Tonight I'm at the office working to finalise a proposal until after nine, and then on the way home I stop and pick up a couple of things I need for my lunches over the rest of the week; so it's close to ten when I get home. That's when it occurs to me I didn't take a picture today. I look out the window and the best idea I can think of for a picture, fast, is going up to the roof.
I walk slow around the perimeter of my building's rooftop, and then linger looking out over the highways, remembering a time I looked out over a Toronto highway when I was a kid. We'd come up to visit "Great Mike," the uncle of my Mom and Aunt Martha. I suppose I was about 10.
In that period, a favourite toy of mine was "Doodle Art" – a busy line drawing poster that came rolled up in a tube with a set of markers for you to fill in the drawings with colour. It was somewhere in the very early 1970s, so Doodle Art images were always kind of groovy. My favourite one was called "Progress" and it was a picture of a winding collection of roads curling up and across the poster, teaming with funky vehicles and curious cartoony characters.
That time we visited Great Mike in Toronto, we stayed in the Holiday Inn up near Yordale Mall overlooking highway 401. I was in the middle of growing up in a small-ish town and I was taken with the sight of the highway ribbon, and kept staring out the window at the constant stream of lights streaming over the back it. I thought it was exotic and magical, like that Doodle Art I had back home in my room in my house in my town.
I couldn't have known then that I would grow up to despise driving in traffic like that; and yet still, at 51, think the streaming trails of light winding in and out of the city are ever so interesting and, on nights like tonight, quite beautiful.
Yesterday I see a young guy flying by on a BIXI bike, unbuttoned jacket fluttering behind him like a super hero’s cape in the wind. He’s wearing the uniform of an airline pilot, including the hat, which is tipped jauntily on the back of his head. His long, slim form creates angular shapes on the bike which is not adjusted to his height; and his trousers ride up to expose skinny sock covered ankles and long feet. With the fast, purposeful pedalling, I’m again reminded of Miss Gulch. It crosses my mind that he’s late for a flight, but he’s riding in the opposite direction of the downtown airport.
About 20 minutes later, I see the fella again; strolling back the other way, arm in arm with a gal. He wasn’t, it appears, late for a flight. He was late for a homecoming.
Early in the week I stop on my way home for something to eat after working late. About halfway through my meal a couple sits at a table nearby. They seem mismatched, both in size and style. I check myself for making this judgement; after all I’d like to think I’m deep enough to remember that human connections have nothing to do with size or style; that they’re made up of much more interesting and mysterious things than that.
Still, humour me. He looks younger than her, at least by way of style. He looks to be the kind of guy who shops at the mall for clothing and assorted electronica and other boy bling with his buddies. That kind of guy didn’t exist when I was his age, in my little world anyway. Boy bling was only popular among the white polyester pants and open shirt set of my parents’ generation; and electronic toys came in really large boxes with really large woofers and tweeters that took up whole corners of living rooms or was installed in the doors and rear windows of the shaggy-haired owners’ beat up Monte Carlos.
This guy has perfectly trimmed hair and a nice shirt and expensive looking jacket and has just set his expensive phone on the table after checking for messages. The gal is not the kind you’d imagine our guy and his buddies cruising at the mall. She doesn’t look like she goes to malls much. Her hair isn’t modern; neither are her clothes. She doesn’t set a phone on the table upon sitting down.
But it’s not the appearance of the two that gets my attention, it’s the expression on his face: a bland smile, which is not a smile; the kind of face you wear on a first date when you’re trying to hide your disappointment, trying to pretend you’re up for a good time when really you’re counting the minutes to the moment when you can call an end to the evening and chalk it up to experience. His eyes match the insipidness of that not-a-smile, trying to look at her as if she were somehow interesting but seeing through her instead.
I can’t see her face but I expect it is either (1) wearing the same bland mask of resignation, or (2) wearing a face of an eager, insecure not-a-smile, not quite covering a furious search for something clever to say.
She takes a long time to order a drink and the guy and his bland not-a-smile are patient as the gal discusses options with the server. I'm taken back to a time when I was about 15, sitting in the corner of a car with a bunch of kids having skipped school on a gorgeous June afternoon. We stopped at a drive-through window and I ordered a large pop because I was thirsty but was mortified to discover just how large the large pop was, and I spent the rest of the glorious June afternoon feeling miserable and embarrassed about having ordered a bucket of pop (no doubt puny by today’s standards) and thinking I must look so ridiculous. Of course the only thing that made me look ridiculous was the embarrassment over a stupid cup of pop which nobody noticed. That moment of insecurity ruined the experience of the afternoon which should have been fun, with boys and skipping school and early summer and all.
My mortification over that pop is probably the only thing that keeps that memory alive in me. And what gives me compassion for that girl who seems to be trying hard to order the right drink. After she finally makes her decision, he orders a craft beer in a fancy bottle without hesitation.
I can’t bear to watch as she considers the food menu and turn back to my book, ironically, 51/50: The Magical Adventures of a Single Life, a memoir by Kristen McGuiness who embarked on 51 dates in 50 weeks. Looking up now and then I see the couple’s conversation slipping in and out of the air between them. When it’s not sliding off to the floor in a heap, the talking is quiet, serious, polite. He nods kindly at something she says and then it slithers away again. Between bites she watches the filler content running on the hockey channel right above their table. He looks around for something to be interested in.
No doubt I’m in tune with the couple because of this book I’m reading which is all about a whole bunch of first dates. I’d heard the author interviewed on the radio a year or two ago, and quite possibly it was she who inspired me to embark on my own Year of Dating Fearlessly. Certainly I’ve had my share of bad first dates, more of them than good ones and like McGuinness I was searching for some kind of flaw in me that was hindering the success rate.
In the end, my year of dating was more successful than hers – on one level. What we both got was a little more self-understanding. For me, it was a reaffirming of my awareness in knowing what I want and what I don’t want and being secure with that. I’d venture to say that wouldn’t be far off from what I knew back when I was 15. At least when I wasn’t agonizing about what boys were thinking about my drink choices.
As I ask for my bill, things seem to be warming up, the conversation more animated and relaxed. Maybe it’s the drinks loosening them up a little. I’m hopeful for them.
But then as I walk past them to leave, she’s watching the hockey channel with a bland not-a-smile and he’s talking on his cell phone; and my hope for them slides to the floor along with their failed conversation.
Last night I had conversations with four of my oldest and most valued friends. I wish we didn’t have the reason that we all talked, but that we did made me feel better than I had in the twenty-four hours previous. I hope that was the case for all of us. Mostly for Denis, because on New Year’s Day he lost his dad.
I’d been feeling blue about it on a number of levels. Mostly because someone I love is torn up; he’s been hit, unexpectedly, with life’s cruellest circumstance. His dad was a really lovely man; a husband in a seemingly inseparable partnership, a good father and pépé and neighbour and respected teacher and now he’s gone.
If I’m not censoring (it’s a start, Lisa), I’ll tell you that this is one of the two situations in the past year that threw my own mortality in my face. Hard. It sounds so selfish. My heart is truly with my friend, but a feeling of scared came swift and forceful. A parent is only one generation away.
I have all my parents – and none seems like s/he is going anywhere soon. But I got scared about losing them. They’re still too young. Like Denis’s dad. He shouldn’t have gone yet; his family’s hearts shouldn’t be heavy now. And yesterday evening I was wondering how to move out of the sudden funk – how could I call my friend and be supportive and somehow make it a little better when I felt like I was teetering on some thin emotional wire; psychically a piece of shit?
And then after supper I talked to Debbie. And then Denis. And then Robbie. And then Lynn. And at the end of the evening I was back on terra firma. I’m sure it’s because each of them were part of the journey to now. Last night I'd got away from the moment and they brought me back to it.
We all exist here in this unstoppable march of time and we all have to face it, and most of us deal with loss when it happens and maybe we don’t get over it but we learn to move on and to be happy again even if there is a new hole in the family’s fabric. But then again, isn't the fabric richer and more beautiful for that person having been a part of it?
The fabric is precious and beautiful and it’s all any of us has. And I’m not that articulate, but I’m sure it’s pretty much the point of it all.
This morning it’s deeply overcast; one of those rainy mornings when you wish it was Saturday but it’s really Thursday and so you drag yourself out of bed, late, and don’t care about what the clock says because everybody is late on a rainy day.
The atmosphere has an indigo-charcoal cast and soft, smoky clouds are obscuring the tops of the buildings. It’s warmer than usual and it’s raining lightly but it seems like the rain is coming down hard because of the thrusting winds.
I walk outside and one of those winds sweeps up smacks me wet in the face and so I look at the streetcars approaching the stops outside my building. One going east to Union Station would be a relatively fast ride, and then I could navigate my way through the station and walk the underground malls all the way to my office. I’m gauging the favourableness of that as opposed to the 25 minute blustery rainy walk when I get a look at the steamy windows of the streetcars and I think about the vacant, rude, blackberry punching humanity crammed inside, and that times a hundred teeming through Union Station, and I open up my polka dotted umbrella and tilt it into the wind and walk up into Spadina Avenue for my journey north-east to work.
Right away I smell the rain on the city and I’m glad I’ve chosen the walk, even though gusts blow up one side of me and down the other and I’m hanging on to my umbrella wrestling it back to its job. I get up to Front Street and other people are wrestling their umbrellas too and some are crouched up tight in their hoods and scarves. On King Street the streetcars are glistening behind the swishing windshield wipers and the streets are shining under the rain and the clouds seemed to have sunk down to encompass the coffee shops too.
I get close to Bay Street amidst all the suits and black umbrellas and while I’m waiting for a light I imagine all of those bankerly types suddenly swooping up into the air like the would-be nannies in Mary Poppins, high heels flying off and scarves fluttering; and I imagine them flipping and whirling, getting smaller as they move off past the cloud draped buildings and over the lake toward Niagara Falls.
I get to my office with mashed up hair and a runny nose and I prop my dripping umbrella next to my desk and get myself a cup of jasmine flavoured tea and know that my wet ankles will dry before long.
“It’s still raining.”
I’m walking up to the car rental place on Saturday morning to retrieve the car in which my girls and I will drive down to the much anticipated Shores of Erie wine festival in our home town when Debbie calls. “Bring rubber boots, raincoats, umbrellas, tarps, dinghies – whatever you got. And for heaven’s sake, don’t wear anything white. Or nice.”
I’d been getting updates on the back home weather all week; it started pouring about five days previous and hadn’t stopped; until that moment I’d nicely avoided thinking about the consequences. And call me a reckless avoider, but I don’t even consider taking that freshly ironed white shirt out of my suitcase.
The back home weather report is inconceivable. It’s the most perfect morning of the entire year, and I wish we could move the entire festival four hours up the highway. Luscious September days like this are precious: sunny with a soft breeze – the kind that caresses your skin with the gentlest of kisses. There isn’t an ounce of humidity and the sky is so clear it sparkles.
After collecting the girls we get on the highway, happy in spite of the mucky news. The event is about old friends, wine, food and live music. Last year we had such a good time, seeing so many of my home people dishing out so much love. Add to that memory the gorgeousness of that September and the beautiful setting alongside a familiar river – not going was not an option.
The luscious weather remains perfect for pretty much the whole ride down the highway. When we’re down to a half hour away, we begin to see layers of cloud formations: some thick and cotton-like, seemingly miles deep, others wispy and flying fast underneath them. And then the occasional black one hanging like a lame threat over some farm field.
When we finally pull into the yard at Debbie and Len’s, it’s stopped raining and Deb’s looking disbelievingly at the breaks of blue in the sky. We did our best to bring it along, we say.
The rolling grounds of Fort Malden are a sloppy mess. We’re talking barnyard. It seems no less crowded than last year. Apparently wine lovers are a serious lot, and no one is going to let a little rain and mud diminish any of their fun. Kind of like making lemonade out of life’s lemons, what was once a promenade of cute dresses and sandals has morphed into a parade of audacious wellies.
Thousands of pairs of audacious wellies – beautiful thing number sixty-three.
One doesn’t venture away from one’s table much this year for fear of going topsy turvy in the muck. And yes, I wore that white shirt. At one point Kelsey has to ask a bloke to give her a pull because she gets stuck. She isn’t the only one suffering mucky dilemmas. We witness a number of fall-downs one amusing one by a guy who is gallantly carrying a girl on his back. It is amusing because Princess is NOT pleased and climbs BACK on his slimy back for the rest of the journey to the paved walk about five feet away.
Next day, Sunday, the sun joins the party and by after lunch when we go back to the site, the conditions have improved considerably, and continue to do so until the event closes. Sarah Harmer, who we’d stayed the extra day to hear play charms everybody. With the crowds considerably thinned and the sun shining, it is a most pleasant day.
They say that for a time Fort Malden served as a lunatic asylum. I’m amused by the thought of what those who walked the Fort Malden grounds a couple hundred years ago might be thinking from the vantage point of a netherworld, of these hoards of people in crazy-coloured rubber footwear happily wallowing around in acres of mud and seeming to celebrate that with endless toasting and good cheer.
If I were one of those netherworld beings, I might see that party down there, mud and all as most definitely beautiful thing number sixty-four.
As discussed in my previous post, my family and I attended the South Baymouth Canada Day celebrations this past weekend. We always anticipate this world class parade on that gentle jewel of an island sitting in Lake Huron in the middle of Ontario.
The other night I saw a film presented in Toronto’s HotDocs festival, Imagining Emanuel. If you’ve visited me for any length of time, you’ll know I’m preoccupied with the power of the personal story, and how we can explore our own personal stories to gain self-understanding, understanding of others, recognize and act on our potential, even re-invent ourselves. Us bloggers are using that to marvellous effect, and the thought of our voices out there, adding to the beautiful mosaic of humanity is something I find immensely gratifying.
So it would have been from that perspective that I watched the film about Emanuel, a refugee who landed as a stowaway in Norway.
The only thing Emanuel has is his story. He has no identification, no “proof” of where he came from, he has never had any “papers” of any kind. He tells us he was born in Liberia, and because of the war, fled to Ghana with his mother. They lived on the streets in poverty, and she eventually died. He supported himself by helping market vendors carry their goods to market for pay in food.
He decided to seek a better life, and hiding in the propeller cavity of a ship, became a stowaway to an unknown destination. After days of either sitting or standing in the small, wet space with no food or water, he emerged and gave himself up and found he was in Norway.
Norwegian officials do not believe his story. They have determined he is not from Liberia but from Ghana. The illiterate Emanuel has never wavered from his story, it’s the only thing he has. Ghana has refused him citizenship papers that would allow him to travel, and with no status in Norway, he is in limbo. No longer incarcerated, he has been given a temporary home on the farm of a man who has befriended him. He has nothing to do – he can’t read. He can’t work, he can’t upgrade his skills; he can do nothing to provide for himself.
All he has is his story, and because the officials say it isn’t true, his story means nothing.
I think about the people who have taken my classes and how empowered they become when they get the opportunity to tell their stories. I think about how gratified I feel because you read my stories and you tell me they have made a difference to you.
I think about my own experience of the story against that of Emanuel. His story is essentially taken away from him and re-told, probably for the reason of not granting him refugee status. And the invention of him by others has left him with nothing.
But thanks to media attention in Norway, and a young documentary filmmaker, Emanuel is not invisible. The filmmaker took photos of the audience to send back to Emanuel, and it felt good to wave at the guy and let him know his story was being heard beyond the context of official "truth" – that his story might mean something in itself.
Exploring a few more questions:
What is the simplest truth you can express in words?
All we have is now.
If you had to teach something, what would you teach?
I actually learned how to teach because there was an idea that so inspired me I had to teach it – that we all have stories to tell, and all those stories are important.
With the growth of mass media/communications in the last century came the subsequent explosion of targeted messaging, public relations, spin and the manipulation of information in general, and we seem to be subjected to versions of “reality” that are increasingly narrowed, ironically. If we all told our own stories from the perspectives of our own personal windows on the world, we might use our own critical skills and reject certain “realities” being constructed by those with louder voices and taller platforms.
So, I did it. I learned how to teach so I could encourage people to tell their own stories.
What is the most defining moment of your life thus far?
There are a few. My interest in memoir and personal stories has caused me to examine these at length; for people who write in this vein, these moments – the points at which everything changes and nothing is ever the same again – are a goldmine to explore. Here’s one I tell to most of my classes at some point in the semester:
I went to university when I was 30. I was in the process of ending my marriage, and my girls were still really young. All my life I’d been called an underachiever in school; that my output was not reflective of my abilities. I just wasn’t that interested in some of the subjects, and my brain refused to process others – usually those involving numbers and equations. Many years later I would learn about the concept of learning styles, and that the way curriculum was disseminated in the 60s and 70s didn’t much accommodate mine. I’m not here to throw blame – I just didn’t bother corralling my mind and imagination within the walls of the classroom; I got by as a mediocre student, and that was good enough for me.
It is with this background I find myself in an English class, a few weeks into my first semester of university. I am in a class with a bunch of kids that got to university because they got good grades in high school. I am there because as a “mature student” they had to let me in.
So I’m sitting there in misery because we’re about to get back our first papers. I submitted a critical analysis of a William Faulkner short story which I am sure is a piece of crap; I am certain Professor Long will call me aside after and ask me what in heaven’s name am I thinking in hanging about these halls that were built for academic types, not underachievers like me.
Before handing back the papers, Long begins to write a breakdown of the grades on the board; first he writes down the letters A through F and under each the number of students who got that grade. I believe he is trying to illustrate that most everyone did badly, to ease the shock of those grades at the tops of those papers. There is one A, a couple of B’s, several C’s, lots of D’s and one F – which I am convinced is mine. In my head I’m making plans for quitting this nonsense and getting on with my life without a degree. I’m not one of these people.
While I consider hightailing it out the door and avoiding the humiliation altogether, my paper is dropped in front of me and at the top of it is the A. I’m in danger of hyperventilating, and I leave the room to collect myself in the hall while all the complaining smart kids are standing around Professor Long’s desk seeking some sort of explanation as to these foreign looking letters at the tops of their pages.
Ken Long would go on to shine light on more understandings that year, but this moment was the first time I understood that knowledge comes not only with study, but also with living. That my own critical perspective has weight and value. It was at that moment that the concept of lifelong learning, and idea that education could have something in it for me, revealed itself like the proverbial clap of thunder. I left that room feeling considerably more valuable as a human than I did when I walked in.
Another ten years down the road I would go on to pursue another degree in adult education because I wanted to share this type of experience. If I could make learning experiences a fraction as meaningful as Ken Long did for me, I will have made a difference in my little corner of the world. And what more could one ask for?
Is there such a thing as perfect?
I like to think that it’s imperfections that make the world and its people interesting and beautiful. In fact, I think “perfection” is a dangerous concept. Who’s to say how perfect is defined? By its implication, everything considered not perfect is somehow lesser than the thing labelled perfect by the person who has somehow acquired the right to name it so. We’ve all got a lifetime of experiences, beliefs, understandings that would cause us to see a thing in a different way, and what if we don’t see it the same way as that person who labels a thing perfect? Does that automatically render us imperfect?
It seems I’ve written myself into a theme here. You know that “A” paper I wrote about above? It was technically an A-. Not perfect, and yet the most beautiful thing I had seen in a very long time. Let’s call it beautiful thing number 35.