Paraquedas/Parachute

Paulo Renato Souza Cunha is a young Brazilian writer, poet, photographer, and musician: a truly modern Renaissance man. He was the winner of the VII Prémio Aldónio Gomes  for his book, Paraquedas- um ensaio filosófico, published in December, 2018, by UA Editora- Universidade de Aveiro. He made the trip from Brazil to Portugal where he joyfully received his literary prize and shared his travelling adventures with the dedicated followers of his blog.

I waited eagerly for a copy of the book, a generous gift from the writer who I have befriended over the last year. When it arrived, on one of the coldest spring days in Toronto, all the way from the warm climate of Brazil, I decided to wait until our own weather improved so that I could sit in my garden to read the book while the warmth of the sun covered my skin. I waited as long as I could but, alas, at the end of April we were still wearing winter coats to keep the chill away. It was impossible to sit in my garden for more than a few minutes before hypothermia set in! I finally gave up on the weather as a prop to my enjoyment of reading and, holding Paraquedas in my hands, my fingers turned the pages with a caress of admiration for its aesthetically bound softcover, eye-catching typesetting and layout, and simple clear lines, so full of understated elegance. Sitting cozily on my sofa by the warmth of the radiator heat, I entered the world of P.R. Cunha’s writing.

I wish this book was available in English so that those who don’t read in Portuguese could discover and appreciate Parachute: a Philosophical Essay (my translation). “There are no correct tones for an essay beyond those of enthusiasm and sincerity,” wrote John Moss in his Introduction Essay in The Canadian Novel: Here and Now- A critical Anthology, 1978 (p. 12/13). And he could have been writing about P.R. Cunha, whose writing is, indeed, full of enthusiasm and, more importantly, sincerity. His essay is divided into four parts and may be read as part memoir, part philosophical musings, but the reader is never really sure how much of what we are told is about the protagonist writer in the essay, who after ten years of grappling with writing a novel, decides to run away (for a very short time) to England before Brazilian literature drove him to madness (p. 9), or the author himself. Is it pure biography or a reinvented biography-cum-fiction? It’s up to the reader to decide.

But I do know that the author of Parachute, like his first-person narrator, shares the same love and fascination for the writers J.G. Ballard, W.G. Sebald, Montaigne, Thomas Bernhard, Sterne, among others. The love for these authors was instilled in the narrator-protagonist by his tia Laura, and we wonder if this is P.R. Cunha’s aunt, too, or simply that of his alter-ego, the writer-protagonist who discusses literature and life, while revealing unflattering facts about his mother, his father, his brother and his sister. The description of his father’s death and his siblings’ greed at spending their 24% each inheritance, while our protagonist-writer is left with only a mere 2%, reveals a family dysfunction that made me cringe. It is tia Laura who has mentored and financed the writer’s adventures and travels, thereby exposing him to the arts, including music; an assistance which allowed him to pursue his intellectual interests.

The book can be read as a tribute to the aunt who dies towards the end of the narrative; and the protagonist wishes that someday, someone in the future may take his dusty book off a shelf to read it and, by doing so, afford his tia Laura a fleeting reward in eternity (p. 168); but the book can also be seen as the inner journey of someone trying to make sense of his life through literature and his own literary pursuits; questioning in every page what is real and what is fiction.

P.R. Cunha is a master weaver of the long, meandering sentence, common in Portuguese writing but not unknown in the English world of literature. It’s a style that appeals to the lyrical writer, regardless of nationality. But not everyone who writes can carry a long sentence without losing their breath along the way. With the long sentence, we can only rely on the helpful use of the comma in order to pause before reading on. Cunha’s narrative starts in one place but by the end he has taken the reader to another world; and yet, managing to brilliantly unite each idea and meandering thought, making it all fit and make sense like a carefully thought-out chess move, a game that both P.R. Cunha and the protagonist of Paraquedas share with passion. I enjoyed this book precisely for this reason; savouring the elegant writing on ideas, philosophically connected to the personal.

The essay questions, in a broader sense, the meaning of the self, and the relationship between literature and everyday life, by referencing philosophy as a guide to the art of living. A parachute is used to allow someone to come down from the sky in a slow, safe way to reach the ground unscathed, and I wonder if P.R. Cunha chose this word for the title of his book as a metaphor for the self’s movement from the internal “sky” world within us, as it floats down from the abstract air, towards the concreteness of the world landed upon.

What Paulo Renato Souza Cunha’s imaginative and complex mind is trying to offer through his meditations, observations, reflections, is perhaps an invitation to his readers to be in touch with their deeper thinking selves.

It is now mid-May and the weather teases the promise of real spring days ahead, when I will finally be able to sit out in my garden again to satisfy my pleasure in reading surrounded by trees, plants and flowers. And I will then take delight in rereading Paraquedas.

Paraquedas canadiano

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The Gardens at Guild Park

What entices us to seek out and spend time in gardens, and why do we take so much pleasure, find so much joy, and delight in them? Perhaps the memory of that first garden, The Garden of Eden, is embedded in our DNA and in our collective consciousness and, by stepping into a garden, we reconnect with that lost Paradise within us. In our human condition of living in exile from that first garden we, perhaps, find ourselves, for a moment, back in that first garden when we visit a garden.

When I was growing up in Ponta Delgada, I was taken for leisurely strolls in some of the city’s gardens. The most memorable for me were, Jardim António Borges, and Jardim José do Canto. These formal walled-in gardens felt magical for their beautiful displays of ponds, flora and ancient trees; a contained miniature world of natural wonder, while city life went on outside their walls. And on Sunday excursions, we would visit the primordially paradisiacal Parque Terra Nostra in the small town of Furnas. These parks still conjure up childhood wonderment when I revisit them on trips to the Azores.

I never lost my fascination for gardens after coming to Canada, where, as still a young boy, my family would spend Sunday afternoons in the grand and expansive High Park, in Toronto. Since then, I continue to search for gardens wherever I go. But comparisons are perhaps unfair, and flimsy at best, for each garden, although made up of similar elements, are all unique in their own way, with their own personality, some ostentatious and world-renowned, others modest and hidden, but all reminders that nature enriches the life of a city.

These are some of the gardens are I have had the pleasure of meandering through: Jardin des Tuileries, Les Jardin du Luxembourg, Parc Monceau, in Paris, are so magical in autumn light; and in summer, the very formal garden  decorated throughout with azulejos: Palácio dos Marqueses de Fronteira in Benfica, on the outskirts of Lisbon; Jardim Botânico, Universidade de Lisboa; Parque do Museu Calouste Gulbenkian surrounding the Calouste Gulbenkian art gallery in Lisbon; Jardim da Estrela, on the west of Lisbon, across from the baroque/neoclassical Basílica da Estrela; Cemitério dos Ingleses (The British Cemetery) in Lisbon, where Henry Fielding has a massive monument in his honour; Butchart Gardens in Victoria, British Columbia; The San Francisco Botanical gardens, and the Japanese Tea garden, in Golden Gate Park; The UBC Botanical Garden, in Vancouver; the MNU Botanical Garden at Memorial University in Newfoundland; the Halifax Public Gardens in Nova Scotia, the Boston Public Garden, in Boston, Massachusetts; Central Park in New York City.

One garden that I came to discover only a few years ago, and which I have come to love best is The Gardens at the Guild Park in the east of Toronto, where the gardens have an organic feel, surrounded as they are by trails leading into untamed nature along the edge of the Scarborough Bluffs, overlooking Lake Ontario. A visitor to this garden will be treated to a display of plant life, flower beds and trees delineated by meandering paths that delight with every turn. That these gardens contain old architectural pieces preserved from Toronto’s past, as well as being adorned by sculptures from prominent artists, makes it all the richer and more significant to visit; a meeting place in the city originally know by the Indigenous word Tkaronto – or place where trees meet in water.

Since discovering the Guild Park, Stephen and I have made a point of bringing family and friends to experience the quiet, understated beauty of the gardens that become grandiose upon the sight of those impressive architectural remnants, casually, so it seems, scattered amongst bushes and plants and trees. They are always impressed; they always wonder why they never knew of the existence of this garden before. It’s a tucked away treasure reminding Torontonians that the city is a seamless blend of stone and flora. When I show my photographs of the park to one of my dear friends who has a long family history with the area, she shares stories of her growing up near the gardens and this enriches my experience and understanding of this place I have come to love.

The Guild Park may not be as grand and famous as some of the parks and gardens I have visited; but, in a truly modest and unassuming way, delivers an aesthetic experience that make me smile with every visit, as I continue to discover anew what I already had discovered before, but seeing it in a different light, a different season and, each time, delighting in this patch of earth dedicated to the presence of nature inside our city while taking me back, for a moment, to paradise.

Sometimes you come across a park dweller.

I took all these photos in 2016 and 2017.

It’s possible to visit the Guild Park and Gardens by taking public transportation (TTC). Buses 12A or 116C will take you right to the entrance. For any Torontonian or visitors to the city, it’s worth the trip to experience a walk through a space that will, ironically, connect you back to the city core through the architectural remnants on display throughout the garden’s landscape.

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The Guild Inn at Guild Park & Gardens

The Guild Inn facing the gardens

Toronto, such a modern city today, can still surprise us with treasures from the past.

After being abandoned for many years, the historical Guild Inn at the Guild Park & Gardens, once a hotel and artist’s colony, was recently restored and expanded to function as a place where people can celebrate life’s milestones.

The Guild Inn restoration was done with care and thought – proving that we don’t have to demolish every tangible sign of a long-ago Toronto in the creation of the Toronto of today and tomorrow.

Before restoration

After restoration

A path leading to walks in the gardens

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Toronto’s Old Ruins Live in the Guild Park & Gardens

The Greek Theatre at Guild Park & Gardens, built from remnants of the old Bank of Toronto Building, demolished in 1966

By the time I came to Toronto in 1968, there had already been a significant demolition of late-19th and early-20th century architecture, especially in the downtown area. From the late-1950s and into the 1960s, the inevitable growth of the city and the desire for new development which continues to this day, came at the cost of erasing much of Toronto’s first century as an incorporated city.

Although I was too late to see many of the grand buildings that once graced this city I call home, I can still visit remnants of Toronto’s old architecture scattered like puzzle pieces throughout the landscape of the Guild Park and Gardens, and imagine what it might have been like to walk the streets of Toronto when theses stones belonged to magnificent buildings.

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Retreat at the Abbey of the Genesee

Sunrise, Abbey of the Genesee

My island of São Miguel, like the other eight islands that form the Azorean archipelago, is deeply rooted in its spiritual heritage. It is home to convents, chapels, hermitages, Impérios do Divino Espírito Santo, and churches in every town and village.

I grew up, not only with these architectural signs of the holy, but with a living faith practiced in the ordinariness of daily life by those around me. So, it makes sense that I continue to be enthralled by religious sites, and especially convents and monasteries where modern-day monks and nuns still live. Although most convents are no longer functioning on the island that instilled this fascination, it’s a marvel to me that they exist here in North America. That I can find Roman Catholic Monasticism in both Canada and the United States is a modern miracle; especially in this age when many people mistrust and reject Christian institutions and spirituality.

But if you are so inclined to follow your heart’s desire for the intangible, for the spiritual; or even if all you are searching for is a place to rest for awhile, away from your connectivity to social media, and everything that goes with filling your mind and soul with countless unnecessary distractions, you can retreat to a monastery or convent for a few days and disconnect from your everyday life in order to connect with your deepest self.

Every once in a while, I journey to such places in order to find rest of body, a renewal of the soul, and an injection of joy and peace which hopefully sustains me until, depleted once again by daily living, I return to the sanctuary of a monastery.

Recently I was in just such a place, in upstate New York, near the Genesee River Valley: The Abbey of the Genesee, where American Cistercian Monks continue to live out an ancient way of life going back centuries to its European roots.

I stayed at the abbey’s Bethlehem Retreat House, sharing the space with fellow retreatants in total silence, including meal times. The house is surrounded by wide open spaces for long walks in nature. And the Abbey, where everyone is welcome to join the monks in their daily cycle of prayer, is only a short distance away.

On this retreat, I couldn’t get up for Vigils (Night Office) at 3:30 am but I made it for Lauds (the prayer at dawn) at 6:30 am, still dark outside on these still cold March days, followed by Mass at 7:00 am, Sext (Noon) prayer, Vespers (Sunset) at 5:30 pm, and ending with Compline (Evening prayer), at 7:30 pm. It’s an ancient, daily rhythm that brings monks into their Choir to chant the Psalms of the Divine Office. It defies human understanding to live like this, and to what purpose, we will ask. But there is no logical answer except to say that, against all reason, there are men and women who still dedicate their lives to the unknown mystery of existence through prayer and silence, not as a rejection of the world, but as a reminder that the sacred and the unspoken has value beyond human logic.

Despite their heavy daily prayer schedule, the monks also work. Monks’ Bread is famous throughout the region and this is how the Genesee monks mostly earn their living. Monks live in community and take care of each other. It’s not all high-spiritual lofty stuff but the concreteness of ordinary life. I witnessed a monk leaving choir during the chanting of Lauds only to return a few minutes later with the pair of glasses the old frail monk with trembling hands in a wheelchair next to him had forgotten. This, for me, was the sign of authentic incarnational love and kindness (charity) that gives human meaning to their understanding of the Gospel mandate to “love one another.”

After several days of living surrounded by chant and walks in nature, all my life’s worries and anxieties seemed to quieten down. I say “seemed” because they are still there, only resting for a while, until later, when I return home, and as soon as I get off the train and face the overcrowded platforms of Union Station in Toronto, I start to wake up to the realities of life in a big city again.

But the monks, as much as they are devoted to their monastic life, would argue that you don’t have to live in a monastery to find peace, calm, joy. These virtues are just as accessible and present in the world, in the busyness and clutter of life. It’s ultimately, a matter of the heart, and it’s possible to find solitude and peace everywhere we are.

However, I am still grateful for the existence of these special places where I can go every-once-in-a-while for a high dosage of spiritual life.

The Abbey of the Genesee

Stained glass doors leading to the Abbey church and stained glass windows

 

The Monks’ cemetery

Bethlehem Retreat House

The barn and a bench to sit under the tree and contemplate nature

The barn and path leading to Mary

The barn with the goats Adelaide and Bernice (Addie and Bernie) posing on the side

A hint of Spring colour but the pond behind the tree is still frozen

A forest nearby still in Winter nakedness

Our Lady of the Genesee

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The 424 Wellington House

As I walked down Spadina Avenue, and turned onto Wellington Street West, I came upon a massive construction site with new condominiums going up on the south side of the street. But I should not have been surprised to see yet another gentrification project that is making the Toronto I know, unrecognizable to me.

It’s not that I’m against change. I only object to the demolition of older architecture to make way for new and sadly predictable, characterless, unimaginative buildings. For this reason, despite having my camera on me, I didn’t feel inspired to take any photographs of yet another long stretch of razed land, giant cranes and steel frames of new buildings in the making.

But as I looked at the other side of the street, what I saw made me gasp and I reached automatically for my camera to take photographs of a beautiful boarded up house. I wanted to preserve its memory, before it was gone. But I didn’t need to fear its removal. A billboard sign assured me that the house’s architectural skeleton will be incorporated into a new condo project.

The house, even in its sad state of impending decay, still showed beauty and dignity, guarded by two very sad looking plaster lions who knew they had failed to protect it from the developers. I took my time looking at the house’s exterior, trying to feel its spirit and history in its elaborate rooflines, its variety of windows, its warm red bricks and wonderful decorative terra cotta.

In an attempt to preserve old architecture, it has become quite popular to incorporate facades into new buildings. And as much as this is perhaps better than total extinction, I question why we need to impose something new and massive over something old and small. Is this the only way to justify the continued existence of the 424 Wellington House and its rightful place in the history of the city?

And I wonder what will happen to those two faithful lions?

According to the sign, the Wellington House condo project should have been completed by spring of 2017, but I took these photos in December of 2018. The delay might be related to an attempt to preserve 424 Wellington Street West under the Ontario Heritage Act.

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Malvões

I didn’t know malvões were called geraniums until I came to Canada. And even when I was growing up in the Azores, I didn’t know that gerânios was the proper Portuguese word for geraniums. In Ponta Delgada, the city where I lived, we called them malvões (malvão in the singular), and in my father’s village of Achada they called them capitães.

Our quintal was always full of red, white, pink, and matizado (spotted) geraniums in pots lined up against the walls. In Canada, my parents continued the tradition of having malvões in their backyard. I keep geraniums in my own backyard from spring until the end of summer, when they are then composted, because they can’t survive the Canadian winter outdoors.

This year, I decided to save my potted geraniums by bringing them inside the house with the hope that the plants would survive this winter indoors, and then flower again when spring comes. I read up on how to take care of geraniums during a Canadian winter, and even though I have followed the instructions, many have withered away, while some, now flowerless, maintain their green leaves.

I have never gotten used to the word geraniums, and to this day, I called them malvões. Every time I say or think the word, I am back, for a fleeting moment, to my childhood quintal, my fingers caressing a malvão’s green leaf, feeling its silky-smooth surface, as my grandmother’s voice beckons me in for lunch. “Vem almoçar,” I can hear her saying just as clearly as I hear the word malvões, conjuring up the world of my childhood.

Malvão matizado

Pastel pencil drawings and photographs by Emanuel Melo.

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