My dad loves to remind me that I once described Langley, where I grew up and where my parents still live, as “the place where romance goes to die.” Needless to say, I am not a fan of the suburbs. As a poet, I love writing about place, but these places are always cities. I have one poem about my hometown and it reads more like an instruction manual: “leave suburb / make new home.”
So I came to Taryn Hubbard’s debut poetry book Desire Path published by Talonbooks in 2020 with curiosity, aware that it’s about growing up in Surrey, BC, and I was impressed. A whole book devoted to the suburbs—that’s commitment. I couldn’t do that for Langley. I kept looking for the speaker’s attitude towards the suburbs, towards this awkward adolescent place rapidly changing from rural to urban, and it wasn’t obvious. Sometimes she felt critical, other times accepting, and in this evocative description from “In the Afternoon,” mournful:
Commuter hearts start like the engines of diesel trucks when field across station, free for all-day parking gets dug up.
Hubbard pays attention to Surrey. Even the gas stations, parking lots, and fast-food joints—things that don’t often make it into my poetry. I once had a writing teacher say that “parking lot” isn’t a very poetic phrase to put in a poem so Hubbard’s book feels like a middle finger to that teacher. Yes, she can write “parking lot” in a poem and do it well. She can write an introductory poem (“Heirloom”) that begins, “I was born across from the first / McDonald’s in Canada” and hook me immediately. Hubbard can use a ubiquitous landmark to anchor her self and her work.
Over the past couple decades, attention has shifted from major metropolises like Vancouver and turned towards outlying cities growing up in their shadows like a younger sibling. After Hubbard’s debut, there can be no talk of a body of literature about Surrey (from a growing coterie that includes Leona Gom, Kevin Spenst, Veeno Dewan, Phinder Dulai, Fauzia Rafique, Heidi Greco, Renée Sarojini Saklikar) without mentioning Desire Path.
Hubbard summarizes the plight of the suburb in her poem “Wayfinding”:
it’s hard to find the idea of here and there from a form that grew only with the idea of car & home
For this reason, the “here” of Surrey could be the “there” of Oshawa, for the nature of suburbs is wash, rinse, repeat, something echoed in the structure of Hubbard’s collection that has four repeating poems aptly named “Repeat (I) (II) (III) (IV).” The poet has a hard task cut out for herself then in writing a whole poetry book about the suburbs and maintaining the reader’s interest. In “Markers,” she writes:
“The streets are empty, the houses are far apart including the empty lots saved for a rainy day when it will be more advantageous to redevelop them into something with suburban density, which is code for a strip of three-story townhouses cut apart like pieces of bread.”
Fortunately, Hubbard largely avoids the suburban cookie cutter (or shall I say bread cutter?) fate by varying her poetic forms. She scatters prose poems between free verse poems while also including a fifteen-page poem of fragments called “Attempts” near the end, about being pregnant during wildfire season. The poems that are most successful in standing out from the rest are ones where the speaker removes her distance glasses and gives us more personal details linking her to this no-where/every-where. For this reason, “Heirloom,” “Weighted Keys,” “Dear 203B,” “Shadeless,” “Boarded-Up Strip Mall Church,” and “Little Holubtsi” are my favourites.
Overall, Desire Path is a tight collection that boldly asserts a place like Surrey is worth paying attention to, not in spite of, but because of its contradictions; its tension between past and future, rural and urban; its identity crisis; its complicated role in shaping a speaker from here to there, then to now, child to mother.
There is something to be said for really knowing a place, for taking the time to pay attention to it. It’s a form of love. This love is perhaps most evident in “Flagpole” where Hubbard begins: “One summer I walk the same path each day with the idea of creating a folded corner on a very specific patch of grass.”
I dog-eared a few poems in this book, folding back the corners of the pages like she folded the grassy path that led us here.
I scan the books on the shelf of my 7 month old’s library, all gifts from family and friends. Most are about animals, but the two below feature people—specifically, people of colour. I am reading them a lot more to my daughter these days when Black Lives Matter has moved to the front of white people’s minds.
Like many white people, I am asking myself what can I do? Now that I am a mom, I feel a heavier responsibility to do something because I am raising a child in this world and the question of what kind of person I want her to be is no small thing. I think the answer is hidden in the question: A kind person. An empathetic person. An authentic, courageous, compassionate, and self-aware person. I can read my daughter stories and give her dolls/toys of people with different types of bodies: Black bodies, Asian bodies, Indigenous bodies, disabled bodies, etc. Apparently as young as three months old, babies start showing a preference for the race that matches their caregivers. My husband and I took a trip to Kidsbooks the other day to address the gap in our daughter’s library. I am thankful we live in a diverse neighbourhood of Vancouver where we interact with different races. I am teaching her to wave to people we walk by. Babies are great at breaking down barriers.
While my husband and I need to educate our daughter about racism, I also need to educate myself and reflect on my own covert racism. To be honest, I haven’t known where to begin the past several days. And not because there isn’t ample information out there. There is. I’ve bookmarked webpages with resources by Black authors such as this one and have felt overwhelmed in choosing a starting point. And then I felt immediately guilty, because what a privilege: that I have the luxury of deciding whether or not to educate myself on racialized experiences when it’s a daily lived reality for people of colour. I read Ijeoma Oluo’s book So You Want to Talk About Race after hearing her speak at the 2018 National Arts Marketing Project Conference in Seattle, and that was the first time I really thought about my privilege: white, middle class, educated, stable family, etc. and how this plays a huge role in how society treats me over someone who doesn’t have these privileges. After the protests broke out in the US following George Floyd’s death, I wondered what to do now.
My starting point happened last night, and rather unintentionally, I will confess. My husband gave me a book for my first Mother’s Day. It only arrived the other day and has been sitting on our coffee table. It’s called Motherhood: A Confession by Natalie Carnes who’s a professor at Baylor University. This book converses with Augustine’s Confessions. Carnes wonders how that seminal piece of writing for Western Christianity would have been different if it was a mother writing it instead of a man. I picked up her version last night and began reading.
She addresses her daughter in the first part. I am in the midst of writing a poem to my daughter and easily slipped into Carnes’s hopes, fears, and concerns that the birth of a child elicits in a mother, particularly the desire to protect your child from the suffering of the world.
I see that there is domination, at least, in my own dissipation, that my attempt to suffer for you is also an attempt to control your life by limiting its exposure. The temptation to save you from suffering can express a lust for domination and yearning for control over what is ultimately uncontrollable. The domination of diffusion derives from the illusion that I can absorb the world for you and so by my love create for you a painless world. ‘What madness,’ as Augustine writes, ‘not to understand how to love a human being with awareness of the human condition!'”
Natalie Carnes, Motherhood: A Confession, p.65
What kind of person does Carnes want her daughter to be? The kind that resists racism, patriarchy, and injustice. And so she talks about exposing her to an ugly piece of local history where they live in Waco, Texas. She tells the story of a young Black man named Jesse Washington who was lynched in front of the courthouse in 1916. Wait a minute. I’ve been to that courthouse. At this point, I put the book down, get on my computer. Yes, here it is. You may even remember that I shared this picture on a previous post about Waco.
I stood near the spot where a 17-year-old Black teenager accused of murdering a white woman whom he worked for was beaten, chained, stabbed, dismembered, dragged, and finally hung and burned alive on a tree while a mob of 10 000 white people watched and cheered.
This Guardian article shows more pictures and the text of the original story that ran in a monthly magazine put out by the country’s oldest civil rights organization called NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People).
I felt sick to my stomach. Not just for what happened, but for my ignorance. I remember walking up to the courthouse to read about it because I was interested in its architecture.
Maybe I missed it, but I didn’t see any sign in the area that addressed Jesse Washington’s lynching. And why would the City want to remember this death at their hands? It’s an act of erasure—white people wiping out Black bodies and memories. And I feel guilty because I visited the city as a tourist, consuming this site like any other. What would my posture have been if I had gone to remember, to pay respect? I wish I had known this story prior. I like to think it would have changed the way I moved through the city. And how was I to know if our cities don’t tell the (whole) truth, even if it’s unpleasant and inconvenient? This article describes efforts to have the lynching remembered; Waco has made strides to do so in recent years, though I am still uncertain if there is a marker at the site. A Black man who shares Jesse Washington’s name has been advocating for it and documents his story here.
Also on my previous post about Waco, I shared this postcard image from 1911, a piece of City marketing to attract residents to move to Waco after it had earned a bad reputation for crime in the 19th century.
The figures imitate George Seurat’s 1884 painting La Grande Jatte. How do you reconcile this image with Washington’s charred body hanging from a tree six years later?
As Andrew Belonsky writes in the above Guardian article, the NAACP used racists’ images of Washington’s lynching—which were bought and shared like trading cards—to awaken their country to the horror. Not unlike Emmett Till’s mother in 1955. Her 14-year-old son was abducted, tortured, shot, and drowned in a Mississippi river after a white woman in a grocery store claimed he grabbed and propositioned her (which she later admitted was a lie). Carnes tells this story and I am back on the internet, researching another Black life that was brutally ripped away. The body was so mutilated, Emmett’s mother only recognized her son by a ring he wore.
She insisted on an open casket. The image of her dead son (graphic image warning) was pivotal in the Civil Rights Movement. Rosa Parks said when she was asked to give her seat up for a white person on the bus, she remembered Emmett and that gave her the strength to resist. Who else had an open casket recently? George Floyd.
By the way, Emmett’s family is still waiting for justice. After 65 years. His two killers were acquitted by an all-white, all-male jury. They’re dead now, but the grocery store woman, Carolyn Bryant, is still alive. Read the story in The Guardian, published this spring.
In the nature of Carnes’s honesty, I too want to confess. I didn’t know the names of Jesse Washington and Emmett Till before. I didn’t even know about lynching had it not been for my husband reading Black theologian James Cone’s book The Cross and the Lynching Tree, which I’m going to read next. Approximately 3000 Black men were lynched between 1885 and 1915. That’s a staggering number.
My evening of reading didn’t turn out at all like I expected. Upon going to bed, I said to my husband with a weary voice, “I hate your country.” And the guilt came back, because of course my country, Canada, is no better, as this Huffington Post article reminds me. Racism and erasure happen here too. Slavery happened here. A vibrant Black community in Vancouver once lived and worked in Hogan’s Alley, before urban planning displaced it. I was talking with a friend the other day and we were trying to recall if we even learned about residential schools in our public education. How many places in Canada have I visited without knowing or remembering the atrocities that took place on their soil? What pictures have I seen in history books that don’t tell the truth? This one comes to mind:
A last confession before ending this: I was scared to publish this post. Scared of saying the wrong thing. Scared of repeating things that have already been said and by much smarter voices. But worse, scared of saying nothing. And so even though I don’t have a big platform by any means, I want to use what I do have to share my journey of self-reflection and education to be a better anti-racist. We all have a journey to go on to help dismantle systemic racism, to inform ourselves, to be people of kind character. It starts with you and me. It starts now if it hasn’t already. And writing makes it more real, helps keep me accountable to committing and continuing to learn. Thanks for reading, friends.
Kids don’t need an invitation to play. I have two nieces and a nephew who take any opportunity to transform their beds into trampolines, couches into jungle gyms, boxes into forts, living rooms into dance floors.
Adults, on the other hand, need to be told to play. In a world where speed and efficiency are rewarded, play is underrated but oh so necessary.
This temporary art installation by Downtown Seattle Association invites people to do just that: take a break from the hustle and bustle of everyday life and play. Their website says they “offer a variety of daily games and activations – from ping pong to foosball.” When I was there the other weekend, I noticed a play area for kids, as well as portable library with books for kids and adults to enjoy.
In their other location, Occidental Square, they had a life-sized chess game. This square was really empty on a Monday morning at 9am, but I wonder how much traffic it gets other times. Do people respond to these efforts at interaction and creativity? Do you?
Seattle isn’t the only city encouraging its residents to play. I’ve encountered similar efforts in New York City and Amsterdam through public art, life-sized chess games, public pianos, and letters to climb.
Where there are life-sized letters, there are people wanting to climb them. Heck, there are people wanting to climb almost anything. These jellybeans that were in Vancouver’s Charleson Park are a prime example. I think some of the most effective public artworks are ones that can be touched. Humans are so hungry for contact.
When I think of the word play, I think of a piano. Its presence in my various apartments over the years is akin to a good friend’s quiet constancy. For me, a piano is not just an instrument, but a physical space to unravel myself. I much prefer playing to my ears alone, but I appreciate the public pianos cropping up in virtually every city (or in Victoria’s case, along the beach where I played only to wave, wind, and husband).
The above images all strike me as examples of placemaking, a word popular in urban planning spheres for the last few decades.
Project for Public Spaces, based in New York, has a concise article summarizing this hands-on approach to making neighbourhoods and cities more enjoyable places to live, work, and play.
With community-based participation at its center, an effective placemaking process capitalizes on a local community’s assets, inspiration, and potential, and it results in the creation of quality public spaces that contribute to people’s health, happiness, and well being.
I’ll share one last example from Seattle that literally appeared like a hole in the wall. I don’t know if it was a community-driven initiative, but it felt like it fulfills the last part of the above quote. I was walking to King’s Street Station from Occidental Square to catch the bus back to Vancouver when a sign on a gate reminiscent of a high-security prison stopped me.
Say what? How could something beautiful hide behind such ugly doors? But when I stepped inside, I kind of liked this incongruity between outside and inside, catching me unawares.
Just as adults need places to play, we also need places to rest like this Waterfall Garden Park. An oasis of quiet and calm. I sat on one of these chairs and listened to the music of the waterfall, feeling like I had found a diamond in the rough.
Do you have any stories like this of surprise urban retreats? What’s one of your favourite places to play or rest that you’ve encountered in a city? I’d love to hear!
On a grassy lawn in Munich ripe with autumn’s freshness, I stood where the smell of ash and burnt paper once choked the air and learned about the courage of twenty-one-year-old Sophie Scholl.
Ashamedly and shockingly, I had never met her in a classroom, never read her story in history books. It was at the end of a Third Reich walking tour that introduced me to her and the other members of the White Rose, a non-violent Nazi resistance group of students from the University of Munich.
Our tour guide Tom, who led the provocative, information-packed three-hour walking tour without once referring to his notes, quoted 19th century German Jewish poet Heinrich Heine who predicted:
Wherever books are burned, human beings are destined to be burned too.
He showed us a picture of Sophie, executed by guillotine on February 22, 1943, along with her older brother Hans and another White Rose member, Christoph Probst, after being caught distributing pamphlets at the university.
Her last words before heading to her death:
Such a fine, sunny day, and I have to go. But what does my death matter, if through us, thousands of people are awakened and stirred to action?
A big question Sophie wrestled with (she studied biology and philosophy) was how to live in the face of a dictatorship?
Her courage is echoed in Müncheners who took a back street (Viscardigasse) nicknamed Dodgers’ Ally to avoid saluting to Hitler when passing the Feldherrnhalle on the Odeonsplatz that commemorated the death of Nazi soldiers during Hitler’s failed Beer Hall Putsch in 1923. The pedestrian-only street is marked with a meandering trail of bronze bricks to remember these small but significant acts by ordinary people.
Tom said Munich hasn’t been as active in erecting monuments as the capital Berlin to remember its dark past as the hotbed of Naziism (Hitler even referred to Munich as “The Capital of the Movement”), but that it is making strides to change this.
In recent years, a Third Reich documentation centre (above) was built on the site of the Brown House, the building that housed the National Socialist German Workers’ Party headquarters in the 1930s, and which was destroyed during the war. Nearby was the Führerbau that contained Hitler’s office, now the site of a music and theatre school. (If you look closely at the image below, you can see marks over the door on the top floor where a Nazi Eagle used to hang.)
Near the Marienplatz we looked at a controversial plaque to German women and children mourning the loss of their husbands/fathers during WWII that raises the question, Were they victims or accomplices? And is the answer an easy either/or? No.
Tom challenged our tour group: How would we live in the face of dictatorship? Would we capitulate or resist? And how can we judge others what we know from hindsight when we haven’t walked in their horrific shoes? As I wrote in my journal after the tour, “I think his point was that it takes a people to let something like Naziism take root—not just one man.”
One German artist, since 1995, has created his own tradition of remembering. Wolfram Kastner burns a black circle into the Königsplatz lawn to commemorate the original Nazi book burning there on May 10, 1933. He says in this article written by Tony Sonneman:
There is so much systematic forgetting. I think it’s necessary to remember without covering history with grass.
Kastner also organizes a day-long “Reading Against Forgetting” event in the same spot where students, professors, actors, writers, politicians, and the public gather to read excerpts from the forbidden “nation-corrupting” books that were burnt, including those of Heinrich Heine.
The walking tour was a sobering experience, but one that impacted me most out of anything my husband and I did on our Europe trip.
This is an unsolicited post but I highly recommend the Sandemans Third Reich Tour if you’re heading to Munich and want a deeper experience of the city. The cost is well worth what you learn and you don’t have to be a history buff to follow along.
I didn’t participate in Bike to Work this week because biking from Vancouver to Surrey along Highway 91 is a) very long and b) a little dangerous, but I like to think I made up for it by biking from Marpole, the southernmost neighbourhood of the city, to the ocean at Jericho Beach today.
And I was so excited by what I saw on my ride home that I’m on my computer now to share it with you.
I haven’t posted about a public artwork in a while but this one stopped me full-pedal and had me rummaging through my backpack for my camera.
This LED screen at Point Grey Road and Collingwood Street containing short, pithy statements that rotate every few minutes was right outside a residential house in the affluent neighbourhood of Kitsilano. It was strangely discreet (except for the pink Vancouver Biennale sign) and yet obviously not something you’d expect to see on a scenic route.
I watched it for a few minutes to see about three different narratives appear on the screen.
Called Vancouver Novel, it was made by Brazilian artist João Loureiro. The description on the sign says:
Inspired by the Vancouver Biennale’s 2014-2016 exhibition theme Open Borders / Crossroads Vancouver, Vancouver Novel by João Loureiro explores the shifting boundaries between public and private life in an era marked by social media and reality TV. Situated in one of Vancouver’s most exclusive waterfront neighbourhoods, the installation cycles through a series of 23 sentences which weave a poignant narrative of daily life. These snippets of domesticity, by turns banal and ominous, underscore our ever-growing appetite for updated information and continuous content. Intensely personal and yet broadcast for the world to see, Vancouver Novel asks us to consider thenarrowing chasm between our public and private lives.
While I was photographing the screen, I experienced an uneasiness between the public and private spheres because even though this was “public art,” I was taking pictures of someone’s home. Something like this ran through my mind: Do the the residents know this is here? They must! The artist would have had to get their permission, I’m sure. But they must have gawkers like me all the time just standing outside their home reading this sign. How annoying!
And then when you watch this short clip, you realize the artist’s work is a fictional story about the occupants in the house, which takes it to a whole new level of voyeurism and discomfort.
Yet I think maybe we are supposed to squirm a little? If we had a sign outside our home, what would our story be?
In some ways, we each already do. It may not be an LED screen and it may not be constantly running, but most of us turn to social media to provide status updates of what’s going on in our homes and lives. We’ve already made the private public, but I think why Vancouver Novel is so powerful is because:
Having your private life aired on a screen like a reality TV show where you don’t control who sees it is that much more vulnerable than putting it on social media where you can still put safeguards in place around privacy and security.
The “status updates” on this sign aren’t the “show how cool/beautiful/exciting your life is to make everybody else jealous” type of updates most people post on Facebook/Twitter/Instagram etc. Some of the sentences are banal but some are acutely poignant and even dark. In 23 lines, we witness the unhappiness, the struggle, the pretense, and possibly the demise of a relationship.
There’s an assumption that affluent people have perfect lives because everything on the outside looks that way: their houses, their cars, their clothes, their vacations, their kids etc. Vancouver Novel reminds us that we really have no clue what goes on behind those pretty, perfect doors. Things aren’t always what they seem.
Vancouver is the city everybody wants to live in. It’s come under fire more recently for its high costs and inaccessibility, but there is still this golden aura to the city. I think the artist must know something about this, or why would he call it Vancouver Novel? He’s turning the narrative of the city on its head, cracking open its shiny facade and exposing its grimy underbelly.
This is what art does—exposes things. As much as I love my city, this Vancouver Novel needs to be written. João Loureiro may have intended it as fictional story, but I think there are elements of reality to it that we are all uncomfortably familiar with.
For this post, I thought it’d be interesting to contrast two places/experiences in the city I had recently. First is the artwork at the Canada Line terminus station downtown Vancouver. This is the same space I previously wrote about here where each panel had a list of first lines from songs that all begin with “Here comes…”
The art at this location tends to be time-related, which the current exhibit makes obvious.
I like the bright colours of the vortex clocks, but I don’t find this work as engaging or intriguing as “Here Comes.” Yes, we’re busy and frantic. Yes, we wish we had more time. Does this artwork invite us to stop in a busy area and breathe a little easier? Reflect on something hopeful? Or does it just reinforce the fact that we’re late, need to hurry, walk faster? The sameness of the panels, minus the colours, highlights the relentless regularity of our lives. The tone of the write-up takes a similar doom & gloom stance with descriptions that give all agency to the clock, in which humans are “trapped in its vice forever.” Is its triumph really inevitable? Are we slaves to time? What about all the times we stop people, look at the little girl eating an ice cream cone, listen to a busker belt out melodies; share a conversation with somebody in the grocery line-up?
From chasing the clock, we go to stepping back in time. I was on Broadway Street this morning, meeting friends for coffee & lunch and exploring some shops in that area. My friend suggested we go into a store called Stepback (neither of us had been before) and we were there for almost an hour, oohing and ahhing at its many vintage treasures.
Unfortunately their website doesn’t have any pictures, but you can get a sense of the kind of items they have from this short write-up that VanMag did with the owner two years ago, as well as this blog that has some awesome pictures.
I was especially thrilled as the wedding theme I’m going for is vintage, so I was surrounded by inspiration! The window display was decorated with dozens of old hardcover red books (homage to Valentine’s Day) and pewter dishes. The store contains a stack of suitcases from the 1940s, typewriters, Scrabble letters, eye exam & bicycle posters, plenty of hardcover classics & dictionaries, wooden block letters, old postcards, stamps, matches, wooden chairs, and more. This store may even rival my love for Urban Source!
I will be stepping back there again, taking all the time in the world.