It’s been a harsh winter in Toronto the Good. The air, quite frankly, hurts your face. I’ve been going around with constant windburn, hands so dry they crack and bleed, and my back knotted up from bracing myself against the wind chill. Toronto and I are going through a rough time in our relationship.
It’s not the first rough winter I’ve weathered in this city, and it won’t be the last. In fact, Toronto has seen 180 winters as a city. On March 6, 1834, Toronto became an official city. But it was here long before that. Toronto, according to different sources, was named after a Huron or Mohawk word for “place where the trees grow in shallow water”. And in the bustle of a shining chrome-and-glass city, the trees do still grow in shallow water. They grow at the edges of the Humber River, and trace along the twisting path of the Don River. They stand in quiet pools of melted snow, reflecting back up at the endless blue late-winter sky.
Despite its relatively young age, it’s timeless. It’s been here a long time. It’s going to stand a long time after all these buildings and bustling people are gone.
So what is Toronto? It’s beyond a city. It’s beyond a mayor that embarrasses us at every opportunity. It’s more than financial-district suits running up and down Bay Street. It’s more than yummy mummies at a Forest Hill park. It’s more than homelessness and strife in Regent Park. It’s all of those things, yes, but it’s more, too, because it encompasses everything.
It’s quiet rainy moments under streetlights in an autumn park. It’s walking through whispering leaves, smelling dying fires and the nip in the air. It’s taking those moments, one by one, and watching other people do the same.
It’s watching snow fall while you’re freezing waiting for a bus that might or might not come on time today. And it’s watching the beauty of the light trace over the boring buildings, the mundane everyday, and realizing that there is no mundane every day. It’s different, all the time. It’s not the same day as the one before it. It’s a simple lesson, and it’s learned in watching the capricious weather change from snow to sun to snow again, over and over.
It’s hot humidity at a fruit and flower market, as you stop for a bottle of water because walking a block over makes your shirt stick to your back. It’s smelling the cooking asphalt, and wishing for one tiny breeze in the dead of summer. And it’s watching what humidity can do . . . what stories it tells. It’s smelling the warm scents of fruit in the sunshine and imagining what one box of raspberries would taste like, even though you have $5 on you and you really shouldn’t spend the money today. But you do – you do it anyway, because it’s one summer, one day, one box of raspberries, and who cares. Who cares.
It’s running through Trinity-Bellwoods to get that perfect shot, the iconic CN Tower between the coloured leaves, and catching a fresh breeze right off the lake as you do so. It’s getting the idea for the elusive title of your next book – “Lake Effect, God, why didn’t I think of it before”, and stretching an ear for all the voices of the people who built this city as you walk through the streets, old and new. It’s falling in love with the way the sun looks on old brick. It’s longing for a time you never lived in – almost stupidly, really, but you do it all the same, all the time. You can’t turn it off. They have your ear now.
And it’s the transient movement – on the subway, in the streets, losing yourself in those deep city lights with your earphones shoved into your ears. Ignoring and simultaneously noticing the people who walk beside you, in front of you, behind you. They’re going the same way as you to a different place. They’ve all got their own stories. This is a city of stories.
And on your worst day, when you hate everything to do with this city you live in – you remember that you chose it. You chose to live here. You chose to take the good with the bad. You chose to put up with the annoyances for the beauty. It’s a fair trade. Because no matter where you walk, what you see, who you speak to, who touches you in some way on any given day – it’s your city. You made it yours. You love it for all its flaws . . . for the roughness of the relationship and for those beautiful days when everything goes right. This is the legacy of this city. This is what they built it for . . . so that you could be here. You could live here. And you could leave your mark here.
You’re so young, Toronto, by any other major city standards. And you’ve got your battle scars and your embarrassments and your coffee stains. I don’t close my eyes to that. I don’t ignore that we’ve got some improving to do. But perfection isn’t fun. Perfection isn’t what I want. I wanted a city that challenged me, that made me grow out of the shell I’d locked myself into. I wanted a city that loved me back and continued to amaze me.
And you do. Every day, you do. Every day, I am so privileged to make this city mine. Toronto is its people and its beauty. It’s full of problems and it’s full of joy. And the stories keep on being told, from the couple on the subway, to the little girl crying on the sidewalk, to the man smiling as he speaks on the phone to his wife. It’s the big celebrations of Pride and Caribana, and it’s the small things, like warm bricks on Old City Hall, the pink shine of the light on an office building, and a simple sunset in the park.
Happy birthday, gorgeous. I’ll photograph you until the end of my life. Keep on showing me your best face.