A Hundred Days of Solitude: chpt 5

Laocoon and his sons destroyed by sea serpents

A Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez tells the story of seven generations of the Buendia family, which founded the riverside town on Macondo in the jungle of Columbia. In the first generation the isolated town has no outside contact except for an annual visit from a Gypsy band. It is a place where the inexplicable can happen and ghosts are commonplace. Many misfortunes befall the Buedias, all of which it turns out have been predicted. It is a long book, perfect if you are still, like me, a coronavirus shut-in.

“We are not here to be happy,” he said. He was a Catholic priest. I was a child. It wasn’t part of a sermon. I seem to be with a small group of children, standing around him. This is odd, since I grew up in Quebec, which was like Northern Ireland in those days, and I was Protestant. I was appalled to hear him say that. Of course, we were here to be happy. Jesus had pretty much confirmed that. The priest didn’t elaborate, leaving me to puzzle it out for the next 7 decades.

Which brings us to 2020 and Covid-19 among other things.

We thought we were living in end times when Donald J. Trump got hold of the most powerful office on the planet. Then we couldn’t breathe.

Because of my advanced age, I have been shut in for 140 days, except for essential shopping and visits to my sister and niece, part of my bubble since Day 78. Even then we wore masks and distanced. Lately, we have taken off the masks to eat together. We expect to live like this for a long while. I am 24% likely to die of Covid. Here in Canada, we have had about 9,000 deaths, but 2,000 have been elders in care homes. Note to self: stay out of care homes.

Tough on people who are praying to a merciful God. Had that experience as a child. We were 4 children, born over an 11 year period. I was oldest. Our childhoods taught us to be nimble, heart-broken, witty and kind. It was a mercy we all survived and a mercy that we have done as much good as we have. And we are all still here. Perhaps mercy is just a long term project.

Is this calamity destiny or the will of God? Is this pandemic and uprising for social justice part of a plan? Is that what is in operation now? There are 8 billion of us on the planet Earth. Is that just too many? Is nature just weeding the garden? Or is this a struggle between good and evil? In the midst of darkness has a greater darkness descended?

Some of us have had the leisure to consider such questions. Not the parents who have had to juggle home-schooling, home-office work and housekeeping, nor the essential workers who have risked their lives, but people like me, who have spent nearly 5 months in solitude.

CSIS (Canadian Security Intelligence Service) devised a secret plan to counteract riots here once the shut-down for the pandemic was announced. They took it upstairs. The higher-ups more or less laughed as I would have and canned the plan. Old joke: how do you get 50 frolicking Canadians out of a pool? You stand on the deck and say, ‘Please get out of the pool.” Of course we stayed home, as did Washington and California and other states, one by one. Lately, it has become clear that we have to wear masks if we want to shop. We wear masks. We don’t argue. Mostly. They are hot and not comfy. Ventilators are way worse.

That was my first glimpse of universal responsibility and open-heartedness. It was something like I saw as a child in World War II. Then there were the healthcare workers in New York City, working without PPE and in overcrowded conditions. They were getting sick and dying, but so were people, particularly immigrants, in less elevated jobs. I thanked the delivery people and the shop workers sincerely. They were out in the midst of it, while I was safe at home.

Their devotion and self-sacrifice cast light right across the globe. On dark days as the number of infected grew and bodies were stacked in refrigerator trucks and ice rinks and in mass graves, that love for each other, for absolute strangers, lit the darkness.

I had managed to figure out that the priest meant that we are here not to enjoy ourselves but to evolve, to become better people. I had had losses which felt unbearable, but eventually, made me a less self-centered person, more capable of empathy, of fellow feeling.

I wonder if he was a Jesuit. It seems Jesuitical.

The 13th century Sufi poet Jelaluddin Rumi takes a different tack and says that the soul is here for its own joy, that we are here to make God a reality. An acquaintance of mine says that in me, for example, God is experiencing godhood as an 84-year-old woman. But Rumi also says, “The rule is, Suffer the pain.
Your desire must be disciplined,
and what you want to happen
in time sacrificed.   (Coleman Barks: Rumi, the Book of Love, p.98)
He compares the soul to a newly skinned hide, “bloody and gross”, that has to be worked manually and with the “bitter tanning acid of grief” to become beautiful and strong. Rumi tells of “‘the Friend’ who knows more than you do,” who “will bring difficulties and grief and sickness,/ as medicine, as happiness, as the moment /when you’re beaten, when you hear Checkmate/ and can finally say with Hallaj’s voice,/ I trust you to kill me.”
(Barks: p. 127) (Al-Hallaj Mansour was martyred in Bagdad in 922,)

I suppose you have to believe in soul or the higher self to begin to make sense of these ideas, although the past five months may have moved even atheists closer to that belief. It seems as though Rumi is talking about something like the will of God. It might feel imposed but, in fact, the suffering is what a best friend sees is needed. This ‘will of God’ is rooted in love.

It is easier to see that in operation in the Black Lives Matter movement. It is not surprising that the urge for a fairer, more just society arose when it did. Most of us were paying attention. We felt helpless against the coronavirus but not so helpless against the injustice of George Floyd’s murder.

I am surprised and glad to find my close friends agree with my refinement of the will of God idea. You may find it a step too far. It seems to me that before we came into incarnation we helped to formulate these plans and volunteered for our own role. We have forgotten that for the most part and so we are not necessarily prepared for a sudden and early departure. We may be more ready to spend our lives in the service of others even though we think we made that decision for practical reasons toward the end of our education.

The corollary of that is, of course, that some of us have volunteered to play bad guy. Hitler, for example or my father. Imagine this pre-incarnated being madly waving its arm: I’ll be a  psychotic sociopath and cause millions to suffer and die. (My father’s score didn’t measure up to Hitler’s by the way.) Somebody had to do it. Does it go all the way down to invisible viruses? “I’ll be that one! I’ll do that.”

I have periodic collapses. My nerves give out around the dinner hour news. When I seek encouragement, one or other of these friends responds, “Stop worrying. We all signed up for this.” or “It’s all already happened.” It’s hard to be a witness. Even if we see what’s coming, we can’t change it. To try to do so would make things worse.

Laocoon, priest of Poseidon, tried to change the history of Troy by exposing the ruse of the wooden horse, in which were hidden Ulysses and his Greek cohorts. Poseidon sent sea serpents to destroy him and his sons. It was fated that the Greeks would prevail and Troy would fall.

Seers only
to avoid

Sinche, Sinche (too much) celaidermontblog.com








The Crying Chair

This is the crying chair. It sits in my entrance way on a tiled floor. Good rocking there and tissues at the ready.

I saw it first at Christmas 1960 when I dragged my extremely pregnant body upstairs to my mother-in-law’s attic. She was storing it for a friend, but I could have it to rock the baby, temporary loan.

It was cream colored then. At some point, my husband painted it antique green. (When was the era of antiquing?) During a desperate teachers’ strike, our house became the place for coffee break. Deep winter. Constant arguing. Months of poverty. My two children unschooled as well, of course. To avoid insanity, I carried it down to the basement and stripped the paint off and oiled it. I loved the chair. It saved me.

I rocked my large self in it through most of a dark January 1961. When she arrived, my daughter, like her mother before her, cried. If she had cried for Canada, she would have won the gold. My father slept with his foot out of bed rocking my cradle. I rocked her in the big, comfortable chair.

Her brother arrived a year later. By then his sister was noshing on pureed food, so her colic had cleared up. Anyway her real live doll-brother made her so happy, she didn’t need to cry. He, in turn, was fascinated by her -his own non-stop performance artist/teacher, and calm by nature. Still I rocked them both before bed and at teething time, one on each knee, singing every song I knew including ‘House of the Rising Sun”

Some nights, however, I cried as I sang. Their father taught day school, night school, took night courses and tutored on Sunday. We had dinner together. That was it. A quiet, tasteful time, full of conversation. No. Two babies who needed to be fed while Daddy tried to sort out the evening lesson plan.

I had studied English & Philosophy and Drama. I was the only female survival in the Logic class by third year. I had two years of teaching English under my belt as well as teacher training. I had subdued 50 hormone-ridden grade 10s in a classroom with 48 seats. Now I was washing six dozen cloth diapers twice a week.

I started reciting Shakespeare as I bathed the kids together in the big tub.

Eventually, my husband intervened. “What would you do right now, if you could do anything?” he asked. “Put on my navy suit,” I said. “Where would you go?” he asked. “Cedarbrae Collegiate,” I replied. “You want to go back to teaching,” he said.

How could I? It was 1963. My job was to nurture these priceless babies. It just wasn’t done. But before we got up from the grey card table that functioned as our dining surface, we had the plans underway. We would hire a nanna, carefully vetted. I would get a job easily. Populations were booming and my clever husband could stop working all the time. My terror and relief could be soothed only by more rocking those bigger and bigger babies.

The rocking chair went with us to a new house. We were now making almost $12,000 together. It was an ideal place for growing children, a hill, with a flagpole and a martin house, wilderness, gardens, fences and eventually a pool. There were parks galore and a very high cliff above Lake Ontario for risking young lives. Not that we worried. They had bicycles. They had each other.

The rocking chair sat in the corner of the rec room beside the sliding door and in front of the fireplace, which any of the four of us could choose to light. Nanna kept it swept free of ashes.

Then the crying chair came back into its own. I was the one in it. It was 2 a.m., where was my husband?

The chair and I set out on our travels. Sans the others. We moved to Heyworth Ave., to Main St., to Fishleigh Dr., to the town of Zephyr, to Mississauga, to Evans Ave., to Stephen Dr. and back to Mississauga. I can picture where my chair sat in each of these places. All except 3 had my name on the deed. One had my sister’s and two I signed leases for. A good deal of rocking and crying went on in those 40 years.

Meanwhile my ex-husband had lost his much younger wife to cancer. He had been diagnosed with stage 4 cancer the same year, 2010. We welcomed him back into the family at Easter 2012. (“Should of stuck with the old girls,” my sister greeted him cheerily.

He and I had lunch last week. A two hour lunch tires out this 82-yr-old retired teacher, but he seemed to want to come to my 14th floor suburban apartment. We did have to talk over a few details concerning his estate. There have been no bad tests recently but…

I pointed out the crying chair. This sent him into a reflective mood. He always cried easily-just maybe not over me. Intimations of mortality can bring that on. He regretted our son had not continued his painting and sculpting. I thought that a youthful art career is like a teen-aged rock band. Most people grow out of it.

Hubby, for example had chosen math and physics, over art. Even got to work with a nuclear reactor. (Is that significant?)

Anyway, grief is always the same, not so much about loss as the f-ups that we regret.

So the chair waits invitingly, inevitably.

Feel free to drop by and cry until you’re done.




The Hare With Amber Eyes: Iggy and Edward no

hare finallyAs I consider what to say about parts 3 and 4 of The Hare With Amber Eyes, I remember my daughter, Julia’s christening in early spring 1961. At the reception in our Don Mills apartment, her fraternal grandfather made a casual anti-Semitic joke. My objection was all but drowned out by laughter. What exactly he said, I have mercifully forgotten, but I have the satisfaction of knowing that the genes he handed down to my husband Blake and on to Julia got blended with Warsaw Jewish genes to produce a son, not strictly speaking Jewish since Julia is not, but good enough for Hitler. Even so, I mostly don’t let myself feel anything like the full force of what I could feel about the Holocaust which destroyed all but two members of that middle class Warsaw family. Until I read this part of The Hare With Amber Eyes. Oddly, it is the pillage and loss of beauty, which is irresistibly affecting to me, the netsuke sitting vulnerable in their glass cabinet while the mob breaks in and then the Nazis seize the palace and force Viktor to sign it over.

after anchluss palaisThis photograph was taken after the Anschluss. I imagine this crowd is waiting for a celebratory parade.

Unlike his children, Viktor does not have the instinct to flee. By the time, it is necessary, he has great difficulty doing so. It is true that none of the immediate family is deported to a camp, although one does not survive. On balance, the Ephrussis of Vienna, like my grandson’s Warsaw family, could be seen as lucky. Strange luck to survive in the face of such grief, of so much loss. The great advantage the Ephrussis have is Elizabeth, the lawyer and the author’s grandmother. Thus Viktor finds himself sitting by the kitchen stove in Tunbridge Wells, reading news of the war and Ovid’s poems of exile, while Elizabeth learns to cook. In December 1945, she goes back to the Palais Ephrussi, no longer a Nazi headquarters but an American one. Almost nothing is left, except Anna and, amazingly, the netsuke.

Then the story switches setting. Iggy, former fashion designer, and American Intelligence officer, returns to England from a year trading grain in the Congo and receives the collection from Elizabeth. It is as if the netsuke settle what he should do next. He takes the collection with him when he moves to war-torn Tokyo. Ironically, he will work as a banker there. “Iggy had a small attache case filled with ivory monks, craftsmen and beggars, but he knew nothing about the country.”

netsuke floor cleanerAbove, a floor cleaner has a surprise.

netsuke as wornThe netsuke is the bauble that is on the belt and attached by string to the purse or pocket below. It seems to be a rat pattern in this case.

Edmund De Waal gets to know his uncle when he goes to Japan as a teenager to study ceramics. By that time, Iggie has added Japanese to his German, Russian and English. He lives in a home with fewer objects, but nevertheless rare, Japanese antiques. He is successful and shares his life with a male friend, Jiro, some years younger. So there is beauty there and happiness, but this part feels elegaic. After Iggie’s death, De Waal stays with Jiro when he visits Japan.

iggy with netsukeFinally, the author goes to Odessa where he joins his younger brother and they discover clues of the Ephrussi brothers presence there before 1870, not only in stories but also in a school and an orphanage they founded.

The netsuke are in London now in a vitrine where they can be taken out and played with by children.

netsuke rat

The Hare With Amber Eyes: Viktor and Emmy Ephrussi

ringstrasse above(The second in a series of posts about Edmund de Waal’s book The Hare With Amber Eyes)

In 1899 the collection of 264 netsuke (net-ski), tiny Japanese carvings, arrived along with their black lacquered vitrine at the Ringstrasse in VIenna, a gift from Charles Ephrussi to his cousin Viktor on the occasion of his wedding to Emmy. They were uncrated at the Palais Ephrussi and began life anew in Emmy’s dressing room.

palais ephrussi colourThey were destined to live in the Palais Ephrussi (above) for the next 48 years, although the Ephrussis did not.

The palace was built soon after the street itself, the Ringstrasse, in 1865, a boulevard made for imperial parades and stood near other magnificent homes of wealthy Jewish families – the Libens, Todescos, Wertheims, Gutmanns, Epsteins. By 1899, Freud had his office around the corner. The 145,000 Jews in Vienna had had civic equality since 1867, including the right to teach and own property. The Ephrussis, like many others, were secular Jews and did not attend synagogue. They were Viennese, citizens of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and loyal to the Emperor Franz Joseph, who had granted them their rights.

Baron Ignace von EphrussiThe great house was built by Ignace Ephrussi, who arrived in Vienna from Odessa in 1865 when his son Viktor was 3 years old. Eventually, Ignace was ennobled by the Emperor and became Baron von Ephrussi.

De Waal, the author and present owner of the netsuke is a renowned potter of simple modern forms and his reaction to the palace, now Casino Austria, is much like my own would be. He notes the gold trim on the exterior, the many half-clad Grecian maidens in the niches. He feels smothered by the smoothness of the omni-present marble, as if he can not get a purchase anywhere – on the shallow wide steps of staircases, on the slick floors.

panneled wall palaisThe “implacably marble” interior was lavished with tapestry and ceiling murals.

ballroom palais ephrussiMost of the paintings told classical stories, except oddly, the one on the ceiling of the ballroom, the only room that the Viennese, as opposed to Jews, would see. It told the story of Esther. De Waal says, “It is a long-lasting covert way of staking a claim for who you are.”

Viktor, like Charles in the Paris branch of the family was the spare son, so he too was spared bank training. Viktor preferred reading history and sitting in cafes with his friends – until, alas, his older brother Stefan, eloped with his father’s mistress and was disinherited. Suddenly the unprepared Viktor found himself working in the Bank Ephrussi, untrained, and, as it turned out, without a banker’s instincts.

Ignace died only 10 weeks after Viktor and Emmy’s wedding. They kept their apartment on the second floor, the Nobelstock, which Emmy had initially announced “looked like the foyer of the opera”. De Waal takes us into the palace where Ignace had had a a private staircase only he could use, servants’ rooms on a “secret” floor, one with no windows, tunnels to neigbouring houses, ways for naughty children to access the roof, and the glass-covered court yard where the carriages and horses and later the automobiles stood ready beside a statue of Apollo..

It was not a “cozy” place in the way that Charles’s home, opulent as it was, might have seemed. The netsuke vitrine evidently did not suit it except in the smaller more intimate surroundings of Emmy’s dressing room. Here her children gathered pre-dinner to watch her maid Anna dress her for dinner. Here Elizabeth, Iggy and Gisella were allowed to open the glass case and take the netsuke out to play with them.

But of course there was something secret and malignant, the worm in the rose, gnawing away beneath the surface beauty. Marble halls were not proof against it.

Even in Paris Charles was subject to anti-semiticism. Renoir turns against his patron when Charles buys paintings by Gustav Moreau.”It is ‘Jew art’ Renoir writes, galled to find his patron, the editor of the Gazette, with this gout Rothschild stuff on the walls..” Not only is Jewish artistic taste criticized, as bankers Jews are held to be exploitative and responsible for every economic setback. De Waal forces himself to read the newspapers, pamphets and books that target the Ephrussi family with hatred, and parody them as individuals, not only Charles, but others like Maurice, who has married Beatrice Rothschild. The Dreyfus scandal, in which the Jewish officer Alfred Dreyfus was accused of treason, effectively divided the nation into two parts, Semites with their few supporters and anti-semites. It was almost 10 years before he was exonerated and released from Devil’s Island.

But, if the French, in that era, were capable of anti-Semiticism, the German speakers had a positive gift for it. Elizabeth and Iggy, for example, found themselves shut out of a guest hut at the end of a long day’s mountain hike because they were Jews.

Franz Joseph knew a good thing when he saw it and courted the newly arrived Jews who brought wealth with them and soon made more. Viktor regarded himself as a loyal Austrian and, consequently did not follow the advice of his friends who spirited their money off to Switzerland when war was in the offing. In fact, he sunk his wealth into Austrian bonds. Just how reckless this was beame clear to me when I read Margaret MacMillan’s The War That Ended Peace. Austria-Hungary was a pasted together country, a collection of territory assembled by the Hapsbergs. Its soldiers spoke so many languages that units were divided accordingly and orders were sometimes issued in English. There were two parliaments and the Hungarian one erupted physical violence at one point. The heir to the throne was Franz Ferdinand, however, who had a sensible attitude that going to war was not a good idea. Then he and his wife were assassinated, the ostensible cause of the war’s outbreak.

By the end of the Great War in1918, Viktor’s branch of the Bank Ephrussi had to be bailed out. He still had the palais and personal money, but he had lost his fabulous wealth. And like every other family in Austria, his was almost starving because of food shortages. Emmy had just given birth to a fourth child, Rudolf, the Spanish flu was raging across Europe and it seemed as if mother and child might not survive.

They did survive as did their home, although there were half as many servants. Gradually, things improve. Elizabeth earns a doctor of law degree, marries and leaves the country. Iggie studies finance in Cologne. He is the only male Ephrussi in both branches of the family, but in 1933 wisely runs to Paris, giving banking up for a life in fashion eventually in New York City.

In 1938, there is the Anschluss. But this is part of the next section of the book, part 3, “Vienna, Kövecses, Tunbridge Wells, Vienna 1938-1947”.

The Hare With Amber Eyes: Charles Ephrussi

hare finallyThis is the Hare With Amber Eyes, for which Edmund de Waal named the book he wrote about his family, the Ephrussis. My edition is subtitled “A Family’s Century of Art and Loss”. The hare is one of 264 netsuke (net-ski), tiny sculptures that hung on traditional Japanese costumes, fastening pouches -external pockets. At the end of World War II, this collection of tiny objects was the only part of the great Ephrussi fortune to survive.

Charles Ephrussi bought the collection from a Paris dealer in 1880. Charles is the man in the top hat in The Luncheon of the Boating Party by Renoir and one of two men who served as the model for Proust’s Swann. (De Waal cautions us not to assume that Charles would actually wear such clothes to a boating party.)

luncheon of the boating partyNineteen years later, Charles sent the nesuke in their black vitrine to Vienna as a wedding gift to his cousin Victor and his bride, Emmy. There in the Palais Ephrussi on the Ringstrasse, the netsuke lived in Emmy’s dressing room where their children played with them. They remained there when the family fled in 1938. Although the palace was occupied by the Nazis, the netsuke were miraculously spared from plunder and came back into the family’s hands in 1947. Amazingly, Iggy Ephrussi took Tokyo where he lived until his death, leaving them to his nephew Edmund de Waal, the author of The Hare With Amber Eyes.

Charles Ephrussi, who first bought the collection, kept the 264 tiny carvings in the salon of his second floor apartment on a Parisian hill. Being the third and youngest son, bookish and uninterested in making money, he was not required to join the family business. It had started as wheat dealing in Odessa, but had grown into banking and family members had been dispatched to Paris, Vienna and ultimately, to Moscow to establish branches. Charles was free to indulge his interest in art, writing a book about Durer, as well as magazine articles, becoming the proprietor of the Gazette and collecting paintings by Impressionist painters for himself and others, as well as offering the artists personal encouragement and friendship. Edmund de Waal imagines the walls of the salon as it must have been, hung with these pictures three deep. Included among the 40 paintings Charles hung were Renoir’s Gypsy Girl, Manet’s Asparagus, Monet’s Pommiers and Morisot’s On the Lawn.

gypsy girlmanet Asparagusmonet PommiersSince there are several versions of apple trees painted by Monet and since I am not an art historian, I may not have the right picture here.

MOrisot on the lawnDe Waal goes to see one of Charles’s pictures at the National Gallery in London – for now the collection has been dispersed far and wide – and says, “You feel alive looking at it.

les bainsThis is Monet’s The Grenouille.

the bathers at GrenouilleMonet’s The Bathers at Grenouille

The description of Charles’ salon with its yellow arm chair, its walls glowing with luminous Impressionist paintings and the black lacquered vitrine is one of my favourite parts of the book.

The story is told anecdotally as the author travels to the places where the collection lived and delves deeper into the family history but because it is his family, de Waal is very much a part of it, offering his response to his discoveries. If I had to choose one word to describe The Hare With Amber Eyes, it would be charming. In spite of the fact that it is a story of great loss, reading about such beauty salves the soul.

(Another post will talk about the netsuke in Vienna.)

Move Over Zombies, the Night Watch has Arrived

Thanks Kathi for sharing this. I am reblogging this from “Everywhere Once” and intend to view it many times.

Everywhere Once

Rembrandt Night Watch

This is possibly the best “Flash Mob” ever. To commemorate the reopening of Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum on April 13, a large portion of which was closed for a decade’s long renovation, performers staged an elaborate re-creation of Rembrandt’s most famous work The Night Watch before an unsuspecting audience.

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