Tuesday, May 18, 2010


The miracle of laptops means that I can be sitting here in the dappled shade in Kensington Market, sipping an americano, hearing the garbage guys as they rumble the wheeled trash cpntainers to the huge truck and then press the button that makes the truck whirr it away. This is a kind of village within a village, this corner of Kensington Market. I'm in front of a charming and important bookstore that recently moved here from the east side of downtown called This Aint the Rosedale Library. It's a Toronto landmark for many, a source for poetry, quirky travel and art books, and current culture of all kinds, and a pleasant place to hang around. Next door is Ideal Coffee, another classic, recently bought out, but still quirky and relaxed and full of conversations of all kinds. At the end of the short block are Shoney,'s brilliant thrift store for clothing, and 4-Life, a source of local food and food conversation.

I've been thinking about village and the connections that weave us together, people and places. On the weekend I went for a long bike ride with a friend. We headed south to the lake and then west, and farther west, across the Humber River. I had never been to the lakeside there, with its butterfly park and sheltered bays and marshes. What a treasure. The cooler lakeside climate means that flowering trees come out later than those in my neighbourhood a mile from the lake. This year the lakeside trees are still in bloom, for the storms that came through and ravished my neighbourhood plum and cherry and apple blossom were finished by the time the lakeshore trees came into flower. Next day, out on Toronto Island for a shape-note singing (glorious in the cottagey comfort of St Andrews Church, the doors open to the sun and spring breezes), I pedalled past lilacs and apple blossom, still safely in bloom by the cooling moderating lake. How lucky we are that there are microclimates. Like all differences of place and culture, they enrich us and make us notice and appreciate our surroundings.

Microclimates, I have been thinking, are like villages. They are intimate settings where life (plant life) unfolds in some kind of coherent unison. SImilarly in a city village like Kensington Market, with its daily pattersn of store openings and neighbour greetings and comings and goings of outsiders, has a coherence that weaves us together. It creates a sense of confidence in tomorrow and a warmth of belonging. We bloom in that warmth, just as our gardens come to life in the spring sunshine.

Back to bicycling: My trusty DiamondBack, dating from that incredibly lucky 1986 trip from Kashgar to Gilgit, over the Khunjerab Pass, is still alive and well. And I have gained confidence since I began to ride in the city a year ago. I have come to love whizzing along in the dark with my little mini flashing lights blinking front and back. At this time of year the geography of the city can be written in scents, especially in the soft damp evenings of this month of May. So when I can I choose routes that will take me past a particularly wonderful lilac-blooming corner or yard of lilies of the valley, or under a canopy of blooming chestnuts.

Bicycling has also expanded my horizons, taking me to new places, like my Saturday Humber Bay excursion. I'd been nearby, in a car, but on a bicycle I see and feel so much more.

It's great to break pattern. I often have to remind myself to do it though. I get comfortable with the walk I take to Spadina and into Kensington Market; I find myself following familiar patterns on my various jogging routes, shorter and longer; my thoughts and anxieties, too, follow often-tedious predictable paths! There's comfort in the familiar, but if we let it imprison us, then where are we?

The other day, somehow, and without consciously planning it, I found myself breaking pattern, and was wonderfully rewarded. I was on foot, not bicycling. I discovered a whole world in a narrow strip of land, the boulevard up the centre of University Avenue. Again, it's a place, or series of places, that we all rush past in cars, between stop-lights. As I walked up it (from Adelaide to Elm, just south of College) I discovered that it is thoughtfully designed, carefully gardened, and a distinctive set of environments that feel intact, because of trees and stone walls and artfulness, despite the cars rushing past.

I love discoveries, small and large, of places, people, ideas. So it's up to me to remind myself to look outside my box, my pattern, my expected path, and launch open-eyed into engaging with whatever comes next.

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