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?
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 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.
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.