A walk in Toronto

I just spent a week in Toronto with my son, daughter-in-law, and three granddaughters, and had some time now and then, while they were elsewhere, to walk. I love wandering this city. Would you care to join me?

It’s a nice crisp day, grey sky, no snow. I leave their house and walk through the nearby park where the girls often play, though it’s utterly quiet today. Imagine with me the shady green in other seasons, imagine the high happy sounds of children. I pass the Ukrainian Orthodox Cathedral with its attractive awnings and roof dome, and then the school where the younger two girls attend (the oldest has moved on to a junior high school). I head for and follow the Rail Path.

Maybe it all looks a little blah. Well, it’s winter, but there’s an energy in the air, and a sense of community. Someone commented recently that Toronto is composed of villages, and I’ve certainly noticed that spirit in the community my children have forged in this particular village. It’s one originally settled by immigrants and now full of post-immigrant families. Old and renovated and new bump against each other, and there’s a lovely messiness and diversity about it all. I climb the stairs to the pedestrian bridge over the rail lines, look down at the tracks (for Go Train, UP Express), look at downtown Toronto in the distance (though objects clothed in grey are closer than they appear), and descend the stairs on the other side, where I see some amazing art. There’s lots of graffiti here! Much of it wonderfully skilled and colourful! We all good¬†is announced in yellow on red.

Now I’m on a commercial street. I pass a Shoppers and a large grocery store, but also a little cafe called Hula Girl and a flower shop that’s selling Christmas trees and an arts building and a film studio place. There’s lots of density here, population-wise, as the highrise residences beside me attest, so lots of traffic and people on the street. Variety, variety! (Example: yesterday on my walk I saw a guy in the near-zero temperatures in bare feet going through some kind of yogic ritual on the sidewalk.) Now a dry cleaners, a hair studio, a dentistry place, the Slovenian centre, a delicatessen, and a storefront called One Stop Shop that has its blinds drawn and is apparently not available for stopping after all. And the local subway station. I lived in Toronto for a year before my marriage and I think I could still, with just a little re-orientation and practice, find my way around this city.

I’m talking these notes into my phone as I walk and no one pays the least heed. It’s a common enough sight and it will be assumed I’m talking to someone else, not myself. I’m not gesturing wildly as I talk though, like the man who just passed me. Bishop Marrocco/Thomas Merton Catholic Secondary School, which has a greenhouse on the roof. Loblaws. A tire place. A couple of men selling flags, probably in good demand during FIFA. Ah, a Starbucks. (It’s in a former post office building.) I know, I know, Starbucks, but I’ve gotten a little too fond of their chai tea latte, so I stop for one. While I wait for my drink, I contemplate the names filling part of a wall dedicated to Black Lives Matter. Once again outside, at that corner is a quiet little spot called a peace “garden.” All the plants are more or less dead, but there’s peace also in death, right? This spot marks the indigenous origins of the area with youth art in the bricks of the circular ground.

It’s nearly 3 c’clock and the girls will soon be home from school, so I’m glad to return too and see them, but also reluctant, I confess, because, like I say, I really enjoy wandering around this place, with its mix of the rejuvenated and the run-down. Ah, this crazy beautiful city. The walk back takes me by a curious sign about seniors and a large (half) full cup painted on a building, which encourages me with its realistic optimism. There are flashing lights and sirens now, some emergency beyond my view that must be attended to. In the midst of all the noise and people, birds find rest in a row.

I circle back under the train overpass, into the residential streets, and one block after another and I’m once again — both “at home” and guest — at this welcoming door!

Two book recommends, and comments about my own

Facebook friend Richard, whose reading taste I trust, said he loved This is Happiness by Irish writer Niall Williams, and then local friend Elsie said the same thing, and now I’ve read it and completely agree with them. It’s funny and sad and contains wonderful language and metaphors that aren’t just illuminating in a descriptive way but often carry wisdom too.

51DyA72JX3L._SY264_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_ML2_This is Happiness tells the story of a man looking back on a time when he was young, having left the priesthood after a year of study and gone to stay with his grandparents in Faha, which is about as far away and obscure in Ireland as it’s possible to be. And, it’s stopped raining. “It had stopped raining” is the entire Chapter One! During the unusual sunshine, electricity is being installed in Faha, and Christy comes to work on the installation and boards at the old people’s house. He’s also come to make things right with someone. Williams treats his characters and this small out-of-the-way community with such generous insight, it’s inspiring.

It was my brother Al, I believe, who recommended The Reluctant Fundamentalist by Pakistani writer Mohsin Hamid some years ago. On that account, and also because of Eleanor Wachtel’s interview with him at Writers and Company. I was drawn to Hamid’s new book, The Last White Man. It’s a short book that felt like a parable.

4E0C9C92-37DD-48CF-A6F3-C6B3B9409F3FThe first sentence: “One morning Anders, a white man, woke up to find he had turned a deep and undeniable brown.” Ah, shades of Kafka’s opening to Metamorphosis then. The shock of this to Anders’ sense of identity is huge: is he the same person, or how is he changed? Or is he changed by how others see him? If the story feels ominous at first, there’s comfort and tenderness too, as others begin to change. The prose style has a rhythmic repetitiveness within the sentences that serves to take the reader deeper into the under-the-skin psychology of the story. As suggested by the word parable above, it has one thinking afterwards about what it all means. 

I’m not implying a triad with these two authors, but since my theme today is books, please allow a few comments about my own. It’s some five months now since Return Stroke: essays & memoir launched, and I still find myself in the surprise this particular coming-together was, and deeply grateful to CMU Press, headed by Sue Sorensen, for doing the book. And I’m grateful for readers, as always, and for some lovely reviews so far (please see the Return Stroke page on the weblog).

I was especially touched by Kerry Clare saying: “What I love so much about Dueck’s writing and her thinking is that nothing is fixed, and she is eternally curious, taking notes and learning, about the past and the present, much of her work concerned with memory and history, but in such a vital, living way, not as an affirmation but a process of discovery.” What touched me here was not the compliment as much as her articulating exactly what I’ve felt my personal writing is, or, I should say, what I’ve wanted it to be — a process of discovery. Without that as aim, there would be no point, for my history doesn’t lend itself to the autobiographical endeavour of some great achievement. So, thanks be for such encouragement!

For those who may be interested to buy this book or any of my other titles (pictured on the right on the weblog page; a click on the title will take you there), for yourself or a gift, the two Turnstone titles are available through Amazon. CMU Press is so far resisting the use of that mega-corporation, and I respect that decision. Their two, though, indeed all, are in the distribution system and can be ordered from your local bookstore, or directly from the publisher. I also realize that buying books isn’t an option for everyone, so may I suggest asking your library to purchase the one you might want to read? — Okay, enough of this. I don’t do this often, but I did want to remind about it, and now I’ve done so! Thanks for your interest and support!

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The progression of grief

Walking this morning, I was thinking about grief, how it progresses through time and changes.

When my husband Helmut died in February 2021, I kept a kind of visual journal of grief, for even though I generally traffic in words, that activity helped me represent what I was feeling. For example, on a day in which I’d been busy with a variety of activities and then, afterwards, found myself overwhelmed with aloneness, though not crying, I expressed it as my upper body full of tears. IMG_1087

Eventually, however, the 98-page sketchbook was full, and by then it was November and less was “new” in the experience of grief. The first Christmas passed, and more crucially for me, New Year’s, which I approached with dread because the year in which he had still been alive would then be finished. The first anniversary of his death came and passed as well, which also signalled changes.

For an entire year I had found myself unable to move his keys from the ledge where they had always waited when not in use, but now, finally, I hung them on a hook under my jacket, as a spare set in case of need. Also — and I’m not sure why — I began after a year to sleep on “his” side of the bed. (Of course, alone in a queen bed one can push into the middle or all over as much as one wants, with no one pushing back, but I’m talking about the side of getting in and out.)

People with experience of grief told me the second year could be harder than the first. I don’t know if harder is the word for me, but certainly there are new challenges and questions. There’s a brutal finality that still confronts me, which no “magical thinking” of keys or leaving his side of the bed open could dissuade, nor moving keys or switching sides accomplish either, a finality that seems the more brutal because of how persistent is the disbelief around the truth that this is how it is. The challenges are the questions involved in shaping a new existence in the face of it: Is there anyone who truly needs me now? Who is witness to my life? Since I’m still here, what should I be doing with this time?¬†

If I were to sum up the first year visually, it might be thick vertical lines — lines of grief, say in purple, alternating with thick lines, say in green, of going on, as in coping and adapting. This, then this, then this. To sum the place that time has taken me now, I would use horizontal lines. Layers. Simultaneous. The most obvious layer perhaps what my sister, also a widow, meant when she said “you get used to it.” Doing the things of each day. There’s a solid layer of joy as well. As in my walk today, following a trail in a ditch and comprehending the subtle but rich colours of autumn grasses — cream, yellow, white, brown. As in fears overcome, and some upcoming travel to anticipate. As in my children, grandchildren, friends. As in the youngest grandchild, who, as babies do, delights me with his visible curiosity and cheerfulness. Another layer I call quest, short for the questions mentioned above. And always a layer of memories and missing, solidly in the mix though not dominating or excluding the rest of life as much as earlier.