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Long live all maidens

easy and beautiful !

Long live mature women also,

Tender and loveable and full of good labor. 

Gaudeamus Igitur

Our lives became intertwined the day we began to slide clandestine notes back and forth during a writing course. Consequently, once the course ended, we embarked on a series of emails and surprisingly, an epistolary adventure unravelled. In these exchanges we bare our souls about love and life … things are never quite what they seem.

While we want to be courageous in our re-telling, we ask you to keep in mind the words of John Irving – please remember that all memoir is fiction.

Adria and Sarah

Sunday
Jun062010

Van Gelder Reporting

Well Sarah, my good friend and fellow teacher,

Where do I begin? The antibiotics are working their silent miracle and yes, I'm starting to improve.

First, let me ask you a question. What does the smell of privet blossoms have in common with the smell of cigarette smoke? In Holland, when I was in grade one, our neighbour's nanny would take her fifteen minute breaks sitting at their front door on a wooden fold-up chair smoking Export A's (strong unfiltered ones in those days). I could see her puffed blonde bangs and the crown of her head peeking out just above the privet hedge that separated the two houses. Down her head would go with the inhaling and up it would bob when she'd blow out again, a little series of cottony puffs floating up into the air. That strange pungent odour of the newly formed blossoms mingled with that of her smokes, seemed almost erotic to my eight-year-old sensibilities. Still today, my olfactory senses always on high alert, it is this combination that for me heralds the true lazy hazy days of summer. It's like déjà vu when my neighbour comes out to smoke (except there's nothing erotic about it!).

Of course there are all the other significant events that each year mark summer's arrival. St. Hildegarde's is wrapping up with exams, concerts and boarders are leaving to return home to Hong Kong and other foreign destinations. The annual recitals that take place within the stone walls of its gothic chapel never fail to move me. All these years, I still get goose bumps as these girls have the capacity to move me with their multi-talented performances. 

Beneath a backdrop of a tender nativity scene, the silvery tones of an accomplished flautist floated to the rafters on a Saturday afternoon and bounced from wall to wall. The grade twelve student stood poised, dressed in white gossamer layers of a cotton mini, bare arms enfolded over her shining instrument like an attentive lover. It was her graduating year. A piano selection, Chopin's plaintive B minor Prelude, sounded more Russian than Polish, heavy, and very dour for a player of fourteen. Such a setting! Think of Joanna Trollop's novel, The Choir, its pages saturated with stained glass, oak pews and all the accoutrements of an Anglican house of worship. A colourful wall mural celebrated a biblical mother and child, the good St.Anne and her young daughter, Mary; such work of art no doubt the efforts of the ladies of Hildegarde’s chapel committee. And then, being temporarily distracted, my eyes rested on a book of worship sitting on the book rail in front of me. It fell open and I read: for all these mysteries - for the wonder of myself, for the wonder of your works - I thank you. Even an atheist would not fail to be moved, Sarah.

But not all was ecstatic at year's end. Some little ones exhibited performance anxiety, a phenomenon that usually presents in pre-puberty. The little performer was convinced she would not remember her piece. Her tears were profuse and lasted throughout the entire concert, till her Kleenex was well scrunched and sopping. No amount of comforting seemed helpful and the shame of it was that she was one of the most talented players there. Of course, there were other gems of players: nine and ten year olds entertained with schmaltzy movie-score-like pieces such as Melancholy Reflections, a Nocturne with arpeggiated ascending bass lines beneath a floating melody, and a feisty stomping dance by Kabalevsky called Chastushka. Candy broke my heart with the Dinosaur Stomp, her body supplying the movement for every missing downbeat. She just had that rhythm.

The year-end meeting was a different story. Things were spelled out, fast, precise and made crystal clear.  From here on it would be this way and that way. I have seen much change at Hildegarde. Gone are those after school cocktail hours of intimate hobnobbing of which I, young and green, partook. Gone - the relaxed chats on flowered couches in the general staffroom that took place at any time throughout the day. Accountability became the unspoken buzzword. 

Forgive my diversion. 

We were thanked, yes, en masse (read your perfect description about how admin.doles out compliments), and were quickly dismissed. An awkward quiet registered the exit of each solemn administrator and stricken musician, one person at a time, slipping out noiselessly through the oak doors. A group of us, aghast, hung back and chomped away voraciously at the leftover sandwiches (cream cheese and pineapple). The compromises of the next academic year weighed heavily on us and would affect our teaching styles, our incomes, our lives. Take it or leave it and let us know. So we get to think about things for a few weeks. Maybe you will have a future in training management, or teachers, in Emotional Intelligence, Sarah. Think about it. Such input might have done wonders for our meeting. I have always loved Saul Bellow's wise words, literalism, factualism--will smother the imagination altogether ... and the spirit, I might add.

My guitar-playing colleague and I sat later on cold metal bench in a nearby park overlooking the lake. It was misty and damp in the early evening hours. He confided that he had felt degraded at the meeting, had been taken for granted and that his twenty years of energetic teaching and genuine collegiality had surely not been appreciated. He will not be returning to Hildegarde in the fall. As for myself, I have decided to go with the flow for another year unless I end up publishing my memoirs. Dream on Adria.

I wonder what BP is going to do before Paradise is totally swallowed up in the Gulf. On St. Hildegarde's grounds I focus on my elegant plane tree: dressed in army fatigues, it speaks to me of staunchness and solidity but above all, pure beauty.

Adriana Maria Van Gelder

Saturday
Jun122010

The List of Lasts

So Adria, we have come full circle. Another school year is over. And for me, a major part of my life is coming to a close-five more teaching days and twelve more days in all. 

I am making a LIST of LASTS:

last full week of teaching 

last test for Othello

last Department Head’s Meeting (with a cake and a segment called Honouring Our Colleague (guess who?)

last set of exams  

I’ll be eager to add:

last time I get up at five 

last time I walk in the dark along ‘no man’s land’(the stretch on Bloor between Yonge and Jarvis)  

last time I experience the pitiless wind tunnel at the Sherbourne (known at times as Hellbourne) subway station.  

One of the Sad Lasts though, will be not sharing time with The Ladies of the Morning: my neighbour, the principal, that I get a ride with and with whom I’ve shared tales of school as well as personal stories, the Polish lady who runs the café where I pick up my invigorating coffee and toast, the Jamaican lady who waits for the bus on the corner of Isabella and exchanges one or two comments with me about the weather, and my fun-loving early morning colleagues who jockey to be first in line at the photocopier. 

That was a lovely description of the final concert at St. Hildegarde’s. I wish I had been there. The atmosphere you convey is that of private and ivy-league schools and I visualized the magnificent cathedrals of Oxford and Gloucester and the Choir schools and all that they entail. You are lucky and the school is very lucky to have you.

And then there is the Franklin World. We will be having our ceremony on Busy Bathurst, across from Honest Ed’s, at St. Pete’s (as one student called it). The on-going theme discussed at the countless graduation meetings is CONTROL: controlling the parents (keep them away from the altar with their cameras), controlling the students (keep them in the procession line, then in their seats, and off their cells phones), controlling the teachers (everyone at their posts and no one standing around doing nothing).  But, on the bright side, we do have a choir this year. One of the teachers has been working with a few girls for the past month. Even with modest numbers and lack of serious training, when the voices waft into the corridors, we are all momentarily transported to a better place. 

I am only now beginning to realize the scope of converging momentous events in my life: Retirement, J’s Wedding and a New Job  the other side of the world. 

In keeping with the last part, Ann Michaels’ book, The Winter Vault, enticed me with The Nile, Date Palms and Dessert, Nubia, The Sacred Places of Egypt, and the building of the Aswan Dam. It made me realize how little I know about the Middle East, so I purchased some summer reading to go along with my World Atlas: A History of the Middle East, A History of the Arab Peoples, House of Tears (Westerners’ Adventures in Islamic Lands). This should keep me busy for a while. I guess we’ll never be an ancient civilization. Witnessing, once again, the catastrophic ineptitude, greed and irreparable damage, this time in the US Gulf, might be proof enough. 

 To return to, The Winter Vault, which I loved - for a while, but like so many other novels, I lost interest in the middle. A story that begins with such startling love set against a world of unsurpassed beauty and mystery to suddenly fall into the realm of ordinary life when the protagonist loses a child and, and thus, all is lost, did not feel credible for me. Then, to subject the reader to an insignificant (I think) love affair, diminished the story. I did not buy it at all. I was a selfish, willing reader of the non-fiction information for the first half, but not so willing a reader for the fiction in the second half. I might as well add, that I experienced similar disappointment with Gardam’s The Queen of the Tambourines. The first part captivated me, but as the length of the stories and dialogue in the letters became less plausible, I stopped reading. Such antithesis is almost blasphemous, after all the praise we’ve heaped upon her.

After my depictions of Catholic Schools and of the nuns in the memoir pieces I sent you, I thought back to my high school education. I reviewed a mental list of my best friends and acquaintances and surprisingly, we have all been taught/trained with/by nuns at some point. And we all seem to have similar traits: strong work ethic, high standards, a set of values and morals to live by. I’m won’t mention any negative traits! So, I’m wondering if we turned out this way because of the nuns or in spite of them. To be fair, I will admit that it must be a combination of both. 

The next few weeks at school are filled with lunches and secret plans. I found this note in the staffroom- Pot luck on Tuesday for Sarah. Please keep it a surprise. Sweet colleagues. 

I look forward to seeing you. It has been such a long time since we’ve met. At least it seems that way to me.  Our chatting and laughing will put things right again. 

I value our friendship, Adria. Thank You, 

Sarah 

Friday
Jul302010

Epilogue

 Well. It’s all over for me at Hildegarde. Yes, I too will not be returning. But, unlike you, I had no time to prepare for the abrupt end to my twenty-eight year career. And there were no surprise potlucks either. Let me tell you my story:

Time’s Up

It’s glorious out and I’m parked on sedate Elm Street, facing Commencal. This hot July day I have chosen to sit on a shady outdoor patio in full view of my car. I ask if they ticket here. Oh yeah, you’re dead meat as soon as your time’s up says the perky waitress. I dig into my six-dollar chocolate cherry ice cream, the cheapest and smallest thing on the menu, served beautifully in a glass tulip dish. I ask for an ice water and wait for my daughter to emerge from the medical building across the street. She’s having a bit of a bad day. I’m playing it cool, trying to live in the moment and am hoping things will be OK. 

 Finally able to relax one month into my summer holidays, I look forward to at least another two. There’s an ease now about the pace of things. My body feels loose and limp and my breathing is noticeably Zen. The quaint Austrian folk tune of my cell sounds romantic, even unobtrusive and I decide to answer it. Oh, I say to my husband, the principal? Right … Sure. I’ll call her back. For several weeks already I had been expecting the call about the renewal of my annual contract. 

Feigning calm, I punch the familiar number on the keypad of my cell and am surprised to reach the administrator directly. Her message is politely prefaced and the words are deliberately formed and carefully transmitted to me. I detect a slight quaver in the voice. She is ready for the onslaught, whatever it may be. Am I ready? We have decided not to renew your contract (keep talking) and have decided it’s time to part ways  ... to part ways … to part ways …the reason, yes, I must ask her the reason. It’s vague and convoluted and I am barely hearing.

 I might have known what was coming but nothing had quite prepared me for that stark statement of finality.  Numbly, I thank her for telling me. Then the awkward space of several seconds, that pregnant pause: my final words … she’s waiting for my final words. I sputter something about my many satisfying years, grateful parents and happy students. My words evaporate as soon as they are formed and those that do escape fall on sterile ground. Such a dolt you are Adria. 

 Better doors open. Everything has a purpose. Change is good. And there was more such kindly advice, maxims that took days, weeks, to root. But take root they did.

And as you with your retirement, Sarah, I too now had the need to complete the deed that had been set in motion, not by myself, but by others. One final visit to Hildegarde would help me to finish the unfinished business.

I showered early the next morning and dressed in my bright yellow Capri’s and form fitting sky blue top. I felt fresh and daring and took the drive along the Lakeshore with plenty of time to think along the way.  Upon arriving, I announced myself to the receptionist and asked to be escorted to my former studio by a maintenance person. We made small talk along the way. One by one, in slow motion, I removed each picture from the studio walls as he stood by and watched: an out of date Van Gogh calendar, some old prints of small Dutch villages. Why? He asked kindly. The lump in my throat would not allow me to speak. As I pulled down a fishing boat poster there was that uncanny sensation of deja vu, of my entire Hildegarde career, a sort of rewind and then fast-forward. But I was dealing and proud of it. Basically recyclable material, I wanted the pleasure of ditching the stuff myself. I would not have them do it for me. I didn’t want the newly hired, plastic, consultant/piano teacher looking at my pen and ink vignettes, seeking escape, while slugging away with his or her batch of would-be-pianists.

Such was the semblance of closure for me that day, Sarah. My writing about this has been cathartic, as the expression goes. After the ordeal, driving eastward past the rose beds of Gairloch Gardens, a string of words began to form in my head. They all started with the prefix ‘re’: release, relief, recess, renew, recoup. I put in a CD. The Goldberg Variations, variations on a theme, by Bach.

               

                   felix qui potuit rerum cognoscere causas!

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