Metropolitan Homesick Blues

Southampton Stories & Other Stuff

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BRUCE COUNTY BACKROADS

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Side roads. Concession roads. Hardtop and hard-pack gravel. Graded and ungraded. Rutted and rain-eroded. They can get your car dust covered or mud caked depending on weather and which road you’re on. They are Bruce County two-lanes leading you everywhere and not necessarily where you want to go.

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We often drive these Bruce County back-roads. She is looking for birds. I’m looking for pictures. I don’t care much about shooting birds. My meager 250 mm lens fails in comparison to some of the big glass that other shooters carry. Most times, birds are just too far way to capture anything decent.

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I’m OK with that. I’m more interested in what was…the abandoned barns and farmhouses, the fences, the fallen in roofs and stone foundations…the what’s-left-on-the-land from times gone away.

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The structures that faced years of winds and weather, that struggled to stay upright and remain proud of what they provided to their hard-working owners…structures of shelter and warmth, places, markers that families once called home.

Some markers are different.

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This pockmarked weathered stone, its carved inscription unreadable, sits solitarily, a sentinel overlooking a vista of fields un-ploughed or planted. It seems out of place. More often than not you’ll see clusters of resurrected tombstones sitting on the side of secondary roads salvaged from some long forgotten cemetery to make room for more farmable fields. This one stands alone.

Cloud shadows silently drift across the fields it watches over. Why is it there? Is there meaning in its placement? Or is it just a photo-op for a wandering amateur with a camera? I doubt if I will ever know. But I take the shot anyway and move on.

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There is a great deal more to discover and capture on these roads.

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So we drive on.

NORWAY AND SORROW’S END

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The Spitsbergen’s thrusters whine into full power and gently push us away from the dock. In mid-harbour the helmsman takes advantage of the ship’s momentum and deftly executes an arc that turns the bow towards the channel markers. The main engines take over and we move, dead-slow, to the waiting open water just beyond the towering, treeless granite mountains standing on each side of the harbour mouth. Angry crags of rock dark from cloud shadow are sucking what sunlight they can into their crevices before the dark night clouds roll in.

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With the sun sinking behind us we are outward bound. A certain sadness sails with us.

September 19 – 3:30. On a soft, sun-filled afternoon Alice left us. She hadn’t the strength to fight any longer. Alzheimer’s had robbed her of her mind. Now it wanted her spirit. We were with her. She knew because she held Norma’s hand tightly. It was one of those late September days that borders on autumn but is reluctant to cross over. You know this because you can see the light changing – loosing its softness – the colours becoming vivid and taking on a harder edge as the sun prepares for the oncoming fall.

She was days away from her 94th birthday. We were days away from our trip to Norway.

 There was little time to grieve. Just time enough for us to stop in our tracks and think about what just happened. Time enough for arrangements and lawyers and wills and settlements and a multitude of phone calls and of course, packing and travel needs. In the midst of it all we realized that we would have to pack our sorrow and take it with us as we sailed the coast of Norway.

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There is nothing as exasperating as travel to take your mind off everything else. Caught in the computer labyrinth of check-in and customs. The lateness of flight departures. The guaranteed jet lag. The stress of tight transfer timelines. The unknown of arriving sleep deprived in an unfamiliar country. Some would say this is the down side of travel; taking yourself out of your comfort zone – trying to create a new “now” even though it is only temporary but must be mastered, quickly. Lawrence Durrell in “Bitter Lemons” described it well: “Journeys…A 1000 different circumstances contribute to them, few of them willed or determined by the will – whatever we may think.”

A new level of determination is needed because it is ‘travel’ – a personal challenge – a unfamiliar situation where you willingly place yourself – where the puzzle of logistics – the unfamiliar of an unknown place – the solving of ‘the way’ is your task. Maps, guidebooks, Internet recommendations don’t accurately deal with the new reality of location, language and customs. Hauling belongings. Running for trains. Searching for streets with unpronounceable names. Fighting fatigue. Lost in the din of strange words. Your best currency is your wit and your intelligence.

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When I was young. When I was dreaming dreams of traveling the world, I dreamt of sailing to strange places on a tramp steamer or a cargo ship crewed by misfits and lost souls running from their past – escaping from themselves. We would put-in to strange ports, drink rum in some noisy quayside bar, off-load cargo then sail on to repeat the same process in yet another port many nautical miles away.

I read stories of people who left their lives behind or vacationed recklessly as passengers on a rusty, creaky ship for months at a time seeking solitude, anonymity and the peace of just being themselves without the bother of having to be a tourist. This trip would be something like that only more civilized.

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The Spitsbergen is a supply ship for 200 travelers that stops in small ports up the coast of Norway, past the Arctic Circle turning at the Russian Border and heading back down again…a working ship with cruise ship amenities, but none of the luxury liner nonsense. It would be twelve days on the Norwegian Sea, time enough to move through the silent sorrow that was traveling with us.

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Lights creep towards us. As they come closer, they flash revealing a bigger ship approaching. Our bridge lights come full on. A blast from our ship’s horn startles us. Now the bridge lights of both vessels illuminate the darkness. Spitsbergen’s sister ship rushes past lights flashing as if waving. We rock with its wake. With engines full now we race ahead into the night of dark water.

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It was on this day that I learned of Henry’s passing. Henry had been a close friend since grade school. The loss of a childhood friend brings on a completely different feeling of grief than that of the loss of a family member. What is taken from you is a close relationship forged independently of family prerequisites. It is something deeply personal. A friendship founded on a sharing of intimate life-moments and experiences that infused your personality and contributed to your independence. And this independence let you leave your family; so to speak, so that you could become the individual you are now…the individual that only your friends would understand because they were there most steps of the way. Henry was one of those friends. But, like Alice, he left. And now we are sailing with the memory of them both.

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As we sailed this rugged, rocky mystic coast with its cliffs, crags, snow-capped mountains, mist, fog and fiords – this shrouded landscape with steep scree strewn slopes that slide straight into the Norwegian sea – where rain clouds chased the light until they both blended into a kaleidoscope of colours – where stars dominate the night skies and the aurorae dance to the unheard music of the universe – we realized this is the perfect place for remembrance:

 But if the while I think on thee, dear friend, All losses are restor’d and sorrows end.

Shakespeare, Sonnet 30

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On a cold rainy overcast day, in an old wooden Sami church in Trumso, we lit a candle for Alice and a candle for Henry. And then we got on with our journey.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

November 13, 2016 at 3:13 PM

Connect-The-Dots

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Travel is a ‘connect-the-dots-game’. You move, from one point to another at varying speeds, by various modes of transportation until you end up full circle – home. Along the way you experience degrees of discomfort. Airport hotels – small, noisy, uncomfortable, stale one night stands before moving on to the next dot. Airport boarding lounges full of sleep-deprived fellow travelers desperately seeking coffee. One or two night stands in strange places you previously believed would satisfy your ‘inner traveller’. In the days ahead, no matter how hard you try, your sleep clock will remain indelibly set to ‘home time’. Time zones play havoc with your head. Your biorhythms are constantly trying to correct themselves, searching for some inner landmark to anchor your spirit.

Our sleep clocks are set to ship’s time now and the ‘connect-the dots-game begins. We are cruising the Lesser Antilles, island hopping.

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First light slips through a slit in the drapes. A barely audible rushing sound like water lapping the shore of a Northern Ontario Lake lulls us awake. Opening the sliding glass doors we are slapped with heavy humidity rushing in to take advantage of a new opening. It drives us back into our equally heavily air-conditioned cabin to catch our breath.

The sea is calm. Dawn clouds dot the horizon. The ship’s wake is twisting, swirling white-foamed water rushing away from the white steel hull – dissipating then disappearing – losing its forced form – becoming waves in the softly rolling sea swells.

Boobies skim the sea’s surface. They glide between the troughs, rise up then dive deep into the wake with wings folded tight to their bodies, disappear then bob back up to the surface, sit briefly, then take flight. They repeat their kamikaze attacks again and again creating a rhythm that has dictated their lives for eons.

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Towering dark cumulus clouds dominate the horizon. We can see the rain lines falling from its gunmetal grey edge. As the ship moves steadily towards it like some jousting knight meeting a challenge, the cloud lifts itself above the horizon revealing a steadily growing gap of burning orange…a haze-fire in the luminous morning mist. Into this opening a red ball slips up from the sea line growing relentlessly. Its light reaches up piercing the cloud’s darkness etching its shape. In an effort to challenge the rising sun, the white-rimmed cloud contorts itself into multiple moguls and towering columns. But the challenge is well met. The now heated rays of the rising sun burn through the cloud’s base forcing the horizon gap to widen and claim the birth of a new day.

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And then they appear – rocks in the sea born of fire. Oceanic crust and coral thrust upward by colliding sub sea plates moulded by volcanic eruptions and earthquakes, green thick-wet verdant hills running up from sea to sky, cloud shrouded peaks and lush valleys…islands. Cruise islands…more dots to connect. The pilot boat comes rushing towards us.

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Island to island there isn’t much difference. The port towns are unbearably hot and heavy with humidity. Tight streets and lanes, sidewalks of alternating degrees of narrow, crowded with bewildered tourists looking for bargains in the markets and street side stores. Frigid air blasting from shop doorways (a moment of relief) is quickly sucked up by the humidity.

Each island’s hills are laced with roads twisting and turning their way up to somewhere. There is room only for one vehicle at a time. Passing is precarious because the culverts on either side are wide and deep to carry water downhill. If you slide over to quickly to make room for an oncoming car you could be lost, swallowed up to the axel. Towns, villas, shanties, shacks, abandoned half finished homes and churches, all perched on the hillsides, jut out from the greenery.

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A rainbow rises from the sea. Rain, fog and mist hang over the deep green hills that run layer after layer into the dark clouds that blanket the mountaintops and slide between the peaks. It is a damp, dreary day. Our guide is driving us deep into the rainforest. Switchbacks, fallen roadside rocks, chewed up asphalt, potholes and washed out roads with cars parked on either side, mean nothing to him. Compared to the claustrophobic congested warren of market stalls on the harbor streets, although treacherous, at least these are open roads. There is beauty in the lush verdant hills even though rain clouds rule their peaks.

And as we drive deeper into the rainforest I wonder if we will ever find a clearing that would give us a view of the surrounding sea.

We climb Mount Sage the highest peak in the British Virgin Islands for a change of perspective. But clouds shroud the land beneath us. There is no sea. There is no island. No dots can be see. There is no connection to landmarks of place or spirit to settle you.

And it is still raining.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

July 11, 2015 at 5:17 PM

CEMETERY ROAD

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I walked the Cemetery Road the other morning. It leads to the remains of Southampton’s original cemetery that lies, long since abandoned on a high, crumbling cliff overlooking the Saugeen River. This road is always at winter’s mercy, as the Town doesn’t maintain it except in late spring.

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A cold east wind soughed through the trees. There was a chill in the air even though the sun did its best to pierce the battlement-like tall cedars that lined each side of the road. The shade from these trees is the reason for the slow melt on the forest floor. Even so, water runs freely in the ditches that hug the shoulders of the damp, rutted, pot-holed road. Overhead a Bald Eagle inscribes lazy circles in an unbelievably blue sky. A sentinel Crow sounds the alarm as I round a turn out of sunshine into shade.

On the road, a short distance ahead of me, I see a man, slightly stooped, slowly walking with the aid of a cane, his gait steady, measured, deliberate. It isn’t long before I’m beside him, my pace now moderated to match his.

“Good morning.” I say. “Great day for a walk.”

He stopped. Smiled. Nodded. “Indeed it is.”

We walked, side by side for a ways, talking of nothing in particular and everything in general. His eyes were bright blue. His smile suggested gentleness. He wore a greying mustache that gave him the rakish look of someone who flew Lancaster Bombers in World War Two. His leather Bomber Jacket with a fur collar fit perfectly with the mental picture I was drawing of my new companion.

“That’s quite a camera you have there. You must be a photographer.”

“No.” I said. “I play at photography. Just a hobby.”

“I had a Mamiya 6. Got it after the war. Fine camera…a lot different than what you’ve got there.”

“Times change,” I said politely.

At that moment I felt myself becoming impatient with the slowness of our walk. That if I wanted to keep chatting, I was compelled to move at his pace. I wondered if he was aware that because of our chance meeting, he had slowed me down…forcing me, however subtly, into his world.

Don’t be ridiculous, I thought. Then again, don’t we all do that every day of our lives…gently steer people to meet us on our terms…to agree with our outlook on life…our thinking…our opinions…to move at our pace? And more often than not, our resistance is a source of conflict in our lives.

“I think I’ll head home now” His words broke through my silly train of thought. “I’ve gone far enough.”

He had no thoughts other than a pleasant walk with a stranger. On this quiet country road this elderly gentleman had reached his limit. I watched him retrace his path leaning on his cane more than before; shoulders hunched…his step a little slower now. “Cemetery Road,” I muttered to myself.

I picked up my usual pace and moved on…not sure of when I would turn back. Before I rounded a corner I glanced over my shoulder, but he was nowhere in sight.

Regrettably, I never asked him his name.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

April 20, 2015 at 3:13 PM

ED’S CHAIR

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Vivian was an Art Director that worked for me back in the 90’s during my Ogilvy & Mather days.

She was good. Imaginative. More than willing to present concepts that challenged clients. Her layouts and comps were brilliantly rendered. (InDesign and Photoshop weren’t in wide use back then).

The reality that she was a fine artist was suspected, but remained hidden from us until the day she walked into the Creative Lounge with a battered old art bag full of her watercolours. She had finally decided to show her work and she wanted our opinion…and one of us to write artsy descriptions of each painting.

What we saw were wonderful representations of Toronto, evocative street scenes, finely detailed, bursting with vivid colour. We were impressed, full of praise. Viv was humble. She had stepped outside the confines of advertising and shown us another, creatively different, side of her. She did leave one piece in her bag, though. I pulled it out and she quickly took it from me. “This isn’t worth showing,” she said. “Its too slap-dash.”

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It looked like she had ripped it out of her sketchbook; the edges were rough and unevenly torn. But, I liked its simplicity. There was a richness to the varying shades of green that edged up to a slightly out of perspective white Muskoka Chair with three gray shadow stripes across its back.starkness. The chair stood solitary as if waiting for someone.

I was taken by it. This was the garden and the chair I pictured myself one day relaxing in on a quiet summer’s afternoon…not caring about much. At rest. Done with the storms and stresses of ambitions and competitions I depended on for a living were over. It was a picture of a promise I would make to myself.

I told Vivian what I saw in her “slap-dash” work and she smiled. “Ha. Ed’s Chair,” she said. “OK, it’s yours.”

I did pay her. Can’t remember how much. After I retired I had it framed. It hangs in my bedroom.

Today, I have the garden. I have the chair. And I have the quiet summer afternoons to sit and pass the time any way I wish.

Promise kept.

Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

April 4, 2015 at 4:10 PM

THE HILL HOUSE

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There isn’t much that’s important about the loneliness of an inanimate object.

The idea of whether or not the object in question even feels loneliness or anything else for that matter is, some would say, meaningless; not worth thinking about. To the eye of the beholder, though, this appearance of loneliness can radiate certain feelings, illusions that translate into a need to ask questions.

Like this place. It has always intrigued me. Why was the farm abandoned? When? Is the land still farmed? Where is the family now? Do they even care?

All of these thoughts have been with me since I first saw this crumbling abandoned farmhouse ten years ago just off Bruce Road 3. I ask myself these same questions each time I drive by. Year after year it stands like a sentinel, naked, at the whim of weather and time, on a small hill overlooking its fields.

There is a rough, rutted, snow buried, single lane road that runs uphill to the crumbling house. The fields slope down, running away from it. A fence runs parallel to nowhere. I’ve often been tempted to drive up, to explore, to see if any clues to the house’s history might be lying about.

But I always held back. It would be wrong to trespass. The words ‘leave me alone’ always drifted down to me. ‘Respect my solitude’.

Endurance, not loneliness, is what is in this house. It will stand against time for as long as time will allow. As we all will. One day it will succumb.

Until that day and after, I will have this photograph to remind me of what we must endure.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 21, 2015 at 12:26 PM

Night Snow

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Under the street lamps that pool their light on the now white road wind whips the flurries into individual cyclones whirling about helter skelter. Cedars on the roadside go dark, lost in the shadows, lost in the black of night. In the cone of the streetlights the snow takes on highlights that accentuate its movement. It dances with the wind, blurring in flight, never, it seems, touching down, hovering around and inside the beam’s pool bringing new life to the light. Night Snow is different than snow falling at daybreak…more menacing. You are unsure of what it leaves behind until dawn crawls up the dark trailing early morning light to show you its night work. Night Snow is like a secret gathering, an army, a relentless force building for an attack at daybreak when the world wakes and is forced to face the consequences of all that Night Snow has left behind.

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Written by metropolitanhomesickblues

March 4, 2015 at 8:16 PM