Archives for posts with tag: Toronto

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According to my calendar, The Day is less 10 days away. You know, the “C” word. After weeks – no, make that months- of preparation, the incessant carols blared at us in stores, the parties, the beckoning of retailers to come and buy, the great day is almost upon us. Yet how are we approaching it?Is it a day we look upon with anticipation, or is it one we perceive as an annual obligation, thankful when it’s all over for yet another year?

It’s not as though we haven’t been given enough notice. The giant Santas were removed from their boxes along with the festive garlands and holly shortly after the Halloween decorations came down. And wasn’t that Michael Buble we heard, crooning, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” on November 8? Are we wrong to feel that the season is becoming longer and more commercial with each passing year?

The holiday period means different things to different people. For many, it’s a time to reconnect with family and friends. For others, it’s a great excuse to indulge in food and drink we wouldn’t ordinarily touch. Regardless of how we observe it (or don’t) the end of year should include at least some time for spiritual renewal and personal reflection. And some of us make strong resolutions at the beginning of December to make it so. Yet for many, it ends up becoming a period of:

“…what do we get for Ashley’s skating teacher and I see there’s a sale on of holiday decorations but if we stop for that we won’t have time to drop in at my sister’s for eggnog, and I promised I’d volunteer at the charity event, and there’s that party we have to attend and I need a new coat, and HOW MUCH is that game that Chris wants and maybe we could get it cheaper online and…”

 Shoppers Eaton Centre Dec 15, 2013

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Little wonder we arrive at Christmas day feeling stressed, exhausted, frustrated for not accomplishing everything we set out to do, unhealthy for consuming all the extra calories, and financially challenged? To bring it off as we feel we should, the holiday period takes a lot of work, much more than many of us are capable of – or willing to do.

To borrow from William Wordsworth, it’s not onlythe world that is too much with us, it’s December, “a challenging time,” as a colleague referred to it recently. The onus is for us to be cheerful and charitable, to spend money on gifts whether or not we like the receiver, and to radiate goodwill from our hearts. This is indeed a tall order, even for the most benevolent of souls.

And so much of what surrounds us doesn’t exactly inspire jolliness. Too many of us are unemployed or underemployed.  Cards and carols proclaim “peace on earth,” but bombs continue to explode throughout the world. And how our hearts ache for those who have suffered during the past year. What about the family and friends of Corporal Nathan Cirillo, gunned down outside the Houses of Parliament on October 22? Or 7- year- old Georgia Walsh, killed when she was struck by a vehicle near her home in Leaside? And now we hear of yet another  terrorist attack, this time in Sydney Australia, leaving one person dead and many others injured.

To the families of these victims, the words “happy holidays” surely have an empty, hollow meaning.

And what about those who have lost spouses or significant others during the last 12 months? The holiday period suddenly becomes an immensely difficult period to get through. A casual glance in a shop window, a certain hat or coat seen on the subway, or a certain song on the radio may serve as a painful reminder of that special someone who no longer here. And the first holiday period alone is always the saddest, with one less person at the dinner table, and fewer gifts to buy. Photo albums bring back a flood of memories – if only we hadn’t taken those happier times for granted! Where did the time go?

Lake is frozen over
Trees are white with snow
And all around reminders of you
Are everywhere I go

It’s late and morning’s in no hurry
But sleep won’t set me free
I lie awake and try to recall
How your body felt beside me

When silence gets too hard to handle
And the night too long

And this is how I see you
In the snow on Christmas morning
Love and happiness surround you
As you throw your arms up to the sky
I keep this moment by and by

Oh, how I miss you now, my love
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas, my love

Copyright, 2006, Sarah McLachlan

And what of the poor, the homeless, and the downtrodden of the city? Do they have any less right to celebrate the season just because of their circumstances? As they beg for change on our city streets, how many of us pass them by without giving them as second glance? Happy holidays indeed.

Begging for change, Queen St.

So what do we do? Do we choose to forgo the season, claiming there is too much woe in the world, or do we ignore the tragic events surrounding us and celebrate regardless? Someone once said that Christmas was for children, and there’s probably still some truth to that statement. If only we could reclaim their innocence, and look upon the holiday period as a magical time, when coloured lights and decorations instilled a sense of wonder and hope rather than cynicism.Despite these challenging times, children should still be permitted to enjoy the season as much as they can. No less a figure than Winston Churchill, spoke of this in his Christmas Eve address from the White House in 1941:

“…this is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in a deadly struggle. Armed with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Ill would it be for us at this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the lands or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambitions had led us to this field.

Yet he went on to say:

“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter.  Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.  Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”

As grownups, we’ve lost much of our innocence, and it’s not an easy task to reclaim it. With our mobiles, we talk and text away, spending time endlessly running from one place to another while assuring ourselves how sophisticated we are. Yet, a little innocence and a lot of compassion can go a long way, especially at this time of year.

So my end- of- year advice to you for the holiday season would have to include the following:  Slow down, nothing can be so pressing that it has to be done immediately. Take time to stop and enjoy the decorations – they’ll be gone soon enough. Stop and give some change to a homeless person, or buy a copy of Outreach. Lord knows they need the money more than you do. Practice kindness in public- open a door for someone, or offer a seat on the subway. Reconnect with friends and family – people are more important than things, and should be treasured. Take a moment to reflect on those no longer with us – if it means shedding a tear, so be it- they deserve it. If you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do, don’t beat yourself up – we’re only human.

Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. May peace be with you – and here’s to better times ahead.

Call on your angels
Come down to the city
Crowd around the big tree
So call on your angels
All you strangers who know me
Bring your compassion
Your understanding
Lord, how we need it
On this New York City Christmas

You’re beaten and broken
It’s time that we mended
So they don’t fade with the season
Let our mercy be the gifts we lay
From Brooklyn and to Broadway
Celebrate each and every day
of this New York City Christmas

Rob Thomas, copyright,  2007

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City Hall Cenotaph angled view

Ever the faith endures, 

   England, my England: — 

‘Take and break us: we are yours,  

  England, my own!

Proud and patriotic words by the British poet William Ernest Henley – it wasn’t inspired specifically by war, but it could have been.

November 11. Remembrance Day. Is it my imagination or merely wishful thinking, but have we  finally gotten back to  recognizing the importance of Remembrance Day?  For too long, it was simply a day when many people wore poppies and some even had time off from work. November 11 wasn’t really all that important in the minds of many Canadians. Were our lives really so busy and so complicated that that we couldn’t  find at least a few moments at the 11th hour on the 11th day on the 11th month to reflect upon those who gave their lives all those many years ago and continue to do so in the present day?

When I was in grade school – more years ago than I’m willing to admit – Remembrance Day was duly observed. I recall school assemblies. The entire school would congregate in the gymnasium (which doubled as the auditorium). One or two boys who happened to be boy scouts would dress in uniform, a selected student would recite In Flanders Fields. We’d sing a couple of hymns and invariably O Canada and God Save the Queen, and the principal would give a short speech. I recall the scolding our particular class received one year from our teacher who felt most of us hadn’t taken the occasion seriously enough. We were made to write out a short essay on what Remembrance Day meant to us. Would this happen today?  I wonder. For too long, many of us were simply too far removed from either of the Great Wars, both historically and physically.

One has only to look at the demographics. When I was growing up, veterans of the Second World War could be seen from early November selling poppies on street-corners. As these men and women aged, they moved inside, to the warmer comfort of a shopping mall. Now we don’t see any at all, for those who are still living are in their 90s. Neither GenY-ers nor their parents, the GenX-ers were even alive when World War II or the conflict in Korea ended – and their grandparents would have been very young indeed. To them, it was nothing more than history, not an event that took place in their lifetimes, much less remembered.

Yet while these ancient battles are long over, conflict remains, and Canada continues to be a part of it. Twenty years ago it was in the Gulf and now it’s Afghanistan – and just maybe because  conflict is still very much with us, not just a part of the past, we’ve finally come back to  realizing the importance of a day set aside to honour those who have served and continue to do so.

And this year, how can anyone not be moved by sacrifices made by members of the Canadian armed forces as our nation grieves the loss of two men, Patrice Vincent and Nathan Cirillo, tragically and senselessly killed less than a month ago?  Warrant Officer Vincent, aged 53, had been with the forces for 28 years and was considering retirement. On October 20, he was intentionally hit by a car in a parking lot of a commercial plaza in St. Jean-sur-Richelieu, south of Montréal by Martin Couture-Rouleau, a suspected extremist whose passport had been seized this year.

A day of chaos erupted two days later when 24- year- old Corporal Nathan Cirillo, a reservist with the Argyll Regiment in Hamilton, was shot in the back while guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier on Parliament Hill. Despite valiant efforts to save him, he later died in hospital. The gunman, Michael Zehaf-Bibeau then went on rampage inside the building but was eventually killed by the House of Commons sergeant-at-arms.

Soldiers load the coffin into a hearse during the funeral procession for Cpl. Nathan Cirillo in Hamilton

The irony of this whole tragic chain of events, the likes of which Canada had never seen, was that neither man died in combat, but as innocent bystanders on Canadian soil. Vincent left a family including a twin sister, and Cirillo, a mother and a five –year- old son who may well grow up with little memory of his heroic father. At both funerals, the pain and anguished faces on family members, colleagues and total strangers bonded together as a nation in grief, spoke volumes.

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Two years ago, I was walking along a busy street when a young dude, maybe aged 22, obviously noticed the poppy I was wearing, and said in a loud voice: “These people who support war by wearing a poppy…”  The comment wasn’t directed at me personally, but was obviously intended for my ears, and I admit I was offended. Had I not been in such a hurry, I might have stopped and tried to explain to him why I (and others) wore the small red flower on our coats early in November. But I know it wouldn’t have made any difference. His mind was made up, and until he grew older and hopefully wiser, his viewpoint wasn’t about to change. Would he have thought any differently this year given the tragic events in Québec and on Parliament Hill? To that young man I would have explained, it’s not war we support – anything but. Canada is a peace-loving nation. But how can we not pay tribute to those who were forced to take part in this vain and useless glory known as war, and especially those who paid the ultimate price?

I’m heartened to witness the large number of people wearing poppies this year, particularly young people – and I’ll be equally heartened to see large turn-outs at services on the 11th.

As we hurry along city streets on these brisk November days with a million things on our minds, Christmas decorations going up in stores and the first signs of snow flurries, it may be easy to forget the horrific events surrounding war. But we must remember, if only for one day.

So if you’re lucky enough to cross paths with a veteran or a member of the Canadian armed forces on or around Remembrance Day, stop and talk to them. Shake his or her hand, and thank them for all they did so many years ago or continue to do.  Whether it was 70 years ago or a mere six months, those who were engaged in conflict have memories still vivid in their minds.

They returned, but so many others didn’t.

Lest we forget.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

 

picture of Caergwrle Bridge ghost

Have you ever seen Dorothy? If you’ve visited the Hockey Hall of Fame , you may well have bumped into her unexpectedly. No, she’s not a visitor, nor does she work there. But this attractive young woman is hard to forget once you’ve encountered her. A young boy once saw her smiling as she beckoned him into the elevator. Where she was going, nobody knows. You see, Dorothy isn’t living; she died more than 60 years ago – she’s a ghost.

Toronto’s history doesn’t reach all that far back compared to the great cities of Europe or even some of those in the US – only 175 years –  a mere  blink of an eye. Nevertheless, there is still enough history here to have resulted in countless ghostly sightings over the years. And perhaps not surprisingly, many of them have occurred in older buildings where apparitions seem right at home and are not afraid of making their presence know to those of us who still happen to be living. Yes, there are still a few older buildings left in Toronto; not all of them have been demolished to make room for  another condo.

The University of Toronto, with its vast downtown campus, has had its fill of apparitions; so many that they could fill an entire book. Perhaps the most famous tale is that of two Victorian- period stonemasons, Ivan Reznikoff and Paul Diablos who happened to be in love with the same woman. Reznikoff was engaged to her, but Diablos was also deeply smitten, and even  convinced her to elope with him. Legend has it that Diablos carved two gargoyles onto the façade of University College one an image of Reznikoff the other of Diablos laughing at him.

Their affair was discovered, and Reznikoff, wielding an ax,  confronted the two before they were able to make their escape. A violent argument and chase ensued, ending with Reznikoff’s death in the University College Tower. From here, the stories vary. One states that Diablos stabbed his rival with a concealed dagger the other maintains that Reznikoff lost his balance and plummeted to his death. Regardless, his body was hidden on the campus by Diablos to cover up the crime, and for years after, there were tales of ghostly sightings around the area of University College and Chapter House.

U of T

Even today, people still hear inexplicable banging echoing throughout the college as if coming from a tormented soul who died unhappily.

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What better place for ghosts to reside – happily or unhappily – than in the old Massey home on Jarvis Street? This venerable mansion was built in the 1860s as the residence for the famous Massey family. Nevertheless,  since than,the area has changed beyond recognition. Jarvis has long ceased to be a fashionable address for Toronto’s well-to-do, and for the past 50 years, the building has served as a restaurant under several different guises. But it seems that certain former occupants  never moved out. Legend has it that a maid in the employment of the family took her own life upon learning of the death of Lillian Massey.  Whether it was out of grief, or because she had been having an illicit affair with one of her employers, she reputedly hanged herself over the main staircase. Diners to the restaurant have reported upon more than one occasion seeing a fleeting image of a woman dangling above them and that of a young boy dashing up and down the staircase. And in the lady’s room, doors have been known to unlock and swing open on their own and handbags have seemingly moved by themselves. So if you happen to be dining at the Keg one evening and have the distinct feeling you’re being watched – you very well may be!

Massey House

 2014 marks the 100th anniversary of the “Guild of All Arts” otherwise known as the “Guild Inn” located out by the Scarborough Bluffs. It wasn’t always an enclave for artistic endeavours. The original building was constructed by Colonel Harold Child Bickford in 1914 as a summer residence. It had all the amenities a wealthy family would need at that time, including a nursery, a wing for guests and servants quarters. Nevertheless, the Bickfords didn’t keep it long and sold it in 1921 to Father J.M. Fraser of the China Mission College for use in the training of missionaries before they set off for China. In 1923 it was sold again to an American businessman, Richard Veech Look who renamed it Cliff Acres – but four years later, Mr. Look moved on. The property remained vacant until 1932 when it was purchased by Rosa Breithaupt Hewetson, a widow who embarked upon a new project, the creation of a “guild of all arts” that she pursued with her new husband Spencer Clark.  During the winter of 1942-43, the Clarks were asked to vacate the entire premises so it could be used as a military training centre. The couple got their home back after the war.

One property, numerous owners, and numerous uses – but that still doesn’t explain the presence of an extended network of tunnels underneath the building and grounds. To this day, nobody knows why they were built and by whom, but the Guild has been the scene of paranormal activity for many years. One woman relates being approached in her bedroom by a small boy with unusual eyes – one brown and one blue. Others have reported strange knocking sounds at night and doorknobs seemingly turning by themselves. An employee in the kitchen told of an experience he had with a walk-in refrigerator that was always kept locked. While working in the prep area, he heard a loud bang from within and discovered that not only had the lock been broken but a box of melons inside had been knocked over.  He cleaned up the mess, re-locked the door – but sometime later, he returned to find the lock on the floor. He turned around to witness an apparition of a man wearing a top hat and tails before walking around the kitchen table and disappearing through a door.

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The Guild Inn’s fortunes eventually declined and by 2001 it closed for good with only the park still open to visitors. Nevertheless,   a volunteer group formed in 2013 known as the Friends of the Guild Park and Gardens have set out to rescue the grande dame of Scarborough Bluffs and with these proposed changes, maybe the wandering spirits will eventually move  on.  But there still remain many secrets about the Guild Inn that may never be explained.

Not all ghostly sightings occur in venerable old buildings – but on the TTC? There are still Torontonians who don’t realize that underneath the present Bay Street stop lies a whole other unused station.  Now referred to as “lower Bay” or the “ghost station”, it opened in 1966 and was planned as a stop on the regular Yonge line.  But the TTC eventually re-thought their route pattern and sealed if off.  Today it’s used primarily for training purposes or film-shoots. The station was only in service for six months, and despite there never being any reports of murders or suicides, workers have witnessed a mysterious “lady in red” haunting its tunnels and platforms. Apparently without feet or eyes, she glides towards them only to disappear into the tunnel. Perhaps this poor lost soul still thinks it’s 1966 and she’s on the way to the Mynah Bird or the Riverboat for an evening of music by Gordon Lightfoot or Joni Mitchell – we’ll never know.

Speaking of ladies, back to Dorothy. The stately building at 30 Yonge St. now home to the Hockey Hall of Fame , began as a bank. At the time of its construction in 1886 for the Bank of Montreal, it was the largest bank branch in Canada. Serving the organization well for the next 107 years, the building was sold and revamped, and now serves as a  shrine to  Canada’s national sport. Yet who would ever have guessed that this edifice was once the scene of a grisly suicide?

During the 1950s, the bank employed an attractive teller by the name of Dorothy. Whether or not it was against her better judgment, she was having an illicit affair with a handsome fellow teller who also happened to be married. Of course they had to keep their liaison a secret, but somehow word got out – other employees would whisper and give the couple knowing looks – and sometimes when Dorothy entered a room, the conversation would come to an abrupt halt. Yet in time, he decided to end it. Humiliated and hurt, Dorothy slipped into a deep depression, fearful her colleagues at the bank would know she had been jilted. One morning in March, 1953, she arrived early, and went upstairs to the women’s washroom. According to the security- guard, she looked a little the worse for wear, as if she’d had a rough night. Suddenly a shot rang out – Dorothy had taken the bank’s revolver and had ended her life. At the time, all banks kept a gun on the premises and employees were expected to make use of it when dealing with robbers.

Needless to say, her former colleagues  – and nobody more so than her former lover – were shocked beyond reason.

Almost immediately, they began to sense strange goings–on. Lights would go off and on by themselves and doors which were presumably locked would be found wide open. People felt as if they were being watched by some unknown presence.  These didn’t stop after the bank turned over the keys to the Hockey Hall of Fame in June of 1993. Items have gone missing or have been found moved , and custodians have claimed to have heard moaning sounds.  And that young boy who witnessed an attractive young lady beckoning him  into the elevator before disappearing may  well  have wondered who she was. Poor Dorothy! After 60 years, she’s still at the bank – and in the words of Canadian historian Terry Boyle: “She gambled everything for love  – and  she lost.”

Hockey Hall of Fame Oct 11, 2014

Ghosts, apparitions, and strange creatures from the other side – whether or not you believe, it’s difficult to deny the existence of occurrences that simply can’t be explained. The fact that phantoms would even want to hang around this ugly and pretentious city is a mystery in itself. But this Hallow’s Eve – the night when spirits roam the earth – take care and look behind you, for something or someone who may be watching . That sound you just heard may be the wind, or someone in the next apartment – or it may be more than just a bump in the night.

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Mount Pleasant Cemetery in the Fall (3)

How appropriate that I’d be writing about cemeteries in October, a month of ghosts, goblins, ghouls and zombie walks. Few would know it today,  but it was British Prime Minister William Gladstone who once wrote:

“Show me the manner in which a nation cares for its dead and I will measure with mathematical exactness the tender mercies of its people.”

A very Victorian sentiment indeed, but after all this time, I think it still has some validity.

Maybe it’s my macabre side, but I’ve always had a fondness for cemeteries. I enjoy the quiet solitude they offer, and the sense of history. Many are located right in the middle of the city, offering the urban dweller a veritable green space away from the dust and the concrete. If it’s possible to have a favourite cemetery, it would surely be Montreal’s Mount Royal, but Mount Pleasant in Toronto is undoubtedly a close second. Founded in 1876, it occupies roughly 200 acres of lush greenery divided in half by Mount Pleasant Road. But Mount Pleasant is more than a mere burying ground – it’s a recognized arboretum, famous for its immense collection of  more than 100 varieties of shrubs and trees, regarded as one of the finest collections in North America. Some of them are as old as the cemetery itself, and range from the relatively common white oak to such rarities as the prized sweetgum from the southern United States, ordinarily difficult to grow in this climate.

When it first opened, Mount Pleasant’s focus was on serving Torontonians who were invariably white, Anglo-Saxon and Protestant. Today, it’s a veritable microcosm of Toronto, as multicultural as the city itself. Little did the original founders ever realize that there would one day be sections for the Chinese, Greek and Croatian communities, among others.

Although originally intended for the dead, Mount Pleasant is also very much a place for the living. All year ‘round, whether it’s a scorching day in July, or a frigid February afternoon, people from all walks of life come to stroll, cycle, explore history, admire the flora and fauna, or to simply seek solace from the noise and confusion of urban life. Indeed, Mount Pleasant is a true oasis in the middle of the city, a place where the rush and hubbub can seem miles away. While I tend to enjoy the grounds at all times of the year, it’s during late autumn – when many of the bare tree branches are silhouetted against a grey sky – that my perambulations seem most memorable. Just a cursory glance at any of the markers can be a sobering experience, making our present-day challenges seem trivial by comparison. Mass drownings, air-crash victims, and infant deaths – they’re all here, each with a story to tell.

Kent monument

As the “Park Lane” of Toronto cemeteries, Mount Pleasant is the final resting place for many of the Rich, the Prominent and the Well-Known. Yet within its grounds are also buried many people from much humbler origins, families who led simple lives and chose to be laid to rest in these beautiful surroundings. I like to think those who lie right beside the edge of a roadway, their mortal remains marked by flat markers set into the ground, fall into this category. No mausoleum or elaborate stone monument for them – a plain designation was deemed sufficient. Surely one of the most poignant of these is that of Helene Brown, whose grave is on the side of the road near the underpass where the older section joins the new. All families have their share of sorrow, but possibly Mr. and Mrs. Brown had more than their due. Little did they realize that when their daughter Helene was born on July 1, 1918 – Canada’s fifty-first birthday – that she would only be on this earth for 17 years, for she died two weeks before Christmas in 1935. The marker is a simple one, and in addition to her name is a carving of two partially opened gates (to heaven?) along with her dates. While there is a space for the names of other family members, it was ultimately left blank, leading me to believe that no-one else occupies the grave. Maybe there were no other children in the family, and perhaps in their anguish over the death of their young daughter, the Browns left the city and settled elsewhere. After 77 years, we’ll never know. The sad epitaph along the bottom pretty well sums it up: “Some Day We’ll Understand.” Someday indeed.

Cemeteries and Halloween seem to go together naturally, and I’ve often wondered if the grounds have ever been the site for strange goings- on during this particular evening. According to history, October 31 was Samain’s Eve on the old Celtic calendar, the last night of the old year. In very early times, it was believed that all over the world, selected graves would open to mark the occasion. Warlocks, witches and the not-so-grateful dead would wander the earth until dawn before returning to the Netherworld for another year. People lit bonfires, and set candles in burning skulls, a forerunner of our modern pumpkins. Priests blessed fur- balls taken from thickly-coated dogs, thought to keep werewolves at a safe distance. Families stayed close together in their homes, bestowing small ‘treats” to amuse the children.  Over time, Samain’s Eve became All Hallow’s Eve and today, it’s known as Halloween, a time for costumed children to go door to door asking for hand-outs.

So has anything out of the ordinary ever happened at Mount Pleasant during these few dark hours of All Hallows Eve?  Cemetery personnel are reluctant to speak on the subject, but security is increased for that evening alone. As usual for this time of year, the gates are locked at 6pm sharp. Darkness falls quickly, and even for the bravest of non-believers, walking outside along the wrought-iron fence after dusk can be an unnerving experience. Do graves open and do spirits wander? We’ll never know, for only the birds, the squirrels, the occasional raccoon – and the mortal remains of those who lie buried here – remain within. As the late October winds sweep across the weathered tombstones, those inside would be the only ones to know for sure, and maybe it’s best that certain things are kept secret within the cemetery walls…for this night alone…

Tall Maguire monument

Tree at night NPS Dec 4, 2013 (b)

According to my calendar, The Day is less than 10 days away. You know,  the “C” word. After weeks – no, make that months – of preparation,   the incessant carols blared at us in stores, the parties, and the beckoning of retailers to come and buy, the great day is almost upon us. Yet how are we approaching it?  Is it a day we look upon with anticipation, or is it one we perceive as an annual obligation, thankful when it’s all over for another year?

 It’s not as though we haven’t been given enough notice.   The giant Santas hardly into their boxes when the festive garlands and holly came out followed the Halloween decorations. And was that Michael Buble we heard, crooning, “It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas.” on November 8? Are we wrong to feel that the season is becoming longer and more commercial with each passing year?

The holiday period means different things to different people. For many, it’s a time to reconnect with family and friends. For others, it’s a great excuse to indulge in food and drink we wouldn’t ordinarily touch. Regardless of how we observe it (or don’t) the end of year should include at least some time for spiritual renewal and personal reflection. And some of us make strong resolutions at the beginning of December to make it so. Yet for many, it ends up becoming a period of:

“…what do we get for Ashley’s skating teacher and I see there’s a sale on of holiday decorations but if we stop for that we won’t have time to drop in at my sister’s for eggnog, and I promised I’d volunteer at the charity event, and there’s that party we’re attending and I need a new coat, and HOW MUCH is that game that Chris wants and maybe we could get it cheaper online and…”

Little wonder we arrive at Christmas day feeling  stressed, exhausted, frustrated for not accomplishing everything we set out to do, unhealthy for consuming all the extra calories, and financially challenged? To bring it off as we feel we should, the holiday period takes a lot of work, much more than many of us are capable of –  or willing to do.

To borrow from William Wordsworth, it’s not only the world that is too much with us, it’s December,  “a challenging time,” as a colleague referred to it recently. The onus is for us to be cheerful and charitable, to spend money on gifts whether or not we like the receiver, and to radiate goodwill from our hearts. This is indeed a tall order, even for the most benevolent of souls.

Shoppers Eaton Centre Dec 15, 2013

And so much of what surrounds us doesn’t exactly inspire jolliness. Too many of us are unemployed or underemployed.  We hear of lay-offs coming up in the new year. Cards and carols proclaim “peace on earth,” but bombs continue to explode in Afghanistan. And how our hearts ache for those who have suffered during the past year. What about the family of Toronto police constable John Zivcic, accidentally killed in the line of duty on Nov. 30? Or the four- year- old boy who was hit by a car walking to school? And now we hear of yet another shooting in a school, this time  in Colorado, leaving a 17- year- old girl in critical condition? To their familes, the words “happy holidays”  surely have  an empty, hollow meaning, and indeed, a “merciful” God moves in mysterious ways.

And what about those who have lost spouses or significant others over the last 12 months? The holiday period suddenly becomes an immensely difficult period to get through. A casual glance in a shop window , a certain hat or coat seen on the subway, or a certain song on the radio may serve as  a painful reminder of that special someone no longer here. And the first holiday period alone is always the saddest, with one less person at the dinner table, and fewer gifts to buy. Photo albums bring back a flood of memories – if only we hadn’t taken those happier times for granted! Where did the time go?

Lake is frozen over
Trees are white with snow
And all around reminders of you
Are everywhere I go

And all around reminders of you
Are everywhere I go

It’s late and morning’s in no hurry
But sleep won’t set me free
I lie awake and try to recall
How your body felt beside me

When silence gets too hard to handle
And the night too long

And this is how I see you
In the snow on Christmas morning
Love and happiness surround you
As you throw your arms up to the sky
I keep this moment by and by

Oh, how I miss you now, my love
Merry Christmas, Merry Christmas
Merry Christmas, my love

Copyright, 2006, Sarah McLachlan

And what of the poor, the homeless, and the downtrodden of the city? Do they have any less right to celebrate the season just because of their circumstances? As they beg for change on our city streets, how many of us pass them by  without giving them as second glance? Happy holidays indeed.

Begging for change, Queen St.

So what do we do? Do we choose to forgo the season, claiming there is too much woe in the world, or do we ignore the tragic events surrounding us and celebrate regardless? Someone once said that Christmas was for children, and there’s probably still some truth to that statement. If only we could reclaim their innocence, and look upon the holiday period as a magical time, when coloured lights and decorations instilled a sense of wonder and hope rather than cynicism. Despite these hard times, children should still be permitted to enjoy the season as much as they can. No less a figure than Winston Churchill, spoke of this in his Christmas Eve address from the White House in 1941:

“…this is a strange Christmas Eve. Almost the whole world is locked in a deadly struggle. Armed with the most terrible weapons which science can devise, the nations advance upon each other. Ill would it be for us at this Christmastide if we were not sure that no greed for the lands or wealth of any other people, no vulgar ambitions..had led us to this field.”

Yet he went on to say:

“Let the children have their night of fun and laughter.  Let the gifts of Father Christmas delight their play.  Let us grown-ups share to the full in their unstinted pleasures before we turn again to the stern task and the formidable years that lie before us, resolved that, by our sacrifice and daring, these same children shall not be robbed of their inheritance or denied their right to live in a free and decent world.”

As grownups, we’ve lost much of our innocence, and it’s not an easy task to reclaim it. With our mobiles, we talk and text away , spending time endlessly running from one place to another while assuring ourselves how sophisticated we are. Yet, a little innocence and a lot of compassion can go a long way, especially at this time of year.

Shoppers Queen St. Dec 15, 2013

So my end- of- year advice to you for the holiday season would have to include the following:  Slow down, nothing can be so pressing that it has to be done immediately. Take time to stop and enjoy the decorations – they’ll be gone soon enough.  Stop and give some money to a homeless person, or buy a copy of Outreach. Lord knows they need the funds more than you do. Practice kindness in public- open a door for someone, or offer a seat on the subway. Reconnect with friends and family – people are more important than things, and should be treasured. Take a moment to reflect on those no longer with us – if it means shedding a tear, so be it- they deserve it. If you don’t accomplish everything you set out to do, don’t beat yourself up – we’re only human.
Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. May peace be with you – and here’s to better times ahead.

Call on your angels
Come down to the city
Crowd around the big tree
So call on your angels
All you strangers who know me
Bring your compassion
Your understanding
Lord, how we need it
On this New York City Christmas

You’re beaten and broken
It’s time that we mended
So they don’t fade with the season
Let our mercy be the gifts we lay
From Brooklyn and to Broadway
Celebrate each and every day
of this New York City Christmas

 Rob Thomas, copyright,  2007

Nathan Philiips Square December, 2012

City Hall Cenotaph angled view

Ever the faith endures,
England, my England: —
‘Take and break us: we are yours,
England, my own!

Proud and patriotic words by the British poet William Ernest Henley – it wasn’t inspired specifically by war, but it could have been.

November 11. Remembrance Day. I really hope I’m wrong, but have we begun to lose sight of this solemn and important day? Have our lives become so busy and so complicated that that we can’t find at least a few moments at the 11th hour on the 11th day on the 11th month to reflect upon those who gave their lives all those many years ago and continue to do so in the present day?

When I was in grade school – more years ago than I’m willing to admit –  Remembrance Day was duly observed. I recall school assemblies. The entire school would congregate in the school gymnasium (which doubled as the auditorium). One or two boys who happened to be boy scouts would dress in uniform, a selected student would recite In Flanders Fields. We’d sing a couple of hymns and invariably O Canada and God Save the Queen, and the principal would give a short speech. I recall the scolding our particular class received one year from our teacher who felt most of us hadn’t taken the occasion seriously enough. We were made to write out a short essay on what Remembrance Day meant to us. I can’t conceive this ever happening today. Sadly, we are just that much greater removed from both wars, historically and physically.

Today, schools are filled with many children whose parents are recent arrivals to Canada, people who have fled strife and terrorism. What can peace mean to their children when war is still very much a part of the present, and probably, the future? The very mention of a Great War or a Second World War would probably result in a blank stare or a look of puzzlement.

Does it seem more difficult to observe Remembrance Day in 2013? Yes, posters appear in bus-stops and subway stations urging us to buy poppies, and people still wear them, but does the event still have the same degree of significance it once did? One has only to look at the demographics. When I was growing up, veterans of the Second World War could be seen from early November selling poppies on street-corners. As these men and women aged, they moved inside, to the warmer comfort of a shopping mall. Now we don’t see any at all, for those who are still living are in their 90s. Neither GenYers nor their parents, the GenXers were even alive when World War II ended – and their grandparents would have been very young indeed. To them, it’s nothing more than history, not an event that took place in their lifetimes, much less remembered.

I was walking on a busy street a couple of days ago, when a young dude, maybe aged 22, obviously noticed the poppy I was wearing, and said in a loud voice: “These people who support war by wearing a poppy…”  The comment wasn’t directed at me personally, but was obviously intended for my ears, and I admit I was offended. Had I not been in such a hurry, I might have stopped and tried to explain to him why I (and others) wore the small red flower on our coats early in November. But I know it wouldn’t have made any difference. His mind was made up, and until he grew older and hopefully wiser, his viewpoint wasn’t about to change. At I hurried on into the next block, I saw several people his age also wearing poppies, so my faith in those younger than I was restored. It’s not war we support – anything but. Canada is a peace-loving nation. But how can we not pay tribute to those who were forced to take part in this vain and useless glory known as war, and especially those who paid the ultimate price, not only in both great wars but also  in more recent conflicts in Korea and Afghanistan?

As we hurry along city streets on these brisk November days with a million things on our minds,  Christmas decorations going up in stores and the first days of colder weather, it may be easy to forget the horrific events surrounding war. But we must remember, if only for one day.

So if you’re lucky enough to cross paths with a veteran on or around Remembrance Day, stop and talk to them. Shake his or her hand, and thank them for all they did so many years ago, or continue to do for us in 2013. To us, it may be far removed from our daily lives, but to them, it was – or continues to be –  very much a part of their existence,  and the memories are still vivid in their minds.

They returned, but so many others didn’t.

Lest we forget.

They shall grow not old, as we that are left grow old:

Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn.

At the going down of the sun and in the morning

We will remember them.

CNE Toronto 2013

Is  that a slight chill I detect in the early morning air?  Aren’t the tips of those tree branches looking a little brown?  And today, that  “grand old lady” down on the  lakeshore that’s been running all week, otherwise  known as the Canadian National Exhibition,  closes its gates for yet another season. Summer definitely must be over!

Is it only me, or can the expression “the more it changes the more it stays the same” be applied to the CNE? Yes, every year there are new attractions, new exhibits, and different performers as part of the entertainment line-up, but for the most part the “Ex” doesn’t really change all that much – and undoubtedly, that’s how people want it. The rides and the games are all there, the razzle-dazzle of the midway, and the decadent fair food  that we  would never eat anywhere else or  at any other time of year is all there for the taking, allowing us to indulge just one last time before we’re forced to wake up to reality and face that most sobering of months, September.

For too many years now, Toronto has prided itself on its sophistication. It boasts a “world class” arts- scene, architecture, shopping, and just about everything else. Million dollar condos sprout from the ground heading sky-high. You can buy Vuitton luggage, costly baubles form Tiffany, and Prada handbags any day of the week proving you have the  means to do it. But does a city that attempts to be on the same level as the Great Ones of the World still  have a place for a local exhibition that  runs for two weeks every August up to Labour Day?

The Ex stems from a time when there simply wasn’t as much to do in Toronto over the summer as there is now. There had been fairs in Toronto as early as the  1850s. During the latter part of the 19th century, agricultural  exhibitions were held in most Ontario cities on a rotating basis. In 1878, it happened to be held in Toronto, and because it was deemed such a success –  attracting more than 100,000 visitors –  local officials decided to make it an annual event. Four years later, it was the first fair to be illuminated by electricity, and in 1883, Torontonian J.J. Wright introduced the electric railway for the first time. The Ex was officially given the name Canadian National Exhibition in 1912 and over the years, it has  constantly attempted to reinvent itself to accommodate the changing tastes and needs of the local demographic. In 1937, Patty Conklin of Conklin Shows was awarded the contract for the midway and this company continued to provide the service for the next 67 years, when it merged with other leading midway operators to form North American Midway Entertainment (NAME)  The Ex didn’t run between 1942 and 1946 when the grounds were turned over to the Department of National Defense for training purposes. After World War II, the grounds were used for awhile as a demobilization centre. And on August 22, 1952, the CBC tested that novel new form of entertainment known as television for the very first time, making it the first ever (unofficial) broadcast in Canadian television history. Who says history was never made at the CNE?

CNE History Photos

20111026-midway-cne-night-1952-f1257_s1057_it5687.jpg

So what keeps people still coming back to it year after year? Is it a feeling for nostalgia, when  grown-ups like to remember the period when they were as young as their children or grandchildren and still had energy and  wide-eyed enthusiasm to spare? Or is it a chance to be a kid themselves again, riding the rides and indulging in food  they would never eat any other time of the year. Diet?  What diet? Greens? Balanced meals? Are you crazy? This is summer’s last fling, and we’d better make the most of it! 

But maybe it’s time to say good bye to the Ex. Right now I can hear the howls of protest coming from the faithful  annual fair-goers! There is so much going on in the city during any given month, do we really need to hold on to the EX? Outrageous rides? There’s  Canada’s Wonderland, not too far away, and open between May and September, not just a two –week period. Decadent food? Well, that shouldn’t be difficult to find in this city at any given time. Entertainment? As far as I  know, the city is still host to top acts who continue to fill the ACC, Massey Hall, Thomson Hall or any of the smaller venues.

On the other hand. The Ex’s line-up this year included the Beach Boys, Frankie Avalon, and the Fifth Dimension.  Agreed, these were all fine performers in their day,  but in 2013, they’re  hardly top attractions. Frankie Avalon? “Oh Veeeee-nus…” (For those not of a certain age, Frankie was a big teen idol in the late 1950s, and one of his big hits was a song titled “Venus” which reached the top of the charts in 1959…)

This summer, the city was host to the rock festival NXNE, the Jazz Festival, the outdoor art exhibit, Fringe Fest, Taste of the Danforth, Italian, Indian , Iranian,  Hispanic and Hawaiian festivals, Carabana, free outdoor movies, Dusk Dances, ROM walks, not to mention the ongoing activities down at Harbourfront. A lot of these events were free, while at $15 per person (a family pass was $45) just to get past the gates, the Ex can make for a pricey day of entertainment.

Publicity is always welcome, but this year, the Ex received some publicity it most definitely didn’t need. It happened when 200  people reported food poisoning after sampling some of the  dubious fare being offered. The culprit turned out to be the new and infamous Cronutburger, a $10 delicacy featuring a burger topped with maple bacon jam. While most people suspected that  the meat was the villain, it was actually the jam topping, contaminated  with a bacterial toxin  that resulted in so many cases being reported. The food woes didn’t end there. Two further food vendors, the Bourdon Street Grill and Bao Shanghai, were shut down by food inspectors for health violations. The moral of the story? Feel free to indulge, but beware!

 

More bad news followed. At the end of the week, an estimated $1 million worth of counterfeit goods was seized from the CNE grounds by Toronto police.  Fakes of luxury items bearing the logos of Michael Kors, Gucci, Prada, and Rolex were taken from three booths at the Direct Energy Centre with two owners being charged.

So maybe it’s time to say goodbye to this “grand old lady”. Ok, it supposedly brings in a lot of money to the city and to the province. So do the casinos at Niagara,  but that doesn’t make them any more legitimate. The Ex belongs to a different age and a different time. No, it will probably never go away, so maybe it should at the very least be re-examined in order to bring it a little more up to date. There was a time when the CNE was used to showcase the newest of the new, but in 2013, there’s  nothing there that can’t be seen anywhere else, on any given day.  Come on  Toronto, you claim to be worldly and sophisticated. You’ve  got a major film festival just around the corner. Do you really need Coney Island for 10 days every August as well?

 Toronto CNE 2013