The Owl

This magnificent Great Horned Owl is spending the winter in New York’s Central Park. The photo is a “first” for me, a co-operative effort, made through the kind help of a professional nature photographer. Credit for the photo also goes to whatever abiding goodness animates this earth.


It was Christmas Eve, a day that celebrates journeys large and small, guiding stars, the birth of the new. On that day, we took an everyday stroll through ordinary time into a quiet revelation of the numinous.

We’d come to the Ramble, the section of the park where the owl was roosting, but the area was huge, and we couldn’t spot the bird. Then a man with a camera came walking down the path, and we asked him if he knew where the owl was.

“I know where he was the other day,” he said.

Offering to show us, he trekked back the way he came, and we followed him along a hidden path so serpentine that I imagined him walking us back in time — to the moment, as well as to the place where he’d last seen the owl. The path sloped downward toward a clump of trees where another man sat with his camera and telephoto lens mounted on a tripod.

“He’s looking at the owl,” said our guide, who spoke with a Russian accent. He was soon joined by a clutch of Russian-speaking birdwatchers who’d spotted a hawk hunting for snacks at a cluster of bird feeders dangling from the bare trees and crowded with titmice. There were other out-of-towners there, including a number of Americans and a woman from Britain, an avid birder who’d just seen her first Christmas-red cardinal. And then there were the two of us from Toronto — one, a native New Yorker, both observing the scene with wonderment. We stood inside a quiet microcosm of the great world, humming around and above us in the big city beyond this hidden glen.

The photographer was an unhurried man, quiet and patient, sitting a metre away from me in a lounge chair, a remote switch in his hand, his 600mm telephoto trained on the enormous owl high up in the trees. I was astounded to realize that he was someone I knew by reputation, a professional videographer and a denizen of Central Park, whose photo blog I’ve admired for years. (I mentioned him in this blog a year ago).

Feeling wowed to be working alongside him, I got busy photographing the owl. I didn’t have my big telephoto and my 300mm lens wasn’t quite up to the task, but I kept at it while the sleepy-looking raptor opened and shut its huge golden eyes, scratched and preened and turned its back to us. I felt a bit frustrated, but then I watched the photographer who seemed in no hurry, who did his work by waiting in stillness for the majestic bird to reveal itself. I realized then that for every one of the man’s extraordinary online photos, he may have taken dozens less so. He was unpreturbed, prepared to wait, attentive. It seemed as if the beauty of his work arose out of the empty space created by patience and silence.

How apt, I thought , that the run-up to Christmas should be a season known as Advent, the period of waiting.

A man approached the photographer, asking if he could attach his camera to the lens and take some photos. He could, and did.

So now you know how I got my picture.

My photo was also taken with that 600mm telephoto lens. More than that, it was taken through the serendipity of chance encounters and the kindness of a generous man. It felt as if it were taken in a vision. “Now the eyes of my eyes are opened,” wrote e. e. cummings. So was the eye that beheld the owl.

Many eyes. Birders, clustered together in silence, their binos lifted skyward — they embody contemplation and reverence in the presence of mystery and wonder. Observe the grandeur of the Great Horned Owl, and you will know for sure that abiding in the heart of this broken world is a clear and luminous goodness.

Radiant moments of wonder and blessing do happen in our brief lives.

All we can do is embrace them and be thankful.


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Compare and Contrast

Something a little different today.

Below, a photo of Canada’s new and inclusive Prime Minister and Cabinet, posted by this proud Canadian citizen and blogger….



….who also happens to be a Roman Catholic.



Pictures only, because this is a rare case when words and critiques are a waste of time.






























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Three Books in Three Days (3): John Calabro’s An Imperfect Man

ImperfectMan_v2-split-copy-145x218For the last book in this three-day roundup, I’ve picked a novella — one of my favourite literary forms. Too often, reviewers treat novellas either as mini-novels or bloated short stories (if they bother with them at all). Yet if you’re looking for a textbook example of classic novella form, John Calabro’s An Imperfect Man has it all. A compelling and tightly focused plot, a strong, first-person narrator and not a wasted word — this is a model novella and a compelling read.

Set in Toronto’s Parkdale neighbourhood, the story concerns Jack Hughes, a teacher who (we gradually learn) is tormented by the belief that his left arm does not belong to the rest of his body. He lives alone in the house where he grew up, the child of a single Irish mother who was exiled to Canada as a pregnant teen. A somewhat reclusive man, he reluctantly makes the aquaintance of his married neighbour, Lisa, a nurse who eventually confronts him with the fact that he suffers from a psychological disorder. (A check with Google shocked me with the fact that Body Integrity Identity Disorder or BIID is a real condition, accompanied by a desire for and pursuit of amputation). Throughout the story, we feel the presence of Jack’s dead mother and her amputee boarder who was kind to him as a child. Stories of failed relationships (and Jack’s anxious attraction to Lisa) thread their way through the fine weave of this novella until it reaches its inevitable conclusion.

What may seem like a grim subject is balanced by a solid, detailed grounding in the Parkdale neighbourhood near Toronto’s King Street and Lake Ontario. In the end, the clash between Jack’s apparent body delusion and this evocation of a vital, living world out of reach drives the story forward and keeps us reading. What makes it even more compelling is this reader’s sense that the story might serve as a cautionary tale for a do-what-feels-good culture. Those who’ve read Calabro’s previous novella (The Cousin) know that this writer is no stranger to the extreme edge of offbeat subjects. In An Imperfect Man, he shapes a troubling plot with great compression and emotional control, all marks of a fine novella that deserves a wider audience.

An Imperfect Man by John Calabro is published by Quattro Books (2015).

In closing this mini-series, I should explain that I have been very busy with a tsunami of writing (a novella — Here Comes The Dreamer — due out next week, plus a completed novel and an embryonic one). I’m ridiculously behind on reviewing books, with no hope of catching up! But I keep trying. Other things mop up time (marriage, friendships, eating, sleeping and laundry). I’ll continue my attempt to be The Thoughtful Blogger rather than the negligent one. Happy autumn!            


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Three Books in Three Days (2): Kamel Daoud’s The Meursault Investigation

UnknownDay Two of Thoughtful B’s three-day book marathon brings us The Meursault Investigation by Algerian author Kamel Daoud. This is a rich and thought-provoking work that invites a second reading. Translated from the French by John Cullen, it is both a novel of ideas and a generous depiction of human complexity. It’s intended as a riff on Albert Camus’ The Stranger — the classic novel set in colonial Algeria in which a Frenchman (Meursault), apparently estranged from social mores, defies convention by failing to mourn his mother’s death. Later, for the flimsiest of reasons, he murders an Arab.

Daoud’s book gives Meursault’s victim a name — Musa — and a younger brother — Harun — who, seventy years later, still grieves both his brother’s loss and the man’s anonymity. Speaking in the first person, Harun reminds us that Musa has been written out of history, while his killer, Meursault, was made famous by one of the twentieth century’s best-known books. By bringing that unfortunate Arab to life, Daoud confronts the effects of French colonialism in Algeria. (At the same time, he nails those of us who were more intrigued by the moral questions in Camus’ novel than by the fate of its Algerian victim).

Yet Harun has other grievances, including religious extremism and it is here that we see the first hint of his resemblance to Camus’ character, the atheist Meursault. That similarity grows; it’s not a spoiler to disclose that days after the liberation of Algeria from the French, Harun murders a Frenchman — and is rebuked by the authorities for failing to kill in the context of the war of liberation. Just as Meursault felt condemned as much for his failure to grieve his mother’s death as for the murder, Harun bears criticism for poor timing rather than for taking life.

There’s a wonderful alchemy at work here. Like two images fusing into one, the two fictional characters — Harun and Meursault — gradually merge into a composite picture of human frailty. Harun comes to understand that he — and by inference, everyone — mirrors Meursault in such moments of indifferent cruelty. His honesty in the face of so much sorrow, regret and pain embraces both Camus’ moral intentions and Meursault’s truthfulness. To Camus’ rather clinical precision, Daoud adds warmth and passion to his flesh-and-blood character of Harun/Meursault.

A worthy companion to Camus’ The Stranger, this is a novel of great humanity, addressing both the inner life of a human soul and the troubled state of our world.

The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud, translated from the French by John Cullen, is published by Other Press (New York, 2015).

Tomorrow: An Imperfect Man by John Calabro

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Three Books in Three Days (1): Danila Botha’s Too Much On The Inside

Too-Much-on-the-InsideFC-FINAL-220x346Before the gorgeous summer of 2015 passes into autumn, I’d like to review three unusual books that brought me special pleasure this season. Two novels and one novella — each in its own way quite unique and deserving of attention — one a day for three days.

It’s always a treat to read a fine first novel, and Danila Botha’s Too Much on the Inside is no exception. At first glance, its premise is common enough: three young immigrants to Canada (and one Nova Scotian) try to get a foothold in Toronto, reaching out, connecting, building lives for themselves. Originally from South Africa (and a number of other places), Botha is no stranger to newcomers’ dilemmas. Her characters often made me think of those Contents Under Pressure labels on spray cans — people about to burst open from the force of their untold, richly layered stories. Botha has the gift of equally rich language to bring them to life, and her wonderful descriptions of downtown Toronto’s colourful vibe make for vivid three-dimensional reading.

In brief, there’s Marlize, a South African who aspired to be a dancer, then fled home, a victim of rape. She’s a student who works at a bar owned by Dez, a passionate Brazilian who lives a life infused with the paradox of sexual adventure and a longing for goodness; the two become a pair. Nicki, an Israeli army vet from an unhappy family, and Lucas, a man from the Maritimes who did time for assault likewise make a tumultous couple. Each of the four has a distinct and lively voice; Botha’s decision to rotate the story through four points of view adds momentum and a gritty texture to events as they unfold.

The only thing that didn’t work for this reader was the consistent use of apostrophes to emphasize the dropped endings in Lucas’ Maritime speech. Since the accented voices of the other three characters were left for us to imagine, it seemed unnecessary and distracting to single him out in this way.

Nevertheless, the ins and outs (and ultimate destiny) of these characters are complex, and make for compelling reading. The novel’s energizing conflicts rest not only in the characters but also in the reader’s psyche. If you’re an older resident of Toronto (or any globalized city), you’ll be struck by the sparks that fly when your more sedate notion of urban life is zapped by the author’s raw, sensate version of Toronto as it is now. In Too Much on the Inside, Danila Botha explores the universal themes of loneliness, belonging and home. The reader’s in good hands with a writer who never stoops to sentimentality; whose characters, however troubled, struggle for goodness and connection.

Too Much on the Inside by Danila Botha is published by Quattro Books (2015).

Tomorrow: The Meursault Investigation by Kamel Daoud

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The Hawk Walk

IMG_5709On Saturday, we headed up to Wye Marsh in Midland, Ontario (a two-hour drive from Toronto) for what’s known as a Raptor Experience (a.k.a. Walk the Hawk, or Bird Nerd’s Obsession). For months, I’ve wanted to get up close to a Red-Tailed Hawk — to feel the softness of their feathers, the power of their wings, the weight of one of these beautiful creatures on my arm.

IMG_5734With this in mind, and accompanied by a helpful guide, my husband and I enjoyed two hours of intensive learning, including a chance to feed hawks and owls some tasty takeout (i.e., delicate quail and white rats with the shape and consistency of white chocolate). Best of all was the hawk-walk — a half-hour stroll through the woods, which involved learning the proper way to adjust your arm to accomodate the movements of the bird (which wears jesses – soft leather straps around its legs, attached to a leash), how to hold the tethers, and most of all, how to enjoy the silence, the unknowable mind of this creature who now and again would rise for a big stretch, thumping the air with his enormous wings.IMG_5687

My companion was Rusty the Red-Tail, a small tiercel (male) hawk of less than two kilograms. Brian walked Casper, the ghostly Barn Owl, a quiet little guy who never “winged out” as Rusty often did.






Rusty felt light on my arm, and after a while, he seemed like an extension of it — or perhaps I was becoming an extension of him — it’s impossible to say. His bones are light and hollow (to aid flight); his streaked and ruddy chest feathers soft to the touch, his bright eyes alert. His impervious look gives no hint of response.

No problem; Red-Tailed Hawks are not designed to be deep thinkers. Look at their far-seeing eyes (more a stare than a gaze), hooked beak, curved talons, and you see that nature selected them for the basics of survival: hunting, mating, nesting, self-defence. Your arm is a safe perch, a place to rest. In captivity, Rusty and his kind know from experience that good food comes to him from good folks like us. That, to them, is the extent of our relationship.

In truth, my tethered companion was a simple soul, a wild one with a grave look that belied his physical lightness, a creature living to the fullest his place in evolution’s wisdom. It’s left to us — bird nerds, hawk-obsessives and amateur theologians — to untangle his skein of delicacy and ferocity, beauty and power, to grasp what his existence has to say to us.

Good luck.

At the end of that beautiful walk — and time spent flying little Alice, a delightful Tawny Owl  — all I know is that the Raptor Experience was one of profound mystery. As fascinated as I am by hawks, I don’t know what to make of them. In fact, most days, I don’t know what to make of our precious natural world, as fragile and threatened as it is.

There’s so much variety in nature — size and shape, colours and incredible adaptations to earth and air and water.  Study a field guide to birds and it’s overwhelming. We live inside a swarm of extraordinary vitality, energy and life. How can we not get lost in puzzling out the fact of existence? How? Why? What? How do mere humans finish those sentences?

Yet as our walk progressed, I realized that I loved Rusty. It was nothing he did; it was just his presence, the simple gift of his energy and beauty. The warmth of it left me feeling at peace, more calm and reflective than I’d felt before we came. I felt rich with understanding of a strong, intuitive kind.

So I don’t have to know what to make of it all.

Love is enough.


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I’ve stumbled into the stage of life where the world’s gotten too far ahead of me.

I swore it would never happen because I’d never let it. I was just too cool for that.

Blogs, tweets, Facebook posts, multitasking — hey, I could do it all. Only recently have I begun to feel a little blitzed by the leakage of online newspapers, journals and videos that I blot up with supersaturated eyeballs. Not to mention social media and the email tsunami. In fact, I think all this input is starting to make me sick. So, mindful that I have only one cerebral cortex — and one not-so-gently-used nervous system — I’ve been cutting back. For all my tech-savvy ways, I still value peace and quiet and thoughtfulness, including the care of virtual online friends.

All of which, it seems, has become uncool.

My plan got a boost from two etiquette stink-bombs that arrived in my email Sunday.

If you’re a younger reader, better cue your great-aunt. She will appreciate this (Or, failing that, Helen Mirren in The Queen).

Let me explain that the previous night, I’d attended a very enjoyable dinner party and so I emailed my thanks to the host, and thought no more about it. Later in the day, another guest at the party also emailed a thank-you — and copied me. It was a kind of “hi guys” greeting, including a vaguely smartass remark about the host, but never mind — who the hell wants to be copied on a flippin’ thank-you note??? Get real! Since when do you advertise your dubious “courtesy” to the  other guests? Was this some kind of weird postmodern irony? Doesn’t anyone live offstage anymore?

I suppose I’ll soon be awarded my septugenarian string of pearls, but I just can’t cope with that much self-regard.

So on to Etiquette Bomb #2.

Backstory: I shut the computer down at 9pm. That’s every night, no exceptions. “To everything there is a season.” I work from 9 to 6 weekdays and I take Sunday off. So never NEVER send me a demanding email on a Sunday night — or any night — that begins with (in the subject line!) “I need….” It conveys the tone of “right now, goddamn it!”

If you want to work nonstop, fine, but (ahem) take a deep breath, consider how the human being on the other end might react to your words, and then write: “Would you (please) send me….”

My response to this individual was to tell her she’d have the item in the morning.

There’s a nice linguistic distinction in Italian: Not voglio (I want) but the more genteel vorrei (I would like). French has this, too, and so, I imagine, do a lot of other languages. Can’t we take the time anymore for the nuances of expression? Why are we in such a hurry to turn ourselves into robotic sub-literates?

Believe me, I felt like I’d nibbled on some magic mushroom and followed Alice through the looking-glass. The distorted world reflected back to me by these two incidents made me wonder if I’d grown old and out of it overnight.

All this has me thinking Big Thoughts.

Why are we here? Do we exist to work our butts off, ending up with repetitive-strain injury to our texting finger and a bunch of wires sticking out of our ears?

There are other alternatives.

Think about it. Life is short.

Life can be rich in kindness and relationships. Or not.

The choice is yours.


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