Propitious Birds (Toronto Day 532)

imageA thing about living right downtown here is I mostly see sparrows and pigeons. Starlings, sometimes. Grackles and gulls, for sure. I’ve had cardinals and finches in the tree outside my window, there’s a young raptor who taunts me on Queen Street when I’m out without the big zoom camera, and I can go to the lakeshore for ducks and cormorants. It’s not as though the birds aren’t here.

But, day to day, it’s mostly sparrowkind.

In Vancouver last week I caught glimpses of all my faves: crows (commuting crows, by the hundreds!), starlings, great blue herons, three species of duck, bushtits, cormorants, and a glimpse of northern flicker. I thought I’d have to content myself with the scolding of a Stellar’s jay in the bushes, but it turns out my sister-in-law feeds them. I almost collided with one Monday on my way out the door; it was headed to a clutch of peanuts on the kitchen windowsill.

It was satisfying and soul-nourishing, and a nice concrete example of a difference, neither good nor bad, between Then and Now. But not truly between Here and There, because if I’d got a house outside of the downtown core, I’d be hip-deep in feathery company.

Toronto, day 395

imageI know this blog has lately been all taken up with OMG Kittehs on the one hand and OMG Child of a Hidden Seaon the other. I know, too, that most of you probably don’t mind.

Still, I wanted to at least try to say something else. (Anything you want to know that isn’t cat or book related? Let me know!)

My second summer here is beginning. It is neat to be able to start comparing, having some perspective. To able to say last spring was rainier. Last summer we got to the heat sooner. (It is supposed to get quite toasty this week, but right now it is cool and rainy.) Even to just say “At this time last year, I’d been in Toronto for one short month. Wow!”

I’ve not made any serious effort to get myself somewhere new to take pictures in awhile. This is hardly surprising, since the trajectory since March has been: Texas trip, move house, adopt cats, book. It’s something I hope to remedy soon.

One thing that will help will be a couple of excursions, one to Prince Edward County to see what’s up with Ontario wines, and another to Amherst, where I will be signing books at a Barnes & Noble on August 9th.

It will be good to venture out of the city. Right now my comprehension of local geography is essentially a staggering understanding of where and how to find decent coffee within a 90 minute radius, walking and… well, allegedly there is stuff north of here. And perhaps elsewhere too.

I knew every bump in the Coquihalla by the time we had been in BC for 15 years, and these things come with time. Right now I’m still at the point where I meet people who live in places like Pickering and I wonder if they’re having me on.

Personal Smatterings

Launch of the Kitten Channel: We currently have just-weaned three kittens in the house, now named Lorenzo, Chinchilla, and Bailey. This isn’t a permanent thing. We never agreed to take the whole litter, but they all needed rescuing. Bailey will go to his forever home as soon as he’s seen a vet. It’s both a lot of work and a lot of fun. You’ve probably seen the cuteness. Here’s Renzo.

Getting them out of Etobicoke involved driving out there with the woman who’s been keeping an eye on them (and their feral mom) and then spending an hour trying to find and coax Bailey out from under an enormous patio deck. The crawlspace down there was filled with peculiar hoses, making him hard to spot–so there was a lot of lying on belly, hanging my head off the deck, and peering around upside-down while trying to keep my glasses from sliding off my face. I’ve bruised the area around my sternum as a result. It’s a small price to pay for adorable fluff-bundles.

Change is change:
Our move to Dua Central happened, unbelievably, just over three weeks ago. The house is nicely unpacked and in many ways it looks as though we’ve been there for years. I’m struggling to find and establish the bits and pieces of a daily routine, to make automatic a number of the things I do daily, the better to have space in my brain for more important things. It has been strangely tiring; after the events of the past thirteen months, I’m simply looking forward to getting to a place where I don’t feel dislocated.

Breathe and Stretch, Stretch and Breathe:
The move also brought another big change, in the form of another new yoga studio. Downward Dog was just a little too far to go now that we’re further northeast, and so Kelly and I are trying out classes at Yyoga, a Vancouver-based studio that’s physically close to hand. I never set out to be a connoisseur of yoga instructors, but it has been a real thing: go to class, try someone out, go again, and ponder where and how each class and teacher fits into the framework of my life. Then lather, rinse, repeat.

The goal here is to find a selection of folks I can happily take classes from three to four times a week.

We took six weeks off yoga starting in March, because of Texas and moving, and all sorts of tiny complaints were cropping up with my body. Now we’re back at it, many of those are now receding; my body is starting to feel as I expect it to… in a good way. It’s a powerful experience, a reminder that the yoga thing isn’t just for fun or relaxation. Delightful though it may be, it’s also mandatory at this point in my existence.

Toronto, Day 364

imageKelly and I spent our last night in Vancouver in a place downtown; I remember the view, but can’t remember which hotel it was. At dawn, we headed back to the eerily empty Woodland Drive condo for the last time. It would never look that way again–we sold it to a flipper who knocked out a wall, ripped out the floors, painted everything white, and put in stainless steel appliances. Every trace of us, twelve years of cozy domesticity and bohemian paint choices, was about to be wiped away.

(Or not. Our neighbor Missy had hung a going away present on our door. She’s not the only one from the building we’re still in touch with.)

Anyway, we went in. Minnow was wedged onto the countertop between the fridge and the stove. I can’t remember where Rumble was sleeping. We packed them into the Furrari, apologizing profusely, and cabbed to the airport with all our bags.

I remember security made us pull them out of the cage to check for threats and boobytraps. Nobody enjoyed that.

We checked a ton of luggage. Everything we’d need for the stretch between landing here and the arrival of the truck full of our remaining stuff, many weeks later. We’d bought a massive thing meant for hockey equipment, sort of a monster gym bag with wheels, and filled it with just enough kitchen stuff to let us to cook real food.

My grandmother was still alive.

I had wrapped up a draft of the novel I’m still rewriting, the better to concentrate on the transition. I was also smack in the middle of teaching an intense and productive group of novel-writing students for UCLA. As all of this happened, I was writing a dozen critiques every other week.

We took off, we flew, we landed. I don’t remember much about the flight. Peter Watts had agreed to pick us up so that the cats could be ferried directly from the airport to their new home, no fuss, no muss. It was a relief to see they’d survived the flight; Minnow was already unwell. He brought an air mattress in case our bed didn’t arrive.

(Our bed didn’t, in fact, arrive.)

It took awhile to get oriented. We needed replacements for the well-used things we’d got rid of in Vancouver, stuff we’d been wanting to upgrade for years, stuff that would have cost more to ship than it was worth. I remember repeated daily trips out into the neighborhood in search of furniture places, lighting stores, housewares places. The guy who was supposed to have our bed delivered the day we arrived completely flaked–and there was unpleasantness over the refund. In the end we grudgingly resorted to Ikea.

It was spring, and now that it’s spring again I see that we had just missed the cherry blossoms, magnolia, and forsythia. Right now the city is all abloom. I remember being wonderstruck by my first sight of groundhogs, at Fort York. I had to go looking for bluejays and cardinals, because my neighborhood is largely sparrow-starling-pigeon turf, and I found them at Mount Pleasant Cemetery. I made friends with Lake Ontario, and there discovered I would still be able to shoot cormorants, swallows and great blue herons to my heart’s content.

I don’t remember a lot of specific emotions, except gratitude for the friends who helped, in big ways and small: Peter, Keph and Linda especially. There was just so much going on, so much to do.

The elevators were a constant source of drama. The rented condo was brand spanking new, so there was a move-in coordinator tasked with ensuring that everyone had an elevator when they needed one. She was a bit scattered and disorganized, and Kelly had many frustrating conversations with her. Also! The elevator fix-it people were on strike citywide, so security dudes were camped out in the elevators, to ensure that the tenants didn’t push buttons improperly or jam doors, and thereby break them.

They broke all the same, though–fortunately–never when we were getting big heavy objects delivered. Some guys moving in on the eighth floor had to heft everything they owned up a back stairwell.
Our rented condo was also so new that Canada Post wasn’t even delivering there yet. I had to make a weekly commute out to Leslieville and hike down past a cement factory to try to cajole envelopes from UCLA and TOR, along with forwarded Vancouver junk mail–Art supply sale at Opus! You are preapproved to borrow ludicrous amounts of money at blindingly stupid interest rates! Arts Club Theater wants You!–out of posties who had been snowed under by mail from the apartment buildings sprouting up all over downtown. The building was so new that the common areas weren’t finished, and the view out of my window all summer was of guys working, at a desultory pace, on the building courtyard.

I remember being amazed that here in Ontario, stores of various kinds closed for Victoria Day. Grocery stores! Home Depot! Restaurants! Had we time travelled? Were we back in the Seventies?

So there was chaos and dislocation and excitement and the occasional burst of OMG, what have we done? and an ongoing quest for a coffee roaster whose beans compare with the ones we were buying at Elysian and Revolver. Eleven months later, we packed it all up and did it again, in miniature, hopping east and north to this new place. About which you’ve already heard much and will hear more, much more!

Today, I just feel lucky that it went so well.

You asked for it: Why Toronto?

photo by Kelly Robson

photo by Kelly Robson

I am writing these words in a fabulous Italian cafe called Bar Buca on Portland Street, west of downtown. It’s sunny out, on the cool side.

Yes, quite cool–not balmy at all! It has, in fact, been a rainy and chilly couple of weeks. The spring flowers are still working to get traction after what, I’m told, was an especially snowy winter. The birch trees outside our new windows show absolutely no sign of life. (Other trees are budding out, though.) If I scampered outside, I’d have a view of the CN Tower and the skyscrapers of downtown.

It has been almost a year since I came here.

When I asked all of you what I should blog about, Wilson Fowlie on Facebook asked: Why on earth you’d choose Toronto over Vancouver?

From his phrasing, I’m guessing this question means: what kind of lunatic picks a densely urbanized, snowbound eastern hellhole over the warm, blossom-infested, mountain-equipped oceanside balm of the South Coast of B.C.?

He’s not the only one to have asked, and the truth is that it’s a hard question for me. Some of the answer is about unhappiness and boredom, and while I feel those things as often as the next person, I don’t generally share those feelings publicly. I’m a fairly private person, in some ways, and I don’t like to whine online. I’m also not crazy about the storm of advice that even a mild complaint can trigger from the Internet. This may be a personality flaw.

More than that, though, I’ve been reluctant to say anything that might sting the feelings of the dear and much-missed friends I left in B.C. It feels rude and ungrateful to admit that while I loved them, and so many things about my life in B.C., it wasn’t enough. I was ever more discontented there, and increasingly convinced it wasn’t the place for me. I’d gotten to an amazingly good place in Vancouver, and was down to polishing the fine lifestyle details. And that too was problematic. I want to be more, and to keep growing as an artist and a human being. It sounds a bit airy, and I’m no masochist, but I believe that comfort can be an enemy of growth.

Yet I love comfort. Love it! All hail comfort. I chose Vancouver 23 years ago almost entirely because it didn’t snow much there, and because it offered the distance I craved from the chilly, conservative place where I grew up, from a monoculture of, as I perceived it, hockey-worship and homophobia.

It was a brillliant place to live, to grow up, and to learn about writing. I was delirious there for a lot of years, and very happy for many more. I don’t really miss the city much at all, except for my beloveds.

You heard right. The shine for me started coming off in 2003–the fist nick in the patina came in the form of a devastating personal loss, wrapped in an out-of-the-blue, assumption-shattering betrayal. More losses followed: deaths, mostly, among the Alberta family. You can’t go to a funeral every 8-12 months, I’ve concluded, without changing a little, and not necessarily for the better. If you’re smart, you make what lemonade you can out of the experience, throwing a microscope on your life in progress and considering whether you need to make changes.

It was maybe around 2008 that we started seriously talking about moving here, to Toronto. There seemed to be opportunities here, chances to do things we really wanted, and other things that might simply disrupt a growing sense of being a little trapped. In, you know, the proverbial rut. But the rut was a warm and secure-seeming place, filled with genuine blessings–good people and material comforts. However much we might want to go, there was no overwhelming reason to upheave our entire life.

Then about a year ago the security dropped out from beneath, like a wacky cartoon trapdoor hiding a pit full of knives. I honestly couldn’t think of a reason to stay. We were packed and gone in six weeks.

So, what did Toronto offer, besides the opportunity to photograph cardinals, and has it delivered? That is a question for a second and far cheerier post. Stay tuned.