Tuesday, January 14, 2014

Weathering your death

Weathering your death

I didn’t think you’d really do it –
Say goodbye to everything like that.
Even though you’d flirted with death before,
I believed you could get better.
I know that you wanted to get better –
Nobody could have tried harder.
And so now I’m weathering your death.
Last night, when the wind was so high
I wondered whether we might have a hurricane –
Was that you?
This morning, wind and rain finally stopped,
Snow all but gone,
Sun shining high in a sky that I think of as Israel-blue,
I wondered –
If the weather had been like this,
An unseasonably mild January day,
With sun shining,
Would you still have wanted to go?
Or would you have taken a deep breath and said,
“I can do this?”
No matter what happens now,
It happens without you.
The sun shines, the wind blows.
Rain will fall today, they say (or it won’t) –
And it doesn’t seem possible
That you will feel none of it,
Know none of it.
No striding down the road
(on a good day, when you could go out),
Hands shoved in pockets, face down, out of the wind,
On a mission to normal (whatever that is).
I’m weathering your death,
Only I didn’t think it would be so hard,
The knowledge that the sun will never kiss your skin again,
That you’ll never rub hands briskly against the cold
Because you forgot your gloves.
I remember that sometimes,
Even on the most beautiful summer’s day,
It wasn’t always easy for you to come out anyhow.
What cheered me and made me hopeful, optimistic,
Often didn’t reach you.
You wore your sickness not like a cape,
But more like a second skin.
Try as you might to shed it, it was going nowhere.
And now you are nowhere –
At least, you said that you believed that
Death was a void, a nothing.
I still don’t think you were right,
And I hope that now your soul is somewhere beautiful.


Thursday, September 26, 2013

End of the Long Haul

If you’re Jewish, the last while has been quite a journey.  Much of the world knows that we celebrated Rosh Hashannah, the Jewish New Year, less than 2 weeks ago.  They might not know how much effort goes into getting ready for that, though… it’s not just Rosh Hashannah, you see.  It’s High Holidays, and the period includes… 2 days for Rosh Hashannah, a day for Kol Nidre, a day for Yom Kippur, 2 days for Sukkot, a day for Shemini Atzeret, Yizkor, and 2 days for Simchat Torah.  And a fast day or two.

And while it’s true that ultimately, the High Holiday period is one of a certain amount of spiritual fulfillment and even growth, it’s also true that some of it is tremendously difficult.  Kol Nidre, which refers to the annulling of vows made in the name of God, prepares us for Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  By the time Yom Kippur comes, we are meant to have spoken with people we have hurt and to have asked for their forgiveness – “Be Rosh Hashannah yika teivun, u v’Yom tzom Kippur yeha teimun…”  On Rosh Hashannah, it is written, and on Yom Kippur it is sealed.”  The “it” here is the Book of Life.  This is our chance to try to make right what we have done wrong, to heal where we’ve caused hurt, and to prepare our lives for a new year.

The Yom Kippur liturgy is a long one, and it’s difficult.  It’s difficult not only because we’re fasting (the fast begins at sunset, with the Kol Nidre service, the day before Yom Kippur), not only because we spend so many hours in synagogue, not only because so many of those hours are spent on our feet.  It’s also difficult because the litany on Yom Kippur is hard.  In community, we acknowledge our flaws – together, we say the words… “We have murdered (and I know that I, personally did not murder, so I am ok with that), we have committed adultery (nope, didn’t do that either, so I am ok with that one), we have stolen (nope, not that, either, so this is not so difficult to say),” and we go on… and then we get to “we have been unkind” (nope, I haven’t… oh, wait.  Yes, I have.  And that’s when it gets really personal.  And it’s really difficult, too.  At least I’m not in it alone.)

After Yom Kippur, after the last blast of the shofar, we shuffle off, exhausted, to break the fast, usually with something quite simple, often with dairy (it’s tradition).  And then we get some more joy, because we have Sukkot, another harvest festival.  We have Shemini Atzeret, a day for solemn assembly… our tradition explains the holiday this way: our Creator is like a host, who invites us as visitors for a limited time, but when the time comes for us to leave, the host has enjoyed it so much that we are asked to stay another day.   If Sukkot is a day to celebrate harvests for all the people of the world, then Shemini Atzeret is a bit like a special note from God.  But also on Shemini Atzeret is Yizkor, which is said following the Torah reading on the last day of Passover, on the second day of Shavuot, on Shemini Atzeret, and on Yom Kippur.  Yizkor is a memorial prayer, a time of remembrance, a time for us to remember as a community those who have died this year, and for us as individuals to remember our own personal losses.

If you’ve gotten this far, you might be thinking that two of the recitations of Yizkor have happened during High Holidays – once on Yom Kippur, and a second time on Shemini Atzeret.  And you’d be right.  It’s not the Yom Kippur recitation that gets to me most, though, because honestly, on Yom Kippur, I’m already fatigued, often hungry and thirsty, and sometimes Yizkor happens in a bit of a blur.  On Shemini Atzeret, though, we’ve moved past the most physically challenging part of the High Holiday season – so why am I so moved by the recitation of Yizkor on this day?

I’ve come to think that it’s because I’m somehow lulled into a bit of a false sense of ease following the ‘big’ holidays.  So at synagogue this morning, I prayed with my community, I listened to the Torah reading, and to the Haftorah.  This morning, after the Torah reading, our rabbi spoke about Yizkor, about why we say it, and how we might feel when we say it.  He acknowledged that it can feel sad, particularly if the death of a loved one has happened recently and is still a fresh wound.  It is not only new loss that hurts, though.  Both my parents are dead – my father will have been dead for 23 years this November; my mother will have been dead for 10 years, also this November.  I still miss them both.  I still have a tough time being in a card store on Mother’s Day or Father’s Day.  I remember the first Mother’s Day after my mum died, realising as if it was a brand new thing (which it was, I suppose) that I had no mother to whom to send a card, no father to whom to send a card.  But back to Yizkor… so, our rabbi read a short poem by Merle Feld, and as I sat there quietly, listening and crying.  Crying?  Why was I crying?  Here’s the poem:

A new year beginning, and I can’t call you to say,
I’m bursting with wonderful news!”
Your arms won’t encircle me when I grieve, when I mourn,
You’ll never know now the unexpected achievements, the abiding sorrows.
And yet, as I stand here with this candle, I allow myself some quiet moments,
Until, once again, your face shines in my memory,
Until once again, I feel you blessing me.

And that’s why I was crying – because I miss, I still miss – all of those moments with my parents.  So when we stood for Yizkor this morning, it was really hard.  And yet, it felt absolutely right to remember my parents and to pray that my life might exemplify any good they had taught me, that I might be a credit to their values and ideals.

Tomorrow morning, it’s back to synagogue… it’s Simchat Torah, and we celebrate the Torah, we rejoice with it.  We really do – we dance it around the synagogue and everything.  Very upbeat, kind of fun.  But for me, this year, I’m still holding my parents so very close in my heart, and am grateful for a communal opportunity to pay them private tribute. 

Monday, September 23, 2013

Lights, Action, CAMERA!!

Well, not quite.  I mean, I set no lights, I organised no action, and I certainly operated no camera!  But what I did do was see some films.  I mean, lots of films, in the past couple of weeks.  September is the season of the Atlantic Film Festival, and this year, I got myself really well organised, so herewith, a few reviews of AFF films (www.atlanticfilm.com - you can also see who won what awards now that it's over and done for another year).  Some of ‘em may be available to view online (National Film Board productions, such as "Buying Sex," here:  http://www.nfb.ca/search?q=buying+sex), and others are (or will be) in general theatrical release.  So here they are, in the order of viewing.

AFTER TILLER:                  

Synopsis:         George Tiller was an American physician, one of only a few left in the US able to provide late-term abortions.  He was assassinated in Kansas in 2009, after which only four doctors were left in the US who could provide late-term abortions.  These doctors now have the dubious distinction of being the number-one targets of the “pro-life” movement and fight to keep these services available to women across the country.  This film follows them as they try to do a job they believe in despite the danger to their lives.

My thoughts:  OK, first I will get out of the way a problem with semantics… I hate the use of the phrase “pro-life,” as if to say that people who are “pro-choice” are not also “pro-life.”  For the record, I am resolutely pro-choice and cannot imagine a single thing happening in my life that could change that.  I am also pro-life – I do not know any woman who’s had an abortion who’s taken it lightly.  I know nobody for whom it’s been nonchalantly used as birth control.  If the “pro-life” side of this debate were more honest, they would describe themselves as “anti-choice,” at least.  Because they are anti-choice.

That out of the way, I will say this.  After Tiller is exceptionally good.  It’s kind of a quiet documentary for such a heated subject.  The only zealotry – and I do not mean this in a complimentary sense – is that of the anti-choice forces, who seem to see absolutely no irony in their murder of doctors who perform abortion.  These are doctors who do take very seriously their Hippocratic Oath… we all know the line, “first, do no harm.”  And that is what they do.  Agree or disagree, it’s worth watching this one just to see how very conscientiously and ethically they approach their work, how compassionately they treat their patients. 

“Late-term abortion” is a bit of a red herring, though – the anti-choice folks seem to be taking the position that a woman can go to a doctor who provides abortion practically up to her due date and get that abortion just because she wants it.  It’s not that simple.  Nothing ever is.  Late-term abortion has great restrictions, not the least of which is the physical difficulty just in accessing a doctor who provides it.  Fewer than 1% of all abortions performed in the US are ‘late-term’ procedures.  The documentary follows a few people – some very young, some not so much; some are single women, some are married couples – and tells their stories.  Late-term abortions are not available “just because,” and all but 1 of the people whose stories were told in this work were dealing with the knowledge that if they continued the pregnancy, the baby would be born profoundly disabled, both mentally and physically, and in most cases might expect to live only weeks after birth… and those weeks would be spent in a hospital, with medical intervention at every step that would, in the end, still have a dead baby.  The people whose stories are told here are not people who didn’t want a baby – quite the opposite, in fact.  And that’s actually the case with most abortions, even those done very early on in a pregnancy.  Another thing that the anti-choice folks prefer not to dwell upon.

We see post-abortion follow-up, and we see how lovingly that care is offered by the physicians and their staffs.  And I wonder anew just why it is that so many people are utterly convinced that the greatest value of a woman who seeks abortion is that she should become an incubator for a baby, whether she wants it or not; whether she’s able to care for it or not.

So overall, you’re saying?     The verdict’s in.  See this film.



Synopsis:         Recent Canadian court cases are used as a framing device to dig deep into the morality of selling bodies for pleasure. Ranging far afield to New Zealand--where prostitution was legalised--to Sweden (where the government clamped down), this NFB production considers the true costs of the trade.  Nicely photographed, with music by Asif Illyas (who is developing quite a reputation for theatrical scores, and deservedly so!  Check him out at www.theshire.ca and www.asifillyas.com ).

My Thoughts: The AFF blurb for this film says, “Buying Sex is one of those films that promises to inspire a torrential discourse on an enduring global social problem.”  I don’t think that my expectations of the film were quite that great, but I did expect rather more than was ultimately offered.  Written by Teresa MacInnes and directed by MacInnes and Kent Nason, I had high hopes that it might live up to its promise.  It really didn’t, and it was in the Q&A period after the film that I figured out why.  Both MacInnes and Nason said more than once that they were careful not to take sides in the debate… and technically, they did not.  Nowhere in the film does either of them say on camera, in words, that they don’t approve of buying sex.  Yet, that’s the overwhelming sense I got (as did the friend with whom I saw it). 

They interviewed a number of sex workers, past and current.  One woman who had what is arguably the most constant presence in the film was a sex worker, she said, for 15 years.  She is now vehemently against prostitution and has become an activist in this field.  Kudos to her.  She’s fairly articulate, and though I’d never heard of her, she’s done quite a lot of writing on the subject as well, apparently.  Two of the Canadian women interviewed are currently sex workers.  Both of them affirm that they chose the job, that they have no issue with doing the job, and that it is… just a job.  I don’t know that I could be that blasé about it, but I also don’t think that I could take the position of the activist (whose name I didn’t note) that every person who becomes involved in the sex trade does so because she is drug-addicted and/or was molested as a child.  Again, it’s just not that simple.

The picture in New Zealand is very different – prostitution is legal there, and there are brothels.  One young woman observed that after just a couple of years in the trade, she would be able to buy a house… but her university degree had opened no doors for her in obtaining traditional employment.  Anti-sex-trade activists argue that this is proof that the world is more misogynistic than we believe, because women should be able to buy homes based on traditional (non-sex-trade) work.

And in Sweden, the clamp-down on the sex trade has been really serious.  The Swedish government would tell you that it doesn’t exist – but really, you can hear the eye-rolling.  It might have gone back underground, but it certainly exists.  As one of the Canadian women pointed out, having been in the trade for more than 30 years, the only way to get rid of prostitution is to get rid of sex AND get rid of money.  I suspect she’s right.

So overall, you’re saying?     You can see the film if you are so inclined on the website of the National Film board of Canada.  For my money, I was really disappointed, and mostly because the writer and directors said that they took no position either way, when it seems very clear to me that they don’t approve of it.  I didn’t come away with any feeling, one way or another.  Nobody’s argument was persuasive enough to me to convince me of its relative rightness or wrongness.  I don’t really know if it’s right or wrong, though I am leaning more towards being ok with it than not, provided that it truly is something freely chosen.  Don’t think that I’d do it – but don’t think I could judge people who do, either.



Synopsis:         We are in 1950s Rio de Janeiro for this story of the passionate love affair between Pulitzer prize-winning American poet, Elizabeth Bishop, and Brazilian architect, Lota de Macedo Soares. Bishop was born in Worcester, MA, in 1911 and died in 1979; she spent several years in Great Village, Nova Scotia, a place which she loved greatly and where she experienced the greatest rupture possible to a child – the hospitalization of her mother in a mental institution in Dartmouth, NS, when Elizabeth was only 5 years old.  Her mother, diagnosed as permanently insane, never saw Elizabeth again.  That alone would be the stuff of which great film is made.

But the film is not about that and touches only very lightly on her childhood.  Reaching for the Moon is based on the best-selling Brazilian novel Rara Flores, and follows Bishop (Miranda Otto) to Rio, where she stays with her friend Mary and Mary’s partner, Lota (Glória Pires).  As you might expect, chemistry is involved, and Elizabeth and Lota engage in a passionate affair. Although Mary is devastated, Lota is determined to have both women at all costs. The ménage-a-trois is thrown off-balance when Lota starts work on her biggest project to date, designing Parque do Flamengo in Rio. Eventually, their relationship strained, Elizabeth moves back to New York in 1967 to take a teaching post, and after Brazil's military coup Lota's life is never quite the same.

My Thoughts:             It would be a spoiler to tell you what happened to the three women involved in this story, so I won’t.  What I will say is that I went to see this film with no particular agenda other than to spend some time with friends.  I am SO glad that I did.  It’s a remarkable film about a rather incredible story.  Think about it – 1950s Rio, where a Pulitzer Prize winning poet was the 2nd of two intimate partners of a woman who was obviously doing very, very, very well as an architect. There’s another film there, in Lota’s life!  The filmmakers do a great job drawing the life of a poet – Bishop didn’t just sit at her desk and pen a few verses.  Every line was crafted to be a very specific piece of art.  We see her striding back and forth in her studio, smoking and sometimes drinking, muttering to herself as she works out a poem.  We sort of know that writers of longer works do this – we expect it, for instance, of novelists.  The realisation that of course it’s just as much work for poets is in the end a bit of an eye-opener!

Bishop is never drawn as saintly, nor perfect.  She is often very tightly-wound, more than a little selfish.  She is profoundly complicated.  And of course, she’s a lesbian.  What was that like for her in the US in the 1950s?  Are we surprised that she wound up in Brazil for such a long time?!

Beautifully wrought, beautifully filmed, an awesome story.  I’m not sure there’s really anything about this film that I didn’t like.  The character of Lota, played by Glória Pires, was at first somewhat offputting, I’ll admit – I found her brusque and not altogether attractive as a human being.  But in the end, I realised that Pires had gotten it right.

So overall, you’re saying?     You should most definitely see this film.  It’s kind of long (118 minutes), but you will not notice the time pass, because you will undoubtedly become engrossed in the film.  And when you leave, I’d lay odds that like me, you’re gonna go to the library and get some Bishop books out so that you can read more of her work.  At the very least, you’re gonna Google her! 



Synopsis:         Two women, their sons, a love story and morality play, all in one.  You will laugh, you will cringe, you will wonder why this movie wasn’t made before.  And I really can’t tell you much more about it without spoiling the plot!  Naomi Watts (Lil) and Robin Wright (Roz) have been BFFs since their idyllic childhood in some unnamed Australian beach town.  Their sons have a similarly deep bond, quickly drawn in a few emotive scenes in the early part of the movie, when one of the boys’ fathers dies unexpectedly.  The story takes us through changing and intersecting lives.

My Thoughts:             This film is really about the events which begin to unfold in one particular summer. Time passes, as it generally does, and in one pivotal summer, lots of things explode… Roz’s marriage, for one.  But lots of other things as well.  There is love here, and loss.  Pathos and passion.  Right and wrong – or is it wrong?  There’s definitely an “eww” factor with this film, which comes THISCLOSE to being about incest but which ultimately is not.  By the time the “eww” occurs to you, you may find that you’re already invested in the characters and willing to take the journey with them.  You probably won’t be sorry that you did.

So overall, you’re saying?     Definitely see this film.  Besides the acting (excellent), besides the scenery (breathtaking), the film pushes the limits as to what’s acceptable and what might not be.  Probably even better if you see it with a friend, so that you can dissect it afterwards!  (Presently in theatrical release in Halifax, so you can see it in theatres for the time being.  Go get your tickets.)



Synopsis:         Hugh Jackman and Terrance Howard (in a very understated performance) are facing every parent’s worst nightmare.  Their young daughters disappear, and it seems that the only lead is a dilapidated RV parked on their street earlier in the day.  Jake Gyllenhaal’s Detective Loki arrests its driver, Alex Jones (Paul Dano, in an incredible performace), but a lack of evidence forces his release. Time passes, and the more time that passes, the less chance there is of the children’s being found alive, or at all… what can worried parents do?  And what’s with Gyllenhaal’s (literally) buttoned-up character? What’s the deal on visible neck tattoos on a police officer? Very unlike his usual roles.
My Thoughts:             Another rather long film (2 h, 26 m!)… and I have rarely heard a full theatre so still.  Occasional gasps, even a couple of giggles, but in general, silence.  This is a gripping psychological thriller, not to be missed.  How far would you go to find your missing child?  What lines would you cross?  And how could you ever be ok in the end?

It’s not giving away a plotline to tell you that the Alex in the story is himself a victim, though no graphic detail is given – in fact, we’re not even certain of that until almost the end of the film.  In addition to the stellar performances of the male leads (you won’t even care that neither Jackman nor Gyllenhaal never appear shirtless, I promise), I want to pay some attention to the female leads.  Granted, this is a story driven by the men, most particularly by Jackman’s character.  But it felt a little odd that the mothers of these children seemed so peripheral to the story.  Maria Bello’s Grace Dover was pretty much sedated through the film, and far from feeling sympathy for her, she really got on my nerves.  There was little credible or likeable about her even before her daughter was kidnapped.  Viola Davis’s ability was kind of wasted on her small role as Howard’s onscreen wife, Nancy Birch.

The work of Melissa Leo, on the other hand, as Holly Jones, was simply incredible.  Honestly, though she looked familiar to me, she so inhabited the role that I didn’t realise who played the part until I read the full cast & crew list on IMDB!  She’s had a pretty impressive career and struck my radar first in Will Smith’s “21 Grams,” though I was pretty much unaware of her after that until Mark Wahlberg’s “The Fighter.”  I’m predisposed to like Leo, but I had no idea she was in this film and didn’t twig to it until after I’d actually seen it, so good was she in the role.  Oscar-worthy performance (not that they’ll ask me!)

So overall, you’re saying?     Go see this film.  The story’s awesome, acting by the main characters is superb, and it will grip your attention right until the end… It’s also, near as I can figure out, the first really big-budget work from Canadian director (Denis Villeneuve, of “Incendies” repute).


Monday, September 16, 2013

The Funeral

The Funeral

I sat amidst a sea of black
Punctuated by an occasional flash of red sweater
And looked at the numb faces of 200 people
Gathered there to say goodbye to you.
The sign at the front of the synagogue
(on display only for funerals)
said “Silence would be appreciated,”
and so there was only a low hum of conversation
much quieter than it ever is on Shabbat.

There were dozens of people I didn’t know
Because your reach into the community was just that great,
And it was easy to tell who wasn’t Jewish –
The woman who picked up the Mahzor
(the High Holidays prayer book, because we’re
not done with that just yet) –
first holding it upside down,
then looking at it from left to right,
looking perplexed as she realised that
these numbers seemed backwards.

There are no hymns at a Jewish funeral,
and in fact, it can often seem perfunctory,
almost businesslike, compared to
funerals in churches, where there is music
carefully chosen to reflect the dearly departed
(or the wishes of the family).
Sometimes, there is incense there
(but not in a synagogue).

Your family came in together,
Before the watchful eyes of a sanctuary full to overflowing,
Coffin covered in its blue velvet miktze,
Embroidered with the Hebrew words
tzedakah tatzeel mimavet…"
"Charity redeems from death…” (I’m not sure what that means.)

You were with us and not with us…
Washed and made ready for your shroud
By women of the Chevra Kadisha,
women who knew you
and your husband and children.
Before you could be wrapped in your shroud
(no special funeral wardrobe, no jewellery),
you were washed, very gently,
prayers said at each instance of washing
so that your spirit would not be offended
by the way you were made ready.
And so you, the guest of honour,
Arrived for this last of the Jewish
Life cycle events.

Your brother eulogized you beautifully
and was very brave
(you would’ve been so proud of him).

Your friend and colleague spoke about
meeting you when you were both young doctors,
and about how very smart you were.

Your niece, almost unbearably young
(younger, even, than your children)
spoke about how she loved you and
how special you made her feel.

Your childhood friend,
who got almost to her last couple of words
before she started to cry.
Gulping air, eyes closed, she held up a finger  -
“Wait just a minute, and I can finish,” she said,
without ever saying a word.
And she opened her eyes,
Smiled tremulously, and wished you goodbye.

Your cousin, from half a world away,
who surely would rather have been sitting somewhere
sipping Mai Tais with you.

Life would never be the same for any of them,
because you were the lynchpin.
We heard some Hebrew chanting –
not the usual Jewish funeral, in fact,
and went to the cemetery.
The sun was shining, and it was warmer outside
Than when I had left work to get to your funeral.

The cemetery was almost as full of people
as the synagogue had been.
There was a little more prayer here,
but really, this was the final goodbye.
Our tradition says that here, at the cemetery,
is where we can do the greatest mitzvah of all,
the greatest good deed,
the most fulsome lovingkindness.

And so one at a time, we took the shovel.
first, a little bit of dirt on its back,
dropping onto your coffin, sounding like seeds on paper.
Then, 2 more shovelfuls each.
Thunk. Thunk.
Until your coffin had a layer of dirt covering its top surface,
every shovelful sounded like a gunshot.
Nobody spoke.  We stood silently, watching, waiting
until it was our turn.
Pick up the shovel. A tiny bit of dirt on the back.
And to the gash in the earth that is your last place in this world.
Two more shovelfuls. 
Hand the shovel to the next mourner.

This is the last mitzvah
Because it is the one that can never be repaid.
It is the one that hurts the giver.
It is the one that makes your death
Even more real than its announcement on Shabbat.