Tiny cogs in the giant wheel of herstory.

How often I found where I should be going only by setting out for somewhere else. – R. Buckminster Fuller

Like yours, there are so many stories in my family. Stories I know, stories I will never know, stories I tell myself to make sense of my past. Stories of serendipity, migration, and happenstance. Tiny cogs in the giant wheel of my herstory/ history without which I wouldn’t exist at all. Random, unexpected connections to things I find commonplace or take for granted, things like my morning commute for example. Although I travel by public transit almost every weekday, it didn’t occur to me until recently, that if it wasn’t for the subway, I wouldn’t be here.

subway anansi/ travels across time/ dimensions defined/ by sidewalk chalk

I don’t remember a time in Toronto before the subway, but I grew up in a pre-Metro Pass, pre-Presto era when bus drivers carried cash so they could make change, and an extra fare was required north of Eglinton. I remember my mother grumbling when it was time to pay, yet again. We lived in the newly developed suburb of Don Mills, almost at Lawrence Avenue, not far from the fare boundary but too far to walk comfortably.

In the Joni Mitchel, Gordon Lightfoot, Guess Who, Dan Hill, The Band and Ann Murray world of my youth; before Avril Lavigne, Alanis Morrissette, Justin Beiber, Drake and The Weekend; before the Blue Jays, “We the North” and Canada’s Wonderland, transit was high on my list of what made Toronto noteworthy. Who else but New York had subways? Where else in North America could you ride a streetcar other than San Fransisco?

“Citified” I took for granted the easy access to downtown, the Royal Ontario Museum and Art Gallery of Ontario, the abundance of record and book stores, the proximity of major department stores like Eaton’s, Sears, and The Bay. The nearby mall and reliable transit, meant we didn’t have to have to order anything from a catalogue. In the early 70s, the skyline wasn’t distinguished by the unique shape of the CN tower, or a plethora of condos, stores closed on Sundays and corporal punishment was a legal and still practiced in schools. The scent of buttered popcorn and cigarettes mingled in movie theatres that only had one screen. Kids bobbed around unseatbelted in the back of station wagons, rode their bikes without helmets and tore down icy winter hills on wooden toboggans or scraps of cardboard. That was my normal but it was miles away from the Hog Town experience of previous generations. When my grandfather was growing up, the Royal York hotel was the tallest downtown building, men needed garters to hold up their socks, smoking jackets, pipes and silver cigarette cases spoke to the cachet and popularity of tobacco smoking, and photographs were always black and white, unless someone paid to have them hand-tinted.

I would solve a lot of literary problems just thinking about a character in the subway, where you can’t do anything anyway. – Toni Morrison

The reason my father’s parents moved to The Six from Renfrew is lost in history, I know more about the migration of my mother’s family. My maternal grandfather, was the son of a homemaker and photographer. He was a construction worker, nature-lover, and eventually a Civil Engineer, who returned to his hometown of Toronto in the late 1940s, with his Fort William bride and four children in tow. The family was temporarily gifted with a succession of empty houses expropriated by the Toronto Transit Commission (TTC) to make way for the first subway heading north from Union Station. My grandmother faced the thankless task of cleaning and making a sequence of hastily abandoned houses feel and function like home. Her husband worked hard on the project and even enjoyed a moment in the limelight, appearing on the cover of the Globe and Mail’s Saturday Night magazine. He’s there on the front of the November 1, 1949 edition, pictured beside the Resident Engineer. Standing on the right, my grandfather wears a summer suit, his fedora cocked jauntily to the left. The two men hold a set of plans, a large crane looms in the background, while they both stare off into Toronto’s transit future.

what prayers await you/ beneath/ cement catacombs?

My grandfather died before I was born, so I have no idea what future he was imagining, transit or otherwise. Although squeezed between other frazzled rush hour commuters, I’m pretty sure it’s not the overcrowding and inevitable signal delays, ubiquitous weekend line closures or the shuttle buses needed after disturbing and tragic injuries “at track level.” Still I can’t help thinking how strange it is that a gigantic 205,000 kilogram machine and the underground tunnels it barrels down is one of many cogs in the complex wheel of my family’s history, without which I probably wouldn’t exist at all.

cryogenic swords/ rocket past/ force fields/ and borders/ belong only to those/ who name them

Note: A special thank you to my mom for patiently answering my questions about our family history, again.

subway-train-cropped
Subway train at Davisville Station, Toronto
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From rhubarb to tomatillos

“But always, to her, red and green cabbages were to be jade and burgundy, chrysoprase and prophyry. Life has no weapons against a woman like that.” – Edna Ferber

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raspberry with a heart-shaped centre

There are so many stories in my garden. Stories of the people who worked the land before me, clues to its history, scraps of tile, old nuts and bolts, snail shells, marbles, grubs masquerading as marbles; even a giant ring left by a troll. Towering over it, a huge cross, part sentinel, part scarecrow, one hundred percent repurposed metal streetlight post, now used as a laundry line. No wonder my maternal grandmother visits me there. Disguised as a butterfly, her white wings flicker past as I kneel on the earth.

 
This is my first year gardening, my first year since I was a young girl, helping my grandmother with hers. My help mostly consisted of watching, harvesting and eating. My favourite thing to do was pick raspberries for the table and it was understood that I would eat as many as I picked. My second favourite thing was eating rhubarb, delightfully sour, dipped in sugar.

I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks.

Fast forward: My partner and I moved into our new space in the fall, so we didn’t have the opportunity to do much in the way of planning or even preparing the soil. Nothing to do but dream, and the garden I dreamed of included raspberries and rhubarb. The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble. Sadly the raspberry canes did not survive the purge.

For the months of October, November, December, January, and February, the soil was frozen, and I existed in a tense state of anticipation. March brought seed shopping and research, trips to the dollar store for supplies, advice seeking and more research.

 
In late April I was finally able to start planting seeds indoors. The lighting was less than ideal, some survived, some didn’t. The greenness of my thumb seemed to be more of an indication of my inexperience rather than my success. In early May, corner grocery stores beckoned with small plants that looked hardier and more likely to survive than the scraggly seedlings I had been sprouting. In late May, the planting finally began. Still in a corner of my mind was the regret that I hadn’t been able to source a rhubarb plant, and I had discovered that the raspberry canes would take two years to start bearing again.

The garden we inherited was 5 feet high with weeds, and in mid-September the landlord unceremoniously chopped it back to a 5 o’clock shadow of stubble.

After weeks of weeding, hours spent mixing in manure and organic fertilizer, watering, waiting and hoping, it finally started to fill out. In the end there was bok choy, sweet and hot peppers, celery, celeriac, strawberries, arugula, leaf lettuce, green beans, tomatoes, tomatillos and so many herbs, cilantro, rosemary, culinary sage, thyme, lemon and African basil, lemon balm and a prickly borage plant that attempted to take over. Later I was brave enough to try planting okra and then the calalloo sprung up on its own, a happy surprise which required next to no tending. At some point I started to muse about how much my eating had changed and how much food had changed in Hog Town over the years. I grew up in an avocado-less household, where spinach was always cooked into an unseasoned fir-green mush. No one I knew had eaten okra, heard of tomatillos, tasted fresh cilantro or added anything other than ice berg lettuce to their salads, never mind arugula.

tomatillos-cropped
tomatillos, tomato, blackberries, pepper, green beans, calalloo  (in background)

It was a childhood culinary experience full of baked potatoes smothered in butter (the skin really is the best part) hot roast beef sandwiches, a uniquely named family casserole dubbed “suppog”, root beer floats, vanilla ice cream in cantaloupe boats, freshly picked raspberries, carrots still warm from the earth, and on holidays pies and cranberry sauce made from scratch. On the flip side there were canned peas, Kraft dinner, and to fill in any nutritional gaps, the requisite dose of cod-liver oil. The variety wasn’t horrible but it was limited, fortunately the gastronomic landscape has shifted tectonically over the years. Now Toronto is renowned for having some of the best and most culturally varied cuisine in the world.

 
I grew the tomatillos on whim, watching them fill out their papery husks, even though I had never tasted one. Now the fridge is home to sweetly simmered tomatillo jam with lime and a hint of lavender tucked up against the jars of savoury tomatillo freezer jam, speckled with hot peppers. It might seem like that’s a long way from my grandmother’s garden but I know she would like them both because the tomatillos (a relative of the gooseberry) carry the slightly less tart but still very definable flavour of rhubarb. Seems like in a roundabout way, I got my wish after all. No wonder all the butterflies in the garden are dancing.

“Don’t grieve. Anything you lose comes round in another form.” – Rumi

On Death, Dreaming and Beyonce

Part 1 – Death

It’s been a rough week. It wasn’t what I expected when I went to my social media network feed, but it was there anyway – Death. And because the person who died was the adult child of someone I know, all the walls came crumbling down. Death, it’s a story told too many times in this city. A city cracked at the seams, bleeding out onto the sidewalk, its mask pock-marked with bullet holes. Toronto is supposed to be one of the greatest cities in the world to live in but that’s only on the bright and shiny faux marble surface. That’s only the stainless steel appliance, granite counter top, valet parking, take-out on speed dial, view of the lake – Toronto. Not the city where some feel that walking with a gun and being willing to use it is necessary for survival, for street-cred or to save face. Not the city where too many mother’s and father’s hearts take their last breaths on the pavement, in hallways, in elevators, in parking lots, in cars, on couches, in ambulances and operating rooms. Death.

Part 2 – Beyonce

Beyonce, the video, the controversy, it’s about herstory. It’s about being willing to witness another’s world view and not tell them to be quiet. You can try to make it about whether Beyonce is worshipping capitalism or being legitimately radical with her Super-Bowl half time show and new Formation video. But what’s really important is the fact that we/you/they can no longer ignore the story. It’s the way that “Stop shooting us” scrawled across a wall speaks to you, enrages you, activates you, makes you uncomfortable, terrifies you or makes you think/feel anything at all. It’s about #BlackLivesMatter, #icantbreathe, #BlackGirlMagic and so much more.

Part 3 – Dreaming

When you wake, you find your dreams written indelibly on your skin.

When anyone dies they leave a legacy, a legacy of what was important to them, the lives they touched, and the art they created, it’s all a part of the story. I don’t think that anyone wishes for their legacy to be that their family and friends stop living, grieve indefinitely, or give up hope. But rather that they live broader, act bolder and dream bigger. Here is something from a story I told about my experiences after my father’s sudden death. “There’s this thing that happens when someone dies, you dream and you wake. And when you wake, you find your dreams written indelibly on your skin, and no amount of scrubbing will take them off.”
Please be safe, dream big and encourage someone who needs it. Small acts of kindness can have giant repercussions.