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.

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.

‘Let Us Go Then’ Chapbook Announcement

Ever since arriving home from a Europe trip with my husband in 2017, I got the idea to write a poem for each place we visited. Four years later, these poems are going to be published in my debut chapbook titled ‘Let Us Go Then’ coming out this December with the Alfred Gustav Press as part of their Series 26, which includes three other people’s chapbooks. For those unfamiliar with the term, a chapbook is a very short publication or the literary equivalent of an EP.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

“Let Us Go Then invites you down European streets into scenes framed with art. Like parallel trains travelling through space and time, the poems map a trip alongside a marriage.”

If you’re interested in ordering, here’s the link with details. Note it’s a subscription-only press so orders must be placed by October 1. http://d-zieroth.squarespace.com/the-alfred-gustav-press

Signing the contract for my chapbook in 2020. A long-hoped for day.

I have loved writing and editing these poems and I can’t wait to have them out in the world, in friends’ and families’ (hopefully even strangers’) mailboxes before Christmas. Not every poem/place could fit within the scope of this chapbook (sorry Florence, Vernazza, and Munich), but the 10 poems that did make the cut give a good sense of the month-long journey that I feel incredibly privileged to have taken and grateful as to when I did it. Sights include Paris, Monet’s Garden (Giverny), Nice, Rome, Venice, Neuschwanstein Castle (Bavaria), and Amsterdam. Some poems were written on location (though morphed into very different poems through the editing process); others were written soon after arriving home; and the most recent were penned in 2020 after rereading my travel journal.

I did a lot of writing on the train. This is somewhere in France.

In anticipation of the book’s publication, here are some photos (taken by me) that capture scenes addressed in the poems either overtly or subtly. Think of these photos like easter eggs in a Taylor Swift song. Can you guess where they’re from?

Something Missing: The Whale Without Jonah

Whenever Douglas Coupland has art in Vancouver, I’m usually keen to check it out. The city has a few public artworks by him and Vancouver Art Gallery held the first major survey exhibit of his work in 2014 that I reviewed here.

I’ve read many of his books, spending the most time with Girlfriend in a Coma (1998) as that was one of the books I analyzed for my Master’s research paper. The book is set in suburban North Vancouver where Coupland grew up, and I looked at how place shapes characters and their interactions in contrast to characters in another Vancouver-based novel who grow up in a walkable, high-density neighbourhood. I recently learned Coupland is recreating the book through photos via The Rabbit Lane Project.

The Whale Without Jonah by Douglas Coupland at Dal Schindell Gallery, Regent College.

Coupland is a writer, artist, collector of objects, and cultural critic. His novels and artworks have an uncanny ability to speak to our times, ask the big questions, spark connections to unlikely things, and make you feel a little less alone. He’s an interdisciplinary thinker par excellence. As a result of his focus on contemporary culture, topics like humanity’s obsession with technology and our role in the environmental catastrophe frequently recur in his practice.

The latter is a prominent focus of his current exhibit at The Dal Schindell Gallery in Regent College, a theological graduate school in Vancouver that positions itself as a place where students come to ask the big questions (I know this because I used to work in their marketing department!)

Douglas Coupland, The Whales Without Jonah, 2021. This piece was toddler candy.

The focus of the exhibit The Whale Without Jonah is the title piece, an installation of found whales ranging from battery-operated plastic Fisher Price toys to wooden sculptures mounted on rods, all swimming the same direction. There are some plastic heads of action figures lying on the bottom, probably meant to represent the ocean floor, and a few “Jonahs” hanging out of select whales’s mouths, but for the most part, Jonah is conspicuously absent.

Coupland explains why:

I can’t help but wonder that with the Book of Jonah, the medium was the message, and the message was the whale itself. I have to believe that God’s message to Nineveh was ecological, because so rarely in religious texts is the natural world ever even addressed, meriting only casual statements along the lines that humans have dominion over nature, which seems merely to have given license to humans to do whatever they please wherever they please.

Detail of The Whales Without Jonah.

I had never thought of this interpretation before and I am still considering it. To me, the confounding story of Jonah reads like a satire and makes even less sense if it’s all about the whale and not the reluctant prophet on either side of the sea voyage, but I digress.

His other installations include racks of spice jars from the 1970s, Band-Aids from the artist’s AstraZeneca vaccines, a pile of his clothes “left behind” in the rapture, and vintage Christmas spray cans of snow he calls Global Warming.

Douglas Coupland, The Rapture, 2012-2021. The 1.5 tsp of nutmeg under a glass represents the approximate amount of DNA in the average human being.

While his arrangement of objects is somewhat interesting to look at, what is more interesting is reading the pamphlet about the works available at the Gallery entrance. In my review of his 2014 exhibit at the VAG, I said a similar thing—that after reading his statements, I realized, “Oh, there’s a lot more to this piece than meets the eye.”

After seven years of working in an art gallery myself and being that much older/bolder, now I would say I wish there was more that met my eye, more than kept me looking at Coupland’s art. My 21-month-old daughter was with me and her reaction to the artist’s Band-Aids mounted in a frame illustrates this point: she glanced, pointed, announced “Band-Aids” and then ran to the next piece in less than two seconds. In his lengthy write-up about the Band-Aids, though, Coupland talks about provocative slogans he would put on his Instagram feed to elicit reactions and how COVID revealed people’s worst behaviours. Okay, but what’s the connection to the actual Band-Aids hanging on the wall, other than that he believes in science and that the vaccines are a modern-day miracle? (with the latter phrase, I’m just assuming that based on the artwork’s title).

Douglas Coupland, Miracle, 2021.

Similarly, when I saw the wall of old spice racks, I looked closer to see if I was missing something, if he had changed out the labels or done something with them. No, they were spices exactly like you would see in your grandma’s kitchen. In his written statement though, he philosophizes about them:

Spices were from some place far away, and difficult to obtain and spoke of other worlds and other realms. I began to see the connection between spices and death—both the ancient Egyptians and the Vikings included spices in burial sites as offerings to celestial gatekeepers. They were rare and valued and it is only now, as I type these words, that I’m making the direct connection between my need to collect 1970s spices and my father’s death.

From left to right: Frankincense, 1972 McCormick’s spice bottles; King Tut’s Tomb, 1983 Crystal Foods spice bottles; Myrrh, various 1970s American spice tins.

Given that the atwork’s titles aren’t even beside the works (they’re printed in the pamphlet), there is nothing in the art itself to communicate these compelling connections to the viewer. If the medium is the message but the message isn’t getting through, perhaps the visual medium is not serving him well here.

At the risk of sounding the opposite of interdisciplinary, what I’m trying to say is that the exhibit shows Coupland as a collector and I’m more interested in what he can create as an artist.

I wonder if this point is related to my disappointment that I didn’t actually need to experience these works in person—the photographs on the website sufficed just as well. There should be a difference, right? Shouldn’t there be something additive about seeing a work in person?

I think the other reason the physical experience didn’t add value is because there wasn’t much, if any, craft to see in these works. That’s the nature of found art installations—you’re putting things together that already exist, but you’re not demonstrating a level of craft like painting or collage or weaving or photography.

I shared this critique with my husband who has an MA in Painting and studied Arts and Theology at Regent College. He says the issue he finds with a lot of conceptual artists is that they don’t take their ideas far enough and don’t seem to care about the actual material. Their message or idea is more important than the medium used to express it (which is interesting given that Coupland quotes Marshal McLuhan in the quote I pulled earlier from The Whales Without Jonah).

Douglas Coupland, Global Warming, 2019.

He gave an example: with the aerosol spray cans containing Freon that is known to damage the Earth’s ozone layer, Coupland could have taken those cans apart, hammered flat the labels stating their toxic chemical contents, cut and pasted it on top of the continents on an actual globe. That way his clever paradox of showing Global Warming with snow cans would still hold and be even stronger because he’s manipulating the material to make something new that matches medium with message, form with content.

Wanting to give credit to my husband where credit is due, I’ll share another idea he had. With the spice racks, Coupland could have dismantled the wood, used it to make a miniature tomb or coffin, and put the spices inside of it. Then your material is helping communicate the message about spices and their relationship to death.

Douglas Coupland, Umami, 2021, Various 1980s American spice bottles with wood rack.

Maybe that’s the missing piece I go to art galleries in person for: to see and marvel at how an artwork is made and to contemplate how the making contributes to the meaning. I wanted more how from Coupland in The Whale Without Jonah; I wanted art that held my attention before turning to the pamphlet to read about it instead.

What do you go to an art gallery for?

This exhibit is showing until September 5. If you’ve seen it, I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Love in the Rain

On our first night in Paris, my husband and I took an open-top boat ride along the Seine. It wasn’t long before the sky dumped sheets of rain on us and the wind gusted so strongly it flipped our MEC umbrella inside out, rendering it useless the rest of the trip. We were soggy, jet-lagged Shreddies arriving home to our Airbnb. Welcome to Paris.

Before the rain…(I don’t have an “after” photo).

One of the many bridges we cruised under was Le Pont des Arts, more commonly known as the “love lock bridge.” Many cities have their version of a love lock bridge, but Paris is perhaps the most famous. With close to a million locks hanging from the grilles, the City of Paris decided to remove them in 2015 after part of the railing collapsed under the weight (about 45 tonnes). They replaced the grilles with transparent panels.

Above you can see the transparent panels, but you can also see people’s determinism to continue the love lock tradition, which started in Paris around 2008. (This photo was taken in 2017.) Although you would think Paris would be the origin of this tradition given its moniker as the City of Love, it actually began at Most Ljubavi (“Bridge of Love”) in Serbia during WWI. You can read the story here, which is actually more tragic than romantic. Now locals and tourists alike attach padlocks to bridges around the world and throw the key into the water—a contemporary urban ritual for couples to declare their love and its permanence.

(FYI, it is illegal to put a lock on a bridge in Paris, though how strictly this is enforced is debatable given the picture I took above. For the record, we did not add one.)

A year after the grilles on Le Pont des Arts came down, a love lock sculpture in Vancouver went up. Couples had been affixing padlocks to Burrard Street Bridge, and for the same structural reasons as the City of Paris gave, the City of Vancouver also said no, this can’t go on. They did; however, provide an alternative: a public art sculpture that could hold the weight of thousands of padlocks.

You can see Love In the Rain (2016) by Bruce Voyce if you visit Queen Elizabeth Park, the highest point in Vancouver at 125 metres above sea level. The public chose this location from a number of recommended sites and it seems symbolic of love at its peak. (I’m sure this has been the setting of countless proposals—the first lock attached began with one).

Best view of Vancouver from Queen Elizabeth Park
Incidentally, my parents took their wedding photos in this park.

Four sets of couples embrace under umbrellas—their stainless steel frames the hooks on which the locks hang. A receptacle is located on site for people to throw their keys into (very Vancouver), with the purpose that the metal will either be recycled or melted down to use as part of another public artwork.

The human forms are meant to be ageless and genderless. The work “celebrates the shelter that love brings and the union that it forms,” according to a Park Board press release. On the artist’s website, Voyce writes that his sculpture “embodies love in the temperate rainforest.”

The umbrellas make the piece, in my opinion. Not only do they add height and visual interest, but they contextualize the artwork, answering the question, why this public artwork here? If Paris is the City of Love, Vancouver is the City of Rain.

I cannot help but think of a line in my own wedding vows: “to shower love and forgiveness like Vancouver rain.”

Now I am wondering for how many other couples is love linked to rain, fitting together like lock and key?

Do you have a “love in the rain” story?

A Tale of Two Trees

I live near Mountain View Cemetery in Vancouver. When my daughter was young enough that she was taking her naps on me, I often walked its paths, reading the odd gravestone, admiring the beautiful trees, composing poems in my head. Now my daughter takes all her naps in a crib and I leave her with my husband to run those paths, admire the beautiful trees (especially this season), and compose poems in my head.

While there recently, I ran by some art installations that compelled me to stop. Two trees: one dressed in red, the other in white.

The first tree is called REDress and brings attention to the 1200+ missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada. It’s a response/continuation of artist Jaime Black’s REDress project, in which she hangs red dresses in various public settings. She writes on her website:

The project has been installed in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the staggering number of women who are no longer with us. Through the installation I hope to draw attention to the gendered and racialized nature of violent crimes against Aboriginal women and to evoke a presence through the marking of absence.

It is not an accident the dresses are red. Red is for blood. Red is for love. Red is for anger. Red is for warning. Red is for stop, look, pay attention.

The other tree’s branches hung with white baby carriages, fabric stitched taut over stick frames, weightless and rocking in the wind. The installation was next to the infant’s cemetery, where each stone in the river commemorates a baby lost. There are many stones in the river. The oldest one I saw was inscribed with the date 1902.

It is not an accident the carriages are white. White is for innocence. White is for milk. White is for purity. White is for a fadeout screen in a film. White is for ghosts. White is for baby shoes. White is for a blank page, an empty photo album.

Two trees dressed in grief. People have remarked that running through a cemetery is creepy. I have never experienced that feeling until the day I saw those red and white trees in broad daylight. They were haunting.

They have become more haunting after reading theologian James Cone’s 2011 book, The Cross and the Lynching Tree. Cone connects the cross Jesus died on with the trees that thousands of Black people died on in the United States because of white supremacy. Cone writes:

The conspicuous absence of the lynching tree in American theological discourse and preaching is profoundly revealing, especially since the crucifixion was clearly a first-century lynching. In the “lynching era” between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men and women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus.

While not ignoring the historical and theological differences between the cross and the lynching tree, Cone concludes:

The lynching tree is a metaphor for white America’s crucifixion of black people. It is the window that best reveals the religious meaning of the cross in our land. In this sense, black people are Christ figures, not because they wanted to suffer but because they had no choice.

These are powerful, haunting words. Reading Cone’s short and accessible book (for non-theologians like me) was illuminating, horrifying, and necessary. Just like the red dresses and white carriages render presence through absence in Mountain View cemetery, Cone writes for America (particularly Christian America) to remember what it has all too easily forgot, ignored, or even justified.

He reminds us of the strange fruit hanging from trees that Billie Holiday inscribed on the ears of anyone who listened to her sing this indictment.

Listening to the song and looking at the cemetery tree photos, I wonder what the late Cone would say about Canada’s collective violence towards our Indigenous peoples, people we have sought to kill, assimilate, dehumanize. We have our own strange fruit, our river of stones, our Highway of Tears to reckon with.