Rampant with Memory

Plutarch on grief

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Is a truism a truism if written in A.D. 76? Can platitudes possibly be buried in ta-da words–describing what we have come to know well and that has been regurgitated in popular culture, self-help manuals, and online feel-good courses crashing toward today?

For several years, I’ve turned for wisdom to a great tome of lived storytelling: The Art of the Personal Essay, an anthology from classical era to the present, edited by master contemporary American essayist Phillip Lopate.

First up: A scant four pages penned by one of those single-named demi-god Greeks with squirrely beards.

One day, while on the road to Athens, a messenger sent tidings to Plutarch of his little daughter’s death. He dashed off a consolation letter to his wife meant to ease her inside and outside of a wrenching absence.

“After the birth of our four sons you yearned for a daughter and I seized the opportunity of giving her your name,” he wrote.

Little Tixoxena.

To paraphrase Plutarch seems like a criminal literary act and impossible to do justice to but I shall nevertheless attempt it.

Remember the good, he more or less said.

Speaking of grief:

“It becomes us ill, inculpating our own lives, to find fault with a single blot, as in a book, when all the rest is clean and unstained.”

Remember the joys, he urged her. Illogical, he said, to dwell in sorrow.

“I cannot see, my dear wife, why these and similar qualities [in Tixoxena] which delighted us when she was alive should now distress and confound us when we bring them to mind.

“Rather do I fear lest we lose those memories along with our grief, like that Clymeme (handmaiden to Helen of Troy) who said: ‘I hate that well-turned cornel bow; away with all exercises!’”

Plutarch, Clymeme, Little Tixoxena and Big Tixoxena spent their lives around death then died young themselves. In that slant of light, how could they do other than lift their faces and feel the still warmth?

And we should attempt to do the same. But of course I speak only for myself. I shall attempt to do the same, remembering Plutarch with thanks.

 

Not less radical but more so

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“As we grow older we should become not less radical but more so.”

A thoughtful dissection of these words and next an attribution to the writer.

As we grow older…

Images rise within me, as I rest on these words, beginning with my arthritic big toes that step painfully onto the curb while once they tore though beach sand following upon the heels of other children.

And

A fresh etch on my chin that wasn’t there when I went to bed –that one, there, next to the newly sprouting hair.

And

Whence once I stood, now I sit: “Would you like a seat?” The young man asks me on the streetcar. “Thank you,” I say, appreciating his kindness more than I do the seat. I try not to shout at him: Why would I? Don’t you know that I go to the gym three times a week where I deadlift, benchpress, and sweat?

And

Ah, there surely are endless ‘Ands’ only to be many more. Stay tuned; stay alive; they will come.

We should become not less radical…

Should. Become. We must fully become and then let go. And what do we do during that becoming? Fight like hell to climb that hill.

When I was pregnant I carried my belly during the heat of summer up to my Vancouver loft. I was 32 and my ankles swelled and my toes were fine. But it was a still a fight and now many another.

I was radical then. On the vanguard of gay parenting where I faced assumption, rejection, ridicule, and scorn. Since then, I strive to excel in radical but other preoccupations sometimes threaten best intentions.

Now I am an almost-old-woman ignored. My hands hold the back end of a shopping cart instead of a placard. Maybe someday they will hold a grandchild’s hand. Ah, but inside my heart and thought I am as radical as always.

…not less radical but more so

Margaret Laurence wrote that quote, the one that awakened a flood of words. She also inspired me to name this blog long ago when she gave voice to Hagar Shipley in the opening lines of The Stone Angel.

Laurence wrote that one small sentence but she couldn’t endure old age and killed herself instead. She tried twice, in fact, succeeding only once. Cancer struck her out. Which of her books remain unwritten? Was her final act also radical?

No answer because she can no longer speak it. We are held prisoner, wrapped in the mystery of her life, her death.

But let’s honour her words and fight on.

 

David Hume on birthdays

 

David Hume (1711-1776) mausoleum
David Hume (1711-1776)
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Eighteenth century philosoper David Hume learned he was dying and so within an hour wrote an essay called “My Own Life.” It begins with comments on age and the elements.

“Last night I dreamed about mercury — huge, shining globules of quicksilver rising and falling. Mercury is element number 80, and my dream is a reminder that on Tuesday, I will be 80 myself.”

Elements and birthdays were intertwined for him since boyhood, when he learned about atomic numbers.

“At 11, I could say “I am sodium” (Element 11), and now at 79, I am gold.”

All this spins me off in a couple directions–first, into the countenance of age; the measurement of human life and lively celebrations of birth.

We are all moving into mercury and many of us have already arrived. Some finish before; some go no further. And it’s common, these day, to smash the barrier into a higher number.

David Hume mused on mortality and perhaps so should each of us.  Because musing stops us dead, so to speak, allowing us to take stock of our own lives in a human–and Humean–fashion.

[As well as being an element, Mercury was the Roman god who escorted people into the Underworld.]

It also moves me toward philosophy itself. I have lightly, only lightly, studied it and pleasantly tangled myself into the cobwebs both as an adolescent and adult: two shockingly different ages and approaches to the discipline.

I want more time, always, to savour what I find. Reading philosophy requires slowing down mighty slow, slow like walking on the beach to a roar of water, or meditating high upon a solid cushion.

The art in the thought that is philosophy arrives as a gift. Hume knew this and offered it to us a handful of years before the French Revolution, when Europe leaned forward more deliberately onto the world stage and into history.

Tomorrow I turn 57. My birthday is July 14th: Bastille Day. I have always loved being a revolutionary baby–willing myself to storm the great walls obscuring my life.

Tomorrow I attain Lanthanum on the periodic table. This element means: To Lie Hidden. And for me, reading philosophy means rising up and stepping out from the cloud of sleep.

Tomorrow will be time to read philosophy.

 

A traumatic tour of Europe

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How did this happen? Twenty-four years ago I birthed him and now I’ll watch him tour Chernobyl. Not with me, since he is grown up and plans his own travels, but I will imagine him there–there without his mother’s hand to hold; without the security of another box of crumbly goldfish crackers and tippy cup of juice.

How did it happen that he desires Chernobyl as a tourist destination–not one of the Seven Wonders of the World but one of the world’s greatest man-made disasters?

Greenpeace concludes that among the billions of people worldwide who were exposed to radioactive contamination from the disaster, nearly a million premature cancer deaths occurred between 1986 and 2004

A writer at the World Nuclear Association called it  “A direct consequence of Cold War isolation and the resulting lack of any safety culture.”

How did it happen that, in 2016, Chernobyl has become a tourist destination, like Auschwitz, another site my son will visit, no doubt chatting with guides in flawless German.

I remember the day the Dantesque blast tore though my relaxed radical life in Vancouver, silencing my work on other issues like stomping down the patriarchy; shouting slogans at demos.

Patriarchy-smashing returned, as it must, and so continues, but Chernobyl redirected our energies to The Hell that is Other People. Toward the Massacre of the Innocents. (With thanks to Sartre and Rubens here and apologies for my mixed art history references.)

When I spoke with Toto yesterday and learned of his plans to visit this city, and I expressed shock, he said he likes to view urban decay. I thought: Well, there is Detroit. No glibness intended.

And Auschwitz?

Furthering my son’s education on Nazi Germany is an important link to his ancestry. His father was born in in Germany, and while Angela Merkel generously welcomes refugees fleeing Aleppo and elsewhere, learning about that particular war was something I insisted upon as soon as Toto was resilient enough, resilient enough to learn about atrocity.

 

 

 

Fine women, fine art

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Below is a story about life, legacy, death, and the passage of time & art.

The Beaver Hall Group of artists in Montreal, formed the same year as the Group of Seven in Ontario, 1920, seems like a cruel joke on the part of those seven boys–because Beaver Hall consisted mostly of women. Not entirely of women but at least they had a name and a claim for a little fame.

It wasn’t a joke though. In fact A.Y. Jackson–who was broke and went home to live with his mother–became president and promoter of the women and men who painted in that downtown limestone building at 305 Beaver Hall Hill.

He respected the group and he even proposed marriage to one of the artists, Anne Savage, who rejected him but stayed friends. Jackson also arranged for their works to be included in Group of Seven exhibitions.

A few years ago Heather and I spent some time at the National Gallery in Ottawa, perusing their permanent collection, and then we went for lunch at the nearby Chateau Laurier .

“How are you today?” asked the kindly server, pouring our wine.

“Great,” I said. “We were just enjoying some Group of Seven paintings at the gallery.”

“Who are they?”

We forgave him his ignorance but didn’t dare ask whether he had heard of the Beaver Hall Group.

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Truthfully, it was only a handful of years ago that I learned about this group myself, so no arrogance allowed here. But I was surprised and disappointed at what we don’t know about Canadian art. Between the two of us it was enough to fill a gallery.

The server was young and interested in other things; no doubt his job didn’t offer much allure nor did he likely visit art on his off-hours.

My excuse? The education system, for one, and the invisibility of female creators of anything other than children. Incidentally, only one woman among the group was married.

Below: a list of the Group of Eight. They had them beat by one. Please learn their names by heart. Maybe hang one of their prints on your wall. Ah! I’ve forgotten Anne Savage, never rejected, never neglected. The last word.

  • Nora Collyer
  • Emily Coonan
  • Prudence Heward
  • Mabel Lockerby
  • Mabel May
  • Kathleen Morris
  • Lilias Torrance Newton 
  • Sarah Robertson

 

Leo’s to-do list

 

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A man who opened corpses to learn how the human body functions also jotted down items to pack for a journey and left it where he could easily find it: “Towel, shirt, socks, books, spectacles, night cap.”

So long dead he almost lost his unique humanness to pure mythology.

Leonardo di ser Piero da Vinci.

He was a lover of knowledge; he was curiosus whose interests included invention, painting, sculpting, architecture, science, music, mathematics, engineering, literature, anatomy, geology, astronomy, botany, writing, history, and cartography (Wikipedia).

But according to Saskatchewan author Ross King whom I heard lecture at the University of Toronto a few days ago, Leonardo Da Vinci was also a consummate list-maker. Just like us, he steadied himself in his prosaic day-to-days with clear, simple jottings.

To imagine this night-capped man snug in bed with specs by his side and several books tipped open and at reach is a pure pleasure we rarely experience–and a bit of shock; a shock to drop this fellow into the bloated land of trivia.

But aren’t we grateful for said specs and books? Relieved he didn’t forget to toss them into his suitcase?

One more Da Vinci quote from Mr. King:

“I have to go now. My soup is getting cold.”

 

A key to limber fingers

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N without the other keys

“It sometimes seems as if all our lives we are trying to cope with loss—either the fear of it, or the memory of it, or its raw immediate presence.”

Maureen Oswin, Am I Allowed to Cry?

I will freely write on each statement: fear of loss; memory of loss; and its raw immediate presence. Less on the last because it is not immediate to me–at least not as a death. Death doesn’t knock about in my chest right now or swallow my words but instead it pulses like a life within me, just waiting.

Growing up as an anxious child, perhaps my strongest fear was the anticipated deaths of my mother, father, and grandmother. And now that I am in my mid-fifties family is being picked off one by one like painted ducks at the end of a toy rifle. Ah, but it’s as it should be of course, these deaths are due.

Grandmother gone two decades now. Father a year gone. Stark memories of loss. My mother–she is well, well and visited often by all her children, our partners, and our children. I still live with the fear of losing her.

After that long goodbye there will be absent friends, siblings, acquaintances, colleagues.

And my partner? And my child? I cannot conceive of the world without them so I don’t–ever–think about it. I simply refuse to cross into these imaginings. This cowardice stitches and holds me together.

Meanwhile, there is room for joy. In the face of death heapfuls of pleasure and I grab hold every day. Today, in the rain, seeing Heather climb the steps of the 501 Queen streetcar and find a seat at the back. Her relief at being able to rest while recovering from a energy draining cold.

Joy in watching my fingers limber-up and fly across the keyboard to frame my words, allowing this voice inside and my need to speak it now, the words laid to rest ready for your visitation.

A tree, a robin, and Shakespeare

 

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The buds, the buds. The robin, the robin.

Both are of today and now let me elaborate.

It is mid-March, nearly the Ides of March and the day that, 24 years ago, I gave birth to my son Toto in Vancouver’s St. Paul’s hospital.

“A born philosopher,” said my friend Claire as she saw him wheeled out of the operating room after his emergence–squeezed like a tube of toothpaste–from my belly, born like the great emperor Julius Caesar.

Or like MacDuff in MacBeth who was “from his mother’s womb/untimely ripped.”

In Shakespeare, March 15 was the Ides of March. Julius Caesar was warned by a soothsayer not upon his birth but upon his death circa 44BC.

Caesar:

Who is it in the press that calls on me?
I hear a tongue shriller than all the music
Cry “Caesar!” Speak, Caesar is turn’d to hear.

Soothsayer:
Beware the Ides of March.

The day was correctly predicted to be the one on which Caesar was assassinated in the streets of Rome by a group of conspirators, including Brutus and Cassius.

My son, though, was born a philosopher and I love him twenty times twenty zillion times more than I ever loved the great poet or any of his doomed men.

And the buds? And the robin?

Both stepped into the path of my morning walk along the beach. I exalted in the coming of spring and remembered that on the edges of this new season is the best kind of prophesy for the Ides: a celebration of a beloved young life–a poem to me–who was, very much indeed, of woman born.

 

 

“Rage, rage against the dying of the light”

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Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

According to legend Dylan Thomas died of the bottle.

His last words are said to have been: “I’ve had 18 straight whiskies; I think that’s the record.”

This is now being disputed; the main cause of his death on Nov. 9, 1953, it is believed, was swelling of the brain caused by pneumonia and medical error. That he died with inhaler at hand.

Based on David Thomas’s (no relation) recent book Fatal Neglect: Who Killed Dylan Thomas the poet was was injected with 30mg of morphine instead of being given antibiotics.

“Three times the recommended dose,” he added, and so Thomas fell into a coma at midnight. No longer able to rage.

His lungs were shot and the New York smog added to his fight to breathe. Over 200 people that winter died of lung disease in Manhattan.

“His lungs were so poor he sounded like Louis Armstrong,” said a friend at the time. He had even collapsed during a rehearsal of Under Milk Wood.

It was a medical cover-up and the myth was invented.

Heather and I played a part in perpetuating this story.

A few years ago we drank beer surrounded by photos of Thomas. We played tourist at one of his favourite local Greenwich Village haunts, the White Horse tavern (shown in above photo with thanks to wikipedia).

Between sips we spoke of the drunken bard and how our bums might have sat where his did.

Or possibly in a seat occupied by Jack Kerouac, another inveterate Village drunk. I read that graffiti in the men’s loo includes these words: “JACK GO HOME!”

It has taken more than 50 years since Thomas Dyan’s death and 101 years since his birth in Wales but finally the truth may be replacing the myth.

 

“The Stuff that Life is Made of”

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Why not? Write these postings? Every month but preferably every week–because I am creative; because I claim to love to write; because I have things I want to say; because some people would like to know what I want to say, perhaps to read my words.

Is this posting all about me? Partly, but it is also about you and the interruptions we all encounter in our lives by floating particles of detritus called the internet.

I had to search the meaning of detritus before pushing save because, like so often, it tapped off my fingers before I was certain it fit the context.

I reached not for the keyboard but for my mother’s dictionary circa 1939 that rests at the side of my desk, the one she flipped open frequently at St. Joseph’s School for Young Ladies in Toronto. At the start of war.

Detritus: pieces that are left when something breaks, falls apart, or is destroyed.

That sounds like death. But this time it is the death of creativity because we surely squander the minutes.

A little girl leans against her mother, popcorn and Fanta in hand, at the Kingsway cinema in Etobicoke circa 1969.

The girl is me and I am still fairly fresh to reading but I’ve made it through Margaret Mitchell’s tome and now I’m watching the screen version of Scarlet O’Hara in Gone With the Wind.

I am also fresh to racism, to the history of the KKK, and to American wars.

In the movie there is a large stone plaque marking the passageway to Twin Oakes, the plantation owned by Ashley’s family. Engraved onto the plaque are these words:

“Dost thou love life? Then do not squander time, for that’s the stuff life is made of.”

It turns out that quote is from Benjamin Franklin. And–of course through a little googling–I discovered that Franklin did more than create electricity–also related to the aforementioned googling.

He was one of the American Founding Fathers honoured (honoured) for his early and indefatigable campaigning for colonial unity.

Ironies abound. Or was Mitchell sending us a subtle message in her book about disunity and the civil war?

Back to the internet and my quest for creativity and the keeping of a regular blog. Blog. What would mom’s dictionary say about this? I won’t check though in my quest to complete this post.

I squander time instead of write. I sit at my desk running ideas though my mind then flip on Facebook. Or catch up on Twitter quips.

Better than running to the fridge or texting Heather about nothing. Messaging snaps of our cat.

I haven’t blogged in over a month and this is shameful to me. Shameful to the “writer” who is I. Who is me. Who the hell knows anymore? But then again, there is the dictionary and time to use it.

 

 

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