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The Other Notebook
by David Helwig

How do we shape our lives, make up our minds where we’re going? Sometimes we act when there is no clear need to act. We make a decision. Or is that the right word? We create situations that make the next step likely or inevitable.

Ten years ago I began to write this monthly piece for The Buzz, writing about anything that I thought might be interesting. The title I chose, The Other Notebook, implies that it was a column for the occasional, the suggestive, the mysteriously memorable. Each month I waited for a moment, a thought, an offhand remark that was resonant, that offered a subject for argument or explication or meditation.

A few weeks ago I found myself in Toronto, and as is often the case when travelling, there were moments that lit up, interesting in themselves, to be developed, perhaps, into something more. A morning visit to the Royal Ontario Museum led me into a display in a far corner, where there were samples of what are called “proverbial coffins,” inventive funeral furnishings created by the Ga tribe in Ghana. One of the coffins was shaped and painted like a huge fish, probably a red snapper. Another was a somewhat miniaturized Mercedes Benz. The coffin-sized sculptured boxes treated death as an opportunity—splendid, half-comic—to sum up a vanished life.

A day or so later I was in the Art Gallery of Ontario. On display was a travelling show of the work of Jean-Michel Basquiat, a black American artist and musician who began as a street artist, building a style out of wall art and graffiti, and died in 1988 from a heroin overdose. He was twenty seven.

By chance I walked into the Basquiat exhibition just after passing by a series of symbolic figures by the Canadian Anishnaabe artist Norval Morrisseau. I was struck by my sense of an imaginative parallel between the two artists, suggestions of spiritual struggle and intense dramatic eloquence, but the treatment of the painting’s surface was very different, Basquiat working his symbolic figures in the apparently disorganized gestures of scribbling on walls, while Morrisseau designed his bright decorative silhouettes in the manner of an accomplished craftsman. Yet both, outsiders in their world, created symbolic portraits of great force.

Is there more to be said? Not right now. Outside the museums and galleries, the streets were frozen, in the grip of wind, ice and snow. It wasn’t the season for exploration, and yet as I went from place to place, I carried with me memories of the city, the streetcars that transported my family downtown back when I was five or six years old, restaurants in familiar districts where I used to meet with friends while I was in town doing freelance gigs. I could remember that I was seven years old when World War II ended, and I tried to organize a parade down the sidewalk of our street.

In attendance at St Stephen in the Fields, where my daughter was being installed as the incumbent priest, I heard a familiar musical setting of a George Herbert poem. It was written by my old friend Bill Barnes who died of complications of diabetes in Kingston, Ontario in 1992.

And then … 

Of course there are more memories that might be written down, the scraps of the past we all carry about, echoes resonating through the aging mind, love and death, the explicable and inexplicable night figures, the way a newly discovered Jewish restaurant recalled another that had moved away.

I have spent nine full and happy years, just starting the tenth, letting these corners of the mind, dark and light, speak their piece here. Don’t overstay your welcome, I’ve always told myself. So I’m closing The Other Notebook. I’ve warned the editor and thanked him for his hospitality.

My thanks also to all those who have made the trip with me.

The Buzz heartily thanks David Helwig.

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