Love in the Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Tale of Two Trees

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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!

F is for Fremlin

What’s the name again?
Fremlin, I repeat. Like gremlin, but with an F.

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That’s how I introduce the street I live on. People seem to understand the name better when it has a reference point.

How does one know a place? I figure you pay attention. In the five years I’ve lived in Marpole, I can’t say I know it well, but I can say with confidence that I know one section of a street well.

Fremlin doesn’t have anything noteworthy from an outsiders’ point of view. Tucked east of Oak and west of Cambie, it sits like a middle child in the centre of the neighbourhood, enjoying a different rhythm. Maybe that’s why I notice it, apart from the fact that it’s home. I’m a middle child and like attracts like. Stick with me and I’ll take you for a walk.

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Fremlin runs north from Southwest Marine Drive, climbing until it reaches 59th Avenue where it forms the vertical line of a T-stop. That’s where I stop too. Fremlin has a trick up its sleeve. After disappearing for a while, it reconvenes from 54th until 43rd Avenues, but I’m not familiar with this northern leg. The heart of Marpole is so far south; I measure everything starting at the Fraser River. A city is a larger version of high school and Marpole is not one of the popular kids. Some people in other parts of Vancouver don’t even know it exists. A friend visiting me from Mount Pleasant once remarked how driving to Marpole felt like going to the suburbs. I had just left real suburbia for city life and was rather offended.

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My favourite part of Fremlin is the beginning where all the apartment buildings are. European hornbeams flank the street, forming a magnificent, dense arch with leaves rustling in the wind, playing hide and seek with the light like a coy lover. I walk under the boughs like Anne of Green Gables passing through the White Way of Delight. Countless birds flitter through the trees. I’ve seen crows, western tanagers, robins, and chickadees. They’ve made a birdwatcher out of me.

Not a single business stands on Fremlin. The street is quiet except where it meets its rowdy cousin—70th Avenue. The intersection is marked by a pedestrian activated traffic signal, the only light along its route. Honks, curses, screech of tires, and the two-toned beep of the walk signal merge into a rush hour cacophony. The road narrows from here, causing a bottleneck when cars are parked on both sides.

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But this stretch wins the prize for most beautiful when March and April arrive. The canopy of cherry blossoms extends for blocks, a long procession up a petal-sprinkled sidewalk like the nave of a cathedral dressed for a wedding. It’s impossible not to be swept away. I wonder if the people in the nearby houses wake up to each year’s bloom like a child on Christmas, the surprise never getting old even though the return is expected.

One of these people has an apple tree in her front lawn. I stopped to admire it on a summer walk and the woman told her husband to go back up the ladder to give me a bagful. She insisted. I had never received apples from someone’s tree before and I took several pictures of their red skin and leafy stems arranged in a glass bowl on my table. Unfortunately the apples looked better than they tasted but that didn’t matter.

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When you reach the house with the vegetable garden in the front yard so big it could feed the community, you’re at the base of Oak Park whose eastern edge borders Fremlin.

For the longest time I didn’t know the name of this park. It was just the big park up the hill I chose to run around when I exercised. Trees line the perimeter and I still jog there even though I’ve been the target of a couple of crow dives.

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There’s a tree that marks the end of the street, hidden in the northeast corner of the park. I always tap it with my right hand to signal the end of my run. It’s a ritual of connecting with what’s around me. No song on an iPod tells me I’m done. It’s the touch of flesh on bark, a greeting to an old friend.

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When you move to a neighbourhood, you look for signs that welcome you, that say you belong. Mine were literally spelled out. First it was a building west of Oak Street named Charlene Apartments. Then it was my dad’s name carved into the sidewalk on Fremlin Street near the park. How many people are named Larry? I chuckled aloud.

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The route down Fremlin is especially fun on a bike. Only a few stop signs to watch out for, gravity propels you back where you started. But the journey is never the same twice. Streets are like rivers. The other day, I noticed more for sale signs cropping up on lawns and wondered which people raking leaves or stroking their cat I won’t see anymore, and which new faces I’ll encounter.

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When I moved to Marpole, my brother and cousin carried my 200-pound bookcase up three flights of stairs, almost putting their backs out. My brother wiped the sweat from his forehead and said, “Charlene, you’re never moving again.”

He doesn’t need to worry. I have no intention to.

 


I’m pleased to announce this piece won Vancouver Public Library‘s Marpole Writing Contest July 2018.

Charmed by Onegin

In the opening song in the musical Onegin, the actors sing, “We hope to please, we hope to charm, we hope to break you open.”

There is plenty of all three. I left the Surrey Arts Centre feeling like Onegin was everything I didn’t know I wanted in a play.

It’s Russia in the 19th century. Handsome rogue Evgeni Onegin returns to St. Petersburg to inherit an estate after the passing of his uncle and his parents. He visits his neighbours, the Larins, upon the encouragement of his friend Vladmir Lensky who is dating Olga, the younger Larin daughter. The older daughter Tatyana immediately falls for Onegin, hoping for someone to see her the way she has seen the world through the many books she reads.

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Onegin played by Jonathan Winsby. Photo by Arts Club Theatre.

It’s not often a play comes along that feels so original. But it’s not original in content. There’s unrequited love. There’s a dual ending in death (foreshadowed in the opening number). There are missed chances and irrevocable decisions. Nothing too out of the ordinary, especially for a Russian play inspired by Pushkin’s verse novel and Tchaikovsky’s opera.

What was original is the way the story was told, written by Amiel Gladstone and Veda Hille who updated it for the 21st century. There’s a stage of characters dressed in period costumes, writing letters and riding horse and buggy, and then along comes a line in Onegin’s song “Three Horses” introducing us to his history, mystery, and apathy: “Where are my back-up singers?” who go on to croon, “He’s fuckin’ gorgeous.” Despite his good looks, wealth, and charm, you get the sense Onegin’s a lonely, unhappy man who, in his own words, “doesn’t care” and even asks the audience, “Am I someone you want to know?”

It’s that mix of traditional and contemporary that makes the play so striking. Integral to the story is the music. Three musicians are on stage the whole time (Jennifer Moersch on cello, Marguerite Witvoet on piano, and Barry Mirochnick on percussion and guitar). Songs that you hear in the first act are echoed in the second, sometimes sung by different characters, adding layers of meaning. And then multiple characters will sing pieces of former songs over each other within a new song and it’s all woven together so seamlessly, a fugue you don’t want to reach the end of. “Good Evening, Bonne Soirée” stood out as the epitome of this overlapping.

The songs fit the story so well, but they also fit our times. They are honest about love and mortality, malaise and meaning. Tatyana’s “Let Me Die” is a powerful ballad featuring an electric guitar that ends with the request, “Let me live before I die.” Onegin will sing this line later on and it is entirely transformed because of the action that’s happened in between.

Another flip is when Tatyana sings Onegin’s line back to him after the tragic duel: “You don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care, you don’t care.” This repetition could easily become overdone, but each “you don’t care” is delivered by Lauren Jackson with such sincerity and a slightly different register of disappointment/anger, that it actually works and feels truer to speech.

The last song between Tatyana and Onegin was perfection. The physical distance between the characters on stage paralleled the gap in their stories, how long it had been since they last saw each other and the things left unsaid. I’ve never experienced negative space on stage became so activated with meaning.

Because of all the intertwined layers, Onegin is a play you could easily see again to catch all the references made in the opening that only come to light in the second act.

Compared to the long introduction, the ending is quick, almost abrupt. But after two hours, the love story has been told and in such an unforgettable way.

Onegin is running until March 3 at Surrey Arts Centre.