A young man shot many people in a mosque in Quebec City last night. He shot them when they were at prayer in a space dedicated to prayer. He took lives. He injured people. He ruined families forever and traumatized communities. He ruined his own life too and that of people who love him. Can good come from that?
Tonight I went alone to my first big demonstration. There were lots of opportunities for me to become a political activist in my youth but I made other choices and spent the turbulent 1960’s happily enough in a domestic dream. The last few months woke me up in a rough and frightening way. The last few weeks have seen me glued to news programs or Facebook feeds. I felt overwhelmed. Where did all this hate and tyranny come from. As a Canadian, I felt sad but there was a certain smugness. We are so nice, so correct, so tolerant. Then a young man helped me, yes, helped me change my anxiety and frustration into action.
This evening I put on my warm boots, remembered my often neglected gloves and my thick parka with the fur lined hood. As I walked to the Metro I noticed a fine crescent moon. I was going to a vigil, a rally of support for Muslims, grieving those shot in cold blood while they were at prayer. I decided to make the second leg of my trip to the rally point by bus. The bus line was one I knew very well. What was unfamiliar was the crowd of students who packed onto the bus at the University ghetto stop. They were chatty and lighthearted. One girl had a beautiful ringing laugh that made us smile. The bus was packed and as we approached the big square where we were to gather, traffic slowed down. Suddenly the youngsters all got off and started to march together the several blocks that still remained. I stayed on a little longer, mindful of my arthritic hip. At one point the traffic simply stopped and the driver pulled over and let the rest of us off.
I was amazed to see thousands of people crowding in the cold air. It was impossible to get close to the stage where speakers were struggling with an inadequate system. I admit to being a little nervous as I was alone but soon I was surrounded by a group of young women with candles. I climbed up onto a concrete block and had a good view of the large crowd. There were parents with their children, old people, even a woman pushing a man in a wheelchair through trampled snow. It was very cold but fortunately not windy. People close to the stage clapped and cheered. I later read a newspaper report that politicians were not given the mike. Only ordinary citizens were allowed to speak in English, French and Arabic. The crowd on the periphery milled around and chatted in groups. Someone offered free hugs, and free hot chocolate!
After about an hour I joined the crowd headed toward the Metro station. Everyone wanted to get into the station to get warm. The bus line had been diverted because of the huge crowd and so the train was the only form of public transportation available. People were still arriving to continue the manifestation as we, perished with cold, crowded into the station. A tall young policemen towering over most of us and conspicuous in his red cap stood looking a little nervous as the crowd swept past him. He need not have worried. No one pushed, people talked to each other and smiled or waved at those coming up the stairs to replace us outside. The mood was quiet and cheerful as a transport cop directed us to fill up the whole platform. We got into the train and I resigned myself to standing all the way home. But no, a young man of Middle Eastern appearance soon jumped up and apologized for not having seen me sooner so he could offer his seat. “Were you at the vigil?” I asked. “No, but thank you for being there for me.”
Tonight was cold, but it was warm too. The candles gave a tender warmth in the winter air. The parents picked their children up from the frozen ground. The university students smiled kindly at me even if their breath was ghostly in the frozen air. People hugged each other and in the face of violence and hatred many came forward to thaw the icy grip of death
I tried tried get rid of some books yesterday. The conclusion is that I will buy some more bookshelves and concentrate on getting rid of clothes and bulky furniture. I will arrange my books in order of subject matter too. To my surprise I seem to have acquired quite a few books on world religions and I resolve to take another shot at the Bhagavad Gita.
Today I went to church after a long absence. It was the Sunday of Zacchaeus. If you don’t know about him, you can find the story in Luke, chapter 19 verses 1 to 10. He was a rich and therefore powerful man but he was short and so couldn’t see what was going on. He had to climb up into a tree, a sycamore tree, so he could “see who Jesus was”. I always love that detail about the sycamore tree. That’s the mark of a good writer – observation and attention to detail.
So all these books about Zen and the Koran, perhaps they are the branches of my tree of enlightenment. In understanding I often come up short and so must find some vantage point. Better hurry up or I’ll close my eyes and then all really will be revealed.
I had a little blood test at the hospital today. I seem to be doing a lot of tinkering with my health lately. I find it excruciatingly boring but, like an old car, I suppose I need more maintenance these days. Anyway, as you can see from the picture, an imposing statue of Queen Victoria has been hauled down the hill from the old Montreal hospital of that name. I always noticed the great art in the old hospitals which have now been blended together in a brand new superhospital. There have been all sorts of scandals surrounding the building of this facility but it does have the virtue of being on flat ground. Four major hospitals were build half-way up the mountain in the middle of town! Perhaps it was a sort of primitive screening tool. If you didn’t have a heart attack or break your leg on the way up or down, you deserved treatment. Anyway, the three hospitals grouped in the new building are accessible by metro and there is ample (if expensive) parking. Today I was thrilled to see my old favorite ensconced in the entrance hall. We were even invited to touch the queen’s knee for good luck! I was not aware that it was created by a niece of the queen, Lady Feodora Gleichen. When I say, niece, you really have to look her up on Google or Wikipedia which will give you the low-down on her connection, complete with family tree diagram. Can you imagine a woman creating such a monument in the Victorian era. Good for her!
There was a beautiful bronze and marble plaque on the other side of the hall and was amused to see that some observant passer-by had noticed the name of the artist. It seems the official sent by the Royal Bank, who probably paid for the installation, had failed to see the name at the bottom of the plaque. I think it was put up in the Royal Edward Chest Hospital on St. Urbain Street. As far as I can make out, the inscription reads, “The Electric Spark which opened the doors of the Royal Edward institute for Tuberculosis at Montreal- completing by the magical aid of science, a noble Handiwork of Mercy.” It certainly is a strange dedication but that’s what I could make out. I think it is shame that the artist who created this work doesn’t get credit so tomorrow I will brave the labyrinth of public relations of the Bank and try to get that corrected.
Now, as for the title of today’s post, that’s the philosophy of the community art activities of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts where I volunteer. What a great combination of science and art I experienced today. I know if I had something really wrong with me I might not be so delighted with these old works. Today I was lucky enough to find a touch of humanity and connection with our history as well as the high tech and mysterious world of modern medicine.
Who wants to be here? I certainly didn’t. However, there I was this afternoon. I was in the McGill Dental Clinic. Like most people, I had a regular dentist. I have a spectacular gold bridge in the back of my mouth. My dentist told me I had a small cavity under this bridge. When he told me how much it would cost to fix my problem, my heart sank. As a retired person, I no longer have the good insurance I had when I was working and then, I remembered that a very good friend of mine had been delighted with the treatment he got at the McGill Clinic. Time for a second opinion. I was very up front with my regular dentist and asked that they send over my x-rays.
How different it was in the clinic. The set-up is the whole floor of an office building close to the university. It is divided up into cubicles and it is full of the noise, laughter and rushing around of students. I could see other patients lying on their chairs as the students bent over them, assistants handing them instruments. My fourth-year student was a beautiful young lady with wonderful eyes and a terrifying attention to detail. She took a complete medical history, x-rayed me until I glowed and gently scolded about the state of my gums. I have British teeth that have cost me thousands over the years.
The students are supervised by professors who breeze from cubical to cubical commending or correcting their students. It was wonderful to see how everyone talked quite freely. I was able to see that my student was inclined to see the dark side (as well she might with the monuments erected in my mouth) but the professors, older and with more experience, took a more pragmatic view of things. I was, however, very glad of the most comprehensive examination even if it included a lot of digging around. “Hmm. bleeding here.” I remembered the words of my ex-husband after his first dental examination, the result of my nagging. I thought it impossible that a thirty-year old man had never been to the dentist. “Like cultivating potatoes!” he had reproached the poor technician.
I liked the easy going atmosphere with the laughter of youngsters bubbling up under their professional demeanor. I had grown tired of the commercial approach of my very competent dentist. His office was quiet, piped music soothed me and the same smiling assistants asked me questions about my work and family. The emphasis was on a lot of cosmetic work and the charming smiles of the staff when they relieved me of colossal sums did nothing to console me. Somehow I liked the University approach better. The best moment was towards the end of a long afternoon when an announcement came over the speaker, “Attention M…., your patient forgot her teeth. Your patient forgot her teeth.” And a slender figure, pony-tail flying ran down the hall to the general laughter of us all. Really, it wasn’t laughing at the patient but rather at all of our rushed, forgetful ways. With the state of my memory I am sure if my teeth could be taken out I would forget them, but perhaps not at the dentists office!
It seems I am on the way to fixing the golden bridge at the hands of these youngsters. A great draw is the very reasonable cost. The afternoon was long but I was consoled by the bill.
Sparrows are boring little insignificant birds. How much more exciting to see blue jays, cardinals, finches. And yet, there was something exciting about seeing a flock of city sparrows, noisy and vulgar, settling in a little lilac bush in my back yard. They approached cautiously, flying into the twigs and branches of a vine draped over a framework set closer to my backdoor.. “Wow! Look at that! Quick, get some bread”, said my houseguest. He seemed so enthusiastic about these banal little creatures. As I fumbled around, looking for stale bread and grumbling about inadvertently feeding squirrels, he blithely tore up butter croissants and flung them out of the back door. These little birds smell quality. They descended en masse and pecked enthusiastically. They were noisy and skittish. As soon as we approached the window of the back door, they rose up as a united flock and settled in the vine again. Little by little they discovered that we were not going to catch them or shoo them away and that they were free to feed under our noses. Suddenly I noticed one sparrow who was different. He was an albino, not quite white but certainly very pale beige. He stood out from the others and yet they seemed oblivious. He took his place among the others and they never turned a hair, I mean a feather! They were interesting in their flight patterns, swooping down and then retreating. After about fifteen minutes they suddenly flew right out of the garden. We were disappointed but I suppose there is a limit to the amount of starch these tiny birds can consume at one sitting. Much more and they would have struggled to take off! I wonder if we will ever see the strange pale little bird again. Wonderful how, with a little attention, the most ordinary city sight can become interesting and pleasurable.
In the glorified tunnel that moves thousands of people around the city every day, a few souls bring their instruments and play. Over the wave of sound that never crests come notes of music. The silvery sounds of a South American harp cut through the trudging footsteps of workers, students, shoppers. The musician’s dark head inclines over the strings, his hands move quickly to bring forth silvery dance music of a sweet melody. He beams when I ask if I can take his picture and as I turn to go he bends back into his instrument and the music floats out into the hall. The accordian player has been performing in the Concordia Metro station for years. He plays popular tunes but sometimes I hear what sound like old Soviet waltzes and folk tunes in a minor key. Almost everyone passes by without a glance but I smile as I see their stride fall in with the beat of the music. Thank you gentlemen, for beautifying the day.
The city is full of straight lines that tells us where to walk. It is full of people, crowds passing through the Metro turnstiles, waiting obediently at the sharp intersection corners. Red light, green light, a homeless person sleeps beside his paper cup and a sign that reads ” kindness is not a weakness”. A musician plays in the station. The museum where I guide is packed with people. The sky is grey wih winter fog. The cityis about waiting, hurrying up, standing isolated on the platform in the crowd. This is the university station so ten minutes before and after the hour, it is packed with youngsters in their chic or grungy clothes. Their backpacks, hunchbacks of the educated, jostle in the crowded cars. A city worker reams a wire down a manhole. Pigeons feed at the feet of a hero. Of all the faces slipping by, few make eye contact. Yet there is one who detaches herself from the crowd and even on this damp grey day finds a place, a time to sit alone. What is she doing? Meditating, reading, talking on her phone or texting? This one, apart from us all, cast up on the bank of this river of people.