Poems for Dark December

This Advent season, my husband and I are reading through poet-priest Malcolm Guite‘s book Waiting on the Word, which offers a poem a day from classic or contemporary poets accompanied by Guite’s reflections.

img_4229

We started yesterday for December 1 and it is exactly what we need right now. I don’t really know how to explain it other than I think art/poetry offers a balm for our aching hearts.

The Glance by George Herbert

When first thy sweet and gracious eye
Vouchsaf’d ev’n in the midst of youth and night
To look upon me, who before did lie
Weltring in sinne;
I felt a sugred strange delight,
Passing all cordials made by any art,
Bedew, embalme, and overrunne my heart
And take it in.

Since that time many a bitter storm
My soul hath felt, ev’n able to destroy,
Had the malicious and ill-meaning harm
His swing and sway:
But still thy sweet originall joy
Sprung from thine eye, did work within my soul,
And surging griefs, when they grew bold, controll
And got the day.

If thy first glance so powerfull be,
A mirth but open’d and seal’d up again;
What wonders shall we feel, when we shall see
Thy full-ey’d love!
When thou shalt look us out of pain,
And one aspect of thine spend in delight
More then a thousand sunnes disburse in light
In heavn’ above.

Guite opens his reflections on this poem for December 1 with the question:

“What might this moving and mysterious little poem have to offer us as we come to dark December and begin our Advent journey together?”

That phrase “as we come to dark December” has stuck with me. Indeed, it feels dark and heavy. For those of us in Vancouver, we haven’t seen the sun for two months. I normally don’t mind the rain but it has definitely affected me this time. And recent world events add a lot of darkness to our lives, leaving us uncertain, afraid, and confused about the future.

I don’t know if this is why I’m feeling less ready and excited for the Christmas season than usual, but I do find myself struggling to embrace it. Reading that someone else called this month “dark December” made me realize that I am not alone in feeling this way. And so I have offered up a found poem in response to George Herbert’s, that is true of how I am feeling and may be true for you too.

Poem for Dark December by Charlene Kwiatkowski

We are tired
The days are dark and long
The sky is a faucet that refuses to shut off
There is no twinkling of stars

Many a bitter storm our souls have felt
but we are in the season where the soul felt its worth
—because he appeared.
His sweet and gracious eye looked upon us
from the wood of a manger to the wood of a cross

Our hearts overrun with surging griefs
A thrill of hope seems farther away
We are waiting on many things
We are a weary world

Open the mirth that has been long sealed
Look us out of pain
We are desperate for your full-eyed love
Desperate to delight again.

Marpole’s Golden Tree

A piece of Stanley Park has uprooted to my neighbourhood of Marpole. With a bit of a colour change.

The newest public art in Vancouver is Golden Tree by Douglas Coupland, installed this past August at the corner of Marine Drive and Cambie Street, in front of Intracorp’s MC2 development.

img_4163

This artwork sure adds colour to a cloudy day. View from Marine Gateway.

It stands out alright, not just for its size (13 metres tall, the exact replica of Stanley Park’s Hollow Tree), but it also stands out for its colour—gold.

In an interview with the CBC, Coupland says, “I think its more a head-turner, a, ‘what the heck was that?’ That’s my favourite reaction.”

Just to clarify, Stanley Park’s famous 700 to 800 year-old Hollow Tree is still standing in Stanley Park. After the heavy windstorm in 2006, the tree was scheduled for removal due to safety concerns, but thanks to the efforts of the Hollow Tree Conservation Society and private donations, it is still standing (albeit with cables and steel).

Coupland’s replica is made out of steel-reinforced resin and fiberglass, encased in a gold finish.

img_4166

The gold looks a little garish to me. I tend to think I would like it better if it looked natural but then it would be like having a real tree there except you know it wouldn’t normally grow there so then it would just be weird. At least the gold makes it distinct. And better than highlighter purple or blue or pink. There’s something regal and magical about gold. Maybe it’s already “growing” on me (see what I did there?).

img_4167

But why replicating this tree in Marpole is significant, I do not know. All the CBC article mentions is that Coupland said there are a lot of memories attached to the tree, which is why he chose to imitate it: “I think it takes us from one century to the next.”

Maybe so, but what is the relationship between Stanley Park, the northernmost point of the city, and Marpole, Vancouver’s southernmost? Obviously the artist is trying to make some sort of connection here with the large image of Stanley Park in the background of the artwork.

img_4174

Does the tree reference something in Marpole’s history that not many know about? Or is it trying to say something about old and new? Nature and city? Nature and art/imitation?

I love that Marpole is getting more and impressive public art but I wish this piece spoke better to its context.

Have you seen Golden Tree yet? What are your thoughts?

We Have Plenty of Matches in Our House

The description from VIFF had me at “bus driver and poet.”

This movie takes you through a week in Paterson’s life (played by the subtle and brilliant Adam Driver). Each day doesn’t look too different than the other. Paterson wakes up next to his wife, retrieves his work clothes from the bedroom chair, eats cheerios while examining a box of Ohio Blue Tip matches, walks to work, writes a few lines of poetry in his secret notebook before listening to his boss’s litany of things bothering him, responds that he’s okay whenever he’s asked, smiles to himself at the bus conversations he overhears, drives around Paterson, New Jersey, the city he shares a name with, eats his lunch at the Great Falls, walks back to his modest house, straightens out the mailbox that his English bulldog Marvin dislodges every day, greets his artsy wife who is happy to see him and tell him about her latest career idea, takes the dog for a walk after a healthy but usually unappealing dinner, leashes Marvin outside his favourite bar while he enjoys a drink and conversation with the owner, comes home, kisses his wife, and goes to bed to repeat it all the next day.

There are a few deviations in this routine but that’s pretty much it for seven days. You’re probably thinking that sounds boring but it really isn’t, and it’s a long movie for not having a plot—just shy of two hours. Could it be that the ordinary is actually quite interesting? That a quiet life is worth celebrating? That a content marriage is worth showing?

This is a movie you could picture yourself in. No great thing happens, just a bunch of small things—some of which may mean something, some of which may not.

The poems were my favourite part, voiced by Adam Driver who reads them as if they could be his while the words come up on screen in his handwritten scrawl. We are given just a few lines at a time, echoing real life where we don’t finish drafts all in one go. We are constantly interrupted. And then our desire is finally satisfied when we hear the poem whole. I left wanting to hear them again. All the poems in Paterson are written by Ron Padgett, whom I am delighted to have been introduced to thanks to this movie. He’s a perfect match to this film because his poetry is all in the details.

Love Poem – by Ron Padgett

We have plenty of matches in our house.
We keep them on hand always.
Currently our favorite brand is Ohio Blue Tip,
though we used to prefer Diamond brand.
That was before we discovered Ohio Blue Tip matches.
They are excellently packaged, sturdy
little boxes with dark and light blue and white labels
with words lettered on the shape of a megaphone,
as if to say even louder to the world,
“Here is the most beautiful match in the world,
its one and a half inch soft pine stem capped
by a grainy dark purple head, so sober and furious
and stubbornly ready to burst into flame,
lighting, perhaps, the cigarette of the woman you love,
for the first time, and it was never really the same
after that. All this will we give you.”
That is what you gave me, I
became the cigarette and you the match, or I
the match and you the cigarette, blazing
with kisses that smolder toward heaven.

 

I doubt everyone sitting in the movie theatre was a poetry lover, but Padgett’s poems seem like the easiest entry into this form for even the most hardened sceptic. Like the film, the poem doesn’t try too hard to be more than it is. It doesn’t use fancy language or opt for easy emotion.

It talks straight and simply, like it is having a conversation with you. Like it knows what it is and is content to be just that. Nothing more, nothing less.

I want more movies like this. I want more poetry like this.

Late to Hogwarts: On Reading Harry Potter in my 20s

2016 was the year I read the Harry Potter series for the first time. I’m 29. The Artist had read them multiple times before and we thought it would be fun to share in the story together so we read to each other in the evenings after work, on road trips to Alberta, and on rainy Saturday afternoons.

img_2705

I loved them. Here are some thoughts on why and what/who stood out for me.

I had no idea what was going to happen.

When you show up 10+ years late to a party, this can work in your favour. If people had spoiled the books when they first came out, I had no memory of it. And it also helped that I hadn’t seen the movies. (But I’m about to give away some spoilers. Just wanted to warn the few people in the world who don’t know what happens).

The discovery of Sirius as a friend instead of a villain was delightful. So often the transformation is from a seemingly “good” guy gone bad (like Professor Quirrell or Peter Pettigrew), so I greatly enjoyed the reverse in Book 3.

I thought Harry and Cho were going to get back together after they had broken up, so I was not expecting Ginny’s entrance into Harry’s affections.

When Dumbledore died at the hands of Snape, my mouth hung open for a good five minutes. I probably asked my husband several times if his death was for real—surely this was some joke? Some special magic could undo it? I cried like I had lost a friend. When we find out Snape and Dumbledore had planned his death all along, my world turned upside-down again, but in a much more welcomed way.

harry-potter-fans-are-freaking-out-over-a-theory-about-dumbledore-that-makes-a-lot-of-sense

Everybody had a chance to shine.

Harry’s not the only hero. He couldn’t have defeated Voldemort without Ron and Hermione. Or Dumbledore and the Order of the Phoenix obviously. Heck, he couldn’t have done it without Dobby, Kreacher, Neville, Ginny, Luna, even Griphook. Everyone had a role to play, even minor characters and those with mixed motives.

I love that Ron and Neville both destroyed Horcruxes. Their transformations from awkward kids with low self-esteem to brave teenagers overcoming their own doubts and taking leadership at crucial moments were awesome to witness.

neville

Humour makes a difference.

Apart from the trio at the centre of these books, Fred and George Weasley are my next favourite characters because they are so unlike me. In super tense moments preparing for battle at Hogwarts, would I be cracking jokes about winging the battle plan? No, I would be panicking. Or when George loses an ear, would I joke about feeling saint-like because I’m so holy/holey? When Fred and George fly out of Hogwarts in spectacular fashion from Dolores Umbridge’s totalitarian rule, it’s like they’re raising a middle finger to her and all the evil she represents.

Not only did J.K. Rowling include the twins for comic relief in otherwise intense scenes, but I also think she wanted to show the power of humour. Good versus evil is obviously a huge theme in the books and Rowling intimates there is perhaps more than one way to fight evil. Harry does it with strength and sacrifice and the Weasley twins do it with humour. Not because evil is funny (quite the opposite), but because humour is like a lightning bolt that breaks through darkness. It’s unforeseen, and people steeped in darkness don’t know what to do with it. Think of Umbridge again.

As Frederick Buechner explains in The Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale:

As much as tears do, [laughter] comes out of the darkness of the world where God is of all missing persons the most missed, except that it comes not as an ally of darkness but as its adversary, not as a symptom of darkness but as its antidote.

twin-escape

Snape

Hands down, Snape wins my vote for the most interesting character. The morally grey characters always do. This man took me on such an emotional ride that I am still processing my feelings about him. I couldn’t get over him killing Dumbledore and helping the Death Eaters. I so wanted to believe he had changed—that he was working for the good even though he was still a bully to Harry. When we find out his secret near the end of Book 7, I wanted to reread all the books knowing what I now knew about him. But what a shame that “the best of him,” as Dumbledore calls it, was kept hidden all those years.

He is the only one who could have played the demanding double secret agent role that brought about the end of Voldemort, but what toll did it have on him? Here was a man whom no one, apart from Dumbledore, knew the good he was doing behind the scenes. When Dumbledore died, he was utterly alone. The Order unsurprisingly turned against him and he didn’t have any confidants unlike Harry who always had Ron and Hermione. He is the unsung hero who lived and died alone. We think about Harry willingly sacrificing his life at the end to meet Voldemort but Snape did this throughout his entire adult life. Was it necessary?

severus-snape

Draco and Dudley

I never thought I would have any sympathy for Draco but that changed in Book 6. Ever since he lowered his wand from Dumbledore’s face, he became less cocky and more confused. And that made him more likeable. Sure, he still tried capturing Harry to give to Voldemort at the end, but Harry, Ron, and Hermione saved his life twice and I have a feeling Draco won’t forget that, much like Peter Pettigrew didn’t. (Look at me writing as if they’re real!)

Even Dudley extended his arm to Harry when they parted ways and had a hard time saying goodbye. That was a surprisingly tender scene and I was a little sad that the Dursleys didn’t reappear again after that. There is so much they could have said to each other.

draco.jpg

I don’t know if a book series has captivated my attention and imagination in the way these ones have. I’m going to miss spending another year with the characters, but I’m sure Harry and company will be friends I will visit again and again.

4e9b9a85-e72b-40ed-8f65-9f5b95a20e69

This is Where I Leave You

Book titles like this always intrigue me. Who’s speaking? Where is “this”? Who’s being left? Who does the leaving? (don’t worry, no spoilers in this review!)

img_4046

I’m glad I read this book by Jonathan Tropper even though it’s quite different from my norm. It’s crass, comic, and tragic all at the same time. And so wryly observant.

Judd Foxman is a recently cuckolded husband, 34 years old. He catches his beautiful wife of ten years cheating on him with his macho boss. We meet him at rock bottom, sleeping on a couch in a friend’s basement, when he learns from his older sister Wendy that their dad died. The Foxmans are Jewish and though their dad didn’t believe in God, he wanted the family to sit shiva.

So Judd, Wendy, and their other brothers Paul and Phillip reconvene at their mother’s home with their partners to mourn for seven days.

Judd, of course, goes alone. He says in one of his acute one-liners that are scattered throughout the book, “You get married to have an ally against your family, and now I’m heading into the trenches alone.”

Even though it’s apparent that their dad’s dying request for them to sit shiva is a plot device to get all the members of this highly dysfunctional family together for seven days to sort through their crap, it works. Or you don’t care if it really works because getting such damaged, emotionally repressed, and large personalities all in one room leads to some hilarious and healing moments. And also a lot of sex, brawls, and reopened wounds (both literally and figuratively).

Here’s an example of a passage that had me laughing out loud:

Serena, Wendy’s baby girl, screams like she’s been stabbed. We can all hear her in amplified stereo as we eat lunch, thanks to the high-tech baby monitor Wendy has set up on the table in the front hall, but Wendy doesn’t seem at all inclined to go upstairs and quiet the baby. “We’re Letting Her Cry,” she announces, like it’s a movement they’ve joined. If they’re letting her cry anyway, I don’t really see the point of the baby monitor, but that’s just one of those questions I’ve learned not to ask, because I’ll just get that condescending look all parents reserve for non-parents, to remind you that you’re not yet a complete person.

There are times I laughed even though I didn’t really want to because the comedy in the book comes from a sad place. Each of the Foxman children is mourning, not so much their dad,  but where their own lives have (or haven’t) taken them—bad decisions they made, accidents they had no control over, love that feels “completely useless,” or just the relentless passing of time that takes you from the innocence of childhood to the murky quagmire of adulthood, ready or not.

There’s something about coming home that digs all of this up. At the end of the seven days, which equals the end of the book, each character leaves the Foxman home with varying degrees of difference to how they entered it. (As an aside, I think the book’s title works in a number of ways, including the narrator talking to the reader).

I enjoy stories of families and I think that’s why I liked This is Where I Leave You so much. All the Foxmans were so believably messed up and so believably human. And you really want everything to turn out okay for them.

In an interview on The Hollywood Reporter, the journalist asks author Jonathan Tropper, “What do you hope viewers take away from This is Where I Leave You?”

Tropper responds:

It’s funny, because I never write with any intention of a lesson, I just want to tell a story. But to me, the takeaway from the book and film is that family will save you, whether you want them to or not.

I’m looking forward to watching the movie.

Calgary – An Olympic Wonderland

After Roughing it in the Bush for several days, the second part of our Albertan vacation took us to a few different cities, of which the biggest was Calgary, a place I had never been to apart from the airport.

IMG_3939

The Bow River with a lovely pedestrian bridge that connects to downtown

One of my good friends lives there and she gave me an excellent tour, beginning with downtown.

Stephen Avenue was by far the most vibrant street, offering plenty of restaurants, shopping, entertainment venues, and public art. It’s described as “Calgary’s historic pedestrian mall” on this Calgary Downtown website, and I liked walking on a street that cars don’t have access to.

IMG_3952

Pedestrians line up to cross Stephen Avenue

In the pic above, you may be able to see some cone-shaped steel structures between the buildings in the distance that look like something out of a sci-fi movie. They’re called the Galleria Trees and they were installed between Bankers Hall and the Home Oil Tower in 2000 to break up the wind tunnel that these two buildings created. There are 10 of them in total. I like that they have a functional use and yet they serve a double purpose as public art. They have since been equipped with an audio system to play music and with LED lighting for special events.

IMG_3954

Looking up at the Galleria Trees

Because the Rio Olympics were going on while I was there, the City had put up a gigantic screen on Stephen Avenue with couches and chairs for the public to enjoy the Olympic action, and I thought that was the coolest thing (Vancouver, take notice!)

I was definitely in the Olympic spirit, and so my friend indulged my interest to see all of the major venues when Calgary hosted the 1988 Winter Olympics. We dipped our feet into the Olympic Plaza downtown where the medal ceremonies took place.

IMG_3956

Olympic Plaza-turned-waterpark during the summer

IMG_3964

Also near the Plaza are these eye-catching orange pipes listing all 100 parks in Calgary, with different heights according to their age (the taller, the older).

The artists (IBI/Landplan) said this about their artwork titled Centennial Grove installation:

Drawing on the imagery of the native prairie landscape of aspen groves and grasslands and in a celebration of the 100 anniversary of the City of Calgary Parks, the installation symbolizes 100 trunks of aspen trees nestled in grassland.

IMG_3960

Speaking of public artwork, it’s hard to miss this mesh face in front of the distinctive Bow Building (Calgary’s tallest tower) that, together, create probably the two biggest/most distinctive markers to the city’s urban landscape. Wonderland is the name of the large white sculpture made of painted stainless steel, standing 12 metres high, designed by internationally-renowned Spanish artist Jaume Plensa.

IMG_3941

The Bow Building

IMG_3944

Walking into the Wonderland of the artist’s imagination

I like what Christopher Hume says about the two entrances on either side of the girl’s neck in The Star:

Had these entrances not been included, which would traditionally have been the case, our relationship with the piece would be different. Wonderland would have remained a fascinating object that lay forever just beyond our reach.

But because we can enter into the artist’s head, and peer at the world from the inside out, we are able to “possess” the work, or at least, view things from its point of view.

Indeed. I had never been inside someone’s head before.

We eventually left downtown to explore the other Olympic venues, such as the Olympic Oval at University of Calgary.

IMG_3977

It was a little strange to see speedskaters in the middle of summer!

Outside the Oval is the torch that was lit in 1988—quite a stark contrast from the elaborate ones made these days. I told my friend it was rather underwhelming but as she reminded me, “Things were simpler back then.” And it got the job done.

IMG_3982

We took a quick peek at Canada Olympic Park where you can ride the Skyline Luge down the hill like a go-kart, but unfortunately we didn’t have time for this so will hope to catch it on our next visit.

IMG_3984

Apart from finding Calgary extremely spread out and rather disjointed as a city, I enjoyed touring around the downtown part especially, seeing the buildings and bridges and some waterfront/running areas along the Bow. Their public art scene seems to be strong and, compared to Vancouver, there were far more public squares/plazas/seating areas like the one below that integrate well with the landscape and foster a dynamic street culture (though no one was sitting there as we walked by!)

IMG_3948