Hopping off the ferry, i head past the Island Airport toward the Hanlan's beach. Since it's clothing-optional, I'm hoping E. coli are prudes and no-shows on this steamy afternoon.
Closer to the water, the noise gets louder, as if I'm walking onto an airstrip. Cutting through some trees, I hit the beach to the full sonic boom of four large speedboats. They're aimlessly circling at full throttle, giving hundreds of us losers with no cottage and no AC on the shore a show we never asked for.
The cleanest swimming water in T.O. never thought to bring earplugs.
How strange is our relationship to the city's water bodies. I often feel an ambiguous vacuum as I pass by the Don River's brown trickle or catch a glimpse of the great lake's shimmering reflection off a waterfront condo.
My dis-connection feels metaphysical. No surprise. Water is a consistent metaphor for creation, rejuvenation and peace in just about every faith tradition and flows through the diverse spiritual languages spoken in this city.
"No matter how hard the rock is, water will eventually wear it down to sand,' says Basil Johnston, Ojibwa author, storyteller and member of the Cape Croker First Nation. "Water is something you can depend on."
The Anishinabai word for land, "aki," includes in its meaning water, air, fire, animals and plants. "You simply can't separate water from everything else," Johnston tells me as I think about the wall of condos and the Gardiner that separates the city from the lake. "Imagine land without water. You've got a desert."
The competing symbols water and desert play off against each other in many faith traditions, especially those whose roots are in areas where water is scarce. Before entering the Promised Land, and after their miraculous escape from slavery in Egypt via the parting of the Red Sea, the Israelites wandered for 40 years in the wilderness, often looking for water.
"Desert and wilderness in Judaism symbolize virtual death," says Hindy Najman, U of T Near and Middle Eastern Civilization prof. "Water revives. Israel passed through the waters from slavery to freedom."
I'm thinking about this as I wade through green sludge and bits of plastic, trying to get into some clear lake water to immerse myself. It ain't pretty, and I have my doubts about putting my head underwater. It's ironic, since the full-immersion baptism practised by early Christians symbolized a cleansing from sin but I'm thinking mostly about having a shower when I get home.
While the practice of immersion faded among most Christian groups, Father Daniel Donovan, theology prof at St. Michael's College at U of T, says there is increased interest in the practice among Catholics and Protestants. "As we move toward a heightened ecological understanding, Christians have reawakened to a theology of creation," he tells me. "We had lost water's symbolic sense."
I'll say. Happily, though, a renewed reverence for the "sacred gift connecting all life' has inspired a campaign by the ecumenical KAIROS and the Canadian Catholic Organization for Development and Peace to guard water as a common good.
Still, it's pretty easy for me to spot my water alienation, living as I do a few minutes from the lake but never visiting it. I drink its water out of the tap and flush my waste back in. It's pretty far from Hindu sea imagery."We humans are like swimmers, swimming across the ocean to get to the Lord,' Hindu priest Rabindranath Tiwari tells me. "In order to cross, one has to acquire knowledge of the water.'
Spiritual knowledge resonates with Wiccan water symbolism as well. Here, the undulating liquid stands in for emotions, intuition and connection to the spirit of aquatic creatures. "The depths of the ocean represent the unconscious mind,' says Nicole Cooper of the Wiccan Church of Canada. "It's a metaphor for learning things about ourselves.'
And my lack of water piety is a long way from from Koranic descriptions of heaven as a place of gardens where running waters flow.
"Kassim Ebrahim of the U of T's Noor Cultural Centre tells me that water imagery is used both at the beginning and end of a person's life. "In Islamic ritual, when a person dies the body is washed and returned as clean as possible to God," he says. "This assumes access to clean water," he says.
Most faith traditions, particularly Hindu, Muslim, Zoroastrian and Baha'i, require clean water for ritual ablutions before prayer. Therefore, as Zoroastrian priest Dr. Jehan Bagli tells me, water "must be protected from being defiled by pollution."
This belief has led the global Baha'i community to social action. "We believe clean water is a fundamental human right," says Virginia Rochester, of Toronto's Baha'i community.
The Sikh practice of sprinkling the ash remains of loved ones in a river is quite a challenge in this city, since it's illegal. This is particularly troublesome for Sikhs whose real homeland connection is Canada rather than the Punjab. But A.J. Vaid is designing a Sikh crematorium as part of her master's thesis in architecture at University of Waterloo, and she has situated it on the Don River just down the road from the oldest Sikh temple in Ontario.
"Our practice challenges society's ideas about water," she says. "Water is spiritual, rather than just something to drive a motorboat on."
Ah, yes the motorboats. They're still at it. The UV is high, the temperature's off the charts, and as I look out on the smog-obscured horizon, I'm thinking about what Mississauga Buddhist priest Man Yee Shih told me: "At a profound level, water is a reflection of our own deeds." Not a comforting thought right now.