Thursday, September 30, 2010

Old City Hall

I was in Toronto’s Old City Hall today.

It’s a glorious building, richly decorated and stately. From the outside, the towers, peaks and projections, with their gargoyles and various window embellishments, are varied, so that each section is a bit different than any other. Inside, there are historical mosaics on the walls, telling the story of the region (from the view of its European settlers) and engravings of names and dates reflecting important moments in the city and province’s history. The halls of this massive building are floored with thousands of tiny tiles, irregularly shaped, and less than one inch square, forming a decorative pattern that includes winding vines with flowers and leaves. My mind numbs at the notion that these tiles were set one by one, by human craftsmen. The manpower to accomplish this seems incalculable. The lower parts of the walls are sheets of marble, aligned in the order in which they were sliced from whatever quarry wall, so that the grain markings of every sheet match and mirror to varying degrees those of its neighbouring panels on both sides.

This is perhaps the first building in Toronto to capture my imagination and affection, long before I noticed these details I recite. At the time, I appreciated it’s 19th century stylings, and the contrast it made with the still futuristic New City Hall next door. Its main significance to me though, had to do with the fact that I was married there, one week and a day after coming to this city for the first time, and several months before I took up residence here.

Today I was there to accompany one of my clients to court. Some of the courtrooms and offices in the building are as ornate and grand as what I’ve already described, with impressive columns and polished wood railings and benches. But other rooms, like courtroom 114, where my client was scheduled today, are more ordinary. They lack the finer detailing, and what embellishments remain have dulled and grayed from daily use and cursory cleaning. One of the courtrooms, which I’ve visited several times, now has plexiglass barriers, to isolate prisoners who are brought in, still handcuffed and in their jailhouse orange jumpers, directly from one of the jails.

A dull and demoralizing atmosphere prevails in this old building. I’m always reminded, when I go there, that crimes against persons and property are primarily committed by and against the poor. As much as our moralizing may state otherwise, robbery, burglary, theft and assault are crimes most often committed by the needy and the desperate, and against targets of opportunity. You don’t break into a car for a stereo that will net you maybe twenty bucks unless that twenty bucks is going to make a difference in your perceived quality of life over the next twenty-four hours. Which just doesn’t fit the bill for those of us who are home owners or who have – or are confident of being able to get – decent paying jobs. And these realities are sadly visible here in Old City Hall. Folks here for trial dates, or disclosures or to enter a plea, are mostly either casually dressed, wearing clothes suited for manual work, or, if they’re looking to impress the judge, look like they’re on their way to the club. The homeless, with whom I work, show up in whatever they have on, or can pull out of a backpack that’s a bit less soiled. Those who look like they might belong in an office are generally lawyers or other courthouse staff. There’s lots of waiting. Often, the accused come and spend several hours, only to get another date on which to return and do it all over again. It seems as though there’s an assumption that no one has anywhere important to be, and this waiting is a mere appetizer to the fines, probation or jail time that may well lie ahead.

I used to arrive at these court dates anticipating an air of anxious hopefulness. Shouldn’t an appointment with the administrators of justice provoke a little of that? Even if one is guilty, the chance to explain things from one’s own point of view is at least a window into possibility. But there’s little of that sense here. Instead, resignation, boredom, suppressed anger. And, despite the numbers of people packed into the courtrooms, there’s a sense of loneliness, the almost palpable feeling of being small and of little importance. Get it done. Say your piece and make way. Don’t waste the court’s time.

To my knowledge, civil marriages are no longer performed on the second floor. My ceremony here, many years ago, was as perfunctory as the proceedings in the courtrooms. But it didn’t matter so much. There was my bride, members of her family there to support us, and our own optimism about the future. The solemnity of the surroundings, the sour faced, all business Justice of the Peace didn’t diminish the event for us. The building itself, with its sense of weighty time, and of consequence, was enough for us to know we’d made an important passage with our exchange of a few simple words.

Not then, but now – today – I think about the labourers and craftsmen who constructed this building. They couldn’t have known, or even suspected, all the life that would transpire between the walls they raised, all the living souls with their troubles and hope and lack of hope who would walk upon their expertly assembled tile floors. But of course, they had their own hopes, their own time, their own lives to live, that are unimaginable to me. The Tao te Ching has a passage in it that has always resonated with a strange power for me. From one translation: We hammer wood for a house, but it is the inner space that makes it livable. Amen to that! And yet...that wood.... If nothing else, it leads us to where that inner space is. The walls of this building guided my client here today, a step in the process of facing a charge: assault against a police officer. From his perspective, he was trying not to go back to jail. He’s already spent too much of his young life imprisoned. I don’t think he notices the building he came to, all its fine detail. He’s in that inner space. As was I when I came here with my bride.

The marriage didn’t last...not forever. And yet, for a time it had a weightiness and endurance about it, like these marble walls and the ever patient gargoyles. She and I had a laugh, when we came here to buy our license three days before the ceremony. There was a huge painting on the wall of the office to which we were sent. It depicted a confrontation between a pirate ship and a vessel it had come upon. It showed the ships side by side, the pirates clambering onto the deck of the victim ship, and a pitched battle taking place, with blood and swords and all the rest. What an image to have on the wall of the office where they issue marriage licenses, we laughed! A warning. And an accurate one.

These buildings and spaces we live in and pass through...they are markers, and signifiers. They can be beautiful and ugly in their own right. But whatever those qualities, they come to carry the flavour and the essence of all that passes inside. Memories too, and the experiences they mark, can be heavy like stone, or transparent as glass, as grimy as untended floors, as beautiful as a work of art put into the shape of a building. And this particular building has a strange mix of memories and energies, of odd beauties for me now. And I love it still.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Coming into Night, I once felt it could go on forever
deepening, like a dream washing over me
pulling me into my own imagination
made real and grown beyond the limits of waking day

Night was Haven and Escape and Mystery
I was not afraid of its dangers
though I knew I could so easily lose myself
and never emerge the same self as went in

But no matter
Being lost in myself is maybe only a tighter knot than being lost in the World
A spiral downward, into a single moment
the infinite immortality of embracing Night

But when Light then comes, creeping over a distant horizon
like a ghost of the World returning
seizing me out of my moment
What am I to think of this feared, unwanted tomorrow
pulling me, breathless, back into Life

Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Beast

When I was 21, having finally reached a level of commitment to the notion of writing, I went looking for my first typewriter. This was in 1975, I was living in Central Square in Cambridge Massachusetts. I didn’t have a lot of money so never even considered buying something new. There were a couple of pawn shops in the area, and I went looking. I eventually came home with a beast of a machine – a Royal typewriter, a cast iron office model dating from the mid-40’s

The Beast weighs in at about 40 pounds. I’m sure I thought my Beast would be only a temporary burden, a necessary weight I’d bear for the short while until I established myself and could buy something newer. I never dreamed it would become such a loved and relied upon tool. That I’d lug it to Norfolk and Kansas City, to Seaside Oregon and Seattle, to little Sullivan, Indiana, and finally here to Toronto. I’ve set it up and written on it in all those places, on desks and kitchen tables. And though I’ve never felt that I write enough, and though there’ve been months-long stretches when the Beast has lay dormant, I’ve pushed quite a few reams of paper through it’s maw, and still have a few stacks of it piled around and boxed up.

I still write longhand, in my journal, and the occasional letter. And, for over a decade now, there’s been the computer, word processing for a bit longer. That’s three ways I write, or rather, three tools I write with, or three media I write in:

There’s my hand, with a pen, moving across the page, scratching out the shapes of letters.

There are my fingers plunking down on the jointed, steel keys with their glass tops, watching and feeling the levers respond to my pressure and sending the lettered keys flying up and into a slot, aligning each imprint with the preceeding and the following strokes.

And then there’s the different, softer flow of fingers over an almost fluid keyboard - barely moving compared to the other - and watching the letters blip up on the screen, like popcorn, and disappear again as quickly when I want them too, and reshape themselves and auto-correct.

They are three very different ways of writing, and though interchangeable, I’ve found that each suits an overlapping set of moods, energies, approaches.

I love the Beast for First Drafts, for sitting down without a preconceived thought, letting come what will come. The Beast is big and hard and clunky, and rattles and snaps and grinds its teeth while I write. I produced the first draft of my novel, and most of my stories on the Beast. I can start afresh with every line, do cross outs with the hyphen or slash keys, reverse and type over, without a worry of the accidental delete. And best of all, I have all the outpouring, including the second and third guesses, the false starts, the shifts in direction, the bad spelling, the errant impulses, the cringe-inducing word choices all right there. It’s all compressed on a sheet that I can rip right off of the roller and hold in hand, then mark up with a pen or pencil as I wish.

The LongHand, in my bound journal...? An entirely different deal there. It’s a slow, physical shaping of every letter, so that the word can sometimes change between the time I start and finish it. A dozen thoughts will crowd around the one I choose. It’s a more personal and inward writing. This is the space my letters come out of. More of the heart comes through over the mind. Yes, writing in a different way gives way to a different writing.

And the computer...? Well, it’s just so fast and easy. And fluid and everchanging. And when I’m done with a piece, I hardly know what I started with, or the path by which I got here, because all that is gone.

Back to the Beast, though.

It ALWAYS works! I swear I could drop it from a roof and there’d be a hole in the sidewalk and I could type away like nothing happened.

And I can use the same ribbon for months. When it reaches the end, the ribbon simply reverses and tracks backward. Very gradually – and I mean over a course of many weeks - I notice a lightening of the impression on paper. But this is a manual model, anyway, and I can adjust the imprint simply by adjusting the amount of pressure.

And the Beast is quite the beautiful machine. It’s beautiful in the same way as an old car or refrigerator – its functionality and integrity seems to show on its face, even in its shape. It seems to be made to do the thing it does, moreso or in a deeper way than these modern machines built to fall apart or decay as soon as the new model is released, and then to have its parts used for something else. It’s hard to imagine parts of this machine, this BEAST, becoming part of anything else. Ever. Just fine by me.

Friday, September 10, 2010

The World Is Too Big

There’s too much to do. And I move slower all the time.

I turned 56 this year, and there’s no escaping age and the narrowing of possibility.

I’m starting to lose original parts. They’re going bad, and either needing support, rehauling or removal.

My eyes, my back. That tooth I lost. The sugar imbalance that might’ve become diabetes....

I can’t sprint anymore. My speediest movement is what would’ve been an aggressive jog a few years ago. I’m not the Bear I used to be, when it comes to lifting and moving things. And I can’t just go and go like I once could with a woman I was wanting.

DAMN! I’m just getting old.

And the latest thing is my mind. No, I’m not exactly afraid of Alzheimer’s or some other dementia. One of those may come, certainly. But I’ll do what I can to stay healthy and not otherwise worry about it.

But my memory...

I’m forgetting things all the time. Where I left something. Names. Things I intended to do. So much easier getting caught up in simple complexities like negotiating a website or keeping track of my parking ticket appeals.

Every now and then I’m struck by the sight of a shrunken older man or woman, from whom not only all traces of youth have departed, but who have been bent or twisted by life, as though by a force bearing down on them for decades, and inescapable.

And, like they say, No one ever got out of Life alive.

But the most difficult part, the part that makes the world of possibility seem to shrivel between each breath, is the shortness, the stinginess, the waste and spillage of time.

So many things I haven’t done. And even as I do them – taste new flavours, bend myself into different shapes, consume and let myself be consumed by experiences and just by living – even then, time accelerates by, stripping away the months and the years, faster than I can fill them.

Such a big world. Such a vast world.

I’ve learned to play the sax, but not to drive a semi. And I never swam with a dolphin.

I attended a 10 day Vipassana retreat, and canoed on Lake Temagami, thumbed the interstate from Atlanta to San Francisco, and sipped wine in Kafka’s Prague, but I’ve yet to make the furniture for the roof deck, or see Quebec City, or buy that vinyl copy of Trane at the Village Vanguard.

And I’ve never fathered a child. And I’ve not yet seen Mother Africa.

And though I continue to write, through all these years, I’ll never write that novel I was meant to write in my twenties.

I can not win back any of the wasted time.

I can’t now say yes, and reverse the no from long ago. I can’t now unwrap the successes, or even those failures, I was too afraid to welcome, but which were mine anyway, to help me in the flowering of my life. Even looking backward at it doesn’t bring it near.

So there’s only now. Time ever shifting. And this big world.

And all I can do is use it up.

Friday, September 3, 2010

Ashbridges Bay to Sea

Yes, by sea. We may be on Lake Ontario, but it feels like the sea to me.
As previously posted, Captain Ponczka and I have been dodging thunderheads...literally.
We're into our 4th day of sailing (a personal best for us!) and we've come 97 kilometers (another best!!!)
We're in the lovely Cobourg Marina, sheltered from the rain we came in just ahead of.
Port Hope, where we sheltered last night, is a sweet little town, with helpful, friendly people, but the marina was a pit last night. We made it in having waited out a lightning and thunder storm by dancing about in the lake, and got in just as it was getting dark.
We found outselves on an exposed wall in the mouth of the Ganaraska River, where our little boat was tossed and bounced and rocked all night. It got worse as the morning passed, and we finally decided - urged on by several of the good Port Hopers - to make a run for Cobourg. And here we, dry and happy, having had an adventure getting out of there, climbing over breaking waves, and with the wind menacing.
It's GREAT being sailors, being on the water hours every day, watching it's changing moods and faces, and adjusting, getting better as we go.
We may be here a couple of days. The forecasts promises heavy winds and more storms.
So we'll explore this little city - which looks very inviting from here.
Maybe we'll hole up in our boat's little cabin with some of our homemade wine later on.
A great week on the high seas.