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Homes of Circles

In order to avoid the overwhelming construction on Eglinton, I veer off onto Burton and drive through the stately leafy Forest Hill area where the mansions are eye catching. Even this street is full of trucks and cars and requires some slow down. I wonder who lives here, their families, friends… and I think back on where I grew up- also in Forest Hill but behind and above my father’s store at the furthest edges of the boundary of the borough. My parents had chosen the location for the reputation of the schools, but perhaps our mother had imagined her daughters worthy of the society embraced by the children of the rich. Although I truly believe her impetus had to do with education that she had dearly savoured for herself, I think she was fascinated by the artefacts of the wealthy too.

I never considered that my home was any less than my friends’ abodes. We had formerly lived in a house on Glengarry that my parents had designed before my father had succumbed to polio. Now their plan was to simplify life, and to combine my father’s living and working spaces. But this new building also on Eglinton that we were to inhabit had my parents’ stamp on ideas and needs marked on it, my mother insistent on a small yard for us planted with grass and demarcated by a fence at the end of the alleyway.

My parents, especially my mother took care to consider, plan and arrange our living space, always aware of my father’s meagre income. I was never aware that we were likely at the thin edge of the financial spectrum. Somehow we participated in numerous lessons , were well dressed, and to my child’s mind, the equal of our neighbours around the corner or in ” the village.”My father recalled so many horrible fights between his parents caused by the lack of money  during the Depression so there were never squabbles over money in our house. He did not want his children to grow up under that nagging, cheeriless gloom. Foremost, our food was the central concern purchased at the best stores, fish and chocolate cake almost necessities, bought where all the financially comfortable neighbours also shopped. In deed I believed my pink bedroom, I no longer had to share with my sister, was- palatial in size. It overlooked the lane but its dimensions were spacious enough for two girls until our sibling squabbling encouraged our parents to cut through the wall and give my sister her own room.

I remember my surprise when my best friend Nancy who lived near West Prep made a comment about how small my room was. I was stunned , taken aback , wondering if in deed she was describing my royal bedroom. Granted, I’ve never been great with spatial measurements but I truly believed my room magnificent, with matching furniture, shelves overloaded with books and personal possessions.

In those days I would tell my father that the house I would eventually inhabit would be round. Perhaps I intuited that like a wedding band, a circle has no beginning, no end, continuous for all time. There is a vague memory of a house I had once visited that if not perfectly round had no walls to divide up the rooms so there was a flow that carried you from space to space.

And interestingly when I began my search for a perfect wedding dress at the elegant Jean Pierce ,the most coveted dress shop on Eglinton back then, I pined for a gown that was circular. Somehow about it piqued my imagination. When the price made it be unobtainable, friend and department head at Westview Centennial in the Jane Finch corridor where I was newly teaching suggested her present to me would be an incredible French crepe and lace gown that she sewed by hand. We did fittings in the girls’ washroom. It hangs still in my closet- as fabulous now as forty- four years ago.

But this idea of the circle intrigues me and not surprisingly when my real estate friend in La Jolla shared a picture of a Mexican heritage house in the shape of circle, my heart sang out and I was again smitten. But like the dress, the price, and plus I am Canadian, were only dreaming points of awe and desire for an ideal not a possibility.

Perhaps part of the reason I admit to being unable to throw out and clean up my basement of my home resides in the fact that the items I have in my home not already purged are imbued with emotions. As I attempted to unsuccessfully clear out the art room last week, I was waylaid by the books that connote significance from different stages in my life. Steppenwolf and Siddhartha by Herman Hesse from university days consumed as a mantra when we dressed like hippies. Hesse played a rallying point for Boomers. Hesse predated Mindfulness and long before “ Journey” became a ubiquitous word, particularly in speeches regarding life and profession, we actually pondered its meaning : now I cringe when I hear someone, their gaze fixed loftily away, murmurs the word. Sadly, we can say -poor  tired “ Journey” has passed away, been depleted of meaning, overburdened with overuse.

In the basement of my home, there are books associated with my years of teaching of Postcolonial Literature and writing for the now defunct Multicultural Journal , my major contribution to Northern Secondary’s Gifted Program, but one gradually erased when I left to work at OCT. I have evidence of my student’s brilliance from those days in the format of handcrafted books, paintings, videos: beginning points to my students’ immersion into the study directed by the intrepid students themselves. These fill me with pleasure.These cherished items are artefacts of my life.

From OCT are the booklets and research, journal articles and two books I wrote, edited and collaborated on that contributed to the teaching profession, my favourite published by Sage. These concrete items, gathering dust, make me proud. Other heaping piles contain the standards and implementation strategies and presentations created for the more than 300,00 teachers in Ontario. And to think I worked with almost all the faculties of education in the province also writing their additional qualification courses for post study. Impressive, no? Although courses will change, reviewed every three to five years, the standards and ethics of the profession will remain as the values we should uphold. These tenets have been with us forever: respect, responsibility, care, compassion, collaboration, etc. Back when I started at the College, Dr. Linda Grant was the brains and insightful leader of that endeavour.

In university I studied Sartre whose La Nausee addressed why we keep items close, outgrown things like teddies or even hair brushes. It is because they demonstrate that we once had a relationship with them and they validate us in terms of who were at a variety of points in our lives. They are small houses for the machinations, emotions, goings on of who we were. And particularly as we age, we try to maintain that smart and vital image of ourselves preferring not to focus on the aging mind of body of today, recalling in stead the relationships, actions and pursuits, the exhilarating and inspiring contexts that formed and nourished us. The happy child of loving parents, the aloof adolescent or careless student, the committed professional, the caring lover: all the passages into self awareness. The so- called journey. 😉

So the importance of a house, especially a circular one brings one back to the start. In the home of my house lives memories and books and reminders, the exterior – whether on Burton or Eglinton, no matter.

Clutter

I’m not sure why certain books or sayings lodge in our brains. I often say I’ve got Teflon brain because not much seems to stick; having said that, there are things that I think I remember clearly and one in particular is lodged from a first or second year French class at U of T ( University of Toronto).

We were studying La Nausee by Jean-Paul Sartre, likely the translation back in the 70’s, that imprinted on me. I recall Sartre saying that we keep objects around that we have had relationships with- that our teddy bears and even our hairbrushes speak to us. The connection between the object and our consciousness of it reasserts our identities because it connotes who we were at a particular time and in a particular place. It extends the “I think, therefore I am” of Rene Descartes, as our selves are reasserted by the toys and paraphernalia with which we engaged once upon a time. I shouldn’t be surprised that many of the great philosophers such as Descartes, Spinoza, Leibnitz and others were well versed in the magic of mathematics and science, going deep beyond numbers and ciphers to contemplate an “otherness “ that stood for something more.
Think of how the word “Rosebud” and the role it played in the film “ Citizen Kane”, supposedly based on William Randolf Hearst, the newspaper magnate. Interestingly the film was praised by Jean-Paul Sartre so he must have admired the connection between word to evoke a life story.

I recall a Friday night dinner at my parents when my son was a small boy. He paused peering over the edge of his chicken soup and queried, “Maybe I am just a thought in someone else’s mind. “My mother guffawed, “ Jordan, just eat your soup”.

But in terms of “rosebud,” and the precious trinkets we feel unable to pitch, I’m not referring to those who hoard like my Auntie Marion whose library was overflowing with books or magazines she was unable to discard. We had to navigate through piles of past newspapers even in her livingroom to reach a chair in her house. She recalled Dickens’ Mrs. Haversham to many of her nieces and nephews.

I am talking about those objects we keep around us that do remind us of events, people or specific times. As I sit here by my kitchen window at my computer mid- December I glance at the 10 or more cards on the granite island from my husband’s birthday (July 31) and even our last anniversary (July 2). I even spy one from past Valentine’s Day. Besides what I rationalize is an informal art arrangement, this impromptu exhibit provides colour, design and texture to a room that holds pots of orchids, my recent paintings, a corner full of my grandchildren’s pursuits such as Mad Libs, markers, puzzles and stacking bears…. Yes, I admit “clutter”.

However, my table is a place where my family gathers and where I paint and write. There used to be a birch tree outside that practically cradled the house, but recently it had to be cut down. An outsider arriving here might wonder at the carefully arranged chaos and only realize it is a kitchen because of the stove and frig.

I absolutely need these props. Birthdays, celebrations, bric-a-brac or photos that speak to my life filled with significant events that fill me with happiness and establish a barrier to the bad things that creep into my mind and torment me with worry. They are a shield, a panacea of love and establish balance.

I am an admitted worrier, although as my husband points out, worrying does no good and neither stops what might occur. Superstitiously I reflect that worrying is an amulet that will outwit bad events from unfolding. After all, Jews believe that if you give a sick person a new name, the Angel of Death will fly over him or her unrecognizable and hidden by a fresh moniker. However, I can think of many times, I did try to think good thoughts, but they failed to stave off the inevitable onslaught of trials and tribulations.

I think I am not alone in my penchant to surround myself in good vibes. Many of us cherish our photographs: usually group shots of families, vacations, trips that remind us, make us feel lighter, happier. And how many holocaust victims rudely forced from their warm beds and permitted few possessions did not grab for a photo? I once read a book about the inmates in concentration camps maybe Ravensbruck or Terezin who curried together scraps of paper, and cut into bits of leather recipes from their former lives that were resplendent with memories of warmth, love and family. Some dreamed of the aromas, felt the press of their children’s bodies or re-envisaged the smile of mother: all evoked by the words “ cream… butter…”.

I have been called a cynic but for most of my life I actually naively expected people to behave honorably, but for the most part, have been disappointed.

That is the miracle of Nelson Mandela. In spite of an excruciating hard life, separated from his family and home along with the daily punishments and bonebreaking work, he did not lose his optimism. In deed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in South Africa in 1996 where murderers, arsonists, rapists were given amnesty when they admitted their crimes was a miracle of belief in the power of forgiveness.

Films such as Cry Freedom that give voice to Steve Biko’s tortures, Dry White Freedom, or The Power of One deplore apartheid. When I developed my Post-colonial classes at Northern, these movies taught the students more than I could. Most contained montages of images that dramatized moments that were fraught and composed in the pain of the people in South Africa,1976. Imagine my delight when visiting the Hector Pietersen Museum in Soweto, South Africa and discovering the images in the films were the real stuff, actual saved documentation used in the production of the movies. A film is, of course, a distribution of images that can endure and together form a work of art. Fortunately someone decided these pictures were worth saving to record the past.

So I am back to my perpetual theme of art, a clutter of things that holds meaning for me-or for you. That clutter that reaffirms what we find important, what we treasure and hold close, what we maintain that encourages us to continue on, persevere.

It is however, the Nelson Mandelas who are so much more than the scraps that surround us in our daily ventures. The Nelson Mandelas who stop time, who do not allow us to linger in the past and drone on about the good, bad or particularly ugly old days. And yet, it is all paradox for without the past, the memories, the photos, the mementos that evoke a former me or you, we could not forge on, and we could not hope to change what has gone before, resurrect what has been good, human and worth preserving.

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