Monday, December 31, 2012

What Does the New Year Mean to You?

I wake up slowly, first realizing that I'm in my own bed.  I feel my husband's warm body next to me.  My next awakening thoughts are that my daughter and mother are safe and alive.  My brothers and sister and their children are all alive.
I recall that it's the last day of the year, and I am in a country where freedom is possible.  I'm suddenly grateful to my grandmother for getting her family out of Europe travelling on the Pennland (shown here) from Antwerp arriving in Halifax on June 13, 1926.  Fifteen years later, her family and neighbours would be herded into ghettos, trains, camps, and ovens.

It's hard to appreciate my freedom without thinking that, in whatever time is left for me, with my own small words and deeds, I have to move in the direction of peace and freedom for all.

From my winter window, I see the barren trees reaching into the grey sky -- nests in the high branches, now visible.  I wonder whether the builders of those nests will return home, to the same tree, in spring.  Like the birds, I've learned to create new homes when necessary.

January 1, New Year's Day, is my mother's birthday.  She will be 86.  January 1 is also the day my father died in 1969 at 43 of causes related to his trauma and injury in the war.  My early morning thoughts again take me back to the war, back to Europe.  The man who will become my father attempts to capture an enemy pillbox and steps on a landmine which blows off his foot.

January 1 is always a day of remembering death and celebrating birth - in my family's story and in the year itself.

I'm in Canada now, so I get out of bed and wander to the local Tim Horton's to write these thoughts.  My Tim's, at the corner of Parliament and Winchester in downtown Toronto, is always full of people and conversation, so I connect with humanity, but I am never disturbed by the conversations.  People speak in all the languages of Africa, Asia, and eastern Europe.  They inspire without distracting.  Welcome to Canada.  Welcome to the new year.

As Jack Layton said at the end of his last letter to Canada:  "Love is better than anger, hope is better than fear, optimism is better than despair.  So let us be loving, hopeful, and optimistic, and we'll change the world."  Starting with ourselves, of course.  Happy new year.

Saturday, December 29, 2012

What Do You Know Now that Your 20-Year-Old Self Did Not Know?

Over the holidays, a Toronto TV station has been rebroadcasting every game of the 1992 World Series between the Toronto Blue Jays and the Atlanta Braves.
It was so exciting that my husband called me during Game Three to tell me that Candy Maldonado just hit a game-winning single.  "Just hit" as in October 1992, 20 years ago.  I mentioned that, in 1992, Joe Carter didn't know that he will win the 1993 World Series with a three-run homer at the bottom of the ninth.
"In 1992, we hadn't met yet," I said.  "Who did you watch the game with?"
"I was probably alone," he said.
We were imagining our 1992 selves and what we were doing.  Then back we went to our 1982 selves and on back further to our 20-year-old selves.
"What do you know today, that your 20-year-old self didn't know?"
"I know I'm lovable," he said.  "I didn't know that when I was 20."

"I didn't know anything when I was 20.  (I didn't even know that.)  I didn't know that after a year of heartbreak, the lights would come on again in my world.  I didn't know that I'd recover from that heartbreak and many subsequent heartbreaks.  I didn't know then that having a relationship is not the same as having a life, that intensity is not the same as intimacy.  It took me 20 more years to understand that.

When I asked Robin what he knows now (that he didn't know when he was 20), he said this:  "Always have a flashlight.  When I was 20, I was traumatized by an elevator incident.  A flashlight is the one thing you can count on.  It's a primal comfort tool.  As soon as you say, "Don't worry, I have a flashlight," everyone calms down.  Spare batteries also help.

A flashlight would have helped, back when I was 20 and in the dark about so many things.

What do you know now that your 20-year-old self did not know?

Friday, December 28, 2012

What's With Dorothy?

The Wizard of Oz (1939) was on TV over the holidays - along with other sentimental favourites:   It's a Wonderful Life (1946), Miracle on 34th Street (1947), and White Christmas (1954).  The latter three display a world in which hardship can be overcome with hope, kindness, generosity, love, and some singing and dancing.  But what's with Dorothy?

Salman Rushdie, in his book The Wizard of Oz, published by the British Film Institute, says this:

The Wizard of Oz is a film whose driving force is the inadequacy of adults even of good adults, and how the weakness of grown-ups forces children to take control of their own destinies, and so, ironically, grow up themselves.

Sadly, "growing up" seems to mean accepting a bleak, dull life and making the most of it.  These thoughts and contemplations of the double life led me to write this poem:


“If I ever go looking for my heart’s desire again,
I won’t look any further than my own backyard,
because if it isn’t there,
I never really lost it to begin with.”

You say there’s no place like home,
so three taps of the ruby slippers 
and you’re bumped back to 
the black & white world.

Oz is a place you visit
not dwell.

Home is bleak and oppressive:
gates slam, doors slam,
you’re shut in & shut out.

In Oz
you are braver, kinder & smarter.

At home
the adults betray you,
give away your dog, and
lock you out of the storm cellar.

In Oz
you risk all
to kill the witch
who set your friend on fire
In Oz, you are on fire!
You live through your fingertips.
You risk your life for love.

At home, no witches try to kill you 
and you are loved --
still it’s a black & white kind of love
and even if the law is bad, you must obey it.

At home, you only dream:  you say
– I’d bite you myself, you old witch! --

In Oz, you bite.

In Oz you seek only to go home...


so you choose your own backyard over the world’s,
the bosses over the buddies,
the enemy you know over the one you do not

but at night your heart
still roams
beyond your backyard
beyond the black and white landscape
to flying monkeys, to ruby slippers, to Oz.

Friday, December 14, 2012

What's Your Miracle?

When my family gets together for major holidays, everyone brings food and wine and my octogenarian mother brings a theme.  We go around the table and speak to the theme.  This year she asked us to talk about miracles in our lives.  Here's my miracle story:

On November 26, 1989, I fled a relationship and my house and went with my pre-schooler to stay at my mother's until she came back from an overseas trip.  My then husband had an impressive collection of garbage in the yard and shed.  This included pieces of wood, construction scraps, old sinks, creepy mannequins, broken glass, broken toys, broken everything that he called "art supplies."  The night I left, he dragged all these things into the living room, dining room, and kitchen. Holes were punched in every wall, and while being a wall in this house was risky, being a door was suicide. The items of daily life - pots, dishes, towels, books - joined the general diaspora.  He trashed the small two-story  house so badly that after a couple of weeks, he could no longer live there.

Meanwhile, I continued to pay the mortgage, taxes, and utilities.  My daughter was in daycare, and I was pretending to be a normal, if somewhat homeless, college teacher.

My mom and step-father were on their way back at the end of January.  I knew I had to face my house.  I couldn’t afford to not live there.  Even harder, I had to face my life and the terrible decisions that led me into an unsustainable relationship.  There was evidence of violence and instability from the beginning, evidence I chose to ignore.

One of my students from the previous semester had a van, and offered to help me move back.  He brought a couple of friends from the first-year electrical engineering class.

After the move, the guys left.  I put my daughter to bed and tried to prepare classes, but I couldn’t work.  For several hours, I wandered through the house.  What would I do next.  Was moving back the right thing?  How would we get through the rest of the winter in this house?  Would we be safe? 

The ringing phone interrupted my gloom.  It was one of the young men.

"I dropped out of school,” he said.  “I haven't told my parents.  They paid my rent in a small off-campus apartment until the end of April, but I just got a puppy and the landlord won't let me keep it.  Can my puppy and I stay at your house?  I can fix all the walls and doors and clean up the house in exchange for room and board.  I'm pretty handy.  I worked construction the last two summers."

Yes, yes, oh yes!!

Then came his money statement: "And if you're worried about your ex coming around, I have a black belt in karate."

He was 19 years old.  His name was Chris, but back then, I called him the puppy with the puppy.  Here they are 23 years ago.

Bottom Line:  When you take steps to change your life, miraculously, the universe rushes in to help.  What's your miracle?

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Do You See Things that Other People Don't See?

"And now here is my secret, a very simple secret; it is only with the heart that one can see rightly, what is essential is invisible to the eye."
       - Antoine de Saint ExupĂ©ry, The Little Prince

In a recent email, John A. Kennedy told me that his wife and daughter took part in a University of Haifa study on mother-daughter relationships.  As part of the study, John's wife and daughter answered a written questionnaire.  The questionnaire ended with some routine sanity-screening questions.  These included, "Do you see things that other people don't see?"

My answer is "absolutely."  We all experience the universe differently.  We consciously and unconsciously select what we take in.  What we perceive is affected by our gender, culture, age, health, social status and other factors.  Once we "see" something, we then interpret it.  Our interpretations also depend on personal, subjective factors including our assumptions and expectations.  Then, we remember our interpretation, forgetting the original stimulus - forgetting what we actually saw.  In a courtroom, the human witness is the least reliable.  Lawyers and judges prefer video and DNA evidence.

Paris SpringtimeFifty percent of people did not see the gorilla in the famous invisible gorilla experiment.

I tend to see typos that other people don't see.  I have my students read their work aloud and they still see what they think they wrote, not what is on the page.  They love Paris in the the springtime.

John wrote, "I appreciate the researchers' intentions, but it would be a crying shame if we only saw what everyone else saw."

Do you see things that other people don't see?

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Have You Lived Through a War?

As bombs continue to rain down in the Middle East and Egyptians are once again filling Tahrir Square, I am aware that I have never lived through a war in my neighbourhoods, not even a turf war.

In 2005, eighteen terrorists were arrested near Toronto.  They had plans to behead our prime minister and blow up the CBC headquarters and the Canadian Parliament Buildings.  They were somewhat inept though.  While training at a camp north of Toronto, they were monitored by 200 police.  Even their trainer was a police mole.  That's the closest I've been to an enemy attack since the Cuban missile crisis.

In a war, you might be surrounded by people who want you dead because you seem to belong to a different side.  They may fire rockets and bullets at you.  They might slice you with machetes.  You might also fire at them.  It's impersonal and also extremely personal.  I live in a neighbourhood of immigrants and refugees, people who have been in wars and have found their way to Canada where they can live with less daily, traumatizing fear.

One of my former students writes me a rambling email in the middle of the night. It includes these lines:

I know almost nothing about politics, history, or religion.  All I know is that my grandmother got a piece of grenade shrapnel in her breast, that my dad was shot at by a sniper, that the dog died of epilepsy after the war, that I haven't seen my uncle or cousin in 20 years, that I got beat up by groups of hooligans in Slovenia who would ask me if I am Muslim or Serbian then proceed to beat me up regardless of what I said (I am in fact technically both, and neither, since I know nothing about either and never practiced and neither did my parents).

He probably lived through war.

Our Canadian/American parents and grandparents probably lived through war.
Almost all of my grandmother's family lived through war in Europe.  A brother hid in Brussels, another in France.  The rest were murdered by Nazis.
My father lived through war as a US soldier in WW2.  A landmine blew off his foot.

My favourite Somali-Canadian hip-hop singer K'naan lived through war.  To face the trauma directly, he writes and sings.  He has no real faith in his "wavin' flag' - which always reverts to the pre-freedom non-waving:  "and then it goes back, and then it goes back, and then it goes back."

Andrei Codrescu gave a talk a few years back at the Key West Literary Seminar.  He is a novelist, poet, essayist, and NPR broadcaster originally from Romania.  His panel topic was "What does an immigrant writer know that a non-immigrant writer does not know?"  Among his answers were the following:
  • The immigrant writer knows that the non-immigrant writer doesn't know he's a non-immigrant writer.
  • The immigrant writer struggles and wrestles with language.  The non-immigrant writer takes his language for granted.
  • The immigrant writer knows more about pain, including the pain of Nazism, communism, Castroism, Pol Potism.
  • The non-immigrant writer knows about the pain of bad parenting, nervous breakdowns, divorce, the terrible career choice to be a writer, alcoholism.
  • The non-immigrant writer has the uneasy feeling that his suffering is inferior to the immigrant writer's.  

I don't like to compare suffering:  suffering is suffering, but I know I'm a non-immigrant writer, and I have not lived through war.

Have you?