Sunday, 15 April 2012

What Makes Me Furious - and it's Not Disability

What makes me really, really angry are people who commit a sin against the noble pursuit of beauty and engagement in public spaces. Last week, there was an article in my local Ottawa newspaper that caught my eye. "Flower Power Struggle" was the title. Apparently, an Ottawa couple who own a flower shop regularly decorate the sidewalk adjacent to the store with rose petals, in an effort to attract customers and beautify the street. Residents have been enjoying a small trail of fresh petals to the doorway since the shop opened ten years ago. But last month, the owners of Bloomfields Flowers received a 'cease and desist order' from the City of Ottawa. Apparently, someone complained about the 'debris' on the sidewalk and bylaw officers agreed with the Scrooge-like complainer. "What is the matter with some people!", I raged to my unsuspecting husband.

But my spouse knows that I really care about streets, beauty, conversation, inclusion and the idea of neighbourhoods. When we lived in London, I had the pleasure and privilege of being a director of the London International Festival of Theatre (LIFT). LIFT is a festival of contemporary theatre work and often, it doesn't look like theatre at all. One show that I remember with a poignant mix of memory, intimacy, and kindness was an 'experience' called "Beloved" by an American artist called Nicole Blackman. The artist had taken over a slightly derelict, but still beautiful National Trust home called Rainham Hall on the outskirts of London. After a long train journey to the very eastern edge of the city, I found my way to a stately home. The path leading from the street was strewn with blue rose petals and a sign beckoned me to enter silently, following the trail of roses. Another sign instructed me to pick up a stone from the flower bed and put it my pocket - apparently I would need it later. I entered the great house alone and followed the arrows and petals to the first room. There, a man stood alone and gestured to me to join him. He began to crank an old Victrola record player and gently put the needle down on the spinning disc. He extended his arms in an invitation to dance. We danced and after a few minutes, I was not embarrassed or nervous. I remembered all the dances in my life, especially a father-daughter dance in high school. Next, I entered a room where the artist's own old family photos hung from invisible wire from the ceiling. Each print had a description on the back for me to examine alone - something like "Aunt Dorothy always brought a picnic for everyone to the park". Every room in "Beloved" had something to say about kindness, the love of family, silence, gentleness and intimacy. It wasn't a person who guided the one-at-a-time visitors to this exhibition, it was blue rose petals. When I had experienced all the rooms, I went outside. A little sign instructed me to write the name of someone I had loved and lost with chalk on the stone that still lay in my pocket. I wrote the name of my father on the stone and placed it with others back in the garden.

Art, beauty and thoughtful public engagement is the 'other' great passion in my life. If I could meet the philistine who complained about rose petals in my neighbourhood, I would make him or her experience "Beloved". But maybe they have no loving memories that would spring to life. Perhaps they would have nothing to write on their stone.
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