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Prufrock Declutters

As I’ve aged, certain experiences seemed to have lodge in my psyche, certain words sticking in my head. For example, of all the poetry and prose I’ve studied, an elementary school poem that compared a grey squirrel to a coffee pot, WB Yeats’ warning that “ things fall apart”, and Frost’s assurance that “home is the place” have become my mantras: these signposts emerging over and over, their phrases bubbling up from years back. And just yesterday, Sartre’s explanation of why we are unable to throw away selected objects from our childhood.

Like many others, I have been decluttering. I’m definitely not a hoarder, but I have an art room where I stack my past drawings and over time, the pile has mushroomed and overgrown much like deepsunk weeds, along with boxes, empty vases and art supplies, for glass and lino printing, oil painting, acrylics, pastels. And because these days of corona virus demand we do something productive as we are confined inside, I’ve began to sort out, clean up and trash what is not essential- at least in the basement.

The tottering overflowing piles of nude studies reveal I used to be a much better artist, once able to commandeer colour in a more sophisticated way, defining more accurately form and structure , and surprisingly I once seemed to know where value could highlight slouching anatomy . In short, my progress has regressed and damnit! I really should be so much better than I am. As I follow Croquis Café daily and listen to Kenzo at Lovelife Drawing online, their concise instruction should not be fresh information, but as I enjoy drawing, I have to shrug my shoulders and begin all over again, a perpetual newbie.

But as I forged ahead to separate a few good paintings from the rest, I discover a box of “ Children’s Books” beneath a precarious stack of gesture drawings. Opening it to dislodge more of the clutter, I find what else? Children’s Books. There’s AlligatorPie by Dennis Lee,

Alligator pie, alligator pie

If I don’t get some, I think I’m gonna due.

Give away the green grass, give away the sky, but don’t give away my alligator pie.

At present, we’ve had to give away so much.

But some things, like bits of those poems from the past refuse to budge and stick.

That’s what Jean Paul Sartre’s ideas did in La Nausee in my first year at university. In that French class, that I recall reading in translation, I learned that we build our identity from objects with which we’ve had relationships. Like loving our ratty teddy bears who were always around when we were unable to sleep or were angry. Or our hairbrushes that collected strands of our unruly hair as we outgrew their bristly intrusion on our scalps. And because these silent witnesses carried a sense of who we were and where we had been, we kept them. At least, a few. They established a panacea of the soul, evidence we had existed in another time and place , things that helped to construct our present identities.

It is for these reasons that I am unable to discard a dress for my elder daughter’s wedding eleven years ago. It’s a black silk Escada with stunning black epaulettes, a dress that I stalked until it went on sale, a dress for a moment in my life when my daughter married in our house festooned with orange and red flowers. I wore it a few times after, and now with the shift in age and body shape, it pulls too much in all the wrong places, yet it hangs in my closet, a sweet reminder like a floral scent that makes me smile. In deed, there are other pieces barely worn, but whose textures or design catapult me to a state of joy.

Because I’m an introvert and books provide me with a safe way to navigate the world and meet people, books that overflow every nook and cranny are, too, a mainstay in my house. Over the years I’ve tried to pare back, although why my Grade 11 Sound and Sense survived the cut along with one of my grade 12 students project books of Senor Coffee Bean. I can recapture the passion that went into a project to segue a part of One Hundred Years of Solitude into something else .

In the box designated Children’s Books, I discover books from my own children’s youth. I surmise that maybe my grandsons might find some of interest. Of course, there were yellowed CS Lewis Narnia spinoffs, The Three Musketeers, Treasure Island, baseball story books, Choose Your Own Adventure, French comic books( they are in immersion as their father was), Star Wars stories, Gary Larson’s Doonesberry soft covers, so I sorted and separated , trying to think from the minds of my 8 and 11 year old grandsons: one who labored for hours on Rainbow Loom and is now fixated on Survivor; the other who gobbles up multiplication tables and paints abstract canvases, but both so drawn to iPads that separating them from screens is a cry for war.

I made three piles for my three children although some of the books had yellowing curling edges. My husband warned the boys will never look at them. However, when I called my son he was willing to take a look. In these days of no schooling, he agreed. “No way”, reproached Howard, my husband, “They’ll all end up in the trash.”

Last night as my son checked in on us and was admonishing the boys to brush their teeth properly, he shared that the boys, my sparkling wonderful grandsons, had spent the entire day recreating Camilla Gryski’s String Games from the load of books. They would demonstrate their prowess to us on Facebook later.

 My son half mumbled about a wasted day, but former educator that I am, disagreed. Those string puzzles required brain and body connections, sequencing, patterning, hand- eye coordination , focus and word following. My son still didn’t agree and his hope that the boys might find future work as string magicians was not a welcoming thought. Yet he grinned , for the boys had been happy, challenged and engaged.

And I was happy too- I had offered a tool, an old tool, a book, that had caught them up in these terrible days of plague when they had not been able to maintain their regular lives of school and friends and activities. My decluttering had availed positive purpose beyond keeping me sane and indoors.

I thought back about Sartre and the need to keep those things we once felt precious. But I suppose there comes a time when we are able to give them away, dispense with them, particularly as we grow old, hoping that some kernel of our own past will lodge in the present and create memories for the future.

The old drawings reminded me my parents were right and my desire to pursue art would not have ended successfully, but the books that had assuaged my shyness, my loneliness , my otherness and had been cultivated at university had laid a fertile soil for the person I would become: a teacher, an educator. Maybe we grow old, and our lives are in deed measured out by coffee spoons, but as long as the coffee had tasted good and we were satisfied, we can acknowledge, unlike Prufrock, a life of some purpose, particularly recorded in those things we have saved, secreted away- now to be discarded or transferred to those we love.

Home is the place

As we prepared to leave San Diego, I could not help but cast my mind to the Holocaust and events preceding it. We were scheduled to leave in three weeks, but the increased anxiety that confronted us continually on social media began to seep into our minds and bodies as worried calls from friends and colleagues whispered the borders are closing . “Get home, “ they implored. Similarly, alerts from teacher groups, friends, work colleagues , concerns about hospitalization should we fall ill in the States, insurance coverage… Our travel agent, practically in tears, pressing us to move up our return date, confiding that borders were closing almost as she related the news. And so, on sage advice, we concurred, made and remade arrangements. This our third rearrangement, even moving up travel plans by a single day.

How difficult to image a curt knock on the door in the middle of night, a screaming guttural voice that demands you exit your home. And you, terrified for your children rubbing their sleep- filled eyes, casting a look of forced bravery but fear for your partner, shuffle to grab something, anything. Maybe something warm for the little ones, a family keepsake passed from your  grandparents, and money, hopefully a way to bribe or buy some freedom later, if possible. Little do you know in most cases, money has no value to safeguard you or your loved ones.

You had either hoped you would be overlooked, ignored warnings, procrastinated until too late, believed in the ultimate goodness of a divine power to protect you. More likely you merely fooled yourself and imagined , if you clicked your heels three times and cried “ There’s no place like home”, you would be returned to the sanity, sanctity and safety of home. You would never ever barter with the lives of your loved ones.

And here we are, assembling our carryon luggage in the comfort of our condo, deciding which sweaters will stay, which deodorant will leave with us. Should I pack the new watercolour brushes? It’s orderly and for the most part, calm although the pretended calm is seeded with fear: when will this virus be contained ( as you reassure yourself that there are a mere 350 cases in Canada- although only 8 so far in San Diego), but will your seat mate behind or beside you cough or sneeze? Real situations replacing the shadows of Shoah.

We’ll see. The pictures of O’ Hare and Dallas airports, people packed like sardines up and down the steps. So much for social distancing? And those in charge, could they not have segued folks into smaller numbers to avoid the crush? My doctor-sister suggests I wear mittens or winter gloves and cover my face with a scarf. I know she means well.

At the airport in San Diego, there are overall less people and the drive down was practically emptied of cars. Yesterday my friends en route to Hawaii posted pictures of an empty airport. We’re keeping our social distance as we wait for the plane from Toronto which is almost always late, usually from tardy irresponsible travellers, or de icing. Today it’s on time. No doubt more Canadians are gripped by the fear that health benefits like the one purchased by teachers will end in 10 days and concern of illness. So we scurry back. Better safe than sorry.

That feeling of unreality and confusion abounds. Did this really spread from bats in dirty markets? Were politicians so glib to be unprepared for pandemics after warnings of SARS, swine flu and even regular flu? How could President Trump have cut funds for protection and then accept no responsibility. And if in deed he was tested, he has escaped unscathed even having stood so close to the president of Brazil? How can he be so lucky?

But more importantly, when will this end? Will the dead be stacked for burning?Will the hoarding cause some to go hungry and turn skeletal? I hear life and death selection is cut off at 70 in Italy? Will Jews go first? The ghosts of WWII never too far from my psyche to confound present day.

Most recent news: only Canadian citizens are allowed back home. I suppose that makes sense, but my mind flips to my mother who left Poland at five years of age, but shivered and shook at every border crossing returning or exiting Canada, her folded papers scrutinized, questioned, eyes looking her up and down. And those terrors of identity pursuing her to the time she stopped traveling in her 80’s!

But I’m sorry to say, this prohibition makes sense as our friends in San Diego are told “ to shelter at home” which means stay off the streets and stay home and the numbers in California are rising and rising catastrophically and 56 % of the population is projected as coming down with the virus.

Absolute measures in these times are necessary- and yet, here, spring break morons gather on the beaches of Florida and Georgia to dance and stroll and here, at home, I note that there were long lineups at EB Games on Yonge Street for a video game- AVAILABLE on line. One stupid stupid interviewee explains she lives with her grandparents, no reservation or care for their health, overshadowed by her want, her addiction to her Ipad, obvious delight at being on television: even as she reveals herself to be ignorant, immoral and insensitive. All these factors lost on her weak smile.

Lockdowns, borders, disruptions, the best minds, we hope, furiously searching for solutions once the horse has left the barn, the fire all ready raging. Israel, Germany,Japan?

And more: if you have symptoms, even if you are Canadian, you will not be allowed to board.

But my nose drips on and off, my mother and sister’s did, as well. And what if I put on my winter gloves, suggesting I might be sick, will I be dragged off, protesting,” My sister’s a doctor. She said I should…” Will a clerk report that I bought a pack of Kleenex here and some Halls candies? Paranoia and panic rising.

Memories of when I was young and foolish  travelling in Mexico with a friend, and we heard our names broadcast over a loud speaker and were told to remove ourselves from the plane. We did. A small error and we reboarded, and kissed Canadian shores when we arrived home.

Home: the place where, when you have to go there, they have to take you in. Wrote Robert Frost. Yes, it’s still true.

But now more increased and paranoia as my flight takes off . There’s a persistent cough by a child two rows ahead of us and we cringe. The flight attendants are wearing gloves, some with protective masks. Yet these are good steps assuaging some fears. My meditations say to accept, not banish the fears. Normalize them, take the angst away as you routinize them in your head. But how have they become part of our daily scene: to be set beside all other routines? Now I suppose : they must.

Exiting the airport is surprisingly fast although there are some crowded areas where people are bunched, no doubt no choice but to stand too close to one another.We have indicated we will self monitor for two weeks and an employee hands out sheets with information that underlines that necessity.

Relieved to be home, especially as the continual terrifying reports on nonstop news alerts reinforce our fears.I try to meditate to mitigate those feelings of anxiety but at present the feeling is ubiquitous. I structure my days with exercise, drawing, reading knitting, cooking, writing, online chats with family, naps and so time passes. Because I’m an introspective type, and not very social, I don’t mind the isolation although it’s early in our self- containment and grateful for food dropped off at our door and the calls checking on us.

Robert Frost’s line comforts me some : Home is the place that, when you have to go there, they have to take you in.

Reviewing Paul Auster’s 4321

There are those books and authors we tend to identify as “Jewish”: Bernard Malamud, Isaac Bashevis Singer, Irene Nemirovsky, Nicole Krause, Jonathan Safran Foer, Philip Roth, Nora Ephron, for example. We consider these books Jewish because the protagonists exhibit characteristics we are familiar with, they interact with other Jewish people or the set of cultural events reflect our religion or history. Often the authors use their own Jewish lives as reference points in the stories they are sharing.

Interestingly, Paul Auster, the author of 4321, is himself born in New York to Jewish parents, four grandparents Eastern European Jews. Facts regarding his own background are woven into his tome, such as being close to his mother, distant from his father, his work as a translator of French poetry, passion for writing and writers, and even a childhood friend being struck by lightning. Yet, I would not have believed that Auster nor his protagonist Archie is Jewish.

In fact, on reflecting on the catalyst of the unravelling of 4321, – only the opening vignette of the book appears to be a Jewish one- Reznikoff from Russia arrives at Ellis Island and is counselled to give the name Rockefeller to the border agents, a name more worthy of respect and able to provide a smooth transition into the new world.However unable to recall the name when questioned, the haggard immigrant mutters, “Ikh hob fargessen” and so he is renamed Ichabod Ferguson. Seemingly it is a cynical not so funny tale story we’ve heard before, and we let it go, shaking our heads, familiar that in our own lineage the family moniker “ Yskervotiz”had been rechristened “ Ash” as an insensitive or uncaring agent unable to understand a foreigner’s accent had altered the names of Jews coming to America.

So, anticipating more Jewish- ness to the book after this incident, I’m surprised to find none, deciding the author has merely decided to use the anecdote as a structural moment that will unravel the tale he will so expertly relate. There is no bris, bar mitzvah, no Jewish geography, except New York, no get togethers at Passover, no Yom Kippur atonement, yet the names of the people with whom Archie associates are all Jewish: Adler, Marx, Blumenthal.However, I no longer expect that this book will be Jewish.

Yet, eventually I realize the enormity of this single joke, for the theme of the book concerns the identity of Auster’s hero, grandson of Ichabad, that will unfold into four chronological parallel tellings , each similar but different, meaning four boys all named Archie with the same parents, dreams, aspirations and predilections, but each living in a different house in differing economical circumstances in Manhattan, Montclair, Millburn, and Maplewood. In the voice of Archie, Auster writes,

One of the odd things about being himself..that there seemed to be several of him…a collection of contradictory selves. And each time he was a different person, he himself was different as well.

Jewishness aside, if you were a baby boomer as Archie is, born March 1947, 4321 will recreate for you the terrible sixties which you may have mythologized as a Woodstock love fest complete with love beads. Rather, this socialist- realist novel reminds us of the Viet Nam war, the anti war protests, Rosenberg Trials, Kent State, Columbia sit- ins, Chicago brutality, murder of Martin Luther King and the Kennedys, all in precise, factual riveting detail. Archie’s involvement varies as reporter or witness, certainly aware of the trajectory , but except for a stance associated perhaps with a Jewish concern, philanthropy and belief in the democratic process, he is not in the trenches of these world altering events. Even Philip Roth in American Pastoral situates the daughter, Merry Levov, of his main protagonist, “ Swede” in the Newark riots, yet Auster’s protagonist although swept up in the tide of politics, repercussions and fallout, is not an instigator, more bystander to the history in the 60’s.

The stories of the four Archies resemble Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life, although her protagonist Ursula seems to skirt around from country to country, her personality changing as she plays central roles in say, an attempt on Hitler’s life, etc. Our likeable Archie is less a risk taker, adoring his photographer mother, the beautiful Rose Adler, as Auster did. All Archies are fascinated by Amy Schneiderman, alternately love interest, step- sister or cousin. Archie immediately mesmerized states,”…there it was, a feeling, an intuition, a certainty that something important was happening and that he and Amy Schneiderman were about to set off on a long journey together.” In all four stories, he exudes deep love and affection for the politically- committed girl he first encounters as a toddler so they both grow up together, stories entwined, no matter which university each attends: Princeton, Columbia, Bryn Mawr or Brooklyn College.

Coming of age accompanied by a search for life’s meaning is a constant feature in 4321. From disabling car crashes, insurance fraud, involvement in sports, a father who is burnt alive in one section while simultaneously growing an empire of appliance stores in another to diverse sexual partners, an ongoing love for New York, a sojourn in Paris, the novel amplifies the twists and turns, the happenstance that results in paths and journeys to unanticipated destinations for the main character.

Other reviewers have commented on the initial confusion in sorting out which Archie is which, evoking Robert Frost’s poem, “The Road Not Taken”, roads that are pursued, those ignored, this novel certainly providing multiple pathways. But again, nothing suggests anything particularly Jewish in the routes Archie explores. We do not conceive of him growing up as a Jew, for Jews alone do not hold a monopoly in developing moral consciousness as a liberal minded Archie does, his positive attitudes exemplified towards race and gender, for example when he is colourblind to a young prostitute, insulted when questioned if he would like another black girl for his teenage trysts.

There is much sweetness in Rose and Archie’s escape to the movies when his father dies, and his mother’s attempts to put their life back together, his raucous joy at watching the antics of Laurel and Hardy that wind up underpinning a first book. There is a charming first endeavour at writing a novella about the inseparable shoes “Hank and Frank” when Archie is only 14. There is a palpably intense scene as the older Archie awaits the Vietnam Nam draft lottery determined by birthdates, the sudden death of his doppelgänger friend Artie Federman and camp relationships that catalyze into lifelong friendships.

All of this is intriguing, recognizable and written in a way that in spite of 800 pages or more never bores. As Archie himself refers to his delight in studying a plethora of new authors and thinkers and translating French poetry to make it his own, we think of Jonathan Franzen, Borges, Dickens and Salinger, so many authors who have followed their heroes through the spirals, curves and initiations into adulthood.The following line,

The sun was stuck in the sky, a page had gone missing from a book and it would always be summer as long as they did not breath too hard or ask for too much, always the summer when they were 19, finally almost finally perhaps almost on the brink of saying goodbye to the moment when everything was still in front of them.

Conjuring F. Scott Fitzgerald as the great Gatsby gazes at the green light at the end of the pier, these nostalgic thoughts suggest an overlay of longing in this Bildungsroman that prepares us for the quests and follies our own lives will follow.Or ironically, we as Archie’s peers, have ourselves all ready experienced.

Perhaps Archie is a modern Jew, raised in a loving home with Jewish values of respect and responsibility post World War II, primed to be educated and fully assimilated in America, the home of freed immigrants and refugees like his grandfather, people who did not want to be differentiated by faith or religion at all, desirous to fit in, work hard and achieve the American Dream. I want to claim Archie as Jewish because in all of his manifestations, I really do like him. I can identify with his passions and pursuits, his fallibility and his attitudes towards life.

Yet unlike Jonathon Safan Foer in Here I Am, the very title from Abraham’s biblical response to G-d in the wild, triggering the novel of modern Jewish angst, his character, Jacob Bloch’s contemplation, strong connection to Israel, daily Jewish observances, the holocaust, all fictionally realistic, perplex and make me want to distance myself as his Canadian cousin, so I pine for something Jewish to connect me to Archie, but sadly , Archie’s thoughts about anything Jewish never figure in 4321, except as a structural stylistic note to bring the novel full circle, a tool, a device manipulated by a clever writer.

And although I too have assimilated, I carry with me Jewish connections- to family holiday celebrations, beyond Kafka to Jewish literature, an understanding of basic Jewish practices, a respect for the travel of my ancestors who brought us here, a link to Jewish worlds of repression and oppression, Jewish humour, even anxieties and neuroses because I am Jewish although many would scoff that I have created a stereotypical image rather than one that penetrates a Jewish sensibility. 4321 severs the ties with all of that, only leaving the names of his friends and some family as indicative of our origins, wisps of torn paper to be carried off in the wind.

In the end, we are left with the cumulative incident, the joke- Archie’s name “ Ferguson” or ” Ikh hob fargessen” which isn’t a joke because without your name, your identity has been banished and young Archie moves among his four identities, none that tackles, unriddles or comes to grips with his birthright. I cannot help but recall Eva Hoffman’s memoir, Lost in Translation, in which she searches to resurrect her past lived in her first language Polish. It is true that Archie grew up in English, however, the vestiges of a communal past have the power to reach out and shape who we become, an epilogical ghost from the past perhaps. So like the Jews of old, our Archie wanders among four deserts, searching. Without a past, we exist only in the present, no matter how charitable, how charming or charismatic we may be, twisting in that cold and bitter wind.

Maybe that is why I yearned for a speck of Jewish connection in a tale that is predicated on a Jewish joke so that Archie might come to know his roots and travel on to a secure future where he might confront and acknowledge his past, muttering, I did NOT forget.

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.

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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