We are family

By Michael

The forests of northern Ontario are very different from those on the coast—the shapes and the colours of the trees are all intermixed and different—round deciduous balls of olive green, almost fluffy, and dark, perfectly conical fir trees with attractively mangled and misshapen tops poking up above the forest.  The lakes are like mirrors, punctuated by lovely little islands, often with a single cheeky tree stylishly placed at one end.  Group of Seven, I keep thinking—nature imitating art.  Thus the world unfurls as we drive from Sault Ste Marie to Toronto, seven hours, magical and ultimately exhausting.

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Driving into Toronto put me in mind of the vacuum tubes that were once used to transfer rolled-up messages around a huge warehouse. Everything was speeding up, and there were two, then four, then six lanes, filled with vehicles whose drivers switched from lane to lane with a ferocious regularity.  I felt like we were being sucked into the city, but it was oddly exhilarating—my caffeine-fuelled exhaustion somehow making me hyper vigilant. Soon I was switching lanes, eagerly agreeing with and following our GPS’s changing instructions.  “Save 7 minutes using alternate route—ok?” It was great fun until everything slowed down and the potholes multiplied, jarring me (and keeping me awake).

We were staying at Madeline’s mother and stepfather’s house in the Annex, in the heart of Toronto, and the garage we were to park in was tiny, and already filled with her stepfather’s large SUV.  It took three of us directing, worrying, and tucking side mirrors in to get our little red hatchback safely inside, at which point we decided it was Uber or public transit for the duration.

So for the next three days we stayed with Madeline’s dad in Etobicoke during the day, and had evenings with her stepfather, alternating between the two locations via Uber.

Madeline’s father lives in a condominium on the shore of Lake Ontario in the Mimico neighbourhood, and the whole area feels very spacious—there are people around, but nothing resembling a crowd.  He is 92 and while he uses a walker, he loves to go outside frequently.  While he moves slowly, he has a gritty determination and the heart of a hero. Their building is huge—the walk from the elevator to the cavernous lobby is the length of a football field, so often a rest break is needed between the journeys from elevator to lobby and from lobby to lake shore.

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The Annex is jammed with people, and the sidewalks along Bloor are being fenced off and torn up due to major construction.  Going walking was a process of navigating between the bodies, turning this way, then that, watching to make sure you don’t get run over by a frustrated driver, and swimming through a cacophony of horns as the cars jockeyed for position and tried desperately to beat the yellow light.

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These are the two cities we visited during our four nights in Toronto, and how different they were!  Etobicoke was slow, measured and meditative.  It was at first frustrating, but soon nourishing to slow down and experience time with this aging but determined man.  Once as we sat in the courtyard, he pointed out a beautiful butterfly sitting on the ground, and I thought what a gift it is to slow down and notice, and how he was helping me to do that. Toronto was hot, urgent, frenetic.  Madeline’s stepfather is a youthful 80, so we walked for blocks, talking about restaurants, politics, travel and remembering Madeline’s mom who passed away on Valentine’s day this year. It was busy, stressful, and at times over stimulating.

I am a west coast boy, and I have never really enjoyed Toronto.  My experience this visit was very different.  The evenings were warm and pleasantly humid, perfect for walking around and exploring. The old houses are grand, red brick singing against the green of the surrounding foliage.  One night we walked to a local high school where a beautiful all-weather track has been built. Runners and walkers were enjoying the warm summer evening, and after marvelling at the luminous sky, we walked a couple of circuits of the track.  I even ran for a hundred yards or so, grateful to be free of the darned driver’s seat for an extended period. One morning we found a combination coffee shop and cannabis dispensary.  On the main floor, a conventional coffee barista station, and a stairway leading up to the dispensary on the second floor. The coffee was extremely good, and it may have been my imagination but the atmosphere seemed a lot more chill than in most coffee places I have frequented.

On our last day we visited the Art Gallery of Ontario. While the Käthe Kollwitz exhibit we went to see was wonderful, I came away touched by two other elements. Brian Jungen is an indigenous artist from B.C. who uses commercial products such as leather sofas, Nike running shoes and baseball gloves to construct a giant tipi, a cigar store Indian, and traditional indigenous headdresses. Daphne Odjig’s painting, Family, reminded me of the purpose of our visit.

We are now heading home, driving, listening to Stuart Mclean’s wonderful stories, alternately laughing and crying as he describes the memories that make up a life and the kindnesses that human beings show each other when we live from our hearts.  It strikes me that for me this trip is all about family.  First there is the privilege of spending time with parents and loved ones and realizing how precious and fleeting this time can be. Secondly there is the realization that all of us who live in Canada are family, and that my job is to open my eyes, my ears, my heart to all of my family members, and to try to recognize the blind spots that my privilege creates.

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Sober is sexy in the Soo

As we drove, we talked about how we decided on names for our children all those years ago.  Michael mused that his first wife may have wanted to name their son Willie, partly inspired by Joni Mitchell’s love lyric to Graham Nash.  “Oh, let’s play it,” I said, and pretty soon Michael was politely commanding Siri to play Ladies of the Canyon, which we enjoyed for the next 80 kilometres. Early Joni Mitchell is smart and luminous, filled with gleaming surprises. I am constantly amazed by how privileged we are to have this kind of technology at our fingertips. To think of a song, to hear a song.

That was our hardest day, driving over 700 kilometers from Thunder Bay to Sault Sainte Marie (The Soo) while exhausted, as I hadn’t slept much in the cheap hotel in TB. We had a lovely short visit with an old friend in the morning at her place on Loon Lake outside of TB. I hadn’t seen her for 30 years, and yet when we hugged, the love felt fresh and our connection seemed unbroken. Unbelievable.  And then we booted it around Lake Superior, the lake known as gitchi-gami by the Ojibway.  We stopped at Old Woman Bay, a sandy beach on the Lake where I dipped my toes into the cool water.

Early evening, we arrived in the Soo and found an Indian restaurant where they gave us way too much food. So, after dinner we wandered around the historic streets dangling a carton of leftover lamb vindaloo and channa masala in a plastic bag, admiring the old Post Office and the many funky shops. As we passed under some scaffolding, we looked through the window of Winnie B’s Vintage Emporium, and I saw a lanky man wearing a black t-shirt that said “Sober is Sexy.”

“Hey, I love your shirt,” I called through the open door. “Thanks,” he called back, and he and Michael and I had a brief conversation about the joys of sobriety. Winnie’s owner, Patricia Bowles, had hired him and another guy to rearrange the stuff in her store. She came out on the sidewalk and introduced herself, then looked down at our bag. “Oh, your food is leaking!”  I had tipped the carton in my excitement, and reddish-brown Vindaloo sauce dripped from the corners, so she gave us a second bag to secure the mess.  The store wasn’t open, but Patricia invited us in nonetheless, and we stood among the treasures (a huge wooden bread bowl, beaded necklaces, old paintings, mid-century furniture) and chatted about the loveliness of the Soo, her mother Winnie, whom she named the store after, all of the different places she’d lived across Canada, and our trip so far. When I mentioned that the Soo was a pleasant surprise, we hadn’t expected such charm, she asked to interview us for her Facebook page (she is collecting testimonials about the little city), so we agreed and the result is here: https://www.facebook.com/WinnieBsVintage/videos/2080685375569309/

In the morning after a much needed sleep-in at the Sleep Inn, we got take-out coffee, excellent Sumatran pour-overs by Paul of Queen’s East Coffee and Clothes: https://www.facebook.com/queenseastcoffeeandclothes/

I wandered about the small shop, browsing the racks of women’s clothes while Paul worked his magic. He had only a small space behind the counter, and he told me that at the height of business, he can manage six pour-overs at once. Paul asked if he could rinse Michael’s travel mug.

“Sure.”

“I always ask because once, I just went ahead a rinsed this guy’s cup, and he said, ‘Hey, I had a shot of Bailey’s in there!”

“Hope he wasn’t driving,” rejoined Michael.

“Nope, just out walking his dog.”

As we settled into highway driving and a wonderful story by Stuart McLean (Emil), a call came through from the Sleep Inn. “Oh no,” I said to the front desk clerk, “What did we leave?”

“A phone charger.” Michael and I exchanged looks.

“It’s okay, thanks for the call, but we aren’t coming back for it.”

We were already well into our miles for the day. I started to freak out a bit inside my head, as this was the second phone charger I’d left in a hotel room in a week.

“It’s okay, honey,” Michael reassured me.  “In the grand scheme of things, it’s a gnat’s fart. It doesn’t matter. We’ll buy another. We’ll buy a case of phone chargers.”

We finished McLean’s Emil and then listened to The Fig Tree. Tears poured down my face, partly because I was so touched by the stories about tenderness and caring that McLean tells with drollery and understated love, but largely because I was so happy to be with a man who didn’t try to make me feel guilty. On the contrary, when I do dumb things, he makes me feel wonderful and any guilt or shame I might have feel evaporates into pink fairy dust.  So much love and abundance. I am blessed.

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Toronto is next. Michael’s turn.

 

 

 

 

 

Folgers in a French Press

By Madeline

After a long stretch of driving, we arrived in Grand Forks longing for some good coffee. I thought maybe Jitters Espresso? But we agreed that the name bothered us; as Michael said, “they have a branding problem.” So we went for coffee at Marvelous Munchie’s bakery. It looked okay, and often bakeries have good coffee. We waited at the small counter while two locals got coffee and pie.  We were next, but the coffee was all gone, so the bakery assistant offered to make another pot in one of the automatic drip coffee pots on a small counter behind her. She was being coached by the baker, a friendly woman in a white coat and hat who kept peeping out from the high rolling trays of donuts.

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I went to the washroom, using a key that dangled off the end of a pastry brush. When I came back Michael was waiting at an imitation woodgrain table, with Bert, Ernie, the Cookie Monster, and Elmo climbing the window next to him.  Later he told me what had gone down with the bakery assistant.

M: “Do you have any dark coffee?”
She looks at him quizzically. “Dark?”
M: “Yes, you know, a dark roast?”
She: “Well, we have Folgers.” The little hand lettered sign beside the cash register advertised coffee in a French press.
M: “What if I ordered the French press coffee, what kind do you use for that?”
She: “Folgers.”

IMG_0386So we waited 20 minutes for the regular Folgers (not French press), admiring the huge almost empty room that, as Michael said, could house both a daycare centre and a bakery. In fact, there were toys and a drawing easel and other children’s stuff at the back.  There were houseplants everywhere and inspirational sayings taped to one wall.  The locals were engaged in a lively conversation and seemed to be enjoying their pie and coffee.

The bakery assistant looked apologetic as the minutes ticked by. “This machine takes forever.” But it seemed she wasn’t really familiar with where the fill line was, and it finished dripping a while ago. The baker showed her gently.  She was so apologetic.  “I’m SOOO sorry,” she kept saying to us, bringing coffee and a little pitcher of cream. She was a big woman, perhaps in her early 40s, dark hair in a single long braid and wearing a blue tunic and sensible shoes. I saw the edge of a tattoo on her strong brown calf, just visible from under her dungarees.

We drank our Folgers and it didn’t really taste like anything except hot creamy water.  But we didn’t want either the baker or her assistant to feel bad or like they had anything to apologize for, so we drank it up to the last drop.

Later that day in Nelson, I was set on shopping at the I.O.D.E. (mperial Order Daughters of the Empire) thrift shop on Baker Street. It had good reviews, as thrift shops go. Rain had been pouring down for hours. The green forests were dripping wet as we snaked through the Kooteneys.  But now the sun came out as we walked down Baker Street, and I decided I wasn’t in the mood to shop at the I.O.D.E. Instead, I happened upon a very narrow fabric shop where I bought a half-metre of bird fabric that reminded me of Dr. Dolittle.  I’m not sure what I will sew with this fabric, but I do have birds on the brain. Halcyon, the kingfisher, the birds on the fabric, the hummingbirds at our feeder in Victoria.  The woman who ran the fabric shop had old treadle Singer sewing machines on display that we admired. (I like it how Michael happily goes to fabric and thrift stores with me and just finds a seat and reads while I browse.) I chatted to her about scraps. “I make scrappy quilts to use up the scraps, but it seems that no matter how many I use, I don’t make a dent in the scrap pile!” she exclaimed. I agreed that I had the same problem. I am pretty sure it’s because we keep buying new fabric. So even as we assiduously take from the scrap pile, we keep adding to it too because fabric is just so wonderful. Oh well. We could have worse problems. IMG_4043

Cranbrook Ed, by Michael

Our plan was to drive to Nelson and camp there, arriving early and having at least half a day and an evening to revel in the spiritually rich, friendly hippy vibe of this beautiful Kootenay town.

Best laid plans, as they say—after spending an hour waiting for coffee in Grand Forks we fought our way through a torrential downpour most of the way to Nelson.  We loved the array of funky shops, but really wanted to get to Head-Smashed-In-Buffalo Jump in time for indigenous dancing the next day and had forgotten that we were about to lose an hour to the time zone change.  Besides, the pouring rain made camping somewhat unappealing. So we decided to press on and stay at Cranbrook.

But first we shopped. We found a gong/singing bowl for our meditation shrine at home, and had the most wonderful conversation with the proprietor of Gaia Rising, who moved to Nelson from the lower east side of Vancouver, decades ago. We talked about community, addiction and consciousness raising-and I found myself thinking that I was really loving all the little connections we’ve been making along the way.  People are so friendly-and then it occurred to me that we’re probably helping that along. I also bought a Peaceful Poppy shirt that seemed somehow to fit with the whole trip so far.

The late Stuart McLean loved “Small Town Canada”, and over the past three days I have thought about this frequently.  The towns we have stopped in have been quirky, warm and welcoming, which seems quintessentially Canadian to me.

Cranbrook was pretty interesting. Madeline and I took pictures of a couple of signs: The Nails Christian Book Store, and very well-weathered Welcome to Downtown Cranbrook.  These have to be seen to be appreciated, so we’re included the images with this post.

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On the way back to our hotel I noticed a statue of a baby elephant—apropos, it seemed, of nothing. On reading the accompanying sign it turns out that in 1926 the Sells-Floto Circus visited Cranbrook and somehow lost fourteen elephants into the surrounding forest  (my mind reels imagining how that happened). Most of them were recovered fairly quickly, but one—Charlie Ed—remained at large for 6 weeks. The post-capture celebration breakfast and parade in Cranbrook was memorable, and Mayor T.M. Roberts declared Charlie Ed to be an honourable citizen, upended a bottle of champagne over his head, and re-christened him Cranbrook Ed.

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Next up, Alberta.

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