I've always thought that if I could live anywhere in Canada, it would be in Vancouver. In fact, I just got through telling one of my kids this very thing yesterday. After I visited the city for the first time I remember telling someone that I was really surprised that any other city in Canada had been able to attract any residents at all. So a newspaper article purporting to take some of the shine off of West coast life is eye-catching.
But the article, from the Toronto Star, vaguely makes it sound as though urban loneliness is a Vancouver-centric problem. It isn't and that's not at all what the study showed. What it does point out though is that conventional measures of "livability" may not place enough weight on the importance of social cohesion. It also reinforces an old finding in environmental psychology that social isolation can be a problem in high-rises. And that, apparently, if you move to Winnipeg, you will never have to cook your own dinner.
I'm happy to announce that I have a new home for my reflections on environmental psychology on the Psychology Today website. You can find it here. Only one post so far but more to come on roughly a weekly basis.
This is not to say that I'm ready to retire the You Are Here blog--I'm still quite fond of the place--but expect to see some re-definition of the kinds of things I talk about on this site. You'll just have to wait and see how it all unfolds.
I've just begun a sabbatical year -- lots of writing projects in the works, some new experiments afoot and, the part that makes this time so valuable -- a chance to find a different pace, shake up old routines, and plan for the next chunk of my academic life. I find that one of the best ways to accomplish the latter part of this agenda is on foot, so I've been trying to establish a routine of daily walks, just as I did for my last sabbatical in 2006.
Back then, I had just moved to a little village in Nova Scotia. Here's a picture of a part of my daily route in those days:
This time around, I'm sticking more closely to home and the local environment couldn't be more different. Whereas in LaHave Nova Scotia it was a remarkable occurrence if I bumped into more than one person during a one hour walk along the beach, now I'm doing more of my travelling in urban environments.
Yesterday's walk took me first through Victoria park, a gorgeous urban greenspace which includes a playground, a water park, a small lake and lots of gardens and trees, and then down through much of the city of Kitchener's urban core. Kitchener is, in some ways, a typical mid-sized car-centric North American city. Compared to its largely gentrified twin city of Waterloo to the north, Kitchener is downright gritty, and I have to say that I love it that way. It lacks some of the fascinating dense activity of larger cities, but at least during the daytime the streets are busy with pedestrians, there's lots of on-street seating and socializing, plenty of food, small shops, and a pleasant overall bustle. There's a great mix of people as well. Business people in suits and skirts mix it up with others whom I suspect spend a fair bit of time lounging on Main Street for want of other places to go. You can tell that the city is hurting a bit, both from the way that some storefronts are vacant and from the way others are filled (a pawnshop in Kitchener's historic Utilities building??) but part of what that means is that rents are low and there is room for the small players to set up shop. The place is actually alive.
Once, during a long and quiet walk in Nova Scotia, I remember falling so deeply into a great hole of ideas that I had to stop, pull a scrap of paper out of my wallet, and scrawl down a few notes. Those ideas became the backbone of a talk that I gave last year at a forum organized for a visit by the fascinating French philosopher, Bernard Stiegler.
I can't imagine the same kind of thing happening on Kitchener's streets. My mind is busy, but in an entirely different way. As I walk, I'm much more aware of the influence of fleeting events -- a burst of fragrant basil coming out the door of a Vietnamese restaurant, a quick glance at a man hulking in an alley and carrying on a cellphone conversation whose import was written into his intense facial expression. This rapidly changing panorama of sensation and meaning triggers few deep thoughts but lots of emotional crests and valleys.
Tuning into these new rhythms and understanding what they are telling me about the psychogeography of my own neighbourhood and what it all means for the bigger picture of the influence of place on feelings may turn out to be the big project this year.
A couple of years ago I had an opportunity to participate in a short mindfulness retreat. As is standard for such things, the participants were encouraged to remain silent and to pay close attention to everything that took place in each moment of time -- mental states, bodily signals, and of course the external environment. This will sound a bit strange, but one of the peak experiences of my day was the midday lunch break. In my everyday life, I tend to scoff something down, usually while sitting at my desk or perhaps even while driving my car. What a different kind of experience to sit on a riverbank savouring a piece of fruit, contemplating its aromas, textures, flavours and even the life course of this perfect little piece of nourishment on its path from field or tree to my mouth. I can still remember lots of details of that lunch--the way the wind felt on my skin while I was eating, the sound of a nearby windchime mixing with the sounds of moving water, the bright sun in my eyes on that cool, fall day. Now, imagine combining that kind of mindfulness with the experience of eating food but this time not a banana pulled out of a lunchbox but instead with food at its source: the mushroom that grows near the gnarled stump of a tree or the tender shoots of a dandelion plant peeking out from a crack in the sidewalk. How would it feel to have to pay that much attention to your surroundings, not just for an afternoon exercise in mind-sharpening, but in order to survive? In my research on wayfinding, one of the strongest themes I've noticed is that those cultures in which one finds the most highly cultivated sense of place and space were also characterized by this exquisite sensitivity to one's surroundings--a kind of mindfulness. And what inevitably followed from this kind of place tuning was a deep reverence. What if there was some way to capture a little glimpse of how that kind of reverent connection to place might feel? Can modern, urban human beings live off the land? And if they do, what new connections might form between themselves and the sidewalks under their feet? Or with one another? Well, an ambitious project by the fabulously clever and creative group Spurse, called Eat Your Sidewalk, has been proposed to answer exactly these kinds of questions. Take a look. You should give them some dough to make this happen. It's important.
I'm back from England and the first leg of my home pilgrimage. In fact I've been back for some time now. To say that I'm still digesting would be a bit of an understatement. I have photographs, notes, and diagrams that I'm still putting together into....something.....but mostly a lot of churning recollections that come into focus fleetingly and then they're gone again. The good news is that I was able to visit both of my first two homes, meet the wonderful people who live in them now, and through their incredible generosity wander freely through the rooms where I first opened my eyes, took my first steps and, according to one unverified report from a family member, where I peed on the floor a few times as well.
One of the biggest happy surprises of the adventure was the discovery that one of these two homes is still owned by the people who purchased the house from my parents almost 50 years ago. They told me that when they came to look at the house, they saw me playing footie in the back garden. It was a bizarre sensation to see myself, as I'd been such a long time ago, innocent short-pants barely-in-school Colin, kicking a ball around on the grass. I expected my habitation of those old spaces to trigger thoughts and memories -- and it did -- but I hadn't anticipated a distant, tiny image of me as a little boy, in someone else's memory, to unleash such a cascade of feelings.
I'll have more to say soon but I can't rush this. I want to savour it.
In a week's time, I'll be in Britain at the beginning of my pilgrimage into my past, visiting the first two places that meant home to me. I haven't heard back from the current owners of either of the homes, so I don't yet know whether I'll be seeing things from the inside or simply standing on the sidewalk and peering through the front garden like a deranged prowler. For an adventure that I've had years to plan, things seem to have come together unexpectedly quickly and now I'm scrambling with train schedules and hotel bookings, trying to make sure I've got everything right. I'm a little nervous about this.
It's an odd thing, but I've been thinking a great deal about a man I "met" on a call-in radio show a couple of years ago. He told me that he'd made an impulsive decision to purchase a house that he'd been inexplicably drawn to after a brief viewing. After moving in, he found himself haunted by negative feelings about the house and he was struggling to find some way to redesign it. What he'd realized was that the house was very much like the one that he'd grown up inside, and that his childhood had not been a happy one. It seemed as though he had placed himself back into the space of an unhappy period of his own past without even being aware of it, as if to give himself a second chance to make things right.
I wonder how things went for him. I wonder if his attempts to open walls and build new doorways in his home built new cartographies for his soul.
I wonder if anything like that will happen to me.