Monday, July 29, 2013

Book: The Way of the Stars

The Camino de Santiago is a pilgrim trail which leads to Santiago de Compostela in Northern Western Spain. Although pilgrimage may seem like a medieval practice, this Spanish pilgrimage has become increasingly popular in the last 30 years.

Thousands of pilgrims make the journey each year. They may spend days, weeks, or even months along roads which gather like tributaries from across Europe.

Not surprisingly, the increased popularity of the Camino pilgrimage has resulted in several books about it, most of which are guide books or travel memoirs.

Robert Sibley's book, The Way of the Stars, is one of these. Published in 2012, it describes his experiences along the Spanish trails. Written in a clear, descriptive voice which reflects his vocation as journalist and professor, it's narrative touches upon questions of faith, consciousness and quest, but mostly deals with earthly interests of a modern-day agnostic - food, drink, walking conditions and the physical effort of walking every day.

I, too, have walked the Camino de Santiago - twice in fact. I, too, have written a book about it - although mine is yet unpublished. It is because I am renewing my efforts to publish this work that I read Sibley's book. I wanted to see how he relayed the experience, how he wove together the history of the trail with its current condition.

As I read Sibley's book, I not only discovered the Camino through his eyes, but his narrative awoke my own memories of places, people and experiences. I couldn't help wishing I could return to the magical, mystical footpaths he describes and I remember. But for now, I will content myself with returning to my own manuscript, the writing of which is its own arduous journey.

Thursday, July 25, 2013

Book of Mercy

When Leonard Cohen wrote the Book of Mercy in the early 1980s he described himself as being "unable to speak in any other way" and that he had been "silenced for a long, long time." The book of 50 prose poems is a poignant conversation between himself and "the source of mercy."

It is filled with longing, regret, sorrow and hope. In its pages, the author "falls radiantly toward the light to which he falls" (Book of Mercy, 8)

Published in 1984, this is Cohen's eighth book of poetry. At that time, he had already published two novels and released eight recording albums. Throughout all of these works there are recurring themes of spiritual (and sexual) longing, but more than any other, this book is liturgical, prayer-like. Though influenced by his Buddhist practice and his interest in Christianity, it is very much a tribute to, and participation in, his Jewish faith and traditions.

Book of Mercy is composed of 50 numbered pieces. They are short in length, but deep with imagery and Scriptural references. The language is so carefully crafted that one reading alone does not feel sufficient for grasping everything contained in each poem.

I read this book in one sitting, which is like standing under a waterfall with the weight of words tumbling around me. I know I'll want to return again - but next time to enter slowly. Dip my toes in. Read just one verse and sit with it awhile. This is a book you could take on a desert island and never tire of.

In verse 13, Cohen writes, "Friend, when you speak this carefully I know it is because you don't know what to say." Cohen speaks extremely carefully, but he knows exactly what to say.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Kitchissippi Wading Pool Challenge

It's not a challenge for the faint of heart. It takes commitment, tenacity. It also requires a bathing suit, beach towel and sun hat. Pool toys are optional.

The challenge? Visit all 13 splash pads and wading pools in the Kitchissippi area before the end of this summer. Do you have what it takes?

Miya at Parkdale Market Pool
Four-year old Miya is determined to see this challenge through. "I believe I have the fortitude and discipline to rise to the occasion," she said - or something to that effect. (It might also have been something like, "Can't we go to the pool now?")

So armed with a pink bathing suit, flowered hat, sunscreen, and a favourite beach towel, she ventures forth. For a girl still unwilling to submerge her face in water, she is making an admirable conquest of the neighbourhood pools.

Of the 10 wading pools, she has already visited 6. Asked which is her favourite, she chooses Iona Park - the wading pool closest to home in which she has spent many summer hours.

So are you up for the Kitchissippi Wading Pool Challenge of 2013? Leave a comment and let us know how many of the local pools you've visited this summer - and which one is your favourite.

Wading Pools in Kitchissippi:
Ev Tremblay Park: 108 Beech Ave
Reid Park: 40 Reid Ave
Parkdale Market Park: 366 Parkdale Market
Champlain Park: 140 Carleton Ave
Hampton Park: 645 Parkview Rd
Iona Park: 223 Iona St
Lions Park: 294 Elmgrove Ave
Westboro Kiwanis (Dovercourt): 411 Dovercourt Ave
McKellar Park: 539 Wavell Ave
Woodroffe Park: 180 Lockhart Ave

Splash Pads in Kitchissippi:
Hintonburg Park: 1064 Wellington St W
LaRoche Park: 52 Bayview
Roy Duncan Park: 295 Churchill Ave

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Book: The Favourite Game

The late Paul Quarrington and I are in disagreement. He wrote the afterword for Leonard Cohen's debut novel, The Favourite Game. The game, he writes, is "marring something unbroken". I believe the game is the making of impressions.

Perhaps we both mean the same thing. You cannot make an impression without marring the surface. But while some might see that the game of the book's protagonist, Lawrence Breavman, as pursuing and marring perfection, I see it as a cultivation of impressions. Impression on body. Impression on spirit and soul.

The Favourite Game was published in 1963 and is viewed as a semi-autobiographical novel since it constructs the portrait of a young Jewish poet from Montreal. Yet while Breavman's vocation as a writer and poet is the underpinning of the book, the stories are about relationships - with women he refers to as 'mistesses' and with his childhood friend, Krantz.

Breavman, or perhaps Cohen as his biographer, is unable to stop being an observer of his own life and of these relationships. For a woman he "was a professional, he knew how to build a lover to court her." After wooing and winning her, and even living with her for a time of acknowledged happiness, Breavman must flee her since the lover "had a life of his own and often left Breavman behind." He knowingly chose loneliness, but he also chose the vantage point from which he could study the impressions which she had made on him, which he had made on her.

When I buy a book, I put my name, date and city of purchase on the inside. This book was bought in Saskatoon in November of 1996. At the time I was doing an undergraduate degree in English and Philosophy and took a course in Canadian Literature in which we read a Canadian novel each week. I read this book quickly, but in true student fashion, I underlined the passages which stood out for me. "A community is an alibi for the failure of individual love." "Poetry is a verdict, not an occupation."

Reading it now, so many years later, is like returning to a familiar city. Some places were vividly remembered, others lost in the folds of memory so as to be new discoveries. But in the years since I read this book, I have become an ardent Leonard Cohen fan - of his music, art, and poetry. In some of the phrases in this book, I heard an echo of a song he would later write. It was a joy to read this book - not just since it is poetic, intelligent and vividly descriptive, but because it is part of the artist I so deeply admire and respect.

Tuesday, July 09, 2013

Two couches, two worlds
There is a photographer in Ottawa who has been taking a beautiful old couch into neighbourhoods around  where we live. He invites people to sit, stand, lounge, etc on the couch while he takes pictures. Some of the shots are posted on his site.

What a lovely idea, I thought when I saw this, a great way to celebrate the places and people around here that I love so much. Sure, it's gentrified and all, but Westboro is a great place to raise kids. At a recent community event in our neighbourhood park we had over 100 people show up, despite the cool, rainy weather.

The Community Couch project seems like a neat way to capture some of the local vibe. I even pitched a story about it to my editor at Kitchissippi Times before realizing they are already going to be running a story on this next week.

Muzaffar Salam/Reuters
Then I sat down with last Saturday's edition of the Globe and Mail to read an article on the latest turmoil in Egypt and the Arab Spring movement. Opening the paper I was immediately struck by this image from Syria.  The couches are so similar, yet the setting couldn't be more different.

Sometimes it just takes a simple thing like the contrast of two images to remind me how fortunate I am to live where I do.