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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When is a Lake an Ocean?

Lake Ontario, view from Warden Beach

I am drawn to water, which most people find normal given that I grew up a few kilometers in-land from the Atlantic Ocean. But the truth is that I did not even learn how to swim until I came to live in Toronto.

When I was a little boy, going to the beach was not an option. I remember one stifling hot and humid summer’s day when a neighbour asked my mother if I could join her children on a day’s trip to the praia. My mother, of course, said no. And I had to resign myself to watching them walk down the street on their way to this place which I could not even imagine in my mind, having never set foot on a beach! All I knew was that it was a very hot, infernal-like place, or so my mother led me to believe!

It was considered a very low-brow thing to do back in the 1960’s when social status dictated much of what you could or could not do in the big city of Ponta Delgada on the island of São Miguel. It was vergonha (shameful, disrespectful) to go to the beach or even to have a suntan. My maternal grandmother prided herself in having milky white smooth skin and a lack of wrinkles to the end of her life – proof that she had stayed away from the sun.

I must have been 12 years old when my cousins and I joined a beginner’s swim class at the indoor pool of the “Parque dos Italianos,” the name the Portuguese had for Toronto’s Trinity-Bellwood’s Park in the 1970s, a place where families gathered on Sunday afternoons. None of us had known how to swim because we had all been born in the Azores, and even though my cousins came from the countryside, surrounded by ocean, it was too wild and rocky for swimming. Only fisherman dared go out into the big waves to make a living. Other than them, most people had a fear and reverence for the power of water that could drown you during an unexpected storm or crashing wave and so they stayed away from the powerful ocean below the villages.

So we learned how to swim in chlorinated water and it was delightfully adventuresome for us to do something so daring without our parents’ knowledge. I don’t think they knew what we were up to that summer because if they did, I am sure our mothers would have come screaming to save us from killing ourselves in the pool water! In those days we had so much freedom that we were like little adults living our lives in the streets of Toronto – all because we spoke English and our parents did not. This was our advantage and privilege although at times the adults in our lives must have felt inadequate parenting in this new land.

Despite those swim lessons, I have never been a strong swimmer and I always wear a life jacket when swimming at a cottage-by-the- lake during the quintessential Ontario summer holiday season. I was only introduced to cottage life (or “camp” as they say in Northern Ontario) in adulthood, thanks to Anglo friends, and I am to this day grateful for any opportunity to plunge myself in the deep waters of placid, smooth and murky lakes, with the sound of loons in the distance.

Closer to home, I am always full of awe when I gaze out at the voluminous ocean-like Lake Ontario that sometimes swells with waves trying to fool me into believing that it’s an ocean. I also feel the same awe when I visit the Azores and sit by the ocean, overwhelmed by the powerful high waves that recede and crash into the rocky shore.

The feeling or nostalgia for water is so fluid in my mind that I can’t distinguish between the experience of being mesmerized when I look out into Lake Ontario or the Atlantic Ocean: both have their own unique way of making waves and moving water based on the rhythms of the wind or interaction with the lake bed or ocean floor.

But the love and fascination I feel for water is not saudade for a childhood memory, since I never sat by the ocean in those days; instead I think it stems from a desire and longing to be near water as I intuit what it might have been like had I been allowed to join my friends at the beach that summer’s day of long ago.

All photos of Lake Ontario taken at Warden Beach

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Adelaide Freitas: From the Azores to North America

Many years ago, when I was trying to understand my Azorean identity, I came upon Adelaide Freitas. I had walked into Livraria Gil, an old bookstore in Ponta Delgada, like a detective following a lead, searching for books that could help me understand the meaning of my hyphenated Canadian-Azorean self, when a book title caught my eye from the shelf: Nas Duas Margens: da Literatura Norte-Americana e Açoriana (2008). The book was a collection of essays, some even written in English, that talked about those themes of belonging and identity that had plagued my mind for years.

When I returned to Toronto, I found much to digest and learn from Saudade: Language as Survival; Islands: Dream and Reality – Historiographic Metafiction in Azorean Literature; Os Açorianos em Moby Dick, each illuminating a shard of truth in a prism made up of essays that linked North American diaspora writers to writers in the Azores. The collection of essays was like a mosaic of azulejos piecing together themes and ideas that made me identify with the book’s title which I would translate as From the Two Shores: of North American and Azorean Literature. I have gone back from time to time to read parts of the book, always finding a new perspective and meaning to my questions of identity.

A few years ago, serendipity brought me to meet the American translator Katharine Baker, who was working on a translation of a novel by Adelaide Freitas. After she learned that I had been born in the Azores, that my father’s family hailed from Achada, a town next to Adelaide’s birthplace, Achadinha, Katharine invited me to participate in the final drafts of her translation.

And so it is that I started my reading of Sorriso por Dentro da Noite (2004), written in an exquisitely beautiful lyrical prose that challenges the translator to the point of despair. How to capture Adelaide’s style and give justice to her words; this has been the great challenge. It is my hope that one day the novel will be available in English so that readers will be able to know this tender and sorrowful story of immigration. The protagonist, Xana, will break anyone’s heart, but especially those of us who, as children experienced loss of family through immigration.

Adelaide Freitas had gone silent years ago through the devastation of illness. Her husband, Vamberto Freitas, himself a man of letters and important literary critic in the Portuguese diaspora, with enduring love and faithfulness kept her by his side, even writing about her, but above all loving her with steadfastness. In one of his blog posts he wrote how in the middle of a sleepless night, with her resting in the next room, he would take her books from the shelf and read her words to himself when he could no longer her the voice of his beloved wife. Such is the tenderness and power of language and words that transcend physicality and allowed him to bring Adelaide to the present.

The Azorean community learned of her recent death, on June 6, 2018, and there are many who now mourn the loss of this intelligent mind who wrote so eloquently about us, those of us on the margins of culture, place and sense of belonging, using literature as a vehicle to create understanding and give meaning to our collective experience.

I, too, mourn for someone I have known only through words, but they are just as alive and meaningful for me today as they were the day I first read Adelaide Freitas.

Also posted on Comunidades


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