WATCHING THE OPENING CEREMONY

Friday night, my husband and I got together with two of our sons—Simon and Christian—and our friend Cindy to watch the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in Rio.

We made an event of it. We set up TV tables in the livingroom, grilled some pork chops on the bar-b-que and opened a bottle of delicious red wine.

Friday was a scorcher in Montreal. Thirty-three degrees Celsius (91.4 Farenheit), and my livingroom isn’t air-conditioned. The only thing providing even the slightest illusion of coolness was the rotating floor fan. I bet it was a lot fresher in Brazil.

But we hung in there, and I’m trying to figure out why.

Rio de Janeiro – Cerimônia de abertura dos Jogos Olímpicos Rio 2016 no Estádio do Maracanã. (Fernando Frazão/Agência Brasil)
Dancers perform during the opening ceremony of the Rio 2016 Olympic Games at Maracana Stadium in Rio de Janeiro on August 5, 2016. / AFP / Roberto SCHMIDT (Photo credit should read ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images)

As is often the case, Simon was our event planner, which is probably the most important piece of this puzzle, because last night was about all of us following his lead. Which we often do. Easily and happily. Simon has an affinity for shared joy  and we’re smart enough to tag along.

Part of the equation is the TV itself. It stands in as a hearth—though it felt more like there was a bonfire in the room— and we love to gather around it. We do this on Super Bowl Sunday despite the fact that our sons have no interest in football. We do it on provincial and federal election nights when the stakes always seem to be high and the only thing that makes the tension bearable is being together to endure it. We also do it when a movie we saw and loved in the cinema is released on DVD and when Netflix has just introduced a terrific new series. Small traditions.

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These are hard times for idealists. Among other things, this has been the year of Donald Trump, of Sepp Blatter’s undoing and of the Russian doping scandal. Of the I.O.C. and FIFA being true to form: sports federations acting like cartels.

And yet still we wanted to watch.

This is the mystery. We aren’t naïve, nor are we flag waving patriots—we’re pretty much run of the mill Canadians and Québécois: not a jingoistic cell in our bodies. But when the Games come around and the media buzz starts, we can’t help but be drawn in.

We love to watch the sports that still seem amateur, like rowing, diving, canoing and swimming (no one goes into rowing for the money). We’re captivated by the personal stories that emerge during the Games and the surprises, like Simon Whitfield’s gold medal in Sydney.

We love the human drama and we love the performances. We’re drawn to the metaphor of the Games as a global gathering place, which has real meaning—especially for me.

But as I sat watching Rio’s opening ceremony, something was missing, and it was hard to ignore this absence.

There was no moment of visual poetry like the archer lighting the cauldron in Barcelona; no young Céline Dion—just 24 at the time—filling the massive stadium in Atlanta with her voice, singing to an audience of billions without a tremor; and no Shayne Koyczan standing alone with a mic, speaking the words of We Are More with a ferocious passion the likes of which Canadians rarely experience.

Shayne Koyczan at the Vancouver Opening Ceremony, 2010

Maybe, with Olympics now arriving in two year cycles, it isn’t possible to keep feeling the same excitement.

Maybe it’s because I watched the 2012 London Summer Games opening ceremony in a hotel room across from the Gare de Lyon in Paris: an impossibly improbable (but real) and incomparable moment in my life against which this time paled.

I saw that Christian—the youngest of us at 25—was perplexed by our loyalty to an event and an organisation that lost its integrity decades ago (I know that he would say in 1936).

Well, I do share Christian’s disillusionment. I remember the 1976 Summer Games because my summer job had me working at the central message service in the Games headquarters downtown (while my then future husband worked as a security guard at the Olympic Stadium). The scale and budget of those Games weren’t yet immoral.

My memories of Montreal’s opening ceremony are of a pre-digital non-extravaganza that included rather innocent, folkloric choreographies and costumes. I can still see Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson, young and flawless (and very white), as they lit the Olympic flame.

Stéphane Préfontaine and Sandra Henderson light the torch in Montreal, 1976

But of course, those Games burdened Quebec’s citizens with a debt that it took thirty years to clear. None of us feel wistful about that. But at least our stadium is still standing and most of the installations were repurposed and have enhanced the city’s life.

Construction of the Olympic Stadium, Montreal
The former Velodrome has been converted into a Biodome, Montreal.
The Montreal Olympic stadium today

Several host countries since then have not even had our good fortune, including Greece, Russia, Bosnia and China. Many of their Olympic sites look like wrecked ships dredged up from the ocean floor, or an area trashed by a hedonistic mob.

The Sarajevo Olympic podium was later used for executions during the Bosnian War. (Photo: Hedwig Klawuttke/CC BY-SA 3.0)

I sometimes feel like I could be buried alive in the cynicism of the times. It certainly seems like 21st technology—especially I.T.—has blasted the doors open to the commodification of everything. That makes it perversely easy to devalue everything and see nothing but rapacious greed and corruption beneath the veneer of the human world.

Last Friday night, watching events in Rio, I felt myself swaying in that direction.

And then, the following morning, the first thing my husband did upon waking was turn on the TV and set it to the CBC’s coverage of the Games. And the room was filled with the voices of broadcasters in their temporary high profile assignments enthusiastically describing events.

For the sixteen days of the Games, the TV will stay on most of the day and evening (sometimes with the volume turned down, but there nevertheless). This constant streaming makes our home feel more open and alive. It just does.

My sister-in-law confessed to me a couple of days ago that she prefers to watch the Games alone because then she feels free to jump and scream and rant and rave and cry unself-consciously. She says that she can’t explain what comes over her and she doesn’t care.

That sympathetic response that’s being set off in her is felt by millions of viewers of the Games.

Last night, a gawky sixteen year-old Canadian swimmer named Penny Oleksiak stepped onto the blocks at the swimming pool in Rio and ripped through the water doing the 100m butterfly so fast that the fluid displacement created a mini tsunami behind her. She isn’t swimming for money, or to move a political agenda ahead, or to increase her power and influence.

Though she mostly looked awkward, nonplussed and then elated on land with her silver medal hanging from her neck, Penny Oleksiak was and is a kinaesthetic genius in the water: her medium.

This, to me, is the principle reason why we watch the Olympics. For the bursts of joy and ecstasy that are created by the beauty and perfection of human bodies in motion, and the elevation of the spirit that we feel as we witness them together.

Mark Tewksbury wins the gold medal in the 100m backstroke, Barcelona 1992

 

 

CARRYING YOUR CHILDHOOD WITH YOU

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

Abraham Sutzkever

 

I came across this quote one morning.  Scanned it in a flash. It felt so familiar. Almost toss away. A well-worn reference to being young at heart, or to the importance of cherishing my inner child. Trite.

 

And then I read it a second time, and noticed that where my eyes had registered child, they should have read childhood.

It was early and I sat staring at the screen, bothered by the way that word altered Sutzkever’s message.

What did he intend? What does it mean to “become older” ?

I looked him up, and learned that he was a great Yiddish poet and survivor of the Holocaust. Born in Belarus in 1913, he later lived in Lithuania and was sent to the Vilna Ghetto during World War II.

And I thought: well of course, he was 26 when the war began. Memories of his childhood would have sustained him; he would have drawn deeply from that well of familial love, protection and relative innocence—and then the words “you never become older” : those foundational memories acting as a talisman of sorts, warding off the damaging effects of disillusionment, cruelty, suffering and despair in a world made by adults.

Alexander Milov’s “Love”

I’m not sure of any of this. I don’t even know whether he wrote this or spoke it. And so, what I have is what his words mean to me and might mean to anyone else.

I’m puzzled by the phrase.

“If you carry your childhood with you, you never become older.” 

IF ?

There’s no if. We all carry our childhood with us. What matters, then, is only whether its weight supports and grounds us or instead burdens us—and if so, how heavy the burden is.

If I polled a bunch of people asking them to list the distinctive elements of childhood, what would they come up with? Maybe something like:

 

It’s precious because it’s over so quickly;

It’s the most carefree period of a human being’s life;

It’s usually the healthiest period, too;

It’s when humans change the most rapidly;

It’s when we’re most curious and able to learn;

When our minds are most plastic;

It’s the only age of innocence;

It’s when everything seems possible.

 

A positive list. But few of those elements can be carried forward into the future because time runs out on them.

I’m bothered by statements like Sutzkever’s that are predicated on the notion that childhood is the space-time of optimistic possibility from which we slowly but surely lose our way.

I’m bothered by the unintended pessimism of it.

Władysław Wankie. Alone in the Park. ca. 1900

Childhood is frequently the place of our deepest wounds and traumas, and when this is so—especially when this is so— it  becomes either the crushing burden that stunts us for life, or else a powerful agent of resilience; of growth through experience.

I resist the implications of Sutzkever’s message and others like it because I don’t believe that a happy childhood is a sine qua non for a happy life.

I think it’s probably true that:

Anybody who has survived his childhood has enough information about life to last him the rest of his days.”

― Flannery O’Connor, Mystery and Manners: Occasional Prose

The wryness of this makes me smile.

I see childhood as a crucial period of growth on a lifelong transformative continuum.

Penelope and Graeme, photo by Anne Hildebrand

We speak of childhood as an idyll, but I think that our vulnerability in childhood is one of its most poignant dimensions.

Watching my grandchildren Penelope (four), and Graeme (two), grow up is a daily reminder of this. While I feel all kinds of strong impulses to protect and shelter them, I believe that this same vulnerability  is childhood’s precious bridge to adulthood. From our places of shelter and support, we learn to go out into the world and live fully.

Why wish to never become older?

Just a few months ago, as her father—my son Jeremy—was putting her to bed, Penelope had a moment. Lying above the blankets, her lovely eyes welled up and she turned to her father and said:

“I miss myself when I was a baby.

Oh papa, I’m so tired.”

Imagine that.

Maybe she felt old that day.

Maybe she has already begun to understand that she’s leaving her childhood behind a little bit every day.

The next morning, she woke up rested, happy and looking forward to what the day might bring. Four years old and fresh as a daisy.

She and her brother do this every time they go out into the world and gather experience, as they, like their parents, constantly reinvent themselves and grow older together.

Penelope and Graeme looking for the squirrel, fall 2015, photo by Anne Hildebrand

 

Because never in my entire childhood did I feel like a child. I felt like a person all along―the same person that I am today.”

― Orson Scott CardEnder’s Game

A note about the photos of Alexander Milov’s gorgeous sculptures:

Gripping Sculpture At Burning Man Reveals The Harsh Truth About Adulthood

Published sept. 2015

“This year, the “Burning Man” festival in Nevada featured its first artistic piece from Ukraine. Alexander Milov’s “Love” was the first Ukrainian piece to receive a festival grant in 30 years. The sculpture consists of two hollow, metal frame human silhouettes, one man, one female, sitting back to back. Sculptures of children touch inside of them (and light up at night).

“It demonstrates a conflict between a man and a woman as well as the outer and inner expression of human nature,” Milnov explains. “Their inner selves are executed in the form of transparent children, who are holding out their hands through the grating. As it’s getting dark (night falls) the children start to shine. This shining is a symbol of purity and sincerity that brings people together and gives a chance of making up when the dark time arrives.”  “