Walking the Hydro Corridor in Scarborough

“Walk as if you are kissing the Earth with your feet.” – Thich Nhat Hanh

I had worked at the Centennial College for 3 years before I found the walking trail behind my office at Ashtonbee Campus. It’s unbelievable to me now that I hadn’t explored my surroundings in all that time, but just drove to my parking spot, ran to my office, worked away and then drove home. Ashtonbee Campus is in an industrial area of south-west Scarborough, surrounded by big box stores, factories and a whole lot of ugly suburban sprawl. I was engaged and oftentimes overwhelmed with my job, first as a Professor and Coordinator of our Social Service Worker Program and then as an Academic Chair, to take a breath, let alone take a walk.

I can’t remember the first time I walked and found the Hydro Corridor path behind our campus, but I can imagine that something pushed me out the door. I walked behind the campus, across our student parking lot, and found a space of open air to ground myself and breathe. I found a bike path (that I later googled and learned that it goes all across Scarborough), and nature – trees and birds. There are so many birds in these trees – sometimes the sounds of their chirping is deafening. And that one walk felt so energizing, that I have now tried to get out and walk as often as I can. Walking helps me to refresh and recharge in the middle of the day, taking me out into the fresh air, and on an adventure of discovery.


My favorite discovery on my walk has been finding an art installation that is on the back of our Ashtonbee Campus. It brightly says, like a message in a bottle or a fortune found in a fortune cookie: “Read between the power lines. Look up closer.” The message also depends on where you are standing, as the ‘power’ and ‘up’ are on walls going inward, so if you don’t stand at the angle where you can read the full message, but you stand directly in front of the art, it reads: “Read between the lines. Look closer.”


I love this message on so many levels. First, I literally remember to look up at the sky (‘Look up closer!’), which is so expansive and changing, to see the clouds and revel in the nature that is always there above my head. I literally feel like I walk around with blinders on, forgetting the sky that is always above me. The message reminds me that nature is everywhere, between the power lines and industrialization, between the cars and roads. Take notice! Take notice of the plants growing in the cracks between the sidewalks. Listen to the birds living and singing in Scarborough. I don’t need to escape the city to revel in nature.

And at another level, when I stand directly in front and read the message: “Read between the lines. Look closer.”, I am reminded to think differently, to try to understand what is happening ‘between the lines’. This message seems to come at the right time, as I am usually walking because I feel a weight on my heart and mind. I am walking to sort out a challenge or an issue, either work-related or personal (or both). This message gives me hope that I will solve it, if I can think and/or feel differently about it, if I can ‘look closer’, revealing what is happening ‘between the lines’. I need to take my time, not be afraid to ‘look closer’ (and not be afraid to feel how that feels), and not jump to conclusions too quickly.

I have since found out that the Toronto artist, Sean Martindale was commissioned to create this art (along with Centennial students and high school students from Wexford Collegiate), which is called “Between the Lines”, as part of the Pan Am Path Project, connected to the Pan Am Games in 2015. Through this project, there are art installations all along the ‘Pan Am Path’ – trails connecting Toronto’s communities from the west end to the east. You can check out more of Sean Martindale’s work here: http://www.seanmartindale.com and learn more about the Pan Am Path here: http://panampath.org/art-and-trails.shtml and http://friendsofthepanampath.org/.

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Water Lessons

“This is the first, the wildest and the wisest thing I know: that the soul exists and is built entirely out of attentiveness.” ~ Mary Oliver

I’ve always loved the water. My fondest childhood memories, from where I grew up in Orillia Ontario, are at the beach at Lake Couchiching, swimming, running across the sand, and building sand castles in the sun. I also have wonderful memories at my Grandparents beach, as they lived right on the water (the Ottawa River) in Deep River. The living room window had a beautiful view overlooking the water, and that view framed my visit, my sense of being surrounded by nature. My fondest childhood memories at my Grandparents was spending time out on their sailboat on the Ottawa River, feeling the waves rocking our boat and jumping off the end of the boat to swim.

The water has always been my happy place, my calm place, where the rhythm of the waves match my heartbeat and I know that, no matter what is going on in my life, all is well.

Years later, I am incredibly lucky to live with my family within walking distance to the beach and water (Lake Ontario) in Toronto. I am so grateful for this, and I try to get down there as much as I can. The water and beach has become my grounding place, and most recently, I have been thinking about the water as my teacher. Every time I go down to the water, even as I visit the exact same location, I see with new eyes, and I learn new lessons. For lack of a better word, spirit speaks to me down there, through the waves and the wind and the sun. I feel alive and connected to this spirit, the energy is palpable, both surrounding and within me.

I’ve been using my iPhone to take photos of the water and the beach. Photography has helped me to focus on the many perspectives and lessons of the water. When I look at the photos over time, it is incredible to me how nature dynamically shapes this place and space, on an hour by hour, minute by minute basis. Every moment is absolute. Every moment is changing.

I’d like to share some of my life lessons that I have learned from my water teacher:

• Nature is a constant dynamic interplay between the elements, and it is impossible to separate the parts from each other. There is a reciprocal relationship between the water, sky, air and land. None of these elements are continuously in charge of the others, but power is constantly shifting.
NatureasDynamic

• The wind’s power can be overwhelming, proclaiming her presence, howling in my ears, biting at my face, and waves crashing against the shoreline. She scolds me for not noticing her before. Be present, she hisses in my ear. I am powerful, I am here, and I will always be here.
WavesCrashing

• Sunlight is healing. Even when the air is so cold that my lungs are burning, the sun shines so brightly that I am blinded by its brilliance. I couldn’t even see in my camera when I took these photos, but I’m happy that they captured the sunlight dancing on the water and along the beach.
Sunlightishealing

• Color is infinite and constantly being created and recreated, under the spell of the sun. There are so many shades of blue.
ShadesofBlue

• The sky is often forgotten. In our busy lives, we forget to look up. The wide open sky, sometimes clear and sometimes filled with clouds, warms my heart and brings me peace.
Water-sky

My biggest lesson, once that I think about daily, is that life is constantly moving and changing. But if I can find my inner calm, then I can feel the stillness and peace that exists in the center of change. This stillness and peace is constant, always there and always will be there. I must always remember this.

SickKids – Soothing Spaces

I recently spent five days with my little one at SickKids hospital. It was probably one of the most stressful times in my life, and definitely the most stressful time as a mom. Five days is such a short amount of time in the grand scheme of life, but when I was there, it felt like forever. The days were long, waiting for tests and doctors and results and answers, and the nights were even longer, sleeping on the pull-out chair beside the hospital bed and worrying about my life (and my other son) outside of the hospital. I met several parents whose child was living in the hospital for months and months, and I can’t imagine how hard that reality must have been.

I think a lot about space, and how space impacts us, in terms of how we feel and how we act. I believe strongly that space has an incredible impact on our attitudes and behaviours, and even small changes to space can make a big difference. During our days at SickKids, we had a lot of time to explore this hospital, and I was always looking for ways to entertain my three year old. In the midst of stress, we found spaces that provided much needed laughter and peace. These spaces made all of the difference in our day, providing us with energy and uplifting our spirits. My favourite spaces were:

  1. The Elevator

What could be better than an elevator to entertain a three-year old? We ‘rode the rails’ for hours every day. We pressed the buttons, got in and out, in and out, and the elevator was a source of endless entertainment. We met a lot of people on the elevator, going up and down, all going about their lives. I love how the elevator is so open, and the space of the hospital from this perspective feels so open and spacious. I was so appreciative of this space during our stay at the hospital.

SickKids-elevator-K SickKids-elevator

  1. The Tim Hortons train

The Tim Hortons at SickKids has a train that goes around and around the store. There is a button for kids to press that makes the train move. Again, this was a source of great entertainment for my boy, who loves trains. A few times a day, we would do the walk to Tim Hortons, and I could drink much-needed coffee while K pressed the button and delighted in watching the train move. I was very thankful for this space.

SickKids-TimHortonswithtrain

  1. The Starlight Room Rooftop Space

This was the most important space for me during our time at SickKids. It brought K and I (and others) a deep sense of peace when we needed it. We weren’t able to leave the hospital, so we were stuck inside during beautiful sunny days. When I found the Starlight Room Rooftop Space (on the 9th floor – if you are looking for it, you can only take the middle elevator up to it), I almost cried with joy. The rooftop patio is beautiful, with couches and water features, and we were able to be outside! We were able to enjoy the warm sun and the breeze of the wind, without leaving the hospital. We spent a lot of time up on the rooftop patio, playing and making crafts and enjoying fresh air.

SickKids-StarlightRoom-rooftop

These spaces at SickKids made my stay there bearable. SickKids is a special place, with amazing doctors and nurses and staff, and I am so thankful that little K was taken care of there.

Playing in Playgrounds

Spring is coming soon, and with Spring, comes playgrounds. With two very active, rambunctious boys, I spend A LOT of time in playgrounds. I love playgrounds – how they are free and spark both imagination and physical movement, how they create community amongst parents who are generally relaxed and don’t have a lot to do except chat with each other. I love how children are uninhibited on playgrounds, feel free to move, jump, climb and leap about. My son is the happiest when he is moving, and full of joy when he is playing in playgrounds. I am blessed to live in a neighborhood with many playgrounds within walking distance of our house, and we make full use of all of these playgrounds. Norway School is the closest playground, so we go there when we have just an hour before supper, when I know my son needs to run off some steam. “Froggie park” has a great splashpad, so this is a summer favourite. And of course, Kew/Castle Park is excellent with the castle (that my son has now figured out how to climb into the middle) and the potential for imagination games with the boats and hiding spaces. I have probably clocked over 500 hours in Kew/Castle Park over the past 7 years.

Besides Kew/Castle Playground, my other favourite playgrounds are:

Dufferin Grove Park – hands down! This playground is in the west end of Toronto (Dufferin and College), so far from our house, but we love it so much that we are happy to make the trek to go here. Dufferin Grove Park is an amazing example of successful community development, where residents were extremely active in reclaiming this public park, which used to be unused and scary with crime and drug dealing. Residents have worked tirelessly with city officials to vision and implement that vision into a community-based park. Residents continue to be extremely active in the park, and there are all kinds of community activities that take place at Dufferin Grove. There has even been scholarly research done on the volunteer engagement model at Dufferin Grove, as a best practice. There are so many wonderful elements of Dufferin Grove Park, but what I love the most is the digging area. They have dug out a giant area of dirt and rocks and wood, and they have water streaming through. They have child-sized shovels and watering cans, and my son has spent hours upon hours digging and carrying water, making rivers and making dams, hard at work.

-Toronto Island – Franklins Children’s Garden – a great example of integrating imaginative play with movement. My son also loves this playground, as it has the Franklin characters built into the playground. Lots of fun!

-Montreal – Salamander Park on Mont Royal is amazing! We have also spent hours here, it is beautiful because the playground is located on the mountain, and it is designed in a unique way to encourage children’s motor and cognitive development. It is a visually beautiful playground, and different from any other playground I have ever visited.

All this writing about playgrounds makes me wish I was a kid! Of course, there are now Adult Playgrounds that I might try to check out when I next next in New York! Wouldn’t this be a great stress-buster? I wonder if I would feel inhibited trying this out, or maybe not? Maybe I could let go and ‘be a kid’ for an hour or so.

Here are some amazing playgrounds from around the world! I hope to visit some of these in my lifetime!

Mapping as Storytelling

Aside

I have always loved maps. I remember being a young girl, maybe eight or nine years old, and following along a road map on long road trips with my father. I remember loving the challenge of locating markers on the map, like a river or a bridge, and then seeing it in reality. I love the stories that maps tell, and the recognition that we are always somewhere. We exist in relation to the land under our feet, and this relationship is symbiotic. We change based on the place and space where we are, and place changes based on who is taking up space.

On that note, I’d like to share some of my favourite maps that I’ve discovered lately. The first ones are Toronto-centred, and each one tells a unique story through the map, about this city I love and am constantly learning about:

-The Harbourfront 9 Rivers Project tells a story of the rivers that feed into Toronto, giving life to the urban life we live. I have always been drawn to water, and I choose to live within walking distance to our lake, which anchors me. In such a big city, we can easily forget about the natural world, and this map helps me to remember.

-This is an amazing map that tells the historical story of immigration in Toronto. You can actually pinpoint a specific neighborhood area within Toronto and then move the timeline marker to see who was immigrating to that area at the specific time.

-This historical mapping project is my favourite! They have scanned in Toronto maps from different 1818 till now, from UofT Archives, Toronto Public Library, Archives of Canada etc, so you can move the timeline marker to see a specific neighborhood at a specific year in history. From this, I can see that my specific street didn’t exist at all until around 1913. I love the actual maps, the drawing and the historical feel to this site.

 There are also some fascinating world maps, that tell interesting stories – check out this site. My favourite maps on this site are the maps comparing countries where people have highest versus lowest emotions and feel the most/least loved. Who knew that people in the Philipines are #1 in feeling the most amount of love and emotions? I also found the global map of smoking rates around the world quite fascinating, which shows that Russia has by far the highest smoking rate and Ethiopia has one of the lowest. What I find interesting about this map, is that this is one of the only health factors that I can identify where poorer countries fare better (smoke less) than richer countries. I hadn’t thought about that until I saw this map – on a global scale, smoking is a disease of the rich.  

I’ll leave you on a lighter note, with some sillier maps here. Some of these maps are downright silly, but I do personally love the mapping of the 7 Deadly Sins onto the American map. It reminds me of the hilarious book by Dan Savage – “Skipping Towards Gomorrah”, which is a great read, exploring the 7 deadly sins in America. 

Mapping is a form of visual story telling, from the central lens of place and space. I hope you’ve enjoyed these maps and the stories they tell. 

 

Why I love the Toronto Beach…

Great public places create community and vice verse – community creates great public places. We all live and work and play somewhere, and we are constantly influenced by our surroundings in terms of our mood, our interactions with others, and our behaviours. Of course, I am a huge fan of Jane Jacobs and I continue to read and think about public spaces and places, especially within cities.

The Project for Public Spaces, which has an excellent website (www.pps.org) has a concept of “The Power of Ten” – that a great place needs to offer ten things to do or ten reasons to be there. The Power of Ten means that this great place will attract lots of diverse people who will interact together, all with different motivations to be there.

   I live near the Toronto Beach and I love it (geographically defined by me as at the water, with the west border at Ashbridges Bay/Coxwell and the East border at the Water Filtration Plan/Victoria Park Ave). I think it is truly a great place, and here is my “Power of Ten” list of what to do for my beloved Beaches area:

1. Exercise – my go-to for running and biking, with wide open sky and a very long boardwalk, as well as public water fountains throughout. There are also exercise stations (like chin-up bars etc) although I don’t use them. The beach makes me want to put on my runners and run, just so I can get down to see the beach.

2. Playgrounds for children – Lots of excellent playgrounds all along the beach, from what my family calls “The Purple Park” on the eastern edge (with an awesome sandbox filled with trucks and diggers that people have left) to the castle at Kew Park to the toddler-friendly little park right at the pool…

3. The Pool – I am SHOCKED when some of my neighbors say they have never been to the pool! The Donald Summerville pool is amazing – free, outdoors and three pools – a kids pool, a diving pool and an olympic sized pool with lanes. This is our go-too place with the kids – we love it!

4. Swimming in the lake – I love the pool but I also love to splash around in the lake. People still don’t seem to know that the lake water is perfectly fine to swim in, internationally recognized by the Blue Flag program. There are very few people, even on the hottest days, in the water. Often the water is choppy so I don’t swim per-se, but I do jump in, and I have been known to jump in the water in my clothes, just to cool off.

5. Lake sports – people are on the lake doing all kinds of activities, from canoeing, kayaking, para-sailing (I SO want to take up this sport!)

6. Kids soccer – my son plays on the Beaches Soccer League, which has 1300 players from ages 4 to 16. It is wonderful to go down to the beach and watch my sons soccer – a real community event where everyone is out.

7. Play in the sand – make sand castles, inukshuks, bury your body etc etc – There is lots of fun to be had on the sand. My kids and I have made awesome sand castles, and of course, they also enjoy burying me in the sand. There is a guy who makes amazing inukshuks with the rocks on the sand, always out there on a summer weekend.

8. Eat ice cream and other treats! Of course, when you’re frolicking around on a summer day, you and your family may be looking for an icy delicious treat. Close to the beach is Queen St with lots of ice cream and frozen yogurt shops. I especially highly recommend Ed’s Real Scoop where the ice cream is made in-house!

9. Reading on a park bench – I love reading and I love finding nice public places to read, and there are plenty of park benches along the beaches boardwalk to relax and read. There are also beautiful trees to read under if you are looking for shade. I spend a lot of time during my maternity leave, with my baby asleep, reading under a tree or on a park bench.   

10. Pray / Appreciate the beauty of nature – I don’t explicitly pray to God, but I do go to the beach just to feel connected to nature. The beach waves calm me, and the big open sky reminds me that my life is a part of this big and amazing and beautiful world. And no matter what is happening in my personal life, the sun is always rising and setting each day and the waves are always moving. When I am upset or anxious and just need to clear my head and breathe, I go to the water. And if its not too cold, I dip my toes in and give thanks for my life.  

City Spaces where community is found

I’ve been thinking about how and where community is found and the spontaneous spaces in the city where people meet and gather and find common ground. I’m especially interested in spaces where community bridging happens, where people who otherwise wouldn’t meet (coming from different walks of life) find meaning together. I live in a big city, where its easy to be anonymous amongst the 2.6 million others passing by, so when community spaces open up, it can feel, quite frankly, magical. Here are three urban commercial spaces where community building happens, sometimes when we least expect it:

1. Coffee Shops – Oh, I love the coffee shop, not just because I love coffee, but also the community vibe. As a mom of two kids, both who love to wake up really early (in the 5:30am-6am range), the coffee shop has been my sweet salvation many times as I show up bleary eyed, kids in tow, desperate for caffeine. And of course, I have met lots of other moms at coffee shops early in the morning, bonding over our fate of being awake too early. Even before kids, I have always loved the coffee shop and whenever I go to a new city, I like to find a cool coffee shop to sit and people watch (and eavesdrop on local conversation). Coffee shops have a historical connection to political organizing and democratic conversation, where community has discussed the issues of the day. This still continues with the Conversation Café concept (http://www.conversationcafe.org/), where anyone can attend and join the conversation.  

2. Bars – As much as I am up early in the morning, I also love to go out at night and be part of the nightlife. Because of my kids, I don’t go out as often as I have in the past, but in the past, I have spent lots of time meeting others in bars, especially through playing guitar and singing and going to Open Mics all over Toronto. The Open Mic scene is definitely a place for community building, where anyone with a song to sing can show up and sing and be heard. My fav bar for Open Mic performing and hanging out has always been the Free Times Café (http://www.freetimescafe.com/) at College and Spadina, where I have shared the stage with many amazing performers. Currently, I’m enjoying the Kareoke scene at a bar where I can walk to from my house, meeting the nicest crowd of people who love to sing and are so encouraging, I am not afraid to try singing any song. The Kareoke scene is a bubble where no matter who you are and what your day job is, you can transform into a star for the night.

3. Shopping Malls – I’m not a big shopper at all, so haven’t spent much time in shopping malls. However, I have come across community forming in malls when I have least expected it. I work by a shopping mall that looks dated and derelict and doesn’t have great stores in it. I happen to go into it at 8:45am because the closest Toronto Public Library is located in the mall (and I am a passionate super-user of the TPL!) and while no shops are open, the parking lot is full and the food court is FILLED with people, maybe 100 or so people, chatting and laughing and sitting with their coffee (McDonalds and Tim Hortons is open). The scene is definitely seniors, and I don’t know if they all know each other and decide to formally meet there or if this is spontaneous or not. What I do know is that they are happy, and they are using the food court as community space. I also know that when I sit down with my coffee (waiting for the TPL to open), they all want to chat with me too, and include me in conversation. Interesting indeed! I know that Mall Walking has become a big health program for seniors, using the mall space for organized walking. This is interesting, transforming a commercial space to a community space focussed on improving health.

I know there are other spaces all around us where community building is happening, spontaneously and magically. I know the opportunity exists all the time, when our commonalities trump our differences,  and when we really see each other, not as strangers but as friends. These moments, if we choose to be open, make this city feel like a village.