Each morning both colour and form return to the rooms I write in, despite the rain, the snow and the cloud cover. Leaves of my fig plant appear like green-stained glass in the window, my cello a rich chestnut brown. In all weathers, the sun rises and days begin. For me, each reliable day this week has begun with less paper and continued with less screen time, which I find enormously satisfying.
Just seventy more stores to go to… says the man to his 3-year-old son who rides past aisle 57 in the Canadian Tire shopping cart. His wife smiles as I laugh aloud.
The security guard stands, planted and watchful in the midst of the extremely crowded LCBO. I ask him if we are permitted to speak with him, or is he like a palace guard in London, stoic and straight-faced. I’m just here to keep the peace, he tells me, then smiles when I say, but it is peaceful, surely?. Then he helps me find a price for something, while somehow managing to stay planted and watchful.
what are tea candles? asks the middle-aged male clerk whose department the tea candles are not in.
The man in front of me at checkout, glazed/anxious/delighted as he pays for plastic dolls and big boxes of wish-list toys – I want to ask him if he has enough wrapping paper; its for sale over there in that bin. Instead I imagine the tree under which those big boxes will go, just like in the commercials. But he is warm in his delight. There’s an undeniable honesty about it that pauses me.
I scuttle home through the sloppy wet-snow streets, unaware that I am infected by pre-Christmas over-crowding, by the glowering parked beside me husband smoking in his truck while the wife shops, by the things I’m sure I’ve forgotten…
How can the lists of work and seasonal tasks be growing, even when methodically attended to? This while the Schedule gets narrower and narrower: Windsor; Hamilton; Owen Sound; Toronto… Come From Away? write, wrap, frame, practice, clear, clean….
I scuttle home, hurried and distracted for no good reason and there’s my tree, glowing and adorned with memories that span 53 years or more. Ah, yes. This is why.
And there’s the sun, through the now parted white clouds, through the window, warming my warm red carpet.
Somebody posts: Scientists report that glitter is bad for the environment and my laptop closes.
You look like a teacher, says the young waitress in the very loud bar the night the Tiger Cats lose the Grey Cup game. She looks like your neighbour’s odd tweenage daughter who dresses like her big brother, a closet spoken word somebody or maybe even closet hip hop but white and really short. I don’t say any of that, though I’d noted these things earlier. Clearly she’d noticed my teacher-ness too, even though I’m pretty proficient at disappearing into the back of things while I write & watch football games. Yes, I know. I said. Three generations of my family are teachers – english teachers, even. I’m the only one who resisted that call but still I look like them. sigh.
Friendly electrician guy from Newfoundland via Calgary via Newfoundland with whom I’d shared my grey cup sadness and some bad pool already knows I’m an artist but I can feel him wondering about appearances too as we prepare to leave. This makes me think how little any of us actually knows about anyone, based on what they look like.
A philosophical pause with the young yellow-toqued waitress in the still loud bar. I’m glad she told me what she was thinking.
The next day on my walk I pass a makeshift mosque (closest parking spot to the door marked “Imam only”). A short older man shuffles out of the parking lot ahead of me, scarf-wrapped and slow, spitting onto the sidewalk like a ritual. As I pass him in my big black coat he looks sideways at me then calls out, Thankyou!!! two times, so I turn back and take his outstretched hand – “I am from SyrEEYAH”, then beams when I say Wow – Syria? Welcome! He has next to no English but a big smile tells me he understands goodwill & warmth from the fast walking Canadian lady. He grins then releases me back to the striding I learned from my dad, who grew up on these streets.
…appearances. Ru Paul says we’re all in drag but most of us don’t know it.
Music is not separate from life; it is everywhere, ubiquitous. Like water, it makes its own path, travels where it will, is both trickle and tsunami and everything in between. It invites following, collaboration. Interesting to me that my professional use of music in community has translated, for now, into visual arts and storytelling, with sound, music, community. It has moved me from a cabin in the woods to Hamilton ON, may take me to Estonia next summer, to amplify both cabin and Hamilton. Wherever it leads, I respect it, this music like water.
Laurie Anderson says stay fluid, don’t get pigeon holed, so does Sharon Louden – two artists for whom I have great respect.
I don’t look like who I am or what I do. Or do I? How can I know if I’m not entirely sure what I’m doing, yet. Maybe I taught waitress girl something she didn’t know. Maybe that’s what Anderson means.
…3:40pm, Tuesday November 26, at The Brain, writing at a round beside the open window facing the street. Good jazz playing. Alice Coltrane, it turns out.
So far, a spectacled, potato shaped man hiding underneath a massive huge curly blond wig, a many-layered homeless person pushing a loaded cart, a running woman dressed in black. Headphoned dude, then young woman with guitar, which makes sense since this is James Street and The Brain is owned by musicians. Ooop -there’s the furtive wig man again, going the other way.
There’s a satisfaction to this kind of expansion and experiment work in a new city I learn on foot and in moments like the too-noisy bar, in this quieter place with Coltrane’s wife playing and the couple in hot debate down the bench from me. Stories on top of stories woven through the one I’m following like water, like music.
Swans has now grown into a living breathing thing. I’m delighted to announce that Tessa Snider, Sandra Swannell (wow what a coincidence), david sereda and Terry Young will help me tell the story, along with whoever comes to join us at the Library on December 7. I’m honoured, too, that Owen Sound’s esteemed Poet Laureate will be there to grace the event with his well-crafted thoughts. Thank you, Richard Yves Sitoski.
Seven Swans is pay what you can, 6:30 – 9pm, Saturday December 7. There will be wine and nibbles and good rich community jam you’ll take home with you to spread on your toast and chew on whenever you like. That’s a metaphor, unless someone actually brings jam. Also a chance to reserve your copy of the book, and to contribute some thoughts of your own to it. Some drawings and paintings of swans, just because they’re beautiful and wild and were once on the brink of extinction in Ontario. See you there folks!
I’ve ordered a caffe latte and a glass of the house red here at Caffe Piansa, since it’s 3:40pm and there’s not nearly enough caffeine in my system. The waiter tells me that Italians don’t like the taste of milk with their wine, so I order sparkling water as well, to clear my palate.
They are having fun with me the Anglaise, and I with them.
Piansa is a four-umbrella street cafe just outside the Vecchio palace, an iconic old 13th century fortified house in old Florence. A successful banker, Cosimo I bought the Palazzo, doubled, then tripled its size to contain his family and ambitions when it became apparent that the old Palazzo Medici could not possibly expand to match either.
Palazzo Vecchio, towering above the streets of Firenze and fortified against enemy attack. Symbolically and physically more appropriate to the expanding Medici self-image.
…and far far above the people.
It’s a long walk up to the top, where there’s a sizeable guardhouse (now office).
I wonder how often the Medici made the climb. Perhaps they did so to check in on the political prisoners they kept in the cells that line the stairs – some like broom closets with a hole in the floor (for relieving oneself), others large enough to pace three strides from wall to wall, with one barred window.
I’ve just walked three kilometres through the exhibits and the rooms in the Palazzo, up and down the tower, and learned some of the story of how Cosimo I built and decorated his empire. It was his house, but also where Lorenzo the Magnificent, Cosimo II, Pope Leo X (there were four Medici popes, Clement VII, Leo XI and Pius IV) lived while in Florence, along with their wives, children, artists, philosophers, and priors.
When the Medici became royal, they built and moved again, across the Ponte Vecchio to Palazzo Pitti.
Around every corner in Vecchio I find reference to Cosimo I, Leonardo the Magnificent, the Four Medici popes, the generations of royal marriages and appointments that spawned and nurtured the Italian renaissance.
There is a contemporary installation in the Duke of Tuscany’s (smaller) audience room that identifies the Medici insistence upon perpetual expansion in consumption, wealth and power.
The artists argue that it is this worldview of (but not limited to) the Medici in renaissance Italy that has led us to our current era of economic and climate crisis. They have installed life rafts and preservers in the middle of the room, attached by zip cords to a figure who could not possibly pull anyone to safety – a headless mannequin, dressed in high fashion.
What am I struck by, in Firenze? The abundance of astonishingly fine craft in painting, in marble sculpture, in architecture, furniture, inlay, but also philosophy, scientific inquiry (Galileo), fiction (Dante, the first in vernacular Italian, not latin).
An empowerment of the arts which continue to empower Firenze.
Tourism is THE industry, here. 4-600 years after Cosimo I, we come from near and far to worship the art, the architecture, the engineering, the telescopes, the navigational technology. Or at least I do, and others who crowd the Palazzi, The Uffizi, Galileo Museum and the streets of old Florence.
Perhaps different minds worship the unchecked ambition that Medici embodied, as our highest achievement, and never mind the art. I wonder.
Of course there is a dark dark side to it all, historically. God still reigned supreme over knowledge and discovery; no matter how they admired the old gods and the sculptures that glorified them, or Galileo’s insights into the way we see the world, Medici money was irreversibly tied to the Vatican. But these are not the stories told now, centuries later.
What do I want to say, in this place? That there’s not enough music to fill these big beautiful buildings, these narrow streets. That we in this square are all strange, and tired and curious, awkward and wondering what to do.
What will the people around me remember of Florence? Will it be only what they tell in stories to one another, and will that change too over time, only to be corrected and re-triggered by the photographs they took in the remembered moment? I wonder if what is not re-told or photographed is destined to be forgotten.
I think so. Possibly this is why I write, and how I write. Pockets and glimpses of story are interesting to me, here in this little street corner cafe. Some people are aware of being watched,self conscious since I have a laptop and I’m actively using it, others stressed and oblivious.
The waiters joke that I am writing a book. I say yes, a small one. They laugh and say, “Si – piccolo!” They come to stand beside me for a moment, never too long, but companionably. The restaurant ‘front man’ knows I am like him, watching and witnessing.
I don’t like being a tourist. But I am one, willy-nilly, eavesdropping without remorse in six languages (American, British, Canadian, Spanish, Italian, … asian).
My friend the waiter has put on a sweater against the new chill; we can all feel the rain coming. I finish up my tiramisu & espresso, plan to race the oncoming storm toward the Vecchio bridge, and beyond.
Ahhh, but no – here it comes, hard and fast, dribbling over the edges of the cafe umbrellas and into campari, wine and cafe latte. We laugh and pull our tables closer together.
Young Italian tourists run yelling through the downpour, I order another cafe latte and hope an umbrella guy comes by…
Yes! Here he is, and for 5 euro I have the means to venture out again, backwards into history.