Saturday, May 31, 2008

A Sense of Where You Are

I'm messing around on the laptop when I hear the phone ring. It's Hala, one of the other interns.

"Good morning! How are you?"

"Good and you?"

"I'm doing fine. Are you ready to go?"

"Go where?"

"The Farmers' Market? Weren't we supposed to meet at 11?" she asks.

Oh damn. I had completely forgotten.

"Oh yes, of course, I'll see you at the hospital at 11."

I look at the clock. 10:30. Rushing to iron some clothes and get dressed in time, I am a few minutes late by the time I meet her in the physicians' parking lot.

"Hi, how are you?" I say, climbing into her SUV.

"You had forgotten, right?" she confronts me cheekily.

"Uhm, yes," I tell her. "My memory's shot these days. I think I have ADHD." I've just finished a psychiatry rotation and am chockfull of diagnoses.

"What?! Rubbish!" she exclaims. "You're too old."

"No, about 60% of children with ADHD go on to have it as adults," I regurgitate.

She laughs. "If you have ADHD, then look at me. I have Alzheimer's!"

Hala and I have known each other for about a year. We started together as interns last July and have frequently worked with each other on the same team. Before she came here, Hala was a cardiologist in her own country. For more than a decade she practised adult cardiology before deciding it was really working with children that gave her heart pleasure. So she took her licensing exams and applied for a pediatrics residency position, accepting the first job that was offered her, her first interview. I once tactlessly asked her how old she was.

"How old do you think I am?" she asked capriciously.

"Mid-thirties," I replied, instantly recognising my mistake and trying not to add insult to injury.

"Oh! You are too kind," she said, patting my hand. "I am almost fifty."

It amazed me then (it still amazes me) how much enthusiasm she put in her job. Even on days post-call, when she'd been without sleep for more than twenty-four hours, Hala would be smiling and cracking jokes, sneaking down for a quick coffee and then back to work without complaint. I don't think I've ever heard her complain, like the rest of us did, about how difficult things were or how stressed out she was.

"I saw a beautiful plant that I wanted to buy for my apartment," she tells me as we pull into the Farmers' Market parking lot.

"Oh, yeah?"

"Yes, it's citronella. Very nice."

"Go for it."

We get out of the car and walk down to the stalls. Hala goes over to admire the flowers. I strap on my bhai-Pod, my constant, unwavering companion and head over to buy some fruit. The tables are decked in a spectacular display of spring colors that, after a winter of parched hues, make me feel suddenly, ferociously hungry. I stop at a stall and the owner invites to me try the produce. She has several rows of fruit laid out in front of her. Strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, cherries, all arranged in three neat tiers and begging to be bought. I taste a cherry and buy a bag, asking her to add a small carton of blackberries to it. The stall next door has nectarines sliced up for visitors to try. They are crunchy but raw and I opt for some oranges instead. In a few minutes I am laden with bags and enough fruit to last me a month. I walk over to the bookstall.

It's been a while since I was last at the market but the owner recognises me straight away.

"Hi! How are you?" he greets me.

"Good and yourself?"

"Good, thanks," he replies. "A couple of times these past few months I've come across stuff that I thought you might enjoy. Hope you find something you like!"

I thank him for remembering and browse through the shelves. It embarrasses me that I can't remember his name because he was one of the first people I got to know when I moved here. I used to come to the market pretty regularly back then, walking around the place, enjoying the festive atmosphere, the colors. The Farmers' Market always embodied a sense of community and for me, so new and unfamiliar to this town, it felt like an initiation, an act of moving in. I would walk around swathed in the smell of vegetables, heady with the sense of discovery.

"Find anything?" the owner pokes his head around a shelf to ask.

"Yeah, I'll take this." I hand him a book.

"That'll be four dollars. Would you like a bag?"

"No thanks, I'm good."

"How about a bookmark?"


"Alright, you're all set," he says, slipping a bookmark into my book. "Have a great day!"

"Thanks, Jim," I say, finally remembering his name. "You too."

Sunday, May 25, 2008

A Gathering of Family

I wake up and the room is filled with light. A cool breeze flows in through the open window and gently teases the clothes on the chair. It takes me a moment to realise that I'm not at home, that this is not my bed and that the sounds coming in from outside are not my shy neighbour who apparently is incapable of producing any sound beyond that of his own unavoidable breathing but my young cousin banging on the bathroom door for her stupid brother to come out. No, I am in my uncle's house and on vacation and the trouble fast brewing over the conquest of the washroom is music to my ears.

I get up and brush my teeth in the small bathroom at the entrance. The house is swirling in early morning chaos as everybody rushes to get to their classes on time. I wander about lazily and end up on the couch in front of the TV. Chachu is sitting there with his morning tea and the newspaper spread open out in front of him. Chachi is busy in the kitchen making lunches for the children. They are not children any more but their mother still gets up early to pack food for them. I turn on the TV and mindlessly flick through the channels. Chachi hands me a hot plate with breakfast on it: buttered toast and jam and a hardboiled egg, lightly salted and heavily peppered. The perfect meal. The weatherman is saying something about clear skies and sunshine. A beautiful day has just begun.

Saturday, May 24, 2008

Ways of Seeing

I walk out of the subway station into an overcast sky. This is Toronto and grey clouds threaten to rain. I have to meet someone but I don't know where I am. The street says Spadina but there are no shops here, only houses, all red-colored. They are lined up on both sides of the street, shoulder to shoulder, a stoic assembly of charming cherry-faced conformity with nothing for the eye or mind to fasten on. I pick a direction and start walking blindly.

I'm not too enamoured of big cities but Toronto is a place that has trapped my heart. Whenever I come here I find something new, some novel way of looking at the world. I'm not sure why that is because all cities vivify human experience. The sheer density of transactions, the pace and energy with which people connect, ensures that you are not deprived of opportunities to refract a little wisdom into your own life. Why this happens more frequently in Toronto though than in other places, I don't know. There is an alchemy to it that mercifully resists unraveling.

I walk down the street and notice the traffic starting to congest. An intersection is coming up and the sign says Bloor. I think I'm in the right place but I want to be sure. I look around and even as I'm trying to spy someone to mooch direction off of, I notice an old lady walking out of an apartment building. She is holding a white stick in front of her and appears to be feeling the way. The stick misses the edge of the curb and I watch her trip up and fall.

"Are you alright?" I go up and ask.

"Yes," she replies picking herself off the ground. "Can you tell me where 720 is?"

"I don't know but we can ask someone."

She slides her arm over mine and we walk up to the intersection. I ask about 720. The man points me down Bloor and says it's a long way off.

"You're in the three hundreds right now," he says pointing to the number on the front of a shop.

I go back and tell the lady.

"Oh," she says, looking dismayed. "Can you help me? I have trouble crossing the street."

I place her hand on my arm and we start walking. I have never before walked with someone who couldn't see and initially I mess up, overestimating her ability to gauge potential hazards and avoid them. We walk into a tree and a fire hydrant. Frequently, we bump up against each other as we try to negotiate around obstacles. When we cross the street, her grip on my arm tightens.

After about ten minutes of walking, the lady asks me what number we're at.

"618," I tell her.

"Only? It wasn't this far the last time . . . "

"You said you wanted to go to 720 Bloor, right?" I confirm.

"No, 720 Spadina West."

I feel like a total idiot. I made this lady walk twenty minutes out of her way because of a stupid mistake on my part. I should have asked the exact address.

"I'm sorry, ma'am, we're on Bloor right now," I say, uselessly trying to look contrite. "Let me take you back."

We turn around and walk back. I try and spot a taxi that could take us to her destination. Of course, there are none. I resort to conversation as a means of working off my embarassment.

"Where are you from?" I ask stupidly.

"Portugal, but I used to live in Minnesota."

"How long have you been in Canada?"

"Eighteen years!" she says, smiling.

"Wow! Did you come to Toronto?"

"No, I was in Newmarket first and then Toronto. Where are you from?" Her bag slips off her shoulder.

"Pakistan," I tell her. "Would you like me to carry that for you?"

"Thank you," she says, handing it to me. "Are we almost there?"

We return to the intersection of Bloor and Spadina. I help her cross the street and we walk down Spadina. There is another man feeling his way with a white stick ahead of us. My lady's stick jabs into his heels. He doesn't even notice. Maybe he's too used to it by now.

I see 720 shining off a door.

"We're here," I tell her.

"Thank you," she says, holding out her hand for the bag.

"Would you like me to help you in?"

"No, I'm okay. Thank you."

I want to apologise but I don't know the Portugese word for moron. Instead I just return her bag and wish her a good day.

"Bye," she says, turning around to go into the building. I watch her walk away, sensing the path with her cane, sweeping it in wide radar arcs to clear the ground. The landing troubles her momentarily but she climbs it in small hesitant steps and soon she is across the door and out of sight. It never occurred to me that walking with the blind could help you see so much.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008


From Ammani's blog

Here’s what I want from you. Your memories of summer afternoons. Be it a photo, a poem, a story or anything that to you typifies the blessed dullness of a scorching mid-day in May.

It is three o'clock and I am fourteen years old. I have just finished my lunch and it is now time for a nap. I close my bedroom door and turn the air-conditioner on to full blast. Outside the sun sears the road until it becomes a thick black river that sways under my gaze. I look in the distance and see a man on a bicycle with a stack of newspapers fastened behind his seat. He is riding on the tarmac river, swathed in its heat. I close the blinds and slip into bed. The sheets are crisp and clean and as I slide my arm into the cool white cleft under the pillow I feel a narcotic stupor overcome me. The air-conditioner purrs in the background. I pull the comforter over my head and fall asleep.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Splitting An Order

I like to watch an old man cutting a sandwich in half,
maybe an ordinary cold roast beef on whole wheat bread,
no pickles or onion, keeping his shaky arms steady
by placing his forearms firm on the edge of the table
and using both hands, the left to hold the sandwich in place,
and the right to cut it surely, corner to corner,
observing his progress through glasses that moments before
he wiped with his napkin, and then to see him lift half
onto the extra plate that he asked the server to bring,
and then to wait, offering the plate to his wife
while she slowly unrolls her napkin and places her spoon,
her knife, and her fork in their proper places,
then smooths the starched white napkin over her knees
and meets his eyes and holds out both old hands to him.

- Ted Kooser

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

The Guest

When Chiqui asked me if my sleep in her house
had been good, I told the truth with a sweep
of my hands: The mattress sags, I said, and left
for Spanish class.

She dragged the mattress
off its frame and propped it in the narrow hall.
She pulled the larger, slightly newer mattress off
her and her husband's bed and hauled it
back to mine.

Now when Chiqui asks me
how I've slept, I lie: Just fine, I say,
though by this time I've learned
the Spanish word for shame.

- Judith McCune

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