Dreams: Ian, Mae and Harold Arlen

I woke up to Ian Tyson singing Somewhere Over the Rainbow. Siri had slipped her leash and shuffled from White Noise on repeat.

I don’t need to tell you, dear constant reader, that that song is from a famous movie

The first real movie I ever saw was The Wizard of Oz. I was probably 8-years-old. That was 1944. In the province of Quebec, children were not permitted to go to movies, ostensibly because of a terrible fire in a theatre that had killed children, but, more likely, the Catholic Church deemed movies corrupting. The Catholic Church ruled in the mostly French province.

I had seen films, made by the National Film Board of Canada in class, quite a few of them. I think the projectionist made a circuit of the schools, English schools in my case, and we got to see whatever he brought whether it related to the curriculum or not. So I was already enraptured by flickering motion pictures in a darkened room, but the moment when Oz burst into colour sealed my fate.

Quite simply I had to go there.

True my life did not include tornadoes, but it did contain World War II, which I initially thought was right next door. Uncles were overseas, German prisoners kept escaping from the POW camp in Sherbrook and my friend’s uncle got shot down and died. Plus there was the on-going war at home, not just the struggle to live on little money and rationing, but the very real possibility that my father would eventually succeed in killing one of us.

So I dreamed.

Eventually, I realized Oz didn’t exist and I would have to make do with Hollywood. My Aunt Mae could tell the future and she said that yes, I would go there. I wasn’t clear why she was laughing as she hugged me close.

I kept scrap books of movie stars and pursued an acting career. I had a few gigs at Christmas concerts and variety shows. I did Burlington Bertie from Bow, like I saw once in a movie. I got the lead roles in half a dozen high school and university plays. The only movie role I was ever offered got cancelled before shooting started. But I did go to Hollywood. Over seventy times and I plan to return in a few weeks.

Spoiler alert: I produced a daughter who went there to live and she produced two sons. I starred as grandma. Daddy #2 introduced me to a movie star at whose Malibu beach house I stayed. Her present husband took me to Warner Bros and we ate in the commissary. I didn’t get to go to the Emmys with him, but who can complain.

So thank you Aunt Mae. You kept hope alive and you didn’t exactly lie.

I woke up thinking about dreams, the kind of dreams you have about your future and which I am informed are essential to a happy life.

Shall we count them up?

I dreamed I would have 5 children and live in a ranch house. I had 2 and lived in split levels. I dreamed I would go to university. I went to McMaster University in Hamilton Ontario and lived for 2 years in a beautiful residence called Wallingford Hall. (I won’t mention the Quoncet hut  I lived in in first year.) I learned a great deal about English literature and philosophy, and continued to do so at the University of Toronto, almost dreaming spires. So check and check.

I dreamed of going to Europe and seeing Paris and the Greek ruins and the remains of ancient Rome. It helped than my younger brother escaped there and stayed, so I was able to spend long summers there and to return several times.

As it turned out, I got caught up in someone else’s dreams that included a swimming pool and a sail boat. Okay, that seems like fun. I can only say I survived.

I dreamed of a summer home in the low mountains and hills of the Eastern Townships where I was born. Not happening. No one was going to sell to my father’s daughter. But as second prize, I found a vacation home in the much higher mountains of Kern County, California where the wooded slopes breathed pine resin and sighed in the wind.

I am not the sort who dreams of having successful children. Mine succeeded by existing, but, in spite of that, they and my grandsons have achieved excellence in diverse ways.

So what are my dreams now in the winter light of my 83rd year?

Well, I dream that I will someday wrap up the executor work for the estate of that other dreamer (of sail boats and swimming pools), and I am pleased to report that I have only 3 tasks left to complete. One of them, the release of a modest bank account, which money has to be paid to a group of people I have never met, is typical of the frustratingly slow process of executing an estate. (Come back here, Boy, and I’ll give you such a slap upside the head.)

Where would he come back from? Hummm. Well, his after-life seems to be some heavenly school room where he is studying advanced physics with a side of human relations. (Can I refrain from saying ‘which he could use’?)

I’m not sure what mine will be. It will probably be a few millennia before I can stop myself from leaning back toward incarnation to make sure things are going well, not that they ever do. But, I suppose, that’s the whole point. We long and hope, yet the real lesson comes from the unfulfilled dreams, the suffering that polishes us up and fills us with light.

And those little blue birds that flew over the rainbow. My father used to see them as a child. Then they vanished. I found them again one morning as I walked along the golf course fence in Pine Mountain Club. They were singing.




Changing the Future: Atkinson’s Life After Life

SAMSUNG DIGITAL CAMERAIs it possible to change the future? If it is, is it wise?

First, you would have to know the future needs to be changed, I suppose. You might have a strong sense that the immediate future is not going to go well as a friend of mine did as she listened to a buzz bomb overhead in 1942 during the London blitz. She heard the telltale silence announcing the bomb was about to hit and prayed very hard that it would miss her and her infant son. It did. It landed on a house in the next street, killing another mother and her  baby.

(Did she change her fate? Certainly, she thought she did and still suffered over it 60 years later.)

You might have received a prediction that you believe to be true. It is hard to disbelieve an oncologist and even your future-telling Aunt Mae can have a convincing track record.   The latter believed that the only reliable way to change fate is to change character, an infinitely harder task than waving a wand. People do outlive their doctor’s prognosis, often by making drastic changes and summoning up reserves they did not know they had but most people are disinclined to make such fundamental changes or so Aunt Mae said.

Ursula Todd, the protagonist of Life After Life by Kate Atkinson, dimly senses her past-life misfortunes and tries to avoid them. Past lives’ misfortunes would be more accurate. She is, for example, born several times on February 11, 1910 always to Sylvie and Hugh Todd. The first time a snow storm prevents the doctor’s arrival.  She does not even take a breath. “Darkness fell.”, we are told as we will be many more times. The next time Dr. Fellowes gets there and cuts the cord that is around her neck. There are 8 chapters all called “Snow” that describe Ursula’s birth day. Eventually, even her irritatingly numb mother, Sylvie, has figured out that she needs to keep scissors in her night table drawer.

Some reviewers have, erroneously, suggested that Ursula is reborn into the next life at, say, 16, the point at which the subsequent narrative begins. This is wrong. Kate Atkinson explained in an interview with Eleanor Wachtel on CBC Radio 1 (available as a podcast, CBC app free) that Ursula starts over on February 11, 1910 in each case: it’s just that so much repetition would have bored readers.

The earliest opportunity Ursula has to change the future occurs at the end of the First World War in 1918. Bridget, the Todd’s maid, goes off to London for the celebration and brings the Spanish Flu home to infect Ursula and her beloved little brother, Teddy. Darkness falls. Next time, Ursula has a vague presentiment that Bridget should not come into the house when she comes back and tacks a note on the kitchen door and locks it. Sylvie outwits this plan. Next time, Bridget ends up with a sprained ankle but hobbles, gamely, off to London. “Darkness and so on.” By this time, Ursula is learning what déjà vu is, but Slyvie tells her not to dwell on “these things”. The Irish Bridget is more sensible, declaring that Ursula has second sight. For her thanks, this time, Ursula pushes her downstairs and finally prevents the Spanish Flu from carrying off Teddy and of course herself.

Sylvie takes Ursula to a Jungian therapist, who has not treated a child before but turns out to be eminently qualified. He teaches Ursula such Buddhist ideas as that of the eternal return, of dying and being reborn. And he accepts her strangeness.

But Ursula’s returns are not about learning to be a better person through lessons of retribution in successive lives. They are about getting things right, so that at least some of the harm life can do gets mitigated. The opening chapter in which 20 year-old Ursula takes her father’s Webley pistol to a Berlin cafe where she meets the Fürhrer for tea and struesel, for example, just might have prevented World War II.

This is one of two death-and-misfortune scenarios that she repeatedly tries to correct: death by bombing or attendant war trauma and sexual assault when she is 16.

The sexual assault by her older brother’s American friend on her 16th birthday initially leads to dire results, including loss of her mother’s affection in every iteration and death at the hands of an abusive husband in one. Gradually, however, Ursula perfects her punch

World War II is a more complex problem. Initially, Ursula is haunted by a feeling of flying out a window. She is living in London in November 1940, enduring nightly German bombing raids. Night after night presents an opportunity for “darkness” to fall. Initially, she lives in the same flat on Argyll Rd., sometimes still in a relationship with a high level man from the Admiralty, sometimes not, but in every life the place gets bombed and the residents killed. She might be in the basement shelter or upstairs, retrieving someone’s knitting, but her life ends there. Finally, we come to a life in which she is an air raid warden, no longer living in a flat on Argyll Rd. but attending to its bombsite. The baby Emil, who had driven her crazy crying, is now part of the debris she stumbles over doing rescue and recovery.

But the Germans are not just the enemy.  Ursula’s cousin, Izzie’s son, given up for adoption in one life, has been adopted by a German family and is of an age to be flying a bomber over London. In another life, Ursula has made yet another bad choice in husbands, marrying Jurgen while she is travelling in Germany. In one life, the mother in the family that she stayed with introduces her to Eva and in another she sets out to befriend a woman in a photo shop who turns out to be Eva Braun and so gains an entré to Hitler and the Berg, Hitler’s mountain retreat. She is invited there by Eva when her daughter, Frieda, becomes ill. At the end of the war, we watch as Ursula and Frieda starve in bombed out ruins in Berlin. That chapter ends with the observation that she had never chosen death over life before.

Then as a kind of muscular solace we are treated to Ursula, back in London, an air raid warden. Gradually, her obsessive thoughts and compulsions have shaped her choices so that she has avoided her own death, but she has witnessed many others. The detail and realism of these chapters is astonishing and makes for a rousing climax.

As the author says, there is never really a moment when Ursula sees clearly what is going on, but in “The End of the Beginning”, she does gain a measure of clarity. She has learned to shoot a gun by the way. Finding herself in a sanatorium, she observes to her psychiatrist that time is a palimpsest. The canvas can be painted over again and again. She has wasted precious time, but now she has a plan. And she knows that she must “become such as you are, having learned what that is”.