Tag Archive: travel


the power of great things

This year seems to be a good one for fireworks.  In August, I wrote of the serendipity of checking into a hotel in Gatineau to visit with friends, and discovering that a fireworks competition was taking place right outside the hotel.  This weekend, I was in Toronto for a conference and it turned out the Toronto Cavalcade of Lights was taking place across the street from the conference centre.

I am a person who hates Toronto very nearly as much as I love it.  Like any metropolis, most days it’s an overcrowded maze of unfriendly people, suffocating subways, grueling gridlock, and discourteous drivers.  It’s a place where there is destitution on every corner, where alleys are bit darker, where people’s dreams are chewed up and spat out, and where the gap between classes is more pronounced than elsewhere, having grown from a dichotomy of the wealthy and the poor to one of the obscenely rich and the profoundly indigent.

But it is also a place where everyone has a niche.  No matter how bizarre your interests, no matter how depraved or puritanical your lifestyle, there will be some alcove in any metropolis where you can find others who appreciate your tastes.  And it is a place where you can see things you will never see elsewhere.

While watching the fireworks at Nathan Phillips Square, sandwiched between throngs of people to the left of us and hordes of them to the right — a circumstance which would normally bring me close to a panic attack — I found a surprising calm and warmth wash over me.

Some of that tranquility found its source in the fireworks show itself because it seems that, the older I get, the more boyish is my fascination with them: the ecstatic bursts of colour, the thunderous booms of each explosion, the majesty of the orchestral track — I find it all thrilling.  Mostly, though, it arose because, for a moment, I pulled my focus away from the show and looked at the smiling faces upturned. There was no place here for family disputes, no place for unruly children and disciplining parents; the rich and poor and everyone in between saw the same show; people who, elsewhere in the world or at another time, might hate or fight or kill each other, stood side-by-side; the only skin color that mattered was the polychromatic glow the fireworks cast indiscriminately on the faces of all assembled; children’s faces were filled with wonder; lovers held each other closer; in short, all was well in that tiny corner of the world.

There is nothing of the experience of watching marvels that is so unique to Toronto, nor even any large city in the world.  But when that peace descends on a city normally filled with coldness and hate, it means something.  In a city so multicultural, where racial tension and ethnic intolerance run high; in a city so uncaring, where the gratuitousness of poverty has exhausted the empathy of so many; in a city so loud, with honking horns and flashing lights heard and seen every second of the day — yes, that peace means something.

homeless children playing

These things happen on a smaller scale every day.  Midst the rubble of catastrophe, people share moments of fraternity.  When I was younger, I remember during a visit to Toronto watching two homeless men embrace, the one flashing a toothless but immensely genuine grin when he saw his friend.  Then the other man pulled back his stained coat to show a treasure: a bottle of whiskey he had managed to palm.  He had come back to share it with his friend.  Yes, I know the bottle might have been stolen.  Yes, I know the men might have been riddled with addictions.  And for those reasons, I did feel a measure of sadness witnessing the scene.  But if I quiet those objections for just a moment, what I see is a brief glimpse of happiness in the lives of the downtrodden.

Today, I am thankful for the power of great things to give us pause and grant us a few moments to appreciate — either consciously or simply by the mere fact of our presence at, or participation in, an amazing event — some of the truly important universal values: togetherness, equality, wonder, and love.  For a little while, it makes me feel that, maybe, the world will turn out all right in the end.

the new world

passenger ship

Photo Credit: Unknown; Licence: Public Domain

I was on an ancestry kick several months ago.  Ancestral research is a difficult process made infinitely easier by services such as ancestry.com, which permitted me to research my family history in my pajamas.  And if that isn’t the very definition of progress, I don’t know what is.  I was also helped along by my poor grandmother, who did all of her family research before the advent of online ancestry databases.  Without her immense initial effort, I never would have gotten anywhere.

For some, researching family history has been simple.  In one line on my father’s side of the family, I’ve gotten as far back to the 17th century with nary a bead of sweat on my brow.  My grandmother’s paternal line, on the other hand, has been a thorny maze fraught with dead ends.  Her father seemed to have a penchant for adventure (read: trouble).  He changed his name, and his life before moving from England to Canada is shrouded in mystery.

After a month of solid research, during which I spent almost every waking second not otherwise absorbed by obligation poring through records, I finally had to shut it all down.  I am highly obsessive.  Faced with a problem, I’ll skip meals and sleep in an effort to reach an answer.  I was very literally exhausted.

But the process was not without reward.  The beauty of ancestral research is not only that it tells you something about yourself, but it also gives you a glimpse of history in a personal way.  Though I am cognizant of the class system in England, both now and — more prominently — in the 19th century and earlier, seeing that my ancestors were lower-class labourers opened my eyes to how fortunate I am to live where and when I do.

Today, I am thankful for living in a society that ascribes greater value to determination and ability than it does to birth.

My parents and I have all had the benefit of a university education.  If you told my great-great-grandfather, who was a coachman and domestic servant, that his great-grandson (my father) would be a university-graduated accountant, he would have laughed.  There was virtually no opportunity in his day for anyone to rise above the limitations of their birth.

How incandescent my ancestors must have felt, travelling by ship across the dark waters of the North Atlantic.  Crammed into third class accommodations, the journey must have seemed endless, but on the other side of that horizon stood a new world, laden with possibility.

famous painter

A cherished Canadian Thanksgiving family tradition is to go apple picking at a local orchard.  This year, a severe spring frost damaged any hope for a quality yield in a number of apple varieties.  On Saturday, we visited an orchard which has quickly come to be our favourite for the range of apple varieties it offers, and for the on-site bakery and store where we can purchase pies, streudels, cider, and other marvelous apple products, either to eat there (warm) or to take home.  We were able to come home without empty hands, but with none of the mutsu or empire varieties I love to use  in pies.

Sunday, we went to greater lengths to find an orchard with my wife’s family.  We were wholly unsuccessful.  But the weekend was not wasted.  We had the opportunity to take in the beauty of autumn’s palette.

autumn foliage

Photo Credit: Fg2; Licence: Public Domain

Having young children, my wife and I have limited opportunities to get away, so we have to use our anniversary as a basis for doing any activity we want to do without our children.  This year, though our anniversary is in July, my wife and I decided to forego our standard weekend of unbridled vanity in favour a simpler trip in late September to Ontario’s Muskoka region to relish in the splendour of autumn foliage.  For a number of reasons, that plan withered, so our local foliage would have to do.  It might be less breathtaking than the vistas of more northern climes, but it’s still breathtaking.

It’s difficult to get one’s children to share appreciation for important things.  During those drives this weekend, there was a good amount of complaining from the back seat about how I wouldn’t let my 9-year-old watch a movie or play video games.  On Saturday, I finally said in exasperation: “Outside your window is the most beautiful picture ever painted. It was painted by a famous painter you might have heard about: God.  So look out your window and keep quiet.”

Then I smirked at the silly things parents say… except, it was true.  In my travels, I have seen a plethora of really stunning works of art, but never anything so beautiful or brilliant or phenomenal as the one we get to see every autumn.

Today, I am thankful for autumn.  The science of the changing of the leaves is exceedingly simple; the visual result is magnificent.

the gang extended

It seems now many moons ago that I expressed gratitude for “the gang” (my family).  In that post, I was referring to my wife and kids.  Now, on the cusp of the Canadian Thanksgiving weekend, when the roads will be filled with people traveling near and far to pay visits to loved ones with whom they will sit at tables overladen with food, the time is ripe to express thanks for my extended family.

With apologies to any family members reading this, I confess that my patented phrase following any visit from family is: “it’s wonderful when family come to visit; and so much more wonderful when they depart.”  It is always a joy to see them, but after a weekend of children made more boisterous from excitement over the grandparents who spoil them, and the (happy) fatigue which invariably follows hosting guests, I cannot deny that there is a measure of relief when it comes to an end… not  unlike — I am sure — the relief those grandparents must feel when the boisterous children are no longer using them as trampolines.  (My mother often admits to needing a nap after we leave her house, and who could blame her?)

You might be familiar with the charmingly irreverent greeting card site someecards.com.  I was alerted to one the other day:

Love is spending the rest of your life with someone you want to kill & not doing it because you'd miss them!

Credit: someecards.com

It’s tough to argue with truth.  The ones I love the most are also the ones that drive me the most crazy, and somehow that makes me love them even more.

Today, I am thankful for my extended family, and all the insanity they bring.  They’re a heterogeneous bunch of misfits and goofballs.  Just the sort of family where a goofball misfit like me feels like he belongs.

sunflower

Our family travels a lot.  A lot.  Particularly in the summer.  And this summer we travelled even more than usual.  The vehicle we use for trips is a few hundred clicks away from the next oil change. Our third since the beginning of June.

Perhaps its a product of travelling more, or simply indicative of a change in my perceptions, or maybe they’re just becoming more popular, but everywhere I go, I see sunflowers.

I’m not complaining, of course.  Machismo be damned: I adore flowers.  I especially love wild flowers, and daisies are my favourite.  Look at a daisy and try to tell me you don’t feel happier.  I won’t believe you.  (Unless you have severe allergies, in which case I will most certainly believe you, but suggest that you try looking at the daisy while safely protected behind glass).  Sunflowers are just enormous daisies, so happiness can only be multiplied.

field of sunflowers

Photo Credit: Bruce Fritz; Licence: Public Domain

There is something almost fantastical about sunflowers.  Walking beside a flower that towers above me makes me feel as if I’ve climbed a magical bean stock and entered a land of giants, or climbed through a looking glass into a Carrollian dreamland.  Adventure must be only right around the corner.

Today, I am thankful for sunflowers, and flowers in general.  They are such a simple pleasure in our world: free to look at, free to enjoy.  Obviously, they serve a vital purpose in keeping the planet alive, but their beauty can be enjoyed by everyone without anything asked in return.  Next time I think of some material good I “need” to be happy, let me remember the sunflowers.

legs

In July, I saw a woman walking her dog.  It’s an important part of the story to note that, at the particular moment I saw the dog, it was defecating on a patch of grass on city property.  It was a little white dog — a poodle, I think.  When I say I saw a woman walking her dog, I should clarify that the dog was walking, but the woman wasn’t: her legs did not extend beyond the upper third of her thigh.  And the reason I am mentioning that the dog was making a deposit on the lawn is because, when it was finished, the woman went to great effort to align her wheelchair with the poop, lean over, and stretch her arm to collect the dog’s “gift.”

Man fishing in wheelchair

Photo Credit: Steve Hillebrand; Licence: Public Domain

In my job, I see a lot of people who get pets for companionship, but who are either ill-equipped to care for them or end up treating the animal like it’s some sort of toy: cute and fun when it’s a novelty but, after a month or two, completely forgotten.

I once called an animal shelter to inquire whether they had any space to accept a cat.  I had finally managed to get a woman with whom I was working to acknowledge that she couldn’t care for the cat, and I wanted to find a home for it before she changed her mind.  The woman at the shelter was quite friendly, but sadly reported they had no room.  I explained the circumstances, not in any attempt to pressure her, but simply to determine if she had any alternatives I might pursue.  Unsure, the woman asked her supervisor.

To put it plainly, the supervisor was jerk.  He cut her off and wouldn’t listen to what she was asking, and kept telling her, “it’s not our problem.”  The woman tried to tell him that I understood it wasn’t their problem, and that I was simply seeking their expertise on another solution, but he wouldn’t listen to any of it.

I was rather put off by the supervisor’s treatment of the employee (who probably wasn’t even an employee, but a volunteer), but later I granted him a little bit of grace.  I still think his boorish behaviour was inexcusable, but I tried to place myself in the shoes of a person who works in a “dump zone” for animals. I could understand why he might be a tad cantankerous.  Not that it was an excuse to treat the woman so poorly, but at least it was a bit understandable.  So many people get puppies and kittens when they’re cute and adorable; then, when they realize that some work is involved, the animal is dumped off at the local animal shelter.  It’s sickening.

This post really has nothing to do with pets.  This whole convoluted story was to lead up to noting that one of my biggest pet peeves (pun fully intended) is when pet owners do not clean up after their dogs.  I am frustrated by people who, to save themselves a few seconds of effort, or who feel they are too “grossed out” by poop to pick it up, decide that it’s entirely fine for the rest of us to have to step in it.

But despite that, and despite my sheer annoyance with people who get pets when they can’t take care of them, I think I might just have let the woman in the wheelchair “get away with it” had she not collected the dog’s waste.  I thought: this woman is up against enough barriers in life; how humiliating and degrading would it be for her if she were to tip the wheelchair over trying to pick up dog excrement, and then be stuck there until someone came to help her?  Surely, we can spare this one woman that indignity!

The fact that she didn’t shirk her responsibility was a bit inspiring. It made me realize how lucky I am to have full use of my legs.

Some day, I’d like to get my hands on a wheelchair and spend an entire day in it.  I want to get a first-hand idea of the pure struggle it must be to get aroutnd in a world filled with stairs.

Right now, if I want to buy a widget, I look up “widget” on Google and I go to the closest store that sells widgets. But if I’m using a wheelchair, I have to determine whether I’ll be able to enter the store once I get there and, if I can, whether I’ll be able to move down the aisles of the store and, if I can, how I am going to get to the store in the first place and, if I can do all of that, am I going to have to ask for help to get the widget off the shelf, etc. Because, even though I have every right to ask for help, I still feel as if I’m inconveniencing everyone by doing so.

I feel exhausted just writing that sentence.  Imagine what it must be like to live it?  And that’s not the half of it.  I also need to find a place to live that has a ramp to allow me to get in the door, and enough wheel-around room for me to be able to move my wheelchair around, and which is set up to allow me to bathe on my own, and get in and out of bed on my own, and get dressed on my own, and whose countertops are not so high that I can’t prepare food on my own because, like anyone else in the world, I would really like to be independent.

And here’s hoping I can find a job I can do, and one where an employer will not discriminate against me, because receiving a disability allowance really doesn’t pay the bills unless I want to live in squalor or unless I can idle on a wait list for a place with subsidized rent.

And on weekends or vacations, it would be nice to get away from it all, but I can’t drive anywhere, and the intercity buses have those very steep stairs I can’t climb, and the hotel isn’t set up to accommodate people using wheelchairs. Or maybe I’ll go to a cottage, or go camping, and maybe someone will go with me — someone with a car — except that now that I am there, I can’t go on any walking trails because nature wasn’t built with people like me in mind.  Or maybe I’d like to go to the beach with my friends, except my wheelchair wheels don’t move through sand very well and, besides, it’s really tough to get in and out of the water.

Today, I am so very thankful that I have the use of my legs.  Life is hard enough with them; people who get through life without them are nothing short of courageous and amazing.

serendipity

Nearly a decade ago, while visiting a friend in Vancouver, British Columbia, I decided to step out and take a stroll at dusk.  The air was fresh and fragrant with the scents of summer, the temperature was ideal, and I felt generally happy and at peace with my life, which lent me an unusual sense of spontaneity.  I hadn’t the foggiest idea where I was going or where I would end up, but trusted my fate to the city.

As darkness descended, I found myself near the waterfront, which was buzzing with overwhelming activity.  Inquiring of those around me, I discovered that I had stumbled upon Celebration of Light, an annual musical fireworks competition.  The competition features spectacular fireworks set to a musical score.  I was near a high-rise condominium, several of whose residents had their radios tuned to the station broadcasting the soundtrack, and who were blasting the music at sufficient volume for it to be heard against the thundering boom of the exploding fireworks.  I arrived just as the show was beginning, and took up a patch of grass to take in the colourful display.  It was an entirely unexpected boon, and one which made my holiday so much sweeter.

fireworks

Photo Credit: Vicki Nunn; Licence: Public Domain

Yesterday, we arrived in Gatineau, Quebec, for the tail end of an annual family vacation which begins with camping in Algonquin Park.  We have a few friends and family who live in the Ottawa area, and this is our chance to catch up with them.  The streets and parking lot outside our hotel were nothing short of chaotic.  A man with security stenciled across his shirt intercepted us at the entrance to the lot to confirm we had legitimate business at the hotel.  I thought at first that some political personage must be staying at the hotel and there were concerns of assassination.  (I realized later that this was silly as, although the hotel is of reasonably decent caliber, it is not quite so high as to attract people worthy of assassination).

It turned out that the Casino du Lac-Leamy Sound of Light program was being featured in a place visible from our hotel.  Without intending it, we ended up in a place of such convenience that we needed only to set up our fold-up chairs on the lawn outside the hotel and a marvel of human ingenuity was executed seamlessly before us in dazzling bursts of light.

serendipity: the phenomenon of finding valuable or agreeable things unsought

As I have aged, I have found myself losing some of the pure excitement of my childhood — the fascination of a virgin mind exploring a world filled with wonder.  Having children helped me regain some of it, as I found joy in their wonder, but I nevertheless feel that, compared to my childhood, my blood has in many ways dried to dust when it comes to feeling that sense of amazement at the world around me.

Not so with fireworks.  When I see them, it’s like I’m a child again.  I feel no shame in admitting it: I get giddy.  I just sit there with a goofy grin on my face, my gleaming eyes reflecting the vibrant, chromatic explosions before me.  You can understand, then, that happening upon an opportunity to see a world-class fireworks display when it was not even planned made our family vacation infinitely more perfect than it already was.

Today, I am thankful for serendipity.  Whether you believe that fate brings us to these places, or that it is all just happenstance, I feel immense gratitude for the small opportunities that arise in life through perfectly unplanned timing.

colour

In June, we road tripped to the eastern provinces of Canada.  We weaved our away east across Ontario to Quebec, south from Montreal through the mountains into Vermont, then southeast through New Hampshire and Maine to New Brunswick.

We passed through countless small towns and villages and, for the majority of the New England branch of the trip, the majestic mountain range was a constant companion.  I vividly recall a moment in the drive when a storm had collected over mountains in the distance, desaturating them of colour, while verdant forests awash in sunlight surrounded us.  It was an ominous sight.

In Nova Scotia, we visited Peggy’s Cove, a small fishing community on the southwestern shore of the province.  We arrived shortly after a drizzling rain and the gray clouds were still suspended in the air.  We were visiting outside of tourist season, and I was left with an unshakeable impression that the village was just waking from a long hibernation, still groggy with sleep.  Yet the village itself was anything but muted: everywhere I looked, I was astounded by the vibrant maritime colours — reds, yellows, greens, blues.

Peggy's Cove

Photo Credit: (c) J. Matthew Lake

On Prince Edward Island, I simply could not stop snapping photographs of the rolling farm land, rich in colour from the green of new growth, and the beautiful red soil.  I remarked to Sandra that I felt a strange and insatiable craving for red velvet cake before realizing that it was the soil that was reminding me of the delightfully moist cake.  P.E.I. quite literally looked delicious!

Then, in the final leg of the trip, we drove north through New Brunswick towards Quebec, traveling along the Trans-Canada Highway, which runs adjacent to the Saint John River for a good stretch.  Later, while encouraging a friend to drive rather than fly if visiting the east coast, I described the vista: marbled precambrian rock robed in lichens, and this brilliant sapphire river cutting through the emerald forests.  It was breathtaking.

When I reminisce about the trip, I realize that some of my most pleasurable memories have something to do with colour, and I wonder if the trip would have been as memorable if I had not been able to perceive all the vibrant colours which surrounded me.

Today, I am thankful that I can perceive colour without any deficiency.  When a surprising number of people in the world have some type of colour blindness, I feel very lucky.  I can’t imagine the world without the variety of colour I see.

Does perceiving (or not perceiving) colour fully affect your life and experiences?  Please share your thoughts with me in the Comments.

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