Stepping out of context

 

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Category: Reflections Date: 29 Dec 03

 

Sometimes you have to step out of your context in order to see your life clearly. This is why instead of the noisy warmth of a family Christmas (where the adults in our family whip ourselves and our collective children into a frenzy and then collapse into a gluttonous stupor on every soft surface of the house) I found myself on Christmas day, cooking chicken soup, breaking broccoli, washing raspberries strawberries, cherries - watching their colours blend into one another in a rented apartment in Toronto, to the soulful voice of Nina Simone. The children laughed and fought on the sofa, seeming not to notice the lack of a Christmas tree, or baubles or the din they associate the day with, staring instead with wonder at the few snowflakes outside.

 

There was longing for what we were missing at home but there was also simplicity, a paring away of every trimming, a blanket of stillness.  Sometimes you have to go a long way away to come a short way back and this was one of those times. As I laid the table for our simple meal I saw clearly the faces of everyone I loved at home and understood that it's the intangible that counts and has nothing to do with a physical presence, that certain people will always be part of you. There is no need to cling to the physical. That's part of paring away. All you need is inside you. And Christmas brings out the child in me - not in the way of wanting that Tiffany tennis bracelet but wanting to see the world, to take the petals of a flower apart tear its stem in half to see what's inside- an impulse to look inside the windows of people everywhere, into their homes and conversations - to see different landscapes, wide lakes, and forests of tall trees, deserts in Egypt and busy markets in Morocco. It's about a sense of possibility, of expectation, of the unexpected, of worlds revealing themselves.


It was surreal to walk quietly beside the skating rink, watching the children delight at the crunch of the remains of snow, and turn their faces towards the whipping wind from the lake, to wonder at the "smoke" from their mouths when they breathed, to clutch a hot drink, to watch a posh car slow down in front of a vagrant, a young woman take out a lovely warm blanket and wrap it around him.


I turned my back resolutely on the Boxing Day shoppers who shoved one another out of the way to get 75 percent off on Christmas baubles and bits of cloth and leather, stone and sneaker (how could anyone think they save money in the sales when all they do is spend on stuff they don't really want?). But a portrait of Diana, the queen of indulgence, caught my eye. Her eyes were mischievous, and looking beyond the camera, as if in anticipation of the lovely days that unfolded around her, - a fitting with Gianni Versace for a gala dinner, an event at the National Museum of women in the arts in Washington, an evening at the Ritz Hotel to celebrate Sir James Goldsmiths election as a Euro MP, skiing in Aspen, aboard the Royal Britannia.  "Every woman over 35 will want to see that gorgeous Fairy tale wedding dress of the last century" was my girlfriends reassuring response when I sheepishly told her I was thinking of going to Diana's exhibition at the Design Exchange in Toronto on Boxing Day.  I was a little embarrassed about wanting to see it after enduring disparaging remarks about how the cynical Earl Spencer was exploiting his dead sister (my son) how Diana wasn't very bright and the royal family wastes tax payers money (my husband) and how it was a waste of 25 Canadian dollars (my daughter).

 

My Canadian male friends laughed at this frivolous desire but not too loudly because their wives and girlfriends were going too - under cover until I brought it out in the open. I pushed open the heavy doors of the Design Exchange (the former stock exchange building in Toronto) where the billboard pointed me to the "award-winning exhibition - Diana: A celebration". The exhibition was set up like a memorial with looped videos of Diana as a child, her wedding, her good works, and her funeral. There were mementoes - cards she sent to people in her handwriting. There was history - the diamonds and tiaras worn by the Spencer women and many photographs.

 

There was a breathtaking roomful of the dresses she wore on mannequins, and there was the wedding dress – a romantic evocation of the Victorian era with its taffeta, crinoline skirt, layers flounces, and handstiched pearls, and the 25 foot train. Priceless jewels and art often leave people with a sense of awe, but it doesn't touch you. At this exhibition, everywhere you looked you saw Diana moving in the videos, in the photographs, playing to the camera. You got a sense as you twirled around the room of her glittering dresses of a very long life compressed tightly so that every second was full and bursting.

 

Ultimately it wasn't her jewels people came for, or her dresses (so many of them are now losing their sheen) but the fact that this woman was so vulnerable despite her wealth and status, that she was so insecure that she battled with bulimia, that she suffered the pain of a sham marriage, that she barely got through her O'levels but despite it all, hers was a charmed life of possibility because she came into her own - and what counted was not the galas and balls and presidents and palaces but the fact that she genuinely seemed to be drawn to the most vulnerable around her -  those afflicted with Aids, leprosy.  Her luck lay in the opportunity to share the lives of people in so many worlds - in Nigeria, Brazil, India, Indonesia - to have the battered and wreched look upon her with trust, to get something back from that.

 

So even as the billboards flash through the French windows of the internet café, the neon lights promise untold happiness, sexy bodies, the shop windows promise fulfillment, for 2004 I have learned that a connection with others, and a sense of perpetual wonder is all that endures ultimately. Glitz dies, a moment of truth never.

 

Happy New Year.

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur