Journalling Ottawa


Stubbornly, because I had been planning to for several days, I pushed on out into the pelting rain this morning, walking the streets that stretch away from my immediate neighbourhood, headed toward a little cafe I had heard about not too far away.

I took photographs along the way. This was part of the plan: to wander Ottawa’s Centretown, take photos, and write, on this, my last real day of holidays.

I took photos of the small, aging houses that still characterize much of our downtown core, the brick and coloured clapboard pieces of this town’s early history. I captured the fog rising thick from the quick-melting snow, puddles reflecting signs and roofs and the white-grey sky, quiet city streets. I managed to catch an umbrellaed man emerging toward me from the fog, framed by brick houses.

This is my “ode to home” day.

I have had other themed-days: there was a ski day, a cross-country ski day as well, the skating-to-the-library day, and several (many, if I’m honest) lazy book-and-Netflix days. With the exception of the latter, it generally took a good mental push to get me out the door, but I was always glad once I was moving. Glad, and pleased and relieved.

Relieved to be out, living, experiencing, seeing the things I only half remember exist when I’m stuck at my desk dawn to dusk for months on end.

There is a beauty to this little city. A sort of indie vibe, if you look. And a woodsy, green, outdoorsy vibe (you don’t have to look as hard for that), which is what brought me here originally, 15 years ago pretty much to the day. I had been living in Ireland for 5 years at the time and had decided to return to Canada, though not to my hometown of Toronto. But that’s another story…

My father grew up in Ottawa and left as soon as he could. With the exception of a blip when he tried to live here again a few years ago, he never really looked back, and now he refuses to come. “Boring” is, I think, how he describes it. Or maybe there’s something deeper, some unpleasant memory he’d rather avoid. But again, that’s another story, and it’s not mine to tell.

I never planned to end up here, never thought I’d “move back.” But I couldn’t face Toronto after 5 years in rural Ireland and Ottawa’s proximity to hills, rivers and forests seemed a good next home. So, here I am and, with the exception of my dreams of moving back to Ireland, I don’t really see myself living anywhere else now.

It can be boring, sure, but it isn’t really. If you look, walk, explore, there are little magic places. Small cafes. Vintage shops. Quirky places that can fill up the hours with poking and observing and people-watching.

I feel creative here. And by here, while I mean Ottawa, I also mean the little cafe I have landed in today. It’s quiet. People are dotted here and there, 5 of us in total – all writing, coffees gone cold on the tables beside us – plus two staff-members, a woman behind the counter and a guy who moves between bar stool and behind the counter as well.

I don’t recognize the music they have playing. It’s a sort of singer-songwriter collection that is perfect for rainy day writing in a cafe. Unobtrusive yet interesting. It could even been one of those coffeehouse mixes, but a good one, not the trite type you’d find playing in a Starbucks.

After this, when the feeling strikes, I’ll make my way home, stopping in at several vintage shops along the way. People in Ottawa are friendly for the most part, and all of this will take hours as I stop to chat to the strangers I meet.

And that will be that. My last day off for a while. My last day of poking about Ottawa, re-discovering this home I have made for myself.

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November magic

For a brief moment, sunrise alights the buildings – fire against purple clouds.

Then all is grey again; muted November.

Not Just Another Day

The news reports began rolling in around 10:15 am on Wednesday, 45 minutes after everything had started. Shots in the downtown core, an honour guard shot at the National War Memorial, gunmen on the loose, everyone in lockdown.

This kind of thing wasn’t supposed to happen in our quiet, regulated town. It was the kind of thing you heard about on the news, about other places, bigger places. But this is a capital city, after all, so I guess it wasn’t entirely out of the realm of possibility.

I was at work, which felt uncomfortably close to the action. After the initial flurry of panic and the exchanging of stories and rumours in the hallways, staff gradually returned to their work. There was not much else we could do with the building in lockdown and telephone and internet communications working only intermittently, so the day continued mostly as normal.

Mid-morning, I went to a meeting in a room on the second floor of our building. Its full wall of windows looked out over the eerily deserted street. Partway through the meeting, a voice came over the PA system: “A situation is unfolding. All employees are asked to take cover away from windows and remain in the building. We will notify you of any changes.”  Before the announcement was over, the automatic blinds in the room began to close ominously. We suddenly felt more vulnerable.

“Of all the other buldings in the downtown core, could ours potentially become a target?” the people in the room wanted to know. No one could be sure.

When I returned to my office, our boss had his TV on and had invited employees to drop by to watch as things unfolded. It was an uncomfortable sensation to see our building and the buildings surrounding us featured in a news story beside images of SWAT teams and armed police running through our streets. To suddenly have become part of the news, no matter how marginally, was surreal.

After lunch, the clouds began to roll in. Their shadows reached through the windows and fell across the floor and the desks, contributing to the feeling of foreboding. Every now and then that same announcement sounded over the PA system, which didn’t help either. The situation was continuing to unfold, stay away from the windows, do not leave the building.

After an hour of failed attempts, my husband and I finally connected and he told me he was outside our son’s school, which was also in lockdown. He and the other parents were unable to get in but he would bring him home when they opened the doors. I had a mental image of parents milling about outside the locked down school. I didn’t feel it was particularly safe but there wasn’t much I could do about it.

At the time, we thought there were at least two gunmen on the loose, we didn’t know who their other targets were or where they would strike next, so we were all in potential danger, everyone who was downtown. We live in the downtown core, so our home was, I suppose, part of that vaguely defined “danger zone.”

I felt slightly better when I got my husband’s message that he and our son were at home, but I couldn’t help wondering whether those who were homebound were also supposed to stay away from the windows.

As evening approached, employees began to wonder what was going to happen when they wanted to, or had to, leave. With nothing other than the repeated standard message to inform us, some wondered if we would be spending the night in the building. No one wanted to have to leave after dark.

But just before 4:00pm, the lockdown was lifted and we were told we could leave at our own risk, as long as we stayed outside a core section of city blocks. The gunman had apparently been shot hours before but there was no confirmation one way or the other about accomplices or additional gunmen. My husband said he and our son would drive up to get me.

When I left to meet them, I emerged onto streets full of people. The sun was shining again. It was even warm. Tourists were taking pictures of the historic church across the street. It was as though nothing had happened, as though all the warnings and news and sirens were part of some horror that belonged somewhere else after all.

But they didn’t. They happened here. Down the street from my office, down the street from my home, in the neighbourhood where we walk and cycle and run.

I could drive myself crazy thinking that if I had gone to work later or had taken a different route, if I had been at an appointment or had biked instead of getting a drive to work, I could have been there. Just as randomly as anyone else. The gunman could have started his rampage at a different place  downtown, on a different day. So many possibilities, so many small alternate realities and any one of us could have been caught in the crossfire.

And now, to complicate the emotions and our understanding of the situation even further, details are starting to emerge that suggest the gunman wasn’t some evil extremist bent on terror, but actually an individual with mental health issues who had tried to seek help but hadn’t been successful. Perhaps the two descriptions aren’t even mutually exclusive. Perhaps he was both. Like most situations involving human motivation, it is not simple. Heartbreakingly, a young soldier lost his life while he was out there, undefended, in a position of honour. Beyond that one sad fact, I don’t think we have a full picture of the whys or the hows yet.

My story is pretty similar to most from that day. We were all in it together and there is nothing particularly special about my recounting. I’m sure this week, and in the days to come, others will write about what happened, just as I have done, as a way to try to make sense of the experience and the after-effects.

There are those who were closer to the events, those who were affected more directly. They are the ones with the stories to tell. They are the ones who lost a loved one, or tried to save a life.

I think it is human nature to wonder, though, what small little twists of fate tied them tragically or heroically to the events, and what small little twists of fate spared the rest of us.

The Art of Nature

A year ago, I took this picture while I was out walking through our local field naturalists’ grounds, the Fletcher Wildlife Garden. The gnarled tree stood in a clearing among brittle, dried grasses but seemed burnished, almost glowing in the sun, like a piece of polished driftwood, or a sculpture.

Gnarled Tree in Autumn, Copyright Silverleaf 2013

Gnarled Tree in Autumn, Copyright Silverleaf 2013

Almost a year later, I was again walking through the Fletcher Gardens and again came upon the tree. But this time, I found it had been transformed into an actual sculpture, a permanent work of art celebrating the natural beauty of its form.

A little further on, I found this tucked in between the trees as well.

Our Journey sculpture, Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Our Journey by Karl Ciesluk, Copyright Silverleaf 2014

It is something of a surprise to stumble across unexpected sculptures in the woods. These gentle,  natural pieces of art complement their surroundings and encourage passersby to think about our relationship to nature, to the gardens, and to art.

They reminded me of the driftwood art I’ve photographed while in Maine over the past few summers; each year, the residents and holiday-makers gather washed up pieces driftwood and other found items and use them to build structures and sculptures up and down the beach. Unlike the sculptures in the Fletcher Gardens, they won’t last to the next season — the winter tides will wash them away. But in the moment, they are an equally pleasing, equally thought-provoking combination of nature, art and imagination.


Enduring Ottawa

What endures
Of our constructs
And what crumbles away?

Ottawa is a young city by global standards but there is still plenty of history here. I love walking its streets, taking in its older brick and clapboard houses and imagining the lives that have cycled through them, the small changes that have been made, the families who originally built them.

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014

Copyright Silverleaf 2014