Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Inside Out, Carol Goar, Michael Coren - Joy

Wow. I've just seen a very fine film that features a talking pink elephant made of cotton candy, an imaginary friend who cries sweeties and is named Bingbong. I've just seen Pixar's "Inside Out." With Eli - only the second movie he has ever seen. It was a bit long for him, but it was riveting for me - and I look forward to seeing it again. Not many films I say that about.

Truly spectacular - about the emotions roiling inside the mind of Riley, an 11-year old girl facing an upheaval in her hitherto tranquil life. The creator, Pete Docter, who brought us the magnificent "Up," must have spent a great deal of time with psychologists, figuring out the workings of the brain, memory and the emotions, to come up with such clever concepts - the "train of thought" that circles randomly, memories as glowing balls, a few of them destined to be stored forever as core memories, others stacked on the giant bookshelves of longterm memory, and some sinking to the bottom in a smouldering ash heap of forgetting. That the personality has key "stations" that definite it - Riley's are Family, Honesty, Friendship, Hockey, Goofball - and as she goes through a difficult time and both Joy and Sadness are lost and Anger, Fear and Disgust take over, her stations disintegrate. We watch her come close to disaster before things are righted, and the hilarious closing credits take us inside the mind of a dog, a cat, a punk hipster and many more. Loved the last line, as Joy expresses her satisfaction that all is fine: "Now Riley is twelve. What could possibly go wrong?"

Extremely clever - brilliant, I'd say, beautifully done, highly recommended. Though a bit long if you're 3. One of the messages - sadness is as important as any other emotion. This I have always known. I'd like to see the sequel incorporate frustration, envy, insecurity, curiosity, and many more.

And what about the combination of anger and disgust that is loathing? Which I felt, once more, reading Carol Goar's superb article in the Star yesterday about what Stephen Harper has done to this country:

And to end on a happy note, what admiration and pleasure in reading, once again, about the miraculous transformation of Michael Coren, once one of the most mean-spirited right-wing pundits in the country, who has had an incredible change of heart. All the nasty emotions inside Mr. Coren were somehow transformed into this newly loving, open man. Joy took over.

Sunday, June 28, 2015

Luminato's Apocalypsis

Surely this weekend must break some kind of record for rain and chill, for June. However, as I tried to get around the paralyzed city today, it was clear that the Pride festivities were undampened.

What a way I spent the afternoon - seeing Luminato's vast million dollar production of Canadian composer R. Murray Schafer's Apocalypsis, with a cast of one thousand dancers, actors and singers, an orchestra, a ton of atonal music and novel stage effects and Brent Carver as the anti-Christ - can you ask for more? Yes - a bit less self-important oddness, a bit more comprehensibility - but despite its flaws, and there were many, the event was unforgettable just for volume of sound, sonic magnificence - like a hundred heavenly choirs (though there were in fact only ten or so. Still, a lot, really a lot, of singers.)

I call bull@#$# on a lot of it - people wandering around extreeeeemely slowly, a symbolic body of water, some people imported from New Zealand where the director's from, as if we don't have such performers here. But musically, it was stunning. And there was one incredible revelation - Tanya Tagaq, the Inuit throat singer, who made unearthly sounds that sent chills down my spine and, I'm sure, everyone else's. Other great talents were wasted - Denise Fujiwara the dancer, sitting in a box centre stage weaving around as if she was floating in a womb - and Brent, dear Brent, in a suit making an odd speech in which he mentioned the addiction to computers, something that matters to me - but what did it mean? Who knows? Why did it all have to be so obscure?

But in the end, sheer size won out. A thousand people were singing to me, music that sounded like Arvo Part and Gregorian chant and plainsong and hymns ... everything. And I liked it a lot.

Last night, two things I liked a lot on lowly television: PBS and Masterpiece Theatre's "Poldark," a swashbuckling British romance, full of cliches - handsome misunderstood hero, noble and tormented in love - and yet beautifully done and I'm hooked; and a documentary about the Hermitage that made me want to jump on a plane to St. Petersburg. Because my friend Bruce has trained me so effectively in Italy, I was able to shout out the name of the painter as certain paintings appeared: "Caravaggio! Rembrandt! Raphael!" What a place. Must get there. Bruce says he won't go while Putin the homophobe is President, so I may have to find another art-hungry travelling friend.

Please may there be sun tomorrow, before we all turn into rusty frogs.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Why I broke up with fiction to write a memoir

Here's an essay by a writer exploring the challenge of chronicling her own life and deciding whether to write it as fiction or non-fiction. And, yes, she came down, IMHO, on the right side. An interesting website generally, with other good articles. Good reading in the rain.


blessings in the rain

Thursday night I went to see "The Audience," the National Theatre Live event, at Cineplex, Helen Mirren as the Queen and a large cast as her Prime Ministers from Churchill to Cameron - so so good.

It's apocalyptic out there this Saturday afternoon - Noah's floods ... The poor people celebrating Pride today, and the other celebrations across the city - it could not be a worse day for June, cold, glowering and teeming. The gardens are happy; no one else is. At least, with the weather.

However, there's good news to hearten and warm us: the Supreme Court comes through on gay marriage ...
just a few days after it also protects Obamacare and the Pope comes through on global warming. What wisdom, justice and fairness from unexpected sources! And Obama sings Amazing Grace at a supremely moving funeral -  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IN05jVNBs64 - and makes a beautiful speech about the recent ruling. So - despite the rain, great joy. My congratulations to all my gay friends, sisters and brothers.

Over here in Cabbagetown, Glamma is recovering from Hurricane Eli, who had his first sleepover here last night. He and Mama came over Friday afternoon, we had supper and a visit, and then his mother LEFT. To go home and rest and, because she is Anna, to wash her floors, which is what she loves to do. Leaving Glamma and Eli to play and run and read stories. Finally, after a long splash in the tub, he said he was ready for bed - in the spare room, which used to be his Uncle Sam's room. We lay in bed together and I read more stories, asking hopefully every so often, as my eyes drooped, "Are you sleepy yet?" "NOPE," he said cheerfully. But finally, at 9, his eyes drooped too. Oh the sight of that sleeping angel. Be still my adoring heart.

His mother had warned me that he'd probably wake up in the night and get into my bed, but he didn't - at least, until 6.45 a.m., when there he was, bright-eyed - "De birdies is singing lots of different songs!" he said. He got in and didn't wriggle too much until I had to give in and get up and make breakfast. "This stwabewwy jam is so delicious!" he said, over his toast. "Thank you, Glamma."

Oh my. I had to forgive him for slamming the toilet seat down so enthusiastically that it snapped in two.
The weather was threatening, so no wandering to playgrounds and the Farm - we were at the Y by 9.30 to play in the family play gym, and then over to the Pride celebrations on Church Street, which has a wonderful children's area. We watched a musician-storyteller until the clouds got so heavy we knew we were in for it and headed for the streetcar. The sight: Glamma carrying two backpacks, a strider bike and helmet, and a paper plate loaded with French fries and ketchup, a snack for the long ride across town, in the cloudburst just before the streetcar came. But we got on, not too wet, and made it home.
The fireman and his wonderful truck outside the Y - giving out stickers!

If there is a more cheerful small child anywhere - wilful, stubborn, mischievous, too, yes - I cannot imagine who that would be. At Anna's, I admired her baby readiness - everything organized, neat piles of tiny things. Her brother came over and I saw what a small boy really needs - a big man to toss him around and chase him and wrestle and play his favourite game, Smash Crash.
Home in the downpour and gloom, setting the quiet house to rights - straighten the carpets, pushed back for the Plasmacar to make its rounds; in the bathroom, putting away the Spiderman toothbrush and the Thomas the Tank Engine toothpaste and the boats and the hippo that squirts like pee, to great hilarity. Finding things - the coaster Eli insists is a cake that needs to go in the fridge - so there it is, when I open the fridge, a delicious coaster, nice and cold. There's a big grey stone in my purse that he picked up and solemnly gave me. Could I be luckier, even with a big split in my toilet seat? I am listening to the sublime Eva Cassidy, who died at the age of 33 - her "Fields of Gold" is breathtaking - and I will try not to weep at the blessings of this dark wet world.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

detached empathy

House guests from Vancouver, mother and daughter, wonderful women - such a pleasure to talk about the importance of keeping the Haida language alive and the future of salmon. Not things I usually think about in the course of my Toronto day. It's a joy to share my house with old friends and introduce them to the garden's inhabitants.

Just ate, for lunch, a salad of my own lettuce and four small tomatoes, with for dessert, one ripe raspberry and one ripe strawberry (and a lot of chocolate, which so far, unfortunately, is not growing outside.)

At the recommendation of my fellow blogger Theresa Kishkan, I'm reading a superb memoir, "Burning the Days," by James Salter, an acclaimed American writer who never found a broad readership and who died a few days ago. Beautifully written, inspiring.

Here's an interesting bit by Vivian Gornick about memoir:
The persona in a nonfiction narrative is an unsurrogated one. Here the writer must identify openly with those very same defenses and embarrassments that the novelist or the poet is once removed from. It’s like lying down on the couch in public — and while a writer may be willing to do just that, it is a strategy that most often simply doesn’t work. Think of how many years on the couch it takes to speak about oneself, but without all the whining and complaining, the self-hatred and the self-justification that make the analysand a bore to all the world but the analyst. The unsurrogated narrator has the monumental task of transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader.
Yet the creation of such a persona is vital in an essay or a memoir. It is the instrument of illumination. Without it there is neither subject nor story. To achieve it, the the writer of memoir or essay undergoes an apprenticeship as soul-searching as any undergone by novelist or poet: the twin struggle to know not only why one is speaking but who is speaking.
"Transforming low-level self-interest into the kind of detached empathy required of a piece of writing that is to be of value to the disinterested reader" ... That's what I teach. 

And the U of T class ended yesterday. One student just emailed, "I signed up for your class by chance and it turned out to one of the best decisions I made this year (so far!). I hope to keep you updated with future writings and any writing group happenings with fellow classmates."

I hope so too. 

Monday, June 22, 2015

Luminato's Contemporary Colour

Who knew? I encountered a new world tonight - the world of Colour Guard at the Luminato show that opened tonight, Contemporary Color. (This is Canada, I groused, it should be Contemporary Colour. But most of the performers are American and it's on its way to New York after here, so we lose our 'u'. A slippery slope. Phooey!)

I would never have chosen to go on my own, since I knew nothing about this - but it turns out my dear neighbour Richard, a man of many many skills - among other things, he's the Canadian expert in royalty and etiquette and is often on television explaining royal behaviour - has a long history with Colour Guard and was for years one of the event's judges, which requires a huge amount of expertise.

Who knew?

If I had to define it, I'd say Colour Guard is democratic spectacle. David Byrne of the Talking Heads, who conceived this event, calls it "a vernacular art and performance form that evolved outside the influence and pressure of media gatekeepers in big cities." Some of the groups tonight were high school students of all shapes and sizes, some who definitely did not look like dancers, and yet there they were, dancing joyfully all over the stage and spinning colourful flags in unison and tossing spinning rifles and sabres high in the air. I gather this competitive event came out of drum and bugle corps, marching bands and the military tradition, which explains why they dance with flags, guns and sabres. Rather than batons, as Richard was quick to point out. NO BATONS, and they do not twirl, they spin. These distinctions are important.

So as an esteemed honcho in this world, Richard was given tickets, and I was invited. It was at the vast Air Canada Centre, for God's sake, where I saw Paul McCartney! David Byrne enlisted a bunch of A list musicians, including Nelly Furtado, Ad-Rock from the Beastie Boys and Ira Glass, my fave, from NPR, to produce original music played by a superb band, and, in Glass's case, a documentary sound track of the performers talking about what they're doing, as they do it.

It's hard to convey the spectacle, because it's about synchronous movement, flags in the air, rifles tossed extremely high and caught, fancy dance moves, costumes, concept, music ... Two of the groups were Canadian, definitely the junior partners here, the Americans were phenomenal. But I tried to imagine explaining this event to my French friends. Difficult.

And then at the end, all the ten groups came on together and spun their flags. Marvellous!

But, as I confessed to Richard, now that I've seen Colour Guard once and enjoyed it very much, I might not go out of my way to see it again.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

bike paths and Luminato's penises

Heavenly day - really summer, on the Summer Solstice - hot, bright and breezy. The city is exploding with festivals and activities, so it was a good day for a long bike ride. I went down to Harbourfront, where the new road and bike path has at last been finished; I started my lakeside ride at the new Sherbourne Common, where there was a dog show and where I was happy to see this sign, celebrating my friend Paul Quarrington, writer and musician, who died much too young.
Then I rode west on a safe new bike path all along the lake, with people singing at various intervals and many other riders. I'll be able to go as far as my daughter's, near High Park, but today I just went to the Ex and then north to Trinity-Bellwoods Park, where there was a Luminato event.
A spontaneously generated, never-ending montage sequence, drawing upon tens-of-thousands of discarded images, creating a compelling visual and auditory experience, from Canadian artist Geoffrey Farmer, presented in collaboration with the AGO. Free.

A lovely idea, to have a kind of collage/film in a park on a beautiful afternoon. I sat against a tree to watch. However, after these colourful images and many others, suddenly we were watching glistening male torsos and penises. I do not know if Mr. Farmer is gay, but my guess is that he is, or else perhaps he's not very well endowed himself and a bit obsessed. I found it irritating to be in a park, surrounded by families having picnics on the grass, watching a series of penises masquerading as art. Though I liked all the photos of Rudolph Nureyev. Clothed, but magnificently bulgy.

So then I rode home, stopping at the wonderful indie bookstore Type on Queen West and then down to the bike path on Adelaide, which almost took me home. Our benighted city somehow has managed to come up with many bike paths, more all the time. On today's long ride, I only feared for my life a few times. SCORE!

Just checked Wikipedia about the award-winning Geoffrey Farmer. Below is what it says. Well, good to know - though if it were in English, that might help.

Farmer’s work begins with this idea of the art gallery as a site of phenomenological experiencePostminimalism represents a refinement of minimalism in the way it emphasizes the role the gallery context plays in creating the meaning of an artwork. Farmer adds to both traditions by focusing on the contingent nature of meaning itself, especially emphasizing its fragile and elusive nature. Contingency in Farmer’s art extends to the strategies he devises to foster a self-reflexive engagement with his work. 

What it means is: he likes pictures of penises. LOL.

Dad's day

This is my dad in his work attire - about as formal as he got. He never owned a suit, just jackets and pants with an occasional tie if strictly necessary. I think this is his office as Vice-President Research at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, only a few years before he died of stomach cancer, at the age of 65 in 1988. So in this shot, hard to believe, he is younger than I am now. You can see how strangely he had to hold his pen, because the polio that nearly killed him in 1951 destroyed muscles in his hands, legs and chest. He never spoke about it; hardly anyone knew. 

Even during chemo, he never lost his thick hair or his sense of humour. Here's the story: he was a spectacular man and a difficult father, which gave me tons of material to work with. Love you and miss you, JGK, peace activist, scientist, musician, lover of wine, women and song, my father.
  • Male wolves are fierce protectors that live with their partner for life. After a female wolf gives birth, she remains close to her pups, refusing to leave the den for several weeks. Dad guards and hunts for food to share with his family. As the young wolves mature, dad becomes the mentor and helps integrate them into the pack.

Saturday, June 20, 2015

summer weekend afternoon

So  sad - "the wedding of Julie and David, Aug. 25, 1995" - a skilfull original drawing from someone who loved them very much. On sale for $50 at Doubletake. I guess Julie and David, despite this bright beginning, are no more.
I haven't found anything at Doubletake for some time, but did today, put together this new outfit: top $5, skirt $7. Voila - summer.
I knew if on my way to buy wine, I went into the new Kendall interior design store nearby I'd be in trouble, and I was - could not resist this indoor-outdoor rug, which looks like a hooked rug, to go in front of my sink. What I saved on my new clothes I spent on the rug at $79, but what the hell. Love it.
Free: the beauty of the garden.
The first bouquet.

The Past, R. H. Thomson, the Pope and strawberries

Last night, Suzette and I had the pleasure of an event at Luminato, the huge Toronto arts festival - The Past is a Grotesque Animal, a play from Argentina, in Spanish. Four actors telling the story of four young people over ten years in Buenos Aires, told on an amazing revolving set that almost never stopped moving. Just imagining the rehearsal process for these superb actors, who were constantly walking and talking, negotiating the revolve, moving into the next set and scene, playing multiple characters, was exhausting. A unique and fascinating theatre experience, like nothing I've ever seen. Highly recommended.

And now - let the grunting begin. Just back from the market, spent ten minutes standing over the sink scarfing down fresh strawberries with groans of pleasure. MMMMM. Not even my favourite fruit, but fresh - yes. I also have asparagus and tomatoes, and fresh lettuce from my own garden for salad. Thank you, powers that be, for the wealth of produce in our lives.

Sitting on a tranquil weekend morning, reading the Globe, I see that the actor R.H. Thomson was recently honoured at the Gov. Gen's Performing Arts Awards. R.H. and I were the two Canadians in our year, 1971-72, at LAMDA, one of the 3 big London theatre schools. Look where we ended up - he nationally celebrated with a prestigious award, I sitting in my kitchen telling you about my love for strawberries. And I think I'm the lucky one.

Bravo, Robert. I'll never forget when we did Chekhov's "The Three Sisters" at school and they cast you in the tiny role of the elderly servant Ferapont instead of one of the big delicious parts. They were testing you, challenging your shining talent. And of course, your Ferapont, with his clumsy Russian boots, was utterly believable and good.

I'm adding another name to my list of male notables - the right honourable Pope. How amazing that the man leading a massive medieval institution actually lives where we do, in the 21st century. Not yet on birth control, unfortunately, so all his talk of saving the earth doesn't mean as much as it could when his followers are still forbidden to limit their children. A woman in my current class is writing about her childhood as one of ten children - of Catholic parents, of course. Her mother has 22 grandchildren, so far. And that's one big reason there are far too many people on the face of this poor planet. But still - this miraculous Pope has come out with hard-hitting truths about climate change, immediately rejected by the neanderthal Republicans. When will our dear PM turn up his nose? Go on, Steve. We're waiting.

Here's today's inspiring and true bon mot about writing, also taken from today's Globe, an interview in the Arts section with writer Jonathan Galassi, a poet and novelist. The question was, "What scares you as a writer, and why?"

Writing is inherently scary. As Jonathan Franzen said recently, it gets harder - or ought to, as you go along, because once you've written about the surface stuff, you need to dig deeper, to talk about what you really don't want to, or don't think you can. Giving oneself permission to write to begin with is the first, enormous challenge. But you discover that this permission involves a requirement: To write about things that are difficult, because they are in fact your subject. These things are going to get written about whether you want to or not, whether you know it or not, because they are the reason you are writing - even if you think or maintain otherwise. You could even say that they are in charge, they are what is doing the writing.

You are not in control. And this is scary - until you realize how freeing and empowering it is. Another writer friend once said that people's deepest secrets are on their face for everyone to see. Your secrets in fact are what bind you to others. They are what make your work worthwhile, interesting, readable. They are who you are. 

I wonder what secrets are written on my face - I don't have many, because I tell most of them to you. A few, though, are tucked away in my forehead and cheeks. I'll start work soon and frighten myself with my new memoir. But first - more strawberries.
American conservatives have shifted so far to the right that they actually consider The Pope to be a liberal extremist. 
Thanks to Point Counter Point.

Friday, June 19, 2015

Jon Stewart and Malala

Jon was particularly moving last night. He completely changed his tone in response to the shooting in South Carolina; he spoke off the cuff, straight to the camera, dead serious, about racism in America and the refusal to deal with it (though not about gun control, perhaps too self-evident). Then he spoke with Malala, an extraordinarily calm and wise young woman, and took comfort from her presence.

As good as television gets.

KEEPING IT REAL: Jon Stewart on Charleston Church Shooting! It's like Jon Stewart is the only white dude with a name who keeps it real and has the back of the wrong doings happening to black people.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Happy 73, Paul

Happy Birthday, Macca! And now I feel guilty for my meaty dinner.
If slaughterhouses had glass walls, everyone would be a vegetarian. -Paul McCartney, singer-songwriter, composer, poet, and activist (b. 18 Jun 1942) 

Here's Eli last weekend on Maid of the Mist - Anna's best friend Holly went with him and friend Erin and her son Marcus, Eli's best friend, to Niagara Falls. A good time was had by all. Especially his mama, who spent the weekend happily cleaning house. Is she actually my daughter?! Her cleanoholic father's daughter, that's who she is.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

today's males: Karl Ove, Macca, Stickers

Yesterday, Eli and his mother came to visit. She asked him at one point what he thought we should call his baby brother. He considered thoughtfully.
"Stickers?" he said. Good idea, I said.
"Or Glamma?"
Another good idea, I said, except that it'd get confusing when someone called Glamma! and he and I both turned around.
"Maybe Eli?" he said.

I'm on call. The baby is not due for four more weeks, but he's huge, and his mother is more than ready for him to make his appearance. "OUT!" she tells him. But maybe he - our new baby Stickers - sleeping in his safe, dark world, is not listening.

Tomorrow is an important day: Macca, yes, our very own PMc, turns 73. Almost ten years after his famous song about growing old, and the man is still a dynamo. Friend Juliet sent me a review of his Paris concert a few days ago: "Paul McCartney enflamme le Stade de France." To think, in January 1964 the Beatles played in Paris for weeks and no one paid much attention.

I've just had to skim the rest of Karl Ove Knausgaard's "Dancing in the Dark," book four of his "My Struggle" series about every moment of his life, because I have to take it back to the library today. It's way too long, unbelievably dense with detail, and yet is mesmerizing because he's such a good writer and so very honest about his foibles, mistakes, joys and wretchedness. He's 18 in this book and he captures so well the confusion of the virgin boy struggling to become a man, his love of music, his premature ejaculations and incessant fantasies about girls. Here's a tiny excerpt:
Pg. 212. 
Outside it was dark, autumn was wrapping its hand around the world, and I loved it. The darkness, the rain, the sudden cracks in the past that opened when the smell of damp grass and soil rose up at me from a ditch somewhere or when car headlights illuminated a house, all somehow caught and enhanced by the music in the Walkman I always carried with me. I listened to This Mortal Coil and thought about when we used to play in the dark at Tybakken, a feeling of happiness grew in me, but not a happiness of the bright weightless carefree kind, this happiness was rooted in something else, and when it met the melancholic beauty of the music and the world that was dying around me, it was like sorrow, beautiful sorrow, romantic sorrow, beauty and pain in one impossible mix, and from there sprang a wild longing to live more. To leave this, to find life where it was really lived, in the streets of cities, beneath skyscrapers, at glittering parties with beautiful people in unfamiliar apartments. To find the one great love and all the restlessness that involved, and then the acceptance, the relief, the ecstasy.
         Discard her, find a new one, discard her. Rise and be ruthless, a seducer of women, a man they all wanted but none could have. I put the music magazines in a heap on the bottom of my bookshelves and went downstairs. Mum was sitting and talking on the telephone in the clothes room, the door was open, she smiled at me. I stood still for a few seconds to hear who she was talking to.

         One of her sisters.

Vivid and unforgettable, a born writer. Highly recommended. Even if you skim. In fact, you probably should. 

And finally - a word about Harper's nefarious Bill C-24, which, among many other vile things, has now classified me as a second-class citizen. I have lived in Canada since I was two months old, but because I was born in the U.S., I can be stripped of my Canadian citizenship at any time, at the whim of any political official. Disgusting. Please God, let us be rid of this horrible man and his appalling team.

But - it's a stunning day, warm and mild; the roses are blooming, the veg garden too, and I'm off to Ryerson tonight, not in a ferocious blast of rain as last week, but in the bright sun. And ... I'm still 64. Will you still feed me, will you still need me? I think so.

Monday, June 15, 2015

Edward Bruin Green

Do and I were supposed to have brunch with my brother and his wife and son midday Sunday - on top of a rare visit with each other, he and I have papers to sign - but he texted to say he was too hungover to come. 

So I had more time with my aunt, which was very welcome. We ended up opening one of her trunks, full of large sweaters she knitted for herself many decades ago, to find her teddy bear. She told me that when she and my mum, who was three years younger, played house, Sylvia was Mrs. Brown and Do was Mrs. Green. My mother's teddybear was named Donald Leonard Brown, and Do's was Edward Bruin Green.

And here is Mr. Green, along with the explanatory note on the plastic in which he was wrapped. 

Such joy. I persuaded her to leave him out of the trunk and put him on the bookshelf in her bedroom where he can keep her company. She thought that was a good idea.

Before my last hours with Do, I went for a walk once again in the tranquil haven of Britannia Park.

Watched mother duck shepherding her eight ducklings, happy my daughter will soon have only two. 

And then home, to find a box of hardcover books left on my doorstep for the Little Free Library and an invitation from my neighbour Monique for l'aperitif and neighbours Jean-Marc and Richard for dinner. The best 'hood!

Sunday, June 14, 2015

Aunt Do in Ottawa - my Woman in Gold

On the ferry to the island airport early Friday morning, I was standing outside when a red-winged blackbird landed briefly on my head. I took it as a good omen that I must look like a small tree.

It’s Sunday morning and I am in Ottawa – visiting Auntie Do, staying in an airbnb basement suite near her condo, driving a snazzy silver VW Golf.

My aunt is an unadventurous person, and now she has a good excuse to say no – she’s 95 and frail. So it’s a triumph we have already accomplished so much. Friday the weather was terrible, pouring and cold all day, but still, I persuaded her to go out, and out we went, to a small mall where – joy for her – there was a huge sale at Sear’s. And she actually bought some clothes! When she’s alone, nothing is right – too big or small, too bright or dull. But together we scored several lovely bits of clothing. I know they will stay on hangers for the rest of her life, but we had the pleasure of buying her something new, at least.

And then out to supper with her dear friends Una, Jean and May, her Scrabble partners and a raunchy, merry crew. We went to our usual place, the Village Café, and ate mightily and laughed a lot.

Saturday – hot and beautiful, the opposite of the day before - Do and I went to Ikea, only five minutes away. I never get there in Toronto, too far and too daunting, so what fun it is here. And doughty Do loved it too. We bought the usual – napkins, candles, four bright cotton tea towels for Do for $3.99. By then, she’d misplaced her glasses 3 times and her cane twice, always eventually, after a panicked search, recovered.

A quick sandwich and out again, to see “Woman in Gold” downtown. The reviews have been lukewarm, but we loved it – Helen Mirren, superb as always, well matched by Vancouver’s own Ryan Reynolds. It’s the true story of an elderly Jewish woman’s fight to reclaim the famous portrait of her aunt by Klimpt, stolen by the Nazis. Sitting beside my very old aunt, I felt deeply its core message about honouring roots and heritage, the power of family ties, the importance of memory.

I also felt the film keenly because my brother and I have just sold the portrait of my father painted in 1949 by Alice Neel. The Klimpt sold for over a hundred million dollars, our Neel, unfortunately, for considerably less. We had imagined, because Alice Neel is in art galleries around the world, that our painting would be worth a lot of money, and once again - like the silver spoon saga – we were wrong. No one wanted a small dark portrait of an unknown man. It went up for auction twice at Sotheby’s, to no avail. But an offer came through, and after much mulling, we accepted. By the time expenses are paid, we will each receive around $10,000. Not quite a hundred million, but not a poke in the eye. I’d wanted to keep the painting, but let’s face it, $10,000 for a writer is better than a canvas on the wall, even of one's father. Especially when there’s a good $500 copy hanging there instead.

But watching Helen Mirren fight for her family painting, I wondered about the wisdom of selling ours. No choice – my brother and I co-own it. Too complicated. 

Over our dinner of leftovers, Do told me about her childhood. She said as the second-born daughter, she was already a disappointment; both parents wanted a boy. Her mother Marion’s labour with her was especially long and painful; “You gave me haemorrhoids,” Marion used to tell her. And finally, Do was born with black hair, black eyebrows and black fuzz down her back. “Mama’s family were all fair and ginger, Pa’s family were dark,” Do said. “So – I might as well say it – Mama didn’t like me right from the start.”

How I felt for her, my aunt, who has never had any confidence.

We put out folding chairs and sat on her balcony, I with wine and she with tea. At one point, she leaned back, and the chair began to collapse and she with it. She folded backwards, landing on her back on the rough concrete. I was terrified she was injured, but though she could not get up, she was okay. I hauled her to her feet and we discovered that her elbow was purple and bleeding. But otherwise, she was cheery. I however was nearly faint with stress.

So after bandaging her and providing more tea, I left for for a long walk through Britannia Park by the beach. Over and over, this part of Ottawa has saved my life, its ancient trees, huge green spaces and expanse of river. I’ve walked here in all seasons when visiting my mother, watching her, as Do said, “just fade gently away.” I walked here when going through the ordeal of dividing her stuff and during my final stay in her condo with my kids, for her memorial. And now, visiting her older sister, with whom I’ve found great friendship and love, I still walk here to breathe and recuperate. Last night it was Canada too that I celebrated – a huge green space full of immigrants from around the world, cooking over small fires, playing cricket, a girl in a long red headscarf with a bicycle helmet on top, riding in the warm dusk.

How glad I am that my aunt and I have had this time together. So much to be grateful for.
Ninety-five - living alone, still driving. Her secret: cups of tea.
Sunset over the Ottawa River.
Taken from the car window. If only it weren't infested with Harpers.
The Chateau Laurier - they just don't make hotels like they used to.