By: Madonna Hamel
Yesterday morning I woke to the sound of sand-hill cranes overhead. I am in Toronto, attending the International Festival of Authors, visiting my friend Avril, bothering the producers at CBC, but mostly, to empty a locker I’ve been paying for for six years. Once fully awake I realized that what I was hearing was the sound of the heater kicking in. Later in the day I get a photo text from Caitlin, back home in Val Marie, Sask., of the cranes filling the sky, heading south.
I left Avril’s house early in the morning to get in a full day in The Big Smoke. It’s not smoky at all. The sun was bright and there was a brisk breeze coming off Lake Ontario. I walked along the quiet tree-lined street until I hit the sensorium that is Danforth Avenue. The whole area is referred to as The Danforth. My CBC mentor once joked that if a bomb dropped on The Danforth, CBC would cease to function because most of its ‘talent’ lives here.
At the heart of The Danforth is Greektown, with its heaven-scented restaurants and bakeries, windows stuffed with pastries glistening in honey. But like every Toronto neighbourhood, you’ll find Irish pubs, gypsy palm readers, Chinese groceries and yoga studios as well. There’s a few pop-up stores as well, which are temporary shops with short-term rents – anything from a single day to six months. The pop-up has revived the neighbourhood, as well as given new entrepreneurs an opportunity to try out an idea. And no chain stores or big brand names need apply. (I make a note to then owner of the little white church just south of Cadillac, Sask. if I could rent it just at Christmas and offer cocoa and Christmas carols to people passing by during the festive season.)
And then, of course, there are coffee shops. The only thing I miss in my village back in Saskatchewan is coffee shops. With apologies to Caitlin at Harvest Moon Café and Aline at the bar, Saskatchewan coffee is notorious for being weak, pale and comes from a big tin can. And while it doesn’t seem to bother the prairie locals, whose morning tall tales and rants revolve around a bottomless cup of coffee at coffee row, I just have not acquired a taste for it. In fact, if pressed, I will claim: it has no taste. However, the point is moot, because I can’t drink coffee anymore, due to an adrenaline crisis that basically sent me from my fast-paced city life to Val Marie.
Still, there is nothing more comforting and entertaining than spending a morning writing and eavesdropping in a café situated on a busy city street. So I take my author’s festival guide and start checking off events I wish to attend. Some of my favourite authors will be there: Madeleine Thien, Andre Alexis, Charlotte Gray, Chris Hedges, Tim O’Brien, David Adams Richards, Richard Russo…the list is long. And there will be new discoveries too, with distinctly Canadian names like: Tsabari, Bezmosgis, Grigorescu, Janmohamed, Hernandez. Because we are a culture that choses to do diversity with pride.
After a green tea latte, available in most coffee shops, I try and figure out the best route to Harbour Front and the festival. Finally, I ask someone. I’ve never encountered a rude Torontonian when asking for help. A young couple deep in a conversation in a language I cannot understand but sounds middle-eastern immediately switch to perfect English. They take my elbow, saying: “Come with us, we are going that way now.” Maybe the moniker “Toronto the Good” has been earned, after all.
I suggest to future planners of the festival, that to be truly international it might be nice to take into account the out-of-towners and include subway stop information in the programs. In the years spanning my days at CBC and my new life on the edge of Grasslands National Park and the Montana border, I’ve driven so many roads and had to memorize so many route names, exit numbers, and addresses, not to mention passwords and usernames, that the TO transit system is a vague memory. Our heads are crammed with a million rules of engagement, pieces of evidence of membership, of authentication numbers and validation codes. But, the details providing proof of existence do little to enhance a sense of Self. If God is in the details then God is a bureaucrat, a webmaster, and lives indeed in The Cloud.
On the subway train an older Asian woman (perhaps Korean, I’m not sure), sleeps curled over her cloth shopping bag. A Japanese boy in bleached blonde hair holds his skate board and shakes his foot to whatever he’s listening to. A lean black man in a shiny suit is explaining the troubadour movement in Latin America in the late 70s to a Sikh. I turn to reading the local entertainment paper to see the hundreds of events scheduled for this week: there are farmer’s markets, ghost tours, gallery openings, dance classes, talks on end-of-life care, the missing aboriginal women, cat agility, beginner’s acupuncture, the French Resistance and Making Sense of the American Election. It all sounds intriguing. For a ‘life-time learner’ like myself, every one of these events piques my curiosity. Any one of them would feel like a legitimate day’s occupation rather than pursuing my own craft. I can easily rationalize it as research.
I’m a gatherer of information; I love the process of learning itself. My problem is not knowing when to stop gathering, which is why I moved to the open, empty spaces of the Saskatchewan southwest, where the only gathering I do is of my thoughts. I close the paper and then my eyes. I enjoy the city but get easily overwhelmed, fragmented by its push and pull. I left the buzz and excitement of every city I’ve lived in when it became evident I needed to turn the ‘learning’ inward. Living as close to the life of a desert mother as possible, I eliminated TV, radio and newspapers. I welcome silence and darkness. Living in a Dark Sky Preserve and one of the quietest places in the world, according to acoustic ecologist Gordon Hempton, author of “One Square Inch of Silence”, the only thing coming at me is the wind. Because, even when diversions and distractions are neither unskillful nor negative, I can immerse myself so deep in information that, at the end of the day, there are never enough hours to apply any of it. Its gain is so much easier than its use.
After getting my press pass I seat myself before the stage and get comfortable. There is something soothing about being read to, and in this case the readers are addressing a subject dear to my heart: Landscape as Character. That’s not the actual title of the event. It goes by the cryptic title: Immersive Settings, which sounds like the name of a contemporary art show by a bunch of clever photographers. In fact, one of the readers, Gail Anderson-Dargatz, whose book is based in the Shuswap region of British Columbia, admits that the title was just something dreamed up over beers.
Sharon Butala was reading from her novel, ‘Wild Rose’, about a French Canadian homesteading woman in the Northwest Territories, now the great Saskatchewan southwest, in the 1800s. “The aboriginal languages and French were the first languages spoken out there,” she states. “And even though I don’t speak French myself, it’s something people living down there seem to need to be reminded of.” She heaves a sigh that has a “don’t get me started” quality to it. She reads well, with animation and wry humour and a tension befitting the subject of a young woman who has been abandoned by her husband in a raw and wild land where, as a woman, she is not entitled to keep her homestead. But, if she wants, she can stay on, and work for the new owner of her own home. I’ve already read the book, but I love to hear authors read their own stories. Hell, I love to be read to, period. Ever since my mom read to us at bedtime and my dad read the Epistles at Sunday mass.
After the readings I go to the lounge for a beer and prepare for my subway trip back across town, from the lakefront to The Danforth. A text pops up on my phone from my friend Page in Val Marie, who has been immersed in the Grasslands, photographing critters all day: “Bull moose in the park this morning. Good grouse pair on branches. Cranes to the west. Thousands. Flying lower than usual.” I take a street car and a subway home. They are both packed. Exiting the station I nearly trip over a man who is sleeping on a subway grate to stay warm. I apologize to him. He apologizes to me for being there. I see his coffee cup is empty and offer to buy him a hot drink. “What would you like?” I ask. He whispers: “To get out of this place.”
Madonna Hamel is a writer and performer. Her radio documentaries have won awards for CBC for whom she’s worked as writer, producer, reporter and broadcaster covering the arts, religion and current affairs for over 20 years in Quebec City, Winnipeg, Windsor, Toronto and Kelowna. Born a Westerner, she calls Val Marie Sask. home.