Bill’s Aunt Mame, R.I.P.

I will miss her terribly. 


Aunt Mame, my deceased partner Bill’s favourite aunt, died today of a cancer that was detected a few months ago and progressed rapidly. I send my deepest condolences to her family and close friends who cared for her with such love.    

Aunt Mame babysat Bill as a child and they were close all his life. She was supportive of Bill when he came out and she embraced me when Bill and I became a couple. She and I developed an especially deep connection after Bill’s sudden death in 2009, two weeks after being diagnosed with stage four pancreatic cancer. She loved “August Farewell”, the memoir I wrote about Bill, and she shared it with her friends. She told me that she was proud of us and wanted others to be introduced to this story of a loving gay couple. As recently as two weeks ago, she lent her copy of “August Farewell” to the palliative care nurse looking after her; hearing Aunt Mame talk about Bill and me, the nurse expressed interest in reading it.  

Aunt Mame and I stayed in regular touch with each other through the years. She was always interested in hearing about my travels, enjoyed the photos I sent her, and was keen to learn about interesting people I was meeting through my TSO involvement. We would chat about what was going on in each other’s lives, the fun stuff and the difficult stuff. We found it delightful that we shared the same birthdate of July 7th. 

In 2014 on the day I was given an Honorary Doctorate by Victoria College, University of Toronto, I hired a car and driver to bring Aunt Mame from her home in Sutton to Toronto for the Convocation ceremony. She was thrilled to be there and I was thrilled to have her with me. We both wished Bill could have been present and we both knew he was. The pic below is from that day. 

Years ago, I gave Aunt Mame a bronzed set of Bill’s baby shoes as a memento of him. She was touched by the gift and told me, “I loved my Billy so much. I’ll have these buried with me.” During our final phone conversation, she told me that those arrangements were in place. 

She had been in hospital but, as she wished, she was able to spend some of her final days in her own home with in-home palliative care before being transferred to a hospice. We had in-home palliative care for Bill too when he was dying and I can still picture Aunt Mame’s visit. Here is what I wrote  about it in “August Farewell”:

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Friday, August 14, 2009

Bill’s aunt Marion, one of his father’s sisters, comes down from Sutton for a visit this afternoon, driven into Toronto by a friend more accustomed to city traffic than she. Mame, as Bill affectionately called her over the years, sent a letter earlier this week:

My heart is just aching over your diagnosis. I am so sorry. The only comfort I have is your relationship with God. You have never doubted his love for you or that he walks with you at all times…

Mame arrives with a bouquet of roses and a card addressed to both Bill and me for our anniversary coming up next week. She is the only family member to acknowledge it. 

I try to wake Bill and tell him that Aunt Mame is here to visit him. She leans over the rail of the hospital bed set up in our living room and kisses his forehead. With the pain and the morphine, he’s been going in and out of consciousness the last few days. But he opens his eyes, looks directly at her, and seems to smile. She sits by the bed holding his hand, reminiscing about years gone by, thanking him for his concern for her over the years, and laughing about their many phone conversations.

Blinking back tears from her eyes, she turns to me. “You know my friends were so impressed that Billy used to call me all the way from Mexico when you boys were down there in February each year. And last October, when there was all the publicity about the economic crisis, he phoned and told me not to worry, everything would work out all right. He even asked me if I needed any financial assistance, which I didn’t, of course, because of my pension. My best friend was so jealous because she said that her own son didn’t show as much concern about her as my nephew showed me.” 

Turning back to Bill she says, “Well, little Billy, I shouldn’t overstay my welcome. I can tell you are tired. Just remember that I love you so much and I’ll be praying for you.”

I’m grateful that she’s family. To me as well as to Bill.

* * *

The past few months and especially these final weeks have been very difficult for Aunt Mame and for us who love her so much. The diagnosis was terminal and the day by day journey toward that end has been inexorable. But she was often our comforter. On occasion when she found herself still alive, she would joke, “Oh, I see I missed the bus again.” She told me in our final phone conversation, “I want you to listen closely, David. You need to know that I am at peace and not afraid of dying.” 

That was an almost identical role as her nephew Bill played twelve years earlier when he was consoling his distraught partner, family, and friends telling us, “I know you’re upset and worried for me but everything is going to be okay. The pain will be over. I’m going soon. I just ask one thing of you. Be kind, to yourselves and each other.”

Aunt Mame was a beautiful, vivacious, and caring woman. She has been such a blessing in my life. I will miss her terribly.

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Aunt Mame and I had so many conversations over the years, some in person but many more by phone and email. A few samples of her messages to me:

  • February 19, 2011: “I was in bed reading the last of August Farewell and I was in tears.  Your’s and Bill’s story is so very beautiful.  You had everything – together.  What happiness you found with each other.  That’s really kind of rare.  You knew Bill’s every need and want, sick or well.  What a blessing you were to each other.”
  • April 12, 2012: ”I am very, very happy that we are still in each other’s lives.  Love Aunt Mame”
  • April 4, 2014: “Dear David.  I am still sitting here completely stunned.  What a beautiful gesture arranging for me to come to your honorary degree Convocation.  I am overwhelmed. I have never had anyone treat me with such kindness before.  You are one of a kind, David.   No wonder Bill loved you for so many years.  Love Aunt Mame”
  • August 17, 2015: “Happy Anniversary and thanks for the photos. Obsess all you want, David.   With wonderful memories that you shared with Bill, it would be very sad to let them just grow old and fade into the past.  I know that I am very prejudiced, but I think you do everything right.  Enjoy your past!!  Lots of love, Aunt Mame”
  • December 30, 2018: “I am so sorry that you are having this heart problem.   You are young and healthy and it is better to have the open-heart surgery now, rather than wait until you are older and, perhaps, not as healthy as you are right now. Please take care. My heart will be with you on your surgery date. Love, Aunt Mame.”
  • January 23, 2021: “Dear David. I am sincerely sorry about your loss of your brother Jim.  You have really known a lot of sorrow in your life.  Your heart must be broken.  Take care of yourself, and stay well. Love, Aunt Mame”
  • February 13, 2021: “It’s  a wonderful feeling going back over the past through our pictures.  Thank you, David, for sending these. They’re beautiful. I hope you are well, and keeping safe.   Love,  Aunt Mame”

Pics:- Aunt Mame and I celebrating together in 2014 on the day I was given an Honorary Doctorate by Victoria College, University of Toronto. – the last pic I have of Bill and me together taken in about 2005 in Puerto Vallarta, Mexico.

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Robert Jones Jr.’s “The Prophets” – Horrific Story, Exquisite Story-Telling

Robert Jones Jr.’s debut novel “The Prophets” is one of the best books that I have read. It is not a perfect piece of writing. But, for me, it is a masterful piece of writing for a simple reason. It speaks to me. 

I could name many excellent books that I have read but where “The Prophets” leaps ahead of many of them in my estimation is the profound degree to which it drew me in personally at many levels – artistic, emotional, psychological, intellectual, and perhaps most of all, spiritual. I became engaged with the story and the writing so profoundly because, I think, it spoke to four issues that are in the forefront of my consciousness these days, specifically: 

  • Memory and the future; 
  • grief and suffering; 
  • the capacity for same-sex love in hostile environments; and 
  • a spiritual dimension to life that transcends time and our physical existence while simultaneously being grounded immanently, intrinsically, inherently in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. 

So, my reaction to “The Prophets” is intensely personal and subjective. I’m responding to it through my current obsessions. 

Before exploring these four themes, let me comment on the writing style. I‘m sure it’s not to everyone’s tastes but it sure is to mine. Robert Jones Jr. writes with such a poetic, lyrical, and metaphorical style, it’s as if I’m listening to symphonic music throughout the entire reading process, music of many genres (some quite foreign to me) and of many varying intensities, rhythms, and techniques from quietly melodic to raucously cacophonous. Many of the chapters are instrumental solos, some are rapturous duets, a number are exquisite chamber ensembles, and a few are full-blown orchestral explosions. 

One of the ways in which this musical writing style manifests itself is the way that Jones seamlessly interweaves three levels of narrative: a description of the action; the characters’ emotional and psychological reactions; and a meta level that draws in connections from distant pasts and from spiritual dimensions beyond our traditional western rationalist understandings. Almost every paragraph Jones writes in “The Prophets” draws on all three components in such an organic manner that we experience it as a whole, unaware of these distinct levels until we step out of the narrative for a moment.  

Now to my themes.

  • Memory and the future:
    • In the chapter entitled “Maggie,” Jones writes: The pounding in her chest subsided and she scratched her cheek to stop from weeping. Was it memory or prophesy? She couldn’t tell. Sometimes, there was no difference. She held on to herself regardless and put past and future things as far away as they would let her – as though that mattered. Visions had the keys to the cage and would let themselves out whenever they pleased. This condition had to be lived with. There was no other way. (pg. 37)
    • This speaks to me because of my life experience over the past twenty years of the deaths of so many family members. I feel a calling, from wence I don’t understand, to preserve my memories of the lives of these deceased loved ones and of my relationships with them. But the memories are not just cognitive mementos to be pasted in a scrapbook of sorts. They have an on-going presence in my life. I interact with the memories, the painful and the joyful and the in-between. They have a lived reality in my life today. And there are patterns emerging out of this “blood memory” (to adopt a word that Jones uses) that colour not just the present but seem to extend into the future, scoping out possibilities yet unrealized, anticipating the unanticipatable. “The Prophets” in a wholly different context put into words for me what I experience as the on-going reality in my life of these loved ones who no longer exist in functioning corporeal bodies and who, I feel, will somehow continue to interact with me into an unknown future. 
  • grief and suffering –   so many examples in “The Prophets”:
    • the scars lined them the same way bark lined trees. But those weren’t the worst ones. The ones you couldn’t see: those were the ones that streaked the mind, squeezed the spirit, and left you standing outside in the rain, naked as at birth, demanding that the drops stop touching you. (pg. 60);
    • when Kossii in the bowels of the slave ship discovers that his lover and newly married bridegroom Elewa was dead: and the words couldn’t leave his lips. Stuck in the crevices of his mouth and tying his tongue. He wanted to scream, but a lump lodged itself in his throat and the air couldn’t flow. He coughed until the tears, finally, from somewhere, somehow, ran and the saliva too, leaked, and his face pulled itself into foolishness … ‘Disaster’, he thought. ‘A pure, plain, disaster.’ Not only because of what he had already lost but also because of what he would have to lose. (pg. 245-6)
    • I marvel at Jones’s capacity to describe in excruciating detail not only the physical realities of torture, pain, and suffering but also the psychological and emotional components that are often hidden from view.
  • the capacity for same-sex love in hostile environments:
    • Samuel and Isaiah were drawn to each other from the first moments when the child Isaiah, having been torn from his parents at a slave auction, arrives at the planation with a wagon load of other new slaves and Samuel, having been there already for a while, offers him water; (pg. 13)
    • And that connection grew: Isaiah watched as Samuel’s untrusting eyes fully embraced him. He saw himself there, in the gaze of the deepest shade of brown he had seen outside of dreams, warm and enjoyed. He opened his own eyes a bit more, inviting Samuel in so that he could feel the warmth was waiting for him, too. (pg. 18)
    • And in the last chapter entitled “Isaiah”:… the tip of Samuel’s trembling tongue on the edge of Isaiah’s impatient nipple. That was the thing to make the heads roll back and the face worship sky. That was the thing to unfurl itself, a delicate bloom holding on to the dew like joy. That was the thing to cause the many waters to rush toward the calm and therefore to harbour. Yes. That was the thing. (pg. 361)
    • And others could see it too, even their betrayer Amos: “…it was well known that Samuel and Isaiah inspired everything around them to dance: some old folk, the children, flies, the tips of tall grass … Amos covered his eyes because Isaiah and Samuel were bright and coated in a shining the likes of which he had never seen. A shame that he would have to be the one to smash it.” (pg. 76)  
    • Some may find Jones’s descriptions of the magic love emanating between Samuel and Isaiah to be too romantically depicted, using “romantic” here in its literary pejorative sense. But I don’t. I relish this writing. In part because I’ve experienced that “shining” in the past in contexts that sought to negate our love. And in part because I long to experience it again.  
  • a spiritual dimension to life that transcends time and our physical existence while simultaneously being grounded immanently, intrinsically, inherently in our bodies, our minds, and our hearts. 
    • I don’t know what I believe about life after death. “Believe” is the wrong term to use here. We don’t and can’t know in an empirical sense what follows death and so there’s nothing that we can say that we believe in in the same way that in these pandemic days we can say that “we believe in the science.” Figuring out what we think or feel about life after death is more a matter of faith. And my faith is in a pretty confused state these days. But I’m finding that that confusion is actually quite a fertile place to be and I’m enjoying it. The reason that I’m so immersed in these reflections is, in part, because of the writing that I’m doing called “A Tapestry of Dyings” where I’m chronicling and reflecting upon my journeys with seven family members as they’ve died. 
    • This kind of territory is the very ground that “The Prophets” traverses, at least as I read it:
      • As the spirits address the reader in “Judges”, the first chapter:
        • Forgive our laughter.
        • You thought you were the living and we were the dead.
        • Haha. (pg. 2)
      • Maggie to Samuel in the chapter called “Samuel”:
        • Maggie pointed outside, and Samuel saw a shadow flash.
        • “Uh huh, You seen it, too. I can tell by your eyes,” she said. “That mean you got it.”
        • Samuel was still looking outside but the shadow had already passed. “Got what?”
        • “The favor. It something that get passed down. Sometimes skips a generation, but you got it somehow…what I saying is there be a whole better place for you and Isaiah, maybe not somewhere, but sometime. Whether that particular time is in front or behind, I ain’t got no power to tell.” (pg. 302-3)
    • “The Prophets” is replete with instances where the characters, specifically the Black characters, are aware of further realities beyond their physical enslavement and encounter mystical personalities, signs, manifestations other than those tangibly around them. Some of them recognize this spiritual dimension to life and embrace it. Some of them try to fight it. The white characters, in Jones’s telling, are oblivious to it and, I think, for good reason. The white characters think that they are in control and exert that control on everything and everyone around them. They don’t realize that there is so much more going on around them than they’re aware of.
    • I have a sense that there is so much more going on around me than I am aware of. A spiritual dimension or dimensions beyond the physical. And I’ve gotten glimpses of that most intensely at the moments of death that I’ve witnessed. 
      • The light grew brighter and brighter and Samuel screamed.
      • “KAYODE!”
      • The tiny bits of light that were once Samuel, maybe still Samuel, swirled upward, into the night, with no regard for who or what they were leaving behind, blinking, twinkling. (pg. 368-9)

  So be it. 

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My Brother Jim, R.I.P.

A Facebook post from January 23, 2021

Dear friends,

I’m sorry to report that my older brother Jim died today, January 23rd, in Phoenix where he lived with his wife Jaye. January 23rd is also the date on which my younger brother died in 2009.

About ten years ago, Jim was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. But this past fall he started to deteriorate quite rapidly and his doctors came to the conclusion that he was suffering from the rare Multiple System Atrophy (MSA), a disease that mimics Parkinson’s symptoms but is more aggressive and more destructive of bodily organs. His decline since early December has been rapid and inexorable.

Throughout his long illness and the extremely challenging final months, Jaye cared for Jim with incredible perseverance, sensitivity, and compassion. During the last few weeks, she was assisted by in-home palliative care with nurses and personal support workers visiting several days a week.

Because of the pandemic, my two nieces who live in Canada were not able to visit their dying father.

Nor was I.

Jaye made sure that we all had opportunity for video calls with Jim while he was still aware enough to recognize us.

Photos:
– Jim and his wife Jaye with me here during a visit to Toronto in 2015.
– In the large family portrait (1965?), Jim is in the middle and my younger brother Rick is on the left. Rick died by suicide on January 23, 2009. Mom and Dad died in 2005 and 2007 respectively.
– The photo (1955?) of the three Hallman boys is … precious.

Love,
David

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#Christmas2020 – mementos, memories, and reflections on my Christmas decorations

Daily Posts on Facebook and Instagram, December 1 – 25, 2020

#Christmas2020 Pic1. The first Christmas decoration that Bill and I bought in December 1976, six months after meeting, falling in love, and moving in together.

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#Christmas2020 Pic2. An indoor and an outdoor Christmas tree framing my reading chair in which I blissfully pass countless hours and the piano at which I inexcusably spend far too few hours.

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#Christmas2020 Pic3. A contrast of eras, Dickens Village and today’s Toronto skyline. This year’s Christmas centrepiece on my dining table. We had a pine hutch in the kitchen of our Stratford home and on one of its shelves Bill arranged the Dickens Village pieces (of which there are many more than I’ve used here). He kept it there year round. Bill had Multiple Sclerosis and on nights when he couldn’t sleep he’d make himself a drink, sit on a stool in front of the hutch, and tell himself stories about the goings-on in the Village, especially the juicy gossipy bits.

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#Christmas2020 Pic4. Our goose feather Christmas tree, hung with antique ornaments. Feather trees are considered one of the first artificial trees used as a Christmas tree. Feather trees were usually made of green-dyed goose feathers which were attached to wire branches. They originated in Germany in the late 19th century and became popular in North America during the early 20th century. On the wall above it, you’ll see an old style photo from one of our early years together where Bill had the two of us dress and pose as a couple of 19th century frontier “buddies,” his inspiration being the beautiful oval frame that had held an old family portrait.

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#Christmas2020 Pic5. The memento tree. In November 2009, a few months after Bill died of pancreatic cancer, I was wandering through the Christmas decorations section at the Queen Street Hudson’s Bay Store feeling … well, you know. I turned a corner and saw before me this purple tree. Purple is the colour of the pancreatic cancer ribbon. This tree graced my home that Christmas and has continued to every Christmas since. The tree is decorated with the annual ornaments that Bill and I bought over our 33 years together supplemented by meaningful ornaments that I have found over the years since his death as well as touching gifts from friends.

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#Christmas2020 Pic6. With this year’s decorations, my piano is playing (pun intended) its part with cedar roping, lights, and an arrangement of holly branches arrayed on the piano lid. I collected the pine cones from various places and they all have their own stories – one is from Avondale Cemetery in Stratford where our niche is; I picked the large one up in Idyllwild Park just outside Palm Springs; I brought the small ones home from the grounds of the UN in Geneva on my last work trip there before retiring. During the Christmas season, the usual music books on the piano (Bach, Beethoven, Chopin) are replaced by these old Christmas carol books: the top one “Yuletide Melodies” belonged to my grandmother Emma Perschbacher (her signature inside) who taught music lessons in her/our family home in Waterloo from the 1920s until just prior to her death in 1964 to hundreds of children including my brothers and me; “The Christmas Carollers’ Book” has my mom’s signature on the cover, Lillian Hallman, and was used when she played for sing songs at parties in our home or at church; the bottom two books belonged to my partner Bill who was a music teacher much beloved and respected by his students. Bill was generous but strict as is evident from his inscription inside these books: “Property of W. Conklin, please return!!”

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#Christmas2020 Pic7. My Pride Christmas tree, a gift a few years ago from a couple friends who knew how much I was into Christmas trees. The three gay-theme ornaments on the memento tree a) the pink triangle which was used by the Nazis in the concentration camps to designate homosexual men, bisexual men, and transgender women; in the 1970s, it was reclaimed by the LGBTQ community as a symbol of protest against homophobia; b) the rainbow triangle ornament combines Pride and the triangle history; and c) I bought the red AIDS ribbon key chain as a Christmas ornament in 2013, the 20th anniversary of the year 1993 when I tested HIV+.

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#Christmas2020 Pic8. Dickens Village with Tiny Tim on Bob Cratchit’s shoulders and a grumpy Ebenezer Scrooge beside them. If you look carefully, you can just make out “E. Scrooge” in Bill’s handwriting over the doorway.

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#Christmas2020 Pic9. A beautiful cranberry glass ornament from my friend John Russell that he found at the Art Gallery of Ontario and gave me last year (2019) accompanied by a Rubens angel. John looked after me for three weeks after my open heart surgery in March 2019 and sweetly noted in his Christmas card that his gift of the Rubens angel was an ongoing presence to watch over me.

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#Christmas2020 Pic10. This little prancing beauty was our 1990 Christmas ornament purchased late fall of that year at the Banff Springs Hotel. I was there as theme speaker at an environmental conference and Bill had come with me. While I was in sessions, he would curl up with a book in a comfy chair by one of the grand fireplaces, a roaring blaze keeping him warm while November snow fell outside. Hotel hospitality staff fell in love with Bill, connecting with his irreverent humour that skewered the pretentiousness of some of the hotel guests. They kept the fire stoked and him well supplied with beverages. The reindeer ornament still carries the light aroma of the cedar from which it’s made.

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#Christmas2020 Pic11. Every Christmas my table is covered by this crocheted tablecloth that Mom made. I can recall as a child seeing her crocheting countless of these medallions that she would then stitch together into tablecloths as gifts. Later in life when her fine motor skills were not up to this precision work she took up knitting afghan throws, one of which rests on my sofa and gets used on chilly nights.

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#Christmas2020 Pic12. The goose-feather tree holds our collection of antique (or at least very old) ornaments. I love the elegant unpretentious simplicity of them. The two bells have “GDR” stamped on them indicating that they were made in the German Democratic Republic, that is, East Germany. And what’s the story behind that very old and curious Hindenburg-type blimp? I never light the candles. 😉 A few of the ornaments come from my family, some from Bill’s, and others we picked up at flee markets or antique shops over the years. It fascinates me to imagine the Christmas settings in which these ornaments played a role – children, parents, and grandparents (or perhaps a lonely senior living alone) hanging them on a tree; the character and location of the houses or apartments in which these folks lived decorated for Christmas; the Christmas mornings’ excitement of unwrapping presents from under the tree holding these ornaments; the diverse complexities of Christmas emotions in the homes where these ornaments hung, joy for some, loss and grief for others, perhaps even conflict and heartbreak and abuse for yet others. If these ornaments could only talk and share the stories they hold.

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#Christmas2020 Pic13. Before Bill died in August 2009, he told me that instead of a funeral he wanted me to throw a big party with lots of our friends, lots of booze, and everybody telling jokes. His heritage was half Irish, after all. At this wake/party, he wanted me to give each of our friends one of our Christmas ornaments as a memento of him. So, prior to the party that I held in early September, I dug out the Christmas boxes from the locker and put together a big collection of our decorations, that is ones that I would be willing to part with. On the night of the party, I laid them out on the table (amongst the food and booze) and people were invited to select one that they could take home as a Bill-souvenir. One of our longtime friends, Susan Wiseman, who owns and operates Casa de los Arcos in Puerto Vallarta where we have stayed for many years each winter was sorry that she couldn’t attend the party and asked if I could keep one of the decorations for her. (Bill’s connection to Susan went back to the 1980s when Bill taught Susan’s daughter piano lessons when we were all living in The Beach neighbourhood of Toronto). Susan sent me a photo when she put the Bill-memento ornament that I gave her on her Christmas tree in PV, a wooden carved love-bear. Bill’s nickname for me was “Bear.” Bill loved our annual stays at Susan’s so it’s comforting to see this memento basking in the Mexican sun on Susan’s tree. (Btw, I disregarded the other half of Bill’s dying wish. I did indeed have a funeral/memorial service for him. It was mega. Lots of music and lots of friends sharing reminiscences, funny and poignant. The church was packed with 400-500 people.)

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#Christmas2020 Pic14. My favourite angel on the tree. Handmade by Zulu women in South Africa through Zimele dedicated to developing community self-reliance. The Fair Price guarantees income for their households, helping to fight poverty. A gift several years ago from my Canadian-South African friend and neighbour Thean Beckerling.

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December 14, 2020

No fantastic holiday parties this year. But one can still dress up … and fantasize.

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#Christmas2020 Pic15. A Santa souvenir from a trip Bill and I took to Paris in 2000, a city that we loved. When we first met in 1976, we discovered that we had both studied at the Sorbonne in Paris, Bill for two years 1967-69 and me for one year 1970-71. We took that as a sign, among others, that we were meant to be together. Both sets of parents had been opposed to our travel plans but we each persevered, financing our study trips on our own from savings accumulated through part-time and summer jobs the previous years. During Bill’s time in Paris, he lived above a restaurant and paid his room and board to the proprietors by cleaning the restaurant each night after it had closed. During one of his summers, he made extra money smuggling wine back and forth across the French/Spanish border. He also studied one summer at Le Cordon Blue. When I was there, I lived in a single room cold water flat on the 5ième étage of an old apartment building with a toilet in the hall shared by four other apartments. It cost me 250 francs/month ($50). I lived on 5 francs/day which bought me a copy of Le Monde, a baguette, and a bit of cheese. My one hot meal of the week was couscous at an Algerian or Tunisian restaurant on the left bank on Sundays after attending an organ recital and evening mass at Notre Dame. I had classes at the Sorbonne each weekday morning and then would spend all afternoon in la Bibliothèque Sainte-Geneviève where I would read anything I wanted – art history, philosophy, literature, history, political science, theology, etc. Thursday and Sunday afternoons were spent at the Louvre or Jeu de Paume because entrance was free for students on those days. It was the most intellectually stimulating year of my life and also the most monastic. Christmas was particularly lonely. I attended Christmas Eve midnight mass at Notre Dame followed by gorging on the Buche de Noel (Yule Log pastry) that I had splurged on back in my room.

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#Christmas2020 Pic16. Bill taught piano and voice to children and adults in our home. Around 1980, a ten-year-old boy brought this construction worker toy to Bill as a Christmas present. It was one of his favourite toys and he wanted to give it to Bill who had become a very special and supportive adult in his life. The boy’s home situation was not the best. He told Bill that it was for the top of Bill’s Christmas tree. Bill thanked him and replied, “But we put an angel on top of the tree.” The student’s eyes dropped and he said quietly, “So, boys can’t be angels?” Chastened, Bill made a quick recovery, and said excitedly “Of course they can!” He found a couple pipe cleaners (remember them?), fashioned one as a halo and the other as a security belt to hold the construction worker/angel atop the tree. That young boy would be a 50-year-old man now. I imagine he remembers Bill. I wish I could let him know that his angel still occupies its place of honour on top of Bill’s Christmas tree.

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#Christmas2020 Pic17. Yeah, that sounds about right. 😉 (The tree decoration was a gift a few years ago from my longtime friend Denny Young … who knows me well.)

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#Christmas2020 Pic18. Pretty as a picture … or, maybe not? I come by my love of Christmas decorations honestly. It’s in my genes. Mom used to decorate a lot, actually Dad did the decorating as per Mom’s direction. And Mom’s mom, Grandma Perschbacher, did as well as is evident in these two photographs of Grandma’s house in Waterloo that I think were taken in the mid-1920s. On the left side, the large dining room table festively set for Christmas dinner is the same table (recognizable by the stubby legs) at which our family ate many Christmas dinners as my brothers and I were growing up. All warm memories. The photo on the right, though, gives me pause. You’ll notice the opened presents displayed under the tree. They’re mainly dolls. Grandma Perschbacher had five daughters, my mom being the youngest of the five girls. Sometime in the next few years after this photo was taken, her husband left the family to live with another woman in Toronto. It must have been traumatic for the family and a minor scandal in the church in which they were deeply involved (the two of them had met and started courting while in the church young adults group; one of my aunts was the church organist). Mom almost never spoke about her father except on rare occasions when she would express shame about coming from a “broken home” (in her words). I look at these dolls under the Christmas tree and try to imagine the tension that presumably existed in the home, even on a Christmas morning that’s supposed to be about joy. And I think about Grandma Perschbacher, putting all the work into the Christmas decorating, buying or making the dolls as presents for her daughters, and preparing and serving and cleaning up after the Christmas dinner for the family and guests. After her husband left, Grandma raised her five daughters surviving on income from teaching piano lessons, taking in roomers, and some child support that her husband sent to her. As she aged, she lived with us and mom looked after her until she died in 1960 when I was ten years old. My recollections of her are not affectionate ones. We kids were scared of her. She was a cantankerous person at that stage of her life when I knew her and she was a trial for my mom as her caregiver. But when I think of the difficult life that she lived, I cut her a lot of slack. And I recognize that in her home … and in many other people’s homes … Christmas is not as picture-perfect as photos like these might suggest.

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#Christmas2020 Pic19. Bill and I moved into our first house in the Toronto Beach neighbourhood in 1984. This ornament was the natural choice for that year’s Christmas tree. The house was one of the original buildings on Kenilworth Avenue and had apparently been an early postal station around 1900. It was tiny, constructed of wood and stucco, had a significant lean to the kitchen floor at the back of the house, a crawl space basement, and a low ceiling in the small gabled bedroom upstairs on which we bumped our heads many a time. And it was devastatingly charming. Our first year there, we invited two friends to join us for a traditional tourtière Christmas Eve dinner. Bill constructed a hanging wreath with evergreen boughs. He embedded candles in it and then suspended it over the table. It was similar to this pic from the internet … but, being Bill’s DIY model, not nearly as secure. We had a wonderful evening with good friends and Bill’s homemade tourtière, our table lit by the warm candle light from the wreath hanging above our heads. What made that Christmas Eve particularly special was that we succeeded in not burning the house down.

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#Christmas2020 Pic20. Bill and I picked up a lot of these delicate ornaments on a trip to Paris in November 2000. We bought them and brought them home to give as little take-away gifts for each of the 100+ guests whom we were inviting to a big Christmas party that we were throwing in December to celebrate three milestones that year – our 25th anniversary, my 50th birthday, and the new Millennium. One of my favourite mementos from that wonderful evening, in addition to these remaining ornaments, is a photo of my parents dancing. My mom was having mobility problems by that point in her life and my dad was showing early signs of dementia and yet there they were enjoying themselves on the dance floor. It was the last time in their lives that they were capable and had the opportunity to do so. In this pic these ornaments are sitting on Bill’s childhood Christmas Rudolph plate.

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#Christmas2020 Pic21. A parade of Santas. – Upper left: our collection of old Santas, some more of the Saint Nicholas variety, including the tall papier-mâché one that opens to hold candies and my mom’s ceramic salt and pepper Mr. and Mrs. Claus that I still use on my table every Christmas;- Upper right: a 4” metal Saint Nicholas mold with clamps perhaps for making candles or chocolates or something else (any ideas?);- Lower left: a creative plaster-of-paris Santa figure formed on top of an avocado with fine detail in the sculpting and painting; found in an antique shop run by an eccentric kinky gay guy in the rural Berkshires (Massachusetts) in the summer of 2017;- Lower middle: a sweet Santa ornament given to me a few years ago from friend and neighbour Frank DeMois;- Lower right: our cat Simon in our Stratford home (in 2005) not at all thrilled about having to play the role of Santa even though he should have been inspired by all the actors and company friends from the Stratford Festival who were often in our home during our years living there (1991-2009).

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#Christmas2020 Pic22. My partner Bill and I were the principal family caregivers for both sets of our parents during their declining years. My brother Rick and his wife Diane in New York sent us one of these Swarovski crystals each Christmas as an expression of their appreciation for our caregiving. In 1998, Bill’s dad died. In 2005, my mom died. In March 2007, Bill’s mom died and in April my dad died. In 2009, my brother Rick died by suicide in January and, in August, Bill died suddenly of pancreatic cancer. Because of the reason that these crystal decorations were given to us and from whom, this Christmas display is a treasured representation for me of these six lost family members.

“Your absence has gone through me,Like thread through a needle.Everything I do is stitched with its colour.” M.S. Merwin

The silver tray on which I’ve placed them this Christmas was bought by Bill and me in the mid-1980s. We had our names engraved in the middle along with August 17, 1976, the date on which we had our first date. We were both so excited/nervous about that first date that I arrived an hour early at the location to make sure I didn’t miss him and he brought along a friend to bolster his confidence. In subsequent years, we always celebrated our anniversary on August 17th. (I still do.) Around the outside of the tray are engraved the names of our parents: Lillian and Kenneth (my parents), Adelle and William (Bill’s parents).

In this other photo of the crystals, you can see prisms of colour cast on the back wall by the sun shining through the crystals. I like the implied metaphor.

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#Christmas2020 Pic23. I love this city and I love the view of it from my condo. I recall so many special moments in Toronto over the years, such as when I was:·

  • 10 years old: the thrill of Mom putting my younger brother Rick and me on the train in Kitchener and us being met at Toronto’s Union Station by my Auntie Ev, my mom’s eldest sister, for an exciting day ogling the mesmerizing Christmas window displays at Eaton’s and Simpsons department stores on Queen Street, visiting Santa, and riding the subway;·
  • 21 years old: walking into the St. Charles Tavern, my first step into a gay bar; sitting nervously with a beer on a stool at the horseshoe bar; after about ten minutes, feeling a pair of arms wrap around me from behind and hearing a voice whisper in my ear, “I have to have you”; thus began my first relationship; for the next year and a half while I was still living and going to university in Waterloo, I would come to Toronto to spend the weekends with Clyve, a 32-year-old beautiful Black ballet dancer, at his apartment on Sherbourne St. (in a building that I can see from my condo);·
  • 26 years old: now living in Toronto, being asked out on a date by a hot guy I’d been admiring in the gay dance clubs (Manatee and the Maygay) for months; he took me to a play at what is now Buddies in Bad Times Theatre on Alexander St.; the connection between us was immediate and intense on many levels; within two weeks, we were living together in my apartment at 100 Wellesley St. E. (a building that I can see from my condo balcony); Bill and I were together as a couple for 33 years until his death in 2009;·
  • 50 years old: Bill and I attending a concert of opera superstar soprano Cecilia Bartoli at Roy Thomson Hall; we line up to get a CD signed by her after the concert; when we reach the front of the line, Bill, to the shock of everyone around including me, starts singing to her in his fine tenor voice one of her own arias (Cacinni’s “Amarilli, mia bella”) but changes the words to “Cecilia, mia bella”; her handlers try to shut him down but she waves them off, leans back, and listens with a huge grin on her face; when he finishes she applauds, congratulates him on his fine Italian, and signs our CD: “Per Guillermo & David, con amore (Amarilli), Cecilia Bartoli, 20/10/2000”;·
  • 70 years old: Christmas 2020, in this pandemic time, not being able to share my decorations and view of the city with friends in person at any of my usual seasonal gatherings of small intimate dinners or big house parties; instead, I post photos of the decorations on Facebook and Instagram with little stories of their history and what memories they evoke; and in response, I receive back from you, my sweet friends (in Toronto and beyond), such warmth.

I love this city.

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#Christmas2020 Pic24. May the star that guides you, guide you well, and may the star upon which you wish, grant you your wishes.

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#Christmas2020 Pic25. Merry Christmas, my dear friends. Whether you’re a believer or not, may you resonate with the Spirit of the Bethlehem Child and find your heart imbued with a passion for justice for all peoples and all creation, for peace that overcomes violence, for love that defeats hate, for hope that surmounts despair, and for life in all its fullness. 

(Handmade pottery crèche from a trip Bill and I made to Columbia in 1979.)

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The Joy and Pain in Romantic Love in André Aciman’s “Call Me by Your Name” and “Find Me”

Prepared by David G. Hallman for

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

November 17, 2020

In June of 2013, I picked up the novel “Harvard Square” by André Aciman because I had heard good things about Aciman from friends … apparently, he had written a gay novel in 2007 that people loved entitled “Call Me by Your Name.” I had somehow missed that earlier work. With “Harvard Square”, I found the storyline relatively interesting but I was irritated all the way through by various aspects of the author’s writing style.

In particular, we as readers were constantly being told what the narrator is thinking and feeling. Listening to a character’s internal dialogue can be a powerful story-telling tool when it is done subtlety and nuance. But it’s off-putting when it is used obsessively and depicts the obvious and/or the predictable as I found it to be in “Harvard Square.” I am more engaged as a reader in a piece of fiction when I have to surmise what a character is thinking and feeling by observing their actions and speech. As editors are fond of saying, “show me, don’t tell me.”

Fast forward to September 2017. I went to see the film version of “Call Me by Your Name” at its première at the Toronto International Film Festival along with almost every gay man in the city. I fell totally in love with it. 

I then read the 2007 novel on which it was based and loved that too. In “Call Me by Your Name,” Elio is the narrator. We experience the whole story through his eyes, including his thoughts and feelings. But I didn’t have the same negative reaction to reading so much of the internal monologue of Elio’s heart and mind as I had in “Harvard Square.” Was that because of differences in Aciman’s writing style between the two books or had my perceptions changed? 

In February 2018, I was thrilled that James Ivory won the Academy Award for best screenplay for “Call Me by Your Name”, his first ever Oscar. He was 88-years-old at the time. He and Ismail Merchant were romantic life partners and creative professional partners for forty-four years from 1961 until Merchant’s death in 2005 and the two were responsible for the beautiful Merchant/Ivory films “A Room with a View,” “Maurice,” “Howard’s End,” and “The Remains of the Day.” 

What impressed me so much about James Ivory’s screenplay of “Call Me by Your Name” was how he had captured so perfectly the tone, the poignancy, the essence of the novel which is difficult to accomplish with a novel written in the first person. A common device used by screenwriters when translating such a personally narrated novel is to use voice-overs in the film. That sometimes works but it is also, in my opinion, a lazy way out. Much more difficult is what James Ivory did. The screenplay was so brilliantly crafted that it is as if we are Elio, falling in lust/love with Oliver from the moment that he sees him arrive at the villa, struggling with Elio to decipher whether signs from Oliver are positive or negative, riding Elio’s rollercoaster of emotional responses as the relationship takes on an intimate reality while Oliver’s summer sojourn in Italy draws towards a close. What James Ivory did in the screenplay was to evoke the atmospheric essence of the novel — the soul of Elio.

Which brings me to André Acimon’s newest novel “Find Me”. Since I had loved both the book and the film of “Call Me by Your Name” so much, I was looking forward to “Find Me” billed as a sequel. I was initially somewhat put-off by the structure. I wanted more of Elio and Oliver and what I got in the first section “Tempo” was 115 pages of a heterosexual bawdy romance between Elio’s father Samuel and Miranda whom he meets on the train. Elio appears in the second section “Cadenza” but no sign of Oliver. Instead, we’re introduced to Michel with whom Elio sort of falls in love but with the shadow of his soul-shattering love for Oliver hovering in the background. A drunken moping Oliver surfaces in the third section “Capriccio” pretending outwardly to be enjoying himself in his straight persona while longing for his long-lost Elio. Finally, in “Da Capo,” the last ten pages of the novel, our lovers are reunited for what appears to be a happy ending. 

Despite my initial misgivings about the structure and my glib synopsis above of the four sections, I came around to the judgement that, in “Find Me,” Aciman has produced a brilliant non-sequel sequel to “Call Me by Your Name.” 

  • Firstly, each of the four sections are written in the first person, three different first persons: Samuel in “Tempo,” Elio in “Cadenza,” Oliver in “Capriccio,” and Elio again in “Da Capo.” And the voices are all distinct and perfectly reflective of the characters. With a few minor exceptions, I was not distracted but rather thoroughly entranced by being privy to the thoughts and feelings of these first-person narrators through the internal monologues as Acimon writes them.
  • Secondly, as I moved further and further through “Find Me”, I came to an appreciation of the brilliance of structuring this sequel in such a way that we readers are thrust into three substantively different stories whose common thread is that each are built around protagonists who are the principal characters in “Call Me by Your Name.” This is so much more interesting than if we just had been bequeathed a second novel of Elio’s and Oliver’s romance, part two. In fact, the weakest part of “Find Me” is the final section where Elio and Oliver are back together. I think that’s partly because there’s no real tension to the storyline at that point.  
  • Thirdly, I loved the interweaving of musical motifs, metaphors, chapter titles, and critical plot elements. This worked most effectively for me in “Capriccio,” the Oliver chapter, that I think is the most beautifully written part of the book with its overwhelming poignancy.
  • Finally, I guess I am a romantic at heart. I was swept up in the various love stories in “Find Me”, those that burst forth in passion and joy so suddenly and unexpectedly for the characters and those that gave way to the searing and poignancy of loss. They come close but don’t quite match the heart-rending conversation between Elio and his father in “Call Me by Your Name” after Oliver has left when Samuel says, 
    • “You had a beautiful friendship. Maybe more than a friendship … if there is pain, nurse it, and if there is a flame, don’t snuff it out, don’t be brutal with it … we rip out so much of ourselves to be cured of things faster than we should that we go bankrupt by the age of thirty and have less to offer each time we start with someone new. But to feel nothing so as not to feel anything – what a waste … right now there’s sorrow, pain. Don’t kill it, and with it the joy you felt.”   

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David Sedaris’s Gift

Introductory Comments by David G. Hallman for

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

September 15, 2020

I’ve never really gotten David Sedaris, or more accurately, I’ve never really understood all the hype round him. “Calypso” is the fourth Sedaris book that I’ve read preceded by “Naked” (1997), “When You Are Engulfed in Flames” (2008), and “Let’s Explore Diabetes with Owls” (2013). I saw him live 8 or 9 years ago at what was then called the Sony Centre. The hall was sold out, packed with adoring fans. 

I’ll grant you that he can be very funny. There’s a point in the short story “I’m Still Standing” where he is arguing with his husband Hugh about Hugh’s obsessiveness with privacy when he’s in the bathroom. 

Hugh won’t even let me in when he’s peeing. I’ll call from the other side of the door. “I had that in my mouth ten minutes ago and now it’s a private part?” Hugh yells back, “Yes! Go away!”

Sedaris’s humour often has a dark side as is characteristic of much satire. I relish darkness in writing styles but I’m not as attracted to it when it veers toward cruelty. In “The Spirit World” he talks about how he sometimes plays with audience members at book signings by pretending to know things about them like their astrological sign or about their family.  

I met a young woman a few years back, and after being right about both her sign and her sister, I said, as if I were trying to recall something I had dreamed, “You were in a…hospital earlier this week, not for yourself but for someone else. You were…visiting someone very close to you.” The woman fell apart before my eyes. “My mother has cancer. They operated but…How do you…I don’t…What are you doing?” “I can’t help it,” I told her. “I know things. I see them.” I don’t, of course. Those were just guesses, pulled out of my ass in order to get a rise out of someone.

It’s one thing to have a nefarious fictional character in your story but when you’re describing a real-life experience of your own and then not to express any remorse about having played a mean trick on someone … well, I find that off-putting.

Sedaris does have that wonderful gift as a writer to take mundane day-to-day situations and describe them in such a way that I as a reader become totally engrossed. He’s nowhere near a Proust in that skill nor does he come close to my current favourite Norwegian author Karl Ove Knausgaard who, like Proust, can write for pages and pages about something as trivial as waiting for a friend to show up at a café and after reading his prose for half an hour I look up from the page, shake my head, and try and figure out how I got so swept away in his writing about something so seemingly inconsequential. 

Sedaris’s writing about the quotidian does have an intimacy to it on numerous dimensions: he’s brutally candid about his own foibles including for better or worse, his scatological ones; he’s mercilessly descriptive about his family’s eccentricities; and he’s totally matter-of-fact about his life as a gay man and his relationship with Hugh. This personal and familial intimacy in his stories is more evident in “Calypso” than his earlier books.

His style as a humourist, his ability to describe the ordinary in interesting ways, and the intimacy of his stories make “Calypso” an engaging read. But is it great writing? Apparently many of the hundreds of thousands who buy his books and attend his readings think so. I just don’t think that I’m one of them.

But, and this is a “but” that overrides much of my lack of enthusiasm for Sedaris as a writer, I’ve come to appreciate through reading “Calyspo” how courageous Sedaris is. He’s a little man physically, as he regularly reminds us, but he seems to have an innate strength and fearlessness to toss his vulnerability out onto the table for all to see. The prime case in point for me in “Calypso” is his descriptions of his relationship and interactions with his sister Tiffany, her struggles with mental health issues, and her eventual suicide. His writing about the alcoholism of his mother is also poignant but it didn’t resonate with me as much. I did not have an alcoholic parent whereas I did have a sibling who committed suicide.  

The last time I saw my sister Tiffany (Sedaris writes) was at the stage door at Symphony Hall in Boston. I’d just finished a show and was getting ready to sign books when I heard her say, “David. David, it’s me.” We hadn’t spoken in four years at that point, and I was shocked by her appearance. Tiffany always looked like my mother when she was young. Now she looked like my mother when she was old, though at the time she couldn’t have been more than forty-five. “It’s me, Tiffany.” She held up a paper bag with the Starbucks logo on it. Her shoes looked like she’d found them in a trash can. “I have something for you.” There was a security guard holding the stage door open, and I said to him, “Will you close that, please?” I had filled the house that night. I was in charge—Mr. Sedaris. “The door,” I repeated. “I’d like for you to close it now.” And so the man did. He shut the door in my sister’s face, and I never saw her or spoke to her again. Not when she was evicted from her apartment. Not when she was raped. Not when she was hospitalized after her first suicide attempt. She was, I told myself, someone else’s problem. I couldn’t deal with her anymore. “Well,” the rest of my family said, “it was Tiffany. Don’t be too hard on yourself. We all know how she can be.” 

This is what happened. Sedaris doesn’t softpeddle it. He tells it like it is. He doesn’t describe his residual persistent guilt. He doesn’t have to. It’s there, unmistakably there. 

I’ve done a lot of writing but I have not written about my younger brother’s suicide except for a short reference in my memoir “August Farewell” about my partner Bill’s sudden pancreatic death in which I mention that my brother Rick took his life in January 2009, six months before Bill’s death in August 2009. There would certainly be lots to write about: the deep depression that Rick went into after retiring from a senior academic position in New York City, a depression that he hid from everyone except his wife who was forced by him to keep it as a secret; about Rick’s sudden disappearance from their home in Brooklyn leaving behind a suicide note saying that he was driving to Canada; about his phone call late that night to me, the last person he spoke to; about him being found the next morning hanging from the back of his hotel room door in Waterloo, our family’s home town; about my meetings two days later with the police who investigated and the funeral home once his body had been released by the coroner; about the memorial service that I organised and conducted in New York City the following week on behalf of his traumatised wife; about Rick’s appearance to me in a dream several weeks later in which he calmly told me “I can explain”, a dream out of which I awoke screaming with anger and was held for hours by Bill as I wept. 

I have not written about my brother’s suicide. Yet. I am working on a book, but only for myself, not for publication. I’m calling it “Brushes with Death.” It will have five chapters. The first is on my testing positive for HIV in 1993. The second is about Bill’s and my caregiving for our parents as they aged and died. I’ve written those first two chapters. The third will be about Rick’s suicide. The fourth will be about Bill’s death. And the fifth will be about my open-heart surgery last year. 

David Sedaris has given me a gift in writing about Tiffany in “Calypso”. For that I’m very grateful. 

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An Introduction to Alan Hollinghurst

Prepared by David G. Hallman for 

The Toronto Gay Men’s Literature and Arts Salon (Zoom Edition)

July 21, 2020

I first started coming to Toronto on weekends in 1968. I was 18-years-old. I would stay at the YMCA which at that time was on College Street where the Toronto Police building is now. The Y had a swimming pool of course along with exercise facilities, offices, and meeting rooms. The top three floors of the building were for accommodation, each with a large number of single very spartan bedrooms. You could rent a room cheaply. Communal showers and washrooms were in the far corner of the floor. A lot of sex went on in the showers. A lot of sex went on in the bedrooms. Guys would leave their doors slightly ajar and others would wander around in the hallways, pausing and glancing into the rooms. If the eye contact was held and an inviting signal given, you would go in and close the door behind you. I can attest to a similar setup and sexual atmosphere at the YMCA in Montreal and in New York. 

When the Village People sang in 1978 “…it’s fun to stay at the YMCA…”, it was not a fabrication.    

But outside of disco tunes, nobody was writing engaging, candid, explicit, unsensationalized, literary fiction about our contemporary lives at that time. Alan Hollinghurst was among the first. 

There had been other gay authors, certainly, who had written gay-themed books: E.M. Forster, Jean Genet, Gore Vidal, James Baldwin, John Rechy, Christopher Isherwood, Edmund White, Andrew Holleran, Armistead Maupin, and others. And many of those books are brilliant evocations of time, place, and character. 

What Hollinghurst did so terrifically in his 1988 debut novel, “The Swimming Pool Library,” was to describe contemporary gay life matter-of-factly, including the sex that was part of gay life. As one reviewer wrote, it is the “first major novel in Britain to put gay life in its modern place and context … a historic novel and a historic debut.” 

Hollinghurst has observed about his literary debut, “There really wasn’t any serious fiction in Britain that was explicitly and unapologetically about gay life and that was a fantastic position to find myself in as a novelist. I had this amazing area of human interest to explore.”

A 1988 article about Hollinghurst in the London Review of Books reads, in part,

Writing about sex tends to go wrong in one of two related ways. The first is through embarrassment or over-excitement on the part of the author: overly rhapsodic descriptions of sex, in particular, tend to cause feelings of unease. The other, subtler way is through the failure to show sex as a function of character: to depict sex in fiction as a holiday from personality is to make sex, in fictional terms, merely digressive. One of the triumphs of The Swimming-Pool Library – a startlingly accomplished first novel – is the tonal control it achieves in writing graphically and explicitly about homosexual sex while never seeming flustered or prurient, and never wavering in the amused, ironic control of the narrating voice. 

It was this authenticity in depicting sex as being part-and-parcel of gay life that contributed to the enthusiastic reception of “The Swimming Pool Library” within the gay community. It was also what scandalized the novel for many heterosexuals. 

The Corinthian (men’s) Club in “The Swimming Pool Library” played a role as a place for gay men to meet and have sex in London in 1983 (the year in which the novel is set) as did YMCAs of that time in Toronto, Montreal, and New York.

One short illustration from the book:

The Corinthian Club in Great Russell Street was a place I loved, a gloomy and functional underworld full of life, purpose and sexuality. Boys, from the age of seventeen, could go there to work on their bodies in the stagnant, aphrodisiac air of the weights room. As you got older, it grew dearer, but quite a few men of advanced years, members since youth and displaying the drooping relics of toned-up pectorals, still paid the prices and tottered in to cast an appreciative eye on the showering youngsters.

It is astonishing to think of “The Swimming Pool Library” as a debut novel. Hollinghurst’s writing here is so accomplished, so confident, so elegant, so funny, so natural, and so literary without a hint of pretention. How did he learn to write like that? He studied English at Oxford, taught English at various colleges, and was the deputy editor of Times Literary Supplement from 1985 to 1990. So, he had been immersed in literature all his life but still, unquestionably, he had an extraordinary gift. 

Five other novels have followed “The Swimming Pool Library.” I’m not as enthusiastic about Hollinghurst’s two most recent books, the 2011 “The Stranger’s Child” and the 2017 “The Sparsholt Affair.” But I can’t say enough good things about his 2004 “The Line of Beauty” which won the Man Booker Prize. “The Line of Beauty” begins in 1983 but then unfurls over the subsequent four years during the course of which a dark cloud began slipping across our lives as gay men. 

It was thrilling and heart-rending to re-read “The Line of Beauty” over the past couple weeks. The experience reaffirmed my assessment that it is one of my all-time favourite novels, gay or otherwise.

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Mahler in the Time of Pandemic

I listened today to Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 “Resurrection” from the Mahler Festival in Amsterdam. It was an online broadcast of a Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra performance from 2016. The scheduled live performances of the 2020 Mahler Festival have all been cancelled during these catastrophic early days of the coronavirus pandemic.

The notes from the Mahler Festival website include the following:

“In August 1892 a cholera epidemic struck Hamburg as Mahler was on his way there to conduct another season at the Stadttheater. Faced with possibly drastic consequences and defying orders that he return to his workplace, he decided to retreat to his summer vacation spot in Berchtesgaden until the worst was over.

Faced with a pandemic affecting all of us, we, too, must act prudently, so it is both understandable and very sad that the Mahler Festival 2020 cannot take place as scheduled this May. Mahler Foundation has worked hard to support Het Concertgebouw Amsterdam in preparing this celebration of Mahler’s life and works.

Our thoughts go out to all of the musicians and organizers and to all of you.

Mahler survived the crisis and shortly thereafter set to work on his next creation: The Resurrection Symphony (Symphony No. 2).”

The performance broadcast was preceded by a short documentary “Death and Resurrection” about Mahler’s writing of his Symphony No. 2. The much-beloved mezzo-soprano Jessye Norman, much-mourned since her death in September 2019, sang in The Resurrection Symphony many times. In the documentary, she comments that in his text, “Mahler speaks from the depths …,” and then quotes from Mahler’s text: “Humankind is in trouble … we have an emergency … we live in pain …” How prescient were her words given our current context.

Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 resonates deeply with me.

In early 1977, my partner Bill was in hospital, six months after we had first met, fallen in love, and started living together. Bill was in hospital because of severe pain and mobility difficulties that had arisen and now he had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. One day in the depths of that dark winter as I waited to go to the hospital, I put on our LP recording of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 with the Cleveland Orchestra under the direction of Leonard Slatkin and with mezzo-soprano Maureen Forrester and soprano Kathleen Battle. I conducted the 90-minute symphony through tears.

It was at that time a profoundly moving work of art for me and has remained so throughout my life.

Bill died suddenly of pancreatic cancer in August 2009, two short weeks after he had been diagnosed. I wrote a memoir “August Farewell – the last sixteen days of a thirty-three-year romance” that chronicled those two weeks. I followed that up with a novel “Searching for Gilead” that is half fiction and half semi-fictionalised autobiography in which Tom, the narrator, and Jonathan, his partner, endure a series of family tragedies over the course of their long relationship culminating in Jonathan’s death.

The novel concludes with an epilogue in which Tom attends a concert of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 performed by the Toronto Symphony under the direction of Peter Oundjian, a concert that I attended in real life in September 2010, a year after Bill’s death. In the novel, Jonathan has recently died and Tom’s grief is all-consuming. During the concert, Tom hallucinates a conversation with Gustav Mahler. The words that Mahler speaks in this dialogue with Tom are drawn from Mahler’s own writings in which he spoke about aspects of Symphony No. 2 and what he had in mind for the various movements.

After listening to the broadcast of Symphony No. 2 from the Mahler Festival today, I went back and reread the epilogue from “Searching for Gilead.”

I’ve heard many performances and recordings of Mahler’s Symphony No. 2 over the years. It moved me deeply in 1977 as I waited to visit Bill in the hospital, it moved me when I attended the TSO performance in 2010 as I was working on “Searching for Gilead”, and it moved me again today listening to it in the context of the coronavirus pandemic.

* * *

Searching for Gilead

Epilogue

Are you sure that you are up for this, Mein Freund?

            The unfamiliar voice and the presumptuous question startle me. Irritated, I glance around, having been interrupted as I perused the program notes for the opening concert of the Toronto Symphony’s fall season.

The seat beside me at Roy Thomson Hall—Jonathan’s—is vacant. I could have offered it to someone. As much as I love Sheila, I wouldn’t have been able to tolerate her chatter. Not on this, my first time back to a TSO concert since his death in March. Carolyn and Wajdi are in Kabul for a brief visit with their film crew. Margaret is at home with Walter. There is no one else in my life, no one close enough to invite into this intimate time and space.

For the past six months, I have found solace only in solitude. Tonight will be no different.

The other long-term subscribers who usually sit around us have not yet arrived. They are probably lingering over dessert and coffee at the opening night patrons’ dinner next door. I had made an early, discrete exit, exhausted by the condolences from acquaintances who hadn’t seen me since the funeral and by the effort that it took to lie in response to the inevitable “How are you doing?”

The Kitteralls take their seats in the row ahead. Jonas and Babs smile at me, nod, and then, thankfully, leave me in peace.

I turn back to the booklet to pick up where I had left off.

Interesting piece of programming for you, all things considered. I called the first movement Todtenfeier. Jonathan, being the fine German scholar that he was, could have told you what that is. It means funeral rites.

I stare at the page. Mahler isn’t looking directly back at me but rather off to the right—his left. Wireless glasses, much like my own, rest on his nose. The artist’s rendering makes him appear more serene than actual photographs of him in the 1890s, and younger looking than the thirty-four years he was when he completed the Second Symphony. The mouth forms too much of a smile in the drawing, but the eyes are good. Tense. Brooding. Windows of the soul.

Shuffling sounds around me indicate the arrival of the almost-latecomers. The lights dim. I close the program booklet and drop it onto the floor. I shake my head vigorously back and forth a couple times and bring one hand up to my face to stretch the skin around my eyes, strategies for waking myself up from whatever this was.

Peter Oundjian stands with his hands clasped in front of his waist and pauses, head bowed, letting the murmuring in the hall subside. When all is quiet, he slowly raises both arms to shoulder height.

With a taut, almost imperceptible jerk of his wrists, a crevice breaks open—a kilometre wide and a universe deep.

 

The violins and violas pounce on to a fortissimo G. Not a vibrant G of a major key but a menacing G from the depths of C minor. C for Compton. Minor—not in stature but in tangibility. Immediately, a tremolo to pianissimo. I hover above the abyss, weightless, shuddering.

I am knocked off balance by the sudden growl of cellos and basses. A run of five-sixteenth notes, including one strategic accidental. Aggressively triple forte. Then repeated fortissimo, elaborated in length, with more accidentals, transforming into triplets at a diminishing volume until they reach pianissimo. All the while backdropped by the vaporous, shimmering violins and violas, neither light angelic, nor dark demonic. Just watching, waiting, guarded, intimidating.

For seventeen bars. Half the number of years we had been together. Capturing the essence of my precariousness. Nothing to grab a hold of. Vulnerable to plummeting. But somehow, not plummeting. Caught. Suspended. Somewhere.

The oboes and English horns place a sliver of stability under foot. Piano. Not insecurely, deliberately, self-confidently. Quietly posing the questions, giving no answers.

Like the, ‘Is there life after death?’ that is whispered in my ear. He is back. Or hasn’t left.

If I believe my lecture to Jonathan on his death bed about love and memory, I should be less distressed than I am. Regretfully, the platitudes have lost their vibrancy. “He’ll live on in your heart.” “You’ll be comforted by all your wonderful memories.” Like hell. My memories serve not to comfort. Rather, they reinforce how much I have lost.

            I was missing a person who I loved deeply too, when I wrote this. Hear those plaintive horns, rising with ever increasing intensity, and those repeated chords crashing one after another? I was standing by his coffin, trying to make sense of his life with all its struggles, passions, and aspirations. I kept asking myself, ‘What now? What is this life and this death? Do we have an existence beyond it?’

Well, Gustav, old man, don’t look to me for answers. I have a question of my own.

Where is that balm of Gilead to make our wounds whole, to heal our sickened souls?

 

Peter Oundjian takes what seems an extended pause after the climactic conclusion to the first movement.

            I like this. I had originally decreed a five-minute break between the first and second movements to allow the audience to make the transition.

Well, I think that would be a bit excessive for the modern concertgoer.

            It’s important that one not be in such a rush that you miss out on life’s essence.

I chuckle. Oops. Did I do that out loud? Babs turns around and gives me a modestly scolding glance. Now look at what you made me do. I was laughing about your ‘life’s essence’ remark. From what I understand, you indulged quite a bit in life’s essences with your tempestuous love affairs.

            And what of it? My time with my various mistresses was full of life and vibrancy and excitement, as well as the drama and heartache. But Mein Freund, let your mind wander as the orchestra plays the second movement. It is so light and graceful and exuberant. Think back. You must surely have had the experience of burying someone who was very dear to you, and then, as you leave the gravesite, you remember some long forgotten experiences of shared happiness, and it is as if a sunbeam sweeps into your soul, obliterating, for a moment, the reality of what you’ve just been through.

Peter brings up his baton. I close my eyes. The strings begin delicately. Three-quarter time, a quiet, affectionate waltz. I smile as the music evokes candlelight and laughter, as at a party in a Jane Austen novel.

And then a succession of other images flood in.

 

  • Snuggled together in our cabin suite, we watched the sun set over Venice as the Orient Express pulled out of the station. After dressing into our tuxedos, we were ready for dinner. Just as we came out of our compartment, the train lurched slightly to the side. Jonathan caught me and gave me a gratuitous squeeze. We made our way through the bar car, where Jean-Jacques winked at us as he played “Misty” on the grand piano. Andreas met us at the dining car entrance, greeted us with a warm smile and a ‘Buona sera, i signori,’ escorted us to our table, held our chairs as we sat down, and then handed us the evening’s menu. To the annoyance of a couple across the aisle that seemed anxious to use us as their audience, Jonathan and I secluded ourselves in our own romantic bubble, conversing softly, laughing regularly, and making our way through several bottles of fine wine with the various courses. We finished dinner just shy of midnight, and we headed back to our cabin. Once inside, I pressed the steward button. Vincenzo tapped lightly. I opened the door and gave him an order for two cognacs. Some considerable time later, I slipped out from Jonathan’s sleeping embrace and into my own bed.

 

  • Margaret and I smiled at each other as we simultaneously noticed Jeremy pacing with nervous excitement outside the front door of the Art Gallery of Ontario. He ran toward us and grabbed hold of Margaret’s arm, almost throwing her off balance as he rushed her through the front door. We were surprised when he led us, at breakneck speed, not toward the exhibition of new contemporary Canadian art where his The Kiss was on display, but instead into a smaller room of recent Aboriginal acquisitions. With laughter and tears intermingled and with arms flapping hysterically, he jumped and skipped in front of the vibrant Norvel Morrisseau painting, Self-Portrait—Devoured by His Demons, extolling to us his unfettered ecstasy at the passion that it exuded.

 

  • The rain kept us inside the tent playing cards. Eventually, Patricia, Carolyn, and I were sufficiently exhausted to be persuaded to bed with only modest protests. About two o’clock in the morning, a horrendous crash jarred all of us awake, stupefying Mom and Dad and terrifying us kids. Hours worth of rainwater had accumulated in the sagging roof of the add-on, eventually reaching a weight that overwhelmed the aluminium poles holding it erect. The supports gave way, and the mini-lake exploded down onto our doorstep, with more than a little water seeping in through the zippered front flap. We slept for the rest of the night in the car, initially somewhat traumatized, but by morning, we were quite thrilled by the unexpected addition to our summer camping adventure.

 

            Sweet memories, Tom.

Yes. You are right, Gustav. Thank you for that.

 

The timpani reverberates into my reveries like a crash of thunder.

            Sorry. I feel compelled to awaken you from that blissful dreaming and force you to return to this tangled life of ours.

The jarring introduction to the third movement progresses into a sweeping series of orchestral waves, some of which appear lighthearted and others of which exude robust energy. But there is something untrustworthy going on, an ominousness disguised as innocence.

            It may easily happen that the surge of life, ceaselessly in motion, never resting, never comprehensible, suddenly seems eerie, like the billowing, dancing figures in a brightly lit ballroom that you gaze into from outside, in the dark—and from a distance so great that you can no longer hear the music. Then the turning and twisting movement of the couples seems senseless. You must imagine that, to one who has lost his identity and his happiness, the world looks like this—distorted and crazy, as if reflected in a concave mirror. Life becomes meaningless. He despairs of himself and of God, losing the firm footing that only love affords. He cries out in a scream of anguish.

You’re preaching to the choir here. ‘Life becoming meaningless’—that’s my theme song these days. It’s not only the personal losses.

I dedicated my career to trying to make the world a better place and to reduce suffering. So little to show for all the effort. Emissions keep on racing higher …

The orchestra is barreling along at an ever more frenetic pace, the brass pushing the adrenalin to almost intolerable levels. Shrill, acerbic sounds pierce through the hall.

… and really, my professional despair is not for myself. I’ve got a roof over my head. But what about those millions of poor whose roofs are being blown off, whose fields are becoming deserts, whose lives are now all about searching for scarce water or fleeing the raging cascades of too much?

            You’re asking, ‘Why did I live? Is it all nothing but a huge, frightful joke? Do our lives have a meaning?’

A climax is reached. A progression of repeated, exhausted, descending chromatic scales reduce the volume and tempo until one sole horn stands alone, quietly holding a muted and dissipating note.

Damn, I’m tired. You’re right, Gustav. I am despairing of myself and of God. Where, by the way, is he in all of this? When are we going to see some evidence that he does give a damn about “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine”?

I’m tired.

 

The program says Susan Platts, mezzo-soprano. With my sincere apologies to you, Susan, I’m not hearing you. I seem to be channeling Big Mo.

Maureen Forrester, contralto.

The stillness in the hall is riveting as the fourth movement begins. The whispered voice, making an ineffably sublime entrance, lays the opening phrase on our hearts, like someone placing a rose ever so gently on the coffin of a lover. A two-beat rest. Muted brass enter softly and play a melody with the most luxurious, choral-like harmony.

            Thank you.

Maureen/Susan re-emerges with slightly increased volume, yet the same intense, understated emotion. The beauty is of such intensity that I’m hardly able to breath.

Do you understand …?

Yes, you don’t have to translate. “Man lies in deepest need. Man lies in deepest pain.”

            And we do. I did. Now you do.

An oboe solo brings the first stanza to a serene conclusion.

A quickened tempo shifts the atmospherics toward a sort of pastoral light and then into an affirmation, composed and sung not just to express hope but also to assert a seemingly unequivocal conviction of heart and mind.

That’s right. Ich bin von Gott und will weider zu Gott.

I am breathing again, not from an infusion of oxygen, but to placate my consternation.

How can you write that when you’re not particularly religious? “I am from God and will return to God.” Do you believe that?

            Well … it is the actual text of a poem from Des Knaben Wunderhorn …

So, you’re just using it for artistic purposes. You don’t really believe it.

I didn’t say that. I do believe in God … I guess, though I’m just not sure who or what God is …

But this profession of faith in God in the fourth movement is at such odds with the angst of the tortured soul in everything that has preceded it in the symphony. Is it that simple? You just say that you believe in God and eternal life and all the existential and spiritual questions are suddenly resolved? Give me a break.

            We’re not done yet.

 

Gustav is right. The tranquility of the fourth movement is blown apart by the crashing, cacophonous opening of the fifth and final movement. People around me jump. Just as unexpectedly, the bravura fades into a complex and extended orchestral passage, initially very quiet and then giving way to full-bodied dynamism. Throughout both the soft and the blaring moments, there is an ethos of otherworldliness. At times, some of the brass is literally distant, playing offstage, their notes emerging as if from some far-off place. Eventually, the instrumentation resolves down to only a few horns, a flute, and a piccolo, offering a quiet and mystical fanfare. Leading to what?

Initially unaccompanied, the mass choir enters stunningly, at a whisper, with a prayerful interpretation of a resurrection-themed text. Gradually and gently, the orchestra, starting with strings, undergirds them as they give voice to a faith in the surety of immortal life.

            I discovered that text quite unexpectedly. I was struggling with how to bring the symphony to a satisfying culmination when I attended a memorial service for my sometimes-mentor, sometimes-antagonist, the composer Hans von Bülow, who had died in Cairo on January 12, 1894. At the memorial service held for him in Hamburg a couple months later, a children’s chorus sang a very moving hymn using this text by Friedrich Klopstock. I knew, then and there, that this text gave me the solution to my dilemma about how to conclude the symphony.

Gustav, your musical accompaniment for it is so incredibly beautiful …

            But?

You may have been able to resolve your compositional dilemma, but I can’t as easily resolve my spiritual dilemmas.

            We’re not done yet.

You said that before.

Listen now, my dear Tom, to the conclusion of the symphony, starting with this alto solo, then the lines by the soprano, and then the final two stanzas by the full chorus. This is no longer Klopstock’s poem. I wrote this text myself. I know it’s not the rigid, traditional theological interpretation. But it’s where I was at that moment in my life.

I am back in the here and now. Maureen Forrester is gone, laid to rest herself in June, three months after Jonathan. Now, sitting in Roy Thomson Hall on Thursday, September 23, 2010, I hear the actual corporeal voices of Susan Platts and Isabel Bayrakdarian, under the baton of Peter Oundjian:

 

O believe, my heart, O believe:

Nothing is lost with thee!

Thine is what thou hast desired!

What thou hast loved,

What thou hast fought for!

 

O believe,

Thou wert not born in vain!

Hast not lived in vain,

Suffered in vain!

 

What has come into being

Must perish!

What has perished must rise again!

Cease from trembling!

Prepare thyself to live!

 

O Pain, thou piercer of all things!

From thee have I been wrested!

O Death! Thou masterer of all things!

Now art thou mastered!

 

With wings which I have won me,

In love’s fierce striving,

I shall soar upwards

to the light to which no eye has soared!

I shall die, to live!

 

Rise again, yea thou wilt rise again,

My heart, in the twinkling of an eye!

What thou has fought for

Shall lead thee to God!

 

The audience is on its feet applauding. I sit and stare straight ahead.

Auf wiedersehen, Mein Freund.

 

The steward, a small pile of discarded programs in her hands, stands for a few moments at the end of my row. Everyone else has left.

She coughs, quietly.

When I don’t look up, she says, softly and apologetically, “I’m sorry, sir. I’m going to have to ask you to leave.”

I nod and get up, holding onto the back of my chair for balance.

As I walk up the stairs to the exit door, I pause, turn around, and take one more look at the dark, deserted stage.

I am not the one leaving.

I am the one who has been left.

And left with a shattered heart.

A heart, which, I hope and pray, ‘wilt rise again’. Someday.

I walk down through the lobby and out into the night air.

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The Paradox of Music in Times of Isolation – comforting yet prodding our grief

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

In these days, weeks, and months of isolation due to the coronavirus pandemic, music is playing a key role in comforting us as we struggle with our fears, our loneliness, and our depression.

But ironically, it can also provoke pain. That’s not a bad thing. It’s a good thing.

For musicians, as therapeutic as it might be to play and record music in conjunction with others for online transmission through the wonders of technology, it reinforces their painful reality of not being able to perform together live on stage with their much-beloved colleagues in front of an audience.

For us non-performers, listening to music such as the many wonderful new online creations of musicians and the many archival performances that are being streamed by arts organisations touches a deep level in our souls at the same depth where hovers our fear of sickness and death and our sadness about the constrained situation in which we find ourselves as individuals and societies.

That capacity of music to touch us so deeply (physically, psychologically, emotionally, spiritually) intensifies our pain. And that’s okay. Connecting with our pain through the mysterious energy of music is, counterintuitively, a way for us to live through these difficult times. The music prompts tears for both performers and listeners. And when we weep together, we feel palpably how much we are not alone. We are together as lovers of music. And the music itself is a modality of this companionship. As we support each other, we are surrounded, indeed bathed in, the ethos of the music in all its tragic, heart-wrenching, poignant, profound, contemplative, idiosyncratic, exhilarating, exuberant, joyful manifestations.

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

A few recent examples:

  • On Sunday morning March 22nd, Jeff Beecher, the Principal Bass with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra, posted a 4 ½ minute video online of him and twenty-seven of his TSO colleagues, all safely physically-distanced in their own homes, performing the hauntingly beautiful “Simple Gifts” from Aaron Copland’s “Appalachian Spring.” It was one of the first such online musical creations of this pandemic era. Jeff said, “I was missing my colleagues and the vital nutrient of sharing live music with audiences in Toronto. And I was plagued by this existential question that we’re now all asking ourselves in every medium and industry—how can I help?” So, he recruited colleagues and the video was the result. It took off like wildfire. As of this writing, it has been viewed 426,771 times in Canada and around the world. I posted it on my Facebook page and immediately started getting responses. A musician friend in San Francisco messaged me saying, “I was blown away by the coordination and the humanity. So beautiful! Copland has always been one of my favorite composers, and Simple Gifts, a favorite piece. I cried when I heard the TSO version.” Like Jeff, so many musicians have commented in online posts over the past weeks about how very much they miss their colleagues and the chance to perform live together on stage. Musicians, by their very being, have well-springs of creative energy that crave to be expressed in the performance of their art. They are developing a myriad of creative responses for expression nowadays from which they and we listeners benefit, but that only partially compensates for what they are missing. They, and we with them, are grieving what the pandemic has deprived us all of. That was reinforced on Friday May 1st as the TSO broadcast online its first Watch Party. It was bittersweet. On the one hand, it was thrilling to see the Oct. 19, 2017 TSO performance of Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde” conducted by TSO Music Director Emeritus Peter Oundjian with mezzo-soprano Susan Platts and tenor Michael Schade. But yet it was so sad that we were not at Roy Thomson Hall that evening listening to Peter conducting the TSO in Mahler’s 5th Symphony as had been scheduled before all our lives entered this twilight zone of the coronavirus pandemic. In a brief pre-performance online conversation among Peter Oundjian, TSO Concertmaster Jonathan Crow, and TSO Principal Harp Heidi Elise Bearcroft, each of them safely ensconced in their respective homes, Heidi and Jonathan surprised Peter by playing a short version of the Adagietto from Mahler’s 5th Symphony that Heidi had arranged for harp and violin. All of them had tears in their eyes at the end as did I and I’m sure many of the others who were watching online. It wasn’t just because it’s such a beautifully mournful piece of music, but because their playing of it had touched our regret and sadness that we weren’t all together listening to Mahler’s 5th in Roy Thomson Hall. Sadness, true, but what a connection we all felt at that moment. We were separated but we were not alone. We had each other and we had the music;
  • On Saturday April 15th, I sat glued to my computer screen all afternoon watching the Metropolitan Opera’s At-Home Gala with forty opera singers performing from their homes around the world in support of the MET’s fundraising campaign. The MET, like all performing arts organisations, is confronting a fiscal crisis with the cancellation of live performances. It was an unexpectedly emotional broadcast with music and artists offering balm for our souls during this time of global crisis. Renée Fleming teared up on camera after singing “Ave Maria” from Verdi’s “Otello.” Joyce DiDinato performed a moving tribute with the viola section in memory of orchestra violist Vincent Lionti who had died of Covid-19 a few weeks earlier. Bryn Terfel and Hannah Stone in Wales performed the so-appropriate spiritual “If I can help somebody.” There was such humanity of the artists on display, such deep friendships evident amongst them, and such sadness for all of us in these days when live performances on stage are not possible. With his voice cracking, Music Director Yannick Nézet-Séguin said in closing, “Music and art cannot be silenced.” A week later, I watched a broadcast of a Carnegie Hall recital taped on December 15, 2019 of Joyce DiDonato singing Schubert’s “Winterreise” with Yannick Nézet-Séguin accompanying her on the piano. The artistic respect and personal affection that the two have for each other was evident throughout the performance and was grippingly on display at the end. After the last gorgeous notes had been left to hang poignantly in the hall and as the rapturous applause began to erupt from the capacity audience, the two of them approached each other and embraced, hugging tightly for quite some time. It was very moving to witness such an intimate moment … but also jarring and saddening because they and we are now deprived of such opportunities to express affection in these days of physical-distancing;
  • I attend a church in downtown Toronto. We’re a small congregation that is diverse in age, gender, race, ethnic origin, sexual orientation, etc. Now that we can’t worship together in our church building on Sundays because of the pandemic shutdown, we’re struggling to do so on Zoom. The Zoom technology is new to many and it’s taken a few weeks to get the hang of it. There are still glitches, but nobody minds. The community is able to gather and that’s what’s important. There’s always a time of sharing and last week, an older woman acknowledged that she was having mobility problems and now with the pandemic restrictions, she was finding it difficult to get out for groceries. The other members rallied to assist her. The worship service planner called her later and asked if she’d be willing to sing a solo in the service today. She agreed and did so this morning. In the sharing time after the service, she said, “I can’t tell you how grateful I am that you asked me to sing for you all today. All week long, I was singing the song to myself. The music provided such nourishment to my soul. I kept singing it over and over. I cried but I also smiled. It lifted my spirits. I’m very thankful.”

We are not alone. We have each other. And we have music.

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A View of China from an Insider/Outsider – Robert F. Delaney’s debut novel “The Wounded Muse”

Robert F. Delaney knows a lot about China and its relationship to the West. He has lived in China off and on and covered it as a journalist for almost thirty years.

Delaney also knows a lot about cultural understandings toward sexual orientation. He is an openly gay man who has experienced the challenges of conflicting attitudes toward queer folk within and between North American and Asian societies.

In his debut novel, The Wounded Muse, Delaney melds these insights and with a masterful command of the art of fiction writing crafts a novel of intrigue, suspense, drama, and poignancy.

The protagonist Jake is a business journalist who fought his way out of a homophobic upbringing in the US Deep South, cleverly played the academic game at Ivy League universities to get what he wanted, and landed himself in China to study and work. He fell in love with China and immersed himself in language training in rural parts of the country where he encountered people whose depth of humanity opened him in ways he had not expected. But then, as his career took off and he found himself running faster and faster to meet the demands of his American editors while avoiding tripping up the surveillance and security apparatus of China, he loses, perhaps unavoidably, that humanity that he had absorbed earlier.

…it occurs to Jake…how far he’s drifted from the language student (he was) who enjoyed splitting watermelon seeds between his teeth for hours with Chinese families who would adopt him, at least temporarily, as their train snaked through river valleys and dusty towns. Back when he used to listen and appreciate. Back when he didn’t need distance.

“The distance” that Jake feels he now has to maintain as a high-profile American journalist in China is a subtle strategy that Delaney uses to exemplify the fine line of simultaneously being an insider and an outsider. Delaney has us walking, as Jake is walking, that amorphous grey terrain, where Jake is immersed in China and yet is suspect as a foreigner, where he recognizes that he’s respected in the US for his journalist work but he feels contemptuous of the hypocrisy of his American bosses. Jake lives in both worlds and yet doesn’t feel at home in either. We as readers experience a dis-ease in reading The Wounded Muse and much of it stems from Delaney’s skill in leading us into the quicksand of Jake’s life in Beijing.

This is the exterior: the insider/outsider context in which Delaney places Jake.

But the core of the novel is the interior: an insider/outsider conflict lodged deep in Jake’s heart.

Jake is in love with Qiang, a documentary filmmaker. Jake dreams of being in relationship with Qiang but Qiang rebuffs Jake, at least temporarily, because of Qiang’s focus on his current documentary related to the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

…Jake wants to turn this into the moment he’s been trying to create since he first met Qiang a year earlier… this moment is crucial. Jake’s heart pounds so powerfully that it rattles his ribs … he moves closer to Qiang, making his intention clear … But Qiang takes a step back and shakes his head slightly with a pained expression. The reaction suffocates Jake like a wrestler who’s suddenly subdued … “Look”, Qiang says, “my life right now is nothing but this project” … Jake can’t speak. He wants to open a vein to let the humiliation and sorrow drain out and run down a gutter” …

And shortly thereafter, Chinese authorities arrest Qiang on suspicion of sedition.

Delaney leads us through Jake’s frantic efforts along with a few others who are close to Qiang to seek his release with Jake not being able to open up to the others about the depth of his feelings for Qiang, trying (not always successfully) to avoid Chinese authorities suspecting him of being gay which would further complicate the search for Qiang, and, most torturously, being passionately bound to Qiang inside his heart but not in a consummated reciprocal relationship with the object of his affection.

Inside Jake’s soul, he is one with Qiang.

Outside, with Qiang’s friends, the Chinese authorities, and Qiang himself, Jake is not one with Qiang.

The Wounded Muse is a complex, suspenseful, and poignant novel with the layering of the insider/outsider perspectives a token to Delaney’s impressive skill as a writer.

Wounded Muse

* * *

For information on Robert F. Delaney’s writings, see: https://robertfdelaney.net

For information on my memoir August Farewell, my novel Searching for Gilead, and my collection of gay literary short stories Book Tales, see: http://www.DavidGHallman.com

 

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