Saturday, June 21, 2014

Edwardian Oddities

Photo from

The Charity That Began at Home
By St. John Hankin
2:00, Sunday, June 8, 2014
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

The Charity That Began at Home is a discomforting Edwardian comedy. Lady Denison (Fiona Reid) has been advised that the best way to be charitable and coax better behaviour from others is by setting a good example. She embraces this notion by inviting a group of undesirable misfits to her country home, in the hope that by enjoying civilized company they may improve their own manners and hence their social prospects. The menagerie of boors and bores shows no signs of reform. So long as they are only boring, they present no imminent danger. That, however, changes.

One of the guests, Hugh Verreker (Martin Harper), is a disgraced army officer who was dismissed over having made a loan to himself from the regiment's cash. He makes a convincing argument about how he intended to pay back the money and had arranged for a loan from his uncle, but the repayment did not arrive before the cash was discovered to be missing. In discussing his case, Margery (Julia Course), Lady Denison's daughter, is told that Verreker might be a scoundrel but that under the influence of good people he could reform. Margery therefore concludes that the best way to reform him would be to marry him. This is when the notion of commitment to charity clashes with practicality.

Even the servant Soames has been engaged to work in the household as an opportunity to give him a second chance in life after having been dismissed from his last position. The outcome is that Soames rapes the maid Anson and leaves her pregnant. When he is confronted, he acknowledges his act and he is entirely unapologetic about it. He adds that he cannot possibly marry Anson because he is already married. The Edwardian audience would have been horrified that he will not give his victim the respectability of marriage, but the modern audience is relieved that the rape victim is not forced to enter a binding relationship with her abuser. It is also uncomfortable to note that Lady Denison is much more concerned that Soames should be given the opportunity to redeem his respectability, rather than ensuring that Anson will be able to lead a respectable life. By the mores of the times, she will not, she is "ruined."

When does selfless goodness stop being a good thing and start to be a clearly foolish endeavour? Does anyone really change? The social concerns may be different nowadays but the notion of world responsibility toward the less fortunate remains a concern. How personally should we take the notion of "charity?" To what extent should we open our hearts and our homes to a person who needs rescuing? It is not an easy question.

Hankin was criticized in his time because he failed to provide "satisfactory" endings to his plays. How can this be a comedy is Margery's heart is broken? Will Lady Denison and Margery continue to pursue this kind of charity? Should they do so? Are they right to flaunt social convention in the name of kindness or is their intention misguided and foolish? Should personal sacrifice extend to marrying someone to redeem them? There remains a wide gap between the romantic ideal and the practical reality, and Hankin's comedy is not as light as it would appear. I consider the fact that he does not provide facile resolution as a strength, rather than a weakness. This play was deeper and more relevant than it would appear at first glance.

Photo from

The Sea
By Edward Bond
8:00, Sunday, June 8, 2014
Court House Theatre, Niagara-on-the-Lake

It is 1907. A storm rages at sea. A young man is drowned. The Coast Guard is at arms because invaders may be attacking. The play was originally produced at the Royal Court Theatre on 22 May 1973. The director's notes in the programme refer to Margaret Thatcher, the IRA, Pink Floyd, Monty Python's Plying Circus, and the invasion of the body snatchers. The play looks Edwardian --it is set in Edwardian times-- but it has contemporary concerns.

The opening scene shows the wind machine, property of the East Anglia Theatre Company, on the beach at night. Like Brecht, Bond reminds us that this is a play, not real life (epic theatre convention). As the machine is set in motion, the "storm" rages and the story begins to unfold. A young man's boat overturns and he is killed, either by the storm or possibly by Hatch (Patrick Galligan) the maniacal leader of the Coast Guard who is convinced that aliens from outer space are attempting to land on England's shores. Hatch, the draper, a seller of yard goods, is a bona fide mad hatter. He, in turn, is terrorized by Lady Rafi (Fiona Reid), the town's matriarch, who orders goods and then will not accept them when they arrive. She maintains the social order and runs the local amateur theatre society in which she is the star. Willy (Wade Bogert-O'Brien) survives the shipwreck and must go speak to the deceased's fiancée Rose (Julia Course). Hatch presumes that Willy is an invading aliens and threatens his life. Evens (Peter Millard), the drunken hermit who lives in an abandoned boat on the beach, comforts Willy and tells him that Hatch is harmless.

I felt like I was at sea for most of the first act. I could make no sense of this play until I latched onto the notion that the main characters are all Shakespearean fools. Lady Rafi is the tyrannical fool. Hatch is the mad fool. Evens is the wise fool. Once this became clear, the whole play started to make more sense. In the end each of the fools tells the young people to leave this place: Lady Rafi and Evens tell them to get away for their own good and Hatch tells them to get out. Staying would only lead to madness.

Several elements did not hold together. Hatch the draper was unconvincing in his over the top lunacy. It is hard to see how he could hold down any sort of job at all, much less run a store and serve as the head of the coast guard. The scene in which Lady Rafi is declaiming her lines in the theatre society rehearsal as Orpheus, asking a stalwart Rose as Eurydice to come back from the dead, is a moment of high irony, but not believable. The vocal battle and the tussle over the ashes at the funeral were delightfully uproarious but blatantly silly. There were moments of levity and seriousness, but overall, I am not convinced that this play manages to make enough sense of the madness. Also, the Shaw Festival could use a bit of work on its wigs. The wig lines were visible on every character in both productions and it is disconcerting.

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Stratford 1: Nothing Was What I Expected

Crazy for You
2:00 Wednesday, June 11, 2014
Festival Theatre

I suppose I had better 'fess up and admit that I chose this show based on a misunderstanding: I thought that Crazy for You was by George and Ira Gershwin. What I found out was that although the music in it is theirs, the play is not. Ken Ludwig wrote the script, strung along a series of Gershwin songs. Sometimes the music hangs together and contributes to the rather thin plot and sometimes it is a non-sequitur. Director and choreographer Donna Feore whipped the dancers into a high energy show and Natalie Daradich as Polly Baker sang her heart out. There was great singing and dancing, but being a musical is no excuse for a lack of depth and a contrived plot.

Mother Courage and Her Children
2:00 Thursday, June 12, 2014
Tom Patterson Theatre

This is the first time I have seen a performance at the Tom Patterson Theatre, the smallest and most intimate of the three festival theatres, named after the festival's founder. I had also never seen Mother Courage and Her Children. I was aware that Bertolt Brecht is big with leftists, and I could see why. The main character Anna Fierling, Mother Courage, is reviled for her commitment to commerce and for sacrificing her children to war. Written in 1939 but set during the Thirty Years' War (1618-1648), Courage and her three children have a caravan that they drag around to the battle front, seeing an opportunity for survival by selling to the soldiers: Buy cheap, sell dear, that is the capitalist mantra. There is always profit to be made in war and peace is not good for business. Mother Courage is not sentimental about war. She sees in it a way to keep herself and her family alive.

But war always exacts a dear price. Against his mother's wishes, first son Eilif leaves and joins the army. He ends up being executed for killing peasants, the same act for which he had previously been rewarded when he was plundering farms so that the army could feed itself. Second son, Swiss Cheese, becomes an army paymaster. He hides the regiment's paybox from invading soldiers but he is captured while attempting to return the paybox. Mother Courage attempts to negotiate with the soldiers to free him, but she haggles too long over the price and Swiss Cheese is killed. Suspecting that she may be an accomplice, the soldiers bring his body to her in the expectation that she will break down, but she steels herself and does not acknowledge that he is her son. It is a heart-rending moment. Later in the story, mute daughter Kattrin is raped and disfigured by an army clerk. Courage's old love interest, the Cook, reappears. He has inherited his mother's inn and he wants Courage to come with him to run the inn, but there would be no room for Kattrin. Courage refuses to leave her mute and disfigured daughter. Ultimately Kattrin meets her end when she sacrifices herself by warning the town of imminent attack, while her mother is in the town, trying to broker a deal to sell her goods.

We had lively discussion over the play. Did Courage recklessly endanger her children with her desire to make a living? Would they have been better off staying in one place and eking a living from the earth? Would that have saved her sons from conscription, her family from starvation, her daughter from rape and murder? It is debatable. Being useful is a way of staying alive, but is it reckless? Certainly many innocent farmers died or were killed in the course of war with no second thoughts given to them. Mother Courage's character is widely condemned for her "adoration of capitalism" and she is dubbed the "hyena of the battlefield," but she did not abandon her daughter when she could have had a comfortable life with her lover. The inexorable machinery of war is what decides outcomes, regardless of whether you decide to confront it or hide from it.

Seana McKenna gave a great performance as Mother Courage, a performance only a mother could give.

A Midsummer Night's Dream
2:00 Friday, June 13, 2014
Festival Theatre

I hadn't planned on seeing A Midsummer Night's Dream at Stratford. Or rather I hadn't planned on seeing this version; I thought I was buying tickets to see the Chamber version, which I have never seen. That being said, I have no regrets about having seen this Midsummer, even though I have seen this particular play umpteen times. Director Chris Abraham faces the same problem: How to make a production that people know too well, fresh.

His hook was to make it modern through a gender-bending approach. He created a new prologue as an overlay to introduce the performance: A backyard barbecue party in celebration of a gay wedding between two men. What sort of entertainment shall we have? A play! Another wedding, another play within the play, and thus the first act is launched.

In keeping with the gay theme, Lysander, Hermia's love interest is played by and as a woman. In this day and age, we can roll with it. It works well as a dramatic argument too: Egeus doesn’t want his daughter to marry her gay lover. Chick Reid is cast as a female Puck but there is nothing special about that switch-up, and her portrayal was pretty nondescript. The gasp moment came when Titania appeared on stage. Evan Buliung and Jonathan Goad play Oberon and Titania, and the two of them take turns playing each other's characters in alternate performances. Titania is usually portrayed as a woman of strength, titanium-strength, but to take the idea one step further and put a well-muscled man with a booming voice into sweeping cocktail dress brings a whole new perspective to the Queen of the Fairies. Oberon was duly manly, a burly Elrond with ram's horns. Rounding out this production was a chorus of children who double as both the wedding guests and the fairies and sing a charmingly thin but heartfelt version of Bruno Mars "Grenade." Later, as all of the lovers are duly married and a dance is called for, the fab disco classic "Bizarre Love Triangle" could not have been a better choice. I was ready to buy the gay pretext. Why not? The suggestive elements have been there since Shakespeare's time when women weren't allowed on the stage and the audience was always aware that they were seeing men kissing other men who were pretending to be women. Even the other play-within-the-play, the tale of Thisbe and Pyramus by the "rude mechanicals" plays on this idea; Abraham just takes it that much further.

This play lends itself to slapstick, and Abraham milked it to the max, by the time the characters were squishing the icing from the wedding cupcakes into each other's faces, the kids were still laughing but I wasn't. A few other directorial misteps: a mute Egeus using sign language. This character ultimately does not get his way, but that does not mean that he has no voice. Liisa Repo-Martell as Helena, dressed in a dowdy Alice in Wonderland style, whined her way through all of her lines. Was she really that bad or was this a deliberate directorial choice? Given the level of competence at Stratford, my inclination is to blame the director. The Flamenco-themed music as Puck is leading the lovers astray in the woods was odd too, seeing as there was no other Spanish motif in the production. In contrast, the backyard barbecue set that becomes the Athenian forest, the twinkling wedding lights, the children running around with fairy wings, all made perfect logical sense as they crossed over between the respective story lines. The bouquets decorating each row of seats for the audience were a nice touch, reminding us that we are also part of this and the story is as contemporary as it is old. The use of water was very good, as a backyard water feature, a forest stream, and with great comic potential for falling into and splashing around. I also had a giggle over the faint sound of swans/geese in the background as Theseus and Hippolyta sipped their champagne by the (Avon) river. Mention should be made of Stratford veteran Stephen Ouimette who was delightful as Bottom, which has got to be one of most all-time fun roles to play.

The matinee performance was full of high school kids. Frankly it made a nice change from the geriatric crowd that has been at the other plays we have attended. The kids loved the rollicking production. They probably found it edgy and could hoot along with the slapstick humor. The cast was dead on with its timing and focus. They brought Shakespeare to life for an audience that might otherwise walk away and say, what does this have to do with anything? I admire the production for its seductive qualities even if I felt it was a bit too over the top. If you want to get the kids to come back, the performance has to speak to their lives, and I could see them telling their friends that they went to Stratford to see Shakespeare and it wasn't lame, it was pretty cool. I don't think that Chris Abraham's version of A Midsummer Night's Dream is going to become a definitive interpretation, but it was a lot of fun and it is certainly one I will remember.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Bicycle Culture in Bogota

I sold my bike in Bogota in January. The bike had been stored for a year and a half at my friend Estela's house. I had hoped that she would use it, but she didn't because she never learned to ride a bike. So I sold it rather than having it gathering dust and taking up space. This is my starting point for some musings on what my bike meant to me, and as a reflection on bike culture in Bogota.

My bike had always been my primary means of transport, riding it to university, to work, to the gym, hauling groceries home in a backpack, on the carrier rack and in the basket. It is amazing the number of things you can transport strapped to your bike. More than once I have had to stop to collect groceries that were trying to make a break for it, notably ice cream skidding across the road.

The bicycle is a very proletariat means of transport in Bogota; it is not something that the upper classes would use on a daily basis. I would be met with disbelief when I would ask for the bike parking area at the grocery store. What was a foreign woman doing riding a bike in that city? I rode my bike all over the place in Bogota. An extensive network of bike paths (ciclorutas) crosses the city but they are not without challenges. At any point you might encounter broken glass, gaps in the pavement, and the path itself might disappear for a few blocks in some places.

Maintenance on the bike paths was not very consistent. I once saw a little kid ride his bike into an open manhole on the bike path behind the Carrefour store on Calle 80. The child broke his front teeth. It was a terrible accident, although it could have been worse. How many children have to drown when they are swept after falling into open manholes? By the question itself, you can tell that the answer is more than one. The recent cases in January this year and October last year, spring to mind, and they were not the first incidents.

If you ride your bike enough, you will eventually have some kind of accident. I had two bad crashes on my bike, both were the result of swerving so as not to hit pedestrians who were walking on the bike path. On one occasion I hit a streetlight post, on the other I collided head-on with a cyclist who was coming in the opposite direction. In neither case did the pedestrians whose presence caused the accident offer any assistance. In both cases I (and the other cyclist) walked away with only minor cuts and bruises. Bike helmets are obligatory for everyone in Bogota, a measure that I support.

Don Esteban
I rode my bike hard. Don Esteban would do my bike maintenance. Every Sunday he would be found at his post at the entrance to Parque Simón Bolívar, a prime location. During the week he would set up shop on a corner of the local square. He custom-built the mudguards for my bike, managed to affix the wonky carrier rack, fixed the flats, tightened the chain, adjusted the gears, rewired the brakes, and generally kept everything in running order. You can find people like him all along the bike routes.

Bogota's Ciclovías
On Sunday mornings a number of main arteries close at least one way lane to traffic for use by cyclists, joggers, roller bladers. I love the idea, even though in practice you might be riding alongside diesel-fuelled trucks and buses in the next lanes. The ciclovía is always nicer and less crowded first thing in the morning, and the serious cyclists go out early. There is something revitalizing about an early Sunday morning ride, with a stop for freshly squeezed orange juice. This was also my New Year's Day ritual. Not being a big fan of New Year's Eve parties, I'd be up bright and early on New Year's Day for a bike ride around the city. The roads were always pretty empty that day. I guess I won't be continuing that ritual in Canada.

On the weekends, packs of cyclists may be seen training on the roads.

Nestled high in the Andes, the rough, steeply inclined roads of the departments of Cundinamarca and Boyacá have produced a number of world class cyclists, most recently Nairo Quintana who placed second in the 2013 Tour de France, taking the awards for the mountain classification and the best young cyclist (age 23).

I wish I could find the video interview I saw a couple of years ago of the parents of an up-and-coming cyclist who had just had a break-through win. The parents were subsistence potato farmers, being interviewed at their cottage in Boyacá. In the interview the couple is painfully humble. They are glowing with pride at their son's achievement, but abashed before the cameras and in the face of all the attention. They must have poured everything they had into buying bikes for their son so that he could compete. But they would have understood the mystique. The roads of Boyacá are lined with young men on bikes who dream about being the next wearer of the polka-dot jersey. This is an attainable goal in a breeding ground for champions made possible by an accident of topography.

On the days that they can't train on the road, many cyclists get up early in the morning and use the track that goes around the Virgilio Barco Library (as seen from my living room window).

If you are not decked out in high-tech-moisture-wicking-spandex, the bike is considered a lower class means of transport. As such many drivers feel entitled to run over cyclists without a second thought, in keeping with the logic that whoever has the most expensive mode of transport must be the most important person and therefore has the most rights.

This situation has also had the secondary result of producing scammers who stage accidents in order to try to extort money from drivers. My friend Sally had an experience with that. The accident itself was not staged, but when the parents of the boy involved found out that the car was driven by a foreign woman, for them it became the opportunity for a cash-grab.

I once caused a traffic accident on my bike, although not exactly as the result of my actions. Heading west at the intersection of Calle 53 and Av. 68, most of the cars would be turning left. But some would be turning right, and I always had to keep a close eye on the right-turners who would not hesitate to mow me down. As the light changed, I would eyeball the drivers, to see which way they were looking as they turned. On the day in question, when the traffic light changed, I advanced on my bike. In the distance I could vaguely hear a siren. A car pulled up on my left and slowed down. The driver was leaning over and looking at me through the passenger side window. To be specific, he was staring at my ass, and it pissed me off. I stepped on the pedals and sped up. As I crossed the intersection, I heard a crash behind me. The ambulance that was coming through on the red light had clipped the back of the car of the man who had slowed down to stare at me. No one was hurt, but the ambulance had to stop. The satisfaction that the man's car was hit because he was being a jerk was quickly replaced by the realization that if the ambulance had arrived seconds earlier, I might have been the one who was hit.

Bike riding might be very popular in Bogota, but it is always at your own risk. Matt rides his bike all over the city. I try not to think about possible mishaps. William rides his bike everywhere in Ottawa too. I have been out with William a couple of times on the bike paths here. The bike path along the river on the Gatineau side is particularly nice. William says that I am not a "passionate" enough bike rider. I suppose he is right. My bike riding is much more recreational than hell-bent passionate. This is yet another reason why I feel that he needs to be wearing a reflective vest when he is biking at night. All the passion in the world won't protect you from the driver who doesn't see you coming. The coexistence between bikes and cars is a somewhat uneasy relationship in Canada too.

I may have sold my Bogota bike, but I am still a bike rider here. It is a way of life, as much as a means of transport.

Waiting for the train to pass.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Why Children's Books Matter

On January 29th I took advantage of a six-hour layover in New York to go see the exhibit "The ABC of It: Why Children's Books Matter" at the NY Public Library.

"It highlights the distinctive visions of childhood of the Puritans, Romantics, progressive educators, and others and how each inspired a new kind of book for the young. It explores the key ways in which children historically have acquired their books: as gifts, at the public library, and, as with comic books, in secret—when grownups were not looking.

It provides a meaningful new context for many of the New York Public Library’s treasures: the copy of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland that belonged to Alice Liddell, the child for whom Lewis Carroll wrote it; a rare 1666 illustrated children’s edition of Aesop’s fables that survived the Great Fire of London; Nathaniel Hawthorne’s family copy of Mother Goose, with annotations stating some passages were too scary to read to their children; the manuscript of Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Secret Garden; Mary Poppins author P. L. Travers’s parrot-head umbrella; recordings of E.B. White reading excerpts of Charlotte’s Web; and the original Winnie-the-Pooh stuffed animals; among others." (NYPL press release)


It was emotional for me, both to revisit the (imaginary) places I had inhabited as a child and to encounter the books from my own children's childhood, because I was returning from a trip during which I had to make decisions about a lot of things to keep or give away, including quite a few children's books. With Matt we decided which books to give away, which ones to hold onto for now, and some I carried back with me.

A while ago I was tagged in one of those Facebook challenges: List the first 10 books that come to mind. The books that immediately came to my mind were children's books: The books that I read over and over as a child… and then the books that I read over and over to my children. These books are the talismans of parent-child ritual.

I quickly whipped off my list and posted it to my friend's wall. My books included Goodnight Moon, The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Love You Forever. Other people listed great literary oeuvres and philosophical treatises. I felt a bit embarrassed by my kiddie list but those are the books that always come back to my mind. Children's books are our first explorations of the imagined world, the world beyond the one we experience. They shape our sense of identity, allow us to imagine and explore, and introduce us to the notion of what is universal.

Books matter. Children's books matter.

At the exhibit there is a series of quotes by authors about books and libraries, printed on library book cards. Sorry about the picture quality.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Return to El Dorado

Gold is one of the reasons why the Spaniards were drawn to South America. The pre-Columbian inhabitants of the region were renowned goldsmiths and the metal was abundant in the mountains. If you are ever in Bogota, be sure to check out the Gold Museum The Gold Museum in Cartagena is also very good.

Laguna de Guatavita, a volcanic crater near Sequilé, in the high plains of Cundinamarca in the Eastern Cordillera of the Andes, was reputedly one of the sacred lakes of the Muisca tribe, and is widely thought to be the basis for the legend of El Dorado. According to the legend, this lake is where the Muiscas celebrated a ritual in which the tribal chief, the Zipa (named "El Dorado" by the Conquistadores), would make offerings of gold, silver, and precious stones, covering himself in gold dust and diving into the lake. The lake has been repeatedly combed by treasure-hunters, and a few artefacts of gold and silver have been found, which appear to substantiate the story although mythological quantities have never been discovered. The depths of the crater, however, have never been reached.

In January 2005, as I was riding my bike to gym, I encountered three people walking side by side on the bike path. I swung out to avoid them but swerved too far, hit the street light with my handlebar, and fell off my bike. I was shaken but okay. I picked myself up and kept going. It was not until later that I noticed that my gold wedding band was completely crushed. The ring had taken the impact of the crash and had prevented my finger from being crushed between the handlebar and the street light. The ring was now a narrow oval, just barely the width of my finger bone. At the local hardware store they put my hand into the vice, and carefully tightened it to press the ring open enough to slip it off my finger. I meant to have it repaired, but the crushed ring sat in my jewellery box for weeks. It was then that I knew that my marriage was over. Two months later I separated from my husband.

The ring remained in my jewellery box. Nine years later I am back in Colombia, signing the divorce papers.

It was clear and cold last night. The pre-dawn mist was hanging over the grass and the lake in Parque Simón Bolívar this morning. On the outcropping where I used to practice tai chi, I took the ring from my pocket, stretched back my arm, and threw it as far as I could into the lake. The ring entered the water with barely a splash, sinking to rest forever in the cold depths. It is fitting that the token of my love should be buried there. I lived in Colombia for 23 years, most of my adult life. Part of me will always belong to that country where I lived and loved. As I walked away, the sun was coming up over the mountains and the mist was starting to dissipate.

Sunday, January 26, 2014

Letting Go: The Things You Take With You and The Things You Leave Behind

The hardest part about giving up the apartment in Bogota is what it meant to me. It was mine. I didn't actually own it --my mother did-- but I had carte blanche to set it up exactly as I wanted. And I did.

The Living Room: Space, Colour, Light, Proportion.
I painted two walls of the living room red. Bold and bright. It made me happy. The color set off the painting by young Colombian artist Jhon Jairo Jiménez Robayo, a brightly coloured yet dark, seductive cityscape that insinuates both excitement and eternal damnation. It takes up the entire wall and probably only works in the space because of the 10 ft ceiling. The view looking the other way in the living room way is peaceful. An abstract by the same artist, inspired by the sea in San Andrés, occupies the entire opposite wall. The light blue cushions on the wrought-iron couch suggest a tropical veranda. The coffee table in the centre was made by ceramic artist Camilo Torres. The living room was energizing looking one way, and calming looking the other. The overall feeling was playful, like living in a child's paint box; primary red, blue, yellow. It had just the right balance.

The Kitchen
Camilo also made the ceramic countertops in the kitchen. To fit the narrow space of the galley kitchen, the counters on either side are 55 cm deep, leaving 1.10 m in the centre. Just enough room. The counters were also my height. Over the counters and under them, I had as many cupboards made as possible. That way nothing ever had to clutter and disrupt the beauty of the countertops. I had a gas stove, inheritance from Jenny, a refrigerator with the biggest crisper drawers and freezer that would fit the available space, a dishwasher that I got by trading Jenny's old refrigerator to Estela, and a wine rack over the pantry. The ceiling rack for the pots and pans was a gift and I loved the way that the cookware looked on display. I had bought the set of pots and pans during the year that I took off from university between my undergraduate and master's degree and I worked in the Housewares Department at Eaton's Cavendish Mall. It was a cook's kitchen with everything perfectly at hand and I loved it.

My Room
In my bedroom the wall behind the bed was hyacinth blue, with a painting by Ecuadoran artist Fernando Toledo. The painting reflects the colours of the Andes. I brought this painting back with me a year and a half ago. The other walls were white, with two black and white abstract nude photographs by Houston artist Paul Talley, which I will take with me on this trip. The view outside the fifth floor windows looks into the tree tops. I called my bedroom the tree house.

The Boys' Rooms
The boys had a similar sense of appropriation of the space. This was the first place where they each had their own bedroom, painted the colour of their choice. Matt's room was blue, and he always meant to paint a mural on the wall, but somehow it didn't happen. He had a lovely collection of cactuses in the window, several of which were inherited from his friend Diego when he moved to Mexico. William's room was red and yellow. He wanted to paint it bright yellow, which can be a bit strident. We compromised on the shade of yellow in his giraffe sheets, a tone thereafter known as giraffe yellow. Red wall, yellow wall, dark blue blinds: three solid color fields, his room was abstract expressionism.

The Things You Take With You and the Things You Leave Behind

I had already brought many of the most precious things with me: the photo albums, the Christmas stockings and cookie cutters, the 1961 copy of The Night Before Christmas with illustrations by Gyo Fujikawa, the cosy fleece blanket that was the boys' crib blanket and became the nap blanket, a few serving pieces from the Carmen de Viboral dishes, the ceramic vase by Cuban artist Zurina Verdaguer.

Things I Am Taking With Me Now
My good cooking knife from the kitchen.
The annual letters that the boys wrote to Santa Claus when they were little.
The copies of the letters that I wrote home when I moved to Colombia in 1989.
The red and green pepper lights that garlanded the pot hanger in the kitchen. Technically these are Christmas lights but I think that every kitchen needs some festive lights year-round and peppers are a proper culinary motif.
I am having VHS home video tapes transferred to DVD format.

The two Jhon Jairo Jiménez paintings will follow eventually. They are large, rigid pieces and will require special shipping. I am not moving them now because I would have nowhere to put them, but having made the decision that I will bring them one day makes me happy.

Things We Gave Away

Previously, I had already sold most of my books, CDs, and gave away a ton of clothes.

On this trip Matt and I pulled the storage boxes out of the attic and made some hard decisions about what to take, what to keep, and what to give away.

The camping gear: The MEC tent and sleeping bag, day packs, folding camp stools (the latter used more at theatre festivals than camping). My worn hiking stick is actually the item that I find hardest to part with. These and my set of specialized baking supplies, a small collection of odd ingredients, essences and tools, went to Sally, my best hiking, theatre and literary festival buddy.

The Christmas tree and decorations. These went to my friend Estela who had never put up a tree. In keeping with Colombian tradition, she always had a nativity scene in her living room. Now she will have both a tree and a nativity scene and I am glad that the tree has "found a good home."

The wooden train set: Over the years the boys had accumulate pieces for the wooden train set. It had loads of track, a bridge, a roundhouse, and several trains. Matt made the decision to let these go. They are going to the Cigarra daycare centre in the Puertos del Paraíso neighbourhood of the Ciudad Bolívar district in south Bogota. Sally's sister-in-law Carolyn sponsors the daycare. It is so well organized and provides an essential service in a depressed part of the city.
The Fisher Price school bus and cars, the foam alphabet carpet, and assorted baby clothes are going there too. Everything will be well appreciated. I can't think of a better thing to do with these.
My knitting needles. Julie from book club got those. She hosts a knitting and quilting circle. Someone will appreciate getting them.

José Miguel had given me the fondue pot as a Christmas present. It has gone back to him.

Estela and Leonardo had given me the large crystal vase as a wedding gift. It is too big, heavy, and fragile to transport. It has gone back to her.


Sharon said to me, "Don't burden your children with things." She is right. The fact that I feel sentimental about certain items does not mean that my children do. In practice though, Matt is more sentimental than I am. We pulled the boxes out of the attic yesterday and spent several hours sorting through them. The process was hard on me, but I think that it was even harder on him. Letting go of the artefacts of childhood cost him. We appreciate things not for their monetary value but for their symbolic significance. The past is what forms our identity and it is necessary to recognize and value things that we loved and lived. William, at least on the surface, is less sentimental about material things. I am bringing him his giraffe sheets and elefantinho. We packed cow in the box to store, along with some of the childhood books.

Getting rid of things can be liberating, but it is also important to pause and appreciate their significance and ask whether the memento should be brought forward into the present. We are the product of everything that we have lived, and the past deserves respect, if not celebration.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Unfinished Business

When I departed from Bogota in July 2012, I left business unfinished and a bunch of stuff shoved up in the attic. Now, a year and a half later, it is time to go deal with it.

I am looking forward to seeing friends whom I have missed and snatching a break from the Canadian winter, but at the same time I have a feeling of heaviness because I am closing a chapter in my life.

I didn't plan to spend 23 years of my life in Bogota. In 1989 I went down with a two-year CUSO contract, which was renewed for a third year. Then I took another two-year contract with different organization.

I met José Miguel in 1991. We fell in love at first sight (seriously). I ended up terminating the second work contract a few months early because we were expecting our first child. Matt was born in 1994. William was born in 1997.

I stopped working in libraries and documentation centers and became certified as an official translator. In 1999 I started working for the press translation service where I am still employed.

In 2005 José Miguel and I separated. Moving back to Canada was never really an option. Even if our marriage was over, the boys still needed their father and it wouldn't be right for them to grow up without him. I would also have needed to have his permission to take them out of the country. We didn't get divorced immediately for a number of reasons. Conflict avoidance and procrastination held me back.

In 2009 I threw a party to mark twenty years of living in Colombia. By then I was already thinking about moving back to Canada.

Matt was on track to graduate in June 2012. I saw that as my opportunity to come back too. My plan was to go to Ottawa, where I hoped to be able to find work as a Spanish-English translator. William also wanted to come to Canada and he had been accepted at a high school specialized in fine arts in Ottawa. Matt had a conditional acceptance at Université de Montréal, pending his grades on his final exams.

Then everything fell apart. My mother was told that she had entered the final stage of her cancer and had six months to a year to live. I dropped everything and in July went to Montreal to stay with her. Matt did not make the grade he needed on his final exams (off by 0.8 percent) and did not get into Université de Montréal. He started studying at Universidad Nacional de Colombia in Bogota, his fallback school. William started high school in Ottawa, living with my sister and her husband. We were all over the map, and it was hard on everyone.

My mother got worse and then she got better. She got better to the point that my presence was no longer needed. As of September 2014 I was able to move to Ottawa and get an apartment with William. William loves his school and has produced some amazing pieces of art. Matt did a year of civil engineering at Universidad Nacional de Colombia, and with that under his belt he is reapplying for Université de Montréal. After eight, nearly nine, years, I have brought the papers I need to file for my divorce. José Miguel and I have reached an amicable agreement.

This trip is to bring closure to some of the unfinished business in my life. Between the social commitments and sorting the stuff in the attic, I will take some time these days to look back and take stock of what it meant to spend 23 years of my adult life in Colombia.

Sunday, January 5, 2014

Twelfth Night: Misruled by Emotion

In much of Western Christianity, Epiphany, January 5-6, is marked in commemoration of the visit of the Magi to the Baby Jesus. It celebrates the revelation of the Christ Child to humanity, and the beginning of great changes to a civilization. In the same way, what is known as an epiphany moment is the revelation of an insight that can change the course of one's life.

I had an epiphany moment in October: a chance comment by a friend unleashed a string of realizations about how I felt and what I needed to do. My friend's intention was not to give me life-changing advice, but it triggered awareness that brought clarity about what was and was not working in my life.

I ended a relationship that was not right for me. With newfound consciousness and freedom to act, I set about contacting someone who had been in the background of my mind and my heart for a while. What I got back was a friendly and gentle rebuff. I accepted it, at least outwardly, with grace. But inside my emotions were slipping into chaos. Being in touch with one's emotions is generally a good thing, but they can misrule us.

In the Church of England, Epiphany coincides with Twelfth Night, the conclusion of the Twelve Days of Christmas (there is some debate about whether Twelfth Night is the evening of January 5 or comes after midnight on January 6). On the Twelfth Night the Lord of Misrule is chosen who symbolizes the world turned upside down. Under the Lord of Misrule, the masters become the servants of the household and the servants become the masters for that night.

Shakespeare's Twelfth Night explores the theme of the love-sick fool, blinded by the folly of misdirected desire. Everyone is in love with the wrong person.

Orsino and Olivia are enthralled in their own notion of love. Orsino is obsessed with Olivia. Olivia is unavailable because she has declared that she will mourn her dead brother for seven years. The two of them are so focussed on their inner worlds that they have lost touch with the outer world. Orsino, for all his professed love of Olivia, does not actually pursue her and try to bring her out of her shell of mourning, but rather sends Cesario to press his suit.

It is Viola, and her disguise as Cesario, who turns Osino and Olivia's worlds upside down and allows them to escape their self-obsession. Viola/Cesario represents the real flesh and blood world, the new perspective that allows the self-absorbed Orsino and Olivia to reengage with society.

Malvolio provides a delightfully pathetic subplot in misguided love. He has let himself become convinced that the reverence he feels for Olivia is love. Because of his obsession with her, Malvolio is easy prey for the pranksters Sir Toby and Maria who egg him on by writing a love letter to Malvolio and leading him to believe that Olivia is his secret admirer. By taking himself too seriously, he sets himself up to be let down. Malvolio is vain enough to let himself be flattered that Olivia could love him, without ever having exchanged any word of love with her. Still, he follows the letter's suggestions and winds up making a fool of himself.

This is one of my favourites among Shakespeare's plays. Human fragility, vanity, hope, desire and love can drive us to comedy and pathos. In love we are all fools, and I am no exception. Like Olivia, I found myself obsessing and the obsession ate away at me. I still have not found a Cesario, but putting the feelings into words helps provide some perspective, and hopefully some wisdom, to forgive the foolishness and get on with living.


I saw a fabulous production of Twelfth Night at the Stratford Festival in 2011.
This production was filmed as a part of the Cineplex high-definition theatre-on-film series. I haven't seen the film version but if it is ever playing in your area, I would highly recommend it.