#KXNToronto: @EllePhoto and Catherine Graham on the Beaches

Only today does the memory come back to me. Years ago in my early twenties having lost both my parents I used to walk The Beaches boardwalk, pen and notebook in hand, and when struck by an image triggered by the five senses, I jotted it down in hopes that it might lead me to a poem. Years later, thanks to the Koffler Centre of the Arts and Toronto Clicks, I leave the west side of Toronto and travel east to the part of the city now known as The Beach to collaborate with photographer Elle Buetow, my pen and notebook in hand.

She and I meet at the historic Beaches branch of the Toronto Public Library and head west down Queen Street East sharing stories of how it was we came to find our passions— photography and poetry, respectively— or rather how those passions found us. Elle came to photography while a student in school— what began as a creative outlet turned into a rewarding career. I came to poetry through the loss of my parents.

On route to the lake we stop by an old wooden sign, the weathered words no longer holding any trace of colour, only indentation for form: Lakeview Beach Wilderness Garden. Behind the sign we spot a small sitting area, shaped like an outdoor theatre. Elle invites me to take a moment to sit and write. The wooden bench is low to the ground and the weeds tickle my ankles. A gentle quietness surrounds until we hear the shouts and laughter of children. The cement wall behind the small theatre holds the mural of a tree. “Hello down there!” they shout as they pull themselves up just high enough for their heads to appear over the top of the wall. Their eager faces above the tree’s painted branches become smiling flowers until they are told to go back inside. The children of Kew Beach Public School disappear. The quiet comes out of hiding.

“The angle says everything,” Elle tells me. A lime green tennis ball is lodged high in a chain link fence. I think of the power that landed it there and in my mind’s eye my mother appears, a red-haired picture of health, before the breast cancer took her. Dressed in tennis whites made from her own hands she readies herself on the empty court with her Prince racquet and hits the ball flying towards her: pock! right in the sweet spot. The sound of her groan is carried away by the gulls circling nearby. She disappears.

Elle asks me to lean against a towering oak. I open my notebook and try to forget she is taking my picture. Melding with the canopy’s cooling shade the corrugated bark presses against my back. My wandering eye follows the jerky movements of a squirrel as it claws up the bark in staccato clicks and sharp stops.

A sunbathing woman lies on a blanket in a nearby field soaking up the late summer rays while off in the distance six white sails shark the blue-water calm, propelled by what little breeze there is. The wailing cries of a baby. The teething canines of a pup—part German Shepherd, part Siberian Husky— pull at the hem of my blue flowered dress.

A monarch on a marigold sits fanning its wings. The violin hum-line of cicada.

We veer off the boardwalk onto the sand and head out to a jutting point where two paddle boarders work hard to find the right rhythm. A longhaired algae, thickly attached to underwater rocks, moves like breath—inhaling, exhaling—the swaying green, a mesmerizing meditation. The humid air smells of lake water and sand. We have walked out far enough to view the CN Tower.

Elle takes a shoreline picture.

A collection of sea glass, pastel green and blue and milky white, rests neatly on a tissue. A gift left behind or a treasure forgotten?

On our way to the pub I ask Elle to take a photo of a feather. She crouches on the cement to find the right angle. Camera in hand she’s in her element as I am with pen and notebook. Feathers fall all across the city. Pigeons and gulls mostly. Scavenger birds. I never noticed how common these feathers were until I was diagnosed with breast cancer. Only then did I notice their abundance on sidewalks during my months of treatment. Feathers became my talismans during that uncertain time. Comforting signs that signalled: you are on the right path. I watch another grey and white feather wind-roll naturally toward Elle, straight into her line of vision.

Sweaty from the heat we end our time together drinking cold beer in The Gull, a local pub. I give Elle my latest poetry book. We become Facebook friends and follow each other on Twitter. We talk excitedly about future collaborations.

Elle shows me her photo of the feather.

Why the walk, the sand, hot on our feet, I can’t recall why.
But seaglass led us
to the emerald
ring, gold—a crooked O.
What waves did that?
Not the smoothing motion for jagged shards.
Take me to the crooked mystery you are.

You, dark waters, skimming the surface
of pebbles, the effect is breath
not dark, you and your sand-wash
into thoughts of white, curling the rim
your seeping stretches around smaller islands and shores of crab boats landing North.
And so it goes. Again meets again—
No wonder my mind’s fun-dunked.
I can’t recall her yellow violet.
And the shyness of leaves is curse.


Text by Catherine Graham
Photos by @ellephoto