Garden Fence

In my dreams, I’m always on our side, in the preserved oasis of childhood, where hot sun falls on bare shoulders, earth clings to toes burrowed deep, and poplar leaves sweeten the air.

I’m never on their side, never on the outside.



Long Time Passing

In 1975, the streets of Haight-Ashbury were still lined with cafés, musicians, artists and poets–everyone who had come west following a dream. There was ambience. There was feeling. It was real.

But four years later, everything had changed.

I came to a stop in the middle of the intersection on that first day of my return and, looking around, wondered what had happened. The cafés had been replaced by tacky souvenir shops and antique stores selling lace, of all things. The street scene had changed, too. There were a few coked-out runaways; both the rich ones who could afford to be there for the experience and the ones who were genuinely starving. Vagabonds, too, and the odd, lost, tie-dyed tourist peering nervously through pink-tinted circle-framed glasses.

The only things that seemed to have stayed the same were the cracks in the pavement and the grit lodged in the corners of shopfronts where flyaway newspapers resembling ghost town tumbleweeds gathered, telling of times that continued to change, just not in the way we had thought they would.

It wasn’t honest or real anymore. It felt empty and silent. In earlier times, a variety of tunes poured out of the cafés and, mingling with the sounds of sidewalk buskers and poets, made up a new, different breed of music. Somehow it all jibed.

But without the cafés, there was silence, and in that silence the soul of the place seemed to have curled up and died. In its absence, the cracks in the road were all I could focus on.

Until I noticed the only person around who felt familiar, like the echo of a memory. His jeans and faded red t-shirt were unremarkable enough; I noticed him because he was repeatedly hitting a tuning fork on a telephone pole, then holding it up to his ear to listen. He nodded and smiled each time, his faraway look growing blank as the sound faded.

In the old Haight, strangers used to talk to each other without hesitation. “Hey man,” I said, “where have all the cafés gone?”

He shrugged and gave me some convoluted directions to another neighbourhood – left here, right there, left, right. I looked at him and frowned. This wasn’t the response I’d expected from a man who appreciated the music of a tuning fork.

After an extended silence, during which he must have been assessing my merits, his face broke into a toothy grin. “You got enough to buy me a soup and a coffee, man?”

That was more like it. We struck a deal and I followed him along his meandering route through the back streets of the city while he told me about about all the changes. The Haight had become a victim of its own personality. The people who had come for ten years and more to expand their minds, live the dream and hook up with other likeminded people had been replaced by the squares who, too late, had decided the hippie movement was cool. You can’t emulate a movement. You’re either there or you miss the boat.

In the midst of the deserted warren of streets, I heard the music first. And not just any music. Decent, far-out, creative music. Next, a flashback of odours teased my nose. The café was a perfect hole-in-the wall kind of place. A handful of musicians were playing in the back corner shadows, a big pot of soup was simmering beside a pot of percolating coffee.

It felt like coming home. It was almost like the old days, and almost was good enough.



Rosy and Grey

In my late teens/early twenties, I listened almost exclusively to Nirvana. I was renowned for my obsession with the band. I still am, among those who knew me back then. And I can still spend a full day listening to back to back Nirvana tracks.

But as I was driving around Ottawa today flicking through my music collection, I came across the Lowest of the Low‘s Shakespeare my Butt, and the memories hit me with more force than even Nirvana can conjure. Though, to be fair, that may be because I have continued to listen to Nirvana all along, whereas listening to Shakespeare my Butt is like happening upon a time capsule.

They are – or were – a Toronto band from the early 90s. According to Wikipedia, Shakespeare my Butt was actually the best selling indie record in Canadian history when it was released in 1991. I was 16. My boyfriend at the time and his best friend introduced me to the music and it was prominent on the soundtrack of the year or so that we hung around together.

While I knew the moment I saw the selection that it would bring back memories, I was surprised to discover that I still know every drumbeat, every note played by the guitars, and every word. I don’t recall being so intimately familiar with these songs back then. But they are firmly imprinted on my brain.

A few years later, when we had all gone our separate ways and the Lowest of the Low had released a second album, I went to see them play live at the University of Toronto. Though technically more mature and advanced, that second album didn’t have the same zing as the first, though I have listened to it off and on over the years.

I think what it was actually lacking was the nostalgia.

Listening to that first album today, I was transported back to my 16th year in a vidid and almost startling way. Like the moment Marty McFly wakes up and realizes he’s in 1955.

The memories, emotions and scenes of that time returned to me, stark and almost palpable. Though I was driving around Ottawa, I was also, simultaneously, 16 again and driving the empty streets of Toronto. I could see the old brick buildings of the west end, the bleak greyness of the November day, the last crisp leaves whipping around storefronts.

I was transported back to the cafes the three of us used to frequent, where we would listen to jazz, drink cappuccinos and eat cheesecake, incredibly sure that we were mature and grown up.

The music also reminds me of home, of that profound and familiar place in my soul where my childhood lives. In part, that is because there is something about the Lowest of the Low that sounds unmistakably Torontonian. I’m not sure what it is but if you’re from Toronto, especially if you lived there in the early 90s, you may recognize it. Maybe it’s the rawness of  Toronto’s indie recording studios of the day, or the way the music reflects the sounds of iconic venues such as Lee’s Palace or the Horseshoe.

Trying to narrow down the list to one song to link to here is next to impossible. There is Bleed a Little While Tonight and Just About “The Only” Blues and Under the Carlaw Bridge – each track means something to me, transports me.

But Rosy and Grey will always have a special place in my heart, though I don’t even remember why. It brings a smile to my face and always makes my heart beat just that much faster. I remember listening to it that Christmas, in 1991, while I decorated the Christmas tree; I can see the family room in my childhood home, the records on the bookshelf, the trees and roof tops outside, the little gold and red decorations.

I want to take a streetcar downtown
Read Henry Miller and wander around
And drink some Guinness from a tin
‘Cause my U.I. cheque has just come in
Ah, where you been… because

Everything is coming up rosy and grey
Ah, the wind is cold but the smell of snow warms me today
And your smile is fine and it’s just like mine and it won’t go away, ’cause
Everything is rosy and grey

You’ve been under my skin for more than eight years
It’s been eight years of laughter and eight years of tears
And I don’t know what the future can hold, or will do, for me and you
But I’m a much better man for having known you
Yeah, you know that’s true, because…

Everything is coming up rosy and grey
Ah, the wind is cold but the smell of snow warms me today
And your smile is fine and it’s just like mine and it won’t go away, ’cause
Everything is rosy and grey

Well, I’ve been told that there’s a sucker born every day
Well, I wonder who, yeah, I wonder who
Maybe the one who doesn’t realize there’s a thousand shades of grey
‘Cause I know that’s true, yes I do, I know that’s true
How about you?

The poetry. My home. My beginnings.

Here it is. Rosy and Grey.

Other posts from this weekly challenge (which was my inspiration for this post) are too numerous to link to here, but they are worth reading through.

Mid-Season Thoughts on Autumn

It comes in flashes, like so many flickering, falling leaves, raining down in gold and orange and crimson.

Thoughts, memories of autumns past. Of Thanksgivings.

I am a small child again, walking with my grandfather to my piano lesson. We are kicking up the leaves on the sidewalk at dusk, enjoying their crunching, swishing sound, their sweet scent, and laughing as we kick them, too, at each other’s ankles. We pause to share a KitKat bar.

Then, I am older, raking up leaves with my father in the back yard. Begging him to let me run and jump into them. Finally, he says yes and I disappear into a floating, crinkling cloud of browns and oranges. Somehow I am held aloft in their softness.

Next we are at the cottage, the deep blue fall sky reflected in the white-capped waves on the lake. The grey logs of the house stand out against so many colours. My grandparents have just arrived, driving through the multi-coloured tapestried walls of birch and beech and maple. The smell of woodsmoke is carried on the wind with the scents of Thanksgiving cooking. A fragrant chicken is roasting, with oranges and carrots and celery. A pumpkin pie, my favourite dessert, sits cooling on the counter.

Over the weekend, as with other Thanksgivings at the cottage, we will prepare the Christmas cakes, each person stirring once for good luck and making a wish. And my mother, grandmother and great-aunt will together make my Halloween costume. Another family tradition. Will it be a lady bug? A harlequin? A cat?

I fast forward to Ireland. I am 23 and away from home for Thanksgiving for the first time. I am living with three other people. It doesn’t feel too much like fall in Ireland. The leaves stay green for the most part, but the cool damp air is noticeably cooler. I search out the Canadian section of the arboretum – there are five small maples, a speck of home, glowing in their bright foliage against a sea of emerald green.

A group of us from the housing estate have a dinner party once a month and each of us takes turns cooking dinner. As it is Thanksgiving, I have elected to cook dinner this time. I am not cooking a traditional Thanksgiving feast, though. I am cooking my own memory of Canadian food: a large trout broiled with onions and tarragon and lemon, carrots with basil, potatoes. If I close my eyes while it cooks, I can smell the cottage.

Another year, I come home from Ireland for a visit. I’ve chosen to come home at Thanksgiving because I miss Canadian autumns. I go to my dad’s and his wife’s for a lunch in the countryside. Her family is there and we all go for a walk in the field.  The grass is tawny, the sky is deep and limitless, the trees are in their full glory. It is wonderful to see these colours again!

And then, my last Thanksgiving in Ireland, though I don’t know it at the time. I am 27. I make cranberry sauce, roast chicken with sage and thyme bread stuffing, mashed potatoes and green beans and carrots and apple pie. It is almost a real Thanksgiving.

Before I know it, I am home again, living in Ottawa. My mother gathers everyone to her country house in Kingston – halfway between Toronto, where she and her brother and my grandmother and great-aunt live, and where I and my cousin and her husband live. We are all there. The trees are alight, the cool brown river rushes past, tumbling over rocks and the cement of an old dam.  It is Thanksgiving once again.

Two years later, I have a son. I take him out into the wonders of the fall colours. I press red leaves into his hands. I wonder how this world looks from his perspective, this world that so far in his life has only been green, is now multi-hued. I can hardly wait to talk to him about it, to hear his thoughts. To know what his favourite season is.

And now, 8 years later, another Thanksgiving. My son is excited for Halloween, and for tomorrow night’s pumpkin pie. We reminisced this past week about the previous years that we collected coloured leaves, pressing them between sheets of waxed paper and hanging them in the sunlight to glow like stained glass windows.

He and my husband are up on an adventure run in the forest as I begin the task of cooking my favourite foods. I’m looking forward to hearing all about the colours and the trees up there – they are always brighter earlier there than they are down here in the city.

My favourite season, with its flaming colours, pumpkin pies, cool temperatures, deep blue skies, and Thanksgiving and Halloween, is entirely too short.

So, yes, I am glad to be moving into this new season. I hope it lasts awhile, that it does not flash past in the blink of an eye this time.

Another Evening by the River

Sailboats becalmed upon the silver-washed water under a pale blue evening sky.
The sun shimmers like liquid gold.
A paddle boarder slips by.
There are no ripples.
The surface of the water reflects back all that touches it and all that hangs over it.
The necks of geese with their swanlike curve, reflect as hearts floating serenely by.
The golden poplars don’t even move, their sunny waxy leaves hang still, suspended.
Shadows are long in the early evening sun, stretching far away behind me.
A few trees are starting to blush crimson, around the edges, all the more brilliant against their greener halves.
The only constant sound is the white noise of crickets – individual yet as steady as a chorus.
Every now and then, the sound of an outraged duck or, more quietly, a wren, a sparrow, a chickadee.
Then, geese overhead, heading south in formation, calling to each other.
Children break through the sound of the calm, their bike wheels rattling over fallen leaves as they call out to each other.
An elderly Polish couple sit on a bench, discussing the perils faced by a single mother, who is surely poor and struggling, they posit.
A young father wheels his infant son’s stroller to the water’s edge. He goes about setting his camera up on a tripod, talking the whole while to the baby, telling him about the camera, the nature all around, about photography and getting the right shot. He takes pictures of the river, the trees and of themselves.
I brought my son here once, when he was two. In another life.
Shadows of the past.