Still Standing

I love this photo of my brother in front of the Detroit City skyline.

Sometimes we get knocked down. For a while. We lay there, supine, gazing at the world with hazy longing while an invisible anvil pins us to the bottom of an indifferent river. An eternity ticks by in slowww-motion, tick, tick, while a hundred sunrises and a hundred sunsets quietly stain the sky. But today is a new day . . .

Forty years ago I fled the family nest, which had been uprooted in the early 60s from Detroit to a remote mining town in northern Ontario. It was always my intention to leave, but I visited often over the years, somehow believing that it’s the one who left who must always make the effort.

Guilt. It can play crazy tricks with the mind. But guilt for leaving a sad place that was never yours is absurd… especially in that moment when black ice sends your car careening through three feet of powder toward a frozen ravine while your baby screams in terror. The absurd has stubbornly lingered over time… but the gods were with us that day.

Thanksgiving. My brother traveled a thousand kilometres in late November for a long-awaited reunion with our family clan in Windsor and Detroit. Cancer and other setbacks had delayed his visit, but here he was at long last. My beautiful, brave, sensitive brother, ravaged by illness and radiation. A survivor. He stayed for five wonderful days – we talked, drank, laughed, and cried, but mostly we marvelled that we had made it this far. As a parting gift, I gave him our father’s helmet [1].

Melancholia. This thing that I naively thought I was leaving behind, in a small mining town so long ago, turned out to be a merciless stalker. Forty years, and thirty moves… apartments, houses, towns and cities. Lots of them, but still… the shadow persists. Just the other night I dreamt that I got the keys to a new apartment (right next door to my son and his family) – one with big windows, a parquet dance floor, and space to paint large canvases. I awoke with a lingering sense of joy that was gone before noon. And then this article from Brain Pickings crossed my path, What Depression Is Really Like. Van Gogh describes it well.

Reflection. I think for the first time in my life, I’m finally getting it. The moving thing. Endlessly running from the “black dog” with a carefully crafted rationale obscuring the truth. The truth. I cried for seven hours on this last U-Haul road trip in 2014, the flood-gates unleashed during a farewell hug after breakfast with my best friend, Kelly, in the parking lot at Burger World. Christ, I weep just thinking about it. Writing does that. It brings you to your core.

[1] While writing this post, it suddenly occurred to me that this is probably a preamble to the yet to be written Part 3 of The Diving Helmet. Follow the links to read the story from the beginning:
The Diving Helmet – Part 1
The Diving Helmet – Part 2

[Postscript] ** After publishing this post I realized the irony in the title, Still Standing. Detroit (the backdrop in the photo) is currently rising out of a long, dark period, and reinventing itself. I love that!!



The pull of place
on frayed strings
attached to faded memories
and beating hearts
gnawed upon by time
and childhood traumas
holds strong
even now.

She looks back
on loosened ties
in so many places
the happy moments
the kisses and farewells
the many ends
of many beginnings
each thought to be the one
that would tame
the longing

It is a haunting
that echoes
down a winding trail
of silvered hair
and dried up tears
and blind—
une force majeure
so terribly misunderstood
by those who would have her
bound and chained to a hell
more closely resembling their own.

But the “nomad” knows
she is not that
and now it has come to this—
a place where a bridge
spans a river
so fresh and new
in its familiarity
linking this time
with that place
in her memory
where fragile roots
were torn so violently
from their knowing
and she is finally home.

A little background:

Some years ago it occurred to me that “chemistry” was a pretty interesting concept. We often talk about finding pair bonds with our fellow humans and the role that chemistry has in successful unions. People are drawn to each other, or not.

For me the chemistry theory also applies to our relationship with place. For example, over the years I’ve lived in over a dozen cities and towns. Some were great, but there were others in which over time I began to develop a sense of angst—like I knew I wasn’t supposed to be there and it just wasn’t “my place.” This had nothing to do with friends because I’ve always had the good fortune of finding great friends everywhere, which made leaving all the harder.

I also believe that place of origin (or place of birth) imprints on the souls of young children. I was five and a half when my father died and my mother moved us from Detroit to Timmins. Those two places could not be more different. It never ever was my plan to remain in such a remote northern community with brutal winters to raise a family of my own, so at age eighteen I packed my bags and hightailed it south… then west, then east again, then north, etc., zigzagging around the country.

Now after ten years in North Bay, I’m living in Windsor just across the river from my birthplace. I remember so much from my childhood—although more like a vivid dream—and I cross over to explore Detroit as often as I can. Every time I get over there my heart just leaps with joy. It’s hard to describe, but I suppose I’ve finally found my place.

The Heidelberg Project

The famous Polka Dot House still standing with the decorated tree beside it
The famous Polka Dot House still standing with the decorated tree beside it

Yesterday, my friend Adele and I visited The Heidelberg Project in Detroit. Situated in one of the most economically depressed neighbourhoods in the United States, I wasn’t prepared for the impact it would have on me. Before I talk more about it, here’s a brief description from their website:

The Heidelberg Project is art, energy, and community. It’s an open-air art environment in the heart of an urban community on Detroit’s East Side. Tyree Guyton, founder and artistic director, uses everyday, discarded objects to create a two block area full of color, symbolism, and intrigue. Now in its 27th year, the Heidelberg Project is recognized around the world as a demonstration of the power of creativity to transform lives.

The Heidelberg Project offers a forum for ideas, a seed of hope, and a bright vision for the future. It’s about taking a stand to save forgotten neighborhoods. It’s about helping people think outside the box and it’s about offering solutions. It’s about healing communities through art – and it’s working!

The Heidelberg Project

Upon arrival, I was overwhelmed with what initially looked like undecipherable clutter. The first thing that struck me was the sheer number shoes. They were part of almost every installation – thousands of shoes. The second thing I noticed was the clocks strewn about from one end of the project to the other, many with their numbers out of order. The piece that hit me the hardest was the old oven full of crusty shoes. It was positively unsettling, and immediately brought to mind Auschwitz and the horrors that happened there. Obviously there is no comparison, but what happened to Detroit is a colossal human tragedy.

One of the more disturbing pieces I saw that day
One of the more disturbing pieces I saw that day

Anyway, it took a while to absorb what I was seeing – to make sense of it and the intensity of its message. In fact it didn’t fully sink in until after I got home. On the surface, the art in that two-block stretch appears whimsical, decorative, and chaotic all at the same time. But what about all those shoes? At the very least, they are poignant reminders of the decimation of Detroit’s population (from nearly 2 million down to its current 700,000). Miles and miles of once vibrant neighbourhoods are now largely abandoned, burned out, and forgotten. Those shoes are testimony that people – lots of people – lived, loved, and worked there at one time. Which brings us to the clocks.

A mound of shoes crowned by a child's riding horse and a doll astride it
A mound of shoes crowned by a child’s riding horse and a doll astride it
Clocks and other installations on an empty lot on Heidelberg Street
Clocks and other installations on an empty lot on Heidelberg Street

The references to time are inescapable, and multiple interpretations are possible. Combined with the shoes, the deliberate juxtaposition suggests a symbolic and deeper reading. Clichéd expressions come to mind. Time stands still. We’re out of time. The clock is ticking. Time is running out. The times they are a changing. Time on your hands. There’s no time like the present. All in due time. Time heals all. We can each draw our own conclusions – HP is certainly a thought-provoking place.

A memorial to all the people who lived, loved, and worked in Detroit
A memorial to all the people who lived, loved, and worked in Detroit

Above all, The Heidelberg Project is about optimism and taking pride and ownership of your environment, especially when it is suffering under dire and desperate circumstances completely out of your control. Despite the controversies and criticism it receives – many refer to it as nothing more than piles of junk and trash – what I saw there is undeniably powerful. Sadly, HP faces many challenges. Apparently, five of the eight principle art houses have been destroyed by arsonists since 2013. Their charred remains have been turned into what can only be described as shrines to what once was. Nevertheless, the founders and volunteers invested in this project seem to take it as it comes and continue to work with what they have.

I'm guessing that the house foundation where the cross is is where the art house covered in vinyl albums once stood - another casualty of arson
I’m guessing that the house foundation where the cross is is where the art house covered in vinyl albums once stood – another casualty of arson
The remains of one of the torched art houses now converted into a shrine
The remains of one of the torched art houses now converted into a shrine

A final word about Detroit – despite its history and current difficulties, the city is truly inspiring. Countless entrepreneurial pop-up businesses and grassroots community efforts are infusing the city with fresh vitality. People are relying less on the government and more on each other to improve the quality of their own lives. Adele and I were overwhelmed by the friendliness we encountered everywhere – first at the HP project; then near the Eastern Market searching for the Canadian Residency on Gratiot where renowned Canadian artist, Suzy Lake, is currently working; then in the Wayne State University area looking for the Motor City Brewing Works (a restaurant that Suzy recommended), and finally downtown while looking for the historic Guardian Building! People were friendly and generous.

I was born in Detroit, and lived there for the first five and a half years of my life. Of the many places I’ve lived in the past fifty years, although some were great, none have truly felt like “my place.” I saw a post on Facebook the other day that said something to the effect of, “Home is where your story began.” So… like an imprinted gosling, I’ve finally found my way back home, and it feels right. (I have to live in Detroit’s sister city, Windsor, for now, but it’s close enough for me.)

The Heidelberg Project attracts 50,000 visitors per year, including a young French couple from Switzerland that we met there yesterday. This kind of attention is very positive because it brings much needed tourist dollars to the financially ailing city.

I consent to the use of my Heidelberg Project photos by the Heidelberg Project for promotional and educational purposes. Just give me a heads up guys.

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