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.
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?”
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?
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.
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.
I thought I would be the type of parent who would take my kid on public transport frequently. That by her almost 3 years of age, she would have ridden the bus at least once or twice. Would know what the yellow rope was for, would know to say thank you upon exiting. Would be familiar with the screeching brakes of the SkyTrain or the incessant beeps of Compass cards tapping in and out.
COVID kept my daughter off the bus these past couple years and it wasn’t until today that she got her wish of riding one. She’s been singing “The Wheels on the Bus” since God knows how long and now she could finally be one of the people going “up and down.” She gripped the bars of her stroller like she was riding the wooden roller coaster at the PNE and kept asking as her head scanned the occupied blue seats, “Why are there so many people?”
Our destination was the newly opened park at Smithe and Richards streets downtown: sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7 in the hən̓q̓əmin̓əm̓ and Squamish languages, meaning “Rainbow” park. The City of Vancouver’s website says this is the first park to be gifted a name by the Musqueam, Squamish, and Tsleil-Waututh Nations.
sθәqәlxenәm ts’exwts’áxwi7, meaning ‘rainbow’, was chosen for this place because the land where the park now sits was once forested with large trees and had many sources of water, including a marsh where the sun and mist would form rainbows.
I see the “rainbow” element integrated into the design of the playground through the multi-textured walkways that wrap around and over the park, with wheelchair accessible routes too. These walkways imitate rainbows that arch over the kids playing below. I was standing on one while I took this pic of my daughter bouncing on one of the two trampolines. The Indigenous public art banners waving in the wind echo this rainbow effect, adding height and colour to an already variegated landscape.
There are a lot of cookie cutter playgrounds in Vancouver (and probably any city) but this is not one of them. Its varying heights, structures, and integration into the streetscape caught my attention right away. Here is a park that promotes risky play, that considers parents as much as the kids, that offers a little something for everyone.
In researching risky play (which I am a fan of though it can scare me!), I came across this video that traces the history of “adventure playgrounds” that were originally known as “junk playgrounds” that began in Denmark in the aftermath of WWII. It’s fascinating.
The video gives 6 criteria that typically categorize an adventure playground:
the ability to disappear or become lost
While there were no tools or dangerous elements like hammers, nails, or loose bricks for kids to manipulate, this “Rainbow” park definitely contains the other criteria. You can tell it was equally designed for parents and caregivers by putting in a nearby coffee shop (Kafka’s) and wooden seating around the edges (with backrests!) that indicates parents stay on the perimeter while the centre area is for the kids (something the video discusses as well). That being said, the park is so inviting it’s hard for adults to stay on the edges, as evidenced by the daddy-daughter photo below (my family).
Freeform sculptures (some with footholds, others not) invite creative climbing and sliding. And you can only reach the top of these staggeringly high towers by climbing from the bottom all the way to the top. Sure, an adult could go up it but our bodies don’t fit through those holes as easily! Our daughter wasn’t interested in climbing these but she loved the lower slide, the roller slide, and the trampolines. Different structures appeal to different age groups, and to me, that’s a mark of a good playground when a variety of ages can enjoy it. And let’s not underestimate the simple power of a good hill to climb or ramp to run down. I saw children playing tag along the walkways and others in the spray pool cooling off.
If you’re in the Vancouver area and looking for other examples of adventure playgrounds, I’d recommend Terra Nova Rural Park in Richmond (the closest I can think of to the adventure playground model) and Douglas Park in Vancouver.
Do you have a favourite risky playground where you live or where you’ve visited? Would love to know of other examples!
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.
As a UVic alumna, I receive their Torch magazine whose recent cover article features cognitive neuroscientist Dr. Robin Mazumder and his research on how cities affect our mental well-being.
For his PhD in psychology, his research focused on stress responses when people were dropped via virtual reality into two separate locations in central London: 1) next to a high-rise building and 2) next to a low-rise building.
Not surprisingly, author Michael Kissinger summarizes:
What he found was that tall buildings make people uncomfortable when they’re surrounded by them. Conversely, people have less of a stress response when they’re in environments that are built at what’s considered “human scale,” or the European model where buildings tend to top out at five storeys.
Reading this brought me back to my literature courses in university. In the early 20th century when the development of urban spaces was accelerating at a fast pace, German socialist Georg Simmel was similarly concerned about the affect of the city on an individual in his landmark essay “The Metropolis and Mental Life” from 1903. In fact, he was the one who coined the term blasé, which Merriam-Webster defines as “apathetic to pleasure or excitement as a result of excessive indulgence or enjoyment.” It’s a paradox: to feel something so strongly that you end up not feeling anything at all.
Simmel says that the extreme excess or intensification of stimuli in the city “agitates the nerves to their strongest reactivity for such a long time that they finally cease to react at all.” Examples of stimuli he gives include “the grasp of a single glance . . . each crossing of the street . . . [and] the tempo and multiplicity of economic, occupational and social life.”
I have to admit that I am a city lover. I sang New York’s praises after visiting it for the first time (well aware now that living there would likely be a very different experience). In BC, I once had a job in what some would consider an idyllic pastoral setting where sheep and cows grazed in fields outside my window, their bleating and mooing a lunchtime lullaby. But I longed for blinking streetlights and fast-moving things: cars, bikes, people. Looking back, I think I was drawn to what those fast-moving things represented: opportunities.
While I don’t live downtown and am not surrounded by high-rises, I do live in a city and enjoy venturing downtown because of the different pace of life it offers. When Vancouver was shut down early in the pandemic and on and off since then, I looked forward to roaming around Gastown only to be dismayed at how empty it was. The photographs from around the world in this New York Times article “The Great Empty” capture that melancholy well.
If I were a subject in Mazumder’s study, I wonder what my response would have been. If he had conducted his study both pre- and post-pandemic, would there be a significant difference? Would the long amounts of isolation and at-home time make a bustling city scene more attractive than normal? Would we be less stressed and more excited? Or would the long absence of this hustle and bustle trigger anew the anxiety of crowds and stimuli that we had forgotten we were used to?
I have a chapbook out now called ‘Let Us Go Then’ that alludes to T.S. Eliot’s quintessentially modernist poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” that one could argue features a speaker (Prufrock) desperately trying to overcome the blasé. The first stanza of his poem comes to mind when I think about “The Great Empty.” Obviously Eliot is writing in a very different context than our current pandemic one, but he is addressing emptiness of another kind: emptiness with modern living and all of its “fillings” as I paradoxically call them in my final poem of the chapbook.
Let us go then, you and I, When the evening is spread out against the sky Like a patient etherized upon a table; Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets, The muttering retreats Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells: Streets that follow like a tedious argument Of insidious intent To lead you to an overwhelming question ... Oh, do not ask, “What is it?” Let us go and make our visit.
“A patient etherized upon a table” and “half-deserted streets” strike an eerily familiar chord. I find a degree of solace in this world-weary speaker who presents as an urban, educated individual who is painfully unsure of the world he finds himself inhabiting (and where he fits in, as a result).
The speaker is longing for emotional, spiritual, and physical connection.
This longing ties into Michael Kimmelman’s introduction to that New York Times article showing mesmerizing photographs of empty public spaces:
Their present emptiness, a public health necessity, can conjure up dystopia, not progress, but, promisingly, it also suggests that, by heeding the experts and staying apart, we have not yet lost the capacity to come together for the common good. Covid-19 doesn’t vote along party lines, after all. These images are haunted and haunting, like stills from movies about plagues and the apocalypse, but in some ways they are hopeful.
They also remind us that beauty requires human interaction.
Human interaction indeed. That’s what Robin Mazumder comes back to in the UVic article: designing cities that are at a human scale, where most necessities are met within a 15-minute walk or transit ride, where spaces foster mixed uses and diverse users that create opportunities for community—a good kind of filling, maybe even a great one.
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.
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!)
The focus of the exhibitThe 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.
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
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!
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.
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).
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?