The train pulled into Philadelphia’s 30th Street station on a rainy Saturday afternoon. This was my first trip to Philly and I was looking forward to it, although I didn’t know what to expect.  The extent of my research was a google search on “Things to do in Philly” last night after checking into my flight.  Whatever Philadelelphia had to offer me, I was happy to be travelling, and happier still that I had packed an umbrella.

As I came up the wet subway steps, my eyes fell on a sign for the Gaslight Pub.  Good!  It was nearly 4 o’clock in the afternoon, I hadn’t eaten a proper lunch, and I was starving. The moment I stepped into the pub, I was overcome by the familiar scent of alcohol, wood and damp, and I could feel my spirits lifting as I shed the stress of traveling onto the hardwood floor.  I don’t know what it is about the smell of pubs that has such an ability to unwind people – the smell isn’t exactly pleasant – but I cannot deny it’s magical effects. I ordered a French Onion soup and a glass of wine, and looked out the window at a city waiting to be discovered.

The rain had no intention of letting up, and I had no intention of staying in.  After checking into my hotel and finding my umbrella, I was on my way to the Liberty Bell half a mile away.  Short of my final destination, my umbrella and I had no plan.  I walked past some mid-century architecture and a closed restaurant, questioning the route I had chosen, when I saw a traditional English garden to my right.  I tucked in to take a closer look and was pleasantly surprised to find that the garden backed onto a beautiful open lot criss-crossed with cobblestone streets and colonial-era buildings.  As I tipped back my umbrella to get a better view, I saw a man dressed as a pilgrim sneaking a quick cigarette on his break.  Save for the cars at the end of the lane, I imagined that I was looking at the same view that a Philadelphian would have taken in on a rainy afternoon 200 years ago. I wandered along a cobblestone laneway to a cluster of buildings on my left, and entered a walled garden.  I was standing in front of Carpenter’s Hall, the meeting place of the First Continental Congress in 1774.  Led by John and Sam Adams of Boston, the rebel leaders of the American Revolution met here to air their grievances to an absent King and commit to a course of action.  Although this course did not include bloodshed, by the time the Continental Congress reconvened in July 1776 to draft the Declaration of Independence, war had begun.

Carpenter’s Hall

As I stood there looking up at a traditional and rather small colonial building, I noticed a familiar feeling brewing inside me: a feeling of joy and discovery and confirmation: I was awakening, my mind sparking ideas faster that I could keep up with them.  If Boston is where the rebels dreamed of independence, Philadelphia is where they manifested it.

City of Brotherly Love.  The location the rebels chose as America’s first capitol was no accident, and neither is my presence here today.  Seventy-five years before the Founding Fathers declared independence here, William Penn declared his vision of Brotherly Love in his Charter of Privileges.  Expelled from University for non-conformity, persecuted for his Quaker beliefs and a disappointment to his family, William Penn set out to create a city where brothers (and sisters) from different faiths could live side by side, united in their acceptance and respect of their differences.  Now they were united by a common dream as well.

As I continued past Carpenter’s Hall, slightly disoriented by the rain, I found myself looking up at an imposing building, perfectly symmetrical, with a dominating bellfry and flanked by three arched walkways on either side.  The crowd was my first sign that I had stumbled onto something significant, the roped off inner court was the second.  I was looking at Independence Hall, the first seat of American Government, where the Declaration of Independence and United States Constitution were signed and the where rebels emerged from the chrysallis of war as hero Founding Fathers.  Ordinary men – carpenters, smiths, lawyers and landowners – had achieved the extraordinary: true independence.

I circled Independence Hall, taking in the majesty of the building that the Carpenter’s Association originally built as a simple State House.  There were guided tours available, but I preferred to stay outside and continue exploring.  The steady rain and I were becoming friends now, eliminating the need to worry about lighting as I snapped photographs. And suddenly, I stumbled upon my destination: I was standing in front of the Liberty Bell.  I peaked through the glass and wondered what all the fuss was about.  I had reached arguably the most famous landmark in the city, but my journey and the discoveries I made along the way were immensely more satisfying.


Isn’t that the whole point, though?  So many of us set a goal, program it into our internal GPS and follow the most direct route to get there as fast as we can, scarcely glancing aside as we barrel forward, only to arrive at our destination and find disappointment. The Liberty Bell was a disappointment, but I didn’t mind because my journey getting there had been an unexpected pleasure.  What I learned about the time and place and people of revolutionary Philadelphia was much more valuable – to me and to history – than a cracked bell.  If we all slowed down for just a moment, if we wandered on the way to our destination instead of constantly seeking the shortest route, I wonder: where would our journey take us?  Would we still find what we are looking for?  Or will we discover what we didn’t even know we needed?  I set off to find a famous cracked bell in the rain, and I discovered that even the wildest dreams can be manifested at remarkable speed.

Ordinary men doing ordinary things changed the course of history.  So can I, so can you. All we need to do is look around and see the opportunity.

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A flicker of opportunity in the window

Genesee County, America

I have travelled two hours from home, and am barely 30 miles from the Canadian border, yet I find myself in a different world.  It wasn’t immediately apparent.  As we crossed the Lewiston-Queenston Bridge the topography didn’t change, and the border guard could have easily passed for a Canadian.  As we drove east on I-90, the corn fields and silos still looked like the ones I drive past when I venture into the farmland north of Toronto, albeit a little shabbier.  I noticed I had entered this new world when we got off the freeway.  The houses along New York State Route 77 were adorned with American flags, John Deere tractors sat in front yards, old hand-painted signs dotted front lawns and there seemed to be a pick-up in every driveway.  The houses were mostly clapboard, kids played in the front yard, and the adults looked weary.  The movie sets of Anytown, America are based on reality after all.

We drove through the town of Pembroke first, though I saw none of the commerce I expected.  Main Street must have been elsewhere.  We approached the one-stoplight town of Corfu next.  The main intersection was centered around a gas station, a bank, a Presbyterian church and a gun store.  This was definitely not Canada.  As the light turned green and I hit the gas, I quickly glanced left and right: a store with a classic Pepsi sign, and another church steeple in the distance.  Guns and absolution are easy to come by in Corfu, but groceries may be a little harder to find.

We continued our drive along Route 77 past narrow strips of farmland (all corn, which I assume will yield high fructose corn syrup one day) and farmhouses advertising fresh produce.  We didn’t stop.  We had a concert to get to, and even if we didn’t, I felt uncomfortable stopping because I was so clearly out of place.  I felt like an alien in a foreign land, unsure of the customs and unsure of myself.  Our next stop was the Luke Bryan concert at Darien Lake.  We parked at the end of a neat row of vehicles in the grass, and got out of the car.  It was a bucolic scene: farmland separated by rows of oak trees, two silos rising above the field to my left, the sun shining and happy concert-goers spilling onto the lawn in a sea of jeans, plaid shirts and cowboy boots.

We speak the same language, share the same vernacular, even the same accent to the untrained ear, but the nuances that distinguish me from my southern neighbours are not subtle.  As I took in my surroundings on the amphitheatre lawn, I felt the distance I had travelled.  We are all accustomed to the social and cultural norms of our hometowns, and struggle to notice what others immediately see.  Only by leaving the warm blanket of Toronto was I able to see how safe and secure it is; how polite, orderly and reserved.  My Canadian reservation melted away as soon as the concert started, and thousands of us – all just people now – danced and sang together, buoyed by the energy emanating from the main stage.  And then the fireworks started.  Over to the right and at least a few miles down the road, a burst of colourful fireworks lit up the night sky, and I was grateful to be in this corner of the world tonight, where life was so much more buttoned-down.

The concert ended and we joined a sea of cars and pick-up trucks heading for a single exit.  Now I missed my orderly Canada.  After an hour, we finally made it back to Route 77 and were on our way to Buffalo.  We passed through more hamlets along the way.  The moon was a sliver, and beyond Main Street the landscape was pitch black.  In between farm houses and hardware stores, I spotted churches, gas stations and a seemingly disproportionate number of volunteer fire stations.  We drove past a primary school, two funeral homes, and Choose Life billboards, Walmarts and discount stores.  I felt like an anthropologist.  I was curious, intrigued by everything I saw.  As a child growing up in a big city I had always imagined country living as a bucolic life filled with open fields, wildflowers and freedom.  The houses in my imagination were well kept, the gardens pristine, the world safe to explore.  The reality I now saw was something much closer to the poverty line – farmers growing corn for large corporations, junk accumulating on their front lawn, stress accumulating in their heads – and I wondered: did they dream about the simple abundance of city life the same way I dreamt about the country?  The joy of having a house on a cul de sac, a neatly manicured lawn, a short drive to the supermarket and access to all their material desires?  Did they visit cities with the same eager curiosity that I started my journey with, and leave just as disenchanted?  Are we all ultimately searching for the same peace?  And if it’s not in the city or the country, then where do we find it within us?


This weekend I am in New York.  Or – to be more accurate – Brooklyn.  At this moment,   shortly after 9 o’clock on a Sunday morning, I am sitting at the Brooklyn Heights Promenade.  I am in a church of sorts, the congregation consisting of local residents looking for solitude, a stroll or a morning run, and visitors like me observing the view: Ellis Island, Statue of Liberty, New Jersey, Lower Manhattan, Brooklyn Bridge, and the Empire State Building all in my line of vision.  The choir is unique: birds chirping the melody, walkers and runners keeping beat, and the constant hum of traffic underneath reminding us all that this church we currently sit in is in the middle of the country’s biggest metropolis.

Brooklyn Heights.  I have heard the name before many times, read about it and seen countless movies and TV shows set here.  I see the beautiful brownstone row houses with the walk-up steps and instantly associate them with Brooklyn, which then calls to mind hipsters and well-to-do young families.  These are the people that call this place home. But do they see what I see?  Is that what draws them here?  The tree-lines streets are no doubt beautiful, the mature branches forming canopies, shielding young families from the sun and from the noise of the world that is just across the river.  The soil is fertile, the climate temperate, the little wildlife that remains resilient.  Do they see the natural forest that once was?  The rich soil and bountiful harvest?  The awe inspiring views that Mother Earth has graced them with?  The vista before it was glass and concrete and steel?  I look up from my notebook and I see industry: cargo ships, ferries, ports and skyscrapers.  It is the industry that makes this incarnation of Brooklyn Heights possible, that provides the jobs that pay the money to afford the beautiful and protected homes in this serene corner of the city.  But what if there was another way?  A way that better respected the beauty that we so dearly grasp the last wisps of in this church where I sit?

May 21, 2017

Brooklyn Heights