The Writing on the Wall

After nine years in Vancouver, I am saying goodbye. This is the city where I moved to in my mid 20s, single and living in an apartment all to myself for the first time, freelance writing by the corner window and loving it. 

The golden hour at Fremlin St & 70th Ave

It’s where I looked for poems and found them on skyscrapers, rocks, streets, chairs, gravestones, and strangers who stopped.

Vancouver Novel by João Loureiro at Point Grey Road and Collingwood St
Echoes by Michel Goulet at Kits Beach
Children’s rock artwork along the Arbutus Greenway

Where I had an amazing job for one and a half years at Regent College and felt the strong welcome and support of that community. Where I met a man who asked good questions, including the unforgettable, life-altering one, “Will you marry me?” 

Reader, I said yes.

Where I made new friends who feel old now, like they’ve always been around.

Where my almost 3-year-old daughter took her first breaths, cries, laughs, steps, and lessons in being alive. She’s learning there is beauty and joy and delight in the world but also pain and sadness and uncertainty. Why is the landlord selling our house? Once the landlord sells it, can we come back and live in it? Why is someone else moving into our home? But where will we live?

She, like my husband, asks good questions. Questions I don’t usually have good answers for. Adam and I have been asking a lot of our own this season: Why is Vancouver (actually most of the Lower Mainland) so unaffordable? Why does it seem to do nothing about its housing crisis? Does it not care that so many people, particularly families, are forced to leave?

Granville Island

I think of Maggie Smith and her ever resonant poem “Good Bones.” “I am trying / to sell them the world,” she says about her children, like any new parent. What memories will Madeleine tell of Vancouver, of our house near the park with the wild garden out front?

Shortly after moving into that Marpole apartment, I walked the neighbourhood and saw my name on a building. My name’s not terribly common, so this stood out to me. So much so I wrote a whole blog post about it. It was my welcome message to Vancouver, saying I belong.

After months of searching for a new place to live, applying for 20+ co-ops, viewing 11+ places around Metro Vancouver, lining up with 40+ people stretching the length of a city block to view an apartment that charged for a parking spot each month and didn’t even have bike storage, encountering more than one Craigslist scam and landlords who don’t take good care of what they own, I am relieved to say Adam and I have found a new home we like in a city we didn’t expect, but one I hope to love in different ways than I have loved Vancouver.

somewhere along Main St

The day we drove to look at the place, Adam pointed out an inscription on a concrete barrier at the corner of Lougheed Highway and Pitt River Road: WE LOVE YOU CHARLENE. I suspected it was to mark the site of a tragic car accident, and that sadly is the case. But it stayed with me, just like the Marpole sign did. Because how often is your name written into the landscape? Not only that, but written in stone

I, like my daughter, am sad (mixed with other emotions) at all that we are leaving in Vancouver, but this unexpected message—so personal, so intimate—felt like a direct welcome to Coquitlam. You belong here now. 

Time to step through a different door. Goodbye shiny Vancouver.

Risky Rainbow Play

I thought I would be the type of parent who would take my kid on public transport frequently. That by her almost 3 years of age, she would have ridden the bus at least once or twice. Would know what the yellow rope was for, would know to say thank you upon exiting. Would be familiar with the screeching brakes of the SkyTrain or the incessant beeps of Compass cards tapping in and out.

COVID kept my daughter off the bus these past couple years and it wasn’t until today that she got her wish of riding one. She’s been singing “The Wheels on the Bus” since God knows how long and now she could finally be one of the people going “up and down.” She gripped the bars of her stroller like she was riding the wooden roller coaster at the PNE and kept asking as her head scanned the occupied blue seats, “Why are there so many people?”

Our destination was the newly opened park at Smithe and Richards streets downtown: sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7 in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Squamish languages, meaning “Rainbow” park. The City of Vancouver’s website says this is the first park to be gifted a name by the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.

sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7, meaning ‘rainbow’, was chosen for this place because the land where the park now sits was once forested with large trees and had many sources of water, including a marsh where the sun and mist would form rainbows.

I see the “rainbow” element integrated into the design of the playground through the multi-textured walkways that wrap around and over the park, with wheelchair accessible routes too. These walkways imitate rainbows that arch over the kids playing below. I was standing on one while I took this pic of my daughter bouncing on one of the two trampolines. The Indigenous public art banners waving in the wind echo this rainbow effect, adding height and colour to an already variegated landscape.

There are a lot of cookie cutter playgrounds in Vancouver (and probably any city) but this is not one of them. Its varying heights, structures, and integration into the streetscape caught my attention right away. Here is a park that promotes risky play, that considers parents as much as the kids, that offers a little something for everyone.

In researching risky play (which I am a fan of though it can scare me!), I came across this video that traces the history of “adventure playgrounds” that were originally known as “junk playgrounds” that began in Denmark in the aftermath of WWII. It’s fascinating.

The video gives 6 criteria that typically categorize an adventure playground:

  • heights
  • speed
  • tools
  • dangerous elements
  • rough-and-tumble play
  • the ability to disappear or become lost

While there were no tools or dangerous elements like hammers, nails, or loose bricks for kids to manipulate, this “Rainbow” park definitely contains the other criteria. You can tell it was equally designed for parents and caregivers by putting in a nearby coffee shop (Kafka’s) and wooden seating around the edges (with backrests!) that indicates parents stay on the perimeter while the centre area is for the kids (something the video discusses as well). That being said, the park is so inviting it’s hard for adults to stay on the edges, as evidenced by the daddy-daughter photo below (my family).

Freeform sculptures (some with footholds, others not) invite creative climbing and sliding. And you can only reach the top of these staggeringly high towers by climbing from the bottom all the way to the top. Sure, an adult could go up it but our bodies don’t fit through those holes as easily! Our daughter wasn’t interested in climbing these but she loved the lower slide, the roller slide, and the trampolines. Different structures appeal to different age groups, and to me, that’s a mark of a good playground when a variety of ages can enjoy it. And let’s not underestimate the simple power of a good hill to climb or ramp to run down. I saw children playing tag along the walkways and others in the spray pool cooling off.

If you’re in the Vancouver area and looking for other examples of adventure playgrounds, I’d recommend Terra Nova Rural Park in Richmond (the closest I can think of to the adventure playground model) and Douglas Park in Vancouver.

Do you have a favourite risky playground where you live or where you’ve visited? Would love to know of other examples!

A Brick Lover’s Toronto

I recently travelled for the first time since Covid—a solo trip to Toronto to celebrate my first year of motherhood (in a pandemic no less). It’s been two of both now but Covid got in the way of going earlier.

As someone who attended university in Ottawa, I had been to Toronto a few times on weekend trips and it was fun but not particularly inspiring. The destination of this trip actually wasn’t that important to me. What was more important was having a much-needed getaway (I am inclined to urban spaces) and seeing and staying with an old friend I hadn’t seen in several years.

Brick houses in Cabbagetown.

But the destination surprised me. It was so much older and beautiful than I remembered. I found myself enchanted with all the brick houses, taking picture after picture because they were all so beautiful and different and teeming with character. Coming from the West Coast where our building materials are wood and glass (Douglas Coupland nicknamed Vancouver the “City of Glass,” and it was only incorporated in 1886), there was something comforting about the solidity and permanency of brick. I wish I could call one of these houses mine.

Such love in the details here. And that red door! Cabbagetown neighbourhood.
The symmetrical, two-pronged staircase leading to the blue door is perfection. Also in Cabbagetown.
Yet another lovely duplex in Cabbagetown.
View from my friend’s condo in the Annex. It was not uncommon to see turrets. Turrets, folks!
Of course there were also turrets on Casa Loma.

Housing was on my mind as my husband and I had just learned that our landlord was about to sell the beloved house that we rent the top floor of in Vancouver. We’ve been there for three years and were hoping to have been there a lot more. Now we’ll have two months from date of sale to find a new home.

Looking back through my photos of the Art Gallery of Ontario, I noticed how many were paintings of houses and rooftops. Definitely a theme here.

A wall of Lawren S. Harris paintings in the Thomas Collection. Left: Houses, Richmond Street, 1911, oil on canvas. Top middle: Street Scene with Figures, Hamilton, 1919, oil on wood-pulp board. Bottom middle: In the Ward, Toronto, 1917, oil on wood-pulp board.
Maximilien Luce, Gisons, The Cathedral, 1897, oil on paper mounted to canvas.

These two women beside each other in the AGO also caught my eye: Saint Anne with the Christ Child (c.1645-1650) by Georges de la Tour on the left and Melancholy (c.1627) by Hendrick ter Brugghen on the right, which purportedly depicts Mary Magdalene. They look like they could have been painted by the same artist. The works share so many similarities: dramatic late-night scenes illuminated by a single candle, two women with downcast eyes thinking and feeling deeply. They face each other, as if they are made to converse about life and death. I wrote a poem about the two women the next day at First & Last Coffee. The weather was delightfully warm enough in early May that I could enjoy their wonderful patio space.

One of my hopes for the trip was to have some quiet time wandering, reflecting, and writing. I headed to Toronto’s Necropolis, because just like Vancouver’s cemetery has inspired many a poem, I thought this picturesque Toronto cemetery could too.

Entrance to the Necropolis, featuring a Victorian Gothic chapel.
The most recognizable monument in the Necropolis. Jack Layton’s wife Olivia Chow created this bronze bust.

The Necropolis is one of the city’s oldest cemeteries, established in 1850. It sits to the west of the Don Valley Parkway, which is shown in this painting below by William Kurelek that my friend and I saw the day before at the AGO. We spent at least half an hour trying to find the hidden crucifix near the edge of the trees. We gave up and googled it instead.

William Kurelek, Don Valley on a Grey Day, 1972, mixed media on hardboard.

I also took a pilgrimage to Knife Fork Book, a poetry dispensary located in Capital Espresso on Queen Street and picked up some reading material for later.

Street art of…houses, what else?

As someone drawn to architecture and its endless forms, I found Toronto inspiring after all.

O Toronto!
Nathan Phillips Square with the Romanesque-style Old City Hall in the background.
Spadina Museum (a Victorian mansion) near Casa Loma.
One of many old stone buildings on U of T’s campus.
St. Michael’s Cathedral.
Old meets new in the Daniels Building for U of T’s architecture, landscape, and design program.

When I posted some of my pictures on Facebook, a friend commented, “Who knew Toronto could be so beautiful?” Indeed, who knew?

Historic home of Daniel Lamb, business man, City Father, a founder of Toronto’s first zoo, 1842-1920.

And for those curious, I do have a poem in the works that combines my love of Victorian houses with my interest in cemeteries and my surprise appearance in Jack Layton’s Ottawa rental before he was Leader of the Opposition. Strange what memories and alignments a trip might spark and a poem might allow.

Running to Not Forget

When I run, I go to Mountain View Cemetery. I love seeing how it changes, how it stays the same when the world around me is so precarious.

When I returned home last Saturday, my toddler announced, “Mommy, when I get bigger and older, I want to run through a cemetery.” I laughed.

Little does she know she’s been here many times as a baby. I wrote a poem about the experience of walking through here with her two years ago as the world was on edge, COVID “sweeping the world / like my father in a game of Risk.”

That military image feels devastatingly apt right now as I run past gravestones and think of Ukraine. All the suffering they have endured and are still enduring. All the lives and homes lost. All the loss. The horrific war crimes the Russian army has committed in Ukraine, particularly against women and children, has shaken me. One of the questions I keep circling back to: “Where does all that hurt go? What does a country like Ukraine do with all that grief/rage/trauma?” I don’t have answers.

I recently read an interview with Ukraine’s First Lady, Olena Zelenska in Vogue. When asked what can ordinary citizens do to help Ukrainians, she says:

The main thing is not to get used to the war—not to turn it into statistics. Continue going to protests, continue to demand that your governments take action. 

I suppose running and praying through a cemetery is one way I don’t get used to the war. There is death all around me here, including death from war. I notice how young the men are in the numerous memorials throughout the cemetery, many of them younger than me.

But I also run through the cemetery because there are signs of life all around me too: from cherry blossom trees to blooming heather, from freshly cut flowers to surprising gravestone offerings like big, juicy oranges. I need these reminders lately.

Fighting Goblins with Verse

One of my reading goals this year is to read something by George MacDonald. Many authors reference his fairy tales, which inspired Lewis Carroll, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkein, and Madeleine L’Engle, to name a few. So I picked up The Princess and the Goblin (1872) last month and thoroughly enjoyed it.

One of the first modern fairy tales and a precursor to modern fantasy, this book pits humans against goblins and is unconventional in its female heroine, the eight-year-old Princess Irene who rescues her miner friend Curdie from the goblins. Curdie, in turn, rescues Irene and everyone else who lives in the castle from a goblin invasion. The goblins have concocted a plan for revenge against the humans who live in the mountains above them and who, according to legend, drove them into the subterranean dwelling ages ago where their bodies began to twist and dwarf in accordance with their physical space. The goblins’ Plan A is to abduct the princess and wed her to one of theirs. Their backup plan is to flood the mines where many humans in the kingdom work, thus destroying their livelihood.

I love that a fairly tale from 1872 featured a girl rescuing a boy and where a princess does dirty work, removing rocks one by one from the mine to access the spot where the goblins imprisoned Curdie. And I love that Irene’s great-great-grandmother spins her a magical thread that leads her and Curdie safely out of the mines and back home, whereas Curdie’s rope that he used to eavesdrop on the goblins and return from the mine was found by the goblins’ pets. In a wonderful inversion, the pets reel Curdie in in one scene like he is the dog and they are the owners. 

But what I love the most is the role of poetry in the book. Early on, MacDonald establishes poetry or verse as the best weapon to fight the goblins:

As I have indicated already, the chief defence against them was verse, for they hated verse of every kind, and some kinds they could not endure at all. I suspect they could not make any themselves, and that was why they disliked it so much. At all events, those who were most afraid of them were those who could neither make verses themselves, nor remember the verses that other people made for them; while those who were never afraid were those who could make verses for themselves; for although there were certain old rhymes which were very effectual, yet it was well known that a new rhyme, if of the right sort, was even more distasteful to them, and therefore more effectual in putting them to flight.

This is yet another inversion in the book—that creative, generative, imaginative language like poetry can fight against evil. It reminds me of the aphorism The pen is mightier than the sword.

Thomas Whyte interviewed me last year about poetry and one of the questions was, “Why is poetry important?”

I wrote:

Like all art, poetry is a response to the world, and as a wise person once told me, “Response matters.” It seems that there are just as many ways to respond to the world as there are ways of being human, and that’s a mind-boggling thing. Art responds creatively, generatively, which is an important distinction from the ways we can respond destructively. Poetry connects us to place, to people (including ourselves), to worlds past, present, and future. Poetry is not fast reading or listening. It requires slowing down, sitting with, reflecting, returning. In our high-speed, consumer-driven culture, poetry is nothing short of subversive. 

Curdie is the poet in The Princess and the Goblin. His rhymes are funny, disarming, and truer than they seem at first listen. Except for when he is grossly outnumbered, Curdie’s rhymes work. They repel the goblins. They keep him company when he is held captive:

There was nothing for him to do but forge new rhymes, now his only weapons. He had no intention of using them at present, of course; but it was well to have a stock, for he might live to want them, and the manufacture of them would help to while away the time. 

There’s a lot of destructive activity and speech in our country right now. I’ve long been a fan of Canadian spoken word poet Shane Koyczan who wrote the poem “A Tomorrow” when the pandemic arrived early 2020 (incidentally, I first heard him perform in downtown Ottawa when I was a university student). I was recently made aware of this poem and have been thinking more and more about this generative response in light of the vitriol we’re hearing from both sides of the vaccine mandate debate. As he asks in the poem, Where do we go from here?

While I’m not naive enough to think that poetry can solve all our problems, I think it can do something like slow us down, quiet the noise, maybe help us see and live in the tension of the here and not yet, of who we are and who we could be.

On this note, I’ll leave you with one of my favourite scenes in the book between the Princess and her great-great-great grandmother that could have been written for today and which pierced me sharper than any sword.

 “But in the meantime, you must be content, I say, to be misunderstood for a while. We are all very anxious to be understood, and it is very hard not to be. But there is one thing much more necessary.”

“What is that, grandmother?”

“To understand other people.”

“Yes, grandmother. I must be fair—for if I’m not fair to other people, I’m not worth being understood myself I see.”

The Great Empty vs. The Great Filling

As a UVic alumna, I receive their Torch magazine whose recent cover article features cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Robin Mazumder and his research on how cities affect our mental well-being.

For his PhD in psychology, his research focused on stress responses when people were dropped via virtual reality into two separate locations in central London: 1) next to a high-rise building and 2) next to a low-rise building.

I imagine the participants of the study being dropped into a high-rise scene like this for the first location. (Photo of NYC by me)

Not surprisingly, author Michael Kissinger summarizes:

What he found was that tall buildings make people uncomfortable when they’re surrounded by them. Conversely, people have less of a stress response when they’re in environments that are built at what’s considered “human scale,” or the European model where buildings tend to top out at five storeys. 

Reading this brought me back to my literature courses in university. In the early 20th century when the development of urban spaces was accelerating at a fast pace, German socialist Georg Simmel was similarly concerned about the affect of the city on an individual in his landmark essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from 1903. In fact, he was the one who coined the term blasé, which Merriam-Webster defines as “apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment.” It’s a paradox: to feel something so strongly that you end up not feeling anything at all.

Many moving parts on a typical street in Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris.

Simmel says that the extreme excess or intensification of stimuli in the city “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.” Examples of stimuli he gives include “the grasp of a single glance . . . each crossing of the street . . . [and] the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life.”

Bryant Park in NYC. Love this dynamic park nestled behind the public library.

I have to admit that I am a city lover. I sang New York’s praises after visiting it for the first time (well aware now that living there would likely be a very different experience). In BC, I once had a job in what some would consider an idyllic pastoral setting where sheep and cows grazed in fields outside my window, their bleating and mooing a lunchtime lullaby. But I longed for blinking streetlights and fast-moving things: cars, bikes, people. Looking back, I think I was drawn to what those fast-moving things represented: opportunities.

While I don’t live downtown and am not surrounded by high-rises, I do live in a city and enjoy venturing downtown because of the different pace of life it offers. When Vancouver was shut down early in the pandemic and on and off since then, I looked forward to roaming around Gastown only to be dismayed at how empty it was. The photographs from around the world in this New York Times article “The Great Empty” capture that melancholy well.

Gastown’s famous steam clock (photo by me). What is time anymore?

If I were a subject in Mazumder’s study, I wonder what my response would have been. If he had conducted his study both pre- and post-pandemic, would there be a significant difference? Would the long amounts of isolation and at-home time make a bustling city scene more attractive than normal? Would we be less stressed and more excited? Or would the long absence of this hustle and bustle trigger anew the anxiety of crowds and stimuli that we had forgotten we were used to?

Grand Central Station, NYC, back in 2011.

I have a chapbook out now called ‘Let Us Go Then’ that alludes to T.S. Eliot’s quintessentially modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that one could argue features a speaker (Prufrock) desperately trying to overcome the blasé. The first stanza of his poem comes to mind when I think about “The Great Empty.” Obviously Eliot is writing in a very different context than our current pandemic one, but he is addressing emptiness of another kind: emptiness with modern living and all of its “fillings” as I paradoxically call them in my final poem of the chapbook.

Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherized upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question ...
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.

“A patient etherized upon a table” and “half-deserted streets” strike an eerily familiar chord. I find a degree of solace in this world-weary speaker who presents as an urban, educated individual who is painfully unsure of the world he finds himself inhabiting (and where he fits in, as a result).

The speaker is longing for emotional, spiritual, and physical connection.

I joke that I never knew I was extroverted until the pandemic hit. Give me people! (another Paris photo)

This longing ties into Michael Kimmelman’s introduction to that New York Times article showing mesmerizing photographs of empty public spaces:

Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. Covid-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.

They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.

Burrard SkyTrain Station, Vancouver.

Human interaction indeed. That’s what Robin Mazumder comes back to in the UVic article: designing cities that are at a human scale, where most necessities are met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride, where spaces foster mixed uses and diverse users that create opportunities for community—a good kind of filling, maybe even a great one.

A mixed-use space (Woodward’s atrium in Gastown, Vancouver) I wrote about for my Master’s research.