Summer means time to make stuff! As part of Ryan’s birthday present, I had fun illustrating 12 cards with a different date idea and description for each month:
Then I put them in this camera geek box I painted:
More to come about each date we go on 🙂
Stops: Niagara Falls, Niagara-on-the-Lake, Toronto, Gatineau, Ottawa, Montreal
I. Niagara Falls
Memories of fog and rainy wetness from about two decades ago, with my grandmother aboard the Maid of the Mist on the other side of Niagara. I remember I couldn’t see through the downpour on my glasses and shivered under my poncho. We stand now on the Canadian side, blue yawning below and above us, the hum of water as it eternally pours into the giant basin which catches the plunge, as it did twenty years ago.
Long after the last cruise on the Hornblower noses its way into the white and foaming spray, after the Clifton Hill ferris wheel powers down its lights and the drab haunted houses and wax museums, arcade alleys, casinos, and Chinese restaurants with washed-out lettering close their doors for the night — after that and many years the falls will continue their downward drag, their restless wake, and even in the cloudless dark, without anyone marveling, will soar into familiar and treacherous depths.
Niagara-on-the-Lake is a town of strawberry summers, brunchy Sundays, yellow skirts, melodies sung by a theater troupe. Out on the lake look-out, geese glide from one end of vastness to another. The peaceful trees throw shade over our city consciousness, and the vineyards float under the long, thin horizon bearing up gracefully its last daylight hours. We overlook the spindly, straight green rows which spend their seasons growing.
In the wintertime, intrepid pickers dig into a thick layer of snow to pluck the frozen, shriveled grapes out of their unforgotten misery, to be made into ice wine — tart, saturated, deserving of slow savoring. In the town, shop windows draw the eye toward all of the usual trinkets of fare and food characteristic of a familiarly far off place.
An old building which was once an apothecary lures our curious eyes into its airy and high-ceilinged space, now a small museum. Old-timey glass jars formerly used for 19th century cures for ailments line the shelves towards the ceiling. An ancient black typewriter sits on the counter, contemplating its life of word-smithing — oh how the times have changed! A white porcelain jar declares itself a container of LEECHES. Pamphlets on bloodletting, pills, new medicines. Artifacts and old words alive on preserved pages — we find ourselves fascinated by such moments of the past in the present.
All cities strive for the same great heights. Unity in diversity. Plentifulness in population, and parking. A distinguished and echoing skyline that can be silhouetted against a t-shirt. Boom of businesses, attraction of many things happening at once, pace of locals and tourists striding side by side across a tree-lined avenue, towards the nearest florist or cake shop or hair salon.
Toronto accomplishes great things in the line-up of world cities. Its sheer size, felt in the 20,000 wandering footsteps we took across the downtown area and around and back, seems to rival that of New York City, but in its better-smelling sidewalks and intersections, there is more space to stroll, stop, look above and beside. Cleaner air, more freedom, more opportunity to pause and peer down graffiti-art-laden alleyways.
Everywhere there is something happening. Alongside the plethora of curious shops in Kensington Market and its T-shaped cross streets, musicians with banjos caterwaul for coins. Army surplus stores offer discounts on old war bags, gas masks, coats. Dogs meet other dogs while their owners sip on tea and sample boiled bagels characteristic of the region.
Cafes, taco shops, jerk chicken, empanadas. The cultural divides are broken down, demolished in an earnest stroll across the block. Perhaps that sounds a bit idealistic, but there is something to be said for a place where so many different kinds of food become the norm. Where you fit in. Where ethnicity carves out a space for itself and thrives in celebration.
The food, by the way, is splendid — best tacos I’ve had in a while! (I am always reluctant to say “ever” — does one remember delectable tastes well? Where are these senses stored?) Under the June sunlight, the afternoon feels perfect as we hop from shop to shop and appease our appetites for pretty things and tasty morsels.
IV. City of so many colors. Multitudes of public space, parks, harbor front, places where one can commune with the city. Shows, concert rehearsals, festivals, shopping malls. St. Lawrence Market is a hotbed of attractive products under colorful signs, lying enticingly behind displays — we try their famous “peameal bacon” on a soft roll, which tastes oddly like spam. We venture into a Japanese snack bar featuring maids as waitresses, who interact strangely with their customers. We stand in line for a free t-shirt championing women in sports. We even make friends with a charming iguana named Iggy. All in a day’s work!
V. Sprawl of public and repurposed spaces breathe life into different ventricles of the city — the life blood is its people. A farm with cows, sheep, chicken, and wooded trails for walking. A historic brick mill factory that had fallen into disuse, revived into a communal space for garden markets, classes, community events, landscaping, and a marshland for native plants and animals.
To stand in places like these is to use one’s imagination as a time capsule, superimpose the tools, machinery, and structures of the past onto where one is stepping, attempt to draw together the parallel worlds which the fourth dimension has divided while no one was looking.
At the distillery, too, the brickwork shines under the afternoon angle of sun. The manufacturing of so much whisky through these walls — grains, malt, beer, distillation, fermentation, storage. Everything a somber workman’s brown. Chutes and ducts, machines with gears and pulleys, creatures alive and spitting during the height of the industrial age.
Walking is a wonder in this city, where there is no hurry for the past to catch up doggedly alongside the present. One can sit and have a beer in the heart of all this history, and the lukewarm June wind will blow between buildings to remind you of the here and now, how far we’ve come.
VI. Ganonoque — Gatineau
The small wonders of small towns. Coffeeshops and restaurants are decorated in the most interesting ways, providing a very specific and unique sense of place. The European aesthetic and its particularity for the perfect accents. In Gananoque, the boats pile up beside stretches of piers and docks. A small beach spends its lovely days across from an embankment of mother geese and their geeslings. Its waters are a pure, dark blue, like stormy eyes. It is hard to imagine life here in the wintertime, an isolated port town with suburban houses and pretty scenery of the river.
When I am away it is hard not to feel the tug of home sometimes, although it gets easier to find those still places in your mind, to take a rest and marvel at the exact spot you are in now. To be thankful for everything you have seen and have been given. For the sunshine and the cloud formations, good food and comfortable beds. For the whole promise of traveling — being far away from home and seeking out those things which bring joy to people in other places — sunsets, parks, waterfalls, streets lined with beauty, art aspiring to brave heights.
As a huge fan of Nabokov and a curious explorer of the realm of reconstructed memory through memoirs and autobiographies, this book has been idling on my to-read list for a bit, ever since my enthralling encounter with Lolita. An account of Nabokov’s life, more or less chronologically, from childhood to adulthood, from a flourishing and aristocratic lifestyle in Russia to exile in Europe and eventually a life in America, this series of fifteen vignettes renders the landscape of Nabokov’s young life with nostalgia and the pain of a joyful, yet lost, childhood.
What I find most interesting in the memories that Nabokov presents to the reader in his anecdotes is that, with alarming beauty, utmost tenderness, and genius precision, they represent “a kind of delicate meeting place between imagination and knowledge” (167). Nabokov’s approach to seeing the world as a child and capturing the artistic in nature involves a blending of memory and fiction and the creation of captivating details that one genre can generously lend to the other.
I loved this sense of playfulness between working towards the precision/ truthfulness of memory and being self-aware of memory as part fiction, a re-telling of one’s past as colored by the present. As experienced in Nabokov’s robust and detailed account of his French governess, “Mademoiselle,” he at the same time emphasizes an uncertainty of knowing whether the characters of one’s childhood are really as they have been imprinted in one’s mind:
“Houses have crumbled in my memory as soundlessly as they did in the mute films of yore, and the portrait of my old French governess, whom I once lent to a boy in one of my books, is fading fast, now that it is engulfed in the description of a childhood entirely unrelated to my own. The man in me revolts against the fictionist, and here is my desperate attempt to save what is left of poor Mademoiselle” (95).
The inability to truly know the accuracy of one’s convictions about the past, the faultiness of recollection, the world of fiction from which bloom all the colorful details which we so adamantly claim to be true — this, I think, is at the heart of this book.
We witness Nabokov in the very act of recalling and are swept up in the minute details of the places that he revisits in his mind. He poignantly describes the reconstruction of his memory of garden parties on his family’s estate, the actions of family members around the banquet table, and the foods and desserts laid out for the meal. It is interesting to note that Nabokov says he always approaches this childhood scene in his mind from the vantage point of the park rather than from the house, “as if the mind, in order to go back thither, had to do so with the silent steps of a prodigal, faint with excitement” (171).
In his account of this scene, time is slowed, sounds are muted, and the reader experiences a slow-motion effect from the words on the page in a gloriously cinematic recreation. And then suddenly, “some knob is touched and a torrent of sounds comes to life,” and the reader is thrust into normal speed again, with the scene bursting to life with the immediacy of real time. Nabokov’s ability to warp and pause the speed of time, and to convey his confession that he does “not believe in time,” exhibits his mastery and control of language, his ability to bring us closer to a different reality, one that is beyond the immediate veneer of our everyday lives.
I enjoyed being witness to Nabokov’s first encounters with the passions of his life — butterfly-catching, poetry, chess, his first romances. It makes me think back to the moments in my own life when a sudden interest was sparked at random or in ways I don’t quite remember, when the beauty of the world outside of ourselves pressed itself so incessantly on our young minds and came out of us in tender, fumbling ways, and turning points that were so crucial to the development of who we are today.
His description of the dripping of rain drops on a singular leaf after a thunderstorm, and how the rhymes of a poem suddenly crystallized in his mind as a newfound passion (“tip, leaf, drip, relief”), was especially meaningful for me:
“…the instant it all took to happen seemed to me not so much a fraction of time as a fissure in it, a missed heartbeat, which was refunded at once by a patter of rhymes; I say ‘patter’ intentionally, for when a gust of wind did come, the trees would briskly start to drip all together in as crude an imitation of the recent downpour as the stanza I was already muttering resembled the shock of wonder I had experienced when for a moment heart and leaf had been one” (217)
Such passages are laden with the attention, beauty, and sheer mastery that made this book so delectable to read. I also considered what Nabokov then says about poetry: “But then, in a sense, all poetry is positional: to try to express one’s position in regard to the universe embraced by consciousness, is an immemorial urge. The arms of consciousness reach out and grope, and the longer they are the better.”
The older I grow, the longer my arms of consciousness get in trying to reach out to the outside world, to those around me, as well as towards myself in awareness of what I have to give from what I have gained. Poetry has certainly been “positional” for me in this regard, and I appreciated Nabokov’s wisdom on this. This has been one of the best reads of the year for me, and I was appreciative of the power, intellect, and sensitivity of Nabokov’s writing.