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a city in a park

May 3, 2024

I realized this morning as I wandered through Mount Pleasant Cemetery how much I’ve come to appreciate cemeteries. As a child I used to hold my breath whenever a cemetery was in sight. The very idea that some wayward spirit might follow me home was reason enough to steer clear of them for good. Superstitious thinking can wreak havoc on a child’s imagination. When my Nanna died, a woman I adored, my Dad suggested I stayed in the car during the burial service. I remember chatting to the limo driver and thinking that whatever was happening at the bottom of the hill was not for children. Cemeteries were not for children. My own kids have shown me that children don’t need as much protecting as we think they do. At their great-grandmother’s wake all three of my kids commented on how lovely her outfit was. They greeted Nonnina in her casket much like they would have greeted her in her kitchen. Bright green lawns, which her cemetery has acres of are a lovely playing ground for children. Death is part of life and life is part of death. Over the years I’ve come to see cemeteries as a place where death and life intersect. Cemeteries can and should be community destinations, much like they were before we had art galleries, parks and concert halls to congregate in. When we visited my stepfather recently at the beautiful Brompton Cemetery in London, I was happy to see how vibrant and alive the cemetery is. There’s even a cafe where people commune for English breakfasts or a jolt of coffee while visiting a loved one or cycling to work. My brother meets clients at the cafe from time to time because the cemetery is so centrally located. Lime trees, wildflowers, foxes, birds and bats all live there. Dogs bark. Humans weep. Bicycle bells tinkle. There is so much life in Ukulu‘s cemetery. On my walk this morning, I came across dozens of flat headstones blanketed in cherry blossom petals and dappled light. It was as if nature herself was celebrating the lives beneath the soil.

portrait of a family

April 12, 2024

What I love about Elsa Dorfman’s family portraits is how warm and unpretentious they are. Known as much for her large scale polaroid portraits of mid-century literary greats –– Allan Ginsberg, Anne Sexton, Anais Nin –– as she was for her humble family portraits, Dorfman is just the kind of photographer/person I’d want to photograph my family. The very idea of a scheduled family photo session feels as comfortable as a colonoscopy, but everything I’ve ever read about Dorfman says she was as warm and authentic as her pictures. Family life is messy and complicated, and in that complicated mess are moments of tenderness, unity and pure joy. A professional photographer is rarely there to capture those moments, and if they are, it’s often the seconds in between shots that are the most tender and real. A few weeks ago, on a family visit to London, we managed to squeeze twenty of us into one frame. Of the many photos we took, it was the one with uncle Mark –– in charge of the self timer –– leaping across many small feet and toys to land in his place that I love most. It’s the photo before the photo, blurry and unpolished, neat smiles blown wide open by spontaneous laughter. That’s what Dorfman’s archives were made up of. Her B-sides. The photos that families didn’t want, all the “mistakes” that at 20×24 were too expensive to just throw away. That’s the gold, I’m realizing. The raw, clumsy, beautiful and unpredictable moments that glue a family together, that make them who they are. That’s what we hold on to. That’s what we stick to our fridge. That’s what we’ll leave behind long after we’re gone.

seeing red

March 12, 2024

It was the flashing bitcoin sign in the window that caught my eye, maybe because I’d heard that crypto is sky-rocketing. I’ve walked past this corner shop over a hundred times, and until last week, I’d never noticed how charming it is. I was in a moving taxi so I missed the chance to snap a picture. Then yesterday, I found myself running an errand on Bathurst St., and there it was again. Steven’s. I stood in the middle of the road snapping away at the children’s portraits and potted daffodils, and by some brilliant stroke of luck, a woman walked by wearing a jacket and shoes as bright as the red letters above the shop. It’s pretty cool what reveals itself to us when we open our eyes, when we choose to pay attention.

heart of gold

December 22, 2023

There are five people living in our home, and three more if you count our neighbour, Angelo and his niece and nephew, Nicole and Carlos. Our walls are so thin that we may as well share a home. Sometimes, I hear Ange’s radio and I wince thinking about all the wailing, roaring, singing, dancing, bashing, squealing he must hear from us. A few years ago, Nicole knocked on the wall at 7 a.m. to signal to the kids to stop making so much noise. That’s the one and only complaint we’ve ever had. “I’ll take the noise over silence any day,” he used to say to me after his Mum died. Christina was a woman of few words. Tough as nails. An immigrant. A widow. She wore a teal blue coat in the winter and loved pro-wrestling. Whenever the kids and I got locked out of the house we’d go next door to watch guys pummel one another in her front room. Ange would give them Coca Cola, or some other fizzy beverage they’d never be allowed to drink at home. They’d bring out the family albums —Ange in a tux at his brother Alvaro’s wedding — and share immigrant stories reminiscent of the ones we’d hear from Jason’s grandparents. I remember coming home one day a few years after Christina died to find four large garbage bags on the porch, her teal coat peeking through one of them. Shortly after that, Alvaro’s grown kids came to live with Angelo and life was restored to his side of the house. He was born in this house –– Ange is almost 70 –– “and they’ll take me out in a coffin.” He went to all our local schools, and ran around our lanes at night like our kids do today. Some nights, he and his pals would get as far the Philosopher’s Walk, lift up the grates, climb into the sewers and make their way into the Royal Ontario Museum. Angelo never married. He worked in a printing factory. He’s one of my favourite people on earth. When we renovated our house, a massive headache for Ange, his response was, “you have to break some eggs to make an omelette. I’d take yous guys over anyone else.” We bring him Ferrero Rocher’s at Christmas and a pizza on his Birthday. I’d like to think he knows how much we love him. He knows our rhythms, and we know his. He was there when we moved in. When we brought our first baby home. The terrible nights. The joyful mornings. To Ange, I feel a forever debt of thanks. I sat in his kitchen today catching up on Coronation Street. He’s the only person I know who still watches it. He smelled, as he always does of soap, coffee and cigarettes. And I thought to myself, of all of the houses, of all the streets, we landed here, next to you.

stones

October 5, 2023

Only my Mum would describe the red of the walls in her new home as “porphyry”. It’s esoteric. Pretentious, even. But not coming from her. Earlier in the week, we spent half an hour discussing what white she’ll paint over the porphyry with. White is her default wall colour. A blank canvas for the colourful textiles, objects and paintings that she travels from home to home with. “The cabinets will be stone,” she says. “As in grey?” I ask. “No, stone.” She means a creamy white, the stones that wash up on a Greek island beach, maybe. I find people’s associations with colour fascinating, how memories and past experiences influence the images and ideas that come to mind when we think of a specific colour. Our perception of colour varies, too. My winter coat is chartreuse. “I love your yellow coat,” some people say. “I love your green coat,” say others. Neither one is wrong. Perception is everything. “I think the cashmere has too much yellow in it,” she says. “The walls will look like they were painted with vanilla ice cream.” How delicious. I suggest Benjamin Moore’s OC-122 –– my go-to for a crisp but warm white. “Anything’s better than porphyry.”

the taste of memory

September 5, 2023

Given that my grandmother didn’t cook, it’s ironic that so many of my memories of her are attached to food. I think it’s partly because we ate things in her home that we didn’t eat anywhere else. Ice cream sandwiches. Hot dogs. Cinnamon donuts. Cracker Jack cereal. I grew up in England in the 80s; our junk food was limited compared to what was available in sunny Bermuda. While my grandmother appreciated fine dining, she was happiest eating a tuna sandwich on the golf course. Or a freshly battered corn dog at LaGuardia Airport. “They’re the best in the world.” One of my favourite things to do together was to go grocery shopping at Miles Market and load up the cart with ice tea, Kraft slices, sugary cereals and mini marshmallows that I’d eat by the handful on the way home. Years later, once I lived in Toronto and I was able to visit her more often, either in Florida or Manhattan where she then lived, she’d always send me home with a stash of English muffins, Entenmann’s cookies, or a honey glazed ham in my carry-on. On our last visit together in New York right before she died, I remember her asking me to get her a chicken salad sandwich while she got her chemo infusion. I went to five different places near the clinic searching for the perfect chicken sandwich and came back with some Gourmet thing slathered in a Caesar-ish dressing and alfalfa sprouts. She took one disdained look at it and shoved it straight back into the bag. Who brings alfalfa sprouts to a chemo patient? As is so often the case in these moments, the gussied up sandwich was what I wanted to give her, not what she wanted to eat. A few weeks ago, I was travelling through a new and improved LaGuardia, and I felt a pang in my heart when I saw that her corn dog stand is gone. “I mean, the cheek of it. They were the best in the world.”

note to self

September 1, 2023

Somewhere between 40 and 45 it became painfully clear to me that much of my identity hinged on what I thought other people thought of me. And that many of my efforts at self betterment, this blog included, were in service of an imagined ideal. It’s an impossible way to live; it gets in the way of everything, not least, one’s ability to know and be themselves. Start where you are. Write about what you know. And the best advice of all, write like nobody’s reading. Thinking about what someone is thinking when they’re reading your work is the surest way to suck the life out of it, specifically your life. I love writing. And I needed to take a break from it this summer so I could remind myself who I am writing for.

to look without fear

July 27, 2023

The first time I heard of Wolfgang Tillmans was in my early 20s when I happened upon a photograph of his in Vogue. An editor had singled out “Sandcastle” as her favourite photograph, adding that it was the hopefulness of the image that she was most drawn to, “that we build them, even though we know the tide will wash them away.” There’s nothing remarkable about the image, but it’s what it represented to her that made it meaningful. It resonated with me and so I tore out the page and stuck it in a scrapbook. And up until recently, my only association with Tillmans was that one sandcastle and the uplifting ideas that came with it. I knew that he was enourmously prolific, and that his work was raw and real, but I hadn’t looked further than this one image. So, when I walked through The Tillmans show at the AGO recently, it came to me, somewhere between the black and white salacious club scenes and still lives of mangled crab legs that, “to look without fear” means to see the whole picture, better yet, to look beyond the picture and see that it’s rarely as frightening as we think it is. Just as significant as seeing the light, is seeing the shadows cast when something gets in its way. “I want to invite the audience to approach my work without fear but also to not be afraid of their own eyes and how they see,” says Tillmans. The show is a shining example of how seemingly unremarkable moments, when strung together over time, can tell a story that is as painful and complicated as it is beautiful and celebratory. His images, some 4 x 4 snap shots, are stuck to the walls with clear tape like one might see in a student dorm. It’s so crude and quotidian. So brilliant. The mundanity of it all. The gritty, tender, miraculous mundanity of it all.

luck of the Irish

March 18, 2023

My grandmother was a Bostonian of Irish descent, a heritage somewhat washed out by all the Greeks in the house. I remember her making beer battered shrimp a few times, (that must have originated in somebody’s Nan’s kitchen?) but other than that, my very Greek Papou did all the cooking. I’m not sure I even knew my Yiayia wasn’t Greek until my teens, which given her terrible Greek accent and strawberry blonde hair shows how very up my own arse I was. She had freckles on every part of her body and wore yellow visors bedazzled with jewel encrusted frogs. She was a very young grandmother, seventeen-years younger than my grandfather, and after he died she only lived three short, sharp years without him. I came to visit her the Spring before she died at the apartment they had shared in North Palm Beach and within minutes of arrival we were at the local karaoke (a cafeteria in a nearby plaza) with my grandmother on stage (a chair) singing Engelbert Humperdinck’s “Please Release Me,” followed by Irish super ballad, “Danny Boy.” She was wearing a cream cotton pant suit that night. Or maybe it was spearmint satin. My memory is froggy. She died a year later and “Danny Boy” played at her wake. And six-months after that, I sat on her memorial bench in Central Park and listened to the same Irish ballad singing at The Boathouse nearby.

nostalgia

March 1, 2023

Every now and then, there’s a scent or a sound or a taste that whisks up back to another time. It’s jarring that something so specific, like Imperial Leather soap or burnt marshmallows can have that much power over our emotional state. Photographs, too, have the power to transport us to another state and time. Why do we choose to frame certain pictures? Why do we choose that precise moment as the screensaver on our phone? Because it captures a state of being, a moment in time that we hope to access just by virtue of seeing it. Earlier in the week, my dear friend and fellow potter, Michelle Organ sent me a photo of me working in the communal studio she once owned in downtown Toronto. I was all at once catapulted back to that time. The shirt I was wearing, the plate I was painting, the feelings inside. It was all so visceral. I actually cried. Was it nostalgia? Was it a yearning for a creative community that I am currently without? Was it the fact that my hair was long enough to wear in a top knot? We don’t know at the time that these ordinary moments will one day resonate in the way that they do. And that, in part, is what makes them so extraordinary.

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