Nestled in the heart of Toronto’s Annex neighborhood is a small park known to locals as St. Alban’s Square. A long, rectangular patch of land, it is dotted with elegant oak trees and canted benches. One single pathway cuts across it, creating a feeling of measured unity to the space, inviting the pedestrian to move seamlessly through it.
The park borders on the elite, privately funded Royal St. George’s College, with its soaring moss-bricked cathedral standing as a landmark for the neighborhood. As a result, the park feels like an unkept semi-quad, a beautiful afterthought that the school did not quite get around to extending into a full square. Not quite a sliver, yet not a complete quadrangle, St. Alban’s is beautiful in its eccentricity.
In summer you can find doe-eyed undergrads sunning themselves on the grass, the previous night’s jouissance drained from their eyes. In winter the park takes on a blue-black tinge, the tress standing proudly against the solemn frost dotting the ground. At these desolate times, the park is often shrouded in rapturous silence, the cold nipping at your neck as you meander across it. In fall, amber and red set fire to the ground.
The park, like so many of Toronto’s minor green spaces, is an essential, contemplative enclave. I have had the joy of reading many novels as I’ve sat in its steady embrace, always feeling revived by the simple experience of being inside of it.
Yesterday I sat in the park as I often do, this time working my way through Rawi Hage’s De Niro’s Game, a tale of violence and youth set amidst the ravages of the Lebanese civil war. I happened to look up from my book to catch sight of a mother arriving to the square with her child. The little one was a five year old speed demon dressed in designer jeans and colorful Nikes, a mop of brown hair lolling across his head. The mother was so typical of Toronto’s downtown urban elite: smartly dressed, late-30s, Starbucks in hand, a perfect vision of the young undergraduate turned successful professional turned loving mother. The boy jumped about in the fall foliage as the woman looked around her, patient anticipation arched across her face. She was a picture of calm, but one belied by just the slightest hint of dread found in the tense arch of her shoulders.
Suddenly, a voice boomed from the other side of the park- a low base tremor, excitable and projective, chanting the boy’s name. A bald-headed, casually dressed man in his late 30’s appeared, and as he came towards the boy parental joy shone on his face. The boy quickly recognized his father and leaped excitedly towards him. The woman stood quietly in place, the tiniest break of melancholy riveting across her porcelain features.
I quickly understood what I was witnessing: the shared custody hand-off of their child. The man threw the boy in the air in excited airplane whoops, showering him with inquiries and compliments, his enthusiasm only slightly affected in nature. As the father put his son down, the boy dashed amongst the trees, daring his father to come after him.
The woman turned towards her estranged husband and gave him a patient smile. They exchanged pleasantries, words of encouragement of some kind, all of it defined by a perfunctory restraint. It was clear that some essential form of trust had been lost between them, yet for the good of the child they had brought into the world, some cordiality needed to be maintained.
The couple spoke in hushed tones as their child ran about in rambunctious circles. He darted amongst wide-brimmed oaks, his little legs churning wildly. He picked up leaves and threw them in the air, muddy-red showering down upon him. He fell down and bounced back up, grass staining the front of his jeans.
If he was aware of his parent’s break up, he did not show it on this day. Indeed, at maybe four or five years of age, it would be difficult to see how the boy could understand the full ramifications of what was actually going on in his family’s life, although one should never underestimate how much kids take in- they always have a sense of even the slightest changes in their domestic situations.
I wondered when the boy would realize that his parents had lost the love that brought them together in the first place. I wondered how he would cobble together meaning as he negotiated his parents complex psuedo-friendship. I wondered how he would interact with his parent’s new lovers, those partners who would become potential parents-in-law. I wondered about the shuffling between domestic spaces, the tradeoffs of holidays and weekends, the steady resentment at having grown up in a family that was broken from the start.
But today was not a day for such questions. Indeed, the boy was miles away from such gloom. He bee-lined around the park, at every turn finding some new, fascinating site that captured his attention. Here was a form of unbridled play before me, all darting wonder, capped off by tremulous howls of laughter.
How can the joy I saw in this child not be eroded by the realities of adult life? How can we not be crushed by the sense of all we have not done and all we will never do, the unfairness of life’s violence and fragility permeating every moment of our day?
Here, in the guise of this child, you could find no projective design for the future, no abstract hopes or ruined dreams. A vision of pure immanence, at home with himself, projecting a kind of vital grace. So unlike the restrained pragmatism that defined his parents, with their tense bodies and guarded looks, the hurt of a lifetime of adult existence etched across their faces.
Who will the boy grow up to become? What will succeed in taking from him the unbridled joy that defines him right now? Will it be the social hierarchy of schoolyard cliques? Resentment at his father’s distance, which cannot be overcome no matter how many fun Saturday outings he takes his child on? Or will the child remain innocent until the pressure of exams, the grinding impingements of laboring life, get to him? How much pain will he come to know?
All of this remains in the future for him, and one can only imagine what kinds of discoveries he will make about the society around him. But for now, on this Saturday, as his father chases him through the canopies of leaf-encrusted trees, he is whole.
Soon, the father takes his son out of the park, as he promises him a big piece of cake at Future’s Bakery down the road. The woman stands silently amidst the leaves, her shoulders arched, rueful. Suddenly, her iphone buzzes, a text coming in. She looks down at it intently, her face absorbed by the tiny screen. As her hands whirl about her keyboard, lost in digital composition, she too walks out of the park.
And like that, they are gone. Nothing present to mark that this small mini-drama had ever taken place, save the existence of some soddled clumps of leaves strewn about. If I squint hard enough, I think I can see the outlines of the child’s handprints on the ground.
I can do nothing now but return to Hage’s Lebanon, with his volcanic prose of death and desire. Somewhere in my mind’s eye, I can still see the boy whirling about. Yet the words in front of me beckon, dusty adventures awaiting my readerly construction. I lock onto them, picking up the threads of the lost narrative. Eyes flashing, mind moving, the image of the child recedes.
Later, I too stand up to leave. I look again for his handprints, but these are gone now, blown over by the wind.
Were they nothing but specters of a dying grace?
Mark McConaghy is a doctoral candidate in the East Asian Studies Department at The University of Toronto. He studies political economy, aesthetics, and the dynamics of historical change in the 20th century.