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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.

School Reunions

My sister forwarded me an email that West Prep is having a 75th reunion.
For those not living in Toronto, there were three “ preps” in Toronto: North, South and West Preps. They were public schools, but someone back when, must have thought they were making the local elementary schools elite by calling them preps. Many years ago, Forest Hill was its own entity, even requiring garbage men to trek to the backdoor to remove that distasteful trash from the view of the neighbours. So surrounding this predominantly upper middle class neighbourhood was an aura of entitlement and not surprisingly, resentment by the plebs in Leaside or North York who had to drag their garbage to the curb, and not to mention, their unfortunate offspring who were required to attend TDSB’s ordinary- sounding public schools. 
Although we lived on the edge of Forest Hill behind our store on a main street, my parents had chosen the location for our store on the basis of the schools’ reputation. So we attended West Prep with the usual load of teachers, some great, some awful such  as my Grade one teacher with her tie up oxfords who raked my scalp with her nails, and made me shiver at her approach. But as well, the librarian was lovely and introduced me to Ramona and Beezus and B is for Betsy books . 
Those  were the formative years of my child’s life, whooping it up at recess as we ran up and down the hills in the school yard and lining up our purée biggees in games of marbles. There we were introduced to Sex- Ed in Grade 5( I think) with a movie called Personally Yours along with square dances and rainy day movies in the auditorium where no one seemed to care if a film ( shown on rainy days) was equally appropriate for grade ones or grade sevens. I recall being kept in to redo arithmetic in Grade five when I wanted to be out screaming and skipping with my friends on the playground. My reflections of those days are filled with childish bounding, skipping, hopping and nasty tangles of little girls bickering or choosing who will be their friend and who not.. Of course, my mother always provided a nickel or dime to stop at Louis on the way so as to buy candy. I would meander slowly on my way to school, often picking flowers from the front lawns en route : to offer to my teachers.
Perhaps my favourite moment was a Friday gathering for all classes in that auditorium devoid of any furniture so that the kids sat cross- legged on the wooden floor. In our weekly assemblies I read my story that described a monkey’s confusion when he nibbled the cherries on a lady’s chapeau , believing they were the real thing. I read loudly and strongly to the assembled hoards, unlike the presentations I gave later in high school : one in which my grade 12 teacher admonished my shaking voice for actually ruined my beautifully written work, or at least that’s how I recall the excitement of being chosen being dashed by my performance.

When I reflect back on those early years at West Prep, no one name, save my next door neighbour’s, comes to mind. There was, however, one girl named Beverley. I recall her because she was different, very different. She had a funny crooked smile, was taller, more awkward with a pyramid of unruly dark hair. In the years before Special Education, Beverley was always there, moving on the playground, always by herself, not included in games or chatting groups, usually mocked or ignored. I think her parents had insisted her inclusion at West Prep, but she was anything but included. Not a bad child, not a mean child, but one who moved like a friendly ghost, circling the clots of kids playing on that barren playground, hoping for acceptance or acknowledgment, but never ever part of the numerous cliques or circles of squabbling girls who spied or lied or cheated on you. Was she delayed or just different? Why did no one, not a supervising adult or kind child, ever try and include her in our hopscotch or singing circles. And besides a “ hi” or disinterested glance, why did not one of us engage her in some form of interaction?
In grade 4 all ready, we were being divided, judged as smart and stupid.To ascertain our suitability for a musical education, which meant selecting an instrument to lug back and forth to school, we were arranged in our desks and told to differentiate high, middle and low sounds played by trumpets, violins or on piano. Unable to properly perform this task, I was separated with the group of other musically illiterate children. Besides the humiliation of floundering, unable to parse the sounds that came to me, I was now corralled, publicly scorned and made to stand at the edge of the classroom while the welcoming smiles of the adjudicator gathered the successful towards her. These small seemingly superficially tests yield a huge impact on a child’s sense of self- concept. One quickly learns discrimination as the large homogeneous association of children is now divided into smarter and stupider kids and you definitely do not belong to the first group. Later, there will be The Prefects and the German class and you will always be designated as not fitting the definition and offered the key to the best teachers and the preferred classes. Eventually you will offer sarcastic quips to announce that you really do not care. But of course, you do. Like Hester Prynne’s scarlet letter, you have all ready been marked as low or under – achiever and identified as lacking.
I think of my student at Westview Centennial and her insightful comment, and she only in Grade 12, not a graduate from a teachers education program, who considering Gerard Manley Hopkins poem Pied Beauty expressed her contention that maybe weeds are flowers to Nature. Sometimes simple thoughts can be the most profound.And I wonder about the educational environment that does not tie kids to their chairs but still makes it clear they are unteachable. Several years ago, my brilliant grandson was downcast that he was not identified as “ the star” of the week. I explained to him that he was my star, and that every child in his class was also a star, for I believe each one is so- called gifted in some way. What is required is teaching that meets the needs of individual minds and multiple intelligences( see Howard Gardner for more). So the philosophy goes today supported by multiple choice tests or those standardized ones that do not allow for one extra word to explain your thoughts.

I never wanted to be a teacher or teacher educator, but that was where my path took me and as I sift through my own memories I contemplate that my own experiences as “the average child” most often disinterested or  bored lead me to my profession. I poured over ASNeill’s Summerhill in Britain, The Hurried Child, Gardner’s Multiple Intelligences and so many more as I endeavoured to arrive at my own concept of good education. Eventually I decanted it to one sentence, “ If you can read and possess a curious, open mind, you have the keys to an amazing education. Perhaps, again,  overly simplistic, but research does substantiate that a “ bad” educational experience may shut you down for three years at school, so traumatizing is an event that impacts on your ability to learn. 

School reunions dredge up memories of oneself as a child, the struggles, the delights, the friends and the school yards of socializing.The crib of West Prep was overall for me a good place to begin my adventures. In spite of being shut down by my Grade one teacher, there was much else to propel me on. Most of the early bright lights did continue to  soar on at high school and into professions, however, there were the others like me who might have surprised anyone reading the roster , all those weeds that somehow were not identified as the blooming flowers.

Letting in Other Voices

I’ve always been a fiction girl. From my early days with B is for Betsy, Babar and the Ramona books, many suggested by the lovely librarian at West Prep, but also fostered by my mother reading to me at night. Over the years, I dabbled in a limited way with the odd mystery a few biographies, certainly with journal articles for work related research, but truly I was never too interested in sci- fi, self- help, New Age. I suppose that is keeping with my concept of myself as meat and potatoes in which everything is compartmentalized and sits on the plate not touching, to be eaten in a specific sequence.

Not that I am a total slave to routines. In fact I find them boring. And what is wonderful about my Pilates classes here and at home : they are variations on a theme so that the instructor never repeats him/herself in what exercises or areas of the body are targeted. The element of surprise works to alienate the tedium of the same gongs of the bell and makes it lively – at least for me, themes that relate but do not disrupt the whole.  

But this year my reading list has varied. Stimulated by a friend who had read Niall Ferguson’s biographies,almost 1000 pages each, I decided to plunge into Part One of the Rothschilds. I think the way historical books are presently written has changed over time. Not dry or dull in spite of an objective narration, details of context are included to enliven the writing and make sense of the actions and words of the people. Perhaps this was always so, but having never indulged in this genre, I cannot say. Although I do know that there has been a shift from the heroes and conquerors to the victims, particularly in school texts. And that is a very good thing.  

Ferguson, author of the recent Kissinger and many other biographies, wields a light hand. Afraid The Rothschilds would be hampered ( for me) in the heaviness of financial dealings which must be part of the story as it is essential to the family’s amassing of their immense power and fortune,I was delighted to discover the narrative very interesting, highlighted by the descriptions of Jewish oppression in Europe: from early days on the Judengasses in Stuttgart and the airless unsanitary conditions to defaming cartoons in France that insultingly targeted not just Jews but Scots and Brits. Context is often everything. 

Ferguson also includes the family’s subjugation of women in the family, to be without money or any inheritance, because they were women. Paradoxically for me, the manipulation and build up of the Rothschilds’ fortunes felt somewhat convoluted as the support of governments, the “ rentes”, the stocks, the mergers were grand and sweepingly explained: to my liking, yet leaving me with only a sense of their machinations. Typically we cannot have it both ways, too much detail leaves us confused and bored; and not enough causes us to desire a deeper comprehension. But yes, I read and enjoyed my first 1000 pages.  

Similarly I immersed myself in Mark Epstein’s The Trauma of Everyday Life. (See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_WAzVEJoxN8).. It is a very readable book that moves among three voices. There is the author’s own warm, friendly probing stance as he investigates himself, relating his personal progress in order to make sense of his own aloneness and difference; there are the stories or accessible tales, exemplars or guides from the life of the Buddha; and finally Epstein the therapist, connecting his own medical background as a psychiatrist to Buddhism. References to other standout theorists and influential gurus are thoughtfully entwined, primarily , the work of Donald Winnicott on the essential relationship of the mother to the child.  

Much resonates- in terms of treating oneself lovingly as in the mother- child paradigm. And although I concur with importance, wisdom, support and unrelenting love of the duo, Epstein builds his argument on the death of Buddha’s mother seven days after his birth, locating much if not all Buddha’s search on this deprivation- in spite of a second wife/ mother stepping in to most likely to shower , nurture and love the child. It is distressing to all parents and adopted children to imagine, it is only the biological mother who can rear the child in security. That this connection is so innate, that the search might propel a child on his/ her journey of relational knowing is distressing. This recalls for me a recent Margaret Wente column in the Globe where she told her readers it is not necessary to read to your kids because their in- born intelligence will dictate their futures- in spite of whatever doting parents do. 

Epstein recalls an old diagram from medical school of arrows connecting the world with the receiver, as we make the world through our perceptions. Our knowing it, creates it. He explains as well that more than the actual trauma, is our relation to the event. I reflected too on Epstein’s two- prolonged approach to compassion: that we should forgive ourselves our troubling behaviours from the past; along with the compassion we might understand of the present day self who is still struggling with those tormenting narratives. His description of Jack Kornfield’s Vietnam’s nightmares illuminated the possibility of meditation’s healing. From this example, I comprehended that we really do not/ should not just live in the present , that we consolidate past traumas into the present day and allow them to co- exist with the good, bad and ugly: all grist for contemplation. They are part of who we are, and they can foster a new experience that need not retraumatize when those miseries resurface. In this way, Kornfield could remember the blue skies and warm beaches of Vietnam, before the atrocities he had witnessed. 

I realized from reading the book that my initial understanding of letting go of the past constitutes only part of Mindfulness. Epstein iterates that we must go “through”our traumas in order to emerge from them, that emotions are not to be cut off, but examined as part of the process, that the focus on breathing in Mindfulness training is a place to focus in order to separate ego and disaffected or repressed parts of self. We should be able to stand outside of ourselves tenderly looking inward. 

Eventually I will read John Kabot Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. But for now Epstein’s book is a gentle touchstone towards the topic. Not preachy or overloaded with medical terms and most importantly, the tone is warm and somewhat searching in itself as he grapples with his own anxieties. 

But again it is the voice , not the old omniscient know-all that speaks down to the reader. Epstein, although knowledgeable, does not laud with scholarly information but offers his own probings as he makes those connections among the personal, historical and medical. He is the best of teachers who is able to awaken in his readers ( patients) those bridges that make sense of narratives, that strive for the insight: the epiphany of the Ah- ha moment, when life is rearranged freshly. Like a good piece of art, the work will speak to diverse viewers in multiple ways.  

Critics say that about Sol Lewitt’s constructions and that is the reason I am a fan of the Abstract Impressions. You can intuit the pain in Mark Rothko’s paintings, layer upon layer of resonating reds, for example. Morris Louis’s paint that sinks into an unprimed canvas and runs in rivulets off the page or Jackson Pollock’s mounding pebbles and lumps of paint that can enclose you into a moment.You must look deeply, be open to the conversation,piercing ( going through perhaps) the canvas to generate something of yourself to yourself. And if you can go far enough, something new and unknown or unfelt may appear. I was interested to read Epstein’s reference to Marcel Duchamp in which Duchamp refers to the deep implicit relationship of a work of art that can make meaning to the viewer through their own personal narrative. 

As I sit doing my 10 minute body scan meditations every morning after coffee, my meta- brain is still floundering en route to witness whatever disassociated everyday traumas I am hoping to disclose to myself. Letting other voices in such as Ferguson and Epstein’s has extended my thinking beyond fiction, these narratives involving the personal to make facts and theories come alive. 

But Alas, at heart, I must confess that I am still that girl who revels in fiction.Having just finished Fates and Furies, I am looking forward to Franzen’s Purity.

Vacations

When I was a kid at West Prep, I longed for summer, the space between the beginning and end of school. I wasn’t a bad student, just maybe disinterested. Vacation was a space that suggested freedom. Yet as I remember back, it was not two long months of lazying out on beaches. I often fantasized about attending at a fancy camps as most of the Forest Hill kids did and sunning and swimming at golf clubs: all of those destinations that held magical mystery for me.

My mother eventually sent me to Mr. Salmon, the West Prep’s principal, summer camp, where those fantasies should have dissipated after my two week’s stay. I was surrounded by my two cousins, Rima and Carol, somehow engineered by my mother for staying with me. The memories except for listening to Nancy Drew at dark were not good and I so resented sharing the bags of pistachios brought on Visitor’s Day by my parents: an extravagant gift from them. I received a stingy 2-3, following, even then, the rules of handing over the bounty I longed to gobble all by myself.

With the exception of the above sojourn, I would help out at the free summer programs at West Prep, swing on the swings there, dawdle a bit, daydream in the school yard , the same place where I endured the rest of the year.

Usually in late July or early August, for a week to ten days, we would take a family vacation which meant my father driving somewhere and my mother dragging the heavy suitcases in and out of motels.

Once we headed to Florida where all of us, except my father who did not sunbathe, were fried hot red in the sun. Only cooling watermelon in Georgia seemed the salve for even burning bubbled lips. Howard Johnson Motels had just opened up in the 50’s and the price must have been affordable because we did stay there- but only for one night as the point of the trip, it seemed, was to drive to a specific location, and turn right around and head back. On reflection, it may have been a way for my mother to rationalize we were like all other families; and for my father, to DRIVE, and pretend he was as capable of the same mobility as all other dads. Or perhaps, more truthfully, he truly enjoyed the feel of driving and being on the open road, even as his kids, meaning me, squabbled and complained in the back seat.

During those trips, I think I did develop a love of seeing new things. We were introduced to the Hayden Planetarium , the Rockettes at Radio City Music Hall in New York, a gigantic replica of Paul Bunyon and Babe the Blue Ox, the Parliament Buildings in Ottawa, Ausable Canyon also in New York, our special toy store in Rochester, and any place that featured science museums or musical associations.

My sister was a terrible traveller and occasionally would puke. She was always accompanied by her stuffed toy, Bow-Wow Woof Woof for whom we once had to double back to some small town because she had left him beneath the covers. I used to announce at regular intervals, “I’m bored” and was repeatedly instructed to look out the window. I was still bored and harboured no understanding of how houses flying past or straight highways were supposed to assuage that tedium. I just wanted to reach our destination, throw off my sweaty clothes and heave myself into a pool. My parents would play the usual games with us“ I spy something with my little eye” or the geography one. All for me were continually boring, particularly as my competitive sister would jump in and know all the answers.

Once I recall an incredible treat as a hotel had a small cache of magazines and candies for sale at the checkin. My father let me choose whatever I wanted and I selected “ Jack and Jill”, a magazine much like Readers Digest . I cherished it because my father had offered me such an incredible prize and he had seemed to have melted a bit from what I considered his hard façade. Of course, I read it from cover to cover , beyond incredulous that my father had been so magnanimous to allow me such a treat. Holding it close was like a warm hug or kiss from him.

We greedily anticipated these summer outings, these trips that like a straight line reached its target and then doubled back home. For my father, I suppose it was the freedom of the open road, his car replacing his legs claimed by his illness. He had created a special hand control with which he could feed gas, a forerunner really of cruise control. Yet even as a boy he had followed the train tracks, fascinated and delighted by all things that moved electrically. My mother wondered if he had picked up the polio bug working on the radios in ambulances.

For my mother, she was always the uncomplaining slave, lugging, carrying, managing every aspect of our lives whether at home or on the road. I think of her as the porter, the go-between, the co-ordinator, her head turned out towards the window as the scenery flashed by. I do not recall resentment on her part or perhaps I was too young to empathize or understand the burdens weighing on her physically and emotionally: in her attempts to render our life “ as normal” as possible in a constructed world where my father’s disability had altered every aspect of her life.

Was he embarrassed not to be able to load or unload the trunk. Probably, but he hid it well in a gruffness that often turned to ridicule at me, particularly my being too sensitive. He had this bitter sarcasm—at life, I think that had felled him to his knees.

She made up for everything, or at least tried to smooth out the numerous wrinkles so we might grow up thinking we were an ordinary family: our lessons, our trips, our achievements at school. Both fact and fantasy. I’ve said it before: she was the glue that held our lives together.

Still I wonder at my longing for summer between kindergarten and Grade 7, away from the hot confines of school rooms in June , not being made to redo my sums.

Thinking harder about life at West Prep, I do recall the square dances in Grade 3 with Joey Marano, and being asked to read my story about a monkey who ate artificial cherries off an old ladies hat at a Friday morning auditorium assembly- before the entire school population. I remember with a rush of embarrassment, a movie called “Personally Yours” about getting your period, and a boy throwing my briefcase into the boys’ washroom. I recall signing all my valentine cards with the moniker ” Anonymous” in Grade 6 and then wishing I had identified myself, especially to Harold Goldstein in my class. I remember the music listening test to differentiate higher and lower tones where some children were identified for playing musical instruments, and I was not. I remember auditioning for a talent show singing, “ Around the world I searched for you ”, and not being chosen. And of course, I recall mean Mrs. Young in Grade one in her lace up oxfords, raking her nails through my hair when I could not perform a simple cutting task. A hodge podge of memories.

What shines through, though, is the summer vacation, the image of our family in the car: mother, father, sister and me.

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