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.

Places to Play

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. 

Westlake Park, Seattle

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?

You can see the “PLAY” blocks in the far left corner of Occidental Square, Seattle

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.

Perhaps this sign is more popular with tourists (guilty), but fun nonetheless

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. 

Love Your Bean by Cosimo Cavallaro in Charleston Park, Vancouver. This public artwork was a Vancouver Biennale project and has since been removed, sadly.

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). 

My favourite public piano so far, Victoria
Friends in Okotoks, AB

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!

A Poem in PRISM

I began this blog back in 2011 to write about the city as text and text as the city. I was noticing many examples in Vancouver of “literary buildings”—buildings that contained written text on it, such as a poem or a phrase. I was fascinated by this combination, how a city is a surface to be read, and how some architects make this literal.

I don’t talk about architecture as much on here as I used to, but cities (particularly Vancouver) still heavily inform my creative writing practice, which is focusing on poetry.

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I’m saying all this to lead up to an exciting announcement: this past summer, my poem “Text to Vancouver” was published in PRISM international, a quarterly literary magazine based in Vancouver.

Given the content of my poem, I was thrilled my piece found a home in this particular magazine among many writers whose work I admire.

If you’d like to read it, you can order a print copy here. To whet your appetite, I will say that I wrote this poem after reading Elizabeth Bishop’s “Letter to N.Y. ” The rhythm of her poem captured me and I wanted to write my own version to my city, but update it for the twenty-first century. Kits Pool, designated bike lanes, and glass condos are some Vancouver references I place in there (I initially wrote “thrown in” and realized how wrong that is. Nothing in poetry is ever thrown in!)

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Speaking of publications, you may notice that I’ve also put up a new Publications page. The writing life has plenty of discouraging moments and I feel it’s important to celebrate  what I’ve done so far, as I aim to keep pursuing this path. Hence me sharing this news with you!

Thank you for reading and encouraging me in your own ways. If you’re comfortable sharing, I’d love to hear what little or big thing you’re celebrating. We could all use more reason to!

Main Street Miscellany

Main Street is one of my favourite streets to walk in Vancouver. It’s full of coffee shops, antique stores, vintage boutiques, art galleries, patio restaurants from the classy comfort of Burgoo to the kitschy flamingo-decorated Rumpus Room, and everything in between. I was in the French château-inspired ballroom of the Heritage Hall last night for a fundraiser, and it reminded me of how much I love this street of all things where you just never know what writing will appear on the walls.

Here are some shots of my favourite Main Street miscellany:
IMG_7763IMG_20140530_221650554IMG_759949th Parallel & Lucky's DoughnutsIMG_7766IMG_7603Urban SourceMain Street is also home to a great art store called Urban Source (pictured above) where you’ll find almost any material from scrabble letters to puzzle pieces, dried flowers to woodcuts, miniature test tubes to coloured clothespins. I think I spent over an hour perusing their bins of paper and tables of objects. It’s particularly a treasure’s chest for collage work. It provided the materials for my latest DIY project—turning my empty David’s Tea containers into 12 little “windows” that represent different parts of me. I hung it in my apartment kitchen.

IMG_7782IMG_7774With the lid closed:

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The Neon Parade

When I was at the Museum of Vancouver in January checking out their Playhouse exhibit, I toured one of the other exhibits they have currently on display: Neon Vancouver, Ugly Vancouver.

To say it was eye-catching would be an understatement. Fluorescent blues, pinks, yellows, reds, and greens met my eyes. A constant humming sound made it a space you wouldn’t want to spend more than half an hour in.

I walked around from sign to sign, trying to picture these now-vintage signs hanging in their heyday on Granville Street in the 1950s-60s, Vancouver’s “theatre row.”

There are still a few remaining neon signs on Granville Street, but this “visual pollution”, as the City’s Environmental Committee put it in 1974, had to be reduced. So a sign by-law was enacted in 1974 to control the amount of neon cropping up over the city. It was apparently a very polarizing issue. Here are what some opponents said:

I walk into spaces like this and feel nostalgic for the past—to experience coming downtown Vancouver to be greeted with such fanfare—lights, colour, action—reminding me of the city as spectacle, the city as stage. Coming downtown was an adventure. There is something appealing about the signs’ audacity, drama, even grittiness. But then I try and picture what it would be like to have lived in that era where these signs were everywhere, building after building, and perhaps it was more nauseating than nostalgic, more contrived than genuine. A part of me then sympathizes with the naysayers, although some of their rhetoric sounds a touch extreme:

You can have civilization, or you can have neon.

You can have happiness, or you can have neon.

This anecdote is rather humorous:

An urban legend grew up that the most dangerous intersection in Vancouver was along Kingsway where a flashing neon woman swung back and forth, mesmerizing drivers.

As German sociologist Georg Simmel wrote in his famous essay, “The Metropolis and Mental Life,” (1903) the growth of the modern city in the early twentieth century impacted city dwellers psychologically in a new way than ever before. Cities bombarded us with stimuli of all shapes and sizes, contributing to the feeling Simmel identified as the blasé. The blasé is an attitude of indifference caused by the over-stimulation of the nerves because of the rapidly changing sights and sounds in the city. Blasé becomes an item of clothing we wear when stepping out into the streets: it’s a protective shield from the 24-7 advertising assault on our senses. It’s not hard to see how neon signs play a role in this urban armour.

So, what’s your reaction to neon signs? Love ’em or leave ’em?

SAFE

For several days and counting, the new Safeway at Granville and 70th has been stuck with half a sign. All safe and no way. I walk by the first time, amused at the delay. We see buildings mid-construction but we don’t often see words. We don’t read an author’s half-finished manuscript. We read the published book with the illustrated cover on display in Chapter’s. We don’t listen to a half-done speech from a president, sports star, or other figure in the public eye. We are used to whole words, even though we think in half words and half-finished sentences all the time.

Last week, I talked about reading the city through text on buildings, and asked are we reading them or are they reading us?

Text reads differently when it’s separated from what makes it familiar. When it’s disconnected from its usual reality.

I know what the text on this building should have said. Everything I know from growing up in urban environments tells me this building should read “Safeway.” But because it didn’t, it made me stop. Smile. Pull out my camera. Read the building in a whole new way.

The funny thing is, SAFE isn’t a half word. I think that’s what struck me so much—that it made sense in and of itself. That it is such an ordinary word displayed so visibly, so unusually, so as to render it extraordinary.

“Protected from or not exposed to danger or risk; not likely to be harmed.”
Baseball: “having reached a base without being put out.”

I like the baseball definition better because it doesn’t imply that you’re not in the game, that you’re not taking risks. No, you are playing, you are hitting, you are running. And when there’s so much set against you that can take you out (balls, bats, opponents), you’ve landed on a base that is holy ground so to speak—sacred because it’s safe. Nothing can harm you while you’re on it.

The building isn’t “Safeway” until it gets its name. Naming is everything. We name our cities, neighbourhoods, children, pets, cars, boats, computers. Naming says you have an identity. You are worth something to me. You are personal. You are mine.

Right now, the building is SAFE.

It is not a grocery store.

It is a glass rectangle with a swoosh across its façade.

It is a four-letter word on a building.

It is poetry.

It is telling me, making me Safe. A reminder that in a city—any city—where there is so many things and so many people who aren’t safe, that Safe still exists. There is no prescribed Way to find it or to find it without confronting danger first, but it is there. There are places and people who are Safe. Safe has a reality beyond its sign.

I walk by a second time on Monday, Vancouver’s first snowfall of the 2013 winter season. To my delight, SAFE is still there. I hope the construction workers have trouble finding the WAY so that SAFE can linger a while more, reminding me and other city-dwellers through the liminal state of a grocery store what we all long for.