A Wall, a Fence, a Yard & a Bench — and their Stories

11 January 2023 – I suppose I am almost always in story mode, but at the moment in a more focused way than ever. I have just begun a six-week online course offered by SFU Continuing Studies called Object Biographies: Exploring the Secret Lives of Things. It posits that “the life stories of objects reveal who we are and how we live,” and I have this in mind during a walk that begins in the Punjabi Market neighbourhood (very roughly, around Main St. & East 49th).

It causes me to look… oh, not more intelligently, not more inclusively… but perhaps with more explicit questions (and more appreciation) as I hoof my way through this mild & sunny afternoon.

The Wall

An alley wall, just off that Punjabi Market intersection. With a mural.

Choose your story! The wall speaks to us of graphic design… or community identity… or local festivals… or perhaps of the vision, interests and travels of its creator, an artist named Jessie Sohpaul, formerly of San Francisco and now Vancouver-based.

Her title for this 2022 mural is “Kohinoor, Where Are You?” That question points us to a whole other story line, one whose three elements are so often intermingled: history, culture and politics. To answer the literal question in the mural’s title, the Kohinoor diamond is on display in the Tower of London. It is there as one of the Crown Jewels of the United Kingdom. The UK claims legitimate ownership through legal treaty; this stance is rejected by the governments of India, Pakistan, Iran and Afghanistan, each of whom claims ownership.

Indeed. Choose your story.

The Fence

My feet and curiosity next lead me into Memorial South Park, a bit farther east and north, with its emphasis on providing amenities for the range of ages and interests to be found in that neighbourhood. I wander by tennis courts, kiddy playground, adult outdoor fitness circuit, the running/walking oval, even the pond surrounded by trees & benches and, in this rainy season, brimful of water with many happy ducks taking full advantage.

But it is the fence over by the Fieldhouse that has me wiggling with delight.

Story time!

Voices of South Vancouver, I later learn, was created by Langara College journalism students to share the photos and stories of South Vancouver residents. Scan those QR codes, and learn the stories of people like Rob…

Ram, Kim and Andre…

Sahil…

and Mitch.

What I love best of all — what I later share with my online SFU classmates — is the project’s decision to recognize non-humans as residents and to tell their stories as well.

Meet Bench…

and Ross Creek.

I love all this, and I am very pleased indeed, as I leave the park and make my random way back north and west.

The Yard

I meet this yard on East 41st, somewhere east of Main.

As an aesthetic story, it displeases me entirely.

But if I am willing to reframe, to consider other story lines, I am charmed.

The yard becomes the story of a different, but equally valid, sensibility… the story of personal enthusiasm and kicky good humour,… the story of sharing with neighbours and passersby… and also the story of motivating those neighbours and passersby to behave themselves. (A small card in the display politely informs us that we are under video surveillance.)

The Bench

Now I’m on East 35th, having just left Mountain View Cemetery and on my way to Main Street. I stop flat, to cock my head at a street-side bench. It is yet another street-side bench, something that residents in neighbourhoods like this often provide.

But I’d never seen one that looked like this.

It is a carefully constructed, highly lacquered bench, with selected objects dropped into custom niches and neatly sealed in place. It is a bench of stories — each item a story, all items collectively the uber-story. The air is thick with stories, and I don’t know what any of them are. The cues are everywhere, if only I could read them.

For example, insignia of the Vancouver Thunderbird Minor Hockey Association…

a coil of blue beads, and a deconstructed Rubik’s cube…

a soccer ball insignia (I think), a water pistol (I think), and a penknife (ditto)…

and even a very Grumpy Guy.

There is no plaque, no sign, anywhere, to explain any of it. I can see that these items are prized, and that for someone, or some group of someones, they speak and are cherished for what they evoke. But I not privy to any of it.

So, in the absence of their story, I must create my own. It could be a story of outrage, at being excluded… or a story of disdain, for the objects on display.

Nahhh. My chosen personal story is one of delight. Thank you, unknown story teller, for creating this! I have no idea what any of it means, and I don’t care. It matters to you, and you’re sharing it with us — and in the process you have snagged my eye, my brain and my heart with something visually stimulating and totally unexpected.

So, unlike Grumpy Guy, my mouth curves definitely upward as I walk on home.

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11 Comments

  1. Wow. Thank you for the photos of the bench. I, too, would have been poring over it, my mind whirling.

    Reply
    • It’s intriguing, isn’t it? All those objects must interrelate for the bench builder, yet for the rest of us they seem disconnected.

      Reply
  2. Blane Hogue

     /  12 January 2023

    The stories in objects really resonated with me. I am heavily involved in the preservation of built history and telling the stories of historic buildings, who lived in them or worked in them or what events took place in them, is so important.
    Thanks as always for your wonderful, vivid walk descriptions.

    Reply
    • Built history tells so many stories — of the technology of the day, the needs of the day, the skills of the day, and of course the cultural assumptions of the day. (Think how bank architecture has changed since Stephen Leacock wrote his short story…)

      Reply
  3. The diamond story is a good one – very much of our times. And it makes an interesting link to your last story of the bench, which is more about delight in the object and less about ownership of the object.
    The middle of your story/post has a great moral (if I can call it that): we should pay attention to everyone’s story, including bench’s and creek’s, and if we pay attention evenly and let assumptions fall away we might even see messy yard stories differently.
    Terrific, Penny. Sounds like the class and you are made for one another. 🙂

    Reply
    • It’s proving a stimulating class, I think it may deepen how I look at things and how I think about who/what tells a “story”… and how

      Reply
  4. I love this post, so random, involving and inspiring. During the hiatus I mentioned, I trained as a writing workshop leader with Amherst Writers and Artists, founded 30 years ago by a phenomenal writer and thinker Pat Schneider. As soon as I started reading your post – and saw the title of your new course (especially the words “secret life of things) – a Schneider poem zoomed back to me. It’s called The Patience of Ordinary Things https://grateful.org/resource/patience-of-ordinary-things/

    Reply
    • Thanks for that link, I’m going to share it with participants in this SFU course I’m taking. I encourage you to check out this course BTW, not because you could join it mid-stream, but just for the pleasure of seeing what it is about. pw

      >

      Reply
    • This is a wonderful poem, which I have now shared widely. Thank you!

      Reply
  5. Mary C

     /  21 January 2023

    That course sounds fascinating! I may have to see if it’s offered again later. The wonders of computers and the internet and how we connect.

    Reply

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  • WALKING… & SEEING

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