This is #24 in a series of month-end reflections on the state of the world, and other things that come to mind, as I walk, hike, and explore in my local community.
fall colours in Coquitlam; all the (mostly awful) photos in this post are my own
To my delight, the little girl who ‘drove’ the commuter Skytrain, whom I wrote about in my month-end post in June, was also on board for my trip to “the city” a few days ago, where I had to go to run some errands.
Since I board the train on one of its first stops on the route, I was able to grab the single front seat for this trip. But they — the girl and her mother, this time with a little friend in tow — were waiting on the platform a couple of stops later. I could already see the looks of dismay as they realized their prized ‘driver’ seat was taken, and as they entered her mother motioned the two girls to the second row of seats and shushed them. They did as they were told, but I had already started to repack my bag to give them my seat. I signalled ‘mom’ to ask if it was OK to let them share the front seat, and she nodded thanks. The girls squeaked excitedly and quickly took up positions on each side of the empty seat, and the ‘adventure’ began.
The little girl pulled a round pink cushion from her bag, and placed it on the ‘dashboard’ in front of the seat — the steering wheel for the train’s new ‘drivers’.
“We have to decide what all these buttons on the console are for”, she said to her friend. There were of course no buttons, but for the ‘drivers’ that didn’t matter.
“This big cabinet beside the driver’s seat — it’s locked. Do you have the key?” the friend replied.
“You don’t need a key. It’s this button. But be careful. This cabinet is actually the bathroom for the exclusive use of the train’s drivers. It’s a very tight fit, but there’s room if you hunch down and don’t take too long.”
“I’m back already. So where are we going today? And eek! why aren’t you steering?!”
“It’s on auto-pilot. I just have to think about where we want to go, and when I push this button it reads my mind and takes us there.”
“What if where you want to go isn’t on the train route?”
“Then you have to push this button. It’s the worm-hole button, and it will take you instantly to the closest train track to where you want to go. You try it.”
“OK, then… I want to go to China.”
“Wow, I’ve never been there. What do you want to go there for?”
“Um… to see the circus. And the castles. And to buy silk robes, one for each of us.”
“You have to close your eyes through the worm-hole, so you don’t get seasick… What kind of robes are you looking for?”
“The ones that the Daughters of Heaven wear. Not like the King and Queen, of course. Theirs are yellow, and no one else can wear that colour. Ours will be red. Red is a lucky colour. In China brides wear red, and they get money in red envelopes. That’s the colour red I’m looking for.”
Several of the passengers seated nearby were, I think, of Chinese ancestry. When they heard the girls’ story, they smiled. I’m not sure what that smile meant.
Much of the rest of the trip passed in silence. Up front, there was a lot of pointing, and steering, and closing of eyes. And apparently trying on of red robes. The real world, or at least what we think it to be, kind of just faded away for a while. We were transported, to a world of magic and beauty and wonder.
My most interesting train trip ever.
So now it’s a few days later, and this body, restless as the rain and clouds are finally receding, takes this self for a wander along the creek to look at the astonishing fall colours. As usual these days, I’m determined to get better at paying attention.
The trees are sheathed, royally, in robes of yellow and red.
Ahead of me there are two middle-aged couples, intermittently holding hands and chatting. One of the men is talking about his sense that “women are never entirely satisfied” with their lot and their partners, always wanting a little more. His partner replies sarcastically “That’s because we know we could always do better. Whereas we’re the women of your dreams, better than you could ever have hoped for.”
The laughter that follows is a bit awkward. The hand-holding temporarily stops, and there is an uncomfortable silence.
Then the other guy chimes in: “I think it’s because women grow up with better imaginations. They have more practice at it. So they can imagine things being better. While most men just accept things as they are.”
I think about the girls in the train.
The couples nod, shrug. They rejoin hands.
A few blocks later I come to an intersection. Like many where I live, this one has Accessible Pedestrian Signals (APS). These are sounds that accompany the “walk” sign, for the blind and visually impaired. A two-tone ‘cuckoo’ sound signals it’s safe to walk across the intersection in a north-south direction. A ‘chirp’ sound (or in some places a four-tone declining ‘Canadian melody’) signals it’s safe to walk across the intersection in an east-west direction. (The four-tone is used in areas where nearby chirping birds might send the wrong message.) The crossing box contains a raised arrow that points in the direction of crossing that also vibrates during the walk signal, for the deaf-blind. And that box emits a steady tone to help those blind or visually impaired to find it.
I’m standing waiting for the light to change. Beside me is a couple with an adorable small furball of a dog (apparently a “mini goldendoodle”) on a leash. When the walk signal sounds, it’s the east-west chirp and not the north-south cuckoo that we’re waiting for. Nevertheless, the dog, whose name is Luna, lunges in the direction we’re headed, only to be restrained by the leash.
“Sorry Luna — cuckoo!” the man holding the leash says. Then he turns to me and explains that Luna has figured out that these two sounds mean ‘cross’, but hasn’t yet figured out how to distinguished them. He’s now training her which sound to cross with, by saying “cuckoo” or “chirp” to her at each intersection. But he got distracted talking with me and failed to give her the prompt.
The woman with him says “She also knows you have to press the button to get the signal, so now when we get to each intersection she jumps up to try to hit the button.”
At the end of my walk, I wander into my favourite local café. The barista (a young guy whose girlfriend sometimes waits patiently at one of the tables until his weekend shift ends — and no, a male barista is not called a baristo) starts my regular matcha order, which he knows by heart. I sit at my ‘regular’ table, perfect for people-watching.
There is a group of (I’m guessing) Persian-Canadians sitting in the comfy seats in the corner (room for six). I have no idea what they’re saying, until I see one of the men bow and say “mersi” (the borrowed-French word for “thank you”). And what follows is a comical, and, had my friend Raffi not told me about it, utterly mysterious ritual, called ta’arof. The words are impossible to translate, but if you tried to do so literally, it would be something like: “May your hand not hurt” (presumably “from all your hard work leading to this kindness”). “May your flower-like hand not hurt.” “I would sacrifice myself for your hand.” “May your head not hurt.” And so on. It is apparently a common way to show appreciation and respect, and quite a lovely one. But they may have carried it a little too far, since at the end of it one of the women in the group threw a plastic spoon at them and wagged her finger at them.
May we in our struggling cultures discover similar acts of grace.
Each year the City of Coquitlam puts up a Christmas light display all around the Lafarge Lake pathway. It now consists of over a million LED lights.
I make my way from the café to the lake, a seven-minute walk. It’s cold — -2ºC — but windless and there has been no snow so far this year, which makes the paths, because of the effect of so many lights on your cornea, I guess, seem especially dark.
It’s busy here on a weekend night, with lots of families, kids, dogs and strollers, and I find myself behind an older couple walking slowly, so I just slow to match their pace. The man has apparently recently retired, and like many men with long careers, he’s not quite sure what to do with himself.
“I don’t like golf”, he tells her, “and with my knee I can’t play tennis. Roger goes to the Legion all the time, now, but it’s too noisy there for me. I don’t want to take up a hobby. I want to do something that’s important, useful. Something I do well.”
His partner laughs, a delightful, appreciative laugh. She says: “You’re going to have to learn, my dear, the important and useful value of doing nothing. You’re no good at it right now, because it takes practice to do nothing well.”
This is a gob-smackingly brilliant insight to me, one that stops me in my tracks. But I start walking again, leaning in to hear how he will respond. Finally, he replies, rather morosely:
“I think I’m too old to learn that.” But then he smiles and pats her hand.
A little further along there is a substantial display of lights and characters from Alice in Wonderland. I wonder: Has there been a remake of the movie, or are kids still reading the book, or has the book and theme just entered the collective zeitgeist? Whatever the reason, the kids seem to like the display, especially the bug-eyed caterpillar characters that flash on and off at random intervals in the dark. One little girl is dancing around the characters, talking to them and singing a very breathy version of the Unbirthday Song.
A man pausing by the display says to his companion: “I still remember when, as a child, I first saw Fantasia, The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. It captivated and terrified me. I was afraid to go to the movies for a while. But that film taught me about the power of imagination, and it taught me what film music ‘should’ sound like. It transported me.
The little girl dances on. I smile when I realize that kids pick their own entertainment, and prefer participating, rather than passively watching as we older people have been so conditioned to do with our entertainments. At one point in our walk, there is a logjam of people, and I wonder what’s happening as it’s an area with relatively few lights. And then I see: There are hundreds of ducks sleeping and chattering quietly at the edge of the lake here, in the dark, and the kids are mesmerized. The lights are just lights. The ducks are alive.
A little further on this becomes even clearer — a little boy is ignoring his parents’ pleas asking for him to look at a particularly large light display, while he plays with a small dog. And just past them, a little girl, barely old enough to walk, is pushing what is seemingly her own stroller, paying no attention to what is going on around her, watching raptly a little dog that is contentedly sitting inside the stroller. Her mother looks resigned. Whatever makes you happy, dear.
As we* enter one of the ‘light tunnels’, two women ahead of me slow and appear to be fumbling with something. I slow and look down in case I see something that they’ve dropped, but as they exit the ‘tunnel’ I see that they are just moving their hands and arms around together, and realize that it’s some kind of language.
As I watch, I notice that one of the women is looking all around, taking it all in, while the second looks straight ahead. The woman doing the looking is apparently describing this incredible light display, and the sounds of music and conversation and laughter to the second woman, who, I realize, is deaf-blind. (I later learn this is called Tactile Sign Language and I’ve actually seen it used before; it uses touch in various places on the body to convey not only words and ideas, but expressions and ‘body language’ as well.) The deaf-blind woman is laughing at the descriptions.
It was pretty humbling to observe. We are, at least sometimes, more adaptable than we might think. Amazing what you can learn to do when you have no choice.
Nearing the end of the ‘main loop’ around the lake, I stop to plan my exit from the park. I overhear a group of five female teenagers guessing what the next Christmas song will be that will come over the speakers placed around the lake.
One of them remarks that most Christmas songs are pretty kitschy, and another asks the group what song they most associate with Christmas. Three of them say, almost in one voice, “Mariah Carey“, and then nod and laugh, and start to sing the song.
But one of them turns away and starts to cry. The others, aghast, huddle around her to ask what’s wrong.
“The John Lennon song — Happy Christmas (War is Over If You Want It)“, she says.
The group is silent. And then one of them starts to sing, and the others start to sing along. They don’t make a big thing about it. This isn’t a flash-mob performance. They just walk up the side path, away from the crowd, singing quietly, until they’re out of sight.
Now I’m in tears, thinking about all the wars raging in our world. I’m suddenly filled with outrage and grief and fear and despair. Look at what we’ve become. Look at what we’re doing to each other, and to this planet, our home.
By the time I walk home I’ve recovered, kind of. We’re all just playing out our conditioning, I tell myself. We’re all doing our best. Such a tragedy, though. Such a waste. It seems a bit like watching a play or a movie where you can guess the ending and it’s not a happy one, and where you wish the writers had made some different script decisions. It shouldn’t have to end this way.
May we all be suddenly transported to a world where John Lennon’s admonition just might be true.
Best of the season to everyone. Peace.
* ‘We’ being this body, the self that presumes to inhabit it, and the many hundreds of people and pets caught up in the massive one-way movement around the lake. Here, you’re just part of the crowd, part of the experience.