. If these arbitrators could not comprehend critical thinking as fundamental to teaching, where else had they erred?

Perhaps relying on their own unease with religious proselytizing, they had felt it better to go in the opposite direction, gagging all whiff of religion altogether. Would that mean the teacher wearing a skullcap or niquab would also not be permitted in the classroom? And where do we draw the line between minority and majority rights?

Several arbitrators stated that the teacher’s manner of not demonstrating remorse was also problematic. My mind raced to Albert Camus’ anti-hero in L’Etranger whose lack of tears and acceptable mourning condemns him. Had Betty Scopes displayed crocodile tears and promised to be a good girl, would they have been more lenient? Tut, tut, young lady ,repent the error of your ways and we will embrace you as the prodigal daughter.

And what of the 10 year old Benny? And again I thought of David Mamet’s plays in which stinging indictments fell professors and teachers, the words of one fatally impacting the rights of another. And here in this mock arbitration, only words, a child’s words, again reminiscent of The Children’s Hour, malicious gossip ruining the lives of school marms. Words as thin as the air through which they travel but strong enough to topple regimes as we watched in Egypt recently.

One arbitrator noted that young children idealize their teachers, until they know better. Here too a bias, but sadly a contemporary one.

So here I sat, amazed and shocked by this panel, their perspectives on teaching and teachers in today’s society.

I must admit my first response to this presentation which I heard performed, not read, was to condemn a teacher for indoctrinating her students, but then I withheld judgment because:

1. In a Post post-modern world, our natural inclination should be to listen to the victim’s story, to undo the harm a Modernist attitude has done to exult unthinking adherence to collective thinking; and rather now, to consider diversity of major and minor religions;

2. Consider the teller of the tale, reflecting on who and why the teller is telling his narrative and what factors have impacted on this person, child or not. But in this case, a child who as a child might be more inclined to fabricate, exaggerate for multiple reasons.

This particular vein of discovery was not permitted during the mock trial, in fact shut down by one of the arbitrators, fearful that the mother might be unfairly cited as reason for her son’s distress. We did not hear if perhaps Benny was being bullied at school? Were both his working parents not available to him? We are told he turns to his rabbi, but this results in only more confusion for the child. So we must take Benny’s confusion at face value, laying the blame totally on this unfortunate educator;

3.Where there has been no documented evidence, mere hearsay rules. So he says/ she says is not contested, even as the words of Benny, the child of the 21st century influenced by social media, apparently holds much more sway than the explanation of his educated teacher who not only imparts the curriculum in an accepted and endorsed 21st manner, but encourages the ethically diverse children in her class to share and critically assess their views. And the teacher, with a Masters Degree whose work has been applauded, not contested.

Wow.

We are in Alice’s rabbit hole where fearful of the imposition of a once predominant world view, we have decided to silence an individual who has spoken, unrepentant, her own truth as one of many truths: tossing the proverbial baby out with the bath water.

So, I return to art and silent art galleries where I can discover for myself, judge, and critically consider the stories of the victims. I can turn away from judgments that suggest political correctness in the 21st Century and terribly disparage once again, the one who is seen as different because of their personal convictions.

Pondering how far is the distance between connotation and denotation and confusing and conflating much else in between

The latest thing seems to be writing on gratitude- not that is a bad thing as it doesn’t hurt anyone to pause and consider the good in our lives. But like words and phrases, “ gratitude” seems to lose its meaning as people post their reflections: on Facebook, for example, and there attach them to certain notions and expressions that have become rather hackneyed or taken for granted, even twisting original notions into strange knots.

When we worked at the College, Fred M (and he was a brilliant scholar and thinker) and I used to discuss how certain phrases no longer purveyed their original intent because the “actual” meanings had been subverted and perverted as individuals put their own spin on expressions: words such as “Post-modernism” so that we often debated what was really being spoken of, what was anticipated , or morphed from the intended term.

One of my favourites was the transformation of the word “ collaborator”. During war, to be a collaborator was a bad thing in that it meant to conspire with the enemy. Now, all children are taught to collaborate with their peers- and to co-operate when they are engaged in their daily activities. Holocaust images of women who conspired, hair rudely shorn, shouts out at me as the signs hung beneath their necks publicly proclaimed them as collaborators, heads wobbling low. A bit like Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame on a recent episode of Game of Thrones. No one would want to be called a “collaborator”!

So now I ponder what it is that “gratitude” actually means and how we have spun it into another realm of meaning. My Pilates instructor initiated her blog writing on the topic of gratitude and I complimented her on her second piece that extolled water, connecting her experiences in a communal bath with friends in Morocco. It was an exceptional piece and I told her so. She segued into revealing how writing had triggered an unexpected line of events. For example, she explained that several years had passed since she had lunched at Marche downtown with her sister and a friend, F . Deciding to frequent the restaurant with another friend who was leaving town, she was aghast to run into F again: as they had not seen one another or spoken in quite some time. And I wondered is that gratitude or coincidence or a flick of fate?

I could offer a similar story. I had been at York University immersed in a course on artists’ materials and re-creating an illuminated manuscript, even applying the gold leaf bits with egg yoke as I endeavoured to imitate original techniques. I finished the piece and presented it to my sister when she graduated from medical school. Some years later, my husband and I were in London and rambling this way and that through the British Museum, with no specific plan, in the medieval section where precious pieces were housed beneath glass. Even few days, the manuscripts and treasured books were changed, pages turned or repositioned. As we strolled casually, my eyes were drawn to something that looked vaguely familiar. As we approached closer, I gasped to note that on display was the REAL manuscript- exposed there for only a few days- in the time when I chanced to pass by in my meanderings. How was that possible? How had my path crossed that of my manuscript? Was I filled with gratitude for this sighting?

My Pilates instructor says we are on paths that take us to places. Likely it is certain words that trigger our exploration and signify signposts around which we decide to allot meaning to certain events. To this I gloomily query, then we have no free will as our journeys then appear determined by something or someone, and we are perhaps like

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

They kill us for their sport.” (William Shakespeare, King Lear).

She, my Pilates person, might say no, that we are all intertwined in the cosmos, Gaia, the personification of the Earth, one of the Greek primordial deities, the great mother of all: the primal Greek Mother Goddess; creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the Universe.

But I also reflect on those three Greek goddesses whose job it was weave, measure and cut the cloth that determine our trajectories. A fatalist, I am, perhaps! Stuck in the factory of beginning and ending the lives of just so many people as throw away garments.

All words- as we were taught in school- have both connotation and denotation, as we pad them out with our own interpretations and conjecture, layering and bundling them with more than the dictionary assigned, conflating “gratitude” with something else deeper and more mysterious. More likely, this is the work of imagination or faith or belief, for should we strip all words of their associations, we would inhabit a life of bare bones without colour or possibility. However, if we cannot trust what a word really means, are we able to communicate at all?

When I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage I structured my classes with different ideas of the Beginning, referring to male and female origins as adopted by various early societies. I found in The Chalice and the Blade (Riane Eisler 1987 ) interesting theories, some also harking back to Gaia. I recall relating to my students interpretations of the story of Rapunzel where transformations from single to multiple could also be discussed in light of the earth’s beginnings of asexual and sexual reproductions… along with ideas of communities of womanhood… and even explanations of the witch not being so witchy as she sought to protect Rapunzel from a male world.

That is the beauty of these old tales that almost call for paradoxical interpretations as an invitation to debate and conceptualization. But I also think in terms of embroidering a term, blowing it up like a balloon, stretching it beyond the literal, and losing sight of the triggering denotation.

So many concepts about where we come from, where we are going, the whys, the wherefores and perhaps ultimately how we choose to describe our own limited comprehension of our miniscule place in the scheme of things. Some might venture , hey, whatever gets you through that long dark night because we cannot live with utter simplicity.Play with your words; re-invent them; however, if we cannot agree on their meaning, we have returned to Babel: confused illiterates who cannot get the meaning of worlds because we all speak different languages and so we wander in our own small worlds.

I am not completely skeptical but hold to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous quotation of the willing suspension of disbelief -for the moment, which constitutes perhaps poetic faith and fascination with the past and language. Maybe we veer here towards the Mystics as I imagine ladies in séances poring over crystal balls and Madame Blatavsky, her Theosophists influencing Kandinsky, Mondrian and Gauguin, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum. But how far have we come when a “collaborator” is the aim of our education?

But what would life be without metaphor? As well, a fundamental belief in unity leads naturally to the further belief that all things about us are but forms or manifestations of a divine life. I ponder too the Romantic poets and their landscapes in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or The World is Too Much with Us. Certainly Wordsworth and his pals placed immense importance on mysticism. Symbolism and mythology are, as it were, the language of the poet: Wordsworth staunchly trusting in an inward eye focused to visions, infinity, the boundlessness of the opening-out of the world of our normal finite experience into the transcendental.( See The Project Gutenberg EBook of Mysticism in English Literature by Caroline F. E. Spurgeon). Often artists and poetics see so deeply into a reality hidden beneath their paints and words that enables them to light their works towards another level of existence: that happily disconnects with this sad, torrid life that is crumbling by greed, politics and pollution. Even in the times of Wordsworth and Kandinsky, an inner life provided the solitude and balm to a less than perfect society. But the populace on Facebook, plagued as well by all the burdens of everyday existence appears in their posts far from poets in using language.OMG!

Maybe we have come full circle to the notion of gratitude with which I began this string of thoughts and I end with my favourite but crazed William Blake who wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (Auguries of Innocence).

With ONLY “infinity” and “eternity” open for diverse interpretation.LOL!

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