A Walk Through the York Regional Forest

About a 45-minute drive northeast of Toronto you will be able to experience the York Regional Forest’s vast network of meandering trails and streams. You can go there for long walks, horseback riding, mountain biking, snowmobiling and, above all, rest and solitude.

It is easy to lose yourself in the vast maze of trails that can take you far and away, allowing your mind to wonder, lost in the beauty of tall trees and plant life surrounding you.

Getting lost on these beautiful nature trails is good for the soul, especially if you surrender to the journey and let go of the need for mobile apps/maps to guide you. Simply trust that you will get to where you need to go and eventually you will return to where you need to be.

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A Memory of Yellow

Summer has officially ended in Toronto, but the summer-long yellow flowers at Rosetta McClain Gardens remain, stubbornly clinging to their beauty in exaggerated movement and ebbing life, ignoring the signs in the cooler air that politely hint to them that it’s time to let go.

I feel a strange longing while gazing at these yellow flowers and, for a moment, I am curious about my persistent fascination with their colour of yellow. What does yellow represent to me? The reason eludes me, but I need to know, and intuition leads me to search for it through photographs taken in previous visits to the Azores around this time of the year. And sure enough, there they are:  flores amarelas.

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Reading in Rosetta McClain Gardens

To be able to read in a garden is a joy. I wish I could be more like the Reader in my photograph, absorbed in the beauty of words while surrounded by the beauty of flowers, waterfall and stone.

Whenever I try to read in Rosetta, or in any other garden for that matter, I find the sights and sounds of nature around me so wonderfully distracting that I can’t focus on the words on the page. So I surrender and read the flowers and the trees and the view instead.

I wonder what my Reader is reading. If I could only let the flowers just be background and not demand my attention, I would sit in the garden and lose myself in Hanya Yanagihara’s A Little Life, a novel just as beautiful and intense as the flowers.

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Lake Ontario September Light

And God said, “Let there be Light.”  I wonder if God, when creating light, already divined how beautiful it would look during September of 2018 over Lake Ontario.

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A TTC Token for My Toronto

When did Toronto become “the six”? And how can a number take away from me the city I have loved since the age of nine when I came to Canada from the Azores. Toronto is a city I got to know intimately-well in my soul, where I felt comfort walking in its old alleyways and excitement in the bustling aliveness of its busy streets. “The six” has taken away my Toronto and replaced it with something unfamiliar. Just like the Sony Centre erased the Hummingbird Centre, while the Hummingbird Centre erased the original O’Keefe Centre; and the Rogers Centre erased the SkyDome. “The six” is as alien to me as the awkwardly changing Toronto Transit Commission (TTC).

The TTC, with its streetcars, buses, and subway trains, has allowed me to explore the city from west to east and north to south like an artery pumping life throughout the urban landscape. This is how I started to imprint on Toronto. I learned how to navigate the city and then walk to destinations like High Park, The Beaches, Harbourfront, Allen Gardens, Little Italy, Little India, and Little Portugal – where I used to live – all for the price of a token!

In the 1970s, I used to love getting on a streetcar, the 1940s version, known as the Red Rocket! These gorgeous old streetcars would clack heavily as they moved along College Street all the way from High Park in the west to Main Station in the east. On Sunday mornings, I’d pretend to go to church but instead I’d stand at the corner of Brock and College, eagerly waiting for the streetcar that would take me on the long ride back and forth. The streetcar would show me various neighbourhoods and I would anticipate how the city changed after Yonge Street continuing east, down to Gerrard and then up again – the houses and people looked so different! It was fascinating to think that all this difference was still my city.

On these Sunday mornings in summer, the windows would all be opened, and when the streetcar moved, a cool breeze would caress my face, my arm dangling out to feel the wind against my skin. I could hear the constant clanging of the warning bell at each stop; I’d watch the driver sell tickets and provide change from long silver tubes. He would give directions to people, smile, and offer transfers, like the one I kept safely in my hand.

Over the years the old streetcars were replaced by newer shiny models and we all thought how cool Toronto was getting – so world class! But now even these newer streetcars have been replaced with overly-long, fortress-like” Low Floor Light Rail” Bombardier-built cars, that are overtaking the streets with their bulk, their sealed windows and intimidating look. The first time I hopped on one, ready to deposit my token in the ticket box, there wasn’t one to be seen anywhere. I stood there, surprised, as if I had just been transported to a city I had never visited. I couldn’t even see the driver. Was the streetcar driving itself? For the first time, I felt like a stranger in my own city.

I avoided the Spadina streetcar line after that, preferring to walk up to the subway station from Queen Street rather than face the embarrassment of not knowing how to use the new Presto system with its bright green card and beeping machines. Soon, I had to bypass subway entrances where the familiar collector was no longer present in now abandoned collector’s booths. I now have to walk around to entrances where there is still a collector, a TTC concession catering to the stubborn Torontonian who refuses, like me, to move on to the new system. Subway turnstiles have been removed one station at a time and I am now forced to exit by the replacement version, pushing my way through plastic paddles that beep aggressively and slap your body on the way out.

The Presto Card sometimes doesn’t work, either because the little green box is down or because someone doesn’t have enough money left on the card to get the okay beep after tapping on the tap screen. I once watched a man on the bus who got a honk when he tapped his card because it had no money left on it and he sat all the way into the station terminal trying to transfer money from his iPhone, without success. I like to see people who still drop a token, a ticket, or cash in the remaining drop boxes. But I know it’s only a matter of time before the TTC will ban my way of paying to get around the city, my city, and only allow me on if I pay the new way, but is it “The Better Way”?

Toronto, the six, has become a chaotic mess where almost every neighbourhood has become a construction site with the building of new condos and impossibly tall high rises in the downtown core. Fortunately, when I need to get away from all this change and noise, there are still places in the city to go for peace and quiet and a sense of the familiar. Toronto is known as “A City Within a Park,” and I love to walk the maze of parklands and gardens that like a system of veins and blood vessels pump life into Toronto.

For now, my token can still take me everywhere in this vast land that I will always call Toronto. I will continue to cherish the clanging of the old streetcar rides of my youth, and I’ll keep my Toronto preserved in memory, like an old friend who moved away but is still a part of me.

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Visiting Solitude at a Lake in Northern Ontario

Many Canadians who live in Ontario are privileged to have a cottage experience at one of the thousands of lakes spread out throughout this great province. Many cottages are on lakes only several hours away from Toronto but others can take five or more hours of driving to reach.

In summer, the Friday-night-drive from the city to “cottage country” is a ritual many people do in order to have a few days of fresh air, swimming and boating. They also sit around camp fires at night roasting marshmallows while stars shine above, sharing barbecued meals of hot dogs and burgers, in a secluded setting surrounded by a variety of evergreen trees with either a big or a small lake in front of each cottage. Many families stay for the entire summer, until Labour Day Weekend, when the kids have to return to school in September. Summer is also the time for inviting friends who do not have cottages to come for a few day’s stay.

As grateful as I am for an invitation, a cottage visit for me is not so much about visiting my friends as it is about connecting with nature in a way that I can’t in the city. And, on those rare occasions that I get to go, I mostly look forward to visiting the solitude I encounter there while everyone is still asleep or busy entertaining, and I awkwardly excuse myself so that I can be at the lakeside on my own.

There is a special lake I particularly enjoy visiting. It’s intimately small and narrow, sheltered by trees and a few scattered cottages, where I feel surrounded, wrapped in a rare kind of nature, as raw and primal as the day God made it.

I go quietly on my solitary walks down to the dock from the cottage, first thing in the morning, while the lake surface is still and shrouded in mist rising from the water like incense wafting up to Heaven. My bare feet feel the coolness of a soft pine needle path. Silence becomes sound by the intermittent plop of a frog coming up for air, a fish jumping up to catch a fly or a mosquito, a crow cawing as it flies above the tree tops. A family of loons glides by silently on the water, stopping at intervals while the parent loons dive below the surface to catch a fish, swim over to their two little ones waiting for their breakfast, too lazy to fetch their own meal, and showing a sense of entitlement in their aloofness, just like their human counterparts. The sight brings a smile to my face and I watch them until they are out of sight.

I then put on a life-jacket, with the reverence of a priest putting on his stole before Mass, a sacramental conduit to grace, for without it, I could not be in the deep waters of the lake unaided. This simple floating device of foam allows me to fall into the water as if I am entering God’s womb, and after the initial splash sound of body hitting warm liquid, there is absolute silence again. I remain as still as I can in the water so as not to disturb it with my moving arms and body. I gaze in awe at puffs of fog lifting over a pearl-white sun hanging above the line of fir trees. The sun reflects on the glass-like surface of the water, and I can cup my hands and have the illusion that I am cradling it.

A loon calls in the distance. It’s a melancholy sound that rises up and echoes in the air with sharp longing, and I recognize the meaning of the word saudade in it. A lonesome call that penetrates my being and stills my breathing so that I can better hear it. Sometimes, the loon shrieks in laughter, sounding like a crazy Looney Tunes character, which breaks the solemnity of the loon’s otherwise serious being.

I don’t want to ever leave the warmth of the lake, my head bopping above it, shrouded in the mist, caressed by the water that leaves my skin supple and fresh and with a cleanness that no soap can achieve. The water hydrates my parched soul from months and even years of tired living, of tension and anxiety, frustration, anger, loss, and the angst of the search for meaning. Suddenly, the calmness around me is deeply intensified and I incline my ear to hear the unexpected hushed whisper of wind moving through the trees. The sound takes away all the pent-up emotions I have been carrying inside of me for so long and my spirit feels light again – new born.

Eventually the mist disappears and the sky is crisp blue with white clouds hanging above the row of trees, reflecting the blue and the white on the lake surface. The sun changes to golden yellow, bringing clarity and definition into everything that a moment ago had been hazy and shrouded in mysticism. It’s time to start the day.

I force myself to swim away from the water, dripping as I make my way up to the dock again. I sit for a while, shivering because the air is cooler than the water, until I feel my skin dry, except for my feet which continue to touch the water, unwilling to let it go.

I hear a voice calling me from the cottage. Coffee is ready, but I don’t rush to get back. I stay a bit longer, until I am satisfied that the loons have stopped calling, and only then do I reluctantly walk up to say good morning to my friends, not because I don’t want to be with them, but because I had to leave the lake behind.

With gratitude to Marcia and Jeanno.

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Misty Yellow Morning at Rosetta McClain Gardens

Rosetta McClain Gardens by Lake Ontario on a very foggy and humid August morning:

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