Re: Subway

As the train approached the station I felt the familiar rush of wind being pushed by the plunger of the lead car through the tubular underground channel. My hair blew back, I stepped further back from the platform, the brakes squealed and the announcer advised, “Please step back from the doors.” I was excited to be riding the subway of my childhood for the first time in fifty some odd years. The TTC (The Toronto Transit Commission) was once disparagingly referred to as Take The Car. In my opinion it stands up to other cities, at least in terms of efficient subways. It’s a modern mass transportation system that works.

My earliest memory of the Toronto subway was taking the bus from my childhood home in Scarborough to the nearest subway stop then navigating my way to dance lessons, stamp stores or to the C.N.E. My parents would take my sister and me downtown on special occasions like birthdays or when we won a trophy for something. It was extra special when I could get to sit in the very first car so I could get a visual sense of our forward momentum. It was scary and thrilling at the same time as the car pierced the darkness and then came the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel as we pulled into the tiled terminal. Some subways I have been in have more than tile at their station stops. In Stockholm for example, their Metro is worth riding even if you have no destination in mind. Each cavernous terminal point is beautifully lit with fascinating art and historical references to the city and Sweden’s culture. This experience might be called the Caves of Lascaux 2.0 for its modern nod to the famed prehistoric ochre paintings.

I don’t work in Toronto, nor do I use the city transit system on a regular basis so my opinion is based on fondness for the transport mode, happy childhood memories and fun touristy sorts of thought. This is not very scientific, hardly objective, yet riding the rails is fun. And for me it’s a sentimental trip. My first free range solo adventures hinged on my confidence in taking public transit. When I went to the Canadian National Exhibition my wallet contained change totalling no more than five dollars and a return TTC paper ticket. My first time alone there was when I was nine. My mom checked my wallet and combed back my hair with her palm. My dad asked if I had my handkerchief and quizzed me on bus stops. They both said to have fun, watch out for pickpockets and be home by eight.

I counselled myself the same way as my parents did, for my most recent trip. I researched the route by computer but eschewed taking a cell phone. I felt alert with self responsibility, didn’t get lost, consulted with a bus driver, was amused when a traveller bared his bum and some riders gasped. I didn’t scale Mt.Everest but my trips have created stories to tell.

Re: Visit

I just had a visit from my son, his wife and our grandchild. With Covid concerns and all that going on it’s been a while since we have seen each other. Their stay reminded me of the twice yearly visits to grand folks that my first wife and I undertook. And it was always an undertaking; packing the right toys, snacks for the trip, clothing for outdoor activities, allowing time to visit the loo. Road trips to family always gave me mixed feelings. Regardless of how much I might have enjoyed the company, expectations always hitched a ride along with the luggage. 

“Come on in, welcome, how long can you stay, what brings you this way, make yourself at home, what can I get you, it’s been too long, how was your trip, remember the time when…” Phrases spill out during the first moments of greeting of the visitor, often in a tumble of words and feelings. The excitement makes me breathless. Perhaps that’s why the first question to a visitor will often be, “Can I get you a drink?”

Next to visits to the zoo my mom’s favourite activity on Sundays was popping by to see friends of the family. As a kid I felt the awkwardness of tagging along as many of these visits were unannounced and without invitation. Much later in her life, I saw my mom squirm when she had to accommodate well meaning drop-in visitations at her nursing home residence. She once shooed out a ‘man of the cloth’ with the shouted words, “What makes you think I need saving?” 

One sided visits can end badly. I have been on the receiving end of a final visit that put an end to our relationship. She just dropped in to say goodbye. The outcome, in hindsight, was appropriate. Yet those visitor’s words still sting. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rETA22Z_a9g

Some visitations, like death-bed rites, are formal. Hospitals recognize the limits of a visit by posting visiting hours. Visitors bring joy and assist in healing yet they can overstay their welcome. The phrase ‘pay someone a visit’ suggests a transaction of sorts. Your mere presence can be a gift and therefore requires a ‘thank you’ at least. Many cultures have an unwritten rule that guests cannot be turned away without offering food, drink or lodging. Countries value dignitaries who come to meet and greet; photo-ops are important to diplomacy. Ask any waiter how thin the line is between hospitality and wanting the table cleared for the next customer. 

Currently I am on an extended visit. I am sharing a palliative care mission with my wife. We have endeavoured to create for each other an environment that provides some comforts of home while recognizing the temporary nature of the stay. My son’s visit did a lot to make a bad situation seem more normal. Another son has planned a weekend with us to bring us some laughter. In the big picture, Life itself can be described as a visit. And we only have one.

Re: Location

Location, location, location is a classic real estate slogan designed, I think, to make you feel lucky about the prospect of buying an over priced house that still need lots of remediation. I can’t complain since each time I have relocated in my life I have been fortunate to have initiated the move and I’ve found the resources to be satisfied with the result. I ache for those who are forced from their homes due to poverty, war or other threats. Globally we are seeing a rise in mass migrations. Some of our cities are having difficulty finding positive solutions for a homeless crisis. Choosing one’s own location, geographically or metaphorically is healthier for all concerned if you can have options available to you.

As a child I was fascinated with stories of wandering animals: Mammals that magically find their way to feeding grounds. Butterflies that spend months flying to seasonal homes. Birds that navigate huge distances to locate their nesting sites. The life cycles of eels and salmon over generations that necessitate unimaginable journeys to sometimes secret locations. Dolphins and other whales that use echo-location to maintain their position within their pods and their bearings on where they are headed.

My eldest son brought me news about a day trip that had him slightly flustered. Finding himself located at the end of a rural road, he admitted he wished he had a map: The paper foldable kind that was always in the glove compartment of a car. (I can hear someone asking, “What’s a glove compartment?”). Anyway, number one son was temporarily lost, without a GPS signal and no way of locating his position on this remote country road. He eventually got some bars showing on his phone, downloaded a map and figured out his way. As he told me his story I thought of learning how to use a compass as a Boy Scout. The leader advised us earnestly that with this device in our pocket we would never, ever, be lost.

Philosophically speaking, knowing one’s place in time and space brings confidence and comfort. That’s how we get the feeling of Home. As life ticks along, that original location where we were born, where we grew up, where we had our first experiences provide a mark on the map of our life. Many conversations start with, “So, where are you from?”, for good reason. Those we meet feel less lost when they hear the answer to that question. It helps to know where we are in relation to others we meet. Societal relationships depend on this orientation of its citizens as needfully as some animals need the stars to navigate home.

I feel discomfort when I can’t locate my needful things. As I age my memory helps me recall where I’ve been so I can make sense of my present circumstances. I can be less concerned with the future when I know where I am in the present. Life is a constant journey of finding yourself in relation to your surroundings and yes, sometimes a map helps.

Re: Compass

There is a compass rose on the sidewalk at the busiest corner of our downtown. I found it helpful when I first moved here to orient myself on the street grid. It provided a sense of place for the wayward way I was feeling while I settled into my new home. A compass rose is normally a feature on a map and as a kid I loved planning imaginary adventures while tracing the outlines on maps. I got hold of maps of ancient mariners like Vasco da Gama or Francis Drake so I could follow their routes around the world. Most youngsters enjoyed comics yet I also found pleasure leafing through an atlas, which gave me an all encompassing view of what might be possible, at least in my imagination.

The compass is one of the four great inventions that came from the dynasties of China. The device was modified through the ages from a simple lodestone beginning. Navigation over great distances became possible. It helped fulfill our innate urge to go somewhere; to boldly go where no one had been before. I was given my first compass in Boy Scouts. I learned how to use it on rambles through the woods and while canoe tripping. Having one in my pocket gave me confidence that I would not lose my way. Later I would teach the use of the compass during a fun outdoor activity called orienteering. Using a topographical map and compass bearings, students in teams could find the quickest or most efficient way to a fixed point. Somewhat like this sport is a newer craze called geocaching; this international activity uses a GPS device to discover treasure drops left by others, uniting geography with community.

I love the way the word Compass is part of the word Compassion. This was surely by the coincidence of matching letters, yet compellingly accurate since the act of compassion can show us the way to meet others in life. Being compassionate is akin to being kind and is promoted by all religions and creeds. I was once given a translation of the Bible called ‘The Way’.

Merely holding a compass in your palm can be philosophically profound. As the needle naturally settles to magnetic north, you become aware of the 360 degrees which encompasses your position. This suggests a moment of unlimited potential as you choose which direction to face, then take your first step. You are the centre of the world, have a unique vantage point and fundamental choice regarding which way to go. The cliché of ‘the way forward’ becomes a shallow expression since your options, by degrees, are in the hundreds. You can go back from where you started, veer to the northeast, or, in Peter Pan speak, “Second star to the right and straight on ’til morning. ”

Technology continues apace with digital devices like the commonly used GPS, which has become invaluable for modern day adventurers.  It does position you globally in a very precise way, however, perhaps paradoxically, it only shows you where you are, it doesn’t tell you where to go. That is up to you.

Re: Border

I have donated to ‘Medicine Sans Frontier’. In English this band of brave men and women are called Doctors Without Borders. They believe bordered countries prevent medical equity. Some human issues are borderless. My wife loves to suggest: For the unity of all human kind we need an attitude of People Without Borders.

I’m fascinated by how borders are created. On the desktop map I had in my room as a youth, I would skate my finger through Germany, France and Spain on my way to Italy. My digits had no need for a passport as I straddled the 49th Parallel, testing the waters on the U.S. side of the continent. I’d love my family’s once a year camping trip to Maine as much for the thrill of crossing the border into New York State.

After one particular trip to the seaside we returned to Canada via the New Hampshire forests. It wasn’t our usual route since it took an extra day and Dad only had so much holiday time. It was Mom’s idea since she had always wanted to see Lake Champlain so a route was planned that included a night at White Mountain National Forest. While the camp was being set up I was told to monitor my younger sister as she rambled through the hardwoods. She found a turtle! It was about a quarter her size as I recall, so it took the two of us to carry it back to our site. Much oohing and aahing ensued. We constructed a sort of corral out of firewood for the hapless creature. I think my folks were suspecting Mr. Tortoise would be gone by morning but he had retreated into his shell so now what to do? My sister said, ‘please, please’ so arrangements were made for his transport accommodations: A bed of leaves inside our large metal Coleman cooler which was always placed in the middle of the back bench seat of our Plymouth to separate the siblings. As we came up to the border crossing Mom repeated the warnings to “Look straight ahead. Don’t say anything. Under no circumstances open the cooler.” At the customs gate I kept thinking the words, Turtle, Turtle, Turtle with such intensity that I was sure I was yelling them out loud. Fortunately, I didn’t speak (although several years later while at a similar checkpoint, family lore has it that I told the border guard my name was Mr. Wetsuit on account of the undeclared contraband I had bought with my life savings). Back at the apartment, Dad put the home made car-top carrier on one end of our balcony and filled it with leaves, fashioning a wee pond from an old metal basin and our Mr. Turtle seemed happy. Until the first winter frost came.

Natural or man-made borders exist and more boundaries are created every day in the belief that we can keep things out, or keep things more safe within. Yet here we are on a finite spinning ball bordered by a thin atmosphere surrounded by space.

Re: Settle

I settle into my favourite chair as I write this. I like the fact that I chose to settle in this part of the world. My journey, both geographical and metaphorical, was not unlike the first western white folk who settled into their covered wagons to look for newness in a promising land. I wasn’t nearly as bold as the First Peoples who ventured across the Bering Straight either, but I like to think I share their curiosity.

Sediment settles to the bottom through a fluid. That’s a movement that is the result of gravity not of willpower. And that may be why the notion of settling has gotten such a bad rap. I could have had that job, relationship, friend, pet, apartment, lifestyle or meal but I settled for this one instead. The implication is that you took the lazy way out and ended up with something less. Yet those people who seek out a new place to live or think, do so for very definite reasons. It’s a very willful decision to leave what you know for the risk of the unknown. To find a new place to settle requires a gravitas that only comes when options are weighed and hope is filed for another day.

I remember a discussion with my parents regarding my decision to marry. My mother and father had different questions to ask. I brought them comfort with my answers. I felt they basically wanted to know if I was going to find comfort with the woman I had chosen to be my wife. Comfort, security, love, promise, and the idea that I was going to settle down didn’t sound boring to me; it sounded like heaven. I clearly remember my mother rising from the discussion table with resolve, declaring, “That’s settled then.”

Settlements come in all forms and figurations. They can involve formal contracts or the wink of an eye, they can be held in a moment or transcend lifetimes. They can include a subtle willingness to go along for now, or acknowledge a deep acceptance of something that will never change.

The other day after a meal at a restaurant I asked the waiter, “Can I settle the bill please?” My wife always teases me about my formal nature and even this archaic phrase, slipping out of my mouth so fluidly, surprised me. After the meal is eaten, after the words have been spoken, when the party is over, there is an accounting that must take place. Ultimately, things must be settled before a decision to move on can be made.

Sometimes it feels that we are weighed down so much by our grief or our wishful thinking, that sinking to the bottom is guaranteed. Yet a person is not a speck of sediment. We are a complex mix of our past, with desires for the future, trying to make something of our present. We are dealing with daily memories of loss while maintaining a confidence that we can continue to make valid, positive decisions.

Despite the fact of gravity, I believe we can always choose to boldly go.

Re: Map

Through my grade school years I did my homework on a desk that had a world map on its top surface. Oh the dreaming I did, the places where I vowed I would travel, the adventures I would have while trekking from country to country.

Last week I was at a symphony concert when, to my amazement moments before the maestro was about to appear, a woman took a folding paper map out of her purse to show her friend where they were going next. I’m not the only one to whom paper maps matter. Indeed there are reports that cartographers are still in need to create that tangible passport to adventure.
https://www.theguardian.com/travel/2019/jan/08/off-the-chart-the-big-comeback-of-paper-maps-stanfords-print-any-map?

My wife presented me with a small world atlas after I complained that the hotel we stayed at had a Bible in the bedside drawer, but no book of maps. A planner like me enjoys mapping things out before venturing into the great beyond. Maps provide a great visual for the places I’d still like to explore, if not in reality then at least in my imagination. That grand desk map of my youth gave me all I needed to picture a train trip across the vastness of the U.S.S.R. or a sailing adventure to the Galapagos Islands or an exploration of the icy realm of Antarctica.

These days, both Google Maps and GPS systems are helpful as long as the power is on and you can remain plugged in. I like to check a photo or video map on my device so I can have a virtual view of the area where I’m intending to visit. I get the sense of already being there (which mystics will tell you is 90% of the trip). My son once gifted me with a TomTom directional device for my car. It made some trips easier, however I wish the automated voice would congratulate me, just once, for making a correct turn.

Natural world maps have rivers, mountains or oceans for borders. I enjoyed teaching my students to use topographical maps and compasses while orienteering. They learned that their environment was filled with intersections. Places where fields become forest, land becomes water, hillside becomes pasture. These ecotones, riparian and littoral zones have an abundance of life, shelter and sources of food, yet danger may lurk. Travel in these areas is both rewarding and risky.

Political maps have borderlines. A country is conquered; draw a line. A region is colonized; draw a line. A government changes hands; consult (maybe), draw a line, build a wall even. When I’m crossing these borders I take satisfaction in feeling that I am stepping over an arbitrary margin. Line in the sand eh? Life at the edge eh?

All borders have intersection points. Any confluence can suggest both challenge and opportunity. My finger traces my route on that tactile paper map. I put my feet on the ground. And I go.