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Somebody pointed out that in Toronto, the shortest day of the year is actually January 2, which means the days are still getting shorter until tomorrow. My mind keeps squeezing smaller and smaller like a pat of dough pressed between the palms of the hands, like packing snow except we don't have any. The soft air sweeping over the land feels like summer except the sun has gone to a long sleep over the Tropic of Capricorn. Is it that or Cancer? I can't remember which. What happened to high school geography and the other things I used to know?
Gandalf went racing across the fields to meet the fleeing battalion with his staff held high, casting a ray of light that fended off the Ringwraiths. What I need is some magic to drive away the demons. Or an evil ring to throw into the river of fire. That's it: something concrete. Just give me a simple quest to accomplish. It might take six months or a year. If I write 100 words a day every day for a year will my problems go away? I think not. Life isn't as simple as
The Lord of the Rings
. That's fantasy.
This lamp once stood near the piano in my grandparents' living room. They gave me that piano as a gift when my grandmother lost interest in playing it herself. The best way to drive away torment was to sit at that keyboard. The wood was dark purple as dried blood. I sold my soul with that piano back to my parents a few years ago. Now I have only this faded lamp that came when she moved into a nursing home. I can't begin to describe the ornate stand or the glowing shade, which lights the window on gloomy mornings.
Writing is like crawling onto the bare white page, naked on a winter morning. I will pick up my pen and scratch meaningless words along the pale lines. Who decided blue would be the colour we always use for these lines in notebooks? Why blue out of all the colours that make up white? And why are the margins always red? Are we so confused that we can't tell a single vertical line from however many horizontal ones? Maybe it's something to do with latitude and longitude or the Tropic of Cancer. A yellow light is the easiest to see.
It wasn't exactly the road to Damascus. It was highway 35, the road to Lindsay. I was only taking my daughters home and had no intention of persecuting anyone there. Like Saul I saw light, which he thought came from heaven, but I know better. Such powers come from inside ourselves, or perhaps the subconscious web we build with those around us, stirred up by lack of sleep, fear of the unknown, indigestion or desperate need. This should not invalidate our inspirations. Call it what you will: the finger of a god, the breath of an angel, a caffeine rush.
Winter air descends against the darkened windows, like a cold-blooded goddess kissing flowers of ice. The outer world, arrayed with streetlights, taillights and headlights moving in the snowy street, grows hazy. Perspectives and distances shift. Frost fingers, blades and facets break the glare of electricity into diffuse galaxies and nebulae, cheerless gardens and cold flames shimmering hellishly. Suddenly the night leaps with flickering red from an ambulance and police cars, spattering the frost with blood. Someone has taken a knife to his wrists. The hall fills with the raised voices of officers, paramedics and drunken neighbours. The stars have dissolved.
Behind a veil of winter storm clouds, the sun roves like a pale eye. What does it see besides me watching? It sees tropical places I could go to get away from the squalor and clamour overhead. I slept on an air mattress in Jon's living room last night. It was deliciously quiet and peaceful. I hibernated until 11:30. Dressing to come home, I felt my stomach and mind start to clench. Home isn't supposed to be like this. I need a haven, not this daily drama of quarrels, accusations, attempted suicides and Eminem playing at 3:30 in the morning.
Recoiling into the night, I have become watchful like a guard over my family. I have no one else here to worry about, but restless silence fills the rooms and I cannot find peace. Anxiety creeps through the hall shadows, subliming as fumes from the bloodstained carpet. Sleepless, I feed my mind to the beast. I wait for violence and foulness to erupt once more in the apartment upstairs.
Three hours later I wake with sun insisting itself against the curtain. I wave it away. Go bother somebody else. But it sits grimacing like a relentless dog by my bedside.
The thermometer plunged overnight. This morning was clear and bright, but that's not enough to make a place habitable. The cold bites like the teeth of an infernal beast. It would consume all life if it lasted for long. Bacteria can live millions and millions of years encased in rock and ice, but it is only their spores. They cannot thrive. The surface of Mars looks red and vaguely hospitable, but it is a death trap. So is the icy street outside my door. My breath freezes in my moustache. My nylon coat turns crinkly. Death creeps beneath the sun.
The winter sun slants through the windows and strikes my face. It fools the parlour palm into sprouting an innocuous frond of pale flowers. This is the deep freeze, but the sky grows wider and brighter each passing day, convincing every waking thing to believe the world will soon be fertile and bountiful. Digging out seed catalogues, we drool at the blushing flowers and pregnant vegetables. It's all an illusion. Summer will never come again. We have entered the next ice age and must spend the next three thousand years enduring relentless ice, snow and biting cold. It's nature's joke.
If darkness does not overcome, then what are believers moaning about? Religions feed a victim mentality. The people of the light spend more time pointing fingers than celebrating. I know all about it. I spend too much time blaming others for my problems. We like to think that if only people would behave a certain way, our own lives would be safer and more prosperous. Outer control does not foster integrity. A society with too many rules will only give rise to hostility. We must be free to make our own choices. Happiness and security can only come from within.
Today I took a strange photograph of the pond. I saw nothing unusual when I stood there on the frozen shore with my camera. I have taken dozens from that same vantage, many in similar weather conditions. Last night was the heaviest snowfall of the season, but I have taken other pictures of snow. Today's image is eerie; "haunting," one of my friends called it. The light has a strange quality, as if the sky were about to collapse. Sometimes the camera plays such tricks, taking an unremarkable scene and infusing it with the paranormal. It is outside my control.
I went for a long walk today in spite of biting wind. Before the temperature started to fall last night we must have had some freezing rain because the upper tree branches shone like crystal against the sky. Blue is a rare and valuable colour on Earth, occurring only in a few precious minerals. Even true blue flowers are uncommon. The sky, however, has a wealth of it. On a cold winter day the heavens are pitiless in their grandeur. I can hardly bear to look at this broad expanse. It is blinding. This beauty offers the flesh no comfort.
Yesterday I took down my Christmas tree, but decided not to put all the decorations back in the basement this year. In December everything came upstairs smelling of mouse urine. There's no sense in putting a box full of newspaper wrapping back there. It will only attract vermin. I stored the strings of lights downstairs, but the balls and other ornaments, carefully tucked in a box, will have to find a space in one of my closets. It seems a shame to put these cheerful things away when I still need to dispel winter's darkness for a few more weeks.
The city is frigid. Cold wind stings my forehead. Breath freezes in my beard. We trudge through bitter snow en route to Futures Bakery for dinner. The traffic light turns red and we are stuck on a corner waiting to cross, our limbs aching to hurry to a place of warmth. The night is dark and barren, perforated with pale beams sprawling across streets clogged with white. Pedestrians slide past, transparent as shadows, huddling in furs and parkas, desperate to get wherever they are going. No one pauses to gaze at trinkets in store windows. Smokers slouch in recessed doorways.
I have never heard a Baroque orchestra perform live before. There were some 20 musicians, the director taking a first violin position, called concertmaster in a larger orchestra. The way they interacted felt closer to a jazz ensemble. The music sounded bright and vital. Orchestral music cannot be fully appreciated in a recording. The guest, a Russian soprano, sang arias from Cleopatra. Her first number was a vivid coloratura. What a strange word that is, as if sound could be broken, through a woman's vocal chords, into all the colours of the rainbow. Her sleeveless orange gown glittered with sequins.
En route to Kensington Market, the snow dusts Danny's coat with white. He hands me his coffee for a moment while he puts on gloves. I put my nose to the opening and inhale the fumes. I have stayed off coffee lately. We stop to pick up fruits and vegetables. The store is full of bins under bright lights: carrots, broccoli, napa cabbage, red onions. I turn off my flash, expecting fuzzy pictures, but they turn out clear. I have vivid memories of crisp vegetables and snow falling on the shoulders of furs lined up on outdoor racks for sale.
I get out of bed around 8:30 while Danny sleeps a while longer. Sleepycub is the nickname he gave himself, and it fits. I make Earl Grey tea to accompany the half a pear I left in the fridge last night and two slices of spice bread lightly toasted. I enjoy eating in stillness and solitude. Danny says I am a peaceful presence in his life. I rarely feel peaceful inside, but I feel good about having that affect on others. I watch sunlight brightening the sky over the housetops across the alley. It will be a fair, mild day.
Seeing soft colours above Danny's curtains, I tug them aside to take a look at the late afternoon sky. The setting sun has drawn pink brushstrokes underneath the purple clouds. The atmosphere looks irritated, like the feeling I get when my stomach refluxes, especially after I have drunk coffee or mixed alcoholic drinks. The sky is burning. I had a physical exam today, the first time in a couple of years. Everything looks good, but my doctor prescribed a nasal spray for my allergies. He also ordered x-rays to rule out hiatus hernia. I need to take ranitidine more regularly.
This sun behind curtains is nice but I need to get out where it's in my face. I want to squint at brightness, feel it flood my mind, wash away the inner husk of winter. It starts slowly, but these longer days of winter stretch my mind. My body and desire swell with it. The bear must soon wake up from his long hibernation and go rambling through the wilderness in search of food. He will take flesh if he can get it. The wild side awakens. It used to disturb me. Now I know what to do with it.
I had my blood tests done today, a whole battery, just the usual things, checking for blood sugar, cholesterol, HIV, and I don't know what else. It was a bad morning for fasting, because I had been out drinking last night. Five vials of blood left me feeling light-headed and woozy. Of course I'm the one who keels over at the mere idea of someone else bleeding. I am feeling sluggish today. It doesn't help that I'm disinterested in food. So far I have only eaten a bag of nachos and a glass of juice. It is after 3 p.m.
The squares for a watercolour quilt must be carefully chosen, not so much for colour as for the way each one interacts with those around it. They blend together the way dots of different colours do in an Impressionist painting. The one I started to sew five years ago is supposed to look like an open window looking out through a garden. A solid dark border of fabric evokes the frame. Within, fragments of floral printed fabric fade to progressively lighter colours as if toward sunlight in foliage. Even the palest squares are printed in shades of pink and yellow.
Hungry as I am for daylight, I'm always amazed to visit a house where the inhabitants keep the curtains drawn and the sun pushed out. Many are concerned with privacy or safety. Others simply have an aversion to bright sun shining in their eyes. I grew up in a house with wide windows and sliding doors facing south and overlooking Lake Erie. I could not live for long anywhere shadows prevail through the brightest parts of the day. This is one of the things I love about my apartment with windows opening east, south and west. I have no curtains.
Bright lights shine from the oddest angles during midday in downtown Toronto. The sun banks off shining towers in the busy financial district and penetrates shaded streets in strange ways. It gazes like a giant eye out of unexpected directions. In the cold air, gasps of vapour emerge from chimneys on the top of the buildings. Tiny clouds drift, spirit-like and quickly fading, across the January sky. They momentarily shimmer across the sun and reflections of sun, turning high, wide galleries into strange heavenly dances of radiance and shimmering shadow. Under this peculiar light I sit reading
Heart of Darkness.
On our way to lunch we wandered through the strange network of tunnels beneath downtown Toronto, called The Path. Danny says Bill hates it. I too could hate a place so divorced from nature, but somehow it intrigues me. I imagine some future tribes fighting battles for their lives in these tunnels after some apocalypse renders the upper world unlivable. The labyrinth is lined with endless food courts. I want to come back here someday alone and explore this cryptic world, see whether I can navigate the maps, pass the regions frequented by pedestrians and penetrate to a deeper plane.
I wish I were more dedicated to my houseplants. I would like to be able to grow a lush garden indoors. I have learned to settle for growing things that tolerate some neglect, otherwise they die and I have no more plants. I miss bright, fragrant flowers, aromatic herbs and luscious vegetables. Before Christmas I bought some seeds to grow basil and two kinds of lettuce. Even these have a hard time in our short winter days. At these latitudes I must consider buying a proper light fixture to nurture them through the dark season. Low humidity is another problem.
It keeps coming, this storm of light. I tried taking pictures. Who knows how they will turn out? The dim, dark world almost vanishes under a clotting white void. It's nothing but contrast. Cameras respond strangely to such things. Sky and ground become one indistinguishable mass. Human shapes struggling up the street turn to indistinct shadows. Tall buildings vanish altogether into swirling blindness. Tiny, fragile flakes turn to racing smears across the photographic eye. Up and down are lost. The only place to go is in, away from wind and ice, where our sheltered worlds take on some reassuring shapes.
The snowstorm swallowed the city. The sky became heavier and heavier, descending and absorbing tall office and apartment buildings into a white void. This is no clean, pure whiteness, but a muddy choking of colour. It is hostile grey, a featureless sky that soaks everything upward into a nullity. I took pictures of people waiting for the bus at Ossington station, their bundled bodies and muffled heads silhouetted against a savage blast of wind and snow. The figures look solemn and silent, waiting to be rescued from this inhospitable place, delivered into a benevolent dream away from this blinding reality.
Driving through Toronto at 5:30, I noticed light in the sky still, despite cloud cover and threat of snow. The dark noose of winter has begun to loosen. It is still tight, though. Several of my friends returned this week from sunnier climes with longer days: Puerto Vallarta, Arizona, Costa Rica. I envy them. My children keep me in Ontario, and I can't imagine having enough money to go anywhere warm in the next few years. I don't resent this. I'm very lucky, really. I picked the girls up today and drove home through darkness, the car full of giggles.
The Royal Ontario Museum keeps its display of armour and weaponry strangely dark. Swords appear in silhouette against sombre backgrounds. Spotlights cast a moody glow across the face of an ancient shield or a ghostly sheen on suits of armour, their apertures dark where limbs and necks once emerged. It turns the whole study of combat into a dim fantasy, vaguely nightmarish. Visitors pass like shadows. No armourer ever intended this old gear to be seen under electric lights, after all, but under the haunting flicker of torches. Maybe the display was only designed this way to hide the rust.
We drove home from Toronto in a blizzard. I barely made it up the Dufferin Street hill. We crept around the ramp onto Highway 401 and edged into the traffic. The dotted lines kept vanishing under clots of white, under the monstrous tires of transport trucks. Marian listened to heavy metal on her Walkman. The others in the back seat all napped. In the rear-view mirror I saw Sylvie stick her finger playfully, silently, in Sarah's ear. I turned the mirror to night vision so I wouldn't be distracted from the dim scurry of traffic on the highway before me.
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