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Time and Nao

Yesterday Cathy Tile’s presentation concerned a book by Ruth Ozeki called For the Time Being about a Japanese-American girl named ironically enough Nao ( Now???!). There are actually two stories, one concerning Nao who is a bullied, depressed adolescent who contemplates suicide; and, Ruth living on an island in B.C, the other narrator who happens upon a Hello Kitty lunchbox by the water and is desperate in trying to discover if she can alter/ save/ prevent Nao’s plans. The time lines of Nao and Ruth do not coalesce as Ruth attempts to find out when Nao packed up her lunchbox and how it might have arrived on the shores of BC from Japan.

It is a troubling tale that raises many issues: bullying, displacement, suicide, loneliness, personal and professional success and failure in life. The disorienting factor, however, is time lie and how Ozeki manipulates the reader to believe that Ruth might actually be able to find and save Nao. Time loses its meaning in a linear fashion, expanding and contracting, shaped by our, Ruth’s and Nao’s emotions, pulling all of us into a tangle or a large soup within which we float.

Ruth, herself, does not really draw us in; she is the stooped woman we see wearing a cardigan in a checkout line, eyes focused on the ground to avoid interaction. Nao is the changeling, part Californian- part Japanese searching for friendship but isolated and taunted for her difference and inability to succeed in school and fit in. Her solace comes from her great grandmother, Jiko, a Buddhist nun who leads by example, espouses peace and provides Nao with a summer of escape from the abuse of her schoolmates. We learn of Nao’s kamikaze uncle who preferred suicide rather than participate in war, her father who suffers because he will not permit his software to be used for killing : all junctures of great stress . And we have Ruth- the writer- who incorporates these lives, these times into her own time, making them part of her own story and altering the course of their trajectories to suggest different resolutions to the endings of these narratives. ( As we perhaps we wish we could, too).

My friend Anne corelated connections with Ian McEwan’s Atonement where time shifts to alter the story: making me think, if only we, too could unwind the narratives of our days and, like old video tapes, slice off parts we did not like, re jumble and change the outcomes of events. I recall watching the plane crashing of 9/11 and thinking for a second, this is only a show on tape. Let’s rewind it and erase it; it’s not real. Cathy Tile briefly referred to Atkinson’s Life after Life, also a play on “what if” the character’s life followed one path then shifted to a second to reveal diverse outcomes. I reflect too on Robert Frost’s Roads Not Taken and how important the choice made a crucial moments is.

I too thought of TS Eliot’s Burnt Norton I ,“Time present and time past. Are both perhaps present in time future. And time future contained in time past. If all time is eternally present.

And as we read Ruth’s thoughts, all of the past does become our present. It is for me, a deeply disturbing book, not one easily read. There is much dislocation as both Ruth and Nao grapple with their own stories, trying to establish identities and find places for themselves .It makes one aware of how difficult, even day to day existence can be for ordinary people like Ruth the writer and Nao the school girl.

Jiko the grandmother stands outside of time, calm, unjudging, beaming with a kind of truth that encompasses a godlike understanding and acceptance. I suppose Ruth’s manipulation of the story suggests we can take stories into our own hands and make them better, providing more positive outcomes. This is of course the role of imagination: to light the way out of the darkness of life, yet what is saddening is the back drop of others, the people who make war, make life hideous for little girls, and pilots who would prefer to soar not be forced to shoot. Instead of being able to go about our daily life, smell the flowers and smile openly, our refuge must be in the darkness of our heads where we can choose to write and improve the tale, concocting a better kinder story.

Time especially as we age is a topic we ruminate on. Have we wasted time? What time is remaining and how we can stretch the time that remains into satisfying vignettes to assuage the notion that our time in time may dissipate at any moment. Maybe it is the cool of fall, the twist of the last leaf on the tree, the drooping flowers that remind us of this eternal fact.

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Coming Home

It is as the adage says, you can never go home again.

It’s not that you can never go home, and as I used to repeat to the children when at the end of the day, we eased the car into our our driveway,

Home is the place / that when you go there/ they have to take you in. That section of a poem by Robert Frost laboriously examined for our provincial exams eons ago -when language and literature were two separate papers and worth 100% of your full year’s grade- somehow stuck in my head, was repeated over and over again, and was met with rolled eyes and guffaws along with “ MOM, we know!” In other words, shut up.

It’s that parents and children change, and reminiscent also of the Heraclites’ line “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man, “suggests that walls, doors, people are not static and change and rot and deteriorate whether animate or non; and we exist in a perpetual state of flux.

Yet within the rooms of your childhood house, there are the whispers and dreams and longings cherished -and scorned like cast off toys: some we wish we could forget and others we hold close as torches towards what might be in the future.

Returning to the comfort, security and hugs of being loved as a treasured child goes hand in hand with the resentment of living beneath another’s rules, conforming to the outdated mores that no longer appear to apply. Pause, remember, and you can feel the hotness of a slap, observe the grimace of haughty look, the sound of slam of a door and re-experience the anger, hatred and despair, the solitude of pain returning to sear you and you are that individual again, that abandoned child, furious at your stupid parents.

Always it is the push-pull, avoidance and approach, the paradox of life: that backwards-forwards caught in the whirl of opposing forces. And for all of us, it is the same: for once we were all children, albeit growing up in different times where the rules continued to change as society did, and our parents expected, demanded at the very least a resemblance of tolerance and respect.

Over time in many families the distance between children and Boomers, hoping not to perpetuate the stern coldness of their own parents, altered so that gap almost leveled to “ buddies” or friends. I remember my father’s response when I , silly girl in elementary school called my sister “ a prick”. And my grandmother’s crushing behavior towards my mother that was not to be challenged. My Boomer generation tried to create an ease of communication by reducing the distances, by hanging out, acting like friends, but yet it did achieve the intended goal of easy relationships. How could it?

Although the Boomers might want to share a light hearted social exchange, when disagreements occur it is the parent who change hats and endeavour to enforce his/her view on the child who now might just scoff at taking direction from their peer. Think of Hugo in Australian bestseller The Slap and his behavior by lovingly indulgent parents, hoping to raise him as an equal.

There are differences between generations and in trying to bring them together, both groups have paid a price, I think.

I do not know what the perfect model would be. Certainly one does not want to grow up in a family of fear and forbidding rules; however, how devastating is it for parents to be dismissed when their views are contrary to their child’s who will not tolerate any opposition. On both sides there is pain, hurt and confusion.

I recall admonishing our youngest daughter not to skydive, not to tattoo herself, not to… all in vain. Now with children herself , she worries they too will repeat her youthful jaunts. Yet, I, too, hitchhiked in Europe with unsavory characters, threw caution to the wind, hung out in Dam Square, travelled on trains aimlessly and far from my parents’ scrupulous eyes, did exactly what I wanted. Rather than youth being wasted on the young, it is a time to experiment, be a wild ( well a little), find yourself, and enjoy life, before conformity to job, partner, society takes you on roads not paths,.

As parents, we love and invest, I truly believe, unconditionally in our offspring, offering ways for them to bloom into whatever flower or weed their shape might take, nurturing, giving supplements and what we think helpful advice. Otherwise, we fear they might become Rousseau’s wild child.

How much, how little, obviously is determined by one’s own values, our own beliefs that are felt necessary to the nurture. In university we were introduced to the conflict between heredity and environment and believed ourselves FREE to cast aside the impact of our genes, free to recreate ourselves. Today I understand the complexity of the interaction and with discussion of epigenetics, even more so.

I will admit that for some years before my mother’s passing, I was so furious at her that I detested spending even a Saturday lunch with her time. Yet like the fox and the little prince, we did persist and eventually that resentment I harboured towards her eased. Or maybe she moved onto a new space where we could communicate. Or maybe I did. And once again I was blessed to recapture the love I had experienced as an adoring child. We shortened the distance between generations, so we could be friends, laugh and chatter together. Still I needed her wisdom: on knitting, on life, on many things. The rough and jagged space was bridged and I was relieved to feel my mother’s warm arms around me.

Sadly, when she died, I wish she had said something special, gentle and loving to me, rather than angry resentment of being in her hospital bed. Yet the years before and certainly her brightness to me as a child continue to illuminate my life and warm me. I know I was loved and I loved her. Each day there is something that reminds me of her and I am grateful to still be in her sphere.

I’m not sure how we will be remembered by our children, if occasionally something obscure will cause them to ruefully smile and laugh at one of our foibles . Who can say what a person packs in their memory bag to carry with them into their future?

I recall the good and the bad of my parents. I was, am their child, subject to their rules and their ways of knowing. I acknowledge that my good life was a product of their hard work, their concern and love for me. I am not just grateful, deep in my aching heart, I harbor real love for them and I miss them

Where Home Is

Like one million others( last winter), my daughter who lives in Pennsylvania has been without heat and power for three or more days. It’s no joke with a seven month old baby. Unable to get a hotel room, her small family moved in with an aunt and uncle, taking over the daughter’s room. My daughter felt badly banishing Katharine from her bed so they moved on, searching for another place to relocate. Fortunately their wonderful babysitter offered refuge to not only my daughter but also to her pets which include several dogs and cats. As the disruption of their life continued, my girl wrote, “I had a sad realization last night that I don’t know where home is anymore—our house didn’t feel like it. Home in Toronto isn’t the same anymore…I just felt so lonely and sad—despite the fact that there are so many people who have reached out to care for us.”

This put me in mind of the question that drives much of J.M. Coetzee’s work,
Where is home? And how do we get there?

I responded to my daughter that home is not a place but a feeling where one perceives they are secure and loved, yet I knew that is only partly true, for a house is filled with things that we associate with memories of who we are, where we have been and where we might go. It is an extension of our inner selves.

When I look around my living room, I view the numerous photos that line the walls; of children and grandchildren at various points in their lives. I observe objects such as a colourful beaded horse brought back from Botswana, and the incredible vibrant painting of purple and orange rocks and three blown pine trees from Canada’s North that Howard commissioned for my 60th birthday. I reflect on the pink walls of that room that are so bold but, to me, so beautiful and remember how the colour cured down after we first bought the house. I think of our little nook in the kitchen with the huge uncovered windows where I sit and paint and write and read. I note the steps upstairs where children and grandchildren carefully learned to scramble, navigating and eventually proclaiming in triumph, “I did it.” Rooms and furniture become imbued with so much more; and they carry tales. Being physically removed is hard, especially when you have not chosen to leave the premises. I can certainly empathize with my daughter’s discomfort of having to depart her home.

I used to quote, making it a mantra that always invoked from my kids, “ Yes, we KNOW, Mom!” whenever we pulled into our driveway,“ Home is the place when you have to go there/, They have to take in (Robert Frost, The Death of The Hired Man). Back when I was in Grade 13, several millenniums ago we sat “provincial exams” and this poem was required text for the literature part of the English exam, but even then, the concept of home had been seared in my mind.

There is that famous question: if you had to abandon your house immediately, what would you take with you? Of course, this was the fate of the people during the holocaust.

And what would you take?

Likely you might grab something warm like a sweater or a coat, maybe a necklace or money to barter with, and -for sure- photos of your loved ones. Book after book reminds us of a worn image stashed in a shoe or a pocket covetously sewn into a garment overlooked by harsh authorities, a photo that somehow made it through dark passages and hopeless days.

I think too of the cookbooks scrabbled on bits of paper in concentration camps so that the inmates might reimagine the warming smells of challa baking or a fragrant roast, recalling home when the family once greeted Shabbos by candlelight, warm, safe, sated by love. Memory’s Kitchen: A Legacy from the Women of Terezin is one such book that describes how a remembered kitchen and kuchen prolonged survival.

For writers, maybe there is a sense of discovering where the fit is right for their protagonists, where they can slump comfortably and rest and cease their journeys or quests. The expression by Thomas Wolf, “you can never go home again,” is apt because everything changes so that the notion of home cannot be recaptured. It is Heraclitus’s famous saying, you can never step into the same river twice idea, for it is never the same: one moment tossing up sticks and leaves; the next calm and clear, your toes splashed or caressed.

Only in memory can “home” remain fixed, and, thus, fantastical. Yet, the thoughts and familiar objects we associate with home persist as signposts of acceptance and love, or ones that we associate with home. Being forced to leave one’s home is a brutal shock that causes one to experience feelings of being uprooted, unsettled and lost. I reflect always of Eva Hoffman’s Lost in Translation in which the words gleaned in her new language do not connect with her childhood experienced in another. When her name is changed to make it “American”, Eva is displaced, unable to access her former self in even small scenarios: piano classes with a teacher who communicated with her in Polish words now rendered foreign and unreachable to her in the adopted country.

Even our one day pilgrimage to my son’s during the Christmas ice storm made me appreciate the warmth of my own bed once we were able to return for a cozy night’s sleep. Ahh, snuggling deep beneath accustomed sheets. Ummmm.

Maybe in our deepest of hearts we carry the first nomads with us, the hunters and gatherers who were searching for protection and safety from the elements. Being homeless recalls and enjoins us with our primordial ancestors who physically knew the bitter cold, the need for fire and friendship to survive. Yet at the same time, many of us long to travel, to leave home, to reach out, to explore, to encounter adventure, difference and diversity, to learn in foreign contexts –however, desirous of returning home to integrate that knowledge into the sanctity of our cherished abodes, dreaming perhaps of the excursions, but still hungry for more experiences. This is the archetypal journey described by literature. This rejoins us to our restless roots.

For my daughter, the exile from her home, there was a baby unsettled by missing the rituals of a beginning schedule and his cozy crib and Dano, the massive dog, licking his chubby body. Yet with the baby’s mother, my daughter, and his father, he must have intuited the security that he is treasured, held and cared for in the intensity of difficult situations. So home unembellished is a feeling, and a memory of being loved and cherished, rocked and resplendent in someone’s arms.

Maybe at the end of our days that is the home we will ultimately seek.

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