T. has written in her blog: “Jacqui sees Toronto as home, so it’s not a city we’ll need to explore, per se, although I know there will be places and things she’ll want to show me and lots of friends to catch up with. With three months, and a Canadian winter ahead, I expect it will be a time to hunker down and relax. Get a taste of what living here might feel like.”
I can’t tell you what conclusions she’s reached about living here, but it will take more than one blog post to share mine. I’ll start with today’s theme of writing. One of the reasons Toronto feels like home to me is that this is where I finally became a writer. To the extent that I have a career, it started here. Before Toronto I’d written for university publications, including the odd poem or story. Here I started writing columns for the gay and lesbian newspaper (this used to be a thing, and they paid real money, too). I also studied writing, joined a writing group, and eventually, finished a novel that was actually publishable. My book launches have been here, and my writing group still meets in its current incarnation in Ontario.
One of the pleasures of being back was finally meeting with that group in person, not once but multiple times. Another was being here in October, which is when Toronto hosts the International Festival of Authors. I used to walk down to the Harbourfront and look up at the Westin Harbour Castle, which is where international authors stayed when they had “made it.”
I have not returned as a hyphenated U.S.-Canadian author staying in the Westin Harbour Castle, but at least I got back to the festival. There was a panel and I wanted in particular to see Shari Lapena, whom I met years ago when we were both at the Humber Writers’ Circle. Shari Lapena, you might say, has made it, “it” being The New York Times bestseller list.
While standing in line to get Shari’s book signed, I discovered that the person next to me was Kathleen Wynne. I don’t know if you all know Kathleen but she’s a groundbreaking politician, the first openly gay premier in Canada—the equivalent of a state governor. She recently lost reelection as premier of Ontario to what, in this province, amounted to a Trump. I remembered Kathleen Wynne from my years in Toronto, when she started her political career on the school board. So when she and her partner got in line behind me, I told her that we miss her. (And I don’t even live here full time—the headline in NOW this week was, “Are We Missing Wynne Yet?”)
She thanked me and then her partner said, “That’s quite a knapsack!” I hadn’t, she surmised, bought the backpack with all those flag patches on it. This backpack has been the best conversation starter, especially standing in line like this. By the time we reached Shari, and she recognized first me, and then the former premier, we were chatting like old friends.
“Do you know each other?” Shari said. As much as I wanted to make a joke about us all knowing each other, I really don’t know Kathleen Wynne, so I told Shari we were all just fans of hers, chatting.
I came back to Toronto half expecting it to have changed significantly since I moved away, so that it no longer felt like home. Quite the opposite has been the case. “It never changes,” one friend said disparagingly. I know I am different from other people, because most Torontonians complain about the “seven months” of winter (certainly more than four months, which is too long). No one wants to commute through snow, especially with all these “southern” drivers, but I miss it when I’m gone. When the first snow fell here, I couldn’t wait to get out and walk in it and make snowballs with my 30-year-old mittens. What else is snow for?
Of course, places do change. There are more condo towers under construction, and all of Eglinton Avenue, where I lived most of my years here, is a dug-up ditch. Some light rail is supposed to be put in eventually. Like such projects in other cities (Big Dig, anyone?) this one is overrunning. None of this is any surprise.
|My old apartment building, where I lived the longest|
People change too. I never seem to feel any older (still jump in a pile of fall leaves when no one is looking), but other people have grey hair or health conditions that they didn’t have before, and sadly, some seats are empty altogether. I consider myself incredibly blessed still to have so many friends here, including the small but mighty congregation of the Church of the Holy Trinity. This downtown Anglican church has been doing its own thing for generations—it was the first church in Toronto not to charge parishioners to sit in the pews. In the years since, it hosted early gay dances, and U.S. draft dodgers used to sleep in the sanctuary. And it’s still a great musical space to worship in, as the Cowboy Junkies knew when they recorded their album The Trinity Session there on 27 November 1987, circled around a single microphone.
When we first got to Toronto, before moving into our Airbnb (handily discounted for a 3-month visit), we stayed at our home away from home, Wayne and Jay’s. I’ve known Wayne since we were both freelance proofreaders at Canadian Tire, and he and Jay, an elementary school teacher, have become good friends of us both. When we arrived the black squirrels were already eating Jay’s pumpkin. It wasn’t even October yet!
We had a sunny day, so I took advantage of our nearness to the Scarborough Bluffs. These layers of sand and clay expose a geological record of the last Ice Age, and are unique in North America. (When Canadians say "North Americans," they mean themselves plus U.S. Americans. This neatly encompasses me.)
I enjoyed my walk until I heard a big chunk of bluff tumbling down behind me—pretty startling!
By the long Thanksgiving weekend, we were in our new home.
A coach house behind somebody’s large house might seem too small and cramped for a permanent residence, but it’s acres of space compared to most of where we’ve been stuck with each other the past year and a half. As T. says, “Where do you go when you row?” We were almost too excited to have a surprisingly well-equipped kitchen to cook our own meals in.
This is a neighbourhood I’ve always liked, but never got to spend much time in. I promptly crossed the street to the lovely Carnegie library, where I can check out five items at a time for free. Just as a visitor!
We celebrated Thanksgiving with the Church of the Holy Trinity. You can go to a church semi-regularly for years and not be recognized by anybody—I’ve done it repeatedly. But I’ve had friends at Holy Trinity from the very first Sunday I walked in. Somebody spotted my then-partner, Penelope, and me and recruited us for the Working Group on Gay and Lesbian Issues. Some progress has been made since then, but not enough. (Penelope is a friend now and she and her partner, Becky, have had us to their “Tiny House” on more than one occasion.)
On Thanksgiving Day itself, T. and I met up with our friend Marie-Josée and her son, Olivier. It was appropriately Action de grâces, because I can’t tell you how grateful I am for Marijo and her presence in our world. And because I can’t, that’s all I’m going to say.
Another friend I was pleased to catch up with, on an unseasonably warm October day, was my old writing friend Dan. I don’t mean “old” in that sense, although we’re all older than we once were; Dan and I were founding members of the writing group way back at the Humber School for Writers in 2004. For years we worked through fiction together, but we have so much more to talk about now. Philosophy, gender, Christianity, the need for nuanced thinking around tough issues. And architecture, which is Dan’s other passion. Thanks to him we walked around the University of Toronto and saw some hidden gems that I wouldn't have known were there.
|A surprise--the organist was playing!|
|Trinity College cloister|
Could we learn these habits without traveling around the world and using all that jet fuel? Absolutely—and we all need to, one way or the other. I overheard a guy on the subway one day talking to his two young girls (one wore a Princess dress, the other a “Feminist” T-shirt). He was telling them that if we undervalue, say, clean water, then we may not care about it being polluted, and then he talked about valuing people. It was the kind of everyday lesson I hope kids are learning, here and in other countries.
Jay had told us one day that she was teaching a lesson about traditions and celebrations, and the children were offering their own examples. “I’m Muslim and we celebrate this,” “I’m Christian so we do that.” She asked why it was important to know about each other’s different traditions. A little girl said, “That’s respect, Ms. C—.”
The late Aretha Franklin would be proud.