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A Simple Spring Morning

I remember from my Hebrew school days one of the first prayers we were taught. It had to do with gratitude that we had actually awoken and were being given the privilege of another day. However, on some grey days we wish we could burrow deeper beneath the covers and forgo the interactions and onslaughts that arise in everyday living. But at the early indications of spring, our hearts feel brave enough to take another chance and face the world. The sight of a tiny pink bud emerging or a patch of muddy grass is cause to sing – and even smile.

Yesterday I had lunch with.my mother’s best and truly only friend. My mom would say if you have a friend like Mary, you don’t need anyone else. And she was right, of course. Mary was there every Tuesday evening to take her for fish and chips, supporting my mother’s faltering body up the stairs to the same restaurant that greeted them as old and valued friends.Mary no matter the weather was always there. Where I once considered Mary unsmiling and cheerless, in my infrequent lunches with her since my mother’s death, I find her laughing, charming and friendly, really delightful. She tells me she was my mother’s confidant, which of course I knew.

But as I get older, I wish more and more that I had probed deeper into my mother’s thoughts, stories and history. For now the few scraps I recall are in deed fragments, not well remembered because I was enduring not really listening to the descriptions of Poland, or family fracas, or who was married to whom. All these pieces make for a Jewish geography and in that, my place, my identity in a family tree that although specific to me, crosses branches with others in unexpected ways.  

Last week at Pusateri’s, I ran into a second or third cousin on my mother’s side, Pauline, the lovely daughter of more than 80 year old Bertha who still travels the world by herself- to India, and this spring back to her home in Paris, France where she plans to go with her grandchildren to aid them in discovering their origins. It occurs to me that both Pauline and I, Patricia, are named for the same person, her grandmother, reportedly patrician, who lost her life in the camps or the gas chamber.Her father was the nephew of my mother’s father,I think, my grandfather bringing as many landesman and kin to Canada as possible.

This information is only a casual whiff from the past and I have hardly wanted more as it seems everyone in the European shetls were somehow related and entwined with their cousins so unraveling the roots leads to maladies and conclusions one would rather not know: as in the familial tremor that afflicted both my mother and Bertha. And lately I’ve heard claims my youngest cousin in California had fallen victim to the family heirloom of “ the shakes “ as my mother called it so he can no longer practice dentistry. How she dreaded any emotional encounter that caused her head to independently bob yes when she was responding no, the recipient clearly confused.

Yet there are also positive good stories of loading up a truck ( a la Jed Clampett) and heading off to Etobicoke for Sunday picnics, the whole mishpucha.

And there is merit in unwinding some family history, particularly as one gets older – or if not merit, at least interest. Because unless you glance at your grey hairs or trip over fragile feet, you do not consciously think of yourself as aging. The sweet flowers outside my window are still the same, whether encountered by a seven or seventeen or seventy year old. The pleasure they offer remains neutral , but as the mystic artist Blake was aware one can” … see a world in a grain of sand “, the eyes continue( hopefully) to perceive them anew each spring, perhaps first as harbingers of new commencements, and later, as we make associations with other springs, imbuing them with memories, good or bad, happy or sad . But outright, they signal the possibility of fresh opportunities.

Perhaps that is why I’ve come to love California where every day flowers such as birds of paradise or lilies continually lend promise to the saddest of moods, keeping us in a persistent state of beginning. As Tennyson surmised a lotus land. Here in Canada, it is the spring that fools us, tempting with peeks of purple and yellow that life will renew. In any case, I wish I had listened and questioned my mother more, noting how and what she focused on as she aged, her world changing and how she pereceived herself in that transformation.

Too often I did not want to hear the family stories, shielding myself from the pain, hurt and anger at her treatment by the family, particularly their disregard once my father came down with polio. Even as I write this, I feel myself bristle. She would proudly relate with a tiny chuckle the story of  The Little Red Hen who eventually did it all by herself. And that was what she accomplished so her own little family of husband and two daughters could endure. And so she bravely soldiered on.

 But her meta thoughts… I should have opened myself to them, not pushed them away with a yawn. How did my mother process and think about her thinking about the twists and upheavals in her life? I think she could have stood at one or several removes, philosophically taking it all in at an impartial distance: that she did with my cruel grandmother who tore books from her hands and continued to berate her. Older, my mother would extol her mother’s acceptance of relatives who descended upon her- uninvited by my grandfather- for whom she shopped, cleaned, cooked, gave sanctuary, even making her own children sleep nose to toe. My mother seemed to project another, a softer picture of her mother, once beautiful, an immigrant with few choices but who had become hard and hardened, much like a server or hidden downstairs maid to the overflow of encroaching relatives. In my unforgiving mind, I recall a small purple African violet offered to my grandmother on Mother’s Day harshly pushed away and the chant to my mother, “ Send her to commercial. She can be a secretary.” Which thankfully my mother did not do. I would have been interested in how my mother saw the spring flowers, how they spoke to her.

As I age I do comprehend better. My mother confided that music had helped her so much , especially as she aged although she continually lamented that her operatic voice had been squelched by her mother. I think music had become her Mindfulness meditation , lifting her from her confounding drudge , her growing infirmities of age. She explained it had transported her away from daily depressing thoughts and rigours of her life. It renewed her hope, obliterating much else.

I truly believe that for baby boomers, especially getting older is a shock. We foolishly never believe we will be taking a back seat and become weary. Sudden or chronic pains persist in surprising in spite of the fact that even a washing machine rarely endures more than a few decades, and its parts are/were- metal that will inevitably wear or rust or disintegrate.

Part of our disillusionment comes from turning our eyes to the world ,as our parents and grandparents did, still plagued by war, famine, poverty, pollution , corruption terrible, terrible strife that even now threatens to expunge us from its midst and an idiot as master of the so- called free world. It is enough to encourage us to crawl back beneath the covers and turn away from the spring flowers, shattering our innocence forever.

And yet… soon other blooms may join those first flowers of spring , and heavy coats being shed, ,we can swing our arms and walk freely in the sunlight, pretending there is promise in the awakening spring.

***

To lend our hearts and spirits wholly

To the influence of mild-minded melancholy;

To muse and brood and live again in memory,

With those old faces of our infancy

Heap’d over with a mound of grass,

From Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s The Lotos- eaters

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Pondering how far is the distance between connotation and denotation and confusing and conflating much else in between

The latest thing seems to be writing on gratitude- not that is a bad thing as it doesn’t hurt anyone to pause and consider the good in our lives. But like words and phrases, “ gratitude” seems to lose its meaning as people post their reflections: on Facebook, for example, and there attach them to certain notions and expressions that have become rather hackneyed or taken for granted, even twisting original notions into strange knots.

When we worked at the College, Fred M (and he was a brilliant scholar and thinker) and I used to discuss how certain phrases no longer purveyed their original intent because the “actual” meanings had been subverted and perverted as individuals put their own spin on expressions: words such as “Post-modernism” so that we often debated what was really being spoken of, what was anticipated , or morphed from the intended term.

One of my favourites was the transformation of the word “ collaborator”. During war, to be a collaborator was a bad thing in that it meant to conspire with the enemy. Now, all children are taught to collaborate with their peers- and to co-operate when they are engaged in their daily activities. Holocaust images of women who conspired, hair rudely shorn, shouts out at me as the signs hung beneath their necks publicly proclaimed them as collaborators, heads wobbling low. A bit like Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame on a recent episode of Game of Thrones. No one would want to be called a “collaborator”!

So now I ponder what it is that “gratitude” actually means and how we have spun it into another realm of meaning. My Pilates instructor initiated her blog writing on the topic of gratitude and I complimented her on her second piece that extolled water, connecting her experiences in a communal bath with friends in Morocco. It was an exceptional piece and I told her so. She segued into revealing how writing had triggered an unexpected line of events. For example, she explained that several years had passed since she had lunched at Marche downtown with her sister and a friend, F . Deciding to frequent the restaurant with another friend who was leaving town, she was aghast to run into F again: as they had not seen one another or spoken in quite some time. And I wondered is that gratitude or coincidence or a flick of fate?

I could offer a similar story. I had been at York University immersed in a course on artists’ materials and re-creating an illuminated manuscript, even applying the gold leaf bits with egg yoke as I endeavoured to imitate original techniques. I finished the piece and presented it to my sister when she graduated from medical school. Some years later, my husband and I were in London and rambling this way and that through the British Museum, with no specific plan, in the medieval section where precious pieces were housed beneath glass. Even few days, the manuscripts and treasured books were changed, pages turned or repositioned. As we strolled casually, my eyes were drawn to something that looked vaguely familiar. As we approached closer, I gasped to note that on display was the REAL manuscript- exposed there for only a few days- in the time when I chanced to pass by in my meanderings. How was that possible? How had my path crossed that of my manuscript? Was I filled with gratitude for this sighting?

My Pilates instructor says we are on paths that take us to places. Likely it is certain words that trigger our exploration and signify signposts around which we decide to allot meaning to certain events. To this I gloomily query, then we have no free will as our journeys then appear determined by something or someone, and we are perhaps like

“As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.

They kill us for their sport.” (William Shakespeare, King Lear).

She, my Pilates person, might say no, that we are all intertwined in the cosmos, Gaia, the personification of the Earth, one of the Greek primordial deities, the great mother of all: the primal Greek Mother Goddess; creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the Universe.

But I also reflect on those three Greek goddesses whose job it was weave, measure and cut the cloth that determine our trajectories. A fatalist, I am, perhaps! Stuck in the factory of beginning and ending the lives of just so many people as throw away garments.

All words- as we were taught in school- have both connotation and denotation, as we pad them out with our own interpretations and conjecture, layering and bundling them with more than the dictionary assigned, conflating “gratitude” with something else deeper and more mysterious. More likely, this is the work of imagination or faith or belief, for should we strip all words of their associations, we would inhabit a life of bare bones without colour or possibility. However, if we cannot trust what a word really means, are we able to communicate at all?

When I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage I structured my classes with different ideas of the Beginning, referring to male and female origins as adopted by various early societies. I found in The Chalice and the Blade (Riane Eisler 1987 ) interesting theories, some also harking back to Gaia. I recall relating to my students interpretations of the story of Rapunzel where transformations from single to multiple could also be discussed in light of the earth’s beginnings of asexual and sexual reproductions… along with ideas of communities of womanhood… and even explanations of the witch not being so witchy as she sought to protect Rapunzel from a male world.

That is the beauty of these old tales that almost call for paradoxical interpretations as an invitation to debate and conceptualization. But I also think in terms of embroidering a term, blowing it up like a balloon, stretching it beyond the literal, and losing sight of the triggering denotation.

So many concepts about where we come from, where we are going, the whys, the wherefores and perhaps ultimately how we choose to describe our own limited comprehension of our miniscule place in the scheme of things. Some might venture , hey, whatever gets you through that long dark night because we cannot live with utter simplicity.Play with your words; re-invent them; however, if we cannot agree on their meaning, we have returned to Babel: confused illiterates who cannot get the meaning of worlds because we all speak different languages and so we wander in our own small worlds.

I am not completely skeptical but hold to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous quotation of the willing suspension of disbelief -for the moment, which constitutes perhaps poetic faith and fascination with the past and language. Maybe we veer here towards the Mystics as I imagine ladies in séances poring over crystal balls and Madame Blatavsky, her Theosophists influencing Kandinsky, Mondrian and Gauguin, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum. But how far have we come when a “collaborator” is the aim of our education?

But what would life be without metaphor? As well, a fundamental belief in unity leads naturally to the further belief that all things about us are but forms or manifestations of a divine life. I ponder too the Romantic poets and their landscapes in Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, or The World is Too Much with Us. Certainly Wordsworth and his pals placed immense importance on mysticism. Symbolism and mythology are, as it were, the language of the poet: Wordsworth staunchly trusting in an inward eye focused to visions, infinity, the boundlessness of the opening-out of the world of our normal finite experience into the transcendental.( See The Project Gutenberg EBook of Mysticism in English Literature by Caroline F. E. Spurgeon). Often artists and poetics see so deeply into a reality hidden beneath their paints and words that enables them to light their works towards another level of existence: that happily disconnects with this sad, torrid life that is crumbling by greed, politics and pollution. Even in the times of Wordsworth and Kandinsky, an inner life provided the solitude and balm to a less than perfect society. But the populace on Facebook, plagued as well by all the burdens of everyday existence appears in their posts far from poets in using language.OMG!

Maybe we have come full circle to the notion of gratitude with which I began this string of thoughts and I end with my favourite but crazed William Blake who wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (Auguries of Innocence).

With ONLY “infinity” and “eternity” open for diverse interpretation.LOL!

Coincidences or not

The latest trend seems to be writing on gratitude- not that is a bad thing as it doesn’t hurt anyone to pause and consider the good in our lives. But just as words and phrases, “ gratitude” seems to have forfeited its meaning as people post their reflections: on Facebook , for example, and there attach them to certain notions and expressions that have become rather hackneyed or taken for granted.

When we worked at the College, Fred M ( he was a brilliant scholar and thinker) and I used to discuss how certain phrases had lost their original intent because the “actual” meanings had been subverted and perverted as individuals put their own spin on expressions : words such as “Post-modernism” -so that we often debated what was really being spoken of. One of my favourites was the transformation of the word “ collaborator”. During war, to be a collaborator was a dishonourable action in that it meant to conspire with the enemy. Now, all children are taught to collaborate with their peers- and co-operate when they are engaged in their daily activities. Holocaust images of women who conspired, hair rudely shorn, shouts out at me as the signs hung beneath their necks publicly proclaimed them as collaborators, heads wobbling low. A bit like Cersei Lannister’s walk of shame on a recent episode of Game of Thrones.

My Pilates instructor has begun her writing and I complimented her on her second piece that extolled water, connecting her experiences in a communal bath with friends in Morocco. It was an exceptional piece and I told her so. She segued into revealing how writing had triggered an unexpected line of events. She explained that several years had passed since she had lunched at Marche downtown with her sister and a friend, F . Deciding to frequent the restaurant with another friend who was leaving town, she was aghast to run into F again: as they had not seen one another or spoken in quite some time.

I offered a similar story. I had been at York University immersed in a course on artists’ materials and re-created an illuminated manuscript, even applying the gold leaf bits with egg yoke as I endeavoured to imitate original techniques. I finished the piece, ( spoiled it by adding my name too flamboyantly) and presented it to my sister when she graduated from medical school. Some years later, my husband and I were in London and rambling this way and that through the British Museum, with no specific plan, in the medieval section where precious pieces were housed beneath glass. Even few days, the manuscripts and the books were changed, pages turned or repositioned. As we strolled casually, my eyes were drawn to something that looked vaguely familiar. As we approached closer, I gasped to note that on display was the REAL manuscript- exposed there for only a few days- in the time when I chanced to pass by in my meanderings. How was that possible? How had my path crossed that of my manuscript?

And similarly just in the past few weeks, I suddenly discovered that my grandson was the ringbearer at a wedding where my best friend from high school whom I had not seen in 40 years- was the mother of the bride. The bride now carries the same name as my daughter-in-law. Spooky stuff!

My Pilates instructor says we are on paths that take us to places. To this I gloomily queried, then we have no free will as our journeys appear determined by something or someone, and we are perhaps like “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods.They kill us for their sport.” William Shakespeare, King Lear. She, my Pilates person, might say no, that we are all intertwined in the cosmos, Gaia, the personification of the Earth, one of the Greek primordial deities, the great mother of all: the primal Greek Mother Goddess; creator and giver of birth to the Earth and all the Universe. But I also reflect on the three Greek goddesses whose job it was weave, measure and cut the cloth that determine our trajectories. A fatalist, I am, stuck in the factory of human beginning and ending the of our lives as so many garments.

When I taught Timothy Findley’s Not Wanted on the Voyage, I structured my classes with different theories of creation, referring to the male and female origins adopted by various early societies. I found in The Chalice and the Blade (Riane Eisler 1987 ) interesting ideas, some also harking back to Gaia. I recall relating to my students interpretations of the story of Rapunzel where transformations from single to multiple could also be discussed in light of the earth’s beginnings of asexual and sexual reproductions… along with ideas of communities of womanhood… and even explanations of the witch not being so witchy as she endeavoured to protect Rapunzel from a male world.

That is the beauty of these old tales.

So many concepts about where we come from, where we are going, the whys, the wherefores and perhaps ultimately how we choose to describe our own limited comprehension of our miniscule place in the scheme of things. Some might venture , Hey, whatever gets you through that long dark night.

I am not skeptical but hold to Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous quotation of “the willing suspension of disbelief “-for the moment, which constitutes perhaps poetic faith and fascination with the past, especially the myths and mysticism of the middle ages. Maybe we veer here towards the mystics defined as “one who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding, (The Concise Oxford Dictionary 1911) which also adds, “whence mysticism (n.) (often contempt)!” Contempt??????I imagine ladies in séances poring over crystal balls and Madame Blatavsky, her Theosophists influencing Kandinsky, Mondrian and Gauguin, William Butler Yeats, L. Frank Baum and others.

As well a fundamental belief in unity leads naturally to the further belief that all things about us are but forms or manifestations of a divine life. I think too of the Romantic poets and their landscapes such as Wordsworth’s Tintern Abbey, The World is Too Much with Us. Certainly Worsdworth and his pals placed immense importance on mysticism; indeed, symbolism and mythology substantiate the language of the poet. Wordsworth believed in an inward eye focused to visions, infinity, the boundlessness of the opening-out of the world of our normal finite experience into the transcendental.( SeeThe Project Gutenberg EBook of Mysticism in English Literature by Caroline F. E. Spurgeon). Often artists and poetics see so deeply into a reality hidden beneath their paints and words that lights them towards another level of existence that disconnects with this sad, torrid life that is crumbling by greed, politics and pollution- even in the times of Wordsworth and Kandinsky the inner life provided the solitude and balm to a less than perfect society.

Maybe we have come full circle to the notion of gratitude with which I began this string of thoughts and I end with my favourite but likely crazed William Blake who wrote:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand And a Heaven in a Wild Flower, Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand And Eternity in an hour (Auguries of Innocence)

Inconsistencies between life and art: a child’s version

This week when my grandson came to play after daycare, we read Mary Poppins. Like every child, he has sung “ A spoonful of sugar… Let’s go fly a kite” and so is quite familiar with the story; however, when we began to read the book, we discovered that there were actually four Banks children, not just Jane and Michael: the twins, John and Barbara, for the most part asleep in their cots. This really puzzled and troubled C.J. Why had they not been mentioned in the movie?

On the drive home in an attempt to explain the similarity among the songs “ Happy”, Let it go and “ A spoonful of sugar”, all C.J. could only focus on was the missing twins, pondering their absence. I must admit a similar revelation in that when we watched the movie “Saving Mr. Banks” that provided the backstory for Mary Poppins, we learned that the story is not about a wonderful nanny, the spectacularly inventive Mary Poppins, but Helen Goff. Goff was the author’s birth name, and apparently the impetus for penning the tale resided in her desire to vindicate her father, Travers. He was an unsuccessful bank manager and heavy drinker who died when she was 7. In the film, he is portrayed as an unreliable, but charming drunk – albeit the person who coaxed Helen’s imagination to life, and whom she adored. She took his name “Travers” as her writing signature. Father-daughter relationships ( Electra) and mother-son ( Oedipus) that derive their origins from ancient Greece have been reinterpreted by Jung, Freud , Beckett and many others.

When I investigate further, I discover that P.L. Travers/ Helen Goff in her private life intended to adopt twins, changed her mind, and took only one of the boys, one interestingly named Camillus. She never revealed the truth to the child; however, as life is in deed stranger than some fictions, the twins eventually ended up meeting in a bar as adults. It seems the truth never does stay properly hidden.

I wonder if the missing twins from the book will lodge somewhere in CJ’s mind and become one of the facts he recalls from his childhood. When I reflect on my earliest experiences in my our house on Glengarry, I can recall a red breakfast nook, tucked into our kitchen beneath a window. I remember as well a red blanket spread on the grass in the backyard where Marlene, my friend from across the street, and I were glued to The Teddy Bear’s Picnic broadcast on the radio. Was it the bright colour red that cemented these objects in my mind?

I know some people claim they recall their exits from the womb and their nascent screaming from their cribs, but if I harbour such early images, they remain darkly hidden somewhere in my mind although truly, who would want to remember, the squeeze and pressure of being pushed into the blazing light of a birth chamber. No wonder the Leboyer fanatics immediately submerge newly harvested infants into warm baths.

According to my mother, I was strongly admonished for picking flowers through our neighbour’s fence. Mrs. Bailey, my mother told me, the lady next door ,dearly loved the flowers as if they were her children, as she had none of her own. It was in this house on Glengarry where my father succumbed to polio and I began my school days.

I recall running home from school, my teacher close on my heels and announcing to my mother that my teacher was coming for lunch. My mother in her apron in a tizzy was surprised but graciously served us Campbell’s tomato soup and grilled cheeses sandwiches. My adult mind makes me wonder why would a teacher-on the word of a kindergarten child- accept such an invitation. I cannot resurrect the face of the teacher, only a vague image of her being young and rather slim and somewhat out of breath as she knocked at our door. And my mother mildly annoyed at the intrusion.

Likely it was the same teacher who lauded my advanced art ability on a Parent –Teacher night. MY picture that displayed an acrobat swinging through the stages of athletic flight must have been unusual, different from the hairpin drawings or pictures of multi-sized misshapen families that adorned the classroom walls. I can clearly recreate how warming the feeling of praise felt as it tingled throughout my body.

Years later I would hear of my elder daughter’s paintings being presented at a Grade one Parents’ Night as the top level of Piaget and certainly remarkable. Perhaps this was the only Parents’ Night I ever missed for my husband must have been out or I, ill at home. The news was reported to me by impressed parents who had been at the presentation. My girl would continue to dazzle with her unique and advanced interpretations in the arts.

I do wonder what marks us in our later life: what we will recall with pride or embarrassment; why certain events stick and others merely pass through our consciousness like a bird in flight. Or what I laughingly refer to as my “ Teflon brain”. I do know the extremes of emotion persist in us: the moments of supreme laughter or abject sadness that guide us towards our professions or predilections.

Will our grandson decide to write mysteries in attempt to discover where the missing twins might have been during the Mary Poppins movie? Will he decide to trace the pattern of fraternal twins in science? Will he move on towards the philosophical connections of fact and illusion? Maybe he will become a critic? Or will the memory vanish completely and find its place among the single socks that somehow disappear without a trace along with the errant umbrellas and the one important notice you absolutely must find.

At age 5 and 6, the world is filled with wonder and I ponder William Blake’s speculation on a grain of sand and the intensity with which so many ordinary things can light up the world with questions or curiosity, wrapping them in an ethereal light.

Maybe our delight in travel in visiting new places is derived from that desire to be lit with, to experience anew, to see freshly with bright eyes released from the cynicism of the de rigeur and the patterns that tend to desensitize us from that sudden beauty. So that, caught unawares, we suddenly gasp and “ see”.

When I taught high school, it was likewise: with students offering original insights that tickled my brain in previously unthought of ways that lead me towards that wonderful Bakhtin dialogic of building a ladder of original ideas onto the rungs of their conjectures. Maybe that is why I love spending time with my grandson, his way of looking and noticing: of re-experiencing what I have taken for granted for almost 70 years as he word paints with the glisten of surprise.

Indeed, were John and Barbara taking a bath, out for a lark, under the table or purposefully hidden by the movie maker? Without curiosity and imagination, we really are dullards.

Unlike children who make us think and wonder.

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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