When I descended the steps at the beginning of a three-hour trek from Taylor Massey Park to the Don River Valley, a multitude of surprises awaited me.
Along the trail, I discovered green palaces reflected in the creek, a memorial bench wreathed in spontaneous wildflowers, animal sculptures carved from a fallen tree, and the sight of a chipmunk fleeing to its burrow.
The first trail marker for the Lower Don appeared after an hour and fifteen minutes of walking. This was exciting because I had never witnessed the transition from Taylor Massey Creek to the Don River before.
Much as I love the sheltered flow of a woodland creek, the impact of seeing the waterway expand and deepen in capacity astonished me. My chest expanded, my breath deepened, and I felt freer, bigger, and more open.
Ten minutes into the Lower Don section of the walk, I noticed a short dirt trail leading to a lookout on an elevated bank. With my camera looped around my wrist, I fell into a reverie while looking at the opaque water and began to daydream about the Missouri River (my home river). Suddenly, a very large pink and white fish jumped high above the surface and made a flamboyant splash upon re-entry.
I was so startled that I almost dropped my camera. However, I wasn’t upset in the least, for it was a privilege to have been shaken up by that feisty fish. Its breathtaking leap made me feel alive and gave me hope for the health of the river.
Tired but refreshed by so much beauty, I continued the journey, noticing a family of geese, graffiti murals at base of soaring bridges, and an artist painting a shimmering river portrait in olive green, brown, and ocher.
Near the end of the hike, I encountered historic Todmorden Mills at the base of a very steep incline up Pottery Road. I had almost reached the top of the hill, panting from exertion and the extreme heat, when the final surprise of the day greeted me: a Dairy Queen right at the summit!
In my personal history of ice-cream consumption, no plain vanilla cone has never tasted as good as the magical one purchased on Pottery Road that afternoon. It was the perfect ending to an adventure made possible by Toronto’s generous creeks, powerful rivers, and unpredictable wildlife.
A visit to Haliburton Wolf Sanctuary was one of the highlights of a recent family vacation to central Ontario. We were fortunate to see so many wolves from the observatory last Wednesday because the pack could have decided to hang out elsewhere within their 15-acre enclosure.
A trip to Brookbanks Park led me to bifurcating trails, the sight of a hare bounding across an iron footbridge, and the waters of Deer Lick Creek.On the banks of the creek, a giant tree had fallen and snapped in two. The distance between its severed stump and trunk was not great, but the expanse of liquid space between the two jagged ends took my breath away with its beauty.
I loved how the brook filled the void of disconnection and death, blessing an abyss with a measure of peace. As witnesses to brokenness and loss, the slow movement of water, the round stones on the creek bed, and the reflections that animated the skin of the creek comforted me. That tree died, but beauty didn’t die. It just changed. A whole tree, intact, thriving, with glossy leaves is beautiful. But a broken tree with only half of its body still rooted in a muddy bank is gorgeous too. Like Cohen’s cracks that let the light in, the shocking break is an opening for time, change, and water to move — not to take the pain away but to lovingly acknowledge its impact. The broken edges can breathe into that forgiving emptiness, exposing their ache to the kindness of night.
When the Berlin Wall fell in November of 1989, I had recently arrived at the University of Durham for a junior-year-abroad experience. In April 1990, I flew from England to West Germany to visit my friend Bart, a fellow sociology major from a small college in Missouri. After a few days touring Heidelberg, we took a train to Berlin.
Unprepared for the shortage of rooms in this swelling city, Bart and I had to spend our first night in bunk-beds at the train station’s BonHof mission. My pocket-sized journal (slightly edited for clarity) tells the story of the following day and its endless night, starting with a visit to the remains of the Berlin Wall and ending up in East Germany on the steps of the Berliner Dom.
April 10-11, 1990
Early morning Berlin contains East Germans toting piles of DDR currency, Polish people stockpiling electronic goods, Turkish men selling pineapples and kiwis, and Americans chipping at the Berlin Wall with chisels. A Turkish boy gives Bart and I bits of the wall and then climbs behind it to collect more fragments.
I see an East German flag with its communist sickle as we walk beside the wall from Potsdamer Platz to Tiergarten. Foreigners have spray-painted “Fuck the Poll Tax” and “And the Wall Came Tumbling Down” on the vertical concrete. There’s a Roosevelt quotation about glorious victory in neon orange, and someone has crossed out Gorbachev in “Thank-you, Gorbachev” and replaced it with Reagan’s name.
After shuddering at the sight of Hitler’s bunker, Bart and I duck through a hole in the wall and attract some negative attention from an East German guard, who barks “Raus!” As he approaches on his motor bike, scattering the Americans along that part of the wall, it suddenly seems a good time to go admire the Brandenberg Gate. Afterwards, as we walk east along Unter den Linden, we see Soviet tanks by their embassy and a muscular Russian soldier on top of one of them.
The monument with gold Germania on top attracts us, so we climb it, first looking at the mosaic on the middle of the column. Once we recover from the vertigo caused by climbing so many narrow steps, we take in the panorama of Berlin at the very top. Then we clomp down and Bart goes off to the bathroom, leaving me on the steps to comb my hair and play with the ants in the sun.
As we pass statues of Goethe and Bismarck, I start to worry aloud about where we are going to sleep that night. So Bart goes into a phone booth to call an acquaintance who is living in Berlin. Maybe we can sleep on his floor. Surely he knows how desperately crowded the city is and take pity on us.
While Bart is trying to secure shelter, I wait on a nearby bench. Suddenly, an agitated American matron in a multicolored Day-Glo jacket comes out of another phone booth and gestures at me wildly. She shouts, “Do . . . YOU . . . speak . . . ENG . . . lish?”
Eager to help, I say “Yes, I do” and go over to her booth. She hands me the receiver and commands: “Tell . . . HIM . . . the . . . po . . . LICE . . . have . . . TAK . . . en . . . a . . . WAY . . . my . . . CAR!!!”
So I take the phone and obediently repeat, “The police have taken away her car.” Laughing and mad at the same time, she yells, “No, not in English! In German!”
The story of my mishap cheered Bart up a little bit, but he was shaken by his friend’s refusal to host us. Eventually we had to just stay up all night, roving from McDonald’s, to Burger King, back to McDonald’s, then to the underground and finally the bus. We bought milk, hot chocolate, and small packets of fries to give us the temporary right to stay in the restaurants.
The moment we accepted our sorry condition, we started laughing on a bench outside Kaiser William’s church. Our plight was so hilariously dire that I lifted my legs straight out in front of me, shrugging with my whole body. We considered what we would do for a bed. Sex? Work? Anything. A drunk man lunged at Bart and I. We attracted crazy men, forlorn Poles, and troubles.
The only sleep we got that night was from one thirty to three thirty on the top deck of a bus. We ended up all the way over on the western edge of Berlin, bouncing over cobblestones and deserted roads, while I tried to keep my head on Bart’s shoulder. We had no idea where we were when the bus officials forced us off, shouting “Raus!” and banging on the hand rail leading to the top level. We were spinning into utter darkness without any orientation, comfort, or security. Waiting at the bus stop were three men who remarked on us dryly in an unknown language.
At four o’clock in the morning, we clambered back on another bus. We rode back into the the city, entering a morning world hidden from tourists, the routine of commuters before sunrise. Lonely and shapeless, they waited by the stops in the cold, sleeping on the U-Bahn after they boarded. Watching them loll in their seats, I felt sympathy for sleepy, vulnerable humanity. I wanted to give them all a big blanket.
Bart used his military ID to get on the underground, but I rode illegally and felt guilty. Masses of people were going to work before six in the morning. At an S-Bahn station, I tried to freeze the scene in memory — the sun not yet risen, people in dark jackets gathering on the platform, smoking, yawning. They get on the train and slump over, not caring to impress, stable in the aftermath of war, just riding a train without fanfare.
I welcomed the sunrise with profound relief, and my gratitude for the dusky, snowy dawn made it all the more beautiful. Around seven, after purchasing some chocolate and a croissant (silly me saying “oui” to the lady), we took the U-Bahn to the one East German underground station that is open to the West. The route gave us a view of the East German part of the U-Bahn which had lain in disuse since the war. Bomb damage was still evident, making the empty station booths looked haunted. It was something out of a childhood nightmare — endless empty corridors, dusty and lost.
We rose and went up the stairs to the exit, emerging into a 1950’s world as we joined a stream of people going to East Berlin. Waiting to present our documents, we stood in a corner eating croissants and chocolate, me getting crumbs in my hair. Then we reached passport control, where I paid the ritual 5 marks. (In the past, an American would have had to purchase 25 East German marks and spend them in East Berlin). The line moved quickly. Soon we passed through another maze (like a haunted house, only lit), got our day passes checked, and Lo! we were in the East. Exhausted, we stepped out into the cold morning.
Since most of the museums didn’t open until ten, we wandered around the shopping area for awhile. We studied shop displays that seemed out of date, contrived, sorrowful, the dresses like relics from an old Sears catalog. Why did the shops make me sad? Maybe it was their emptiness, lack of color.
Spacious East, room to be alone because the people are not shopping. Yet there was a Bigfoot jeep on display, reminding Bart uncomfortably of his Ozark hometown, where masculine egos demand such rugged vehicles. People gathered round to stare at the monstrous four-wheeled beast.
We then turned toward the big glass train station, which looked elegantly Victorian from a distance but up-close seemed militaristic, iron-girded and massive. We went lower and lower into the underground, seeking warmth. Shivering, we made a huddle on a high wooden bench, waiting until nine thirty when we could emerge in search of tea.
After about forty minutes, we left our temporary burrow and crossed the square again by the Bigfoot. We went to one shop, but it had no tea. At the next one, our entrance changed the atmosphere. The waiter turned with a smile on his face as the door opened, but when he saw we were Westerners, his happy blue eyes went cold. All the East Germans seated in smoky camaraderie and warmth stared at us, so we left without ordering anything. It was an unhappy awakening for me that people could tell I was Western just by the way I dressed. I had always prided myself on my poor fashion sense, but Bart pointed out how expensive my purple raincoat looked and the confident message my bright yellow scarf sent.
We sat outside in the cold once more, lamenting our outcast state. We were very cold from the unfriendly treatment and the weather, but a grocery store offered diversion until the museums opened. The aisles were huge and the carts incredibly small. Bread was freshly made and lay unwrapped on the shelves. There were no brand names. The few Western items, such as jam and crackers, were priced very high, but the rest were very cheap. Huge sausages, candy, and tins of fruit were available. They wrapped their purchases in blue paper.
Outside, a female employee of the store chased away three young Polish men who were lounging near the entrance. They seemed scared of her — she was quite big and threatening. One tried to bluff and joke with her but the other two were like, “O.K. We’re outta here.”
When ten o’clock finally came, Bart and I walked to the Berliner Dom, where we sat on the steps and ate marzipan. Swooning and unbalanced from lack of sleep, we then toured some of the cathedral (the main part of it wasn’t open). Ornate gilded woodwork impressed us, along with a marble staircase and rich brown marble columns.
Framed photographs on the gray marble walls showed us what Berliner Dom used to look like before the war and then after bombs had struck. The dome smoked. Many days later, this image reappeared in a nightmare. My dream self was looking out the upstairs window of my childhood home in Missouri. The window frame was smoking and I could see the Brandenburg Gate on top of the Lambda Chi fraternity house, all in flames.
On a washing day, I place the white basket on the patio table, move the line into position, and grab some single socks. As I administer the stability of clothespins, I relish the sun on my face and the breeze that moves the tall thistles and Queen Anne’s lace.
My hands attach the socks, shirts, towels, and pajama bottoms to the line, connecting me to a pre-electric time when the power of the sun was not considered an eccentric alternative to the dryer.
Full of solar gratitude, the pulley and I send the clothing further down the line, deeper into the garden, unfurling my sails for the wind to catch them. I scootch the entire set of washing as far as I can, until the first sock is almost touching the top of the plants. Each time a new garment is pinned, it makes a great sideways launch into the unknown, pennants of the sky meeting green messengers of the earth.
Task finished, I stand on the deck to admire the animated line, smiling at the dance of billowing cloth that the wind creates as it plays with pant legs and flowing hems. As I observe the moving shadows cast on the grass below, I breathe the scent of summer warmth that the laundry will later hold in memory, releasing sunshine on thankful skin.
As I was walking through Kew Gardens, the sight of this wee door at the base of a tree astonished me!
By the time I saw the chamber again more than a year later, the story of its magic had evolved. Astroturf now covered the dirt floor and a new vision of the world outside the door had been created.With a sturdy vehicle, a stone wall, a compass, a sign, and a campfire, this self-sufficient village can confidently weather the challenges of a busy Toronto park.
A pink sink appeared on a neighbour’s lawn two weeks ago, and I took a picture of it.
The weight of the pink sink basin is no match for the power of grass. It only takes two weeks for hundreds of green blades to hoist their pastel burden and tilt it to one side. Even the dandelions triumph over the sink and find outlets through the three holes, the ghosts of faucets past.
Where hot and cold water once rushed through pipes, new stems flourish wild, breathing spring into the openings that people once controlled. Fluffy weed seeds unfurl with defiance, flaunting the natural disobedience of plant life. It seizes every opportunity to grow, not caring if it’s welcome.
What humans see as trash and ruin, the dandelions respond to with grace and grit. They teach us what really matters: survival, finding a purchase, and overcoming obstacles. They create ingenious beauty in the unlikeliest of places.
Old bubble-wrap squid
exhausted on icy reef
spring wishes on hold
She kneels before the river,
the ankles of her snow boots resting on the bench-edge.
Beside her, The Lightning Thief, three mysteries, Brave,
and a packet of cheese crackers make a small tower.
Ignoring the crackers,
she watches the deer who sniffs the air for danger
before dipping its head in the river.
She wants to swim downstream in grey and blue
where the water’s wild direction drops from sight.
She turns to watch the librarian busy with the Holds cart
and then etches the name Alia into the river with her fingernail.
Alia knows it is not allowed,
but she obeys an inner devotion
to a moving sanctuary, an altar of water.
Alia writes her name in the river
because it calls her daughter.
Alia dives into her river,
ancient gills awakening to underwater life.
The river’s name is Alia
and it carries the kneeling girl home.
Lost animal of Christmas past,
floppy ears cover eyes
too ashamed to accept,
how low she’s fallen,
faded felt belly
frozen in grief to the sidewalk.
Without even a plastic bag
to disguise rejection,
she lies exposed, less than garbage.
Discarded cords, old homework,
and a Disney Store bag from 2007
press against the slack form on three sides.
Her tired pelt casts shadows on jigsaw mats
that are not useful, not even fun.
Who used to love you?
Who threw you away?
Who remembers the morning
you got yanked from a red box
and hugged with aggressive joy?
Where is your former seat
on a bunk bed or cedar chest?
You never chose this street, this corner, this end.
Nobody asked if you were done with love.
When I see the patchwork bow on your neck,
my ribs tighten in pain.
The bow’s faded hearts, flowers, and stripes
in green, blue, yellow, and a hint of purple
cannot lift this heap of despair,
but the colors found me, your witness, your friend.
Let’s sit together until the truck comes.
Ever since a friend introduced us to the northern beauty of Elliot Lake and its surrounding forests two years ago, my husband and I have taken several trips there. After our first visit, I even wrote a blog post about Elliot Lake’s library situated in the Algo Centre Mall.
On June 23, 2012, part of the Algo Centre’s roof collapsed, crashing through two floors of the mall and killing two women. The news shocked and disturbed me, especially when I considered how often we had shopped in this building and how my friend used to spend countless hours in the food court working on her laptop. Before the mall collapsed, my faith in the safety of structures like the Algo Centre was intact, but now that conviction feels shaky.
Earlier this year, my husband and I had discussed another visit to Elliot Lake at the end of the summer. After the tragedy, we weren’t sure if we still wanted to go, but in the end we stuck to our original plan in hopes that our tourist dollars would help the community.
On a hot afternoon last Saturday, Stewart and I lunched at Jane’s Tea Garden, a cafe and gift shop that faces the fenced-off hill that marks the edge of the Algo Centre’s property. As I ate my soup and salad, I saw at least eight people, some with large cameras, climb up the stone steps that stopped abruptly at the tall fence bordering the mall and its parking lot.
After lunch, I bought a pair of sneakers from Tin Can Alley (a few doors down Ontario Avenue from Jane’s Tea Garden) and then walked up the stone steps that the other tourists had recently ascended. I stopped in front of the “Danger! No Trespassing” sign and looked beyond it to the ruin of the mall. It didn’t seem right to snap photos of such devastation, so I left my camera in my bag.
I felt a little queasy from the heat and the way the twisted metal and concrete debris reminded me of the fallen Twin Towers and pictures of Joplin, Missouri after last year’s tornado. Nevertheless, I wanted to get a clearer view of the collapsed mall entrance, so I walked a few paces west.
I tried to take in the scene in its entirety, but it was difficult. My eyes kept locking on stray details like the five shopping carts I could see in the foreground and closer to the entrance. It was like a grim game of I Spy:
I spy one of the carts fallen on its side and another one full of thick silver wires pulled from the rubble. Two more carts have been tossed into piles of debris in the parking lot, and the last one I see is upright and empty, a ghostly reminder that this place used to be a busy, normal site of commercial activity.
When I look at the carts, I remember buying a purple paisley blouse and two towels from the now silent Zellers two summers ago. I used one of the towels to pad an epic sprawling-on-a-dock session by a lovely lake, one of my favorite memories of northern Ontario. And the Foodland where we bought picnic supplies — apples, petite boursin, juice boxes — is now a reeking horror of rotten food that has had two months to putrefy.
From my position upwind of the grocery store, I was spared the revolting smell, but I still felt slightly nauseated and shaky. The disaster site put me off-kilter, and a vague sweaty headache pulled at my consciousness. In my gut, I sensed a pocket of emptiness in the shape of a fist. The fist was the color of hot rust, its knuckles outlined in red.
Although I didn’t personally know the two women who died in the collapse, the tragedy of their passing exposed my own grief over recent and past losses, for the presence of Death collapses identifying boundaries such as the cause of death, the location, the time elapsed, and social proximity to the victims. The people who lost Doloris Perizzolo and Lucie Aylwin two months ago at Elliot Lake are hurting like me when I lost Dad, Grandma, Jenny, and Eric.
Looking past the rubble to the mall itself, I was struck by the naked chaos of the twisted, ragged hole where the mall’s entrance used to be. I looked at it in disbelief and wondered if I should be witnessing a building in such an exposed condition. Maybe that was why I didn’t feel right taking pictures of the ruin. The mall was so naked and vulnerable, literally stripped to its bare skeleton, showing square frames of nothing save a few exposed wires where solid walls once stood.
The entrance was a peeled and ragged maw of emptiness, a grimacing face on which silence rests because nobody knows what the hell to say. And behind that useless portal lay a crime scene, its rotting contents a nauseating metaphor for the neglect that led to the collapse. A traumatized and traumatizing building with memories of shock, fear, flight, injury, and death.
I think about the library on the second floor of the mall. It wasn’t far from the lottery booth where the two victims died. I remember the quilt on the wall, fishing rods for rent, a mural, and a large French collection. All part of the rubble now. (Elliot Lake plans to open a new library not far from the mall at White Mountain Academy).
For comfort, I turn away from the ruin and walk back down the hill to study the shrine. Although it sits in the shadow of destruction, decay, and collapse, the memorial display is an attempt to lovingly respond to senseless loss. The shrine’s candles, Inukshuks, teddy bears, flowers, and angels testify to a heartbroken town’s courage, community strength, and its refusal to forget. Elliot Lake, I’m holding you in my thoughts and prayers as you wrestle with grief and seek the light of justice.
As I write on a slightly rickety table beside the snack cart, I’m enjoying the shade and moving shadows of a tall tree. The same waving branches that are making patterns on these pages recently hosted a rock pigeon, but it has flown away.
I’m taking a rest after almost two hours of desert trail-walking. Funny how the landscape didn’t really reach me at first, but before long I lost my heart to its wildflowers, lizards, hummingbirds, and flowering cathedral cacti.
As I made my way along the Desert Wildflower trail, the Desert Discovery Loop, and the Steele Herb Garden, fragments of lectures and conversations shimmered briefly, the fluttering of unseen wings in the leaves.
“Would you like a picture of this cactus for your power point presentation?” (Father to his young son)
In the Desert Garden, I saw a multitude of memorials on benches, chairs, fountains, trees, and walls. There were even memorial drinking fountains (a lovely idea). However, I was looking for a special one, a plaque in memory of a Toronto friend’s beloved parents. And when I finally found it, I felt connected to my friend’s family and their shared memories of the Garden. It didn’t seem to matter that I never met them. They had walked these paths before and enjoyed the beauty that I was seeing.
I studied the plaque for a long time, growing sad and thoughtful. But the more I reflected on the inevitability of loss, the more I felt strangely comforted at the thought of all the people who will visit this gorgeous sanctuary long after I have had my mortal turn. The Desert Garden is an embodiment of faith, for in this place, love, memories, and the creative earth continue to flower and flower, tapping deep roots of Beauty that do not die.
My grandmother Raine gave me this Christmas tree in 2004 when she was 93 years old. She had decided that she no longer felt like putting it up every year, especially after the loss of my father (1995) and my uncle (2004).
I hadn’t decorated a Christmas tree since I was a teenager, but Grandma’s gift inspired me to start again. My mother also gave me some ornaments that have been in the family since the 1960’s. And to accompany the tree into the 21st century, I’ve added some new ornaments, mostly purchased from Ten Thousand Villages in Toronto.
My grandmother was a wonderful quilter, and she made the Christmas tree skirt under the rocking horse, teddy bear, and gingerbread girl.
Also resting on the quilted tree skirt are some of the cookie dough ornaments I remember from my childhood. My mother made some of them, but she recently told me she can’t recall exactly which ones. Regardless, I’m glad to have these reminders of Christmases past when my father, mother, and brother and I used to decorate the tree together (and Birthday the cat used to bat and smash the glass balls on the lower branches).
I’m especially fond of the cracks in this circular face. They testify to the survival of more than thirty holiday seasons.
The small red wagon on the left has a story, too. Mom bought it for me one December in the 1970’s when she took me to see the Wornall House museum in Kansas City in all its Christmas glory.
The tree-topping knitted angel is a new addition, as are most of the ornaments in the pictures which follow. She was made in Bangladesh, which reminds me of my students at the college where I teach English.
Elephants, crescent moons, and Bangladeshi angels mingle with Santa, reindeer, and an apple. They help the tree honor Toronto’s multiculturalism and integrate the Christian traditions of my childhood with the pluralism all around me today.
I hope Grandma Raine would have liked the way I set up her tree. She also supplied me with more festive textiles in the form of two placemats (one green, one red) and a smaller Christmas tree skirt.
Finally, six giant postcards from the 1960’s put the finishing touches on my decorating efforts. I think my parents bought these cards in California when my father was working for Trans World Airlines. My favorite one is the calico cat, and “Dr. O’Brien’s Amazing Powders” is a close second.
Thank you for joining me on this narrative sleigh-ride in time and space! It feels jolly to share Grandma Raine’s tree with you!