(For E. A letter-writer.)
Don’t you want to pick that up? Turn the sheet over in your hands, hold it up to the light and see the glow through the page, feel the texture of the ink on the paper, sense the sender and the sendee, feel yourself carried through time to where this was, almost becoming the script, the scribe, and the go-between. I want to.
It looks like it's written on onionskin paper—a virtually sheer sheet, its lightness important during the days when airmail (called Par Avion at its inception in London in 1929) was costly and people economized on postage by using lightweight paper.
I don’t know if I would be as inclined to want to handle and explore this letter if it were typewritten, to let it linger in my hands, its physicality the thing transmitting the fullness of its metaphysical dimensions. I might still want to read it as eagerly, but with so much sensorial promise gone, much of the personal would be too.
Letter-writing gets short shrift these days, considered a relic at best, a waste of time at worst; it’s gone from something quintessential to something antiquated, something once consequential to something now condescended to—mostly. Retro is currently cool in culture – vinyl records (even reel-to-reel); 35mm cameras and Polaroids; rock band t-shirts; high-waisted pants; cocktails and shaker kits; even IG filtres – but letter-writing hasn’t made the cut. There’s not much to package and sell to the practitioners of longhand. Maybe that’s why.
Lives are recorded in letters. And the life around those lives laces the written lines, forming cultural records that capture and reflect for us the more intimate portions of collective life as they play out in private spaces. Why else would letters like the one above join collections in public archives, libraries, and museums? Letters contribute to our public history. If you type “letters” into Harvard library’s special collections search engine, and then “image”, you get 9,655 hits. If you do the same for the New York Public Library you get 18,038.
What will happen 20 years from now, and 50, and beyond that? Will we publish emails? Not likely. Most of us delete our emails, and few of us turn to the mode with the tenderness, time, and tenacity it takes to correspond by letter. And we’d have to pass along our passwords to someone so that our emails could eventually be retrieved. Who do you share your passwords with? In any case, when’s the last time you lingered over an email—made a pot of tea, and settled into a comfy chair to read, and reread an email? Some don’t even use email anymore, or never really have, it too relegated to a generational joke. You know what I mean. I recently described to a millennial the functional hiccup I encountered on a website, and she suggested that it was probably because I’m “old” (she used air quotes), rather than considering for a moment that the platform and its navigation might be poorly designed and/or have had a glitch. It took everything in me to not roll my eyes and tell her that I’ve been using computers for longer than she’s been alive; that, apparently, though the web may be wide, her use of it as a conduit to the world seems to be pretty narrow, and narrowing.
Ask Nick Cave about the power of a letter. No, wait, don’t—instead, listen to his 2001 ballad, Love Letter, an incarnation of the plaintive ache his composition is meant to remedy: Love Letter, love letter / Go get her, go get her / Love Letter, love letter / Go tell her, go tell her. What more is there to know about the potency of a letter? For the curious, the kindred, and the quixotic, letters also come bound and published as collections. I’ve read the collected correspondence between Al Purdy and Margaret Laurence, and between Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz; next on my list is the published collection between Sam Shepard and Johnny Dark as well as the letters of Earnest Hemingway.
I’m a letter-writer, which you’ve probably already figured out. I have a long history with letter-writing as well. My practice has always been the long letter, long in time to write which yields a letter long in pages. I’ll write over the course of a month or so. By the time I wrap it up, my sendee has accompanied me along multiple storylines in my life, the letter taking on narrative momentum a bit like a script might, but without the formal constraints of the three-act structure, resembling something more akin to Richard Linklater’s 2014 film, Boyhood, another manifestation of the filmmaker’s question: how do we cope with time passing? (Some letters help track what might offer answers to that question, or at least shed some light.) A storyline of mine, in a letter, might come to its conclusion within the span of the letter, or in the next one. Andrei Tarkovsky, another filmmaker whose work has expanded filmic language, wrote about his work and his aims as an artist in Sculpting in Time, describing film’s particular capacity to express the course of time within the frame. Letters do that too.
I’m also into stamps, though I’m not a stamp collector. I always look forward to renewing my stash of stamps, making my selection based on the artistry and the message, little pieces of art I then send across the world. Right now I have round ones with chrysanthemums for international postage (there’s not a wide selection for international), a set of Voices of the Harlem Renaissance for domestic, and a set of coral reefs for postcards. It’s amazing how much there is to choose from—something to suit a range of tastes and interests. Do you remember Fargo? (The Coen brothers' film, not the series.) In it, running on a very minor plotline, Police Chief Marge Gunderson’s husband, Norm, is working on a painting for his submission to the federal duck stamp contest. It’s a thing. (Norm’s mallard earns him second place on the 3-cent stamp, a disappointment to be sure. No one uses the 3-cent stamp, he tells Marge. Of course they do, she replies, ever the pragmatic optimist and loving wife, whenever they raise the postage, people need the little stamps.) The duck stamp contest was started by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1934 as part of a conservation effort to protect wetlands and wildlife habitat, and it continues today. Conservationists buy duck stamps, knowing that 98% of the cost goes directly to protection work. Stamp collectors buy them to help increase their value, thereby increasing the returns to the intended conservation work.
My first letters were written to my parents. To my father who lived far away from me as I grew up, and then to my mom, once I moved away from home. I love my father’s handwriting. It carries the same verve as the poems he wrote. I love my mother’s handwriting too. Once we began corresponding regularly I noticed that the W of my signature was very much like hers—a graceful line elongating the arc of the final curve. Over time I noticed how the way I wrote all of my last name had almost completely taken on the shape of hers—the looping lines drawing out the direct link of my lineage. To this day, I think of her each time I sign something by hand. And whenever I open the box where I keep the collection of our letters and cards to each other, our bond is illustrated in the assemblage of envelopes addressed to and from the same name, in the same script.
After each of my parents died, I travelled to their cities to handle arrangements. This included going through their belongings, a strange and singular experience that mixes the past with the present, leading us to sometimes stumble onto secrets that might make sense of partial memories, and of family lore, helping to solidify one’s place and history, or at least to help illuminate it. My parents separated when I was an infant, yet I found letters between them dating from their separation to the time of their deaths. They wrote to each other as my parents, discussing me as I was growing through the stages of my life; and they wrote to each other as friends, across so much time and distance, and the troubles they each had. I found letters other people had written to them. And I found letters I’d written them. They’d each kept the letters.
Piecing everything together, I pieced together parts of my life I’d forgotten, with others I’d never known—some telling about me, some telling about the times. In it all, I learned more about myself, about them, and about their worlds. My mom wrote about the founding of Greenpeace, which was around the corner from us on W. 4th in Vancouver, and was where she volunteered; my father talked about Mickey Munday, Miami’s Cocaine Cowboy pilot who lived down the street. And in a letter from my father to his, written when he 16 and in his first
months of pilot training, I see in his maturing script hints of a sterner man in my grandfather than any family story has ever told. It was the early 40s at the Randolph airfield in Texas—the attempt to fly for the air force the act of love on the part of a son for his father, an esteemed WWI pilot. The letter is written before my father failed pilot training.
When I returned to Montreal from Miami where I’d gone to attend my father’s memorial, a postcard from him arrived in the mail. Postcards are often slower to make their way through the postal system, so it’s hard to know how close to his death he was when he wrote it. Included in the things I brought back with me from Miami was his suicide note, it in the same handwriting that swept across the postcard. I still have both.
Right now, I owe E. a letter. We’ve maintained our friendship through letters for longer than we’ve been friends in the same city. Occasionally we intersperse our correspondence with phone calls, and the rare text message, but it’s mostly our letters that hold us close. We send all kinds of things to each other in our letters. My last letter included several How-To Haiku zines I made so that E. and her Glaswegian pals could have a haiku-writing party together. Her most recent letter to me included a page torn from a small Muscat de Rivesaltes notepad, which I use as a bookmark (yes, I read physical books too ) and which I know she sent because she knows I love Muscat—it’s her promise to me that when we’re together next, we’ll go to her house in France where we’ll drink Muscat in the garden. Her letter also contained a little drawing illustrating something she was trying to describe to me about the nature of time. The illustration depicts E.’s woven Kabyle tray on the table beside her, it illustrating her point about time. There’s also the envelope, with its acknowledgement of Captain Sir Thomas Moore, the centenarian who started walking laps in his garden on April 6 to raise money for the UK’s National Health Service efforts to confront COVID (by the end of the day on April 30 – his birthday – his efforts yielded £32.79 million). And, finally, the Par Avion sticker there to remind us that this thing is not travelling to me by boat.
Since the COVID lockdown, I also received a thank-you card from Our Community Bikes, one of my favourite not-for-profits in Vancouver. Working under the pressures this lockdown has caused so many, they held a fundraising
campaign to which I contributed. They sent me this handwritten thank-you card, mailed inside a hand-addressed envelope. No Avery type-printed address stickers for Our Community Bikes, and so none for me.
For a while I was pen-pals with a woman in a Los Angeles maximum security prison. She was the mother of three, and was in under the 1994 three-strikes-you’re-out law. Her infractions were minor drug-related charges and traffic stops gone wrong. She was doing life.
For a few years in my early 20s I had a PO box at the main post office in downtown Vancouver, even though I had home addresses everywhere I lived at the time. (I once gave my PO Box address to a guy who asked for my phone number, telling him, cryptically, it was the best way to reach me, no matter what.) I loved picking up mail late at night, entering the quiet alcove of the post office, eyeing the others doing the same. Did they too have street addresses like me?
I fell in love once through letters. We met at a conference in Banff, and then discovered that we lived 2,300 miles apart. And so when we each returned to where we lived, he to his small house on the Anzac reserve in northern Alberta and me to my brownstone walkup on the Montreal plateau, our courtship began by letter. He wrote in pencil, he explained in his first letter, because it’s more forgiving. And with that I was hooked. I once wrote a letter to my sister in New Zealand, and was so keen to be close to her that I photographed the pages and emailed them to her. And once, I wrote a letter to E. in Scotland, and photographed the pages to keep for myself, printing them out and pasting them into my writing journal to mine for ideas later. Years ago, in the wake of my parents’ deaths, I wrote often to L., my closest friend far away, who later told me and tells me still: I have all your letters. When you’re ready, they’re yours. I haven’t asked for them yet.
Today, I’m a museum educator and I work a lot with senior high school students. No matter the project, I ask them to explore their ideas with a pen and paper because the brain behaves differently that way. When writing longhand, neural activity is triggered in particular ways—all good for cognition and creating. The field of research known as “haptics,” which includes the interactions of touch, hand movements, and brain function, tells us that cursive writing helps train the brain to integrate visual and tactile information, and fine motor dexterity. So, it’s spatial, cognitive, and kinetic. Other research highlights the hand's unique relationship with the brain when it comes to composing thoughts and ideas: a material activity, and slower than typing, handwriting forces us to rephrase ideas and concepts in our own words. So when I ask students to write by hand, they’re making sense of their learning, and their world, in their own voice. Additionally, the process of production that handwriting involves, each letter formed component stroke by component stroke, recruits neural pathways in the brain that go near and through parts that manage emotion. All this making learning both stickier and more holistic.
These benefits are aren’t just for young brains. Neuroplasticity belongs to us all. We each have the capacity to continually change our brain’s architecture and operating system (neurons that fire together wire together). And it’s not just writing longhand that enhances positive neural rewiring—reading longhand does too. When we read handwriting, we activate the same neurological instructions required to write those same letters and words, something keyboard-written type doesn’t demand of us. So, basically, to read handwriting is to be empathetic.
There’s also a heap of research on attention: how much, how long, and how deep our attention is when we read online versus reading something in our hands. It turns out that deep reading – the process of thoughtful and deliberate reading through which we actively work to critically contemplate, understand, and ultimately enjoy a text – is compromised when we read on a screen. When we skim and scan a lot, and surf from hyperlink to hyperlink, our brains get good at skimming and scanning and surfing – to the brain, all shallow activities – and less good at neurological deep diving, the kind of brain capacity required for concentration, contemplation, and reflection. So, as we reroute our neural pathways online, we are remaking ourselves in the image of the internet—the medium is indeed the message.
I remember a day in 1996 when I gazed for a long time at one of the first advertisements for a wireless phone. The billboard presented the image of a pristine conifer forest, sunrays filtering through the grove of trees, with the words finally free plastered across the tree tops and reaching into the sky--two little words redefining the concept of being untethered (just two of the many that have grown into the barrage of lexiconic gaslighting we have today). Alternate facts, indeed. These days, more than 20 years since that ad came out, in an attempt to simultaneously unplug and reconnect, people now pay to attend forest bathing workshops in groups that are led by somebody who asks that phones be turned off.
There are tangible costs and consequences to those today who choose to opt out or who limit their participation in the online world. From being mocked and called a Luddite (go read about the Luddites, they’re pretty interesting), because, apparently, it’s unchill to step away from monolithic click-bait corporations instead of capitulating to the transactional interests of their opaque business models (like FB [uber uncool] and its millennial-pacification do-over, IG); to more culturally ubiquitous and coercive expectations, silent and tacit, that you must migrate your life online to work in today’s economy, even if your work takes place off-line (think LinkedIn). It’s not called the attention economy for nothing.
I don’t want to go fast and break things. I don’t want to lean in. I don't want to curate my life, and pin it. I don't want to follow influencers. I don’t want to read Toni Morrison on a backlit screen. I don’t want to use performative platforms to maintain my powerful friendships, especially when a long stretch of Earth keeps from us being together in person. I don’t want market-driven algorithms driving my information, my attention, and me. I’m not a consumer of content, I’m a sentient being, animated by caring, curiosity, and concerns of all kinds. I’m not a content creator (a stunning piece of language that so baldly reveals the vacuity of the enterprise), cranking out filler for the spaces between the ads. I’m an artist. I’m an agent. A citizen. I choose analogue channels. I choose digital channels. I choose.
I wonder about those who don’t write by hand anymore, and those who don’t correspond by letter. In a world absent of handwriting, and where no one writes letters anymore, there’s an empty mailbox, an empty archive, and what more? It would seem there’s a lot to lose when we put down the pen. We lose connection, we lose our unique dimensionality, it looks like we're going to lose pieces of our histories both personal and public, and, apparently, we’re losing our minds. Talk about not seeing the forest for the trees. Maybe experiencing forests by paying someone who first tells you to turn off your phone while you’re there is a good sign that there’s a system glitch, a big one.
I’ll check the mail later. I always know when it arrives. The postman on this route talks on the phone all the time. He has on a headset but he’s loud. I can even hear him when he’s driving up and down the street, his cheerful holler blasting from the open truck doors. But for the moment, I’m going to go inside and type this up. (You knew I was writing this by hand, didn’t you?) I wish there was a way for your read it as it is. Not this time.
PS: I was prompted to write this essay for work. While the museum remains closed, we’re all pitching in to produce virtual experiences, including writing pieces for the blog. With the threat to the US Postal Service on my mind, I offered to write something about letters. Writing on commission is unusual for me. I loved working with a gifted editor, and was interested to see how and where my personal voice had to conform to an identity other than my own. Here's the version of this piece that went up on the museum’s blog. It’s pretty different. (And, no surprise, the blog version is a lot shorter—I was told that people just don’t want to read anything too long. So, the dictates of the medium do indeed dictate the message.)
That’s my word for 2020.
For over a decade, on December 31 I’ve made it a practice to choose word for the coming year. I’ve lapsed a few times, “life” derailing things. But, I have a word for 2020 and it’s RESOLVE.
I came upon the word this way:
Yesterday morning, I was doing some writing, the freeform kind that always settles my brain, the kind where I feel my neurotransmitters settling as they organize into something probably akin to what is called a meditative state, where I feel enter something I know I can trust. I know this thing. It has no name.
As I wrote I found my way back to a story Laura (an artist, friend, and former business partner) told me some years ago. When in art school, Laura had a professor, she recounted, who remarked on a piece she was working on—he told her it was unresolved. She explained, and the concept stayed with me.
Unresolved. Resolved. Something that has brought itself to its conclusion. That has tied up the loose ends. That has achieved its intended outcome. That has achieved perhaps not what it set out to do, but what it was intended to do.
This implies a tension between what we set out to do and what is set out for us to do. And I’m uncomfortable with the implications. I’m not exactly certain what “it“ is that would have us “do” something this way and really not that way; yet, I’ve lived long enough now, and jumped into enough unknowns—deciding this to do and not that, to go there and not stay here—that I have to acknowledge something resembling a grander sense enjoins itself, in ways unbidden, to endeavours. I probably wouldn’t ever be caught asserting that it’s something as grandiose as a path—there are just too many paths out there for there to be only one—but I would definitely bank on there being something that introduces meaning, or at least invites meaning to the table.
And so, as I enter and embrace 2020, I invite meaning to the table. A cross between an artist, an adventurer, and a detective, I embrace boring into what is before me, pulling on what’s passed, on intentions both lagging and wagging, to achieve work through catch and release.
Because as any artist worth their salt can attest to, creating is an alchemy. It’s a tug, a tension, a balance. It’s holding on and letting go. We hold on to what we mean, to what we set out to achieve, to what we intend for ourselves and for our work, while also realizing, and (importantly, whether we know it or not) relying upon our letting go and allowing another force to enter into the process. And when we do, as any artist must confess, the work is better. It finds its purpose. It achieves resolve. We have worked with what we know and what we want and what we want to do, and we have acquiesced and danced with the unknown, understanding and cultivating all that the unknown brings with a kind of faith that is uncanny, and indispensable.
So, for 2020, I declare for myself resolve. Which is to say, I embrace this year, this life I have, so that I bring to it a state that brings it to its outcome, honouring my intentions with those that make themselves known along the way.
It’s not for the faint of heart. It is the work of an artist. And it just so happens, as I’ve come to understand it in these past days nesting alone, that my work in 2020 is both the tableau and the table.
May I achieve resolve. May you join where you can.
When my mom was still alive and when I hadn't yet left Vancouver—so, a very long time ago—we saw the Cy Twombly show at the VAG when it was still in its original location further down Georgia Street. My mom, with mental illness roiling around inside of her, looked at the works and said “this makes me feel anxious”. We left.
It was completely liberating for me.
All these years later, still, I allow my experience of art to animate me and to lead me. I either breeze by pieces or, riveted, I root in front of them, moving in so close to see the pieces’ inner workings that security often thinks I’m touching.
Every time I’m in an art space, just like today as I wend my way through this sprawling survey of Sterling Ruby, I think of that day with my mom so long ago.
__________________ it unfolded this way.
Tuesday, March 26 @22h, I wrote:
I cross a lot of bridges here. On a regular work day I cross sixteen. Some are fixed spans, some are drawbridges. Sometimes I have to wait while a drawbridge opens for someone else to go by just ahead of me in the water below. The bridge goes up and then comes back down. Soon enough it’s my turn to cross. And I do.
I could cross fewer bridges if I took a different route; if I took a large thoroughfare, or the highway. The route I take follows several side roads through neighbourhoods. I prefer this because it’s pretty, and it’s mellow. Some might say it’s safe, or safer. I don’t look at it this way: how can we ever claim that we’re safe? I can be sure the route I choose is pretty and mellow, but I can never be sure it will be safe. That’s the way it goes. I know that.
So. I take my time. I agree with myself that I’ll cross bridges. A lot of them. I like this. I think it’s a good thing. Good practice.
Wednesday, March 27, 20h, I wrote:
So, you know that story I told you yesterday about crossing bridges? About how we can never be certain we're safe? When I said that, I said it with full sincerity, existential and literary as I was about it yesterday. I was, indeed, serious too when I affirmed: I can be sure the route I choose is pretty and mellow, but I can never be sure it will be safe. That’s the way it goes. I know that.
This morning I met my remarks head-on (practically) when the notion of safety went out the window (almost literally). This morning I was in a driving incident like I've never endured. I was past rattled. Yet here I am still whole.
Tonight I know this:
So, live it well
It struck me enough tonight as I stared at the sky outside when I got home and thought about this day—I really want to tell you this
as a for sure
I can be sure the route I choose is beautiful in some way, and mellow, but I can never be sure it will be safe. That’s the way it goes. I know that.
I really know it.
May we all.
It probably won’t come as a surprise to you that clothing fascinates me—in fact, it animates me, quite literally. With apparel and adornment, we at once cover and decorate ourselves. Clothing might appear to be merely what we don to conceal and reveal ourselves, yet in exactly that, it’s much more. This covering offers quiet ways to resist what’s around us while we resource ourselves at the same time. When well considered, it’s inoffensive to others, yet affirmative, and even preservative, of self. I’ve long made and used my clothing and accoutrements as protection, creating invisible and incantatory cloaks around me. My shields are naked to the eye. Today I’m doing it. For reasons I won't get into, today I have to wear my employer lapel pin—the first time in my life I’ve ever branded myself like this, and something to which I'm profoundly opposed. So, I’ve also surrounded myself with my private power. They’ll never know. But I do.
This is the kind of stuff you see in films. Indies. Often set in L.A. With millennials. You know. And when you see it, you think, Nah, it’s the movies. That shit doesn’t really happen. That’s magic. And this is real life. Well. I’m here to tell you. Yes. It does. This stuff actually really does happen. In fact, it just happened. Today. To me.
I went to Good Will a little earlier. A pit stop on my way home. A distraction, really. Something softer to follow the epic journeys that are the highway systems I travel for work when I can’t take sideroads the whole way.
When I entered the store I realized they’d changed the whole layout since my last visit, and I wasn’t in the mood for that big a change. Not on this day. On top of having to speed along the turmoil of all the fast traffic, I’ve been out of sorts for reasons I can’t quite explain, not entirely. I'm still trying to work it out. So I wasn’t in the mood for change. As I wandered the first aisle to the right of the entrance, now women’s sleeveless tops where men’s short sleeved shirts used to be, I was reminded of when I used to joke with my foster mom about her dinner menus written out on a tiny piece of paper, always something recycled, that she’d place on the kitchen island in the house in the valley where she moved to so much later in life. Way back, in summers, us kids used to roam that valley in packs, picking blueberries by the buckets, for days and days. Decades later, as she made dinner, Mom would consult that piece of paper where she’d written out the night’s dinner items in their cooking order: potatoes, green beans, buns, etc. Teasing, I would move her piece of paper, holding her eyes with a smile, Hey Mom, I’d say, who moved my cheese, quoting the title of a book that deals with change. I knew she knew I was right, but she couldn't help herself; she wanted that piece of paper back in its place. I got it then, and I still do. So, in Good Will earlier today, I coped with change, remembering Mom.
I don’t like carrying things around on hangers, it’s not good for my neck. So I take stuff off their hangers and drape the garments over my shoulders, and through the straps of the bag that I loop onto my back. Lately, it’s been pretty paltry pickings at my Good Will. I’ve often with left with nothing. But that’s the way it goes. I know that. That’s the deal there. Though, really, that’s the deal anywhere. Everywhere. Sometimes you leave with nothing.
I made my way through the new aisles. Not liking it. I told myself it’s change. Only change. I’ll learn the layout. I’ll know it by the time Don gets here in May. He wants to go to thrift stores. The whole layout here will be new to him, not a change, but kind of. It’s all ok. I’ll find my way. I kept moving through the aisles, and I found a few things to stick through my bag straps: a striped mariner top (like I need another), a dress I think would work if I wear it backwards (which I have on now and does work well backwards). Then I came upon this long pink sporty thing. A definite find. I loved it. The dress was too long for my taste, but I’d cut it and hem it shorter. I pulled it through my bag strap along with the mariner top and the dress that would work if I wear it backwards. At the back, I found four little wooden frames, exactly like a bunch I’ve had forever that I made into an installation using eyehooks and jump hoops to present the underwater tale of a kayaking trip I did in Desolation Sound at least twelve years ago. I’ll make another one, I thought, probably for the piece I'm working on right now about trees. I carried the frames in one hand. A little further on, when I finally found the newly located pants aisle, I scored three distinct possibilities; my favourite a pair with a 60s vibe to their style. The pants were heavy so I carried them all in my arm, in the crook of my elbow up from the four wooden frames. I found another mariner top, in the young fashion section, which I grabbed against all better judgement. When do I wear a turtleneck here? Eventually my interest completely waned, and I went to wait at the dressing rooms.
Because I had no hangers inside my little changing room, I organized everything by category on the orange plastic chair in the corner, instead of hanging the bunch by their hangers on the wall hooks. Pants over the backrest. Tops on the seat. Dresses also on the backrest. That’s when I discovered that I had only one dress, the one I’d wear backwards. The excellent dress that I would cut shorter and hem was missing. Already a half-hearted trip to Good Will, this little loss knocked all the wind out of my sails. I tried things on. But I really didn’t care. I thought about dumping everything, about foregoing the long line to the till with my half-hearted finds. But, I remembered the four frames. I really wanted to make something about trees with the four frames. I already had the trees--noticing them as I whizzed by in my car, I'd been keeping a list by jotting down the location and a quick sketch to remember for later. I've returned to each one early on quiet mornings and have pictures of them. The series is called, provisionally anyway, Learning from their Limbs.
I left the dressing room and started hunting the floor for the great dress that had slipped away. Then I saw it. Someone had picked it up. It was draped over the end of a long rack. Then a woman began looking at it. She had a stroller and a little girl who looked about two years old. The woman was in deep concentration, focussed and fiddling. I lurked a few aisles away, watching and waiting, hoping she’d reject the find. She continued handling the dress, engrossed in a way you don’t often see in a Good Will store. I began to feel a little desperate – not really desperate, not truly; it felt more anxious, more despairing, a mix of urgent and wretched. I’d chafed my way through the day to that point, and I was ready to be lifted from my slump by this pretty dress. Then I’d lost it. I’d dropped it, unaware. And I was still struck numb. The woman finally slipped the dress through the handle of the stroller. She was taking it. I was forlorn.
I headed to the cashiers, even though I didn’t feel like doing anything but crawl into bed. The dress I’d wear backwards and the 60s pants weren’t really that enticing, not enough for a wait in line, but the little wooden frames are hard to come by and I was prepared wait for them. The line wasn’t too long, which is pretty unusual. In fact, the whole store was uncommonly quiet, a small mercy I appreciated. I was so miserable that I didn’t even go to the effort of getting out my earbuds and queuing up a playlist to listen to while I waited. So I waited as I am.
I turned and noticed the woman with the stroller and child coming up the cordoned maze that herds shoppers toward the cashiers in what is supposed to be one line. The dress was still hanging over the stroller handle. She was dawdling, but she was technically next behind me, even though she was about ten feet away. I continued waiting. I looked at the woman. I looked at the dress, still incredulous. I looked at her child, a little girl who seemed content and playful. I began to wonder if I should plead my case to the woman. I waited. I waited. I decided to try. And I walked those ten feet.
Excuse me, I said to her. I’m going to ask you a hard question. And you can totally say no. That dress is yours, fair and square. Then I went on to explain my saga with the dress. She had an open friendly face. But she didn’t say anything and I wondered if I’d just spoken a bunch of English to someone who speaks another language. Then she replied, lifting up all that long drapey pink from the stroller handle and she said to me, there are two. I looked at her hands and saw there was something long and pink in each one. What?, I asked, and she repeated it: there are two dresses. There was one inside the other. They’re the same dress, but one’s a size S and one’s a XS. They don’t have the same price even though they’re the same dress. She went on to explain the different pricing and her size preference, and that she wanted to show both dresses to the cashier to try to get the lower price on the size she wanted, which was the one priced higher, and she said that the other was mine.
I understood all the words she was stringing together. I understood what she was saying. I was just having a hard time taking it in. Earlier in the day on the phone with a friend who’s feeling frustrated about a project she’s developing, I listened and told her that sometimes there’s enough for everyone; that’s what I said: sometimes there’s enough for everyone. As I was telling my friend this on the phone, I was slightly uncomfortable with my message, all too aware of how flakey and privileged it sounded. Sometimes there’s enough for everyone. How new-agey and manifesty it sounded. Yet there I was, mere hours later, in the Good Will, confronted with exactly that.
Then it occurred to me: What if I hadn’t asked? That too was hard to take in.
Ask outrageous questions, I thought. Sometimes there’s enough for everyone.
I took the morning off work yesterday to get my car serviced. I like to go to Mickey’s, a one-man operation owned by Keith since 1958. Aunt Nancy recommended him to me when I moved here two and half years ago and had to buy a car. Keith was her and Uncle Carl’s mechanic since he’d opened for business. I prefer giving my money to small owner-operated joints and so have been driving miles longer that I should have without an oil change because Keith works Monday-Friday, just like I do. So, yesterday morning I made the time.
Keith is seventy-five and wants to retire next year. I asked him what he’ll do then and he said he’ll go work for someone else. Doesn’t sound much like retirement, I said. He just laughed, but I’m sure it’s not that funny. I told him I’d follow him. How’s business? I asked. Slow, Keith told me. Not too funny either, I thought to myself. Then Keith told me he’s being sued for not having designated handicap parking. I looked at the vast flat empty expanse of asphalt that wraps around Keith’s corner garage. The set of bright lines around a handicap symbol in fresh paint at the edge of the front lot seems operatic in contrast to the fading paint peeling off Keith’s garage facade. I wonder how much that cost to slap on. Some guy’s been going up and down the street looking for businesses without handicap parking, Keith tells me, and now he’s suing all of us, he adds. We both swear – using different words – and then excuse ourselves to each other.
Nothing about Keith’s story shocks me. I’ve lived in Miami long enough now to know to expect anything, especially graft. Just as Keith was referred to me by my aunt, anyone else I see for assistance or service of any kind has to be vouched for by someone I know: from doctors to haircuts, realtors to tattoos, if I don’t know someone, personally, who can vouch for someone else, I won’t go to them for anything. I learned this the hard way. The way I see it now, people here are either on the make, or on the take. The rest of them relentlessly underwhelm me with their indolence, their incompetence, or both. Of course, like everything, there are exceptions, and they’re the ones who’ve been vouched for. Like Keith.
While my car was on the hoist, Keith popped off one of the front tires, checked my brake pad and showed it to me. Then he went into the backand got another one to show me the whole contraption, explaining what it would look like if it were worn down and needed replacing. He checked my tire treads and explained what to look out for. Once the car was back down on the ground, he lifted the hood and checked and topped up all the fluids. He showed me the fan belt, the A/C hose and valve, the radiator, and he talked about coolant; he explained why synthetic oil is better, and he told me it’s ok to buy 87-octane gasoline, rather than the more expensive stuff. He told me about the gas station he uses and the point system they have there that eventually saves him $2 on a tank of gas. I don’t like owning a car and having to keep up with the maintenance it requires, so the time Keith was giving me was enormously appreciated, and relieving. For all that, he charged me $35.
He released the hoists that were cinched under my car and I climbed in to leave. Standing in front of the vehicle, Keith motioned to me how to turn my wheels to back out, rotating his hand to imitate the steering wheel. I’m sure there are women would take offence at this. I didn’t. Unfazed, I just smiled. I may hate owning a car and looking after one, but I’m a really good driver and very comfortable behind the wheel. I can parallel park like nobody’s business. On South Beach once, where parking is tight and hard to come by, I zipped into a tiny spot likety-split. When I stepped out of the car and locked the doors to leave, a man across the street started applauding. I took a deep bow. I was wearing a tiny hot pink summer dress and platform flip flops.
I pulled out of Keith’s lot and headed south on NW 7th Ave, a huge boulevard I prefer to the ugly turbulence of the I-95 right beside it. Where Little Haiti meets Liberty City, I was stopped at a red light, windows down, music blaring. I was listening to a playlist I made and called The Best Of Van Morrison According to Me. Staring up at the sky out my window, awash in Van’s wise wails, I thought I heard something else, and I looked to my right. In the lane beside me was a gleaming bronze truck, boxy and pristine, vintage. The driver was wearing massive aviator sunglasses; he was middle-aged and muscular, and he had super black skin that his black t-shirt hugged tight. I realized he was talking to me. Pardon?, I said. He was rotating his hand slowly, a lot like Keith had, his index finger extended toward my open window, looping round and round. What do you know about the blues?, he asked me. Too much, I told him. You?, I asked. Same, he said, and we both start laughing really hard. His wide smile revealed a full set of gold grillz that flashed in the sun.
I don’t know how we could have appeared more different. I was dressed head-to-toe in white, and, as my friend Juan has observed, I might be the whitest woman in Miami – my blue eyes and my white-blond hair scream Nordic like nothing else. And there I was listening to some old white Irish guy singing the blues, loud. Yet here we both were, this white-clad white girl and this dark shiny man, laughing together about our blues.
The light changed and we wished each other a good day. He pulled away fast, and in the blast of metallic shine receding down the long road in front of me I saw the small oasis of his blue antique plate. The perfect touch, I thought to myself.
I got to work just in time for my meeting with Yucef. Someday I want Yucef to explain to me, chronologically, everywhere he’s lived, and what he was doing in each place. Yucef is Venezuelan but he hasn’t lived there in decades. He’s a digital artist and his work ranges from sublimely connective and poetic to radically political and very possibly an endangerment to his life. Yucef and I see eye to eye. He’s one of those people we all wish for in our work life, not just a colleague and a peer, but a kindred soul.
At the end of our meeting, Yucef noticed that he’d received a phone call from an unknown number. He showed me his phone: the caller ID said No Se. Yucef hit call-back, not something I would have done. Here in the wilds of the unregulated marketplace all manner of unwanted solicitation runs rampant, all these corporations-are-people throwing around their rights with the swagger of the class brat and the bully, without regard for responsibilities that might accrue to them in return for all those rights to which they are forever laying claim. I never confirm reception of a call from any number I don’t recognize, in fact I block every one of them. It’s R_ _ _, Yucef says. I know R_ _ _ _ too. He’s also an artist. Yucef puts the call on speaker and we all chat for a while. Then Yucef and R_ _ _ _ talk together in Spanish and I understand nothing.
When they finish the call, Yucef tells me that he thinks R_ _ _ _ is in Cuba. What makes you think that?, I ask. Because he wouldn’t say where he is and the Havana Biennial is on right now and it’s perfect for his work, Yucef explained. I know R_ _ _ _ is distrustful of the state and he also protects his privacy carefully. I also know that Cuba is out of bounds for Americans and there’s a history in this county of government agencies monitoring private citizens’ telecommunications. So, somewhere sixty minutes away from here by air is a world away otherwise, in non grata.
All cities have their particular tinctures, the textures and tones that distinguish one place from another in ways that are inimitable. Yesterday morning was quintessential Miami. And it all happened before noon. Behind the ritual indeed. Welcome to Miami.
We girls all wore brown pleated pinafores, the kind with a bib and a belt that cinched at the waist with a metal buckle; beneath, was a crisp golden cotton button-up shirt. It must have been cheap cotton, something poorly woven, or starched to hold its structure, because it slightly scratched at my skin below. In the winter we wore brown leotards, and the rest of the year brown knee-high socks. My mom dyed a batch of my underwear to match the colour of my pinafore, completing the uniform and my adherence to it. I wore them over my regular underwear, turning the outer pair into something more akin to tiny pants under my skirt—so, when I hung upside down on the monkey bars with my belt undone and my pinafore falling inside-out over my head toward the ground, I didn’t think I was doing anything improper. It was, after all, part of a uniform. I wonder if my mom was required to make that undergarment for me, or if she took the initiative on her own; a small gesture toward ensuring I fit in. Probably.
It was a little private school a few blocks away from where I lived at that time. It was actually a three-storey house, a mansion refitted as a school. It was not a school for the elite—there were no preening parents conscientious to commence our grooming; there were no chauffeurs gliding up to the curb; no nannies clasping the little hands of their charges. We were the opposite. We were the children of single parents: those separated and possibly divorced, some probably widowed, and some maybe never having been married at all. It was a time when no one spoke about these things. These are the kind of things we figure out later, looking back.
When the school day was over, we stayed, supervised as we played in the large yard until we were each picked up by a parent to go home. It was the only school with such a service then. It was a good school. Small classes. Boys and girls comingling on the playground, something unheard of at the time. We had French lessons, and made our own butter, slowing churning cream by turning our mason jars each afternoon, end over end, our little hands clutching carefully so the glass wouldn’t slip and break, destroying our alchemy before the magic took hold. After each churning session we set our jars on the window sills in the autumn chill outside, our names in childish script identifying whose was whose. Through the pane, there was mine, Elizabeth looping across the label, the interior well on its way to becoming solid.
I attended grades one and two at this school, and did very well. I loved school, and school loved me back. My marks were good and I felt proud of my work. Then came the antonym test. Words stacked in one column on the left side of a sheet of paper had to be matched with their antonym on the right side. It was my job to do the matching. Across from rough, I wrote calm. When my test was returned to me calm was crossed out in red ink and smooth was inserted instead; I lost points. All six years of me was incensed. From summers spent at a cottage at a lake, where all the older kids waterskied and everyone would squint at the water each morning to see if the surface was flat and good for the first spin of the day, I knew for a fact that the opposite of rough was calm. When the water is calm we waterski, when it’s rough we don’t. Still too little to ski myself, I was the spotter in the boat. I watched the waterskiers to keep them safe, eyeing the water for all signs of threat. I knew water and I knew its surface. All us kids did.
Ellen Langer tells a good story, one I wish I’d heard when I was six and I knew that the opposite of rough is calm. Langer is a Harvard social psychologist. Much of her research looks at how our experiences are formed, perceived, received, and understood by the words we attach to them. Langer talks about questioning assumptions, examining common axioms that come to dominate our perceptions and precepts, and that, ultimately, come to dictate how we frame knowledge. Make no assumptions Langer says, or, at least be aware of the assumptions with which you operate. Things aren’t always what they seem, or what we think they are.
Langer gives examples. Good ones. Simple. Clear. Effective. Empowering. Examples like this: if you take one piece of gum, put it in your mouth and start chewing, and then you take one more piece of gum and add it to the one you’re already chewing, you still have one piece of gum in your mouth. If you have one pile of laundry on the floor and you then add one more pile of laundry to it, you still have one pile of laundry. 1 + 1 = 1 The opposite of rough is calm.
At six years old, I was the victim of epistemic injustice, I know that now. Epistemic injustice is the act of wronging someone in their capacity as a knower. The term was coined by Miranda Fricker, Presidential Professor of Philosophy at the City University of New York Graduate Center. Epistemic injustice straddles the fields of philosophy, ethics in particular, and epistemology, looking at the construct that is knowledge. In broad terms, it’s concerned with how social power operates and how it’s attributed to individuals and groups, particularly through the many lenses of the official story: empire and post-colonialism; gender; race; economics—basically looking at anything humans get up to; and, ultimately, examining who gets to define reality. When applied to the operations of education, it looks at the meta: academe and the cannon; and when applied to the macro, in the classroom, it’s concerned with the power dynamics at play between teacher and learner. Epistemic injustice reminds us to consider who gets to decide what’s the opposite of rough.
I work with high school kids now. I’m not a teacher. I lead a project that takes me into several high schools each year, involving hundreds of high school students. I tell the kids in each class about my six year old self knowing that calm is the opposite of rough. I share Langer’s examples of gum and laundry. Because I know about epistemic injustice, I make a point of doing so. I want them to know that 1 + 1 can = 1
The last time I did, I noticed a quiet kid at the back of the room. Long and lanky, his body stretched well past what his chair could accommodate. As I was talking, I saw a curl appearing on his lips, his eyes brightening as his eyebrows gradually lifting higher on his forehead; and as he slowly began to speak I saw illumination emanating from all over him. Wow, he said, you’re blowing my mind right now.
Yes, I thought to myself, the warmth of his illumination spreading to me. Blow your mind. Blow your mind wide open. And please remember to keep it that way.
I’m ready. It never occurred to me that such a day might come, yet here it is. And I’m ready.
Decades ago, still in Vancouver in an art history class at community college, when I was still a stunned young woman barely ricocheted out of my teens, I learned about Christo and Jeanne Claude. More importantly, I learned about Surrounded Islands. It was between my many trips to Miami where I frequently traveled to see my father back then. That day in that classroom far away from the bay, with a football coach improbably turned art history teacher, something about Surrounded Islands connected into me deeply, and it’s never left.
If you’ve ever been in any one of the places I’ve lived since then, you’ve seen on my walls blown up copies of one or another aerial view of Biscayne Bay dotted with the distinct pink fabric surrounding 11 green tree-ringed islands that scatter in an irregular and elongated arc down the bay. If then I lived where I do now, I would see that pink from my deck, and kitchen and bedroom windows, an astonishing fact this long-lived connection now manifests.
Tonight I’m going to listen to Christo talk about the Surrounded Islands. Jeanne Claude died in 2009, and so Christo now represents their work alone. While I’m over the moon about being in the same room with this artist, surrounded, yes surrounded, with the artifacts of this important work, I will not try to speak to him. Being there is enough.
If I’m honest, though, it’s actually this: four days ago I came into contact with another artist whose work has been important to me, whose work has touched me deeply, too; whose work I experienced a few years ago, at a time when I really needed it. But the exchange I had with this artist four days ago was jarring, and I was shocked by the taught tone they used to share an arrogant point of view. I was put off by a person who utterly lacked in graciousness.
Idols fall, I’m told. And though I haven’t idolized Christo and the other – it’s not really my style – I admire their work. In their productions I see propositions for engagement, viewpoints about how we might live amidst each other here on earth. This matters to me. So, intentionally or not, I look for resonance between work and words. It matters to me. And a breach in integrity is telling, too much so, though I can’t quite tell you what it tells me.
So, after a small lesson learned and a disappointment endured, tonight I’m content to hold myself in quiet, hugging close to what remains of Surrounded Islands there on the walls in rooms other than my own, rooms beside Biscayne Bay, right down the way from me. Thick in connection, I will protect.
PS: This is the outfit I’ve made for tonight. Mountains on the jacket, for Vancouver. Abstracted islands on water for the skirt. And on the t-shirt, buttons brought to me from France by a colleague, scattered across the front in the pattern of Surrounded Islands.
PPS: I did speak to him. I asked a question, as SO many of us did. He was gracious and warm, and keen to connect with us all. I was not disappointed. He is loved. And he loves back.
Last night at 10:10pm, Mike Lambrix was executed by the State of Florida on behalf of its citizens. It's the second execution since August, when the practice was reinstated after an eighteen month hiatus.
Until this morning, I have never stood in my kitchen readying for the day, listening to an account of a person being murdered, legally, just down the way.
It makes me wonder how this contributes to the shape and sense of identity of those on whose behalf this murder has been committed; how does this transform, again and again and again, the land on which we walk; how does the collective consciousness makes place for this; how does the personal psyche; what are children told at school?
I have never, till now, listened to a news story about state-sanctioned murder. I know there is dissent around this, personal and organized, and probably plenty, but life has still been taken, and we all are now confronted with that fact, and are left with how to live through this day in this place where such things are legislated to happen.
This has diminished me. As a member of this confounding experiment called life on earth, today I'm less of what I aspire to; what I dream is possible is lessened. It will take me a while to recover. This hurts.
I moved to Miami.
is my practice
though I'm here
in the in-between place -
but not landed
but not settled.
It’s early. It’s already poured. She’s on the sand at North Beach, and about to swim. The sun is just now breaking out from behind the yellow and black clouds that have been stacked in the eastern sky since dawn, swollen bruises dissipating into fine pinkening streaks. The air is still thick from the early rain, and now too dissipating in the breeze, that ever-present lift promising something soothing, its soft balm reaching the soul with its merciful cool. So often without cloud cover to temper the heat, something else has to.
Two pelicans are fishing, flying fast against the wind and suddenly diving into the sea for its fruit. There are others here too at this early hour—in fact quite a few: solo swimmers; early-bird lovers walking along the watermark where sand is sea; kids who might have slept the night on the beach and who have just woken to this splendor; a granddad tugging lightly at his line in the water, teaching his grandson about fishing; a jogger running backwards; a man standing alone with his hands clasped behind his back as he watches the low lapping tide. One of the kids has walked into the ocean where there’s a sandbar close to shore, and he looks like he’s walking on water.
Metaphor is everywhere, she thinks—the grand dramas of life at hand and underfoot in most every gesture, if you look closely. She leaves this afternoon, with no idea what comes next.
For now, she’s the solitary woman who sits at the tideline facing the coming day, writing on the dampened pages of her notebook. Six red buoys bob in the surf to her south, and she remembers them from last time; she’s used them in her art, a photo piece about her broken heart and longing. She’s never told anyone how scared she is, probably because the fear is so strange that she can’t find the words. One buoy is much brighter than the others, maybe the oldest and lightened from the sun, or the newest and its colour still fully saturated. They flash against the cyan water, vibrant surprises that reveal themselves as the waves surge and fall.
She gets in the water, and with shallow strokes moves over the sandbar, swimming away from shore toward the horizon where she’s been watching the coming of the day. She rolls onto her back, and with her limbs flung wide, floating, she’s half on top of the world and half beneath its surface. She opens her eyes, and past the tips of her toes she sees the darkening skies in the west, large clouds gathering fast in greys from smoke to ash, and she hears the boom and clap of thunder coming from inside them. She keeps an eye fixed on the west, watching for lightening while the eastern sun warms the top of her head as she floats. She flips over and paddles further. She gets out far, far enough to find herself in deep water; but the wonder she thinks, and that no one can see, is that her feet are still touching ground, her toes tucked into the fine soft sand, the rippled ocean floor slightly shifting shape as the waves roll around her above. Since arriving three weeks ago, this gentle exfoliant has removed the rough parts of her soles, healing other cracks and blemishes that have been part of her for so long too.
As she comes back toward shore, she stands up and walks through the moving tide. She feels something under foot and reaches down for it. In her hand she holds a piece of oolite, a porous fossil-like thing, smooth and primitive at the same time. Made up of such things as minerals and coral and flint and clay. Some call it terrestrial detritus, which offers her some relief in her decision to claim it as her own, feeling like she’s rescuing something rejected, knowing she’ll love it with the tenderness one can have for the idea of home. She closes her fingers around this strange piece of soluble rock, but its misshapen form is slightly bigger than her palm, and so she can only cup it in an loose hold; and there, between her fingers, she notices two little mollusks nestled together inside a large pore that burrows into the center of this strange orb. They're both open.
She comes back to land with the little piece of sand and sea in her hand--a solid imperfect globe, a small and perfect world for two.
There’s a squad of exercisers out this morning, six altogether. I can’t yet tell which one is the trainer. They’re all facing the chain link fence down at the baseball diamond, their fingers bent around the wiring to steady themselves as they each swing their right leg back and forth while standing in place. They break formation to make a circle and they start doing jumping jacks, their shape together like an ensemble of sextants, gliding back and forth in unison as though measuring what might lie ahead on the horizon and charting their path forward.
I still can’t make out who’s leading, some subtle shift in direction must be transpiring between them, just below the surface, in the way tango dancers lead and follow invisibly to those watching on. They do a lap around the track together, four men and two women, jogging at a slow pace counter-clockwise around the park’s perimeter. Most everyone who uses the track goes counter-clockwise, myself included. And when I think back to ice-skating as a child, and later roller-skating as a teen, I realize in all such places most everyone goes round in that same direction too, an unspoken orderliness understood and observed by all.
There’s an empty bucket chair in the centre of the park green; the collapsible kind you see at outdoor music festivals and the beach; the kind with the little mesh well on one armrest where your drink goes. It’s facing the sun, open and upright, so maybe it’s not abandoned forever, and merely set in wait, ready for the occupant’s return to commence their leisure, when they'll position themselves toward the sunny day.
The lush and heady song of dove is intermittent around me, breaking through the choppy whir of a lawnmower over at the daycare centre where parent volunteers are tending the yard this morning; the coo is an intoxicant to me, curative, lifting me and liberating me; carrying me away. Of course, where it takes me is to Miami, to the wide open spaces there where I become expansive, at once settled and free; as my cousin there puts it so perfectly: this place unwinds me. That’s my particular place in the sun.
On cue for the season, the two little old Chinese ladies are back out for their daily Tai Chi practice. Their movements land somewhere between nonchalant and haphazard, liberal interpretations of the ancient discipline; though I suspect this tradition is less about fidelity to the form itself than to one’s focus and devotion to it.
The exercisers have returned from their loops around the track, and they’ve run up the hill before me and are now doing squats, with one of them breaking away to do push-ups against the park bench one down from me. Glancing over to watch, I notice Ken is now here, he too squatting – but he stays down, his torso sunk and slightly swaying between his bent and boney knees, his behind dragging back and forth against the ground beneath him. He seems more gaunt, or maybe it’s just that I can see his upper body bared by the mangy racerback tank he’s wearing to suit the new season. His flesh tone is off, sallow, and almost faded-looking, in the way his tattoos have turned that paler shade of navy, all the vibrance of tone drained away over time, their distinct shapes thinning into the surface that surrounds them. He’s smoking a cigarette, taking long hauls on inhalation and never appearing to release the smoke, or to exhale at all. What else does he hold inside that concave trunk of his, I wonder. What does that rib cage attempt to encase? He’s wearing the usual, aside from the racerback: his camouflage combat pants, stretched and torn and dirty, and the shin pads that protrude beyond his knees caps with the elastics cinching the pant legs tightly in bunches against his scrawny calves. As I see him here, rocking, I wonder if he’s ever lain in a hammock strung between two trees under the sun, somewhere where these are the things that make up a day; I wonder if he’s ever been cradled inside the netting and gently swayed as though floating on air.
The last time I saw Ken was a month or so ago, when I began coming out to this bench again, once the weather became more clement to me. That day he was picking up the chunks and shards of a broken 40 of Olde English Malt Liquor, the sharp debris scattered beside the bench where the exercisers are this morning. He was using his bare hands to grab and cart the pieces of broken glass over to the garbage bin that the parks board puts out. He patrolled the length of the pathway where all the park benches are positioned, and he scrutinized the grass and pavement for more trash that needed cleaning away, the waste left behind by the park’s revelers the night before: on that morning it was bits of paper, cigarette butts, a torn pizza box, crushed cans, and all that broken glass; other mornings, it might be different remains, yet really the same thing.
He was wearing his keys around his neck, and the shin pads over those same camo pants, with a grimy sweatshirt stretched out of shape and hanging lopsided off his bony shoulders. His cheeks were sunken, though not as much as now it seems; I realized that day it was because he has no teeth, not because he’s emaciated, though he’s that too. It was the first time I saw the scars all over his skull, little jagged tracks of raised tissue, interruptions in the shorn stubble—if they were brail or tactile hieroglyphs, I remember wondering, what would these ropey ridges tell us about this man? At the time, I thought to myself: Ken. My neighbor. This park’s unlikely caretaker. The man with the unlucky crown.
That was when I was in the midst of emailing with the city’s parks’ department staff, me asking when the track would be resurfaced with springier material than the sodden mess left after a winter’s worth of weather beating all the loft out of tidied trail laid last summer. There are now unseen holes and bits of exposed root, rendering the track dodgy and uneven, and in need of leveling. Soon, they told me. I finished our exchange by telling the staff about Ken, wanting his contribution to the park, if not seen, or commended, at least known. When I thanked him myself that morning for clearing away the broken bottle, he shrugged off my remarks, not wanting the attention.
Suddenly Ken shoots up and walks away, passing through the band of exercisers as they continue to leap vigorously in place together, breathing heavily in their circle and counting out loud as one. Through their huddle, I watch Ken as he heads toward his apartment building; his slow labourious lumber in his ill-fitting protective gear takes him past a foresaken shopping cart, and past another little old Chinese lady, this one having spent the morning collecting empties throughout the park and who is now resting on a shaded bench amidst her stuffed and stretched bags. It doesn’t look like anyone else has seen either of them, or if they have it doesn’t show or seem to register. I watch to the point of staring, seeing more than any of us should—a certain threat to the security of my well-being, I know.
The exercisers finish, and in unison they chant “1, 2, 3, hail”, clapping loudly on hail; then they fall into line as the trainer takes a step back and snaps a picture of the group. Now I know who’s in charge. Behind them, below, ball players fan out across the baseball diamond and take their places; and without moving it, they play, unfazed, around that deserted seat, the game unstoppable.
Inside a soft cardboard photo folder, the kind that people prop open on mantels and sideboards to display their loved ones in pictures that were often taken, or were back then, in the photography studio of big department stores, is set behind the 8 x 10 scalloped edge window a portrait of my mother. It’s the option she must have selected from the others taken during the sitting that day, which she wedged, loose, between the folder’s covers. On the back of the folder, in her distinct and sanguine script she’d written: Betty Sharpe 1930 -
That incomplete assertion is devastating. Her eagerness and expectation is in plain view; and what seems to be her bright view of herself, and of her future, is also equally evident: she has resolve; she’s looking forward, to everything it seems. Now, though, looking back, knowing what only the coroner and I know, I see her openness to what lay ahead far more ominous than optimistic.
What was she thinking, I wonder? Who did she think would fill in the blank after that dash to complete her sentence? Of course, when that time came, when the end of that statement was upon us to record, she wouldn’t. And no one else did it in her stead either, which, today, obviously means me.
I found this folder in a drawer as I went through my mother’s belongings after her death in 1992, when I was 30 and she was 61. I’d never seen the pictures before, I’d never seen the folder open on a mantel in someone’s living room; not in anyone’s, not anywhere, not ever.
The set of pictures was taken in 1951, at Hudson’s Bay in downtown Vancouver, 10 years before I was born, before she knew my father, I think, but don’t know for sure. All those details – her life really – is a mystery to me, a story I piece together from snippets she shared offhandedly, where, I later learned, she was sometimes careful to cloak parts, offering a looser interpretation of her past than the truth on its own would convey; I piece in layers from my own memories, vague and few as they are, and also from conjecture; from what I know about things as a woman myself, now middle-aged, as a mother too, and from the kinds of experiences life delivers to some of us. Our life was lived in a perpetual present; there was no discernible past that was talked about, no family over visiting and telling tales, for they’d all but vanished, though not yet in the absolute as they would after everything, later. At that point, in these pictures, she was still a Sharpe, as she declares in her script. She would later become a Welch, and then I would come along and be one too.
I prefer one of the proofs of her taken that day, and that’s what I now have on my desk in a frame that's too large for the picture. I love seeing the word proof written in wax pencil across her blouse, and the loose markings drawn around her face so long ago, tentatively seeking out the border that would compose this official portrayal of her, the tracings a kind of divining rod—I like seeing all that extra of her: her hands with their long fingers held delicately, and just so, the slopes of her shoulders, the light line of her pearls barely apparent, details about her not extraneous to me as I want to see more.
Knowing her, she probably wouldn’t like my selection from the set, nor that I put the messy proof in an outsized frame on display. Yet, I also know that she would understand why I like it, and she would understand what I’m doing—and she’d be flattered, and pleased, and she’d approve anyway, despite her own opposition. She was generous that way, with a largesse of mind that made room for difference, probably because she knew from experience how much it mattered to give others room to live as they are; probably because she was given so little room herself, or, worse, sometimes finding herself locked inside a few. And I know her face, that placid, flat expanse of pretty features, would shift from feigned consternation into a relaxed form, yielding a slight nod and slighter grin, telling me it’s ok, telling me, in fact, that she likes the transgression. Subtle, yet seen, this look is something we shared between us.
I think she always understood what I was doing. And I know she always approved. Though some boundaries were loose, and amorphous, and something that couldn’t always be observed, or enforced, or even noticed from the outside, there were other boundaries, inside, ones more important and enduring, that defined the particular territory we inhabited. It was sometimes random and sometimes raw, and it was sometimes rich in the ways that only those with less seem to know; ours was a singular life of mother and child, she weathered and me wild; it was an entirely original world, one I didn’t really see as unusual, and it’s one that’s lasted.
So, after all, after everything, she is now on someone’s mantel. Proof. And I’m not filling in the blank after that dash. I’m keeping her life part of the present, still. I know she’d approve.
Saturday January 23, 2016
Burrard Arts Foundation / PuSh Festival
He doesn’t know it yet, but Harold Budd composed the music for my 1987 Super-8 film, “Call”, an experimental piece, running time all of 5 minutes or so. I’m going to tell him today, almost 30 years later. Budd is in conversation with Alex Varty at *BAF this afternoon, as part of the PuSh Festival.
I arrive early, so pick what seems to me like the best seat in the house, a bearing beam at my back that I can lean into, and an unfettered view of the two empty chairs positioned under the soft gallery lighting and amidst the even softer colours of Ed Spence’s paintings currently on exhibit. I’m excited, to understate things.
They arrive and take their seats. Harold Budd is a dapper man, diminutive in size, august in dress, elegant in manner. Alex Varty is nervous, or seems so; maybe that’s just his way. Budd is relaxed and offers simple responses to Varty’s questions—he’s not being rude, he’s just modest, with a well-hewn sense of himself. When asked about a particular collaboration, if it was the other’s technique that Budd enjoyed, he said of his collaborator: it was his attitude; that he came at his work, like me, with the view to be alert to what you adapt as real into your own material being.
This seems key – Budd’s leitmotif, for living as much as for working; it seems to be about finding what produces harmony in space, both in the one he inhabits within himself and in the one that surrounds him. He seeks out beauty. Long ago, he said, when his son was born, he moved his piano out of the living room, and filled in the space with a Navajo rug where they lay and played. He said he found the piano really ugly, and found the rug very beautiful. By way of further explanation, he said it’s part of his avoidance of confrontation—he’s had too much of it in his life, and so seeks out beauty. I’m a man who loves flowers, he said of himself, in sum.
To me, he’s a fluid man. He doesn’t attach to much, but he’s not aloof either, just loose: he doesn’t get attached to things or ideas, nor does he probe much for meaning. He’s ready to be content with what is, though making sure that circumstances are opportune for contentment.
Budd started out long ago, he told us, feeling his way towards his own interests through intuition and inspiration. In 1956, he saw a Rothko painting in a book, and in it he saw a way of living, and a way of making a living; he saw where he wanted to be, and then he got himself there. He’s ever since followed his intuition, and says he works on hunches. Today, if a hunch doesn’t pan out, he diverts route. With “too many loose ends in my brain”, he says, he doesn’t try to analyze what he’s doing, he just tries things out; if it’s not good, he moves on to the next thing.
Varty’s last question to Budd surprised me: he asked about the pink-tinted glasses Budd wears, who then explained: I don’t see well anymore, and I live in the desert where it’s really sunny. The rose tint reduces a large amount of glare, while protecting my eyes from bright sunlight, and they also provide sharper contrasts between objects so that I can see better. I know from glass artists that pink glass is the most expensive because pure gold is used to produce the pink hues; I also know from an anthropology major that the pink glass that was used in old cathedral stained glass windows was considered the highest spiritually, likely because of the cost to produce it, and so, used sparingly, it was tied to the most significant elements, often used to represent Mary.
It occurs to me that Harold Budd sees the world, as the saying goes, through rose-coloured glasses. I think it perfectly applies to him, in every way—call it a hunch.
PS: After the talk, I introduced myself to Harold and told him the story about my film. He was gracious to me, and amused by the story, and he kindly autographed the S-8 cover. He held my hand the whole time we talked. He's 79.
I guess one thing I can say for sure is this: I’m still surprised and interested in my life and in what comes my way, in how I cope and understand things, and in what I do. I’ve been bored, but not often. There was that temp job I had in the summer of 81 or 82, at that insurance company on Broadway at Maple, but even then I made the best of it, locking myself off in the corner bathroom stall and writing. An employee there, a woman I intuitively knew I liked, said to me one day, approvingly yet laconic, you’re different. It hurt me, but only because I knew she was saying that we wouldn’t be friends.
In the 1995 movie Georgia, with Jennifer Jason Leigh’s slow-burn performance as Sadie Flood, the brother-in-law observes to his wife, Sadie's sister, clearly seeing who Flood is as she fights to stay afloat in her life, she’s the bravest person I know. The name Sadie Flood stayed with me, its ring as true as its weight, and when it came time, some years later, to give a name to a company I was starting I considered Sadie Wade, spiking the original inspiration with an optimistic twist. I eventually went with ad lib, wanting to give a good nod to those who’ve so deeply helped me throughout my life, and who call me Lib.
Today, I have a new company called zoetrope, a nod to my family on my father’s side, the only one I have now and where my name Zoe comes down to me from. The word zoe is the Greek root word meaning life, and trope, the Greek root word meaning turning—and this is largely what I’m up to with zoetrope.
Like I said, I’m rarely bored. And when I am, it’s not long that I find a corner where I can make things.
Maybe the next company will be Sadie Wades. Who knows. For now, zoetrope works—me working with life turning.
(I finally went to Nordstrom, and it went like this.)
My encounter with Nordstrom begins outside its doors, as I arrive on bicycle to discover the absence of bike racks along the store’s smooth façade. I cross the street to lock up on the racks that the now defunct and shuttered bookstore had provided for its visitors, today an inadvertent legacy left to the commons.
Back before the store, I cross the threshold into a blast of light and glass displays. The fevered guile is communicable, self-consciousness surrendered, consumption here unchained, and acceptable. Quickly and suddenly terms come, unbidden, to my mind: compulsive, desperate, hoodwinked, bulimia.
The sycophant swarm of ground level is cloying and close, so I ride the escalator to a slightly quieter place one level above. There I find the marvels of realized imaginations—pieces by Alexander McQueen, Marni, Jean Paul Gaultier, and comme des garçons, to name a few. I own none of these masters, but understand perfectly what exacts such work from mind to matter, and these accomplishments have deservedly earned my awe. Toward the darker back of the floor lays lesser goods: the swag of proclamations that make me embarrassed for the bearer: Lazy Sun Day; I don’t like Monday; Lover (the letter L a faded remnant of the colour of the letters spelling o-v-e-r); a checklist itemizing three options: single, taken, and hungry, with the box for the last option ticked: hungry.
As I touch merchandise, I engage in the base act of looking for a price tag, as though the tawdry concern for cost has any bearing—sure proof of my shiftlessness. My greater transgression, however, is the need to know the price of things at all, a practice left to those of lesser means. Becoming broke has released me, though, from shopping and its allure, and now I wander the aisles a bit like that woman Ann I met in the woods once, who had a natural immunity to mosquitoes and was being studied by scientists wanting to understand her chemical make-up. While I walked that day in the woods with Ann, me ravaged, raw and bleeding from my scratched bites admist the roots and brush, she walked in perfect tact. Today, like Ann in the wild, I walk among the money and malls shielded—my class a tincture and a foil.
Circling back toward the centre of the store, I come across the lounge, a low slung affaire for rest and resourcing. I like it. Any shop with a bar makes sense to me, and I’m ready to lay down a few bucks to sit with a drink and watch from the middle of the fray. But the menu’s price list is in step with its trappings, so I return to the escalator and, quite à propos I note, descend.
As I’m leaving Nordstrom I notice that the doorman, a boy really, is simply standing there, not quite completely upright in his ill-fitting suit; his regard is vacant and he’s not opening the doors for anyone, his passive stance shunning the roles of both sentinel and serf.
Back on the sidewalk beside the store’s wall, I encounter a granny rooting through the garbage to retrieve whatever cast-offs might lessen the strife of her day in the debris. Her dirndl skirt is so perfectly appointed in detail and design that its vintage is hard to fix. So blurred are the lines now between the authentic, the counterfeit, and the clone that what was once genuine and collectible has merged into one amorphous stream of trends, where everything is at once eternal and outmoded, in perpetuity the basic outlines of style on repeat, and craft, quality and care notional artifacts of the obsolete.
I retrieve my bike, hopping on to ride away, and on the first turn of the wheel, a piece of litter caught in the spokes and trilling in the wind, I think: be careful what you wish for--America is here.
(In French le coin means the neighbourhood, or the friendly and shortened the hood. In the context of Mount Pleasant and what's happening here, I couldn't think of a more apt play on words - especially since today is the St Jean, a big celebratory holiday in Quebec, where I lived in French for many years.)
I live in Mount Pleasant, Vancouver. Technically, I'm on the eastern-most edge of the neighbourhood--an important distinction when talking about place in real estate terms, something Vancouver is all sexed up about. This is an edge area, one that's developing, to use the same neutered vernacular laid over other places such as Fuzhou, Chittagong, Dar es Salaam, Logos, and even Kabul, though likely here the term flows with less bite and more verve than for those on the ground in those places. Ah, but not here.
The lived experience here is a mixed bag of ambivalence and profit, all depending on which bag you hold onto.
Like everywhere and everything these days it seems, the Mount Pleasant that matters - ie: the one that counts, literally - is a consensus in the throes of unharnessed transformation, giddy about the promise of change like that offered by plastic surgery, smoothing the surface and sucking out the substance.
So, here's a bit of what I notice as I peddle myself around the hood. And by peddle, I mean spinning the wheels of my bike with the muscles in my body.
I live here and so do a whole bunch of other people ...
... people who make it the place that it is - unique, non-corporate, fun - for all of us living here ...
... not the place that some see as a place to rip apart and to sell ...
I'm excited. No, I'm ecstatic.
I'm in Montreal this summer, where another of my most favourite public art pieces is out again.
21 Balançoires (<-totally click on that), by Montreal-based design house Daily tous les jours, is an interactive musical installation that plays best when people join to play on it together. It's a sensorial wonder, evoking memories, connections, and tenderness where words don't reach - oh, it also makes music.
I missed it last time I was in la belle ville, but it's annual spring appearance is being carried over into the summer this year I hear (<- click to listen to the April 29 show at 8:29 minute mark).
This is place-making at its most breathtaking. I can't wait.
I'm a life-long swinger*. I swing when I'm happy. I swing when I'm sad. In the summer, I swing almost every day, and sometimes late on a warm night too. I never tire of it, and am constantly surprised at how much joy I experience gliding back and forth through the air, flying and diving at the same time.
Can't wait to share this. À bientôt les 21 balançoires! Here's a little snippet ...
* I mourn the loss of some of the older words - swinging, thongs, kangaroo jacket, for example - now needing to explain myself when I use them. I'm very attached to these words, or perhaps it's to the era when they were actively used, so innocently it now seems.
Maybe it's that loss of innocence, that gentler time, that I yearn for. When I ran around with thongs on my feet, sometimes stubbing my toe because the flimsy rubber sole folded under itself; the kangaroo jacket, that handy muff (another word) pocket in front where anything shoved in there could be readily accessed by either side, and a hood for warmth at night by the fire; and my beloved swinging, an activity whose word for it conveys the unfettered freedom and fun of this spectacular experience, now plunged into the murky underworld of fringier experiences that have laid claim to that once perfect word.
So, I finally got to myself to The Happy Show! Terry and I went yesterday. Like freeform cheeseballs, we listened to Pharrell's Happy on my itouch as we danced our way into the exhibit. Why not?!
I've been very excited about the show, having streamed all I can find on-line in the way of interviews and talks with Sagmeister. For over a decade, he's been researching and experimenting with what makes happiness, and his own in particular, and the show synthesizes some of what he's discovered.
Here's a slide from a TED talk he gave - it really grabbed me, so I screen-grabbed it, and then changed the colours. It's an outline of what he's discovered "works" for him, a concept I'm now fleshing out for myself (I'll share my list when it's done).
Here's his list. Some of the maxim's show up in the exhibit.
And here's a bit of The Happy Show, as experienced by me and Terry yesterday.
A very awesome interactive piece, expressing the maxim: being not truthful works against me.
This is me and Terry discovering it - then we started dancing in front of it, and running back and forth.
Yes, we were the loud ones at the show.
Our answers to the question: what is your symbol of happiness.
Trying to look good limits my life. Good maxim.
When I read this, first at home and then again at the show, each time I thought it referred to the concern with how we look in terms of our appearance: as in how we're dressed, our hair cut, and so on. Surface. (Maybe it's the clothing designer in me.)
Terry read it as meaning a concern for how we appear to others in terms of our behaviour, our choices, our way of living, our gestures, and so on. Substance.
Either way, the concern for looking good is limiting, restricting our spontaneous expressions of self, arguably (maybe) censoring those most authentic manifestations of who we are.
Grooming vs/ hygiene, and finding the limiting line. Authenticity vs/ obnoxiousness, and the location of that line.
Perhaps, the boundaries to watch out for are the ones that maintain balance.
I've long believed in the social function of beauty, what some call looking good, my take on it extending from surface to substance. It's good to be reminded of this.
I'm struggling with very big decisions right now, and finding myself ricocheting around a triangle whose points of contact are faith, fear and flakiness.
I love Sagmeister's take on flexibility and how it interacts with flakiness, so I'm working it into my mind model as I make this big decision.
His piece is in black; the coloured stuff is mine.
His work plan for a sabbatical.
I took notes (well, a photo) to inspire my own scheduling
of the impending vastness of time before me,
the vastness I'm stepping up to.
Another maxim: assuming is stifling.
What I like about this is its activeness.
Unlike that other one,
assuming makes an ass of you and me,
Sagmeister's angle tells us
something useful to consider
in terms of
and most interestingly (to me)
in the ways we live
with what's around us.
This is a shot of an old installation I put up in my place a few years back.
Leaving the Happy Show yesterday, I thought of it as my response to the experience I had there.
As Terry and I watched the 12 minute clip from Sagmeister's The Happy Film,
I commented on a sense of melancholy I feel coming off the man and his work;
Terry called it longing, which is a good word for it too.
Sagmeister rates his own level of happiness quite high,
and there's tangible euphoria in what he makes,
Maybe Terry and I are off the mark,
I now wonder about the possibility of being happy and wistful at the same time.
I think it's possible.
I think it's common.
I think it's human.
I think it's ok.
I'm pretty excited. The Scotiabank Contact Photography Festival in on, and a nearby billboard again becomes my favourite, proving one can have such a thing.
Last year, as now, I happened upon the site by accident, as I biked along a weird back route to get to Our Social Fabric (another highlight in town).
There's nothing like being dazzled by surprise. An unexpected encounter of the non-commercial on a commercial surface; art for all. So, head on over to on E. 2nd, just slightly west of Clark Drive.
from his BAU Series, by Takashi Suzuki, May 2015
Tonto Pray for You, by Dana Claxton, May 2014
Friends have commented on the element of the creepy, or ugly, in this piece - something I tend to skirt in my aesthetics. But sometimes - ehem - the truth isn't pretty.
This is about the making of ugly, about the mounting of monsters; and about their final fate: the erasure of the monster. It's a meditation on the designing of narratives necessary to the paring away of someone's humanity; on the background consensus and constructs needed to revoke another's selfhood and place within kin and community. For how else can the unkind, the cruel, and even the unscrupulous, be perpetrated? Take away context, and place, and person, and what's left is the object, where in the space of all that's removed there remains, purportedly, objectivity, the slippery illusion at the crux of any monster-making story for those making it.
It's an odd experience to be on the inside of this dynamic and to be aware of it, from its inception to its conclusion, at once subject and witness. But it's a perspective that remains on the outside - which is the point of the monster enterprise from the outset; be it about me, or whoever is next.
There's a great new piece of public art in Vancouver, thanks to the brilliant Vancouver Biennale. I completely love this piece - Trans Am Totem. The location is provocative, as are its elements. The piece sparks a fast stream of ideas in me, leaping together in free association. Here's what that stream produced: I call it Trans Am Totem ToMe, and it's also running on the Vancouver Public Space Network blog. (A great Vancouver organization, by the way, that works to champion the importance of public space and to the overall liveability of the city - all on volunteer steam.)
I was part of a super fun neighbourhood poetry crawl over the weekend, and I wrote about it for the Vancouver Public Space Network (my current volunteer gig).
The Vancouver Poetry Crawl 2015 was organized by Vancouver poet Kevin Spenst, and began at my neighbours Terry and Owen's place with a pot-luck breakfast; from there, the crawl ventured into neighbourhood art galleries, connecting ten venues where eighteen poets read their work.
You can read the whole story about the crawl on the VPSN blog, and below you can find the visual recap of this out-of-the-box poetry extravaganza; if you click on the photos you'll see captions to offer a bit of info on what you're looking at.