I misunderstood what I thought I was a part of.
We've just had a long weekend, capped off in Ontario by Family Day. On Sunday, driven by a three-day interlude of absolutely gorgeous weather, I went out to Canadian Tire for some things I needed to scrub the winter grime from our terrace. I had grand designs of also getting the salt spray washed off our car, but when I passed my usual car wash, I saw that I wasn't alone in that goal--to the tune of a two-block long line stretching back from the entrance. I decided to use a gas station vacuum and leave the exterior for another day.
The city was, as is to be expected on a family-focused long weekend with unseasonably lovely weather, pretty slow-moving. Traffic was awful as people familiar with the streets tried to integrate uncertain visitors; pedestrians wandered through crosswalks at a leisurely pace that probably drew more than a few angry mutters from drivers waiting to make turns. But just as I was on the edge of a few angry mutters myself, due in large part to the fact that I'd made the mistake of trying to take Spadina home past Casa Loma on family day (I really don't know what I was thinking), Alabanza popped into my shuffle.
Abuela Claudia had simple pleasures / she sang the praises of things we ignore / glass Coke bottles, breadcrumbs, a sky full of stars: / she cherished these things, she'd say "Alabanza." / Alabanza means to raise this / Thing to God’s face / And to sing, quite literally: “Praise to this.”
And so I raised these slow-moving families enjoying their day together, or trying to, to the eyes of the universe, and sang praise to them, instead.
We've been watching the new Netflix documentary Abstract: the Art of Design. The second or third episode features stage designer Es Devlin, whose story takes us through All Saints' Church in Tudely, which has a collection of stained glass windows by artist Marc Chagall. As she explains the Chagall windows, Devlin says something about how the windows are what would happen if you took paint and shone light through it. The imagery of that dug into me.
It's sometimes hard to understand things as they're happening around us. Parks activist Jake Tobin Garrett was in Montreal this weekend, and tweeted about how he was finding that, in Montreal, people stand still on escalators, while in Toronto, they tend to treat them like faster stairs. As an escalator stander (they kind of freak me out and I don't like to move while I'm on them), I dropped a kind of pithy remark about taking rest where you can find it, which evolved into a brief exchange about conversations in public spaces, like escalators and elevators and sidewalks.
One of the things I've been saddest about as I've gotten more familiar with the way things work in cities is how little faith I have left in the strength of public institutions like libraries and schools. I think they're tremendously important and fill an important role (libraries, for example, being one of the only places you can go spend a day without spending any money), but the balance of those spaces has always been one between the people funding them and the people using them, which isn't always the same people. In the past few decades, I suspect the scales have tipped against these kinds of places, and I don't know if that's reversible. I truly lament the loss of the public social commons unmitigated by entrance fees.
But that conversation with Jake made me think a little deeper about those spontaneous human interactions I always find so valuable when I make myself open to them. Sidewalks and escalators are no substitute for spaces that do more to encourage connection, by any means, but I still think it's important to shine the light through the places we use on a daily basis and consider how else we might use them. How the escalator might not just be a faster staircase, how the sidewalk isn't just a thoroughfare. How traffic doesn't have to be just a place you sit and mutter curses under your breath.
The quote I pulled from Vanessa Zoltan this week is related to the election, and when I heard it, I was a little gutted. I had also assumed we'd end the day welcoming in a new kind of world, and while I wasn't exactly wrong, I didn't really have the details right, you know, at all. Outside of the election, though, I think it's really easy to misunderstand what it is we're part of, mostly because we make assumptions about what kinds of things can happen in a given space or amount of time. It's easy to forget that the people around us won't always behave in the ways we expect, but it's easier to forget that we don't always have to behave in the ways we expect, either. The greatest part of resistance is saying no, and while it seems obvious that we need to say no to unjust laws and unjust actions, we probably ought to think hard about saying no to the urge to self-isolate, especially in shared spaces. Yes, sometimes you just want to read on the train, but it might not be the worst thing if, once or twice a week, you made a point of trying to project that "will give you directions" vibe. Decide that perhaps you've misunderstood what you're a part of, and take one small action to make it into something you'd rather have.
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