Tag Archives: New York City

Strangers and Cities

IMG_4532The photo on the left shows one of my favourite urban nature photographers at work in North America. Without giving his name away, I’ll add that I’m a long-time admirer of his photo blog. He works for a news agency; in his spare time, he hangs out with the wild critters in New York’s Central Park.

At one time, he took spectacular shots of Pale Male, the park’s resident Red-Tailed Hawk, with what appeared to be a 14-inch astronomical telescope (dubbed the Hubble by some of the locals). His grasp of composition and use of light allow him to make art of a technically demanding kind. Have a look at http://www.palemale.com/

So I couldn’t believe my luck when on Boxing Day, I spotted the photographer at work in Central Park near Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, across from the high-end condo that houses Pale Male’s nest. He was setting up his elaborate rig to photograph PM’s mate Octavia, preening high up in a tree. Now I’m an aspiring photographer, so I thought I’d say hello, express my appreciation for his work and maybe ask him a few questions.

“Excuse me, sir?” I said.

No answer.

I tried it again. Either it was his utter concentration or the thick ear-flaps on his winter hat, but he appeared to ignore me — or not to have heard me. Before I could get too disappointed or embarrassed, I made myself look up at Octavia the Hawk as I tried to figure out how to take a photo of her contortions as she set about picking nits from her feathered hind parts. (My pathetic effort — absent huge telephoto — is on view below).



And then it took hold, that unwritten law of public life in New York City: where two or more people are gathered together pointing at something, the two will morph into twenty. This phenomenon is one of urbanity’s delightful little mysteries, like a spring pond erupting with tadpoles.

No one’s shy in New York City (including this ex-New Yorker who resides in the quiet precincts of Toronto). A gentleman — a Manhattan resident — asked me what I was looking at, and I did my Tour Guide imitation with my store of Hawks 101 factoids: “Now that’s a Red-Tailed Hawk, she lives in the park with her mate. If you’ll step over to the right, you can see her red tail-feathers; that’s how you know she’s an adult,” etc.

I got right into it, repeating variations on the same spiel to everyone who asked a question, adding that the man a few feet up ahead was a famous blogger who didn’t want to be disturbed. It was as if my imagination had free reign, inventing characters for a story, and in the process turning strangers into friends and a preoccupied soul into a Midtown Michaelangelo.

It’s well known that New York’s the home of the extrovert, a cradle of spontaneous events. For just a moment, people connect, and when the moment passes, the joy of connection holds the imagination and lingers like a fragrance in the air.

Toronto’s not like that. It has its own peculiar gift of shyness and secrets.

When we returned home, we went birding at a park in the city’s west end (I’m not naming it for a reason, as you’ll see below). On that day, there were few birds to be seen.

As we got in the car and were about to leave, someone tapped on the window, a park regular who my husband had run into on another occasion. He’d found a Saw-whet Owl, he explained, and he asked if we’d like to see it. Saw-whets are tiny brown-and-white flecked creatures, only about 20 cm in height, difficult to see in their shadowy evergreen perches.

We followed him into the woods. It felt mysterious to me — a tap on the window, a stranger beckoning, a walk down a hidden path. Who was this guy, anyway, and why had he picked us?

It turns out that he was looking for folks who’d know better than to attract a mob to the spot, who’d not frighten the owl. He left us to observe it, leaving as quickly as he came.

Whenever we’d hear a crowd trampling down the main path, we’d clear out until they passed, then return to the hidden spot.There the owl sat on its branch, aware of us, a small and compact package of life, watching, lowering its eyes.


My first view of a tiny Saw-whet was a gift from a stranger, given in silence and thoughtfulness. In its reticence, it was pure Toronto.


The photo is mine. We watched the owl in solitude and awe, and then we left.



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The Home Within

What more can we say about Hurricane/Super-Storm Sandy? Stunned silence at the images of destruction, shock and concern for loved ones who can’t be reached — apart from that, I share with everyone the sense of bewilderment that clings like seaweed to the hard rock of the unexpected. A seaside image to be sure, which may hint at the depth of my attachment to this place.

Almost a decade ago, I came across an article in the New York Times which included a map of Long Island Sound. I saved the map of this ancient channel and its stretch of coastal cities, suburbs and beaches, the region I come from and still think of as home. As Hurricane Sandy struck the area, I’ve felt both dismay and the strength of my connection to the geography of my birth and my youth, its wooded oaks, beeches and sycamores (so many uprooted), its stretches of sand and ocean surf (now in flood), its overlay of Dutch settlement and cosmopolitan verve (no lights, no phones, no subways). As I thought about its woes and looked at the map, I saw that in its breadth, Long Island Sound encompasses — and somehow resolves — the paradoxes I love and that have formed me: the passionate urbanity of New York City so close to the leafy ambiance of Westchester’s towns, the summer beaches on the Sound’s north shore and the powerful beauty of oceanfront Long Island to the south.

As it does elsewhere, nature and ancient geologic time underscore everything on the Sound. New York City is an archipelago, entangled in the tidal estuaries of the East River and the Hudson; the Taconic Parkway that ambles south through Westchester County echoes the Cambrian era, the earth’s eruption into primeval mountains of the same name. The ocean’s beaches evolve and change and the tides form a relentless, underlying rhythm that became all too apparent during the storm surges in New York City earlier this week.

In light of this, the hurricane has made me reflect on the fact that nature itself has a claim on my existence. It’s a mystery, that my beloved place has, in nature’s inarticulate way, loved me also, has given solace and comfort, beauty and inspiration. Yet the roots of blessing and catastrophe are tangled up in knots I can’t begin to untie. Consider the circumstances of life in Long Island Sound. Here, millions of people cluster at sea level, home (along with skyscrapers and outdated infrastructure) to an abundant wealth of wildlife, vegetation, and aquatic activity. Do we humans belong there? Moot point. Devastated now, the area remains dense with human vitality and rich in natural beauty, and I hope it will always remain so.  Paradox is the gift that my home place has given me, the home I carry within.


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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 13 of 15)

In the darkness of the following morning, Brian and I awoke to the sound of choppers overhead and the droning of pipers marching toward downtown. Crowds were gathering and we joined them. We made our way to St. Peter’s Church on Barclay Street, just north of Ground Zero. It was at Mass that we heard the bells toll, remembering when the first plane struck the tower. It felt safe to be in this reverent place, where horrific memories were held in check by the ancient boundary of ritual prayers and readings, the sign of peace, the breaking of bread. The rites brought serenity, but they didn’t erase the anxious mood of the city, the troubling sight of armed police who’d formed a barricade across the street, whose permission was required to enter the church; the ch-ch-ch-ch of army choppers and the disquieting knowledge that the murder of thousands could never be redeemed.

After Mass, we stepped outside, blinded for a moment by brilliant sunlight. The narrow street in front of the church was jammed with onlookers, media trucks, cop cars. The hoardings that had obscured our view the previous fall had been removed, and we could see toward Ground Zero where loudspeakers were broadcasting the names of the dead. It was as if the church had cracked open, spilling out raw grief, unmediated by symbol and ritual. We listened.

How very quiet the city was.

We left, walking south on Broadway toward Trinity Church. The crowds were so thick that the police asked those walking south to use the sidewalk and those walking north to use the street. Everyone moved in silence, with an intensity of thought and purpose that reminded me of that bleak walk to Ground Zero the previous fall. Bearing witness, as if we were shouldering a weight of bricks. At Liberty Street, near the southeast corner of the site, we stood together in silence.

Next to me was a woman weeping and crossing herself, and near her stood a pensive kid, the Stars and Stripes wrapped around his head like a bandage on a wound. There was silence everywhere, a straining for something well beyond the ear’s reach.

In that barren space, the names of the dead were drifting down on us and into the soot and dust of the street; over the subway and the coffee shop and the great rusted cross mounted on the foundation wall of the World Trade Center ­— a cruciform chunk of the towers’ steel, a microcosm of its suffering. People wept. What bleak, rock-bottom barrenness I felt, what inconsolable loss, as if we were here to experience in ritual the soul laid waste like a city.

The sounds of a violin drifted out of the pit. The roll of names continued. There was a wind, but it sent up dust and filled the eyes with grit, reminding us of the frail state of our city and of our mortal selves. Dust you are, the prayer goes. To dust you shall return. A bell tolled, a bright silver sound, a scouring clean of illusion. It felt desolate, Ground Zero in my soul.

The wind rose where we stood, where the planes struck, as if the dead were troubling the air. For an entire day, many of us thought of the dead, counting the losses of the year gone by, hearing in them the sorrowful echoes of personal grief or misfortune. Now my brother was also of the dust. I sensed he might have been proud of me for coming to this observance. Yet that offered no comfort.

In every life, we hope to lay down our burdens and when we can’t, every new grief embodies our loss of illusions: the partings of friends, the profound loss that is the death of parents and of loved ones, the end of the world we knew. One September morning, a catastrophe drew me into a year of reflection, into contemplating mysteries too large for my mind to encompass. At times like this, ritual embraces us. At times, it is all we have. Sometimes there is no solace, and all we can do is stand together and keep vigil, in the hope that solace may come.

Cross photo © 2004 -2008, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

…More tomorrow.

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Memory Suite: 2001 – 2002 (Part 3 of 15)

My husband Brian and I fell into a kind of speechless shock, as if we might never again talk above a whisper.

On the phone, Phil told me that he was having nightmares, none of which he could remember. He mentioned the train he rode to work — the Metro-North, running along the same tracks as the train our dad once took into the city. From its quiet station in Larchmont, it ambles along toward Manhattan, rumbling along high trestles as it makes its way from stop to stop. God knows what kind of damage someone could do to that ancient latticework of struts and beams — a terrorist, for example, with a bomb, my brother said.

God knows.

Phil had to ride that train to work every day. This was the first time in my adult life that I’d ever heard him worry out loud. For a moment we were children held inside his voice, its uncertain note troubling the air. He would have been as vulnerable as any seven year-old. I was no more than five when I last heard him sound like this.


Brian and I had been living in our house for nine months and we hadn’t yet set up cable service for our ancient TV. Print, online and radio news were more than enough.

Only one image spoke to me through the visual commotion. The man reading in the dusty street continued his vigil in soot and ash, intent on gazing at that charred paper, as if it might reveal some larger truth about what had happened. On Fulton Street, he became for me a pilgrim in the dust, reading a prayer for the thousands of dead who’d perished a block or two to the south of him. He called attention to the holy. He embodied the void.


Most Canadians in our circle weren’t seized by that American impulse to draw close to one another in the wake of September 11th.  It wasn’t Canada’s crisis. It was a TV news special. I was grateful for the presence of Brian, who is also an American. Some friends responded with compassion to our shock, while others, for ideological reasons, withdrew.

It was time to go home.

We needed to bear witness, to confront a raw, unmediated truth, to pay our respects, to face the threat of death and stare it down. It felt indecent to sit and watch TV, to avoid this violation of the common body to which we belonged: its grit and smell, its suffering and loss, its connection with the ground of being. It was time to attend to the sacred, to prayer and ritual. I wanted to walk in the dust with the man in the picture.

At this point, no one knew if there would be further terrorist attacks. The U.S. struck Afghanistan and went to war. Autumn came, but summer hung on, as if the earth were stuck and wobbling on its axis, too much in shock to continue its normal progression around the sun. In the pit at Ground Zero, the fires had not yet been put out.

…More tomorrow.

Previous photo © 2004 -2008, National September 11 Memorial & Museum at the World Trade Center Foundation, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

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Memory Suite: 2001-2002 (Part 1 of 15)

Dear readers, if you haven’t read the previous post (“In Memory”), have a look. It’ll orient you to what follows.

© Larry Towell, Magnum Photos. Used with Permission.

A man is standing in soot and debris, reading. He’s wearing glasses, a business suit, a shirt open at the collar. The photo shows a desolate scene — paper strewn everywhere, the air itself so gritty with dust that only the foreground is visible. This man had been walking eastward on Fulton Street in lower Manhattan, but moments before the camera found him, he’d picked up a sheet of paper, its edges singed. In the picture, he’s gazing at it, oblivious to empty space, to the few people left on the street.

A decade after the events of September 11th, 2001, the strangeness of this image continues to speak to me of a difficult year that unfolded in my life. The picture — by Canadian photographer Larry Towell — only hints at catastrophe, at utter dislocation. Yet in his intensity of feeling, this dazed man will never vanish. He offers us a human face, a profound stillness. He augurs a year of long thoughts, of quiet space.

It happened that my brother Phil would die within the year.

Unprepared for either event, I felt like that dazed man — compelled to read, needing to think, desperate to penetrate the fog, to see some truth beyond the eye’s reach. Before me were the poignant facts of time passing and things neglected. How strange it felt, to be a native New Yorker, stranded outside this photo of a familiar street, unable to identify its buildings, images fading through the passage of time, through a life and career in Toronto and the normal run of busy inattention. My past had all but vanished, bits of it snagged on a splinter of memory like a dream you can’t retrieve in the morning. A pyre was burning in downtown New York, and its destructiveness made more acute the small losses that a life accumulates — its missed opportunities, its lack of connection, the inability to offer solace. The effort to come to terms with all of this would ask time and patience of me, and a certain stillness, also.

In this moment of crisis, it seemed that time dissolved, space collapsed, and the dead walked with the living. My husband Brian was with me, but so were my departed parents. Strange things happened. The New York Times reported that a Greek Orthodox church on the southwest corner of the Trade Center site was destroyed in the attack, its small cache of saints’ relics mingling with the ashes of the victims at Ground Zero. Shortly afterwards, a man stood in the soot and dust, picked up a charred piece of paper and began to read.

 …More tomorrow.


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The Best Revenge

As a reader, I don’t enjoy stories with tidy endings. Real life is raggedy and messy, and the best stories suggest this. As a citizen, I feel the same way. I step back from imagining that battles, even worthy ones, can be won for good. The world may be a safer place without the likes of Osama bin Laden, but I don’t rejoice in his death, in this false ending to a tragedy. Leave that kind of barbarism to the fanatics of al-Quaeda who rejoiced in the deaths of so many innocent Americans on 9/11. I’m not prepared to sink to that level.

I respect the tact and genuine humility of President Obama. He conveyed a sense of conscience, of one who refused to transform a grave but necessary act into a display of triumphalism. It’s a fact that sometimes the best among us end up in wars and are forced to take life. In ancient warrior societies, returning veterans underwent purification rituals because it was understood that killing, however necessary, was a radical break from the norms of civilization. Like Obama, they had the humility to know that.

To commit mass murder in the name of God (as bin Laden did on 9/11) went beyond the psychopathic. It tore a horrific rent in the fabric of our common life, one that a writer or an artist can help to mend by re-imagining the world, so bent out of shape by one man’s cruel imagination. It may not sound like much, but you’ve heard it said that living is the best revenge. It’s also the only thing that matters. Let’s honor our dead with humility — meaning that we know our limits, that we know the gravity of taking life, that we know when enough is enough.


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Writers, Listen Up!

A few weeks back, I was visiting New York City, and while I was stocking up on books, I also dropped in on one of my favorite NYC institutions — Bargemusic, the tiny floating concert hall on the Brooklyn side of the East River. Now I’m no music critic and this is a book blog, so you won’t be reading comments on the refinements of violin and piano technique — not my strong suit. But as a writer, I learned something at this particular concert that was too important to keep to myself. So here goes.

For those of you who don’t know the place, Bargemusic has been operating since 1977 on a converted coffee-barge moored under the Brooklyn Bridge, featuring emerging and established chamber-music groups, jazz musicians and more. Founded by violinist Olga Bloom, it’s now run by the equally dynamic violinist Mark Peskanov. While I’ve never done a head-count, I’d guess the Barge’s wooden folding chairs seat about one hundred. Every seat is a great seat. Gaze beyond the musicians, and you can see the skyline of Lower Manhattan, the passing cruise-ships lit up and gliding along the river, and the ropes of light that mark the Brooklyn Bridge. You’re never allowed to forget the river that underpins the musical rhythms with rhythmic swells of its own.  I imagine a conversation here between the intentions of the composer, the interpretations of the players and the river itself, as if all three had conspired to create the music. It’s a beguiling place, connecting music to the natural world.

This month, Bargemusic began a summer program of afternoon concerts, three days a week at 1pm. One hour long, kids free. What a treat, I thought. Having always come to evening performances, I assumed that the lunchtime audience would be packed. It wasn’t. There were only eight of us, along with two performers — the violinist Mark Peskanov and Steven Beck, pianist. They were two musicians whose work I’d often enjoyed, but I wasn’t sure I was ready for this experience, a “private” hour of chamber music with two of the city’s best in the field. Why would they do it, for such a tiny audience ?

Then the duo plunged into Mozart with passion, serenity and complete attentiveness. They seemed to embody a love for the spirit of the music and the same passion for communication that a writer experiences when the work is going well. The spontaneous generosity of the musicians overrode all that petty stuff about numbers. I remembered all the authors’ readings I’d attended (and given) with audiences of five or six; all the small presses and literary journals in which I (and many others) publish their work for handfuls of readers. Sometimes we’re not sure why we do these things, but in the arts, we just keep doing them. It’s a mystery, that we’re in love with something and we want to share it — and that passion is at the heart of our creative lives. As a writer, it was good for me to experience that passion through another art form altogether, and to remember the intrinsic worth of any such gift that is given to us. It was equally wonderful to chat with my fellow-listeners afterwards, and to share their excitement with this intimate and very special experience. Fabulous music, made for us! We could hardly believe it.

I hope to continue my writing in that same generous spirit.

When you’re in New York City, go visit  Bargemusic! Especially at lunchtime.

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