Tag Archives: community

Community in the City

Most of our cities are so large these days that there arises a suspicion of anyone who seems too friendly. Don’t smile at anyone on the street. Don’t answer their queries and if, like me one day, you ask if they can change a dollar into four quarters run away as if you’re stealing their soul. We are packed in tighter, in this new ecotrend of eco-density, which if anything raises frustrations and issues of not enough breathing space, but we don’t get friendlier.

Many people live in high rises and condos, or even single dwelling homes and may never get to know their neighbors. It’s more likely, if you have children that you will get to know neighbors who also have children. We might go through life, suspicious or concealed behind our apartment doors, doing no more than giving a nod to our neighbors.

I live in an area of Vancouver that is surrounded by blue collar industry. Our block is the only street with houses on both sides. One neighboring block has business buildings (foundry, fish factory, T-shirt manufacturers, stuff like that) and the other block has houses only on one side and a housing co-op. The homeowners range from those on one side of the street going from 30 years to 7 years ownership and on the other side from 7 years to a year. The house I live in and the adjacent houses are all from circa 1910. My neighbors like to garden and work on their homes.

Like me, we shop in our neighborhood, walking up to the Drive and going to local restaurants. I once in a while go drinking elsewhere but it’s best not to drive while drinking and walking up the street is easier, and cheaper than taking a taxi. We have quite a few local restaurants, a library, a bookstore, poultry market, several fresh veggie markets and coffee shops, bakeries, stationery stores, health food stores, clothing stores, etc. There are many areas in Vancouver that do not have these amenities in walking distance and people must drive or bus to them.

But in our area, this helps create a community. You see regulars in the shops and restaurant. There is a sense of knowing the denizens if not knowing them. But on our street, I can stop and talk over the fence to any one of my neighbors. We have keys to each other’s homes, should anything happen and a rescue is needed. If I don’t make it home I can call and say, pretty please will you feed the cat? We stop by at each other’s places from time to time and have a drink or watch a movie. A friend of mine who lives in a different area says that their neighbors cook outside on the boulevard in the summer and people wander up and down the street with drinks in their hand visiting each other.

In the winter, and one like we had in 2009, we end up shoveling each other’s cars out, or shoveling a walk. We can borrow cups of sugar, taste each other’s garden produce, pet and feed each other’s cats, watch out for each other’s property and generally enjoy a community camaraderie. I’ve come to not only appreciate this sense of community but desire it. It would make moving an extremely hard thing as these are my people. We might not all be bosom buddies but we get along, enjoy each other’s company and generally look out for each other.

This is community. It was what the earliest forming of “civilization” was all about: humans living together to bring strengths to the individual and pool resources, to share when times were tough and to help each other, to form a society. It’s too bad that in general our cities have become too big and too cramped, causing more and not less crime and people becoming so suspicious because the media over reports every crime until it fills every minute of your day.

But for me this community of shops and stores, of regulars in the area and of my street and the people who live there, that’s an important aspect of interacting with life. I’m not separate from but part of a whole and it’s been part of humanity has long as we’ve been civilized.

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Holiday Fever: How To Tame It

Every year, and it seems, earlier every year, merchandisers and stores whip the public up into a fine shopping froth. Maybe calling that day after Thanksgiving in the US “Black Friday” is a good way to put it. When I hear of Black Friday (or any day for that matter) I think of a massacre or some other dire happening. And it seems to be the beginning of when people take leave of their senses and massacre their pocketbooks.

Christmas (or pick your other seasonal holiday that involves gift giving) used to be around Dec. 25th (the actual celebration) and involved a gift given to represent the gifts that the wise men brought at Jesus’s birth. But even for those of minimal or no Christian belief, there was Santa Claus who brought gifts to girls and boys. And there are many festivals of light (for that is really what Christmas and Jesus represent) that involve food and celebratory gifts.

But in North America this got distorted along the way. Now retailers see it as a way to make more more more and holiday decorations

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go up sometimes before Hallowe’en, which is good for buying food and costumes but not for buying stuff. Thanksgiving in Canada happens before Hallowe’en and in the US it happens after, being the last big holiday (good for buying food) before the mega merchandise shopapalooza blowout greedfest.

I guess you can tell how I feel about having decorations shoved down my throat for two months and holiday carols ringing out from every store speaker from Dec. 1st or earlier. When I was a kid it was tradition to get into the holiday spirit some time around Dec. 12, two weeks before the big event. For some people whose culture involves Epiphany, New Year’s or Twelfth Night, it would start later and go to January 6th.

Now I have friends going gaga over Christmas by Dec. 1 at least. They think I’m a Scrooge but really I just get grumpy with hearing the same songs over and over for weeks on end and I’m sick of them by the time I should be enjoying them. The long, drawn out state of such great festive fun ends up making it like every day and just losing any aspects of being special and magical. There are also those people who have their tree down by Dec. 26th which seems just odd to me.

But since I do like the holidays (Kwanzaa, Christmas, Solstice, Yule, you name it) as a time of getting together with people and enjoying company, here are a few things to remember and a few to forget. First, forget that gifts matter. It’s how people treat you and that they care for you that matters most. It shouldn’t be shown in material objects and is a cheap facsimile for truly caring. I used to exchange Christmas stockings with a few friends. We would buy cheap, little dollar store items that weren’t much of anything but just fun, and wrap them individually. It was one of the best parts of Christmas when I was a kid. My friends and I would exchange these and unwrap the tiny gifts and enjoy each other’s company. If you have little money, this still encompasses the spirit without getting into a huge cost that bankrupts people for a year.

Don’t go elaborate on wrapping because it’s on the gift for only a short time and is a waste of trees. I started making cloth sacks that could be reused. I also save old calendars and use them to wrap gifts throughout the year. Or you can make the wrapping actually part of the gift. Reusing containers like baskets and tins is also a great way to wrap.

Make things. Whether it’s nuts, cookies, jams, liqueurs, jewelery, potholders, mitts or potted plants; these may take a bit more time but can save money. I’m one person who is quite happy to receive food or tiny little home-made items and appreciate the work that went into them. And as many of us grow older we have a ton of “stuff.” Also if you give something, give it with the caveat that if the person doesn’t like it they can either re-gift it or let you know and trade for something else. Some people feel uncomfortable doing this but I would rather a person enjoy their gift than hide it on a back shelf.

And don’t buy into having to buy buy buy. If you can’t afford it, you can’t afford it and many people can’t even though the government (in Canada) likes to say the recession is over. In Canada, Boxing Day happens on Dec. 26th but I have already seen signs for those “Boxing Day” sales for this last weekend. Sales all the time, really means the items are just regularly priced and not on sale.

The biggest thing to remember is that the holidays are about community: that means spending time enjoying being with someone, not fighting over all the things that bubble up in families. And it means charity, giving if you can and remembering that others have it worse. It’s funny how at this time people get stressed and get nastier (especially when shopping) than they do at other times. So, even though I won’t have a tree for a week or two yet, I hope I can remain stress free and hope to be making some gifts this year.

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Body Adornment

The other half to yesterday’s blog on camouflaging the true shape of our bodies is one of adornment. People are like crows. We have always been attracted to shiny and colorful objects. Ever since Grog the caveman noticed the bright blue stone, we’ve been collecting these things. The best way to store such objects, if you were an itinerant caveman, was to wear it. And look, that blue stone brought the sky back again or slowed the mammoth down so we could kill it.

Body adornment covers jewellery made of glass, metal, clay, wood, stone, feathers, bone, etc. strung or worn in many ways across different parts of the body. As well it has been stuck through and pierced into whatever piece of flesh could be pierced. From lip and nose discs to rings on fingers, toes, nipples, to pieces of wood or stone or metal punctured through chests, backs, arms and other fleshy bits–if it could be done, someone has done it.

Jewellery has as many uses as clothing does. In many cases such adornment started out as a ritualistic aspect with Grog, perhaps a dedication to a belief or god or path. As well, certain body markings indicated tribal/familial affiliations or ranks of authority. A pope would wear an amethyst ring that the faithful would kiss. A particular group in the jungle may have their noses pierced while their neighbors had their eyebrows be-ringed. Whether a fashion trend in that area or a mark of community, these regional differences served the purpose of identifying one group from another.

Facial and body makeup also came along, where applications may have been used for special occasions, rituals, power or to enhance characteristics, such as outlining the eyes to make them look bigger; but also the kohl liners worked to reduce sun-glare into the eyes. There have been practical applications for some body makeup and painting, such as coatings to keep sun off, or insects from biting.

Tattoos and scarification are other ways in which the body has been marked for centuries. Piercings can be temporary, as in the sundance done by some plains nations in North America, where the man’s chest is pierced for the (up to) four-day sundance. But permanent marks are part of identification, authority or belonging to a particular group. Scarring the skin with ridges and whorls, along with embedding items under the skin have been done in some areas for quite a while. Sailors were long known to pick up tattoos on their travels. I’m not sure of the reason why and that would take a bit more research. Some I believe had to do with visiting foreign countries where some of these practices were more common.

Tattoos are big now in parts of modern tribal culture as well as the resurgence of the burlesque dance style. Dancers often have designs that are reminiscent of the 50’s and the earliest North American white tattoos (I say white because I’m not sure if any First Nation groups did tattooing like the Maori have done). Maori tattoos served several purposes including looking fierce in battle, along with the facial gurning.

But last and probably the most popular reason for adorning one’s body, whether with rings, earrings, necklaces, piercings, makeup, tattoos or scarification is for the sheer enjoyment of decoration. We have not traveled that far since Grog started smearing red clay handprints onto his chest, tying a blue stone about his neck and piercing his ears. Though he may have decorated some for superstitious reasons or protection from spiritual or real elements, there came a time that it was just cool and fun to decorate himself. And let’s not forget the status symbol of having the brightest colored rocks or the largest gems in the whole tribe. That hasn’t changed much. If it had, we wouldn’t pay through the nose (does that term come from jewellery?) for precious gems and gold. As long as there are humans we will be given to adorning ourselves and structures around us. If you don’t like a particular fashion of body decoration, be assured that within a hundred years it will change again.

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Neighbors

Vancouver has neighborhoods set up with market areas. It’s not all neighborhoods but some of the better known ones are Kerrisdale, Kitsilano, the West End, Champlain Heights, Commercial, Fraser/Kingsway, Main St., etc. We have a few malls outside of downtown but not a lot. What these community shopping areas do is keep people local and able to shop within walking distance.

I live near Commercial, which has many shops and numerous restaurants/bars. We have several fresh produce markets that are cheaper and better quality than Safeway’s, which I rarely ever go to (and it’s farther). Some of the places have live music and there are a variety of funky shops from clothing to futons. Other cities have different styled areas. Calgary is so spread out that they have big box shopping centers everywhere and you have to drive around the center as it’s not set up for walking. Of course, they sometimes get real winter too.

I do remember being in Montreal, and like Vancouver there were shopping districts. These tended to be much larger but then so is the population of Montreal. What these areas do though, is give a better sense of community and culture, as each place takes on a particular flavor. Kerrisdale has wealthy older people and part of the Jewish community. Kitsilano is trendy with a lot of young (yuppy) couples and families.

Commercial Drive has the old Italian community and a lot of artists. We’re considered the bohemian part of town and there are a fair number of artist studios in the vicinity, which spawned the East Van Culture Crawl. This happens once a year (this year it’s Nov. 21-23) where studios are opened to the public to wander through. Some have demonstrations and some have items for sale. Thousands of people now go through the Crawl.

Even more than community of shops, I have found a community with my neighbors. Our street is not very long and partly blue collar industrial. Our particular block is the only one with houses on both sides of the street (about six per side). That’s pretty small and most of us have lived there for years. I’m not a homeowner but a long-term renter. I know my neighbors and through my landlords the people across the street. We nod to each other, stop and talk as someone is raking the leaves, or knock on a door to drop off a jar of jam.

My neighbors have a key to my place. If I’m stuck somewhere I can call them to feed the cat. We watch each others’ homes and cars and we’re aware if there are unfamiliar people in yards.The part I like best is just being able to say hi to my neighbors, to recognize them and their pets. On our little street, I like this sense of familiarity. When I was young I don’t remember it being this strong but then I was a kid. My mother knew the neighbors and I was long-term enemies with my neighbor two doors down, while my brother and hers were best friends.

So I’m glad I have that community sense in my neighborhood. It makes it real, and borrowing an egg or a cup of sugar are things that happen often enough, as well as stopping in for a glass of wine or to watch a show. And we have a lower crime rate because we know each other, and better understanding of any happenings. Here’s to my neighbors.

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The Stones of Ireland: II

Continued from the previous day’s post.

Kinbane CastleWe travelled to the Cliffs of Moher in northwestern Ireland, the tallest in Europe. Rugged and impressive, they remained formidable to drive up and to look down. The sheer audacity of Kinbane castle in Northern Ireland built down a very steep hill right on the promontory of the North Sea kept it impenetrable for years. Out near Kinvara and in the Burren were the Ailwee Caves, great underground caverns carved millennia ago by a subterranean river, fossils and minerals sparkling like the realm of Hades. Cool, pitch black except when they turned on the lights, and a den for extinct European brown bears, their might was in their endurance and solidity.

The Burren was as impressive in its way as the Giants Causeway. At some point in the ancient past a mountain or volcano erupted, spewing tons of flowing mud down mountain and hill. Eventually it solidified into grey rock but still has that look of a mud flow. Smooth in spots, rippled in others, there are dips that are treacherous to walk over but where wind and rain have blown deposits of soil over the centuries. There in those protected trenches are a myriad of plant life, some uniqe to that area.

The Burren

The Burren butts up to a rugged shoreline near Kinvara, but on the higher hills it is barren stone, short shrubs and the tiny plants that grow in their coves. Everywhere through this area are stone walls and hill forts that were stacked by hand centuries ago. In fact the stone walls are abundant throughout Ireland but rule supreme in the Burren. The stones might be stacked on their edges, resting against each other, placed flat on top of each other, or made with their widest sides facing out. Some are mortared, and they are ageless. They could have been built a week ago or a thousand years ago. They were used as natural boundaries, pens for cattle and sheep and as fortifications. I’ve been told that they now work at protecting species of flora and fauna throughout the emerald isle, working as borders where invasive species don’t encroach.

Upon the Burren with its hard, alien looking surface, unable to really support any crop, somehow people eked out a life, for centuries. And topping it was Poulnabrone Dolmen, a passage tomb made of four giant slabs of stone with a fifth resting atop them like a table. You can look through beneath the table stone, from one world perhaps to the next. It has stood for over 5,000 years, a part of every person’s life who lived upon the Burren.

All lands have stone in one form or another. Rock is the foundation of our world from its magma core to the volcanic eruptions and tectonic shifts that show our planet is alive. From sand and pebble to rock and boulder, stones have always been there to support and shelter. The Irish reuse the stones from any old building torn down, reworking it into something new.

The strong sense of the history of the stones, from the monasteries and castles to the cemetery tombs and headstones, to the walls and hill forts, they all spoke of a true Irish intimacy with stone. There is history, life and death. There is art, utilitarian purpose and mystery. And most of all, there is community; thousand of years of life with each person using what had come before, the ruins or the dead not forgotten but integrated into continuing family rituals. Ireland truly taught me the endurance of time and of stories shown in its stone, its very foundation. stone walls

The picture at the top of my blog is taken from the top of Blarney castle. All pictures are copyrighted.

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The Stones of Ireland: I

Giants Causeway In October, 2007 I travelled to Ireland, a place I had wanted to visit for years. I’m not sure why exactly as there is no Irish in my blood and other countries have more and bigger castles. It was more the sense of rolling green hills and the land of faery, a romantic notion perhaps.

We circumnavigated Ireland in two weeks, going north, then west, then south and east, starting and ending in Dublin. There were some key sites we wanted to see but then let ourselves be guided by road signs and guide books.

This was a mostly outdoor expedition involving trips to old castles and monasteries and some cemeteries, as well as driving through the changing landscape. The history of the architecture and how it had changed over time was fascinating, small enclosures and Viking settlements built over with increasingly sophisticated fortifications or ecclesiastical buildings.

Newgrange and Knowth were amazing in that these structures were built over 5,000 years ago and are older than the pyramids of Egypt. Some of the passage tombs fell apart or were scavenged for stones for other buildings and roads. Many of these barrows have a corridor or an interior built with slabs of stone, then dirt is mounded over. Newgrange’s corbeled stone roof has never leaked in 5,000 years. The hummocked hills gave rise to the tales of the homes of the sidhe and the Tuatha de Danan.

Knowth BarrowsOther barrows were built over with time, dirt being added, and villages or cattle settling upon them. Some of their original use is a mystery but some contain bones or human ashes. Others may have been ceremonial or religious structures. Newgrange is the most impressive as it was built upon a hill and the outer wall lined with white quartz (this was rebuilt in more recent times and there is argument as to how it may actually have been placed), which would be striking in the bright sun and visible for miles around.

Giants Causeway on the north coat of Northern Ireland was a natural structure of basalt rock that had been rapidly heated and cooled millennia ago causing large octagonal pillars to form. They break apart in slabs, maintaining their structure and can be walked over like steps. Some form natural seats or chairs. There is a section called the organ because it looks like a giant pipe organ in the hill. There seems to only be that one area in Ireland that has such unique stones.

The castles and monasteries abounded as well as the very old cemetery of Monasterboice with the millennium old tower (imagine Rapunzel) that they believe was used for storage, sanctuary and to watch for marauders. Some of the carvings on pillars still showed wonderful detail; leaves, faces both animal and human, various designs. Some of the blocks of stone seemed to have been placed with a sense of tone, dark and light stones alternating, or smaller pebbles placed in the mortar between larger stones.

Over the centuries many of these castles and churches fell into ruin but they were not abandoned. Tombs and graves pepper every place. The oldest monastery floors are nothing but tomb after tomb. There is nothing to do but walk over the bones of the past. Even walls have been taken over, a person interred into the very foundation and a plaque sealing them in. The oldest readable stones go to the 1700s. Older than that, the words become too worn away, by feet and weather. There are graves dating over a thousand years in some cases, right up to months of the current date.

Some graveyards have been held by the ruling families or clans and there might be dozens of McDonnells buried in one area such as Ballycastle. Other graves are family plots and in the more modern ones, configured by a low fence, a bar, about six inches from the ground. These more modern plots have pebbled glass or stone in different combinations of color, and some flowers, real or not. Some are very individual. Headstones often denote many generations entombed in the plot, going back a century or more. At one Benedictine monastery there was a family of four cleaning and smoothing the stones of their family’s plot on a sunny day.

Continued tomorrow

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