Saturday, 12 March 2016

Window on the World (or... The Garden, Part 1)

It's that time of year where I grow restless, observing the monochromatic disarray that is my tiny Toronto garden.  A mucky patch of greyish-brown wedged into 600 square feet between house,
garage and adjoining neighbours. It's still too early to do anything of substance out there-- I don't dare remove the mulch in case of a sudden March cold snap. I'm pretty sure I lost my favourite buddleia that way a few years ago. It's too soon to prune, too early to plant. It will be weeks before I can really get my hands dirty.  For the moment I have to satisfy myself with photo-memories of what this drab little place will look like come spring and summer.

People who know me say the only time they ever see me totally relax is when I am wielding a spade and secateurs. It is indeed true that I lose track of time when I am out there, immersed in the needs of my verdant charges. My spirit is at home in this space.  It runs in the family.  Gardening is also my mother's great passion. She actually lives off what she grows-- even when there's ten feet of snow on the ground (more on this in future blogs!). My aunt in Jutland, Denmark, is an avid green thumb with a spectacular garden to show for it.  My sister-in-law in British Columbia produces a mind-boggling array of tomatoes, pumpkins, and peppers every summer in her raised beds.

On the one hand, gardening provides a way to be  alone with our thoughts. But it also connects us to the bigger world--sometimes in surprising ways. A couple of summers ago I noticed a monarch butterfly feeding on the buddleia, with something stuck to its wing. Worried that it would impede the insect's ability to fly, I moved in for a closer look and was relieved to see it wasn't an errant piece of sticky litter, but some kind of tag, with writing on it.

I grabbed my camera and zoomed in-- and sure enough-- it was a tag from an organization called MonarchWatch.  Curious, I sent an email to the address and discovered that researchers at the
Late-Summer Guest
University of Kansas-- more than one thousand miles and a 14 hour drive southwest of Toronto-- were happy to hear from me, and learn that one of their taggees was hanging out in my garden.  I discovered that an insect ecologist by the name of Orley R. "Chip" Taylor founded MonarchWatch back in 1992.  According to the organization's website, "the program has produced many new insights into the dynamics of monarch migration." And, as my experience shows, it also connects people, and makes us think about what is happening in the bigger world.

This is just one of so many enlightening moments I've experienced in the garden.  I've realized that this tiny patch of earth represents a microcosm of what is happening on the planet.  In twenty years I've noticed subtle but unmistakable changes inside its four walls. Different things thrive here now than in the past. Hardy, drought resistant plants are winning out over water-and shade-loving species. This is partly a result of reduced shade because my neighbour trimmed back her plum tree last year. But after spending hundreds of hours here every spring, summer and fall, it's obvious there's something bigger happening.  In general, conditions are hotter and drier now. It's unsettling to know that the mercury is predicted to climb even higher in coming years and decades.  But it also gives my puttering a purpose.  I feel like I am doing my small part to create an oasis for creatures struggling to adapt to climate change.  And I feel just a tiny bit more hopeful about the future when I see butterflies flocking here in abundance, joining the bees, ants, beetles and earthworms that call this garden home.

Sunday, 28 February 2016

Where Time Stands Still

Back in the 90s my favourite way of figuring out where to go on holiday was to find the places that Lonely Planet guidebooks said were remote, infrequently visited and hard to access.  That is how I found Xcalak.

Xcalak is a tiny Mexican outpost in the state of Quintana Roo, a fly fisherman's cast from the Belize
The End of the Road
border, a six hour journey from party-til-you-drop Cancun, and worlds away from the condos of Playa del Carmen and Tulum's boho-chic beachfront.  There's no wind-surfing or parasailing or jet skis in evidence in this town of 375 souls, and the nearest supermarket is a two-hour drive away.  For the few local buses that provide service this far south, Xcalak is literally the end of the road.  The bus stop is the beach.

We come here every few years, to remind ourselves that there are still places where time stands still.  Very little changes between our visits.  There are still the same deep, axel-shattering potholes in the  dirt road that must be navigated to get from the village to Sin Duda, a guesthouse we stay at 8 kilometres north of town.  Water and electricity are precious commodities in this part of the world, captured fastidiously in rain barrels and sun panels on the roof.

Manuel and Marie's Grocery Truck
Family-owned grocery trucks arrive at the door every couple of days, clunking through and around the ruts.  The vendors sell exactly what they've always sold--mouthwatering local Manchego cheese, oranges, avocados, pineapples, cilantro, peppers, and other produce that grows in the region.

Geckos and cicadas still lull us to sleep-- and occasionally startle us wide awake in the dark of night.  Boa constrictors and iridescent scorpions are fairly frequent visitors. It's this rhythm of the jungle  that has lured a handful of adventurous northerners to settle and build small haciendas in the area, catering to those of us who want to go far from the madding crowd.

 The Meso-American reef is right on Xcalak's doorstep...a natural wonder that spans more than one
Just North of Xcalak
thousand kilometers along the coastlines of four countries:  Mexico, Belize, Guatamala and Honduras.  The reef near Xcalak is a place to observe a relatively healthy reef system, that still contains an abundance of species, from parrot fish, trumpet fish, porcupine fish and barracudas, to rays, nurse sharks, eels, lobster and the dreaded invading lion fish.  There's even a moray eel living on the same coral head where we first saw a much smaller eel back in 2002. Is it the same one?  Quite possibly!  The locals have named him Al and he is a lot bigger than he used to be!

There is such comfort in coming to a place that isn't trying to become the next big thing. For now, Mexicans and the foreigners who live there value tranquility. This is what home means to them.  And for brief, joyous periods of time every few years, I am a part of that.

Monday, 1 February 2016

There Is No Place Like House, Home (Melanie's poem)

By Melanie Duarte Sanchez, aged 8, from Mexico: 

There are many things we call a house,
Like small dark holes in the walls for the noisy mouse.
Tall windy nests in the trees are what flying birds like the most,
But dirty deep holes in the ground are cosy for rabbits and moles.
Dogs and kittens sleep in soft pillows,
And little spiders make webs in the corners of some windows.
Crocodiles and snakes enjoy muddy swamps,
But beavers prefer to build their own dams.
Fish and whales live in the wet blue sea,
And wood or brick buildings are houses for you and me.
But what really matters is:
To have a home where you can feel safe and free.

From a British Council poetry competition for children from around the world.  

Thursday, 28 January 2016

On the Road Again!

Home can be about re-finding yourself in a far-away place. That's what recently happened to me.  I've just come back from two challenging but exhilarating weeks in Japan, shooting a new documentary series.
Mount Fuji
I've re-discovered what makes me tick.  Stepping off an airplane and into the unknown. Working long hours bridging cultural and language differences.  Solving seemingly insurmountable logistics issues.  And working, working, working to find the best possible way to tell a story.  

It's something I did for years as a news and current affairs reporter, and then as a documentary writer and director.  In recent years, I have spent more time out of the field and farther up the decision-making chain.  I've spent time on both the buying and selling side of the equation. It has been immensely rewarding on some levels and I've worked with some fantastic people. I am good at it and it always felt like a natural "career step."  It fulfilled the needs of my dutiful, aspiring self.
Great Day at Work!
What I didn't realize, is that during that time I also allowed my passionate, curious, and somewhat rebellious self to take a back seat.  The real me.

I'll admit it.  I've always been impatient with "messaging" and other corporate language for sanitizing reality.  I've spent enough time in that world to know why it happens-- even why it is necessary.  Which is also enough time to learn that it's a job best left to others.

I re-discovered happiness on this trip.  The demands of getting the job done left zero minutes in day for corporate politics, or negative thoughts, or internal power plays within our field team.  I just  knuckled down with my team and got the job done... and felt enormous satisfaction when we succeeded.  And I can't wait to do get out there again!

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Title and Deed

There are only about a dozen of us in the room-- fourteen at most.  We are grouped in a rough U-shape, on an assortment of chairs, in a space that used to be a classroom.  It feels like a somewhat dishevelled living room, with an odd mix of lamps and area rugs scattered about.  A young slightly uncomfortable-looking man appears in our midst.  He moves about, switching lights on and off, and looking nervously at the clock at the front of the room.

 "I'm not from here.  I guess I never will be," he says.

And so begins the Toronto production of Title and Deed, performed by Christopher Stanton,  directed by my talented friend Stewart Arnott, and written by Will Eno, a profound and unique voice in American contemporary drama.

 I'm here because I am very interested in Stewart's work.   I also believe that the key to the great beating heart of this city is in its smaller, more intimate artistic expressions-- the plays, the music performances, and art exhibits that draw small audiences but inspire big thoughts.

Christopher Stanton in "Title and Deed"
Title and Deed is unsettling.  It's also mesmerizing.  The play's one and only performer is simply called 'the Man.'   He moves around amongst us, telling us about his homeland, a small un-named country where people speak English, but everything is just a little bit weird and unrecognizable... It's a place where citizens celebrate the most mundane events, like a child having his braces removed.  Where people don't have birthstones, but birth-clouds.  Where lovers woo their intended by playing the tuba.

It feels ever so vaguely familiar, yet also very foreign.  The Man appears to be trying to find his way out of his loneliness by talking to the 12 or 14 strangers who are his audience. He lapses into moments of despair, then valiantly attempts to pulls himself out of it-- to convince us and himself that he really isn't a sad person-- that life itself is something to celebrate and enjoy.  At other moments, he's overcome with rage, unable to contain his frustration with his "alone-ness."

It becomes clear that he is in the midst of a deep personal crisis -- that he believed moving to a new land to start a new life would help him.  But over the course of his monologue, he becomes aware that home and happiness do not come about simply by changing our physical location.

It is impossible not to engage and to relate to Man's profound desire to belong.  Somewhere.  Anywhere.

As I leave the tiny theatre, I'm finally able to read the program, which I did not have time or lighting to read before the performance.  It is a single sheet of paper with a lot of small writing on it.  As I study it in the brighter light of the venue's foyer, I see that is not a program in the traditional sense-- it's a page from a dictionary.  A page where the words begin with the letter H.

H-O-M-E...  Home.  Homebred.  Homeless.  Homeward.  Homer.  Homestead.  Homicide.  Homily...

So many meanings from a single root.

Title and Deed: November 18-December 6, 2015 
Artscape Youngplace, 180 Shaw Street, Toronto.  

Thursday, 26 November 2015

Peggy Su

In November 2012, my friend Peggy Su celebrated her long-awaited status as a new Canadian citizen. Two months later, her whole world fell apart. On the morning of her 33rd birthday, she was diagnosed with an advanced glioblastoma, an aggressive and deadly form of brain cancer.
Peggy Su
Peggy had no family in Canada. She had very little money. And when she was at her sickest during chemotherapy, her slum landlord evicted her so he could renovate and jack up the rent. Worst of all, Peggy’s illness prevented her from doing her job--as an esthetician in a Toronto salon.  Like all of Peggy's loyal clients, I was shocked that someone so young and so dedicated to lighting up the lives of others could suddenly be facing such darkness in her own life. 
It’s hard to imagine a more desperate situation. But soon after Peggy's diagnosis it started to become clear that this young immigrant who appeared to have so little, had, in fact, built a community and support system, simply by being who she is.  After her diagnosis, a number of her clients rallied together, to accompany her to doctor's appointments, MRI's and chemo treatments.  Another client offered to teach Peggy to swim-- something she'd wanted to learn for years.  I joined a couple of others to help move Peggy's belongings to a new apartment.  In the months that followed, Peggy and I would meet for lunch and go for walks. We'd talk about life in Canada and back in Guangdong Province in southern China. I've spent time in that region as a journalist, which gave me a reference point for our conversations about the village where she grew up, and how much she wanted to help her aging parents and her older brother who also had been diagnosed with cancer.  Every time we got together, I was struck by Peggy's rock-solid determination and courage.
Her Chinese name is Juan Su. When she arrived in Canada in 2005 she immediately gave herself a name that she felt was better suited to her new home: Peggy Su. That choice perfectly reflects her sense of humour and whimsy, and her innate ability to cross cultural barriers. “I called myself after a famous song! she declares gleefully. “So people have to smile when they think of me. And they also never forget my name!”
Many things about Peggy Su are unforgettable. Her pedicure treatments have a cult following. She's deeply curious. She wants to learn about my life and the lives of her other clients, and Canada. Her questions are probing and often amusing.  If a man tells a woman she is short, is it an insult?  Why do some girls spend all of their money on designer purses?
She’s bossy too! She dispenses a stream of advice while my feet soak in suds: Don’t work so hard! Take time for yourself! Life is short! It’s hard not to listen up. Especially for those who know Peggy’s story.
Peggy's tumour has not disappeared, but it has receded.  She's back to working part-time as an esthetician, continuing to make meaningful connections and linking communities by simply being herself. The result is remarkable, and so much more than most people believed possible at the time of her diagnosis.  
On one level, Peggy’s story is deeply individual and deeply personal.  On another level, it is a Canadian story.  A story about finding home.  

Thursday, 19 November 2015

The True Meaning of "Linked In"

My LinkedIn homepage says I'm "connected" to 356 other people. Some are colleagues. Some are casual acquaintances. Some are people I don't even know, because I failed to screen properly before hitting the "accept" button. Truth is-- I don't really think about those 356 people at all.  And hitting the "accept" button certainly doesn't make me feel any more "connected" with them than I was before.

Except on July 14, 2015. That's when I spotted the invite from my uncle Bendt. He lives in a small town in Jutland, Denmark.  He is 89 years old.  He had personalized his invitation with a modest little message: Det er ellers ikke for en dÃ¥rlig uddannet gammel pensionist som mig.  
Translation:  This really isn't something for a poorly-educated old pensioner like me.

Uncle Bendt
Some invitations linger for days or weeks in my inbox.  But this time I instantly hit "reply" and told Bendt how delighted I was to see his invite. He is one of my favourite people in the whole world.  His message really made me think... He's more knowledgeable, more interesting and far more important to me than the illustrious and educated professionals I'm "connected" with.

Bendt's been married to my mother's sister, my Auntie Erna, for more than sixty years.  He was a conductor on the Danish railroad for most of his working life.  He and Erna are serious bridge players and in their younger years, travelled Europe to compete in tournaments. They stay closer to home these days-- in the house where I visited them as a child. My Danish home.

On my most recent visit to Bendt and Erna's place in 2012, Bendt was as sharp as ever, and still played a mean game of Scrabble!

Bendt's LinkedIn invitation says a lot about him. He never stops learning, even when it involves new technology that might intimidate people half his age.  His modesty and understated manner do not disguise the fact that he's fiercely intelligent and one of the most innately curious people I've ever met. When I visited Denmark as a child, Bendt almost always knew the answers to my endless stream of questions, whether it was about a particular type of sandpiper on a North Sea beach, or the entire history of the 900-year-old Ribe Cathedral, one of the area's main attractions.  If he didn't know an answer he would head to the bookcase-- his personal resource library-- and search until he found the answer.  These days, he's just as likely to say "Google It!" to the delight of his grand-kids and great-grand-kids.

During one of my trips to Europe back in my student-days, I planned to spend a couple of days hanging out and partying in Copenhagen-- on the other side of the country from where Bendt lives.  Bendt asked if I might like to spend one of those days at examining Andy Warhol's works at Louisiana, a famous gallery near  Copenhagen.  To be truthful, I was much more excited about the prospect of examining live specimens at Copenhagen pubs.  But Bendt's enthusiasm got to me. He took the train to Copenhagen, the two us met up, and we spent most magical day at Louisiana.  I learned a little bit about pop art culture that day.  And a whole lot more about what really matters in life.