December 22, 2011

Lights illuminate nothing


December 19-21, 2011
Pregnancy hormones have kept me awake lately and work is very busy. I've gotten a bit anxious, and nightmares wake me most nights. In Tuesday's dream, MacGyver pursued me through Toronto back alleys, punching and hitting me from behind as I scrambled over chain-link fences. Funny - check. Woken with heart racing - also check.

I would love a few sunny days! This picture shows the nightscape of my way home. It would be awesome if I had some kind of glaze to bring out the wet sheen on the rocks and road. The Transitway at night is atmospheric and lonely – the buses plunging through darkness, lights illuminating nothing.

Bring on the snow, the bright white blanket! Happily, patches of snow forecasted for Christmas.

December 19, 2011

Ypres and Houlten, November 2011

Ypres countryside, Belgium

During my visits to World War I sites in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, my companion was a German woman. Her presence was a reminder to remember to look for the faces on the other side of the front. The enemy wore uniforms a person designed, occupied trenches in mortal flesh and blood, was remembered by worried relatives, lay in too many graves.

At Passchendaele Museum, an elderly Belgian volunteer, a serviceman of 40 years who had never seen combat, let us through the tiny rooms. The usual dioramas, munitions, gas cylinders, bunker replica -- brought into vivid relief by his attention. I loved his stories. I probably would have tramped through the day's balance of monuments and plaques with little interest if it weren't for him.


Tyne Cot Cemetery

Some of the things I remember: Africans serving in the Great War were outfitted in the light and bright uniforms of their own climates. In that gear, they would have practically frozen. The French wore uniforms dyed in their flag colours -- but bright blue is rotten camouflage in the muck of trench warfare.

The first time people waged war with gas was in 1915 in Belgium. I'm told that Canadian troops took the worst of the gas attacks and didn't break under the charges.

At a certain point, armies replaced chlorine with mustard gas. Once it got on the skin, the only remedy was for surgeons to flay off the skin. Nurses who touched affected patients with their bare hands suffered the same bubbling burns on their hands. It stayed on clothes and skin a long time. After the war, everyone knew people with disfigurements.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

My companion and I drove next to Tyne Cot Cemetery. I learned there that all graves of Commonwealth soldiers are attended by its War Graves Commission, which dedication may explain why the stones and plots seem so new.

Many things struck me as I looked at the rows. The sensitivity of those who laid out the graves, Scots next to South Africans, the bemedalled by the common soldier. It left me feeling grateful that principles were behind some of it all, that at least in death, their lives, lost, were accorded the equal respect they should have had in life.

I appreciated the care taken by those (gardeners?) responsible for tending the graves. Each stone looks down upon short, soft grass and tiny bushes and succulents. The stones themselves are not at all the bulky granite you see in regular cemeteries. They have the look and heft of gravestones in old graveyards across Ontario. Light in color, slim. I could lift one, I think.


Each gravestone bears, if known, a national insignia (a symbol like the maple leaf or some sort of military crest), the name, dates of birth and death of the person interred. They often feature a phrase provided by the family. These lament sons, some in grief rage at their losses, many are proud, a few perplexed by a beloved child's enlistment.

Tyne Cot Cemetery

I'm riding very slowly by Parliament as I record my thoughts. It's December, so Centre Block wears a façade of storey-high snowflakes, limned by Christmas lights. The torch leans to the west in a warm wind. It's very beautiful.

The new building at Tyne Cot Cemetery is a squat, rectangular box. Inside, dead soldiers' names are spoken by a recording. When laying a poppy on war graves, it is customary to say the name of the dead aloud, so they are remembered. My solemn wish has always been that none of my children go to war.

In the Great War, nine million combatants died. The toll of deaths to civilians from infectious diseases and other things exacerbated by famine, displacement and food shortages, etc., is very high. The worst example is the 50 million lost to flu alone, in 1918.

It was the last war among Western nations where the main ammunition was the individual soldier. They were dispensable where munitions and matériel were expensive. The two sides in the conflict were fairly evenly matched, it seems, and for four years they waged a war of attrition. In the Ypres Salient, the front moved back and forth by mere kilometres.


Postcard, bought at a shop by Hill 62

Every minor elevation was a strategic advantage and for its extra visibility and what have you was granted a name: Hill 60, Hill 62, and so on.

There were, what, five battles in four years in Ypres, including the Battle of Passchendaele, just a few kilometers away. Canada had 16,000 casualties there. My husband was born in a town of 16,000.

After Tyne Cot Cemetery, we stopped briefly at Canada's Passchendaele memorial. It faces a lovely row of houses and an agreeable vista of farms. A few sheep stand in the Belgian mist atop the gentle slope. It seems timeless. Brownstone farmhouses, red roofs. Of course, it was all rebuilt less than 100 years ago by the survivors and their families. Can you imagine the first meal over the kitchen table?

The brooding soldier

Menin Gate, view of town of Ypres

Cemetery by Dr John McRae's dressing station

"Their name liveth for evermore" (next to Dr McCrae's station)

A New Coat for Anna is a children's story about a little girl whose (single now) mother trades her jewelry and family heirlooms for the wool and weaving of a winter coat for little Anna. The drawings by Anita Lobel are very gentle and full of color. They're also quite sober. The story takes place in the aftermath of World War II. In the background of the kitchen are broken windows; ceiling joists hang low in the parlour. Everyone is so thin.

I've made it to the age of 36, and I think I will never know what to think of war. Is violence never just?

Houlten War Cemetery


The spines of the military staff were very straight, and their faces sad as they saluted the cross at Houlten War Cemetery on Remembrance Day. In comparison to them, what I know of war is all imagination and stories.

As an adult, the First World War's senseless loss of young life haunts me. But it was World War II that loomed in my mind as a youth. I suffered from insomnia, and when I ran out of sci-fi/fantasy novels, I would take to mining my parents' bookshelves.

There was some pretty exciting stuff. The Hite Report, Fear of Flying. And a few volumes about the Holocaust, including Treblinka. Of course, I had read Anne Frank in school, too.

Houlten War Cemetery recently built a new visitors' center. There you can access files about each person in the cemetery. I looked up a name from the cemetery, a stone bearing my mother's maiden name. She says we're not related.

It was Remembrance Day and there was a wreath-laying ceremony, attended by about thirty people, including several aged veterans responsible for founding and running the centre.

Houlten was the last wartime cemetery and memorial that I visited during Veterans Week. The gravestones appeared to have been replaced earlier than the stones of WWI cemeteries in Belgium. They are darker and craggy with moss. The gardens are beautiful, and the vegetation reminded me of home. A stand of birch flanks the far wall.

Houlten War Cemetery

I ate lunch at a nearby museum called Memory. I munched on a sandwich with my back to a tank. In one display, next to some trinkets and letters, lay a wallet made of human skin.

The currency of war is flesh.

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In Belgium, I visited the Passchendaele Museum, Tyne Cot Cemetery, Dr John McRae's dressing station (he of In Flanders Fields poetic reknown), the Brooding Soldier, Passchendaele Canadian Memorial, Menin Gate and Hill 62, where I bought this postcard at a nearby cafe. In the Netherlands, I visited Houlten War Cemetery and the Museum of Memory.

December 17, 2011

A top by any other name

December 7 and 17, 2011
Anybody know what this odd building along the Transitway near Woodroffe might be?

December 13, 2011

Although it's been said

December 12-13, 2011

I've been writing a longer post about my trip to Belgian and Dutch war sites. I am about halfway through now. Maybe life will smile on me tomorrow, and I will finish :)  Or instead I might wrap Christmas presents. The sentimentality of the season embodied in all the time devoted to thinking and caring for others really appeals to me. I love it every year, even when the list of loved ones overwhelms my budget. The communal meal-making has a place among my Christmas faves, too, but the annual chief pleasure has to be the houseclothes-clad gathering in the den of a morning, over mimosas, crackers and cheese. The stores are closed, the world is covered in white and quiet. There's just my dear family.

This year I have a pre-Christmas favourite: music! To prepare my two-year-old daughter for Christmas, I started singing carols to her at night sometime in October. Everything from Silent Night to Jingle Bells. Her favourite is "Little Toy Trains." The link is to the version by Nana Mouskouri that my parents played when I was a child. I loved to sing along with her.

We also loved Mahalia Jackson, and I think we had a Leona Boyd Christmas album, too. Of course Ella Fitzgerald's Swinging Christmas and Bing Crosby are terrific (and should I mention my husband's pick, Bony M's Christmas?) but my favourite is the Nat King Cole Trios' Christmas Song. It's probably wrong that someone with a voice like that also had so much talent on piano, too, but I lap it up like a cat.

It's taking me longer and longer to draw my bus pictures because they're more elaborate now. But I like the results, even if they never look like I spent two hours on them!

December 5, 2011

Transitway, at dark

December 5, 2011
Route #95, somewhere near Tunney's Pasture, before the heavy rain began.

December 1, 2011

City orchard

November 30 - December 1, 2011

This perspective-challenged picture comes from the orchard at Lincoln Fields. Does it still produce apples? I'm reading Jane Urquhart's Sanctuary Line, a contemplative novel about the last member of an orchard and lighthouse-keeping dynasty, a butterfly scientist. She says apple trees produce for 16 years. Seems so short.