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To condo or not: when a house is a home

Yesterday as I sat savouring a chocolate almond croissant in the window of Petit Thuet, I was spied by old friends. We gesticulated through the window pane until I finally invited them into the tiny space between the cash register and the window. We quickly caught up on kids, travel, old friends and then R. said,” We’ve moved into the Ports Condo.” My mouth dropped open as I loved their former house, spacious with a big yard in North Toronto.  

 I nodded that I knew The Ports and recalled my epicurean initiation with my aunt and uncle, both now dead, who introduced me to gastronomical treats at The Ports of Call when I was barely out of adolescence I recalled valet parking at a huge location at Summerhill -divided into four or five dining rooms, each suggesting a different cultural food offering venue. I seem to remember vermilion silk curtain, suggesting perhaps an invitation to Far East experience, but I’m not completely sure. It was a hopping night scene, most unusual for staid Toronto 50 or so years ago. I conjured even then that this might be a replica of New York or LA’s dining scene. I had no actual factual knowledge but gleaned it was a place where the rich, glamorous and elegantly dressed would dine, especially on Saturday nights.  

My Aunt Marion always felt she should extend my education, particularly in matters of art and taste. I would make my first travel trip outside of Canada and the US with them: touring Scandinavia, Finland, Amsterdam and London the summer I turned 18. We visited hospitals and mixed age homes, all with a view their socialist leanings. We wandered through ramshackle synagogues barely subsisting. My aunt would lapse into a kind of perfect Yiddish and exude a warmth reserved for me, but not my parents at home.We dined in fantastic restaurants and to this day I recall the scrambled eggs at Madame C- something in London which must have been so expensive to make my aunt gulp; and humungous strawberries eaten with a Voice of the Women advocate in Oslo. We wandered in Vigeland Park in Norway, pausing to seriously discuss the sculptures, and we noted how Rotterdam was modern and industrial as opposed to quaint Amsterdam.  

But the subject with the old friends was condos. They had a particularly long closing, their house snapped up almost immediately and now they were praising the ease with which they walked out and down town. I think you do live in your neighbourhood and certainly when I left the College of Teachers, located on Bloor, I almost begrudged dragging myself back to St. Mikes for my hearing aids or my shopping through Hazelton Lanes once within easy lunchtime walking distance. Now it seems I hardly trek downtown anymore, preferring not to pay for parking or become delayed or entangled in the rhythms of trafficStill vestiges remain- of relationships, rituals and certain services, so I do return. 

But running into this couple did trigger thoughts of location. At present we are committed to staying where we are until we cannot manage our two cluttered stories. It’s convenient when grandkids come to play, me introducing them to our space with treasure hunts that cause them to discover our dark unfinished basement, peruse my cluttered art room, or investigate beneath the table in the extra bedroom. There is room to hide and be alone and store all those unnecessary books, memorabilia I cannot bear to part with such as the X-rays of my daughter’s fractured arm when she was in Grade 8, my notes from Peter Melon’s art history class in second year university, the animated books created by my students in that Postcolonial class and my portfolios from international presentations when I worked at the College. I keep them because as Jean Paul Sartre taught: they are pieces of ourselves and we shared a relationship with them, intuiting that those now forlorn pieces helped us to know ourselves, to grow and evolve. To those who would downsize, I say bravo…but of course I know that eventually we will have no choice but to toss those dusty mementos and move on. But for now, they provide comfort, an expanded sense of our own trajectory and evolution. They are like the extra layers that keep us warm, arming our souls. Perhaps they are psychically necessary, or others might conjure, just crutches.  

For the time being, I cast my eyes at the bird feeder loaded with Muskokoa birdseed that has attracted cardinals, goldfinches,blue Jays and a woodpecker with a huge wingspan.Although the garden never replicated Virginia Woolf’s Sisinghurst all in white: that was my intent. If I squint a little I can even relive the tents and all female musical assemble that held my friends and colleagues one perfect spring night to celebrate my doctorate in 1996. I think of the surprise( and not )garden parties to mark birthdays and marriages and my elder girl’s wedding in our living room, intimate and cosy on a snowy day in January. Even my scowling mother at her 80th , angry at me for now a forgotten reason is part of the tapestry held within these walls. As an extension of one self, I think of the monochromatic colour scheme of our den and my own paintings based on our trips to China and Peru that add to a presence and make a house a home.  

ith our place in San Diego, it too is being layered with items of love, designing a space that speaks of us and to us when we excitedly burst in. But its size us small, a condo, and likely a forerunner of a place we may retire to – if or when we do depart this sanctuary where our children were raised and formed into extraordinary humans. Littered with toys, music, and the need of growing children, our kitchen table in our nook was/is the centre of discussion, and coming together as a family.  

I guess that is it and as John Polyani might agree- as I write this I discover what I did not know I knew- my attachment to my house resembles another family member, more than a space, it symbolizes who we were and are as a family. Its four walls more than restricting have embraced us, kept us and our secrets safe, connected us,entwining us with love and shared memories. When we leave we take all that with us, our house gently removing itself from us physically . 

But not yet and hopefully not for some time to come.

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A Rosh Hashana Reflection on sensitivity and growing up

Maybe it is called Writer’s Block, but lately although I happily edit my blogs, embroidering them or scratching out some, I am not finding too many new topics. Applause? I shutter to think that I re-edited a blog a few weeks ago that had all ready been published ( mea culpa, please forgive me!!!) Enough all ready, do you think? The topics I usually pick over have been dissected written about, and likely have gone longer than they should have. But in my own defense, themes and topics reappear over and over again and with –perhaps the exception of technology or new scientific discoveries- everything has been said, only to be rehashed, repackaged or a new perspectives provided by brighter( or lesser) eyes.

And it is not as if I don’t feel anything, or I am merely regurgitating. If anything I am overloaded with emotion these days so that it is practically dripping from me.

I read Rucsandra’s, my Pilates’ instructor, blog on gratitude and think her logical steps should make me shake off my anger or disillusionment in 90 seconds or so, freeing myself of angst or ennui. Yet it seems to have taken up residence like the Rosh Hashana tunes that will not depart my head for weeks, these overrunning my body, and at night leaking from my eyes.

I have always felt things intensely, my father frustrated at my being so sensitive, obviously a bad word. Even in early pictures, I am cuddled against a couch, small and separate, curly –haired and all ready introspective. No smile. My mother said she was worried about the effect my father’s polio, his disappearance to Riverdale Hospital might have on me as a child. I seem to have weathered it better than my sister who was unceasingly in need of his approval and love. My reaction was one of disregard, sarcasm. My own sweet personality absent replaced by bitter reaction to his absence? For always, when trying to make sense of who we are and all of our whys, we ponder nurture versus nature and likely there are equal amounts of both with likely nature putting a spin on the latter. These days, it is discussed under the term epigenics.

As an adolescent I might soar in spirits, but a subtle or even unexpected look might cause me to plummet and so I coined the expression “the bit of dust in my contact lens” to suggest that a joyful moment could be spoiled in an instant by a surprising gust of wind that interrupted or interrupted delight .And so I might be crying again. But as a teenager, I did not cut myself or act out as adolescents do today although I often chewed savagely at the inside of my cheeks.

I think I was an adolescent who felt things very very deeply. They called me Pat the Brat although my protestations were small. I laugh now to think that on returning from California at the beginning of Grade 11, my parents despaired of my change. That I tossed off words like “bitchen” and “boss” and I knew how to apply eyeliner. And that seemed to condemn me as “bad”. And my few former friends looked askance or totally ignored me for this unscrupulous behaviour. But those were the days when my cousin Allan came home to visit his girlfriend Ricky in winter, and all the family was aghast and atwitter because he dared to wear white pants in winter. My change in words and his predilection of attire sent volleys of outrage to those who preferred to condemn rather than smile, accept or extend their vision of what was appropriate: like teahats donned only at Easter parades and at bar mitzvahs.

I had supports in my adolescence: my special aunt who made me feel “sensitive” was not such a bad thing; my mucka-pucka or scribbles at art, my love of reading and my mother’s suggestion to join B’nai B’rith to socialize. I received praise from school in the realm of languages and English and so despite the horror of the social scene at Forest Hill, I did not mind going to school, even experiencing support from the Latin teacher affectionately known as “The Whip” who could reduce all the naughty confident full of themselves boys and girls to tears. How I appreciated her and the English teachers who were as strange and eccentric as I believed myself to be. My favourite was an Ichabod Crane character who wore his molars encased in a gold ring, and mesmerized us with talk of books and Broadway. Those were oases, for in the science and math classes I wished myself far far away from concepts and equations and jeers.

At university, I could wander under the arches, sit in the grassy quadrangle, flirt in the refectory. Lunch with my friends, adopt an air of insouciance, and being introverted beneath my bangs that eclipsed my eyes sheltered me so I could pretend to be sexy and knowing. There with friends and art history classes so I felt in control of my life, floating on clouds of fresh ideas and laughing chums with whom I could share. Fridays at The Coffee Mill ,the meeting place to ponder and assess the pleasure of the weekday, unconnected to the pains of the world. Except for Saturdays when I rose early because I worked in the Notions department at Eatons downtown: that was the pattern of my days. I somehow felt like the balloon that lightly drifts on the currents of soft breezes, willing to go with the streams of light and air and breath, floating, responding, just being.

It was a new and wonderful experience: to feel I belonged and to have friends at university, truly the wonder of my short life so far. I don’t know if it was the times , the hippie seventies of carefreelessness or just me. At night there were my irrelevant parents who made no demands on me and during the day there was downtown, concerts or Yorkville or parties, often achieved by hitchhiking or loading into a friend’s friend’s car, and heading off in a pack . The cold winters did not seem to bother me and in spite of spending long hours in my room usually pulling out the miscreant too kinky bits of hair, I took pleasure in my existence, encased in a bubble. What was I thinking as I pretended to study: What to wear on Saturday night? Whereto travel in the summer? What time to meet my friends?

I cannot remember every minute, just an overview of pleasurable days as I recall my memories as an almost 67 year old who can romanticize or fantasize being a girl of 18 or so. And I smile to recall the freedom, the twirl of events that spun me in a cocoon of believing that life can get better and the darkness of high school had ended.

How do we become ourselves, growing into our skins? I used to think we were rather shedding all of our extra layers, a Giacometti sculpture, stretched long and lean and somewhat scary as the bones peer through, reminding me of The Who is Afraid of the Viriginia Woolf’s scene where very affectation is torn away to reveal perhaps “the horror, the horror”, the bareness, the skinny naked self when all the illusions cannot cover the thing/you itself/yourself.

Other times I reflected instead that the illusions we wrap ourselves in become who were really are, more garments of compassion and care : MORE layers we add to that core to flesh out the essence of ourselves and insight like heavy weights that slow us into more thoughtful moves and considerations. The thoughts and insights we glean or are offered by others that add to our understanding of human nature. Like my elder daughter’s or mother’s admonishments that now make me think before I speak thoughtlessly.

I suppose in the end, it hardly matters . We are, we act, we behave and people we love accept , restrict , remonstrate and usually forgive us and we try all again, all Sysiphusians attempting to get up that damn hill, only to fall back. Trying to balance the good , the bad and the ugly every day. Sensitive, joyful, accepting, pondering: the scheme of things

An evening of civility

Just when you fear that life has been overrun with madness and the forces of evil intend to swoop down and crush life from all things, destroying the magic of possibility, you are included in a supper of celebration for a very special woman who will now head up an important professional group. You, a gloomy Gus, by nature, are given a reprieve and can re-imagine places of civility, rationality and good conversation that can wipe out the blackness of everyday events.

So I found myself in the backyard of a house on Roxborough, led through rooms where stained glass stands in for walls and into a garden so wildly tamed that pasteled lilies barely contained by strings are easily 12 inches across; and birds and bees feel so totally at home, that their presence feels natural in mid-town Toronto.

I am the “wife” of one of the invitees, an added presence requested by the lady herself. Perhaps because we have briefly discussed William Blake and Mary Pratt, or more likely as a thoughtfulness to my husband, I have been included in this evening. Unlike many gatherings for this profession, I am anticipating this one so I can see this woman again. From my perspective, I believe she is the right person to head the group although my knowledge of her to this juncture has been second hand. That she loves art and ballet, I believe, are a bonus. Not affected add-ons, she is as passionate as I am about the arts. I reflect that her commitment to her work will be likewise. I surmise that she is an authentic soul in whatever she takes on. I am drawn to her, and not just because of her rich laughter that is deep and full, but because of her humility, her humbleness. These are the qualities I adore.

The garden makes me think of Peter Pan and Wendy, and as the sun goes down, the twinkling candles might be Tinkerbell’s friends who have gathered near the table to cozily and quietly add sparkle. Talk at cocktails has encompassed those foibles of aging as we are all past our physical prime: memory loss, love of travel… One of the guests has recently climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro with 12 others, decrying that it was not that tough. ( He is the baby of the group at barely 60. Ha!) He adds,” Of course we had 52 sherpas to cook us wonderful meals.” He chortles.

I try and remember the name of the park in Italy that plagued my falling asleep the night before. I try out “Bernini… Bulgari”, sensing they are not what I am searching for. When I tap my husband, interrupting his conversation, he immediately remembers, “ Borghese”. Ah, relief to find the word that fits that fuzzy space left wanting in my head. A friendly engaging guest describes how she has read that it is names that are the first to go and how embarrassing it is not to come up with the moniker that matches a familiar face.

Somehow I veer into the description of the chuppa that my husband and I designed for our son’s wedding, explaining we needlepointed from September to May and how the piece has travelled to New York and beyond. I laugh that its end may be at the bottom of a closet, the food of moths, but admitting it is a project I am glad we had undertaken, amazed that my husband would have laboured for hours with needle and wool in hand. But that is the trajectory of light conversation that encourages diverse topics that easily bounce from topic to topic.

At table that is nestled in front of a small pond and surrounded by trees and more beautifully encroaching flowers, the talk turns to legal politics- of Mike Dufy and his love child. The hostess produces the article in Macleans to substantiate the claim; then on to the provincial budget’s money for legal aid, veering towards stories of Montreal school days where one public school’s teachers were all Jewish refugees from WWII, to Quebec’s townships where flowered paths replaced roads, on to ordering dinner in Moosonee, to “ bare-naked’ postings on the internet. No one raises an eyebrow or scowls. We are no longer surprised, almost accepting of these lapses of adolescent judgment that occur before one realizes they are more than lapses, omissions because hormones rather than rational thought govern giggles.

One invitee tells of a soldier who confided his terror in a foxhole: fearing at 16, he would experience death before being laid. Another suggests that the author of Flanders Fields, John McCrae was gay. And still another offers that Harold MacMillian spent hours every night reading Aeschylus in Greek before he entered parliament each day: a quilt of varying textures, times and traumas.

The main discussion concerns WWI, Dieppe. One woman relates that some tombstones’ epitaphs read “ Know only to God”, tears arising from the corners of her eyes . A publisher reminds us of the veterans with lungs like jelly as no one considered that in gas warfare, the wind might change, and blow its deadly fumes into the faces of the Allied Forces. Another asks, ‘Guess who refused to allow Jewish graves to be destroyed?’ We are incredulous that sentiment is attributed to Adolf Hitler. But perhaps, it is reminiscent of the cache maintained in Prague where Hitler ordered the collection of 200,000 Jewish artifacts in his Museum of an Extinct Race. Still the narrative feels unlikely.

The publisher brings up Viet Nam and the trauma of returning home without the support of the general populace. But the talk returns yet again to World War I, the casualties, the deaths, the graveyards. I mention Pat Barker and her sensitive, human portrayal of the times, but perhaps I say it too quietly or more likely, the hearing of the group does not reach to my whispers. They are eagerly planning a service with an engaging speaker for Remembrance Day.

More loudly, I offer into the conversation Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway and her description of the alarmed soldier befuddled on a bench back from war. They nod.

I tell them that when I taught Eli Weisel’s Night, the kids did not believe it was true. They are surprised, but the talk reverts to a reverie that concerns more days torn away by slaughter. I want to interject again that it is the future, the present of our protégées who must never forget. Even the books, historical retelling in novels of real events take on a mustiness, a fairytale quality that does not truly connect with our technology savvy youth whose truths live on screens – not in distant reality.

Some of the guests are over 80, memories much more vivid than mine and I admire the clearheadedness of their interchange. But it seems to me that we have veered into memory, not just for memory sake, certainly not for nostalgia and there is a desire beyond the words to keep those times alive. My mind flashes to Gaza and the Crimea, seething that nothing much ever changes, pondering the airplanes that will be downed, ever so many more lost boys and girls.

Yet, the evening is so still, so perfect as we sit wrapped in the darkening velvet of enchanting green foliage. The setting evokes for me other kinds of soirees, of salons where talk and poetry and politics have been eternally viewed through a veil of civility, concern and language,determined not to embellish or distort. Experiences, here this night, as morsels of ripe fruit are nibbled on, tasted, savoured, and presented to others for their consideration and consternation. All the while there is a palpable respect: for others, for words, for events that exist before us or in memory, both lived and shared.

A wonderful dinner concludes with pound cake, raspberries, blueberries, salted caramel and pistachio ice creams. When I discover the sudden stream of sugar on the cake, my senses light up, and I know I have been privileged to be among these thoughtful men and women.

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