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 http://www.banrepcultural.org/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. http://www.cigarraonline.org/
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. http://noessinomivida.blogspot.ca/2011/07/winters-tale-twelfth-night.html
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.