Enjoying life, off the hamster wheel
On Wednesday, June 16 I signed onto a Facebook group to help volunteer with Vancouver’s post-riot cleanup, but when I checked to see how much was left to clean the next morning, I was surprised to learn that over 80% of the affected areas had already been completed by 10am! I wondered what I could do, and suddenly it came to me.
Inspired by my involvement in the Peace Flag Project at the Museum of Anthropology at UBC in 2004, I decided to make flags and string them in front of the Bay downtown. I felt I had do something, and I felt that what people really needed was some way to create and produce, to transform their frustration, fear, anger and resentment into understanding, confidence, kindness and forgiveness. A force had been enacted upon the city and its citizens, and what was needed was to transform it from a negative force into a positive one.
Over the years I’ve kept quite a bit of left-over fabric from old sewing projects that I pulled out and decided to use. As I was ironing the fabric (yes, you read that right, ironed), and cut up the fabric into small squares, I began to meditate on the significance of flags.
Flags are symbolic. They unite and divide. They are passive and active. Their movement draws attention to them. They are mnemonic devices. They tell stories. They remind us of who we are. They remind us of who we can be. These flags would be reminders of kindness, uniting people in a common aim to express compassion and healing, and to remind us of the importance of altruism. My hope was that these flags would also remind people that it takes effort – concerted, concentrated and disciplined effort – to practice kindness.
Although it felt very strange to set out by myself, and I worried about how I would be perceived (would I look like a weird “artist” or a New Age “guru” or a crazy middle-aged lady pulling a cart of cardboard and boxes?), I gathered together various supplies for painting and drawing, a folding table, chair and little cart, bought some brushes, paint and string, cardboard to kneel on and paint on, and loaded it all into my car, summoned up courage and drove downtown.
I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t even know if there would be space available to set-up in front of the Bay or if there would be construction and restoration work happening. When I arrived, I was amazed to find that the plywood covering the shattered store-front windows at the Bay were marked with expressions of shame over the riots and declarations of pride, love and hope for Vancouver.
The outside of the building was so clean! The thousands of people who came out in the morning to clean the city had done an outstanding job! Every inch of the facade of the Bay facing Georgia Street was sparkling. The soot and grime had been scrubbed off. The shards of glass swept away. Inside the display windows, you could see pieces of glass and broken mannequins, but outside, it looked great! It was when I saw two young men discretely light a sage smudging bundle and quietly talk between themselves and slowly walk past what is now known as the Wall of Hope, that I felt I had made the right choice to be there and do what I had set out to do. I was at the right place at the right time doing the right thing.
The people who cleaned overnight night and during morning started the tide of transformation, from hostility to caring, from anger to kindness. A volunteer told me how she and others had kneeled for hours picking up individual pieces of glass. One tiny piece after another, they carefully and painstakingly picked them up and put them in the garbage. She said she was tired and sore, but felt so good about her contribution. This is what makes Vancouver a great city to live in. And if it hadn’t been for their dedication and hard, hard work, I wouldn’t have had a place to set-up, and the hundreds of people who painted wouldn’t have been able to kneel on the ground and paint their flags.
And paint they did. By the droves! I thought maybe, just maybe there would be 20 or perhaps even 50 people who would be interested in painting Kindness Flags. I envisioned sitting by myself painting and drawing with a few people making some flags, but hoped it would become a kind of public art project, where the public would make something that would set in motion acts of creation to offset senseless acts of destruction. I hoped people would be interested and participate in it. I never expected it to explode into the outpouring of joyous activity that it became! It was incredible!
People were hungry to create, to express the need – the necessity – for kindness; to turn the aggression and negativity of the night before into a positive and joyful expression. The pile of little flags I had brought with me were used up within three hours. Almost 200 flags were painted and hung that day. And when we ran out, people were really disappointed. “Are you coming back tomorrow,” they said pleadingly. The people who emerged like angels from the crowd and helped me nodded encouragingly. “Yes,” I laughed. “It looks like I’ll be coming back… by popular demand!” The joy returned. The need would be met.
Of my helpers, Marie emerged from the crowd first. A stranger at first, she quickly became a terrific support. She walked up to me and asked me about this project. Was I doing this alone? Did the media know about it? She said this NEEDS to be exposed, and then she set out to bring someone over from CBC to interview me. Yikes! What should I say? She coached me: Be yourself. Talk to them with the same passion and conviction you’ve been talking to everyone else. You’ll be fine. CBC never came. Okay, their camera crew was milling about, but unfortunately, no reporter was available to do an interview.
A few radio stations interviewed me, as did some social network media administrators. Marie was the first on my “team” that day. She was GREAT! I was reminded of a TED Talk that said a movement is made, not by the first, but by the second. The second person to join gives others permission to do the same. That was Marie. She even ran into the Bay, got a sample of Chanel No. 19 and gave it to me. I had complained that it smelled of urine where I was standing. The best way to counter the smell, she reasoned, was to have the best, most expensive perfume wafting around me. She was right!
Then there was Iman. A lovely, lovely man who jumped in and helped. He and Marie pinned all the flags on the string and strung it from pillar to pillar along the exterior of the Bay. I looked over, and half a block down I saw them working, and they kept going, further and further down the block. There were definitely more than 20 or even 50 flags being strung!
Suddenly and serendipitously Neil emerged from the crowd! I was so happy to see him! My love, my strength, my support. He helped us suspend the string of flags above the crowd from the awning.
A few familiar faces also emerged, enveloping me in big hugs and lots of smiles. There were hugs from strangers. Someone gave me a box of croissants and suggested I pass them on to people if they were hungry. A wonderful woman gave me $50 for supplies for the next day. Another ran over to London Drugs and returned with several packages of markers. A guy donated some Sharpies. Yet more people asked what they could contribute tomorrow. Many asked if I wanted water, juice, coffee, food, anything. There was a tremendous feeling of concern and care. Everyone was so happy to have this opportunity to create. They were so grateful. I am just as grateful to them as they are to me. We are all creating something very, very special. What we have created is truly “Public Art”, in its purest, rawest, most essential form. We have created an expression of the public.
At one point, the crowds parted to reveal a man, standing quietly, smiling with twinkling eyes, looking on at all the people creating, expressing, producing. He emanated a joy and curiosity that was palpable. After a little while, he walked forward and said, “You need a Facebook group. I’ll do it for you.” Then he tucked his bag trustingly with mine, rolled up his sleeves and started to help. His name is Guy Dubé, and I suspect I have a friend for life in him. Another kind, compassionate, helpful and supportive person stepped forward. She had a camera and took a great many pictures of the hundreds of people drawing, writing and painting. She’s on a mission and wants to get this story out into the world. This is Vancouver. And this is what people should know about. Sure the riots will leave a scar. But look at your own body. There is more of you intact, inside and out, than the scars that you wear, regardless their severity. We need to look at things holistically and in perspective. Thanks to Janice Yip for her dedication to get the word out.
The next day, I returned with eight large bedsheets I had bought at Salvation Army. I replenished the paint supply and bought ten more brushes. I now had about 25 brushes on hand. People had dropped off markers and pastels the day before, and I had lots of string. When I returned to the Bay, there were people waiting for me and once again the project took off effortlessly, with wings outstretched.
This time two young men, Kam and Matt, emerged from the crowd and offered to attach the string along the building. After awhile I noticed they hadn’t returned, and when I looked down the block, I could see string stretched as far as the eye could see. I chuckled to myself and was amused by their enthusiasm. I foresaw a great deal of string-winding at the end of the day! I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Several hours later, Peter Julian, MP of Burnaby-New Westminster happened to stop by. He also made a flag, and wasn’t sure where to pin it, so I walked with him to show him where to pin it. The string that Kam and Matt enthusiastically attached to the building was now full of flags! It stretched to the end of the building and around the side! Finally, there was a small gap where we could hang Mr. Julian’s flag. I was in tears by now. I had no idea so many people had made so many Kindness Flags. The sentiments were touching, extremely personal and very uplifting.
I had a lot of help on the second day. Three of my former students from Douglas College, Jason, Stephanie and Mindy, came down to help in any way they could. Their bright smiles and happy dispositions added to the joy of the day. Guy returned. Janice came by with her camera. Later, a young woman who is involved in quite a few organizations and NGOs dropped by. She offered to help the next day, and made arrangements to organize an event at Blenz Coffee the following day at the corner of Richards and Georgia. My former students and Kam, who stayed all day helping, offered to help her. Blenz had almost all its glass shattered and the interior ransacked. Along with all the messages written on the boards covering the smashed windows, the Kindness Flag Project would hopefully cleanse that corner too.
Thre were probably around around 1500 flags made by the end of the second day. That’s all we had room for, and all the materials we had were used up. Neil appeared unexpectedly once again and hung the long, long string of flags under the awning in front of the Bay. People stopped. They talked. They wanted to tell their stories. They wanted to be heard. They wanted to express their fears and have them acknowledged. They wanted to transform the negative into the positive. It was extraordinary. They were doing the extraordinary.
The third day, outside Blenz, people made around 300 flags. The fourth day, outside Chapters on Howe and Robson, people made 100 flags. We started late, around 5pm, and it was Father’s Day. There were lots of little children, and the pictures were colourful, playful and joyful. Hope is being restored.
Paradoxically, I’m grateful to the hooligans. Why? Because if they hadn’t caused the riot, if they hadn’t smashed and looted, burned and destroyed, we, a public comprised of Vancouverites and people from Greater Vancouver and visitors from near and far, we wouldn’t have had such a strong and compelling reason to come together and express our unity, our friendliness, our commitment to kindness. Connections have been made, friendships formed. It might be cliché, but it’s true: Without darkness there would be no light.
The fluttering flags are a reminder of the importance of loving kindness. Perhaps their messages will be teased off in the wind and carried like pollen to fertilize more kindness elsewhere. And I hope that people around the city will continue this initiative so that the whole city is blooming in Kindness Flags. Marie hoped the whole world would be aflutter with flags! Kindness everywhere!
And from little acorns mighty oaks grow…