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Time Lapses

Watching This Is Us this week triggered some emotional residue that concerned my family.In this particular segment of the show, hospitals play a pivotal role. Kate confined after Jack’s precipitous birth, ministers to her underweight premie, However, the underlying focus is Rebecca, Kate’s mother who not only keeps watch on the infant but is revisited as a patient: once as a young mom in a car accident, her body broken but also her mind slowed by meds; then at the conclusion of the episode, her hands fidgeting , her eyes blank, likely beset by Alzheimers. The children now grown and grey- haired gather, perhaps for the final goodbye.

The juxtaposition of Rebecca’s hospital scenes of young and old combine for a curious and sudden effect, the immediate ellipsis of foreshadowing an event, a mind under attack, with its eventual outcomes. And within less than an hour of the viewers’ time, we observe Rebecca grow, interact, age, decline: the cycle of life as if captured in one of those National Geographic photographic speed ups of a seed planted, blooming, blossoming and dying. For a flower, it’s startling ;for a beloved human, it’s painful because we know that this is our fate as well, and for the inevitable trajectories of those we love.

As a child yourself, perception and time is skewed. Summer vacations of sun and redolent sand of a few months seem to stretch forever, oases from dreaded pounding school. Teachers, in reality young and perky in their twenties, even kind ones appear to be ancient, so so old. Proceeding through middle and high schools, life accelerates soon, shorter vacations, an awareness that more closely conforms to truth. But eventually before you are even aware, the reverse sets in and months seamlessly turn into days as you mark out holidays, milestones, plans for weekends, next month, next year, checking them off in red on your calendar as quickly as they appear. It’s Groundhog Day in reverse.

Even if you are ignoring or not noting your own changes, your children are the physical markers of the days as they first crawl, then walk, then leap to adulthood, all ready making plans for future endeavours and love relationships. In your own head, you’re still the same, but your mirror records the alterations on your face, your back, your walking gait, that shrink you each year, reminding me of Marquez ‘s One Hundred Year’s of Solitude, both in confusion and imagery of shoes or clothes enormously large for bodies that have become the size of dolls. Still you collect treasured precious moments in photographic books or digitally, in which you’ve frozen the frozen perfect marriages, celebrations that slowed the days, making them memorable and retrievable of a good life you created for your family.

In the flow of time, I think too of my parents and their last days in hospital, and I don’t want to think of them. My mother ,who like me hated hospitals, demanded to go home, turned her face away in anger, and my own response of self protection and little acquiescence; my father enclosed in his hospitable bed, the victim of doctor ignorance, then in a coma when only a few days prior I had been rubbing his feet and he assuring me, “ Of course, I loved you Pat.” He 68, younger than I am now. I think both would have preferred to drift into sleep at home, never to return. Or my mother-in-law’s agitation, her final days as a patient in an institution where she once, warmly welcomed, was a volunteer.

Rebecca’s leap from active to passive, the dramatic speed up of time, ephemeral time was what caught me off guard. Even in my doctoral thesis, I had quoted TS Eliot in the Four Quartets, so fascinated have I always been by the seconds, minutes, hours and years that can lapse, meander, speed by, confound and heal. Eliot once wrote,

“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

All time is unredeemable.”

And so watching the combination of “ time” in Rebecca’s life in This Is Us exerted a profound effect on me. Perhaps more than ever, it’s my own age as I struggle to accept I’m no longer young, for the belief of the baby boomers was that, unlike their parents, they would endure fresh, active and able forever, time posing no barrier. Unlike our dodgy parents who toiled, wore white gloves only in the summer, obeyed rules and conventions, we would dance at dawn, free. If you are a boomer, you know exactly what I mean.

Now there is an incredulity that accompanies what slows us down now, amazed at our selves. Strangely, what we wore, our clothes, tie dyed,high waisted have been reverted, unlike us, persisting, now lauded and reissued as retro and our rock groups of Jagger and Lightfoot and Fleetwood Mac make last gasp tours as their boyish( and girlish) charms and talents have faded. But even they must know time has marched on. And we finally acknowledge what our parents knew and tried to impart to our stubborn refuting heads.

As above, the poets said it best as in Tennyson’s lament by Ulysses,

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

As tho’ to breathe were life! Life piled on life

Were all too little, and of one to me

Little remain…

Ironic words for Tennyson was 24 when he wrote the poem in 1833.

In one of Tara Brach’s meditation, she soothes by quoting Tilopa,

Let go of what has passed.

Let go of what may come.

Let go of what is happening now.

Don’t try to figure anything out.

Don’t try to make anything happen.

Relax, right now, and rest.

At present, this is my mantra.

Insides outsides

Sandra Martin in The Globe today( Saturday) writes about her turning 70 trip to the Galapagos and segues into boomer thoughts on aging.Perhaps because of two events in the last week, I too ( maybe too often lately) also ruminated on the disconnect between my insides and outsides.But yes, I too marvelled at the blue footed boobies, the ancient lumbering tortoises and the need to preserve the fantastically coloured crabs. Even if it meant not flushing toilet paper!

Martin writes,”Going to the Galapagos was a chance to meditate not on mortality, but longevity , since I’m not the only one getting older these days.” She continues to state that “[f]or the first time, there are more Canadians over 65 than under 14…Modern medicine maybe not have vanquished death, but it has certainly pushed it to the sidelines.” Yet always mindful of my mother’s attitudes towards doctors and hospitals, like COD liver oil, the remedies must be accomplished quickly, distastefully but nonetheless endured so I make my annual visit to my physician, my attempt to get in and out as quickly as possible, avoiding as many tests as possible. Unlike many who arrive with a lengthy list of aches and pains, I surmise that decrepitude is the price for living longer- and anyway should some bodily distraction resist self- healing, I’ll make a separate appointment for a more detailed examination of putting said part under a microscope.

The doctor enquires, “ How are the eyes?””Dry- I’m taking Drops”. “ How are the bowels?” “Better in California, but we’ve all ready discussed it .” “ When was your last period.?” I look quizzical, laughing, wondering .He embarrassed demures,” I have to ask.” “Too long ago to remember…how about 55?…”

My mind wanders to my mother with whom I wish I could now more fully empathize who would reiterate at 90 ,”It sure ain’t the golden age.” Not quite at that stage, I sometimes think there is a disconnect with my mind, my registering of sensation, thoughts in my interior, and the reflection in the mirror. As I say to my husband even when we’re in our finery, well, at least cleaned up for our Saturday night date ritual, “ Old is old”. Where the stomach although not sagging or huge, still protrudes. Where even the devices of glasses and hearing aids do not bring the world into precise focus or sound. Where feet occasionally trip or an afternoon nap is soooo sweet. The doctor enquirers,”How is your energy level?” Do I tell him I fancy a snooze around 3 or pause when climbing the three flights to my painting class? No. I respond, “ Not like Howard’s” who rises at 5 to exercise and then can count 20,000 steps more in a day, nonstop activity. So I think I am a bonus to this doctor at the beginning of his day, the picture of health that still bends and straightens, pretty much as I have for years. Besides, he has others- truly ill patients to follow. No doubt some younger, perkier, most likely still have monthly flow.

At my Pilates studio, there was a celebration of our instructor’s new venture as she rebranded. On a perfect afternoon in a truly lovely affair, her clients gathered to toast her. As I looked around, I noted most were of my vintage, well heeled, about my age, more or less. And my husband added upon observing the crowd,” all with straight, upright postures and good backs.” She has worked hard to support her clientele, her knowledge obvious upon viewing us as a cohesive group. And on the inside hidden from the well polished exteriors the fears and foibles of aging, of life, of avoidance or repair of age-related affirmities, of change. It at that moment, while imbibing and snacking , chatting and relaxing, the beautiful surface of healthy bodies has gathered to assert the possibilities of health, exercise, good aging.

For me, turning 70 was the line in the sand, viewing myself standing on the other side, “ the waiting room” as coined by my daughter-in-law’s grandparents. Although they joked about the approach of that new dimension of personal evolution, that twilight zone that awaits us all, reaching that age is sobering. And although those morbid thoughts are not my constant companion, they are inescapable upon gazing into the mirror or surveying the wonderful photos from the Pilates event. I used to joke with my students how amazing Georgia O’Keefe’s face was as each line, crevice and ditch represented signs and symbols that reflected the wisdom of events in a life, possibly well lived, or able to record the pain but also joys that accrue in every day encounters. Still as I scan the faces of Millennials or those younger such as the muscle bound fellow overlapping my seat at the Jays game Friday, the secret is : not one of us escapes and you too will get old and lose that robust beauty, that gleam of the solidity of step and body you are presently experiencing.It is the secret that even if we know, we tend to forget, erase, ignore as we leap two flights of steps or reach for the highest shelf with no clawing pain in our shoulders.

However, to combat the decline of the physical is the inner life, because the interior of a person, an oldster, a boomer is so rich: contemplating the joy of a grandson racing through the Bata Museum collecting clues; the appreciation of the table bouquet of fuchsia and orange blooms this week at the Law Society; cuddling against my husband’s warm body when I cannot sleep; watching birds wolf down the seeds at the feeder and a squirrel mount pole to get his fair share; the cool of the pool on these inexplicably humid days; the joys of sensation;the still( for how long?) deep discussions and thoughts on books like Waking Lion and the quick sarcastic interchanges by email with my irreverent friend in La Jolla whose sparkling wit makes me laugh, the satisfaction of painting that that has improved just a bit and serves as a retreat into mindfulness, and less occupation with jarring or sad thoughts. Being able to live, more or less, without pain with three herniated disks. These are my bowl full of gratitude while I persist, my accumulated wealth, the thoughts I collect and bank in my head.

I think my mother knew that one has little control in life, that it happens to you, that fate and luck play a role and one can only alter so much, try as we may, that we must work with what we have. So we strut and fret our hour on this stage, ranting silently at technology that changes our words, doing what we can to clear the chaos. And like my wise mother, an ordinary but extraordinary person building a house on sand to be swept away but hoping some fragment or particle , some idea will have taken root in her children: of her, of her ideals, her way of doing things, her desire for a better world lived out in an unassuming, virtuous thoughtful way, we push forward against the world, events these days so horrorful of immigrant children, trade sanctions, stupid people in power,

For always roaming with a hungry heart

Much have I seen and known…

I am a part of all that I have met;

Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

Gleams that untravell’d world whose margin fades

For ever and forever when I move.

How dull it is to pause, to make an end,

To rust unburnish’d, not to shine in use!

And although I never figured that poetry gleaned and memorized in university would stay with me and persist so strongly in my head, it has -and expresses sentiments more succinctly, more sweetly (these lines pilfered from Tennyson in Ulysses),

We are not now that strength which in old days

Moved earth and heaven, that which we are, we are…

Post-literates who read 

Last week I read this quote from Russell Smith, “We are all finely attuned to the conversations in our own rooms.” On Thursday January 14 , he was writing in Toronto’s Globe and Mail on David Bowie and the people who were familiar with him and upon whom Bowie had had an impact, but he also addressed the fact that because we move in our own circles, we do not often hear other voices.

The same week, the Dean at Welland University in Ontario described us as a “post- literate” society, that although many of us do read to our babies and young children, few are readers themselves, not modelling that joy and interest of books beyond babyhood.Leah McLaren as well in her column decried the sanitized children’s books where original stories had been turned saccharine so as not to upset the fragile little ones and give them the illusion that everything will in deed turn out right in their world. What occurred to me was Bruno Bettleheim’s work on The Uses of Enchantment : that we do need the witches, the shivers, the scaries for multiple reasons.All these probing discussions on books cheered me and I enjoyed reading the diverse voices, albeit all coming from pretty much the same orbit. 

When I introduced my post-colonial class at Northern Secondary School, I did endeavour to elicit those “other “voices. I required the students to interview a grandparent or immigrant who had come from another country: so as to share experiences from another time and place. Because adolescents are so insular, they rarely go beyond their own head space except for videos or their headphones or their buds so they also tend to communicate within their own group. More than twenty years ago, books from Africa, India or even South America were akin to falling off the edge of the world and entering a dark hole. One parent shockingly referred to this study as “ primitive”, scolding me for this program that would not aid her daughter in university.But even then I was mindful that our world does not end at the boundaries of our local neighbourhoods. 

When teaching back then, I encountered wonderful narratives from students who actually dialogued with the old lady in the corner, the distant cousin from Scotland, the Auschwitz survivor, enquiring not only about their roots, but learning about new contexts. Separating the oldies from the wallpaper cast their progenitors in new lights as the true purpose of the exercise was to discover how similar we are to others, kin or not:how we all share in the human condition, our fears, our joys, our funny quirks that often pass from generation to generation.  

Of course, we also read the indigenous voices from Africa and India and South America. Speaking from your own tongue is so different from a Hollywood filmmaker or screenwriter who thinks they are transcribing the indigenous words of the original speaker. We did, I will admit, view Out of Africa and Cry Freedom from the sympathetic white (wo) man’s perspective. Yet I did recognize the need to listen and truly hear the language and message of the writers  themselves : Chinua Achebe, Marquez…And when books from those “ other” countries became sexy and desirable literature, I applauded that.

Interestingly, how popular even Downton Abbey has become now: a different time, set and divided classes, but spirited people in textured settings that promulgate information, apparently highly and accurately researched, extending our knowledge of the concerns, anxieties, lives lived many generations ago,but perhaps we have always envied the rich who float on a cloud of servants much like a fairytale.  And did not Moll Flanders and Becky Thatcher not tickle us as well?

And yes, it is our own circle who is watching the soon to end beautiful production that makes us voyeurs to an impossible lifestyle unless you were an aristocrat, born or married wealthy , now a tech genius, winner of the Powerball… We chortle with our friends who  set the clock for Sunday’s  production to observe the antics of the cast that engrossed us so we can mull it over with them on Monday. Still it charges our imaginations , and after Carson’s wedding to Mrs. Hughes, we all smiled sweetly in our sleep : that even the servants can have a beautiful wedding. Ahhh- in spite of Lady Mary’s insistence on celebrating her way, quiet, prim, determined Mrs. Hughes managed the wedding she wanted. 

Today video and television and Internet transports us , but a book remains for me primarily a treasure, a magic carpet.  

In terms of Leah McLaren’s point, I think of the stories I’ve shared with all of my grandchildren. Benny Bakes a Cake is a book I begin to tell them at 18 months. It is a very simple narrative.On Benny’s birthday ,he and his mother bake a cake to honour the day. However, Ralph the dog with his lolling roiling tongue, has been sitting at Benny’s feet during the entire process and when Momma removes her apron for a walk, Ralph dislodges the cake from the table. Poor Benny, for he cries and cries and cries and cannot stop.  

When I first present the story, the kids enjoy the simplicity, the few words, the clear drawings and they recognize “ birthday” and “ cake” and they join in the birthday song when Benny’s father arrives with a store bought cake to save the day. However, as they deepen their understanding , mature, get older, they begin to comprehend the catastrophe in the narrative. I will never forget the look of horror on my grandson Carter’s face when he realized that Ralph had destroyed the cake and there it lay in a disheveled mess on the floor. That moment of insight was explicit in Carter’s eyes, an epiphany that life can go wrong -even with one’s beloved dog on the most special of days. 

McLaren also examines the book Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day . It is in deed a very bad day , for little Alexander, one of three brothers, narrates his sad tale of his mother forgetting to put a desert in his lunch, his teachers’ criticism of his artwork,the dentist finding a cavity and Alexander having to purchase all white running shoes when his brothers dance about and taunt him in their lively striped ones. This is another book I have shared with the grandkids.  

When I read it to Aaron, Carter’s younger brother, he followed and was very perturbed. He got the individual fragments and the overall theme: of the very bad day. But he implored me to put the book away, his face, too, revealing a connection to a child’s life ( Aaron at 4 years of age) that can be unsettling and troubling. He did not however, understand that there will be days like this and good days will follow the bad. So we will read it again when he is older and make sense of the entire tale.These moments that pierce the child’s ego are important: that the story is NOT occurring in their own lives, but it is recognizable: buildings bridges to a familiar reality. As they snuggle in close to the person who can reassure them, they are learning that yes, bad things happen but good days will follow. We cannot erase the bad from life -which will occur no matter how much cotton padding we use to muffle it, but the lesson to be embraced is that we can find ways to cope and move on, discovering solutions, good sunny things that can cause us to break out into song; or decide not to abandon all hope and move to Australia. 

Loved ones reading to their kids, cuddling close or preparing them for sleepy time are likely reliving their own delight in sharing something significant as they,too ,recapture a moment of love transmitted from their own weary parents at day’s end. I think that is why books like Babar and Madeleine and her appendix operation( talk about terrifying)and silly Curious George have endured forever.They remain part of a song of golden babyhood where love prevailed and engendered precious relationships. Besides which, the child under quilts and coverlets, exhausted from a day of raucous play presents themselves as relaxed, affable and not ready to bound on to the next activity.And if fresh from the tub, s/he also smells that delightful child smell. Warmly fastened in bed and surrounded by a circle of stuffed toys, they appear the picture of Hallmark card of perfect childhood. 

I hope that we don’t settle into a truly post literate world, for a book offers so much- to adults as well as to developing children. Plus one hopes that the memories created by this special time will surface to spark the adult to rekindle their own desire to engage with new voices and be transported back or forward into new worlds of wonder. I think Tennyson said it best in Ulysses, 

       Yet all experience is an arch wherethro’

  Gleams that untravell’d world, whose margin fades 

 For ever and for ever when I move. (19–21)

The American Landscape and Canada

I have often stated that I want- at this point- in my life beautiful. San Diego is that. However, arriving in LA for an event, I am confronted with everything I dislike about America. The buildings resemble 14th Century Gothic churches that eventually collapsed because of the competitive desire of the builders to touch the sky,pushing them higher and higher. Hotels here not content to be solo versions of rest and repose combine as the JW Marriott and Ritzcarlton have done here: the second a looming appendage to the first. The Weston sprawls for an entire block. Even restaurants are overly encroaching octopi, presiding over almost entire blocks.

The resurrection of Downtown LA reminds me that in spite of the line of overly heaped bundle buggies toppled here and there that the U.S. desires to be the biggest, and most imposing, stretching upwards to the stars and sideways wide to encompass numerous freeways and acreage. How appropriately had Betsy Ross envisioned their flag in 1776 to have created the symbol that flutters in the breeze!

As a girl in the 60’s who came to LA to visit her cool cousins, I had no sense of America’s expansionism- even though our history classes focused on the Monroe Doctrine or the Manifest Destiny or the Purchase of Louisiana. My cousins’ friends asked if I drove a dogsled to school and if l occupied a teepee. I merely giggled and guffawed at their lack of knowledge of Canadian history. I devoured my first big Mac in California and luxuriated in being away from home, alone, for the first time. I sped through traffic on the back of a motorcycle en route to beaches named Hermosa, lazing all day in the scorching sun. I was driven about in cars, even rising before my aunt and uncle, to trudge up some hill to watch the sun glisten through the smog.

Back then I cared little for politics ( although I still maintain that the play in politics is about power only using the issues as excuses for self-aggrandizement, cynic I may be ). If I was considered an oddity as a homegrown product of Canada as a visitor to the US back then, so be it. It played smally into my hedonistic teenage romp. Only later, did I realize that love for Canada is in deed bred in the bone. Much much later, when I noted that turning on a tap in a faraway place yielded beautiful drinkable water did I pause to consider that Canada was truly spectacular in many ways. And its vistas humbling.

Just last weeks at a Blue Jay game, I watched as a family struggled to contain a large man in a wheel chair. It was obvious that he was impaired, likely from a debilitating disease that had robbed him from not just standing unaided, but even keeping his head from bobbing this way and that, his glasses attached by a thick elastic to the back of his head. When our National Anthem played, he immediately leapt from his seat, terrifying his family that in his attempt to “stand on guard for thee” he might just topple over the glass barrier. How deeply does our passion for our country reach- and even when we cannot control our limbs, that we somehow jump to attention to demonstrate our feeling for this country.

Canada is my home. I applauded John Chretien’s refusal to align itself with the US, demanding real proof that were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq . We stood alone. Our health care system demonized by US is still a thing of beauty, equalizing both rich and poor. We like to pride ourselves on being different from the Americans, that we hold different values. Sadly, however and over the ages, we too have looked the other way, on issues of immigration our statesmen touting none is too many or some such nonsense to crises of real life and death matters, opening and closing borders, separating serious practical concerns from theoretical ones. And in terms of our environment, while 181 of 193 countries in the United Nations recognize their citizens’ right to a healthy environment, we have not enshrined it in our Charter of Rights and Freedoms, even pulling out of the Kyoto Accord, demurring that the price of enforcing it would bankrupt us.

Yet, we accepted same sex marriages, allowed women and their doctors to determine necessary abortions, promoted cannabis for the very ill, and are working towards operationalizing euthanasia. I reflect that no country is perfect and we ride on a tide of politicians who drive our boat into uncharted or fearful waters.

Yet here back in LA, it is the display of these ridiculously high and monstrously wide buildings that flash silver and reflect the sun right into my eyes that gives me cause for complaint. At the same time, I love the new Disney concert hall designed by our own Canadian Frank Gehry with its unbelievable shapes and curve. Just today I read that his fascination of the curvilinear was likely engendered by the fish kept alive by his grandmother for their Sabbath dinner. In Toronto.

I laud the Getty museum with its staggering art collection as a tribute to the good of some Americans. Yet I am uncomfortable with the showiness, the lack of humility and the bravado of the Towers of Babel that symbolize the presence, the riches of a country where at the bases of these edifices homeless people sleep in their dank hoodies curled like the tendrils of ferns. In my head is the ignorance of a Donald Trump insulting, bold, brash and so embarrassing allowed to compete for the highest position in the land. And the right to bear guns, well, that is an unbearable story.

It all confuses me: the display of power, who grabs more, who displays better?.

Later as we anticipated the event for which we had come to LA, I admired the dashing hubub of people in tuxes and black lace. We were beginning to worry we would not arrive on time at the Biltmore, lusciously tiled and gilted as the first home to the Oscars. My husband suggested we call Uber and before we knew it, a grey car burst through the entwined mess of traffic permanently stalled in the driveway of the Marriott. The driver who was cordial and accommodating managed to detangle his car and we were off for the short blocks that separated us from the celebration.

Chatting about the rise of Uber, our driver, a dark and handsome young man explained he worked for Uber only part time because he was studying to improve his speech which was very good I, a former English teacher, thought. Carefully and haltingly he responded to our questions, revealing he had no family in LA, that he had come from Syria only on year ago. Reluctant when we continued to question, he said only his flight from his home could be a book: he had swam from Turkey to Greece and the United Nations had allowed him to stay.

Always wanting to accept and believe, but sure there is a story behind the tantalizing tidbit, we respected his privacy and did not press. He was grateful to be in the country, hoping once his English had improved to follow his dream- of all things- into marketing. This revelation drew me back to a night at the Saigon hotel at the Rooftop Bar overlooking Louis Vuitton and Juicy Couture where I considered the irony of a disastrous war fought for values that were in not in sync with the economy or desires of people.

I’m not sure of how to think about Syria. I want it black and white and people allowed to live and thrive in democracies so their lives are about good choices. I pondered how this Uber driver had afforded his car which he proudly proclaimed he owned. I wondered if he would meet some sympathetic beautiful Valley girl who would support his American Dream.

My thoughts on America are always tied to the Gatsby story and the image of the green light bouncing off the water. As well I carry with me Philip Roth’s American Pastoral with scenes of rotten decay that twisted the dream. Yet here in the flesh was not just a dreamer but a young man who through dint of determination was wrestling a new future for himself, fulfilling the dream.

Of course I cannot say to what lengths he had gone : had he bribed? lied? Or merely kissed his parents goodbye as they urged him to leave in the dead of the night? My imagination emboldened by my knowledge of the Holocaust and the fiction of heroic movies set my mind racing. Yet in the front seat, neat and quiet spoken was a person who like Tennyson’s Ulysses had striven…not to fail.


Almost a year later, the newspapers present us with the child washed ashore, an unsuccessful attempt for him and his family to achieve a safe harbor, his dreams dashed, and Canada at a pivotal point .

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